The Invisible One by Sophie Van Llewyn

Laura’s hand is just as white as the sheets it is resting on. But of the two sisters, she is not the invisible one.

“How was school this week?” Their mother’s voice is muffled by the surgical mask. She is sitting on a low chair at Laura’s bedside, arranging her blanket, asking her other daughter the same question for the third time since her visiting hour began. Melissa’s nose stings and her eyes become clouded, in spite of the deep breaths she is taking. This time, she says nothing and nobody notices. Melissa moves closer so she can see what absorbed her mother’s attention.

Laura’s bald head looks like the one of an ugly doll. A skull like the ones she has seen depicted on pirate flags, with a sheer layer of nearly transparent skin, stretched like muslin over an embroidery hoop. Only the eyes betray the fact that Laura is still alive, though when they open, they reveal an unfocused gaze, a fog through which the sisters fail to see each other. Melissa reaches for mother’s hand, but Pamela withdraws it as if her daughter’s caress is an acidic burn. “Don’t touch me! You might give me germs! Do you want to kill your sister? Stand back, will you?”

After they leave the hospital, grandmother takes Melissa to a church so they can pray together.

At home, Melissa is a silent observer of the delicate dust snowfall: on her mother’s vanity table and its powder boxes and crystal bottles, on her father’s razor blade in the bathroom, on the oven which has long forgotten how to bake —most of all birthday cakes— on the small single bed with its lilac bed cover. In this abandoned temple of a forgotten god, the faces in the picture on the TV console are mocking her — Laura, when she was still her sister, and her father on one side of the tennis court, Melissa, when she was visible, and her mother on the other. They were all wearing racquets, white sweaters tied around their shoulders and wide smiles. Melissa cannot look at it, so she places it in the attic, next to her sister’s bicycle, the one nobody taught her how to ride.

During her next visit, her mother and grandmother leave the hospital room, so they can talk to the doctor. Melissa lifts the surgical mask from her mouth and blows warm air on Laura’s face, like blowing candles, making a wish. Laura’s eyelashes flutter, dandelion seeds in a gentle breeze. She rubs her sister’s bony hand in hers and kisses her on the cheek. Laura opens her eyes and glazes her watery look over her sister. Melissa is startled at how liquid her sister’s gaze is, ever flowing and unable to cling to anything. When her mother returns, Melissa is sitting on the low stool, reading “Cinderella” in whispered tones.

***

About the author: Sophie Van Llewyn is Assistant Editor with the literary magazine Bartleby Snopes. Her prose has been published by or is forthcoming in Flash Frontier, The Molotov Cocktail, Halo, Unbroken Journal, Hermeneutic Chaos Journal, among others. Sophie’s book reviews have been published by Necessary Fiction.

Fertility Rites by Gwenda Major

Amanda and Graham met at a teachers’ conference in Scarborough. On the second night they gazed dreamily into the distance as the rain lashed against the windows of the Spa building and the noise level rose beyond deafening. Later, huddled more intimately over a small table sticky with beer, they discovered that they shared a birth sign and that they both had a passion for all things green, both politically and horticulturally.

Amanda and Graham didn’t have sex until their second meeting in Huddersfield; there was a certain decorum to such things in the seventies. They arranged to meet at a cinema Graham knew where they watched The Godfather, so overcome by lust for each other that they were later unable to recall any of the plot, only the thrilling vibrato of Nino Rota’s famous waltz theme. Afterwards they caught a bus back to Graham’s flat, a soulless place located above a hardware shop on the outskirts of the town, where they tore each other’s clothes off and made frantic love on the lino flooring of the sitting room, then on the kitchen table before finally making it to the bedroom. Later they lay in each other’s arms, listening to the hiss of traffic on the A61, the glare of the headlights filtering softly through the brown linen curtains. There was never any doubt that Amanda and Graham were made for each other.

Their wedding night passed in a blur of passion. “I could eat you all up” murmured Graham as he stroked Amanda’s thigh during a brief gap in the proceedings.

“What’s stopping you?” Amanda whispered, closing her eyes. That night she dreamed of lying in a giant cornucopia, nestled against the red flush of a watermelon, the swollen firmness of a courgette, the sensuous curve of a chilli pepper.

As time went on Amanda filled the house with large and luscious foliage plants while Graham nurtured enormous prize vegetables in the garden. Growing things became their consuming passion.

Time passed and Amanda and Graham pottered about in contented retirement until one day in September cousins came to visit and found the house empty. In the living room they discovered Amanda’s slippers aligned neatly in front of the sofa. Amanda’s cousin remarked that the rubber plant and the huge philodendron seemed even larger than ever and just for a moment he thought he heard a delicate sigh but then decided his imagination was playing tricks.

Mystified they searched the garden but drew a blank. The cousins marvelled at the incredible size of the vegetables in the raised beds, especially the potato bed where the foliage seemed to have grown to an enormous size. As they turned away from their search the sun glinted on something lying on top of the deep dark earth of the potato bed; had they looked they might have recognised it as one of the buckles from Graham’s gardening braces but they had already walked away.

