The Dime by Mark Paxson

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Bill Lockwood

The Dime by Mark Paxson

Starting with Another Night in Bridgeport (King Midget Press, 2012), Mark Paxson has written five books and, as he says on his website, “somewhere around 50 short stories.” He identifies himself as an “indie writer,” one who is “writing and publishing stories the traditional publishing world doesn’t want to touch.” His latest novel, The Dime (King Midget Press, 2021), fits that description quite well with an unconventional situation, very real-life characters, and a number of intriguing plot twists that take you so often in the opposite direction of what a reader might be expecting in mainstream popular fiction. If for no other reason, his cleverness makes this book certainly worth reading.

Paxson also uses an intriguing device. He keeps shifting the viewpoint from which the story is told. Instead of just one narrator or protagonist, the reader is shifted from one character to another, seeing the developing story from pretty much all the points of view of those involved. Most often the viewpoint is that of one of the three main characters around which the story revolves. They are all very plain, normal, everyday people who in many ways could be seen as simply losers. It is a story of each trying to salvage a tragic life. In the end they all may or may not end up as heroes, all part of Paxson’s genius as well.

Sisters Lily and Sophie live in a house in the small town of Northville, New York. It had been their home until they and their parents were all involved in a tragic car accident that killed the parents and left the younger sister, Sophie, in a wheelchair. The sisters then lived an unhappy life under the rule of an aunt on the prairie in Nebraska until Lily became eighteen and gained guardianship of Sophie. They returned to the family home that had been held in a trust for them, a trust that neither was able to fully access until age 25. The story begins with Lily, now 20 and working in a five-and-dime store called by everyone simply “The Dime,” and Sophie, sixteen and in high school, locked in uneventful and unsatisfying lives. Enter Pete, recently arrived member of Sophie’s class, who is trying without success to fit into the small town teenage society. Feeling guilty that Sophie has “withered” in their life situation, Lily has a sudden idea when she catches Pete shoplifting a Yankees T-shirt. She makes him a deal. She won’t turn him in if he will ask her sister Sophie to the school dance. At this point, the story about a girl in a wheelchair and a guy who comes to meet her under duress could turn out to be quite sappy. But that is not the case at all. This story is off into its intricate twists and turns from there.

Paxson takes on many issues such as death, sadness, hopes, dreams, and love as the story progresses. He adds an element where he shows that these three lead characters do care for each other, and as a result the reader starts caring for them, too. Who is the strongest and who is the most vulnerable shifts just as Paxson shifts the point of view. He also throws in some flashback scenes shifting the time-frame as well. And there is also a strong positive element in that all the characters appear to be on a kind of journey toward healing. The character Lily expresses some real wisdom:

I learned in the weeks that followed that the actions you think will make a difference frequently don’t, while the ones that seemed insignificant in the moment can spread ripples far and wide. (134)

Shortly after she says that, Paxson throws the reader another plot twist and surprise. It is a very good read.


Mark Paxson is a semi-retired attorney living and relaxing in California. He has been published in Toasted Cheese, The First Line, and the Disappointed Housewife, among others. He also has published two collections of short stories, the novel One Night in Bridgeport (King Midget Press, 2012) and the novella, The Irrepairable Past (King Midget Press, 2019). He blogs at King Midget’s Ramblings. He can be reached at mpaxson55[at]


Bill Lockwood is a retired social worker with a lifelong passion for writing and participation in community theater. He currently writes articles about the Arts and interesting people for The Shopper/Vermont Journal and covers local community theater for the Eagle Times of Claremont, NH. The Wild Rose Press has published five of his historical fiction novels: Buried Gold (2016), Megan of the Mists (2017), Ms. Anna (2018), The Monsignor’s Agents (2020), and Gare de Lyon (2021). His short stories “The Kids Won’t Leave” appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Two Hawks Quarterly, and “Pizza, Pizza” appeared in The Raven’s Perch April 28, 2021. Lockwood has written several reviews for Toasted Cheese.

Gare de Lyon by Bill Lockwood

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Anne Greenawalt

Gare de Lyon by Bill Lockwood

Gare de Lyon (Wild Rose Press, 2021) by Bill Lockwood describes the adventures of Mary O’Riley, an art student from Boston studying in Paris in the late 1930s. When her art school closes at the start of WWII, Mary, who changes her name to Marie to better fit her Parisian lifestyle, doesn’t want to go home yet, so she takes a job as a bakery assistant. There, she finds herself mixed into the French Résistance movement. While she’s helping a British RAF pilot find sanctuary in one of the French safe houses, the Gestapo raid her apartment, take her passport, and arrest her boss at the bakery, which leaves her stranded. The Résistance leaders ask her to escort the pilot, Freddy Winston, until they can take him home. Marie helps willingly even though no one seems motivated to help her get home safely, too.

Together, Marie and Freddy move from safe house to safe house, waiting for the next plan, but with each new move, the Résistance asks Marie to take greater and greater risks as they face new challenges in dodging the Gestapo, gendarme, and others who are not sympathetic to the Résistance.

Although the story follows the adventures of Marie and Freddy, Marie is clearly the star. She’s the one who works in several different bakeries, delivers messages, and assists the French Résistance, which she is able to do well because of her cleverness and strong French language skills. Through most of the story, Marie bares her burdens and responsibilities without complaint, rarely questioning what’s happening to her, and largely seems unconcerned by her lack of money and plan to return home.

Her calmness stems from an innocence about war and her status as an American in France. While delivering a message, one of the Résistance leaders says to her, “Your country has not yet entered the war. We are waiting. We need your help” to which she replies, “I don’t have any influence on that” (73). As the story progresses, she becomes better at advocating for herself and her right to go home:

I came to France as a student. The war took that away. I don’t belong here any longer. You just told me all I have done for you. I have risked my life frequently for a cause that I agree with, but a cause that is not really mine. (152)

Although she could be outspoken prior to this, it is a relief when she speaks up for herself.

On the other hand, Freddy doesn’t speak French and barely understands it, so he depends on Marie to translate and, at times, seems more like a whiny piece of luggage. He also makes unwelcome sexual passes as Marie—more because he thinks it’s expected of him than because he’s attracted to her. He complains about sleeping on the floor when Marie sleeps in a single bed, he asks her why they can’t hug, and he invites her to visit him at night. To this, Marie replies:

Like I told the boy when he made the pass at me and accused me of being like some kind of nun, I’m certainly not pure. I took plenty of chances when I was a student in Paris. I’ve had my fun. But now, I’m on the run. The last thing I need now is a pregnancy. I intend to sleep on my own. (68)

In addition to the vulgarities of war, she also protects herself from the vulgarities of men. I’m glad this is an adventure story and not a love story because there is no chemistry between them and I don’t respect Freddy’s behavior.

A few quirks in the writing, such as an overuse of “quickly” during the fast-paced scenes, took me out of the story a few times and made me wish some of the adverbs would be replaced with stronger descriptions, but overall, Lockwood deftly moves readers from scene to scene through a linear narrative at an appropriate pace.

This is an exciting, fast-paced story that fans of WWII fiction and stories with strong female protagonists will enjoy. Both Marie and Freddy agree they have been “lucky” (158) during their journey, but the author keeps readers guessing until the end whether the two heroes will ever make it home.


Bill Lockwood is a retired social worker with a lifelong passion for writing and participation in community theater. He currently writes articles about the Arts and interesting people for The Shopper/Vermont Journal and covers local community theater for the Eagle Times of Claremont, NH. The Wild Rose Press has published five of his historical fiction novels; Buried Gold (2016), Megan of the Mists (2017), Ms. Anna (2018), The Monsignor’s Agents (2020), and Gare de Lyon (2021). His short stories “The Kids Won’t Leave” appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Two Hawks Quarterly, and “Pizza, Pizza” appeared in The Raven’s Perch April 28, 2021. Lockwood has written several reviews for Toasted Cheese.


Dr. Anne Greenawalt is a writer, competitive swimmer, trail adventurer, educator, and dog lover. She earned a doctorate in Adult Education from Penn State University and a master’s degree in Creative Writing: Prose from the University of East Anglia, and works as the training manager for a nonprofit that provides residential and clinical services for youths who have experienced trauma. Her latest work, The Shot (GreenMachine, 2021) was reviewed in September TC. She writes for WOW! Women on Writing,, and StoryTerrace. Twitter: @Dr_Greenawalt

I, Menagerie by Garrett Ray Harriman

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter

I, Menagerie: Poems by Garrett Ray Harriman

I had the pleasure of reading Garrett Ray Harriman’s recently published chapbook collection of poems, I, Menagerie (Finishing Line Press, 2021). The poems were full of wonder and filled with lovely and sometimes visceral images of animals—fur, feathers, and teeth curiously juxtaposed to biblical, classical, literary, and pop culture elements and political ideas that for this reader resonated well beyond the pages—a true menagerie of people and animals poems of varying structures and styles with an added splash of flash fiction. I was all-in after I read the dedication page which mentioned a childhood favorite of mine, Dr. Doolittle, the literary and legendary animal doctor from Hugh Lofting’s novel, The Story of Doctor Doolittle, whose greatest talent derived from his empathy for animals, which allowed him to communicate with them. A wonderful surprise! It set a mirthful tone for my reading beginning with “Sonnet with Owl” that speaks to the notion of birds as unlucky omens and “Elephant Ride, 1993” whose structure was a listing of fabulous descriptive prose filled with alliteration, punctuation, and so much more. It made me want to ride an elephant, too.

Each poem in Harriman’s chapbook of poems is unique in its subject, prose, elements, and design. No two are alike. It was delightful to turn the page and find something new and unexpected.

Long ago, I gave up the notion of trying to understand a poem for the idea of how it relates to me and my world. Indeed I’ve said more than once in the TC Candle-Ends column that I am a selfish reader. Yet, a curious reader, too. I see poems as literary puzzles full of evocation in their surfaces and provocation in their depths. When I come across both in a single poem, as I did with many of the poems in I, Menagerie, I found myself in a reader’s paradise of wonder and delight. Many of them spoke to me not only for their lovely metaphors and sparkling vocabulary, but also for the imagery and ideas they presented. “The Memory of Dogs” pulled me in immediately. The subject, of course, is dogs. For me, it paralleled a time when dogs were stolen from my childhood neighborhood, never to be seen again, a terrible time when pet dogs were taken and often repurposed into brutal back alley fighting beasts. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if the dog(s) in Harriman’s poem are a metaphor for something or perhaps even someone else. An allegory. For what?  Or whom?

they flayed and savaged
behind that fence, sister.
dogs cowered and thrashed there
gnawed hope marrow-thin.

ours too was shanghaied, another whelp
pitched like brigantine gold
into pits pooled with glass
tire rims and teeth, a month at sea
he made landfall at the base of our driveway.

you remember
how we couldn’t imagine (12)

I pondered and puzzled further, thinking perhaps the poem is related to the global political culture of borders and immigration. I noted vocabulary and phrases  and as the poem continued to describe this single personified animal and then addresses another, a sister, who was a witness…it made me wonder even more about what truth lies beneath the surface of the poet’s words. Who is this sister? Am I the sister? Are we the sister? And what happened behind that fence?

“Tiger in Pastel” was another poem that resonated long after I read it. It seems to be an elegy to the poet’s childhood home, which was once filled with his father’s art and a sort of quiet angst, as well. My guess was that this angst relates to the father’s past experiences in Vietnam. Perhaps the Vietnam War? The poet or speaker explores what he remembers from a new perspective as an adult looking backward.

My father worked in pastels for a handful of years,
his drawing pads the size me flipped wide onto

the dining table de-leafed except on holidays.

The cat he wrought lay in hedonic repose, its yellow
eyes fixed blearily to the right. One paw draped the other

in a gesture of the world-weary, the dismissive
and unenthused; its mane’s many folds coiled back

against its shoulders, a pile of talcum softness
beyond which it ceased to exist. Most of my father

was like that: finished before I got there, aloof to the
chagrin of my mother, taciturn about old friends (8)

There was a deep sadness and an interesting parallel between the father’s pastel tiger and the father, himself, which comes through. The speaker poignantly later honors his father with his own tiger, a different one that made me think of the short story, “Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu and of course, the famously, fierce fictional Bengal tiger from Kipling’s novel, The Jungle Book.

I’d later plan for my own Shere Kahan—the fabled third tattoo
on the right wrist, the creature rendered in origami

triangles, shorthand for Miss Earhart’s plucky quote:
“…the rest is nearly tenacity. The fears are paper tigers…” (8)

The Spider Poem Remembered” also resonated with me for its interesting structure. I read it several times, marveling at its complexity. The subject was a poem remembered by the speaker or someone else who is also talking to the speaker, which may or may not be the spider or the writer of the poem described. See what I mean? I wondered if there was a “real” poem that was being described. I thought about Emily Dickinson’s spider poem I read in college. I googled and found that there were many spider poems. I would never know if the poem was the author’s or a reference to another poem. An invitation to read it once more. Regardless, It was so perplexing that I spent much time taking it apart and putting it back together. I worked this poem like an algebra equation and found an appreciation for its form as well as several possible meanings. Time well spent.

The last poem I want to mention is “Vulnerable Species.” This poem was one of the “smartest” poems I’ve encountered. It begins with a current quote that yes, I had to google (again) in order to understand who the acronymed author referenced was: the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. From there, it pulled me in just like Dr. Doolittle did. Many of Harriman’s poems are laid on the page in interesting and artful formats. “Vulnerable Species” was one of them. Beginning with its Darwin-esque title, the poem explores human evolution and its cascading effect on planet Earth. Written in provocative and evocative language, it speaks to today’s politics of climate change and lays bare the effects of human consumption in science and biblical prose. Here’s a quick slice:

We are no victimless crime:
we are tidal,
the moon’s firm pull
frothing beggar at our feet,
hurriedly, so
carving the shapes
of this undoing (14)

I, Menagerie is a collection of curious and resonating poems filled with wonder, gorgeous prose, and creatures of all kinds. Harriman creates a fresh space as he takes a backward glance, blending memory and nostalgia with the natural world in a kaleidoscope of cosmic imagery that dazzles.


Garrett Ray Harriman is a writer and poet living in southwest Colorado. His work has appeared in Atlas Poetica, Toasted Cheese, Kestrel, and other publications. His poem, “Snake in the Grass,” was a semi-finalist in Naugatuck River Review’s 11th Narrative Poetry Contest guest judged by poet Lauren K. Alleyne. Twitter: @Inadversent


Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: reviews[at]

How Can We Live Without It?

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ Third Place
Ian Bentwood

Photo Credit: wintersoul1/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Lisa was restless—again—and woke me up. I sighed deeply and tried to change position to get comfortable. The duvet had slipped off my shoulders and the night chill made me shiver. I reached down and felt around to find an edge of some part of the duvet to pull it back, not wanting to open my eyes or wake up fully. Eventually I found a corner and pulled it over my shoulder and moved slightly intending to go back to sleep.

“Jeff, are you asleep?”

“Yes,” I mumbled sleepily, thinking what a ridiculous question to ask, so deciding to give a nonsensical answer.

“I’m hungry again.”

I gave another deep sigh. My pregnant wife seemed to have regular bouts of starvation and they seemed to be getting more frequent as she neared the end of the third trimester.

I grunted in response. What could I say? I squinted at the digital clock: 3:37. Another deep sigh as I realised I was awake now and had maybe lost half-an-hour’s sleep. I rolled over to face towards her in the gloom. I could make out her silhouette and could see she was sitting up. The sheet had dropped and her heavily pregnant stomach was clearly visible. “What do you fancy at 3:37 in the morning, baby?” I tried to sound a bit more sympathetic than I felt. What was it going to be this time? Pickled onions? Chilli pepper? Chicken wings?

“Ice cream. I fancy some ice cream.”

“Great!” I heaved a sigh of relief. At least we had some of that. Going shopping at 3:37 to satisfy her particular pregnancy-oriented craving was one of my biggest fears.

“I bought some vanilla yesterday in anticipation. It’s in the freezer.”

I rolled over thinking that her problem could be self-solved without me needing to leave the cosy comfort under the duvet. The bed rocked and rolled like a mini-earthquake as she shifted her weight to the side to locate her slippers and then stood up to shuffle out of the bedroom into the living room. She turned on the light and the illumination exploded through the doorway forcing me to cover my eyes with my arm at the brightness overload and I rolled away from the door to minimise the dazzling effect of the bright light. I heard her padding around in the living room, then suddenly she screamed.

“What is it?” I reluctantly rolled back towards the door wondering what had happened. Another spider or cockroach had scared her, perhaps?

“It’s gone!”

“What’s gone? I am sure I put the ice cream in the middle freezer compartment. Maybe I didn’t—check all of them.” We had a fridge-freezer—the top half being a fridge, the bottom half a freezer with three separate compartments.

“No—the fridge has gone.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

Lisa was often forgetful and the ‘baby-brain’ effect had increased the frequency of her forgetting where she put things, but surely she hadn’t forgotten where the fridge was. “It’s in the far corner near Adam’s bedroom.” Our kitchen was too small to have the fridge actually in the kitchen, where it was really needed—a source of nuisance and something we promised to resolve when we moved after the second baby was born.

“I know where it was, but it’s not there now.” Lisa was getting exasperated.

Oh dear, I thought, I’d better go and help her find it before she got really emotional and upset with my lack of support. I threw the duvet back and sat up. Looking for my slippers I put them on and stood up and stretched. I glanced at the digital clock—3:45—another disturbed night—and walked into the living room where I blinked to adjust to the bright light and could see Lisa standing in the spot where the fridge had been yesterday—it definitely was not where it should have been.

“Oh.” I couldn’t think of anything meaningful to say, so I said it again. “Oh, you’re right, it’s not there,” I stated the obvious staring at the fridge-shaped gap in the corner of our living room.

Lisa turned to face me and gave me a reproachful look, which she reserved for special moments when I was acting like a child. “Help me look for it, then. Don’t just stand there looking like Adam.”

Our apartment wasn’t big—we had a large living room and a balcony, but otherwise there was only a small kitchen, toilet/bathroom, and two bedrooms.

“It’s two metres tall, sixty centimetres wide and sixty centimetres deep, and weighs fifty kilograms. It can’t have got far.” I tried to make a joke about it as I still wasn’t fully awake or appreciating the seriousness of the situation. “Anything else missing?” I looked around trying to remember what else we had and looking for any other obvious gaps, but couldn’t see any. It only took a few seconds to look in all the other rooms to confirm that the fridge had not mysteriously decided to move into one of the other rooms, for a change. I quietly opened Adam’s bedroom door, not wanting to wake up our three-year old, which would only complicate matters, but he was soundly asleep. I could hear him breathing softly. I quickly glanced around his room and confirmed that the fridge hadn’t decided to sneak into Adam’s room in the night, so where was it?

I returned to the living room. Lisa had subsided onto the sofa and was playing with her hair, looking confused. I checked the windows and they were all securely closed. It was too cold to leave them open at night, but I was concerned that maybe a burglar had broken one of them, but everything was unchanged, exactly as I remembered when I checked the previous evening, so how had the fridge been taken out of our apartment? I sat next to Lisa on the sofa and put my arm around her, and she laid her head on my shoulder.

“The windows and doors are all locked and closed. How on earth could anyone take the fridge and close the window or door behind them and leave no damage? I’m baffled.”

“I still want some ice cream,” she said in her little-girl voice.

“We can go to the ice centre in the morning and get some. Nothing much I can do now. Maybe I should call the police? Maybe the burglar is in the area if they act quickly.”

I picked up the phone, dialed the emergency number. After a couple of rings it was answered by a female voice.

“Which service do you require?”


“One moment, please.” A few clicks, then another ringing tone. A bored voice answered.

“Police. What is your name?”

“Jeff Hadstock.”

Then the usual detailed questions concerning address, phone number—all kinds of box-filling questions. Finally he asked a meaningful relevant question: “What is the crime you wish to report?”

“My fridge has been stolen. If you send someone quickly you might be able to catch the burglar.” My urgency didn’t affect the attitude of the bored voice on the end of the phone.

“How did they steal it?”

“I don’t know—that’s the strange thing—the windows and doors are all locked and undamaged. We don’t know how anyone could steal it without breaking in.”

“Are you sure you even had a fridge?”

“Of course, I know I had a fridge.”

“You can claim on your insurance if you’ve got proof of purchase. You’d be surprised how many people try to claim things they don’t even own were stolen. Just quote the crime number: 290821/34. They will refund you the full replacement cost of the fridge.”

“If you send somebody quickly, you might be able to catch the burglar. They can’t have gone far—it’s a large fridge-freezer.”

“I’m sorry, we have nobody to spare to chase fridge-burglars. They are busy pursuing murderers, drug-dealers and terrorists, etcetera. Call your insurance company and—”

I slammed the phone down. “That was an exercise in futility.” I turned to Lisa. “Let’s go back to bed. We’ll order a new fridge in the morning.”

Lisa got up and we walked slowly back to the bedroom, my arm around her shoulder.

“Our fridge magnet souvenirs from our holidays were stuck to the door. I guess we’ve lost them now.” She shrugged sadly as we turned off the light and got back into bed.

The next morning, breakfast was somewhat different from normal without the fridge. “I want my soggies,” Adam sat at the table tapping his bowl with the spoon staring miserably at the dry cereal. The milk had been in the fridge and his favourite breakfast meal—sugar-coated wheat shapes soaked in milk—was now not possible.

“I feel the same as Adam,” Lisa said miserably tapping her empty glass where her normal juice drink would have been, if the fridge hadn’t been stolen.

“Yes, I understand,” I stared at my cup of black coffee, which looked unappetising without the splash of milk, which was my regular morning beverage. “Let’s go to the corner cafe and have breakfast there.”

“Hooray,” said Lisa and Adam in unison, tapping the table with their spoons, looking like a couple of kids.

I unstrapped Adam from his high chair and he wrapped his arms round me for a big hug. “Soggies! Soggies!” he cheerfully sang as I helped him into his warm jacket and shoes. He waited expectantly by the door as Lisa and I got our coats and other things, anticipating the early-morning adventure—a trip to the corner cafe before nine in the morning was an unexpected bonus and he was excited about the change in routine.

There was a cold wind blowing the autumn leaves around as the sun struggled to brighten up the atmosphere through the greyness of the clouds as we strolled the few hundred metres down to the corner cafe. The bright lights shining out onto the gloomy street were an oasis of sunshine with the welcoming anticipation of our favourite breakfasts beckoning. I gave Adam a piggyback and I trotted like a horse, whinnying and neighing, making him scream with pleasure as he clung tightly to my back as if I was going to try and throw him off like he was breaking in a wild pony.

I pushed open the door to the corner cafe and headed for an empty table by the window. I glanced around the small room—around six–seven tables mostly filled with single people or couples talking quietly.

“What would you folks like, this morning?” The cheerful cafe-owner greeted us and handed us the plastic-coated menu. I took the menu, but knew it well enough to order without looking.

“Hi Greg. Three bowls of Wheaties with cold milk, two plates of egg, beans and mushrooms on toast, a cup of white coffee, mango juice, and a strawberry milkshake.” I smiled back at Adam who was happy at hearing his favourite drink being ordered.

Greg made notes of our order and read it back to us. After I confirmed the order, he hesitated. “I’m afraid it’ll be a little slower than usual this morning. We were burgled last night and Sally had to pop round the cash-and-carry first thing to restock.”

“Oh, sorry to hear that.” My ears pricked up at the thought that we weren’t the only place in the neighbourhood that had been burgled. “What did they take?”

“That’s the funny thing,” Greg got a strange look on his face before continuing. “They only took my three fridges. Nothing else. Not even the £350 cash in the till I’d forgotten to take home with me last night. Just the fridges.”

I glanced at Lisa who was also listening intently.

“Don’t worry, folks, our normal service will be resumed shortly, just a little longer wait than usual. You’ll have your soggies very soon.” The last comment was addressed at Adam and he ruffled his hair causing Adam to giggle cheerfully and tap the table with his spoon.

Greg left to prepare our breakfast order, leaving Lisa and I to stare in surprise at one another.

“Looks like we were not the only victim of the fridge-burglar last night,” I said grimly before turning to entertain Adam until our order arrived.

Fifteen minutes later, our meal arrived and Adam cheerfully shouted out “Soggies! My soggies!” as the bowl of his favourite cereal was placed in front of him and he tucked in happily and noisily. Shortly after, we were all eating and chattering having forgotten the events of the previous night, when our reverie was disturbed by the insistent ringing of my phone. I put down my knife and fork, reached into my pocket and answered the phone—“number withheld” surprised me mildly as I looked down at the screen while answering it and held it to my ear.


“Mr Jeff Hadstock?” The voice sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it.

“Yes, how can I help you?”

“Mr Hadstock, this is Police Sergeant Lashkey. You rang at 3:47 this morning to report a fridge burglary and…“ He hesitated and swallowed before continuing. “…I’m sorry for treating you in a less than helpful manner at the time, but…”

He hesitated again so I felt I should say something, although it was tempting to criticise him for his attitude, but I felt more cheerful now as the sun appearing through the clouds and shining in the window brightened my mood.

“That’s okay, I understand how busy you are and after all, it’s only one fridge.”

“Thank you for being understanding. It’s just that since your call we have had numerous additional calls from all across the area near your apartment, all reporting just fridges and freezers having been stolen and all without any obvious signs of forced entry.”

I looked at Lisa who was watching me intently and raised my eyebrows to show her my surprise.

“I’d like to ask you a few more questions, if you have a moment?”

“Yes, sure.” I had another bite of toast while waiting for his next question.

“Thank you, Mr Hadstock. Was anything else stolen?”

“Not that we have noticed so far. Just the fridge-freezer.”

“Please describe it.”

So I gave him the details of its size, contents (as far as I could remember) and its make and model. Lisa interrupted me to remind me to mention the fridge magnets on the outside, so I added them to the list.

“How old is it?”

“Around eighteen months—in good condition.”

“When did you last remember seeing it?”

“We went to bed around 10:30pm yesterday and it was still there then, as far as I remember. I didn’t specifically check, but I think I would have noticed if it had not been there.”

“What time did you discover it was missing?”

“We woke at 3:37. I remember checking the clock. It was shortly after that that we noticed it was missing.”

“Did you hear anything?”

“No, nothing and all the windows and doors were locked and closed. Nothing damaged. How do you think it was stolen?”

“Thank you for the additional information. It matches all the other victims’ stories. Some time between one a.m. and three a.m., all the fridges and freezers were taken without any obvious signs of forced entry, broken windows or doors, and without anyone seeing or hearing anything. Do you have any CCTV or webcams in the room where the fridge had been located, which might have seen anything?”

“No, nothing. Have you any ideas at all how they were taken?”

“Is your wife pregnant, by any chance?”

I was stunned by the question out of the blue. “Yes, but why?”

“Oh, nothing to worry you, but all the other fridges and freezers were also taken from households where there was a pregnant woman living there.”

I looked up at Sally as she carried plates around the tables to the customers. Yes. She was clearly very pregnant as well. Maybe Sgt Lashkey had a point.

“And it was Hallowe’en last night—not that I am superstitious,” he added quickly.

“There were also a significant number of UFO sightings reported in the area. Also unusual. We will investigate further and let you know if there is any chance of getting your fridge back. Please contact me directly if anything else strange happens.” He gave me his contact details and I made a note on the phone’s notepad and then ended the call.

I looked at Lisa who has been bursting with curiosity as to the content of the conversation.

“They haven’t got a clue.” I shook my head. “Curiouser and curiouser.”

“It was also a full moon last night.” Lisa added. “The moon did look larger than usual.”

“Well, it’s my shift on the moon shuttle this afternoon, so I’ll get a close up view to see if there is anything unusual happening there.”

After breakfast, we walked back home more cheerfully. It was still very windy and we had to hold onto our hats to avoid having them blown away. Adam clung to me tightly as well to keep warm.

“Okay, I’d better head to the launch site. I need to take off in an hour. See you tomorrow.” I gave Lisa and Adam a kiss and headed out the door to my car.

Once I was at the shuttle launch site, the conversation was only about the disappearance of the fridge-freezers overnight, but I had to complete the pre-flight preparations and had no time to join in the chit-chat.

“3… 2…1… we have lift off.” The automatic launch sequence was completed and the huge engines automatically kicked into life, lifting the moon shuttle clear of the launch pad. I held onto the controls and could feel the familiar vibration through the joystick as the giant shuttle transporter rapidly accelerated into the grey sky. The g-force crushed me into the seat and I prepared for the sudden release as we left the Earth’s atmosphere and the acceleration would ease off.

“Space control, everything okay. We are clear of Earth’s gravity and heading to the moon. We will report in an hour when we enter moon orbit.”

“Roger that, Jeff. Have a safe trip.”

It was the usual uneventful trip, but I had always enjoyed the spectacular views of our blue planet—the only colourful sight on the trip—as it shrank behind me. The grey sphere of the moon approached in the windows, growing larger and larger as the shuttle quickly approached. I adjusted the controls and hit the boosters to slow the approach, changed the angle to head into moon orbit. The normal approach to the moon base was a single orbit of the moon, then onto final approach and hand over to Moonbase Control for the automatic landing. I sent a brief message to Earth’s Space Control to confirm that I had successfully entered moon orbit and was switching to Moonbase Control for landing.

I looked out of the window while orbiting the Moon at a height of only 500 metres. I scanned the barren surface. I was used to seeing nothing but dust and crater, but was stunned to see that there were piles and piles of what looked like the missing fridge-freezers. What had happened?

“Moonbase Control, this is Shuttle5. I am seeing hundreds of missing fridge-freezers on the surface.”

“Sorry, repeat your message?” They clearly did not believe me.

I repeated the bizarre comment.

“Take some photographs and report to Command Control on landing.”

“Roger, Moonbase. See you shortly.”

The view-screen had a recording facility, so I angled it towards the stacks of fridge-freezers and recorded the amazing sight.

After landing, I headed to Command Control with the video images on a memory stick.

“Hi, Jeff. What’s this nonsense about fridge-freezers? Show me your video.”

“Yes, sir, I know it sounds crazy, but the video will prove what I said.” I showed him the video and he was incredulous.

“Last night, the gravitational monitoring team reported an extreme and unprecedented jump in their readings. This coincided with a high point in sunspot activity and solar wind. I wonder if the combination could have caused a huge spike in magnetic attraction focused towards Earth, which somehow caused the fridge-freezers to be dragged to the moon? It seems unlikely, unless there was some additional attraction from Earth.”

“Well, sir, the homes all seemed to have pregnant women, perhaps that was an additional factor?”

He pondered for a moment. “Yes, of course. Pregnant women give off large amounts of additional magnetically-charged perspiration capable of magnifying magnetic energy, as well as increasing electromagnetic energy at a very specific frequency. I remember from university conducting research into magnetic discharges from pregnant women. That makes sense. The combination would have created a local bubble, and would have reacted with the coolant in the fridge-freezer—a very specific and unique magnetic bubble.”

“Well, sir, it’s that or witches on broomsticks as it was Hallowe’en last night.”

He was not amused. “Okay, you’ll need to lead a team to rescue these fridge-freezers and begin the process of returning them to Earth. I am sure their owners will want to be reunited with their belongings as soon as possible. This is now your top priority. For as long as it takes, I will direct all moon shuttles to collect these items and return them to Earth. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir. I suspect that my shuttle could take around 100 per trip. I will start immediately.”

I was late home, and Lisa and Adam were already asleep by the time I quietly opened the door and carried our fridge-freezer back to its normal place. I crept back into our bedroom and kissed Lisa on the cheek. She murmured slightly, turned and opened her eyes in surprise. Seeing it was me, she wrapped her arms around me and kissed me.

“Have you got my ice cream?”

“Yes, it’s in the freezer. Do you want some?”


Ian Bentwood is a retired lawyer who has recently caught the writing bug from his author wife. Email: bubblyian[at]

The Story I Have Not Told

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ Second Place
Robin Hillard

Photo Credit: Marco Verch/Flickr (CC-by)

Dear MaryAnn,

I enjoyed our wander through the woodlands yesterday, as we filled our baskets with the herbs you are learning to use. You might find it hard to understand that I took even more pleasure walking through the village with you and taking a meal to those working in the fields.

Such ordinary scenes, you might think. A crowd of women standing around the well, chattering as they pulled up buckets of water, and laughing at a shared joke. We watched the children chasing ducks and that little boy with whose face was purpled by the handfuls of berries he stuffed into his mouth. Most of all I loved passing the cottages, with their cheerfully open doors and neat rows of summer vegetables.

You cannot imagine a time when crops rotted in the fields because there were not enough hands to harvest them, or paths so rarely used that they were smothered with weeds. When I remember how it was during those sad years I can only thank the Lord for our good fortune and pray for our continued health.

I was no older than you when the sickness came. It started slowly. A messenger from London brought a bolt of cloth to replenish our tailor’s stock. How could we know he brought the plague with it? He’d hardly been gone a day when our tailor showed signs of the disease. He was dead within a week, and another soon followed him to the grave. Then we lost our baker and his wife. There were more deaths, and the rector knew what to expect. He gathered us all in front of the church and talked about the plague. In a story that’s been retold so often it’s taken a life of its own, he told us how the sickness would spread from home to home. It would decimate a hundred parishes if it was not checked. I believe in centuries ahead people will come to see the circle of stones he had us set around the village, to keep ourselves inside and others away. The tale will become a legend, as our village is praised for containing the sickness and our rector becomes hero like Robin Hood or giant killing Jack.

There is another story, one that has never been told because I am the only person who knows it. It touches on things that are hard to believe and might leave me open to censure from the church. Christians are not supposed to traffic with the spirit world, and even in these wiser times the dangerously stupidly might talk about witchcraft. But the story should not be lost. I don’t have any children of my own, so I am writing it down for you, the girl my cousin named for two of my sisters. I’ll tell you what happened to me while the village was recovering from the plague and the pages can be passed down, through the generations of your family till one of them chooses to share it with the world.

“Why didn’t you ever get married, Cousin Meg?” you asked me yesterday. “You must have been a very pretty girl.”

The question made me smile. I was not bad looking, though I say so myself, but there were few villagers left after the plague and no young men.

You wonder why I never moved away? That only shows how little you know of those hard years. No parish would welcome a lass from our village, any more than they would come to visit us.

The rest of the county were grateful to our village. The plague could have spread like a fire through the neighbouring parishes, but because we isolated ourselves after the first deaths, the sickness stayed inside the circle of stones.

The Earl sent parcels of food from his estate, and others were willing to trade if they could leave their goods under the biggest rock and collect coins from the hole our stonemason chipped out of its side. Coins soaked overnight in vinegar.

But they were frightened of us.

I remember walking down the path, the same path that we used today, a full season after the last death, and I did not see another soul.

A couple of sheep straggled across through a hole in the hedge.We’d managed to shear their coats ready for the summer, but Dad burnt the wool. We’d made a very poor job of clipping the beasts, but even so we might have got some money for the wool, had anybody been willing to buy cloth-stuff from us. It would be close to another Christmas before we could trade at the market or outsiders be willing to work on our land.

I had to wipe my eyes when I passed the Joyces’ cottage. The garden was smothered in a prickly bramble that even blocked the front door. The cottage had been empty for over a year, the family nothing but names scratched on a rock in the woods behind the village.

Sarah Joyce had been my closest friend. There was no secret we didn’t share, not even when William walked her down by the stream and they had their first kiss. She told me about it at school the next day, and I’d been determined not to be left behind. That Sunday, on my way home from church, I lingered under a large oak, pretending to watch the birds. Thomas Slater had been at the service. The tree wasn’t exactly on his way home, but I knew he could see me and, as I expected, he turned aside. After a few words we walked together arm-in-arm along the very path Sarah and William had used.

Thomas was one of the first to die in the plague. He was buried before our stonemason died so although he was buried in a field, he had a proper headstone with the letters professionally carved. In the following months I lost five sisters, a brother, mother, grandmother, and aunt. Nobody was allowed to touch the plague-dead bodies, the surviving family tied ropes around their legs and dragged them to holes away from the cottages. No ceremonial funeral for my family, their only memorials were their names scratched on the rocks, but for the rest of his life Dad kept fresh flowers beside each one.

Our house once held twelve people, but after the sickness there were only three, myself, Dad, and little Tom.

As you read this, MaryAnn, you’ll understand how desperately I missed my grandmother. We had not been close while she was alive. My little sister, Ann, was her pet and followed her everywhere. Ann was fascinated by herbs and the various elixirs and diffusions our grandmother made from them. Had she lived she would have followed our grandmother as the village’s wisest woman. But our grandmother, like all the old people, died, and her knowledge died with her.

The plague disappeared with the first snow, and when we realised the dying had stopped, we said a grateful prayer. With so few people left to manage the land, I knew it would be hard to survive but I did not realise how much we would miss my grandmother. Until the night Jacob Carpenter came with his little boy.

I was clearing away the last of our meal when there was a loud banging on the door. It was Jacob with Johnny in his arms. Jacob had lost his wife and had to raise the child by himself. Naturally he doted the little boy. Johnny was boiling hot and coughing so hard I terrified his heart would burst.

He thrust the child into my arms.

I knew why Jacob had come. This cottage was where Jessie Burton used to live, where more than one baby grew into a bonny adult because of her skill. Where Jacob believed his son would be healed. But I am not my grandmother. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life.

I took the child. What else could I do?

His father collapsed onto the bench. “Thank God,” he said, as I bathed the boy’s face. “Thank the good Lord that you’re home.”

His gratitude burned in my ears. I felt as useful as one of my father’s sheep.

If one of the Burton girls was meant to survive, why couldn’t it be Ann? She spent so much time with our grandmother she might have been able help the child.

Dad pressed a mug of ale into Jacob’s hand, assuring him the boy would be all right.

Johnny was coughing fit to tear his chest in half.

I said a prayer myself, every bit as fervent as Jacob’s—but only in my heart. I did not want my words to frighten him. “Please God, help me. Tell me what to do.” With so many people suffering, how could God be expected to hear one young woman’s prayer?

I felt a pressure on my arm and something gently turning me to the cupboard. To the shelf of carefully labelled remedies. There was some dried stuff in a jar labelled: “For the Cough.” How did Grandmother use it?

The dried some-kind-of-leaf had to be a tea. The kettle was on the stove, and the fire, surprisingly, was hot enough to bring it to the boil. How much of the stuff should I use? If the tea was not strong enough, it would not stop the coughing, but some of plants my grandmother dried could be poisonous if used to lavishly. Too strong a tea be as bad for the child as a coughing fit.

I pulled down a mug and spoon and said another prayer. “Please don’t let me make him worse.” Something was holding my hand, guiding it the way Mum used to do, when I was five and making my first shaky “A” on a slate. I let my hand pick up the spoon, and drop leaves into the mug once, twice. My hand reached for the kettle. It poured water into the mug, but before I could take the drink to Johnny, I felt myself turned around again to face the cupboard. There was honey on the shelf.

When I was younger, and my chest was torn apart with coughing, my grandmother would make me a drink that smelled like this. I could remember the sweet taste. She told me that the bees were wise and their honey, together with her herbs, would fight the evil thing in my chest. I said another prayer, truly grateful for whatever spirit the Lord had sent to help me. I stirred honey into the tea.

I carried the sweet tea to the boy and held the mug to his lips. He was coughing so hard he could hardly drink, but he managed to swallow a little. Then a little more. Was there a space between his coughing? Or was I dreaming. I said another prayer.

I prayed for wisdom, for knowledge, but most of all for whatever power had guided my hands to stay with me.

I sat with Johnny all night. Dad went to bed. There was nothing he could do and in the morning, he would be struggling to save our corn.

I sent Jacob Carpenter to fetch more wood for the stove. Anything to get him out of the room. His watching eyes made me remember that I did not have my grandmother’s skill. I made another mug of her healing tea. Again, the gentle pressure on my hand told me I was doing the right thing.

“The worst is over now.”

Was that a voice in my head? I had prayed so hard and feared so much that I did not know what was happening in the real world. Johnny was sleeping at last, and I sat watching his chest rise gently with each breath.

I should have been happy. Especially in the morning when Mr Carpenter pressed my hand and blessed me.

“You have saved my little boy. Thank the Lord that you are here.”

That did not make me feel good. Nor did Dad’s words when he came for breakfast. “We are blessed to have you with us Megs,” he said.

Some blessing. Why, oh why, hadn’t I clung to my grandmother? Watched her collecting plants, learned how she prepared them for her remedies?

I was not the only woman still living in the village but, because of my grandmother’s reputation, I would be the first to be called when there was trouble.

“You need to rest, Megs.” Dad said. “We can’t have you getting ill.”

Rest! When all I could think of was Johnny and the other children in the village. And Jacob Carpenter, who thought I could fill my grandmother’s shoes.

Like any young woman, I could bake a loaf of bread, brew ale and make a meal, I had learned that much from my mother, but most of the time I preferred looking after the cows or working off my energy by digging in the vegetable patch. There would be plenty of time later to later to learn the more advanced housewifely arts.

There had not been plenty of time, or a houseful of women to share the work. I did not have a grandmother to tell me how to protect our precious children from the inevitable ills of childhood, or to nurse their parents through the misfortunes of an ordinary life.

There was so much knowledge I did not have, and I felt the lack like a gaping hole in my heart. I went to bed, but I could not sleep.

I shut my eyes and tried to imagine the future. There had been no cure for the plague, but now the plague was gone, and we still had to face the ordinary misfortunes of life. There would be more coughs and fevers, headaches, and toothaches. There would be accidents, cuts, and broken bones. Before plague, our meals were often interrupted by neighbours calling for my grandmother. In the normal way of things, when my grandmother left us, my mother would take her place, and after her there would be my sister Ann to take on the duties of a wise woman.

My grandmother was gone, my mother and cleverest sister were both dead. That left me to carry a burden made heavy by my ignorance.

“Help me,” I whispered into my pillow. Did I hear a rustling, as if a wind was moving the drapes? Could I feel a hand on my forehead?

Sarah and I used to scare ourselves with stories of ghosts. We would sit close to the fire on a winter’s night and talk about the dead rising to visit the village. The spirits we conjured never meant well. But that morning, when I felt a presence in the room, I prayed for it to be the spirit of my grandmother. I begged her to leave the afterlife and be my guide in the living world.

“Grandmother?” I whispered. “Jessie Burton, are you there?”

Was it my mind, shaping the rustling into words? The soothing “yes child.”

When I left my bed, the afternoon sun chased that hope away. I felt even more alone than I had in the days after my last sister’s death. I checked the cupboard shelves, reading my grandmother’s writing on the labels of each jar as I tried to remember what she did with them.

I moved into the garden, looking at the bushes: rosemary, lavender, thyme, and sage. I pulled the leaves of different mints and rubbed them for their scent. Could I remember the powers of each herb?

I picked a little from each bush and laid it on the bench. I studied the jars on the shelf, comparing each to the leaf. These were not dangerous herbs, if I knew which to use, I could at least turn them into teas, which would be better than nothing.

But there were other plants. When my grandmother went into the woods with Ann, they came back with baskets of strange leaves and twigs which they boiled or soaked in vinegar or wine.

As I bent over the bench I felt a presence again, like a hand on my shoulder. Had the spirit of my grandmother left her afterlife to hover over her least skilled grandchild. Did she sympathise with my distress?

“Help me,” I whispered, only half believing.

I was interrupted by a scream that had me rushing down the path. The Gillis cottage! Margaret Gillis had never been the same since the plague took both her boys. Dad had dragged her out of the stream when she tried to join them.

She was shrieking. I got closer. She was rushing down the path. Her sleeve had caught alight. There was smoke pouring out of her front door. I grabbed her and rolled her on the ground. Into the mud to smother the flame.

There was nothing I could do about the cottage. It would have to burn. What about the woman? I had put out the flame on her sleeve, but her arm was badly burned. What would my grandmother do?

“Help me,” I whispered as I took Margaret in my arms and stumbled home.

Something had taken my hands before, this time I felt a presence in my mind. It guided me to the pump. Cold water. Keep cold water on the burn. Then it directed me to an ointment in a large jar in the cupboard. I smeared ointment on Margaret’s arm and wrapped it in a cloth. I made a soothing tea from leaves in another jar and after giving it to Margaret put her in my bed. Her bandages would have to be changed through the day, with more ointment, while the tea would keep her dozing while she healed.

I did not know what was in the ointment, or that sleep-making tea.

Had it been my grandmother guiding me?

“Yes, child,” from the voice in my head. “I’m with you for a little while, a spirit among the living. I must use our time well.

I had to replenish the shelves with remedies from made from the herbs in our garden and collected from the woods. As I held each plant, I opened my mind to my grandmother’s knowledge and tried to prepare her remedies. I did not know how long I’d have her spirit guiding me, so I dare not take time to rest. At the end of the seventh day bunches of herbs were hanging by their stalks, others were steeping in oil or wine, and I knew how to finish the remedies and when to use them. I needed to sleep, and understood that when I woke up, my grandmother’s spirit would have gone back to the afterlife. I would be by myself again and there would be difficult days ahead but Jessie Burton’s house would be there to serve the villagers.

You know the rest of the story, MaryAnn. When you were growing up the plague was but a sad memory. Life returned to our village, the children grew and had families of their own. As people lost their fear of us, I was able to move around the county and I took every opportunity to gather knowledge and practise the skills my grandmother gave me.


Email: Robin.hillard[at]

The Broken Heartstone

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ First Place
Cara Brezina

Photo Credit: James St. John/Flickr (CC-by)

Princess Morwenna rode her unicorn across the lush grassy plains at a gentle canter as she embarked on her quest to obtain a new Heartstone for the Orb of Marais. Earlier that afternoon, a cataclysmic bolt from the ether had damaged the magical crystal powering the light that blessed the people of Marais with good health and fortune. If it were not repaired without delay, chaos and misery would descend on the kingdom.

She guided her steed into a deep valley that marked the edge of the Hayim Hills. Her destination lay deep in the rolling expanse. A generation earlier, gnomes had mined the depths. They’d vanished into the unknown, leaving behind their tunnels and underground conveyances. One of the tunnels contained cut slabs of the same type of crystal as the Heartstone.

“Princess Morwenna? Where are you?”

The voice of her trusted retainer, Julio, came from the magic mirror tucked into her belt. She raised the little looking glass up to her face and saw him regarding her anxiously.

“We’ve just entered the hills,” she replied.

“Let me know when you’ve reached the relief depot.”

The surface of the mirror swirled and returned to showing only her reflection. She tucked it away.

The trip to the Hayim Mines was too long to be completed without respite. She needed to stop and allow the unicorn to feed and rest before continuing onward to the mine entrance. Survival supplies were stored in the relief depot in the foothills. Much time had passed since anyone from Marais Castle had frequented the station, however, and Julio had fretted over whether she’d be able to locate it.

They need not have worried. Before long, Morwenna rounded a bend and espied a red crystal atop a rough low building constructed from the surrounding rocks. She slowed the unicorn to a walk and circled the station. The crystal should have been illuminated, but it had evidently been struck down by the same magic that had incapacitated the Orb of Marais. Morwenna brought out her magic mirror again.

“Julio, I’ve arrived at the relief depot, but I’m unable to get inside.”

“The spell on the door must be affected by the bolt from the ether,” her retainer muttered. “Try using your magic mirror to counteract the ward on the latch.”

Morwenna dismounted and approached the vertical rock that most resembled a door and held the magic mirror close to the grain of the stone. To her surprise, the mirror almost immediately displayed a cheerful swirl of color that ended with a tinkling sound of descending harp strings being plucked.

The door opened.

“I’m in,” she told Julio.

“Great. Find some sustenance for your steed and make haste for the mines. Darkness approaches.”

He ended the exchange before she had a chance to ask about conditions at Marais Castle. For the first time in her memory, they had been forced to close the drawbridge that linked the Castle to the surrounding community. She could only imagine the panic that must have ensued among the peasants.

She located bags of grain by following the smell of molasses and oats. Her unicorn ate hungrily and showed no unwillingness to continue the journey.

The Hayim Mines were at the end of a well-traveled though overgrown road. They arrived at the entrance to the tunnels without the unicorn ever slowing its pace. Without allowing herself a moment of hesitation, Morwenna pulled the lever in front of the wooden door. It slid open, revealing a compartment large enough to hold a dozen workers. Morwenna stepped inside and pulled the corresponding inner lever to close the door.

The air inside the car smelled sterile and sharp. She inhaled deeply as the elevator began its descent. The OrionCo Mining conglomerate had ceased operations on the planet of Marais over two decades ago after determining that the mineral reserves weren’t worth exploiting. The inhabitants of the planet’s sole settlement had continued to monitor the infrastructure of the mines, and Julio had assured Morwenna that the generators and conveyance system had recently been tested.

Neither of the mentioned the coronal mass ejection that had occurred earlier in the day or the damage it could have wreaked on the mine’s systems. The situation was desperate, and she had to take the risk.

She reached for the com device at her belt with a gloved hand. The temperatures on Marais required that humans swaddle up thoroughly when outside, and every centimeter of her skin was covered.

“Julio, are you there? I’m descending.”

Julio’s strained face appeared on the screen behind the convex face plate of his LX-3 helmet. As chief engineer of the utility station, he’d been assigned one of the handful of suits in the stockroom that protected against the effects of weira gas. Morwenna would have been given one as well for her mission to the mines, but the suits were incompatible with design of the skimmer that she’d flown for the journey.

“No setbacks so far?”

“Equipment’s functional and no indication of damage. Any progress at your end? Is the power grid still down?”

Julio grimaced.

“There’s no hope of fixing it with the weira gas affecting everyone. Right now I’m just trying to maintain vital operations until we get the beacon activated again. We need that crystal. The auxiliary power systems can’t keep the heat running for long, and after that—”

“You can count on me,” Morwenna assured him.

“Thank you, Princess Morwenna.”

He flashed a hint of a grin, ending the transmission before she could remonstrate with him.

The elevator came to a gentle stop and the door opened automatically. She stepped forward, and motion sensor lights turned on to illuminate the tunnel before her. She brought up the map of the mines on her com although it was unnecessary. As head mechanical engineer of the Marais utility station, she’d memorized the network of tunnels long ago in case of emergency.

The tunnels and chambers were scattered with equipment and pieces of cut crystal left behind by OrionCo. She paused when she passed a robotic dolly in a niche in the corridor. She couldn’t remember the precise dimensions of the cut crystal she was retrieving. She activated the dolly and instructed it to follow behind her, just in case she needed it.

In the aftermath of the company’s departure, the utility station team had salvaged and stored a sampling of the best pieces of crystal. Morwenna set her steps toward the storage cache, located in a chamber deep underground that required taking another elevator ride as well as a trip in a single tram car that remained on the track. She heaved a sigh of relief every time the equipment functioned reliably.

Under other circumstances, entering the storage chamber would have been exciting. The walls were lined with huge slabs of crystal in a dozen shades, ranging from nearly transparent to inky dark indigo. Morwenna immediately turned her attention to the three pale yellow samples set aside in an alcove. They were each nearly as large as her torso, and she felt relieved that she’d thought to bring along the dolly.

This particular type was a photonic crystal that had unexpectedly saved the sanity of the early settlers of Marais. After the planet was discovered, data analysis sent back from robotic probes and rovers had indicated that Marais possessed nearly an ideal habitat for human beings. Upon landing, though, the first explorers began experiencing bizarre hallucinations soon after being exposed to the planet’s atmosphere. The culprit was found to be a hitherto unknown organic gas in the atmosphere.

Weira gas nearly thwarted settlement on Marais, but a pair of amateur prospectors devised a solution through pure chance. As they tested the properties of some of the crystals they hewed out of cliff faces, they discovered a particular crystal that interrupted the wavelength of the solar ultraviolet light that catalyzed the creation of weira gas in the atmosphere.

The modern day settlement on Marais was protected by a beacon that amplified the properties of the crystal, preventing local formation of weira gas. Scientific analysis had indicated that the crystalline structure of the compound was highly stable.

Nobody had anticipated the direct hit from a CME that devastated the infrastructure of Marais and damaged the crystal. Celia, a materials scientist at the utility station, had conjectured that the eruption had disrupted its magnetic properties.

Fortunately, potential replacements were available. Unfortunately, they were located 80 kilometers away from the utility station, and all of the vehicles that shielded pilots from the effects of weira gas had been damaged. Therefore, Morwenna had made the journey in an aged and unreliable skimmer.

Two of the crystals were labeled as superior candidates for a replacement beacon, and Morwenna bent at the knees to pick up the first and place it on the dolly. After settling it into place, she lifted the second and positioned it next to the first. She secured them in place with a strap.

She took a couple steps forward and waited for the dolly to follow her lead. As it began to move, she heard a percussive crack from the bed of the dolly. She raced around to inspect the cargo.

One of the crystals had fallen against the other. Examining it closely, she realized that its base was slightly rounded. It had probably rocked outward when the dolly started moving, then rebounded inward after being restrained by the strap.

Morwenna observed a fresh crack near the top of the other crystal.

She felt sick with guilt over her negligence, but she couldn’t fix anything. She found a survival blanket hung on a wall and tore out a wide strip. She undid the straps, tucking the padding between the two crystals before securing the load once again.

After she’d made her way back to the entrance, she contacted Julio before opening the door to the outside.

“I’ve got the crystals. I should be back in less than two hours. I’ll have to stop at the fuel depot again midway through,” she told him.

She cut through his exclamations of relief, her stomach roiling at the prospect that neither crystal would be found suitable because of her own carelessness. She wasn’t going to tell Julio about the damaged crystal yet. He was already dealing with a host of crises.

Humans under the hallucinogenic effects of the weira gas could still function adequately for basic survival. Morwenna could operate her skimmer even though she believed she was riding a unicorn. But the town residents and the staff at the utility station wouldn’t be competent enough to work together to fix the damage wreaked by the CME.

She hit the “open” button on the illuminated wall panel. For a moment, she regarded the red and black silhouette of the skimmer. A moment later, a unicorn stood in its place.


When she neared to the outskirts of the town, Princess Morwenna immediately observed that the peasants were unusually restive. The Castle was located a short distance away from where the townsfolk lived and worked. If the magic workings performed by the Castle sorcerers sparked a catastrophe, the people of Marais would not be directly harmed.

Morwenna was unsurprised that the peasants had been disturbed by the effects of the bolt from the ether. But many of them had ventured outside their own environs and were congregating around the moat that surrounded the Castle. It would be inconvenient if the Castle sorcerers and nobility were required to repel an invasion.

She guided her unicorn around the moat to the back wall of the castle, disregarding the peasants who shouted and pointed at her approach. With a mighty leap, the unicorn cleared the moat and landed on solid ground on the other side. Morwenna retrieved the crystals from the saddlebags and left her steed in the hands of a lackey.

Her courtiers greeted her with enthusiasm that faded only slightly when she made the admission of her personal negligence. They paid more attention to the crystals. Celia, a sorceress skilled in transmutation, directed her apprentices to place them on the workbench.

“First, we must assess the integrity of these potential Heartstones,” she declared. She bathed each in the light of an amulet that could detect the impurities and inconsistencies beneath the surface. The results were displayed on a large magic mirror, and Celia scowled at the mystical designs in dissatisfaction.

“Neither is perfect,” she said. “But the former Heartstone possessed flaws, as well. The question is, which is more likely to be effective, taking into consideration the unique traits of each? We need to choose quickly. I don’t have the luxury of time to perform a formal divination.”

“Perhaps it would be safer to work with the crystal that we know is undamaged,” Julio suggested, with a glance of apology directed toward Morwenna.

Celia nodded a grudging assent.

“The genie’s waiting for it.”

The apprentices placed the crystal in the vault where the genie would pare down the crystal with a blade crafted out of light that would burn away the vision of any human who dared view it directly. While the crystal was being processed, Julio contacted Yuri, the mayor of the town.

“We’re going to be transporting the new Heartstone to the Tower of Light shortly,” Julio told him. “How are conditions in the town?”

Yuri hesitated and grimaced involuntarily.

“The peasants are confused and restless,” he finally said. “I recommend that you guard the Heartstone closely when you bring it to the Tower. I don’t believe that anyone would deliberately sabotage the work, but they may hamper your progress through misguided actions.”

“The crystal’s purification is complete,” Celia announced from across the room. The apprentices opened the door of the vault. The crystals jagged edges had been rounded down into curves, transforming it into an enormous luminous yellow egg. The apprentices carried it back to the workbench, and Celia assessed it with her amulet again.

“Well?” Julio finally asked.

Celia slowly shook her head.

“There’s a significant flaw near the center. There’s a chance that it might be partially effective, but I’d rather take the time to process the second crystal now rather than install this one only to find that its magic is inadequate for our needs.”

Morwenna restrained herself from wailing aloud in guilt and frustration. The fate of Marais hinged on the purity of the stone she’d damaged.

Julio consulted with the Steward of the Castle about the logistics of transporting the Heartstone to the Tower of Light. The Tower’s site had been chosen so that the Orb would provide protection to both the town and Castle. It was located at the edges of town, and the main road out of the Castle led directly to the Tower entrance.

At the moment, that road was thronged with peasants.

“Coming out!” one of the apprentices announced. The pair lugged the second stone out of the vault for Celia’s inspection. Everyone watched anxiously as she examined it with her amulet.

“I don’t observe any critical imperfections,” she finally said. “The recent crack runs on a diagonal, and it did not extend into the interior of the stone. We’ll test this one first.”

Morwenna felt herself blush at the mention of the new damage, although nobody looked her way.

“We’ll transport both stones, nonetheless,” Julio decided. “Convey them to the unicorn.”

Peasants crowded the road across from the drawbridge, and Morwenna feared that they would rush the Castle as soon as the bridge was dropped into place. Pages shouting “Make way, make way!” and brandishing flags managed to clear an opening for the procession surrounding the unicorn. Morwenna slowly guided her steed forward, and the courtiers of the Castle surrounded her in tight formation. The disarray of the peasants helped prevent delay during the short trip. Some of them attempted to halt confront the members of the court, while others joined the courtiers as escorts of the Heartstone.

When they reached the Tower, Julio stepped forward to undo the wards that sealed the entrance. The throng of peasants had grown during the trip, and Morwenna felt battered by the congestion and cacophony.

She leaped to her feet, standing on the hindquarters of her patient steed.

“People of Marais!” she shouted. “As your Princess, I am dedicated to reversing this calamity that has brought distress to us all. I ask for your confidence as—”

She lost her balance as the unicorn shifted position, but the people around her had erupted into cheering. The entrance to the Tower stood open, and the unicorn had moved in response to the lackeys removing the pair of heartstones from the saddlebags.

“Hurry, Morwenna,” Julio said over his shoulder as he began ascending the 287 steps to the top of the tower.

Morwenna rushed up, quickly passing Julio, and she reached the great globe that made up the Orb of Marais. Maintenance of the Orb was one of the tasks of the Princess of Marais, and she quickly disassembled the pegs and pins that held the top segments into place. By the time the others entered the chamber, she had unfastened the brackets holding the original Heartstone into place.

It didn’t look any different from the last time she’d examined it. Morwenna directed the lackeys to remove the old Heartstone, and Celia and her apprentices positioned the new crystal in the cradle. