Category: Short stories

Skin in the Game

Skin in the Game

Flash Fiction

by Graham Mort

It’s a private school. One of those big old houses overlooking the village. I looked it up on the Internet. It was converted in the 1920s when the mill closed down, when the money ran out. Exclusive of course, because that’s the point. Expensive, of course, because that’s the point, too. I had to go on my knees to get the address from Steph. A gothic roofscape, a cricket square with a red-tiled pavilion, rugby pitches, a line of kids arriving back from cross-country, spattered in mud, laughing, their legs red from the cold. The PE teachers jogging behind, joshing with them. Making it look easy. Big thighs and short shorts and fancy trainers in Day-Glo colours. Trying to be cool.  

The sort of school where the kids’ parents turn up at weekend to watch them play rugby or netball. The kind where they buy a house in the village so they can be near their kids for a day or two every three months. Taking them to the tuck shop. Taking them for meals in the Black Bull. Leaving them to wave goodbye at the back-end of their SUV. The girls flinging back blonde hair, the boys furtive at the school gates, the way they are at that age. Poor buggers. Their parents think they know what love is. It’s more than opportunity, isn’t it? It’s something else. 

Some people might struggle a bit with their personalities, but that’s not the same as being an arsehole. Being an arsehole is something that people don’t notice about themselves. It’s seamless, an aura they can’t see. They turn up in your life and they take everything. Because they’re entitled. Because it’s all they know. I’m blowing on my hands at the bus-stop opposite the school gates, a quarter of Bell’s in my pocket, hoping she’ll show. Emily. Emily. That was Steph’s idea, like most things were. A name’s just a name, after all. And she was herself, whatever we called her. Is herself. Beautiful. 

How did it go wrong? Steph and Steve? Steve and Steph? Gradually, I guess. Then, suddenly. Steph caught me picking a lump of mince from the kitchen floor when I was cooking. And I’m not a bad cook, actually. Steve, she said, that’s absolutely disgusting. I can wash it, I said. You can’t wash mince, you idiot, she said. She took the spoon and flicked it into the bin. That’s a waste of food, I was thinking. Like Hector, who ran the estate agent’s she worked for. He liked to get her into a short skirt so she could show the clients around.  

You absolute moron, Steph said, leaning against the kitchen units and laughing. Like they do in films, throwing her head back and actually laughing. She said I hit her after that. OK, I’d had a drink because I like a nip when I’m cooking. Nothing silly. Just a little shot with a dash of water. But I never hit her. I just wouldn’t. That was bullshit. Pushed her maybe, because she was in my way, because she was annoying me. But that was all, believe me. 

Next minute, she’s on the phone to her mum. Like she’d been waiting for an excuse. Then she’s got Emily down in her pyjamas and outdoors coat like a bloody refugee. The victim’s victim. She’s got a suitcase and she’s looking for the car keys. Emily’s crying and, of course, I’m sorry. I’m trying to tell her, I’m sorry. Wondering how things happened so fast.  

That was the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning, as Churchill said about WWII. A year later, after hanging on with my fingernails, I had to sell the house. Steph took me to the cleaners, aided and abetted by Hector. Two years later they were married and Emily was in the first year of a school miles away. Out of the way, where they wanted her. Now she doesn’t want to see me, apparently. That’s bollocks. I’m her dad and Hector is nothing to her. Sod all. 

I had dark thoughts for a long time. About Steph, about Hector. Not about Emily. I missed her. I miss her. Who wouldn’t? I’d held on to my job, just about. My solicitor told me that if I kept to the straight and narrow – whatever that was – I’d be able to see her. No chance of custody of course. She was in a loving home environment with her mother and new partner, after all. Even though they’ve sent her away to a private school. Bullshit. 

I learned to push them back in the end, the thoughts. The dreams that were darker than the thoughts. Rolling a body up in an old carpet and burying it in a cellar. The house in my dream was always the house I grew up in. A terraced house on Rochdale road. One of a thousand. I never knew whose body it was, but you didn’t need to be a genius to guess what games my mind was playing. It got so bad, I even booked an appointment with a councillor, but I never went in the end. Just left a pathetic message on her answerphone.  

There’s a lorry turning into the school now, returning the laundry. Kitchen staff in white uniforms. Jackdaws flying out from those dark gables. Two girls in blue knee-socks pass me, arm in arm. They’re laughing and give me a funny look, turning into the school.  They’re Chinese or Malaysian. Next thing, there’s a guy in a dark suit watching me from the school gates.  

Do I look like I’m waiting for a bus? Probably not because a few have gone past already. I even waved them on. I cross the road. Emily, I say, Emily Paterson? He’s looking at me and looking blank. She’s my daughter? I make my voice go up at the end, so that’s like a question. I don’t care who she is, he says, you need to leave. I’d like to see her. I lean closer and he pretends to wince at my breath. I mean now, he says, flicking back his comb-over and pulling a phone from his pocket. The suit’s shiny at the lapels. And it’s not a phone, it’s one of those walkie talkies. So, he’s security. I hold my hand up and back off. I’m going, I say. You need to make an appointment, he says, relenting just a little. To see my own daughter? He shrugs and a breeze takes the comb-over and blows it off his bald patch. His glasses reflect the sky, twin patches of grey. 

There was a time I’d have taken it further. You bet. But there’s no point, is there? Not now. Next thing I’m on a bus, not pretending to wait for one, watching rain bounce onto the windows. Tomorrow, I’ll call the school and make an appointment. I did try once, but Emily was booked up every weekend. Every weekend? Until when? Yeah, yeah. After Steph’s stories. After Hector, the money-bags twat and his Lexus. The school secretary has a nice voice and that made it worse. Managing my expectations. But tomorrow might be different. Tomorrow might be OK. 

The bus takes me to the railway station, then it’s almost an hour to get home. I doze off, my head rocking against the window. England goes past. Fields with miserable looking ponies, canals with moored barges, new housing estates. Santa and his reindeer picked out in Christmas lights, deserted mills with smashed windows blowing out pigeons. The motorway runs parallel with the railway for a while. A stream of traffic. I wonder what those motorists think about. Snug inside their own lives. Is anyone? 

Maybe not. The train pulls in at Salford and a few people get on carrying luggage, shepherding children. There’s an elderly woman carrying a wedding hat inside a squeaky cellophane bag. She eyes me up as she passes. It’s funny how no one sits next to me, as if they know something. It’s still raining, silver needles darting out of the sky, streetlamps burning yellow. That halo of city lights. The taxi to my flat costs twelve quid. No tip. Sorry pal, that’s all I’ve got.  

I’m knackered now. Pushing myself up the stairs. That faint scent of cat piss. Pushing my key into the lock, shouldering the door open. Fumbling for the light. Shaking out my coat. At least the heating’s come on and the place is warm. I’ll nip out for a pizza later. Before that, I’ll make a brew, catch a bit of football.  

Next thing I know, I’ve fallen asleep on the settee and I’m waking to another Sunday evening. To existence in all its glory. To life in the Northern Powerhouse. We’re right on the border of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The road sign used to say, Lancashire, where everyone matters. On the other side, Yorkshire welcomes careful drivers. That used to make me laugh. Yorkshire where no one gives a fuck, more like. Steph thinks I don’t. But I do. I’ve got skin in the game, after all. Now the ref’s whistle. A free kick. Injury time. Play on.

Rochdale Road Illustration
About the Author

Graham Mort is emeritus Professor of Creative Writing at Lancaster University, and a prolific writer and poet. He has worked internationally in many countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle-East. In poetry, Graham has won a major Eric Gregory Award for his first book of poems as well as prizes in the Arvon and Cheltenham poetry competitions. His latest collection, Black Shiver Moss was published by Seren in 2017. ‘The Prince’ won the Bridport short fiction prize in 2005 and his short story collection, Touch, won the Edge Hill Prize in 2010. A further collection of short stories, Terroir, appeared in 2015 and a new collection, Like Fado and Other Stories, was published by Salt in 2020. Visit Graham’s website. Find Graham on Twitter.