***

About the author: Gwenda Major lives in the South Lakes area of the UK. Her passions are genealogy, gardening and graveyards. Gwenda’s stories have featured in numerous publications. She has written four novels and two novellas; three have been either longlisted or shortlisted for national competitions. Gwenda has a website and blog at www.gwendamajor.wordpress.com

Flakes by Jan Kaneen

When you storm out of the front door, slamming into the midnight, fast and antsy, thinking in angry fragments that whizz and whistle round your mind’s eye like burning shrapnel, oblivious to the cold air on your salty cheeks or the loud, quick, clip of your staccato boots echoing through the midwinter dark, and you walk and walk breathing sharp and jerky, until you take that long-deep breath that eventually and inevitably, cuts through the chaos, cools your lungs and you slow right down, frowning at the dark like you’ve just woken up mid sleepwalk.

When you stop to blow your fingers warm because you’ve become aware that your hands are aching with the cold and you watch your powdery breath as it billows up into the starless dark catching an impossible sparkle from the glittering specks that’re starting to fill the air and you lift your head to watch – diamond mots morphing into lacy flakes – millions of them, swirling and swarming, landing on your outstretched hand, settling on the country track where they form a quick, white covering and you shiver and glance behind you, at the eerie trees lit by the amber gloom of a single street lamp their blue-black branches tapping and scratching like old, cold bones, and you turn for home, teeth chattering, walking fast again, not out of anger anymore, that dissolved as soon as you saw the beauty, but because the inky village has become full of looming shadows and weird noises and although the fallen snow is muffling your footsteps so they’re quieter than your heartbeat that’s pounding in your head, you wish they were quieter still and when you round that final corner, almost running now, you’re so glad to see the familiar thatch of home silhouetted against the wintery midnight that you fairly leap up the breathless steps, fling the front door open into a wall of warmth that reddens your hot-cold face and he’s stood right there, in the vestibule, wearing his fat salopettes and that old polar coat that’s been hanging in the Narnia wardrobe in the spare bedroom ever since that time you fancied learning how to ski, donkeys years ago.

When the snowflakes in your eyelashes and hair melt in relief as much as anything else and you want to laugh and laugh because he looks so comical, but you don’t because his expression is serious – sort of angry and relieved at the same time, (he’s been worried sick and was just about to go and find you) so you shoot him that look, the one that always melts into smiles on both your faces, and you tumble into each other’s arms forgetting about everything else and make clumsy love right there in the vestibule, numb-finger fumbling with hilarious zips, lost in the intense white magic that the snowflakes are weaving as they land wild and silent in enchanted drifts just beyond the safety of the closed front door.

That.

***

About the author: Jan Kaneen is doing an MA in Creative Writing at the OU and trying…really trying to write a novel. The Flash fiction obsession helps with both, allegedly. She’s been published in several mags and lit-zines and so far this year has won comps at Molotov Cocktail, Ad Hoc, Zero Fiction as well as running up here.

How to be a winner by Cath Barton

On the day I won the lottery I put on my sparkly four-inch heels. Bad decision, because I tripped on a kerb outside the restaurant where I was going on a hot date. My first thought as my face slammed into the plate-glass window was that I wouldn’t now be able to eat the soft-shelled crab that I’d been looking forward to. Correction, my first thought was for my spectacles and camera. Only after I’d checked that they were unbroken did I think about the crab. And then I looked around for my date.

There was a lot of blood and screaming. It wasn’t me screaming but my date was embarrassed. My dress had been ripped by shards of glass. I wanted to cry – it was my favourite dress – but then I remembered my lottery win. What was I complaining about?! I smiled at my date, or tried to. The contortion of my rapidly-swelling face must have looked like a grimace. He started backing away. Thought: he had not yet heard about my lottery win. Cynical thought: he had nothing to stick around for. Well, if that was the way he saw things he was clearly not going to be life-partner material. Better to find that out now, though I was still sorry about the crab. This was supposed to be the best place to eat it in London.

People were crowding round, asking me if I was okay. In my confused state I waved away all offers of help and set off down the road. The pain in my right ankle was nothing compared to the throbbing in my face. The next thing I knew I couldn’t move my arms. They were pinned down by a sheet and there was an antiseptic smell in my nose. So I was in hospital. That much I could work out. But my mind was fuzzy. I’d had a dream about winning the lottery. No! I had actually won it – the ticket was in my coat pocket. Shit! Where was my coat?

The nurse had a kindly face, but she didn’t understand, thought I was asking for a comb. Not that I was making it easy. Forming words is tricky with a broken jaw.

“Aha,” she said after I’d spluttered at her for a bit. “You want your coat! No, no, my lovely. You won’t be needing your coat for a while yet. Try not to talk.”

I pulled my arms out from under the sheet and gestured turning the coat pockets inside out. In the end she brought my coat to shut me up. I searched in one pocket, then the other, then both again. Nothing, nothing, nothing! That was when I did start screaming, big time.

The lottery ticket never turned up. My winning ticket. But my jaw and ankle got fixed. Every day I count my blessings. I don’t wear those crazy heels. I’m careful on kerbs. And I narrowly avoided a very bad choice of life-partner. I’m a winner.

***

About the author: Cath Barton is an English writer who lives in Wales. Recently, her flash fiction has been published on-line on ZeroFlash and Spelk.

 

Mortal Envy by Michelle Scowcroft

I envy her illness. I envy the gather of people who hush about her. Heads bowed, their voices honeyed, steps quietly trod.

Here am I. Alone.

I envy the joyous flowers they present and the bright boxes of chocolates that pile, unopened, by her bedside. The over‐bed table adrift in wafts of scented orange, of fresh apple and sweet kiwi fruit. Bowls of potpourri mask the stink of her urine, her defecation, her decay.

I smell the stink of weeks of my own unwash.

Idling on the windowsill, cards laze laden with a futility of get‐well wishes. White sheets crisp. Her pillows plump. Smoothed and soothed by a passage of nurses, visitors, attendants. All tendering their regard and their respect to the last hours of her life. Her comfort their concern.

Hear me. These hours are my last too. My role as a mother already stolen. I have no other.

Drugs and drips muffle her cares, her concerns, her consciousness. Drowsy in smile. By day, by night, I perch by her side. Alert. Always there. Always watching, always waiting. The doctors vigilantly come, and go. Seeing to her. Asking how she is.

They don’t ask me how I am. They don’t ask me if I pain. Have I eaten, have I washed, have I slept much the night.

She’ll be gone by the morrow to the rosy empty of no pain, no anguish. No more worries. And me, alone.

Fearing the unknown, struggling all the tomorrows on my own.The harrow of years yet to come.

Plundered. Despoiled. Impotent. Left useless. Without future. Still enduring the pain that she, fortuitously, no longer to suffer.

Can I come with you, I whisper in her ear. I took you everywhere with me when you were small, and now, when I feel small, you go and abandon me.

Her eyes deepen and pool. Her breath loud beating. She falters as she tries to move her head, her lips towards me. She mur‐murmurs an incomprehensible into my ear.

No choices, now, her to make. Her burdens blown. Life clinging no more.

I envy her that. I envy her demise.

***

About the author: Michelle Scowcroft lives in an isolated area of the Yorkshire Dales. She graduated in 2015 from Lancaster University with an MA in Creative Writing. Michelle prefers to write in a literary genre mostly aimed at a female readership with themes of difference, dislocation, alienation and loss. Unlike Mortal Envy most of her work is humorous and positive in outcome.

Flight of an Eagle by Sally Lane

The clank of the bolt yanked sideways comes first, then the rattle of the keys. Your ears are attuned now: you can count the last few clanks and the rattles until you know the next are for you. Anticipation is paramount in here; you don’t want to be caught unawares. Number 22 didn’t suspect a thing when it all kicked off, and look what happened to her.

The hyena pack is already dominating its end of the breakfast table. Head Hyena is holding forth, baring her teeth even as she shoves the Krispies in. The rest of the pack grins silently, with nodding heads like toys on a spring. You look for Number 22. It’s Day 4 and her chair is still empty at the other end of the table.

‘Sleep well?’ asks HH, as sweet and as deadly as a barley sugar stuck in the throat.

‘Yes, you?’ you reply, brightly. You care deeply about the good quality of her slumber: it makes her pelt glossier; her nostrils keener; her fangs all the better to bite you with.

‘Where’s your stinky friend?’ The hyenas erupt at this, the cleverest, drollest witticism in the whole, wide world.

‘Must have overslept,’ you reply. You are pleased with yourself, even as they smell your fear. You take your place at the end of the breakfast queue. You shuffle forwards in concert with the rest, like a segment of some grotesque, oversized insect.

That morning, like all other mornings, you’d gazed at the birds between your window bars: the long-tailed tits with their syncopated flight; the starlings strutting, self-important; the whole lot scattering as the pigeons descend to snatch the biggest worms. You’d followed each one with voluptuary eyes, imagining yourself among them: you’d be a long-tailed tit or a pigeon, either would suit.

That afternoon, you hear again the wailings, the howling at the moon. You picture the gnashing and wild eyes, the swinging of Number 22’s unwashed dreadlocks as she flings herself at her locked door. You, her trusted, her only friend, know the source of her fury: the blank, rectangular space on her wall where a golden eagle, soaring high above a canyon, used to be.

HH had slept well the day the guards came running. Her vision sharp, her ears cocked. She spied the eagle, slant-ways, through No. 22’s opened door. You picture her smile as she licked her lips: punishment for the stolen photograph – mysteriously missing from the prison library the week before – would be swift, severe. The pack would have a new corpse to feast upon.

That evening, you descend the staircase, and Number 22 is there at the table’s far end. Her head is down, her caterwauling ceased. The hyenas wait with their breath hanging in the air, observing you with glinting eyes. Your integrity and your future survival depend on what you do next. You place yourself in the middle of the table. You have clipped your own wings and you are not proud.

***

About the author: Sally Lane has had many jobs, from chimney sweep booker and strawberry picker to office automaton. She dreams of a life in the woods, with only a canoe and a campfire for company.