Our Time Is Up For Today

Our Time Is Up For Today

Flash Fiction

by Jan English Leary

At 1:55, I tossed the Amazon boxes out of camera range and clicked the link for my 2:00 therapy Zoom. My face appeared in a small box. I adjusted the ring light so my skin didn’t look red. Always an anxious moment when I’m afraid Dr. Lane won’t log on, meaning I got the time wrong. Or maybe I’d missed the session and would have to pay, and she’d ask if I were sabotaging my therapy. Or maybe she’d forget since I wasn’t worth remembering. No, that was neurotic. I took deep breaths to calm myself. When at 2:00, the rectangle with her face appeared, relief fluttered down my fingers. Dr. Lane wore her reading glasses today and a red silk Japanese duster, her hair newly blown out with gold highlights. Because I work from home on Tuesdays, I wore PJ bottoms and a shirt I’d scavenged from the hamper.

She smiled. “Hello, Sheila. How was your week?”

I mentioned Monica, my passive-aggressive colleague who tries to undermine me, but it’s hard to read the room when I’m not there every day. I like working hybrid but am afraid things are going on without me. I told her I was eating right, making progress each day.

I started seeing Dr. Lane for anxiety but realized my real issues stemmed from abandonment: my parents, my ex, yada, yada. Today, I mentioned my phone call with my mother, not satisfying, as usual, but not awful. I went over standard stuff, Mom, work, my ex, but each week, it felt slightly different. New insights, new wrinkles on old problems, incremental progress. Usually, I doodle while I’m talking. It helps me focus and it is easier not to make constant eye contact, like lying on the couch and staring at the ceiling. 

When I glanced at the screen, I saw her face with an online solitaire game reflected in her glasses. Spider, by the look of it, four suits, not even the easy all-spades version. 

“Go on,” she said. 

I waited to see if the game could be background, but cards moved, spade on spade, heart on heart. Should I say something? Was I so boring she needed a game to get through my session?

I started again. “I’ve had weird dreams where I take risks. In one dream, I was in the park and pulled down a stranger’s mask and kissed him. Then I saw a homeless guy, and we had sex. Then I left. I dreamed of shoplifting, mostly packs of gum or lip balm, but was too easy, but then I started taking more expensive things, more out in the open, closer to the register.”

Piles of cards moved left, right, completed suits jumping to the top row. I paused, but she didn’t look up. So, I continued, confessing to imaginary misdeeds “I got drunk and showed up at work, but no one noticed. I set up an imaginary account and wrote to Bradley’s wife to tell her he and I were having an affair. I have the uncontrollable urge to push a stranger onto the El tracks just as the train is approaching. I pick my victim and make up a story of why he deserves it. I want to break windows and paint on walls, ruin things. Tear up plants, pour acid into the sewer. I shifted funds around at work in small amounts so that no one knows, and I set up an account to withdraw them.” She grimaced then redealt a new game. After a few moves, she redealt again.

I took credit for unsolved murders, mysterious disappearances, abductions, vandalism, cybercrime, sabotage. I borrowed from TV and the movies, from lives more dangerous and edgy than mine. Vibrating, my skin flushed and glowing, I was on a high. 

“Okay, Sheila,” Dr. Lane said, looking at the camera. “Our time is up for today. But good work. Let’s take this up again next week.” She gave me her warmest smile and leaned toward the screen.

“Just one more thing,” I said. “Move the Jack of Hearts onto the Queen.” 

Her face froze, and I pressed the button to exit the meeting, as the blood pulsed in my ears.

solitaire cards
About the Author

Jan English Leary is the author of three books published by Fomite Press: Thicker Than Blood, Skating on the Vertical, and Town and Gown. Her short fiction has appeared in such journals as Long Story Short, Carve, Pleiades, The Long Story, Chariton Review, and others. She lives in Chicago.


Wasteland Dragon

Wasteland Dragon

Flash Fiction

by Huina Zheng

Over a decade ago, in that barren expanse, Ba, a visionary, ventured into the vastness of Northwest China, with Ma by his side. A sower in lands ravaged by wind and sand, he believed life could spring from his toil. I was born in the tranquility following a sandstorm, in the year of the dragon, a zodiac sign considered to bring rainwater and prosperity. It was at the very moment Ba was sweating profusely, working the land, trying to coax life from its fissures. This, he said, was evidence of my tenacity, a deeply rooted fortitude I was meant to inherit.

On our village’s fringe, Ba battled sands, planting hope with every tree, his fear merely the desert’s creep and life’s retreat. Evening winds danced, dust swirling, as he nurtured fragile green under calloused hands. Here, amid windswept sands, it was not easy for green things to grow—everything we owned was covered by wind and sand, the color of Ba’s hope, the color of plants, the color of life.

As a child, Ba would take me to the edge of town, where weathered stones and dried-up riverbeds whispered stories of the past. It was there that I met Xiao Mei, a poet’s daughter, her gaze holding myths’ own sparkle.

Her words stirred dreams within me. Each smile of hers was soft as distant waters. “If you wish, I shall pen your tale.”

Years later, as the world showed its harsh face, turning lush oasis to barren sands, I found solace in Xiao Mei’s haven. The village alarm echoing, I rushed to find Ba, hoe in hand, seeking life in earth’s crevices. Beyond, a silent riverbed spoke of time’s hush.

“We don’t need to leave, do we?” I asked.

His look, steadfast. The hoe rested, embraced by the sands. “With age comes understanding. Persistence, itself, is a wonder.”

What I fear: the storm’s roar, the thirst of the land, Ba’s quest for life in dormant twigs. What I’ve forgotten: those things I wanted from Xiao Mei, how her verses planted hope in my heart, why the earth denies our pleas. When we sat on the parched riverbed, our ears were tuned to the whisper of the wind. All the lands we had ever left or lost were arid streams around my heart, their silence profound. Perseverance felt almost divine.

dragon illustration
About the Author

Huina Zheng, a Distinction M.A. in English Studies holder, works as a college essay coach. She’s also an editor at Bewildering Stories. Her stories have been published in Baltimore Review, Variant Literature, Midway Journal, and others. Her work has received nominations twice for both the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. She resides in Guangzhou, China with her husband and daughter.


The Peacock

The Peacock

Short Story

by Harrison Blackman

In the twilight of my twenties I boarded a Southwest 737 to San Diego. That trip, I wasn’t just trying to solve a military conspiracy, but rekindle a relationship, recover inner truths I’d lost, secrets I’d buried so deep they might never come out. It was probably too ambitious for Labor Day Weekend.

Toward the end of my flight, a woman in the middle seat to my aisle turned to me and said, “You and my son-in-law have the same look.” 

“Thanks.” I was wearing Danner boots, designer jeans, a floral shirt. I was a bit unshaven given the early nature of the flight. It was a weird thing to say, what this woman had just said.

“It’s a good look,” the woman said. She had Greek evil eye charm earrings. “What do you do?” 

“I work at a podcast.” In fact, I was an assistant producer for the nationally-syndicated podcast Detective Radio, based in Denver, Colorado: we investigated the weird in the world, the strange tales which illuminated some random aspect of life with greater clarity. The premise sounded vague, but our founder had won a Genius grant and we had the funding. 

Her eyes lit up. “What is the podcast about?”

“Weird stuff,” I said. It was always awkward to explain; after all, I didn’t typically host the podcast; usually, I was the one who set up all the interviews.

“How interesting.” She held out a tin of Altoids. “Want a mint? I don’t know if you have a hot girlfriend waiting for you at baggage claim.”

Another strange thing to say. I took the mint. I was not about to contradict her on that account, that I was headed to San Diego on business, primarily; though I had seen several women over the years, no relationship had stuck. 

It was not in this vein that I’d texted Veronica late the previous night, though I suspected she, too, remained single; that there were some nights in college, walking home from parties, when we’d bid each other goodnight outside our respective dormitories for awkward lengths of time, just one false move between exchanging one form of relationship for another. In those moments, circumstances tugged us back from the precipice—we were both seeing other people, then—and so we’d turn away from each other, the nervous chemistry evaporating the further we were apart, distance providing the antidote to our desire. At least, that’s how I remembered it. I was a bit of a romantic then, so my interpretation could have been totally off-base.

Another fact about Veronica: she was an oceanographer at Scripps, studied algal blooms, red tides, omens of death, but with the cheeriest personality one could summon in the face of such topics. Perhaps this was what drew me to her in the first place.

“What weird stuff is going on in San Diego?” the woman asked me, an Altoid clacking in her mouth. 

“We’re doing an episode on this navy operation named Argus. It involved the atmospheric testing of hydrogen bombs in the South Atlantic.”

“So naturally you need to go to Southern California.”

“They did all the planning for it in San Diego.”

“When was that?”

“The 50s.”

She leaned back in her seat. I thought we were done, but then she spoke again. “Argus.” She tested out the name in her mouth. “Wasn’t that the guy who got turned into a peacock?”

“I’m sorry?” 

“Argus. He was in the Greek myths.”

“I honestly haven’t really looked into it yet.” I pulled out my notebook. “Tell me more.”

“Argus was a giant,” the woman said. “He had many eyes, all over his body.” She gestured at her torso. “Now Zeus, I think he had fallen for a woman named Io. He turned her into a cow, I think it was, to trick his wife, Hera. But she knew—” She wagged her finger. “Hera knew Zeus was cheating on her, so she appointed all-seeing Argus to guard Io and prevent Zeus from visiting her.” 

“What happened?”

She frowned. “I think Zeus had Argus murdered.”

“Ah, okay.” I could hear the slats of the plane as they adjusted for our descent.

“In death, Hera removed his eyes and placed them on a peacock. So that’s why peacocks have eyes. What, is that not weird enough for you?”

“It’s weird all right.” That marked the end of our conversation. I was tired and eager to get going. 

When the plane landed and I deactivated airplane mode ahead of the cockpit’s announcement, I saw that Veronica had responded. 

Cool, she wrote. How about dinner?

Sure, I replied.

The beating of three ellipses in my messaging app. For a moment, I could ignore all the people prematurely retrieving their bags from the overhead bins. But in the black glass of my phone, I saw a dark-suited man stand in the aisle. He seemed to be staring at me, but he was wearing Aviators, so it was hard to tell. When I turned to him, he looked away, as if I’d caught him doing something wrong.


That afternoon, jet-lagged and reluctant to do any real work before my dinner with Veronica, I drove my rental Subaru to the Salk Institute and parked in a dubiously legal spot. I walked onto the campus and into the courtyard. The interlocking offices faced each other along the dazzling concrete plaza, the small fountain trickling toward the Pacific, looming immense—the whole complex perched on a cliff like a Greek temple. I was all kinds of tired but this place was special. It made my heart sing for the first time in a long while.

Then a guard asked if it was my car parked in the yellow zone. I said yes, I was sorry, I was lost, and the guard persuaded me to reunite with my Subaru. 

My father, a medical researcher, used to work at Salk, and when I was a kid he’d take me around, leave me to sit in the stark geometries of the courtyard, only occasionally helping me apply sunscreen to my face, my eventual pink-and-blistering skin inevitably aggravating my mother. All that was a long time ago; my father had been dead for several years now. Heart failure. The medical definition of death was that a person’s heart stopped, but when a person died of just that, it seemed a little disappointing. Nothing else? I thought my father was strong enough to battle multiple ailments, but instead it was the singular one which claimed him too soon. Life was strange like that; in a blinding flash, one reality could give way to another without any agency on my part. However, on occasion, if I didn’t push for something, that particular occurrence might never happen, even if, in that smallest moment, it seemed as expected as gravity.

My mother lived in Colorado now, to be closer to me. I thought I should bring her something, thought about doubling back for the Salk gift shop, but then I realized the gesture might make her more sad than any other feeling. So I left, checked into my La Jolla hotel, hiked my computer to a café overlooking the shore, and over a nitro cold brew I sketched out the questions I had planned for the admiral when I interviewed him on Monday. When I grew tired of work, I thought about Veronica; we hadn’t seen each other in years. How many? Six? Then I checked my watch. It was time.


We met at a restaurant on the water, a surf-and-turf place where all the wait staff wore Hawaiian shirts and modern, Polynesian-styled art was hammered into the walls. It was one of those places on Yelp that listed three dollar signs on the menu and enough glowing reviews to convince a prospective diner it was worth it.

When I entered, she was already at a table. She was looking at her phone, her hand pushing back her dark hair; she looked stressed. Then she saw me and all that stress seemed to evaporate.

“The radio legend returns.” She gave me a hug.

“Sure,” I said. In seeing her, I felt a spark of something at one point I hoped I forgot, but I was glad I hadn’t. “Have you found Atlantis yet?”

She laughed. “Not yet, Mark. That one I still haven’t pinned down.” She shook her head.

“Surely you’ve been looking, though.”

“I have,” Veronica said. “So I have.” She put her hand, awkwardly, on the table. “Shall we eat?”

I had a glass of Pinot Noir but she said she couldn’t drink that night. For a while we talked about small subjects; the weather, baseball. She asked about my mother; I told her she was doing well. Once we were in the midst of our meal—I had ordered king crab, she had ordered linguini—I couldn’t help but notice, on the wall behind Veronica, a painting. It looked like a green and blue fan with dazzling cerulean blue circles behind it, a stylized depiction of a bird’s body, its head and beak and the fleshy bits beneath it. 

“What are you looking at?”

I pointed.

“Oh, you mean the peacock?”

“Is that what it is?”

“Yeah, sure,” she said. “Those birds are really mean. They’re pretty, and confident, I guess, so people like to keep them around as pets, but they’re bullies, really. There are a lot of peacocks which run loose in San Diego, I think.” 

I remembered seeing a bird like that as a kid. “It’s strange,” I said. “A woman on the flight was telling me about peacocks.”

“A woman,” Veronica said suggestively. “Tell me about her.”

I cackled. “Well I guess she was flirty. She was a grandmother, maybe. I told her about this story I’m doing on Operation Argus.”

“Oh, right, you mentioned this over text,” Veronica said. “I think there’s someone on staff who might be able to help you—Naomi. Her husband used to work at Los Alamos.”

“Oh, cool.”

She checked her watch. “Oh, shoot. Is it bad if I head out?”

“What’s the rush?” I asked, not disguising my disappointment well.

“Well…” she laughed. “I need to go to bed early. There’s this work-office athletic event tomorrow afternoon, like a barbeque. You could come, if you wanted. You wouldn’t have to swim.”

“What sort of swim?”

“It’s around the Scripps pier. It’s a tradition. Then we hang out.”

“I’d love to swim,” I said, though of course I hadn’t gone swimming in years.

“Have you been swimming?” Veronica asked, before backpedaling. “I’m not saying that you don’t look fit—it’s just a difficult swim, even for swimmers.”

“Nah, I’m down.”

She nodded reluctantly. “All right. Come to the pier at two p.m.”

After we paid, I kissed her on the cheek goodbye; I lingered at the table as she disappeared through the door.

Then I asked the waiter about the painting. 

“It’s a print of a famous painting by a local artist,” the waiter said. “Solomon Fresno.” 

I parsed the name. “Do you know where I can find him?”

“He died a few years ago,” the waiter said. “Cancer, I heard. There’s a small retrospective up at Balboa Park, I think.” 


I bit my lip. On Monday I was supposed to talk with Admiral Veidt about Operation Argus. And I knew from some background research on Veidt that his wife’s maiden name was Fresno. It was becoming distinctly possible that Operation Argus had something to do with peacocks after all. 


In my hotel room I turned on the television and found the Dodger game. My father was born in Los Angeles and therefore loved the Dodgers. I watched them when they were good, but he watched them all the time, even when they sucked. My mom never really liked baseball all that much, and most summer nights she would knit in silence while my dad lived with every televised ball and strike. But after my father died, she suddenly took on an interest in the game. One afternoon, after she’d moved to Colorado, she asked if I wanted to go with her to Coors Field—the Dodgers were visiting the Rockies. So we went, and sitting in those vertiginous seats of the upper deck, we watched the little blue-and-gray men dart onto the field to face the purple home team. 

As soon as we got to our seats, Mom ordered us two Coors Lites from a concessions guy lugging a crate of the stuff. My mom drinks wine, if at all, so this was unusual. Moments later, she stood and cheered when Cody Bellinger hit a line-drive triple, the ball ricocheting off the right field corner, bouncing out of Charlie Blackmon’s glove. 

I turned to her in astonishment. “What’s gotten into you, Mom?”

She shrugged. “We’re winning.”

A few innings later, she told me something I had never heard. 

“Your father proposed to me at Dodger Stadium, you know.”

“He did?”

“He did. At the parking lot behind home plate, you know where it overlooks the city? It was beautiful that night. Of course I said yes.”

I was surprised they had never told me. Was baseball the binding glue I had never seen between my parents?

“So seeing the team, it reminded me of your dad.” She turned to me. “When are you going to settle down?”

I laughed. 

Knowing she had struck a nerve, she struck it again just as hard. “You can’t be a bachelor forever. You work too hard sometimes.”

I took a sip of the Coors; it tasted like shit.

“I’m trying.”

“Well, you have to try a little harder.”

Max Muncy hit a double and knocked Justin Turner home.

“Like Mr. Muncy!”

That night, after I drove her home, I headed toward my apartment, but as soon as I saw my complex in the windshield, I decided to keep driving, head deeper into the plains. I didn’t know where I was going, but eventually I stopped at a 7-Eleven. Not sure what to do when inside, I bought a Coke Slurpee. My father used to buy them for me when I was a kid. The drink was sweet and bitter, and it made me cough. I drove home with it in the cup holder, but didn’t drink much of it. At home I poured it in the sink. Rinsed the cup. Then I threw it in the recycling.

In that hotel room, as I watched Joc Pederson strike out, I still wasn’t sure why I had bought that drink that night. Of course I knew why, but I didn’t want to spell it out.


The next morning, since I had a few hours before the swim, I drove to Balboa Park, a glorious hodge-podge of Spanish Revival architecture which had been built for a couple of world’s fairs in the early twentieth century. Within this complex was an art museum which had been designed to look like a 400-year-old Argentine cathedral. Opening the glass door, I stepped inside the air-conditioned building, showed my press credentials to the front desk. They directed me to an exhibit across the hall. 

I read the opening panel, which explained Solomon Fresno was an artist who served in the Navy in the 1950s, and that many of his early works revolved around marine life. After he left the Navy, however, his art became more abstract, revolving around the form of the eye. I stepped further into the exhibit. Sure enough, there was a stuffed peacock in the center of the black room, studio lighting illuminating its shimmering, colorful feathers, its plumage unfolded and frozen in the form of a fan, patterns resembling eyes scattered about its tail. Behind the peacock was a painting like the one I had seen at the restaurant. I moved on, and walked past photographs of atomic tests in the Pacific, the black-and-white horrors of the fleet of ships anchored in the Bikini Atoll, the before-and-after photographs of the bomb going off, the blinding flash, the mushroom cloud, the ships subsequently overturned, videos of the soldiers on skiffs who investigated the wreckage.

Then I saw something else. It was a painting, Andy Warhol-style, of an Erebus-brand spray paint bottle. Tactfully, spray paint was used in the background of the painting to create the image of neon-blue eyes lurking behind the can. A docent was standing off to the side. I pointed out the spray bottle artwork. “What’s that one supposed to mean?”

“Toward the end of his life, Mr. Fresno became interested in modern advertisements, and he painted one hundred and two paintings of spray bottles just like this one,” the docent said coolly, in a voice like a whisper.

“Okay.” I crossed my arms. “Why the spray paint?”

“Some have theorized that he started painting these canisters after the Ozone hole was discovered.”

“Ah, CFCs.” 

“That’s a possibility.”

A year before I had researched an episode on CFCs. In the 1990s, chlorofluorocarbons, the chemical intrinsic to refrigerants and aerosols, had been blamed for the deterioration of the Ozone layer. It was a grand success story of environmentalism, this moment when world governments came together to ban CFCs for the greater good. 

“What’s the deal with the eyes?” I asked.

She shrugged. “The eyes are a motif throughout his work.” I gave her my card and explained we might want to formally interview her later. She blushed as she walked away. I checked my phone. I needed to get to the beach.

I walked back to the parking lot. The lot was mostly empty except for a black Lincoln idling near my car. It had suspiciously-new California plates, and the windows were tinted, so I couldn’t see inside. For a second I thought that the dark-suited man from the plane was sitting in the driver’s seat, but I couldn’t be sure. I got into my car and tried to forget about it.


The pier of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography jutted out from the La Jolla shores like a challenge to the vastness of the ocean. Before arriving, I had looked up the length; it was three-hundred-thirty meters long, almost an entire lap around a running track. Up close, its pillars were barnacled and crusty with entropy’s prejudice against human hubris. 

Veronica greeted me at the foot of the pier, where two dozen of the most athletic scientists I had ever seen had gathered around a tent. A few were playing beach volleyball. Others were laying out coolers, picnic tables, setting up a few grills, figuring out how to open packages of tofurkey dogs. A long, steep ramp led up the hill, to the Institution’s main campus, its assortment of buildings perched somewhat precariously on the sand dunes. 

“Hey there,” Veronica said. She was wearing a sporty, one-piece racing suit and held a snorkel mask. Meanwhile I was wearing floral trunks and a neon tank top I bought in a surf shop from my hotel, so I guessed I looked out of depth, literally. 

“Take a long look,” Veronica said, gesturing at the visible line which had been drawn in the sand, apparently the starting line. “We’re going where many oceanographers have gone before, but no podcasters, probably.”

“Where is that?”

“Around.” She laughed. “You’ve been around the block once or twice, haven’t you?”

This was the Veronica I missed. Funny, sharp-witted. She hadn’t changed at all. 

“Who’s this?” a voice came from behind. 

“Steve, this is Mark,” Veronica said to a shirtless man with a dollop of sunscreen on his nose. “Steve, you better be careful around him, or news of this event will reach Spotify listeners everywhere.”

Steve and I shook hands; his grip was strong. Then he picked up a megaphone lying in the sand. “See you out on the water.”

“That your boss?” I asked.

“Colleague. C’mon, we’ve got to stretch.”

I leaned forward on one knee to extend my glutes as Veronica went into pyramid pose.

“How was your morning?” she asked. “Any clues?”

“I went to the art museum.”

“Oh,” she said, as if disappointed I hadn’t invited her.

“It was for work,” I said. “What have you been working on, lately? I forgot to ask last night.”

“Well, a red tide knocked out a whole ecosystem near Ketchikan, so we’re working on data from that event.”


“That’s probably not as exciting to you as some atomic scandal, but . . .”

“It’s more important,” I said. 

She looked at me suspiciously. “In any case, I’m glad you could join us.”

“So am I,” I said. But whitecaps were cresting in the distance, and I was starting to feel nervous. 

Veronica and I joined a group of thirty people gathered around Steve and a woman wearing square glasses. “When I blow the whistle,” Steve was saying, “you will all dive in and swim from the right side of the pier, around and back into shore. Naomi and I—” He pointed at the woman with square glasses; I realized this was the woman Veronica had mentioned earlier. “We’ll shadow you in a raft if you run into trouble.” He put his hands on the rim of a trash can in front of him, filled to the brim with ice and beer. “See this? First person back gets first pick of the spoils.” He stuck his hand in the ice and withdrew a bottle of craft beer. “There’s some expensive drank in here, surrounded by Heineken. Swim fast to get the good stuff.”

“Pressure’s on,” I said to Veronica.

“Now you’re talking,” she said.

“I haven’t been swimming that much.” 

Veronica looked at me with concern.

“All right,” Steve said. “Let’s get started.”

The blue-gray water crashed and radiated on the shore. I had used to race a lot—track mostly—and over the years I’d gotten used to being less nervous at the start of things, but this time my heart was pounding. 

“On the count of three, I’ll blow the whistle,” Steve said. “One. . .”

Veronica was wearing her snorkel mask, now. I really wished I had goggles.

“Two. . .”

I was tense. Even if I hoped to casually compete in a race, I usually ended up competing anyway. 

Steve blew the whistle. 

I sprinted into the water with all the others, dimly aware of Veronica alongside me. The cold rushed up to meet me. It was tough going to get past the crashing surf, and once I did, the freezing brine surrounded me, the salt inevitably stinging my eyes. Still, I could feel my arms slicing through the water, legs kicking up froth. The water was murky, so it was difficult to see ahead, and every few moments another wave approached and I had to dive under it. I kept up with Veronica, barely.

Soon we had cleared the onslaught of breaking waves, where it was easier to breathe, and we started to settle into a more relaxed place. I could see Steve and Naomi’s dinghy floating just beyond, monitoring the situation. Through the water, Veronica and I shared a smile, though I might have imagined it. 

Then I felt an awful pinching ignite in my left leg. The pain spread, inexorably, through my whole body. My kick became lopsided. The pain sharpened, and gritting my teeth, I reduced my stroke to a limping crawl. 

My mind flashed to the image of the soldiers investigating the Bikini Atoll wreckage. What it must be like to drown. What Solomon Fresno might have seen, and when. A dark-suited man taking me away.

“You all right?” Veronica asked, treading water beside me.

“Cramp,” I said. “You go ahead.”

She looked at me warily.

“Everything okay?” Steve shouted from his raft, Naomi rowing behind him.

“No,” Veronica said. 

“I can do it,” I said, but I was feeling colder by the minute; the pain was intense.

“I don’t think you can,” Veronica said. “Help him up.”

The raft alongside me, Steve reached out with his hand, and reluctantly, I took it and clambered onto the raft. Naomi threw me a towel. I was shivering.

“See you on the other side,” Veronica said, diving back into the water, bubbles in her wake as she joined the pod of swimmers, most of them now turning around the pier, heading back for the beach. Now, a couple had even reached the shore and darted onto the sand—which looked so warm, honestly—and they raced to the bucket of beverages, twisting off a cap of that glorious craft beer.

“Where’d you say you lived?” Steve asked. 


“Not a lot of ocean in Denver.”

“Leave him be,” Naomi said, her attention trained on the other stragglers. 

“Okay,” Steve said.


When I stepped onto the sun-kissed shore, Veronica had already dried off, and she handed me a Heineken. 

“Thanks,” I said.

“All the good beer was gone.”

“I figured.”

I limped over to the grill with Veronica. She took a tofurkey dog, but I claimed one of those Walmart hamburgers, the kind that barely registers as meat and has the density and flavor of a hockey puck. 

We found a spot in the shade, at the flattened lip of the steep Scripps driveway, overlooking the sand and pier, forever fighting the sun.

“That was fun,” I said. “Except for the part where I almost drowned.”

“You didn’t almost drown.”

“Well, you seemed to think I would.”

Veronica stiffened. “Not everything has to be a race, Mark. What do you have left to prove?”

I took a bite of the hamburger. It was awful. 

“Why are you really here? In San Diego, I mean?”

“I told you. Operation Argus. I’m interviewing the admiral tomorrow.”

“I’m happy to see you,” she said wistfully.

“So am I.”

She seemed like she was struggling to put something into words. Finally, she said, “If this is the moment you were hoping to say, what really happened to us, how did we drift apart, I don’t want to take part in your reenactment of The Sun Also Rises.”

There was a sinking my stomach, and it wasn’t just the burger. All I could muster was, “Ouch.”

“I think we could have been something in college, but that was a while ago. We lead different lives, different places.”

“This is the moment you tell me you’re seeing someone,” I said. 

“In fact, I’m not. I just think, you know. . .”

“I understand.” I said it like I meant it.

“I’m glad. And it was so good to see you.”

I finished the hamburger. “I’m gonna get another drink.”


At the beer bucket was the woman from the dinghy. Naomi. I didn’t really want to talk to Veronica anymore and I didn’t really want to stop drinking, so I fell into talking with Naomi. She studied desalinization. She asked me what I did and I told her. “For a while I lived and worked with my husband in Los Alamos,” she said, her voice low. “It was there, at a bar with my husband’s friends—he’s a nuclear physicist, by the way—that I first heard about Argus.”

“Oh really,” I said, well into my second beer. 

“Yes, but this was different. You are of course familiar with the Ozone hole over Antarctica.”

“Yeah. It’s from the CFCs, chlorofluorocarbons.” I blinked when I realized the connection. “The spray bottles.”

“That’s what I thought, too.”

I felt a bout of vertigo. “What do you mean?”

“When the Navy, as part of Argus, detonated three warheads into the upper atmosphere, they also damaged the Ozone layer,” Naomi said. “Think about it. Why do you think CFCs were banned? So the public wouldn’t know the Ozone hole was created by the military nuking the sky.”

“Uh huh,” I said. It was crazy. The tests had happened, sure, but CFCs couldn’t be a hoax. The nefarious chemical the world had united against? How could that be a lie? But I knew the artwork I had seen, and knew it couldn’t be a coincidence, not really. Solomon Fresno had some role in Argus, and he was trying to tell me something from beyond the radioactive grave.

Naomi said she had to talk to Steve, and then I was alone again, standing at the shore of the water, letting the surf come in and return, the massaging sensation of the water rushing back and eroding the sand beneath my feet, sinking me deeper until I had reached a stasis. I texted Veronica, told her I’d call her later. Then I walked back to my hotel, ascended the La Jolla cliff.


The next morning I had some time before I talked to the admiral, so I drove to my parents’ old house in Del Mar. It was a small tiny house on the rise of a sandy hill, surrounded on all sides by lurching McMansions. There was no parking available near it, so I pulled further down the street, where I saw another old house, a pink Victorian with wrought-iron gates which I had remembered walking by in my childhood. Then it hit me. 

Back then, the owners had kept a large bird in their backyard. My parents had always talked about it, and I thought, going on walks with them, they had pointed it out once or twice. I peered through the gate. I saw a candy-colored gazebo and some elaborate gardening. That was all. 

I walked down the street to my parents’ old house. The exterior had seen better days, and the front lawn was a mess of tangled weeds. My father and I used to play catch on that lawn. He had a joy in it I could never understand—when I threw him a baseball, he would catch it quite daintily with his glove. My father had had a lot of disappointments in his life, but he relished simple pleasures. Against all odds, he and my mother had found each other, a partnership of mutual support I had seen little of in my college friends who were now pairing off. I’d been to wedding after wedding, and every time I sat there listening to the toasts, I wondered how long this coupling or another would last, whether it would be cut short by divorce or death or some other terrible word. 

The windows were dark, and I wasn’t sure if anyone was home. But I figured I’d knock, see who was around.

A man my age answered the door. “We don’t need any fertilizer.”

“Hi,” I said, handing him my card. “I’m Mark, I work at a podcast. I grew up in this house. I was in the area and thought I’d say hello.”

“Oh,” the man said. “Why don’t you step inside.”

I assented.

“It’s a little messy,” he said. “But you can see we’re trying to fix the place up. I’m Kevin, by the way.” A woman emerged from the living room. “This is my wife, Brenda.”

The smell of the wooden halls brought me back to childhood. There was the staircase where I’d bumped my head as a kid, the odd light through the bay window in the kitchen. The furniture was all different, but these new owners hadn’t yet repainted the walls.

“Brenda, this is Mark,” Kevin said. “He grew up here.”

Brenda shook my hand. “We loved the house. We thought it would be perfect for raising a family. Plus, the schools. You must have gone to some good schools.”

“I guess.” 

A toddler wandered into the foyer. Brenda picked him up. 

“It’s really funny,” Kevin said, scratching his head. “We seriously thought about naming him Mark, but we ended up choosing Declan.”

 “How strange,” I said, trying to smile. “I hope you’re all happy here.”

A few minutes later, I showed myself out and returned to my car. I froze when I saw it.  

Standing next to my car was a brilliant blue bird with needle-like spikes coming from its forehead, its green plumage all folded. Then it cawed three times, and shaking its tail provocatively, the plumage unfolded like a fan. The eyes were everywhere on its tail, composed of a dull orange surrounded by an ethereal fluorescent green, and a brilliant, unknowable blue. The tail formed a wall of watchers, evil eyes like in the paintings of Solomon Fresno. Then the bird, suddenly disinterested, walked away and folded up its plumage. 

The peacock was done flirting with me. It had made its point and moved on. I had a dark feeling in my heart. I knew what I had in common with this transient, flamboyant bird. 

In a daze, I swung by In-N-Out and devoured a cheeseburger at a plastic table alongside the ocean-sized parking lot. The drive-in line was long, and just as soon as a car would leave, another car would enter the line, so that the attendant would march to each succeeding car and take orders from a menu that hadn’t changed much since 1948. It was becoming clearer to me that cycles kept going no matter if I was a part of them or not.


I met the admiral at the Hotel del Coronado, an opulent Victorian palace on an island accessible from a bridge which lunged above the city harbor. The hotel’s red Queen Anne dome and white-wooden walls evoked a period of American confidence that had long passed me by.

Despite his age, Admiral Veidt was a starchy, thick man of even temperament. He dined on his cobb salad with gusto as I took small bites of a quiche. I was explaining to him what we were looking for in our podcast, and he had already answered some background questions pretty succinctly. 

“It’s fine,” Veidt said. “As I’ve said, I’m happy to discuss any declassified materials.” He put down his fork. “Why are you really here? We could have done this over the phone, though of course I like taking people to the Del.”

I decided it was time to press him. Maybe I could find some meaning in this trip. I had to.

“I went to see the Solomon Fresno retrospective the other day,” I said. 

“Oh, what did you think?” Veidt said. “I thought they did a great job. My wife and I were crushed when he passed. He was my wife’s brother. He was much older than her, twelve years I believe.”

“I heard it was cancer,” I said. 

“Heart failure,” Veidt said.

“Good to know,” I said, though my heart skipped a beat. “Did Fresno serve on Operation Argus?”

“I don’t know,” Veidt said. “If he did, we never discussed it.”

I doubted that, but I played along. “Well, some of his art seemed inspired by his service in the Pacific. The paintings of ocean life. The tropical birds, the peacocks…”

A brainwave seemed to pass through Veidt’s skull. “Huh,” he said. “Wasn’t Argus the guy who got turned into a peacock?”

“Yeah.” I was surprised he knew the myth, but even more surprised he was making the connection now. I kept going. “So I heard a story the other day. It’s pretty weird, but I’d want to get your take on it. This is just you and me talking, now.”

“Off the record.”

“Indeed. You know how the U.S. banned CFCs in the 1990s because of the Ozone hole?”

“Sounds familiar.”

“What if the Ozone hole was created by the Argus nuclear tests, and the CFC ban was used to cover it up?”

The admiral was impassive. He had the expression of granite.  

I continued. “Solomon Fresno, who probably served on Operation Argus—he painted peacocks and spray cans. The motif of the eyes—it could represent all the holes punched into the atmosphere by the hydrogen bomb.”

“Sounds like you need to go back to grad school, son,” Veidt said, angered. “If we had done that, the world would have found out by now. You think we’re capable of hiding something as wild as that?” He folded his napkin on the table. “I think we’re done here. They already charged my card, so you’re set. Good luck with your podcast.” Before he stood up, he tapped the table. “Let it go. For your own good.”

I watched as he walked into the corner of the room, where an older woman in an elegant hat greeted him. She had to be his wife, Anna Fresno Veidt. They disappeared into the hotel. 

Then I saw two dark-suited men replace the admiral in the doorway. They walked in my direction, and so I changed mine.


I wandered to the Del’s outside deck which faced the ocean. The bright, blinding San Diego fog was still lingering, mysterious, like the way this trip had unfolded. 

I could see a plane taking off, lurching into the sky. Soon I’d be on one of those. I kept traveling to new places, describing them and animating them with ghosts. I’d been looking around with many eyes, each sight so glancing I never really saw anything. 

I thought about the dark-suited men. Maybe I had seen too much.

I called Veronica. The phone rang several times, and I was relieved when it went to voicemail. I decided to leave a message. “Veronica, I’m sorry about the other day. I’m glad I got to see you, and you’re always welcome to visit me in Denver.” I could have left it there, but by some inner force I felt compelled to continue. “It hurts to me to say it, but it’s too bad nothing ever came of us. I’ve been thinking, and I’ve realized how difficult I’ve been—” I broke off. “I’ve been depressed. I need to change. What I mean to say is, I’m like—” Still I couldn’t say it. I hung up. 

I turned around. The dark suits hadn’t followed me to the deck. Maybe I was in the clear; maybe I was paranoid. I waited.

A few minutes later, the phone rang. 

“Mark,” Veronica said. “You left a message?”
For a moment, I couldn’t answer. The waves were lapping on the shore.

“You can delete it.”

“Uh huh,” she said, suspicious. She hung up. 

When I had almost reached my car, the phone rang again. My hand was trembling as I answered. “So I heard your message,” she said, her tone neutral.

I was distracted. The dark-suited men were standing in front of my car. Both of them sported sour grins. With dread, I noticed the black glint of gunmetal at their hips.

Then Veronica said, with a note of optimism, “It seems we still have a lot to talk about. When are you coming back?”

About the Author

Known as a “shamus of the tiger sort” at Princeton, Harrison Blackman cut his teeth as a cub reporter in Taos, New Mexico before elevating his craft with an MFA at the University of Nevada, Reno and a Fulbright in the divided nation of Cyprus.


Gift Horse

Gift Horse

Flash Fiction

by Chrissy Stegman

I had yet to hollow out my skepticism, which clung tenaciously like a persistent ivy of doubt. I struggled with belief. I clammed up. Like anyone hard to reach yet too soft on the inside, I was a pile of cotton balls shielded by a phalanx.

It was difficult to speak to you because you transformed into so many organisms. A small dark-haired boy hoop-rolling, a frail dark-skinned girl picking at the hem of your green flowered dress, a komodo dragon mid-dinner with a monkey in your mouth, a newborn alligator with your egg tooth still attached, then you flashed into a brown bear cub coming out of your stupor of blindness, until finally, you were up in the air as the floss of milkweed. You descended into the palm of my hand as a firefly. I stared at your green blinking body for only a moment. Never idle, you casually changed into a bumble bee as you spoke to me:

“You’re angry with me? I set the world into motion with a single breath and that’s it.” 

You paused then, as you floated adorably, the absurd weight of your fuzzy bee butt bumping above the sudden field of red tulips we were now standing in.

“I’ve remained indifferent to the human versions.”

You zigzagged back and forth when you said ‘versions,’ as if creating true air quotes.

“I never intended life to be this personal. Mayflies mating? Not personal. A drop of water, theoretically, can’t harm you, but many drops, rioting together in a tsunami, have made other decisions—yet those decisions are not personal. Humans with buckets drowning humans? That is personal, surely. But the code I made? It is doing its job. Personal is just a feeling.”

You seemed to turn your bee head though I was certain a bee had no neck as you asked: “Does my explanation help?”

I looked away. I started to feel odd, like my body had been thrust inside live circuitry, but I replied calmly, “No, not really.” 

You quickly transformed into a bluebird, as anxiety settled in my stomach.

You went fluttering about, your wings incredibly blue, impatiently blue, like an alarm sounding the color blue, and then you began hopping on the ground, emerging from the red tulip field to the patio. We were now in my backyard. I saw the white wrought iron table and on it was a tea service. I walked to the table and reached out my hand, which was obnoxious in its tremble and I picked up a cup so I could sip the black tea. 

You whistled at me then, asking if I wanted a beer instead and I tried to hide my pride. 

I smoothly replied, “No, I quit drinking.”

You switched your form again. No longer a bluebird you were now shifting into a larger mass until I saw your head nod into the muzzle of a mottled white Shetland pony. 

You whinnied, “I knew that but I forgot because the world fills my head so fast all the time with everything from the important to the mundane.” You began trotting in merry circles, almost prancing with delight.

I lowered my head and looked inside the empty tea cup, for a moment I wondered if you might manifest there as well. I noticed the cup was plain, white ceramic, like something from IKEA. Then, overcome with curiosity, I asked you my burning question:

“What did you think of Waiting for Godot?

You chuckled for a moment, but the chuckle sounded garbled and frightening because I had never heard a horse giggle before. The hairs on my arms raised in their confusion of false fear. You leaned your plucky horse face too close to my nose and I could see you had carrot pieces in your teeth.

You exaggerated your mouth wide in a horse yawn and said, “I’ll let you know.” 

Your mane caught the last pennies of daylight, turning the white follicles into Gaussian blurs of prismatic rainbows.

I felt myself crying. I didn’t understand why until I realized you had shifted into my dead Grandfather and you were holding his car keys in your hand. I watched as you walked away from me, toward his 1990 Buick station wagon that sat at the edge of the tulip field. You walked just like him. I swear I almost believed. 

You spoke to me with tenderness as you removed his large K-Mart sunglasses, only to reveal another pair of sunglasses beneath those as you whispered, “I know what makes you feel.”

I watched as you opened the driver’s side door, your movements stiff as you slid into the seat behind the wheel. You closed the door, started the engine, and drove into the sunset which you clearly owned. Just before you were blotted out by the light, you rolled down the car window and stuck out your arm to wave my grandfather’s Orioles cap in the air, like a black and orange flag of surrender.

About the Author

Chrissy Stegman is a poet/writer from Baltimore, Maryland. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in: Rejection Letters, Gone Lawn, Gargoyle Magazine, Anti-Heroin Chic, Poverty House, Stone Circle Review, Fictive Dream, The Voidspace, 5 Minutes, and BULL. She is a 2023 BOTN nominee.




Flash Fiction

by Susannah Rigg

She scrambles his eggs, just how he likes them. Still a little wet, soft, buttery. The toast pops and she lays it on the blue-patterned, china plate. One of her grandma’s, slightly chipped by his over-zealous stacking, she thinks. She touches the imperfection, enjoys the smooth ridge. Balancing the eggs on the toast, she wipes a stray splodge of yolk from the plate. It looks like a restaurant breakfast. That makes her giggle. Only the best for him. 

The radio is tuned to Heart FM, humming out old classic love songs, perfect for a Sunday morning. She thinks of him still sleeping upstairs, making the most of his lie-in after a busy week, his chest rising and falling softly under the cotton sheets. There’s a towel warming for him on the bathroom rack. She left it there after showering quietly.

She pours his coffee over gently heated milk, it mingles into the perfect creamy whip. A half teaspoon of sugar to add a touch of sweetness. Only on the weekends. He is watching his weight, though he doesn’t need to. 

The oven pings. The smell of rosemary — freshly picked and sprinkled over mushrooms and tomatoes —freshens the air, the steam from the oven giving her a glow. She adds the veggies to his plate and sighs, wiping her hands on her flowery apron. 

“Breakfast’s ready,” she calls gently. 

She does this every Sunday, then sits down to eat alone when no one calls back.  

breakfast illustration 2
About the Author

Originally from London, Susannah has lived in Mexico for thirteen years. After over a decade as a travel writer, she now dedicates her time to writing fiction and working as a writing mentor. She is currently querying her first novel, set in modern-day Mexico City. She also runs writing workshops online and in the sleepy beach town where she now lives.




Flash Fiction

by Lorette C. Luzajic

The towers pile light-buzzing screens one on top of the other, like static interference, like flickering binary code. Kate isn’t quite sure what she was expecting from a quantum frequency healing circle, but it wasn’t a bunch of heavily made-up women in capris and little white slippers. 

She sighs and leans back in the cheap lawn chair, but it’s not easy to relax under the assault of fluorescent light tracks overhead. Each glowing tube is amplified by the endless cold glare of the walls. She had assumed that the scalar wave treatment clinic would be more ambient, perhaps, like a yoga studio, with a warm tangle of spider plants and a laughing Buddha statue. The only art on the wall is an illustration of the spiritual body with squiggly rays, but it doesn’t look cosmic at all, more like a chalk outline of a murder victim.

The lone man in the room looks like the serial killers she’s seen interviewed on TV: gaunt and awkward with Coke bottle glasses and sunken eyes. When she glances in his direction, he’s already staring at her, lower lip lax and slippery. She represses a shiver. He must be ill, she thinks. Not a stretch, of course – all of them are sick and desperate, hoping for a miracle potion, or a magic wand, a flicker of transformative biofield energy. For him, it must be cancer. It’s the way his skin barely covers his ribs or even cheekbones; the sporadic, ruddy darkness of him.

She looks away, and her eyes fall on the woman who is sharing. Electric curly hair. The glow of her face reveals she is a true believer.

“We are MADE of light,” the woman says emphatically. “Our bodies know how to heal themselves! But we suppress our own innate wisdom. These flickering photons can reset our frequencies.”

Nods and murmurs flutter up from the circle. For a few moments Kate drifts in the silence. She wonders if she’s finally feeling the energy. There’s a fleeting sense of alignment and a pleasant pressure at the base of her spine. The brochure promised she didn’t need faith: the flickering screens would work whether you believed it or not. Was this the start of the shift from chronic pain to wholeness?

In another moment she knows the warm tingling is a more commonplace matter. She has to pee. Rats. How long can she hold out? There are no phones in the healing space, and nothing so earthly and banal as a clock on the wall. Time is, of course, just a construct. But how can she assess what’s left of the hour, and whether her bladder can hold that long?

Someone else shares a testimony of transformation. This woman had been told she needed a blood transfusion for fatigue resulting from toxic chemotherapy. She started taking iron and B12 to rebuild her blood. She took the Neulasta injection they recommended, too, to help her restore her platelets. And she came to just one hour of energy enhancement before this. When she went to her appointment, they told her she no longer needed the transfusion. 

After the first flicker session, the woman explains, she had visualized her blood cells knitting back together. And then she could feel it happening. Deep inside, she knew she no would no longer need the procedure.

It’s hard to know which course of action was really to thank for her recovery. She wonders how the rays the screens are transmitting can be energizing when desktop and smartphone waves are toxic. The overhead fluorescents are triggering her migraines now. She feels a thin, piercing drill start deep inside her skull and knows it will build into a killer event if she doesn’t relax and find soft natural light soon. 

A woman with big brassy hair and tattooed eyebrows is sharing now. She is as round as a ball and has a shiny nose. She discovered the realm of rainforest shamanism years ago, in university, reading anthropology from Carlos Castaneda. His work opened her eyes to the profound possibilities that ancient cultures understood. 

She was infatuated with Castaneda, the psychedelic guru, during college. She’d devoured everything he said, hook, line and sinker. When it came out later that he’d made it all up, she was gutted, and embarrassed to have been so gullible. Even after the indigenous leaders, genuine shamans of Mexico, corrected the record and accused him of fabrication and appropriation, some people still represented his experiences as truth instead of a hoax. What was objective reality, after all, but one facet of mystery among many? 

She leans back into the lawn chair, tries again to sense waves of love and enlightenment, to feel the positive healing frequencies in her spine instead of just the increasingly necessary signals to urinate. She still wants to believe that the only obstacle between her turning at will into a crow or soaring swallow is the church and state repressing her true nature. Morphine and cortisone and Gabapentin have all failed her, so what is left, if not the hope there are other ways to overcome the constant burning in her nerves? As the migraine starts to flood over her, she closes her eyes again. She imagines herself outside of the pain, floating in the white flashing fields, talking to wild coyotes. 

About the Author

Lorette C. Luzajic reads, writes, publishes, edits, and teaches small fictions and prose poetry. Her work has been published in hundreds of journals, taught in schools and workshops including on Manitoulin Island and in Egypt, and translated into Urdu and Spanish. She was selected for Best Small Fictions 2023 and 2024. She has been nominated several times each for Best Small Fictions, Best Microfictions, Best of the Net, the Pushcart Prize, and Best American Food Writing. She has been shortlisted for Bath Flash Fiction and The Lascaux Review awards. Her collections include The Rope Artist, The Neon Rosary, Pretty Time Machine and Winter in June. Lorette is the founding editor of The Ekphrastic Review, a journal of literature inspired by art, running for nine years, and the brand new prose poetry journal, The Mackinaw. Lorette is also an award-winning mixed media artist, with collectors in more than 40 countries so far.


No More Gravity

No More Gravity

Flash Fiction

by Calla Smith

The pool lay like a glittering gem below Lina’s balcony. It was almost one o’clock in the afternoon, and everyone else in her building was busy doing something far away from the eagerly becoming turquoise waves. She liked it best like this, just her and the knowledge that there was somewhere she could escape to, a world of silence and the shifting patterns of the sun like diamonds on the tile floor.

 The illusion would be ruined anytime anyone else occupied one of the lawn chairs, bringing their boom boxes and conversation to pollute the fresh air. There were already so many other sounds assaulting her eardrums day in and day out. She needed the silence like a slice of cool relief from time to time to keep going.

The water was waiting for her. She already had a bathing suit and was finishing a cigarette on her balcony. She thought she had to go down now, or it would be too late. If she didn’t make it in the next minute, the window of opportunity would be closed just as it had been so many times before. She thought about how long it would take to find her flip-flops and wait for the elevator as it traveled the 10 stories down to the ground, and the impatience started to grow inside her. Lina snubbed out the cigarette in an ashtray and glanced once again at the paradise below.

She needed to be there now, not in five minutes. Maybe…no, that wasn’t possible, she told herself. But she couldn’t find her shoes, and she could hear the seconds ticking. She couldn’t stop thinking that the rest of her day- maybe even the whole week- would be ruined if she didn’t make it in time. Her life always hung by such a delicate thread. There were always so many rules to be followed, so why shouldn’t she make her own?

She had to get down there right now, and there only seemed to be one way. She could feel her heart ready to break through her rib cage if she didn’t feel the pure, sweet relief of water on her skin and her wet hair fanning out behind her as she dove down. There wasn’t any more time to think about it. She stood on her chair, closed her eyes, and jumped.

The dive seemed to last forever. The wind whistled in her ears as she sped past the apartments below her, the pale faces of her neighbors nothing but a blur. Lina angled her body to hit the water just right, then her hands were slicing through it like a knife, and her heart slowed down again. She skimmed the bottom of the pool, losing speed alone in the aching perfection of those first few seconds before coming up for air. She shouldn’t have survived the plunge, but she had. Lina had made it in time, and the day and the week stretched out like a blank canvas with no more universal rules left to be broken.   

No More Gravity illustration
About the Author

Calla Smith (she/her) lives and writes in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She enjoys reading, cooking, spending time with friends and family, and continuing to discover all the forgotten corners of the city she has come to call home. She has published a collection of flash fiction “What Doesn’t Kill You”, and her work can also be found in several literary journals such as Five on the Fifth, Cosmic Daffodil, and Health & Coffin among others.




Flash Fiction

by Katharina Landfried

“They’re still drooping, but she’ll be better in no time,” Mia says as she sprays water on the fleshy foliage of her newest rescue. Crammed between a broken bamboo and a Dracaena with burnt burgundy leaves, it greedily soaked up all her care.

We stopped bothering with clothes. Since the air conditioning broke months ago and we upped the heating, condensation fogs our only window, hiding our exposed bodies slick with moisture, our pubes pearled with drops. Not that any of the people in the other apartment buildings pay attention to us anyway, most of the windows across are boarded up with blankets or curtains. A body could fall from the highest floor, unnoticed.

“You always manage to nurse them back to health, even the most doomed cases.”

She starts her daily rant: “I just don’t understand how people can throw their plants out like trash. Look at the blossoms on this one,” she says and points to the half-dead Hibiscus in the corner, “it’s beautiful despite the sun-burnt leaves, no?”

I smile and swat away one of the buzzing fruit flies. “Sure is.” The grapefruit orange of its petals bleeds into a yellow, blossoming bright amidst the endless green in this space.

Mia began collecting plants soon after I was released from hospital last time, dragging in any abandoned bundle she found on the sidewalk or hiding in dumpsters near our block. Soon, space ran out and we had to remove most of the furniture. The TV stand was replaced by an overgrown Yucca; a scraggly snake plant and an unkempt fig tree now live where the armchair and couch used to sit.

“You probably won’t be able to save all of them.”

Mia thinks about this for a moment and then nods.

“We should still get the mold removed.” Black clusters bloom in the corners, connecting at the center of the wall, above the metal racks stacked with seedlings.

“Do these peppers look ripe to you? I’m not sure but maybe we could try one.” She turns to walk into the hallway towards the row of pots she dragged there one by one as the living space filled with too much life.

“What? Oh, yeah. They’ve gotten to a nice red.”

Mia giggles and grabs the scissors from the counter, snipping the bent stem above the biggest one. She holds it against the subdued sunlight, turning it in her hand. “They would taste best in a salad, adding some color and sweetness.”

“Sure.” I drag in a breath as if inhaling steam through a towel. “That mold, though… It is spreading quite quickly. Maybe we could get someone to come by next week?”

“Radishes! We should put some radishes in the salad as well,” Mia says before disappearing into the bathroom, ducking between hanging baskets that hold the cherry tomatoes. Their vines release an earthy smell with every swing, flooding the apartment with it.

I sigh. “It’s not healthy, you know? Breathing in the spores.”

“You’re being dramatic. Let’s just wait a bit longer and maybe it goes away on its own,” she calls through the open door, a faint snapping sound accompanying her words. “Anyhow, we’ll be moving soon after the wedding, so it doesn’t really matter.”

The wedding. She hadn’t brought it up for a while, but it seems she’s still hopeful it will happen. “I told you we don’t need to get married.”

“What are you talking about?” She returns with her arms crossed in front of her chest, radishes rolling from side to side, skin sprinkled with soil. “You said we shouldn’t rush it, that’s all.”

“No, I said we should just stay together like now, no need to get the government involved in things.”

Mia chuckles. “It’s not about that, it’s about making a commitment, strengthening our bond and all that.”

Selfishly, I allowed her to take me in and nurture every part of me, but I never meant for her to grow roots in barren soil.

“What about the Persian cucumbers?”

Her eyes grow wide, regaining their sparkle. “They might be a little sour still, but let’s add one.”

This time, she closes the bathroom door behind her.

I stand, peeling away from the plastic covering the upholstery of the last remaining chair. Fertilizer crumbles press into the soles of my feet, scatter across tiles when my toes flick them. With both hands, I clasp the handle and pull on it with all my weight until the window squelches open.

The autumn air bathes me in ice. I lift my dripping curls so it can reach my neck with its cold claws. Filling my lungs without effort for the first time in a long time, I lift a leg onto the ledge, close my eyes, and let myself fall.

In the seconds it takes my head to hit the concrete below, I pray that Mia will find another, less hopeless, rescue.

monstera 2
About the Author

Katharina Landfried, born and raised in the deep south of Germany, has always had a fascination with the uncanny. Shortlisted for the Fractured Lit Legends, Myths, & Allegories Prize and published in the Flashes of Nightmare anthology by Wicked Shadow Press, her writing explores the darker and disturbing aspects of the human experience. Katharina was recently awarded a Distinction for her Master’s in Creative Writing at Hull University. When she’s not writing, she’s busy entertaining her cats or watching the latest horror movies.


The Brayhead

The Brayhead

Flash Fiction

by Justine Sweeney

‘Abandon! Abandon!’ Captain paces a stretch of starboard deck. ‘We’re hit.’ 

I count heads. Thirty-eight. All here. First lifeboat launched. 

Second raft. ‘Come on, Captain, get in!’ 

‘Yes, Boyle. Right.’ 

Captain climbs in behind me and we push off into thick darkness with a smooth splash. Quick – get away from the creaking vessel, smoke, and heat. Count again – Geordie, Higgins, Bobcat, Monroe, the three Larne boys. Did I see Wells on the other raft? Stretch fingers. Keep circulation going. Hands freezing cold, fingertips like ice. Keep arms moving, keep oars going. Pull. Pull. Pull. Plunging in sync, eight paddles glide back, then surface, gasping for air. 

No sign of that German sub now. They’ll not see us, we’ve no lamps on and we’re nearly out of the liner’s burning shadow. They’ll be celebrating they took our steamer down, but they’ll not care to come after us in a dinghy, will they? 

‘Did we radio for help?’ Monroe shouts. ‘Do they know we’re torpedoed? Are they coming for us?’ 

I can’t answer him. I was down in the belly stoking the fires when we were struck. Fell back, thumped against a coal pile. Did they get through on the radio? 

‘Help’s coming,’ Captain tells us, ‘they know we’re here.’ 

But is help coming? Is it? Who did we radio to? Are any boats even nearby? 

Can barely see my own hands. Grey faces all around me. Bright eyes reflecting flames. I start to laugh. Can’t stop. Thinking of Matheson an hour ago, loading shells into our mounted gun. Hoy – firing in the direction of the U-boat until all our ammo was done. What good is one three-pound gun and two gunners on a two-hundred-foot Merchant Navy steamer? Ha! No use at all. Germans not interested in us they said. Ha! We should have had more guns. 

Blazing up rightly now. Stern underwater. Sinking fast, she’s heavy. Full of farm machinery. Cattle. All them Irish calves thought they were going to Canada! Crates of linen – thousands of them. Linen from the mill. Sarah-Jane, are you in the mill now? In the Spinning Room? 

Atlantic water spills in and the dinghy is one-third filled. Frozen fingers. Can hardly hold the paddle. There she goes! Our ship’s tip slips under. Such blackness. Can’t even see the water but it slaps against the canvas and tosses us along. A whistle blows. That’ll be the other raft. We huddle in. Who’s that whimpering? Monroe. What are you crying for, Monroe? Sure, we got off the sinking boat. Help’s coming. And it’s warmer now. I can’t feel the cold in my legs and arms anymore. It’s hard to ignore Monroe sobbing. I’ll close my eyes for a minute, the rocking is making me sleepy. Sarah-Jane, stop crying – I’m fine, help is coming. There you are, Sarah-Jane, that smile.  

About the Author

Justine is a writer and IT professional from Belfast. Recently she’s had short fiction published in The Dublin Review, and she was longlisted in the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2024. She has an MA in Creative Writing and is working on her first novel.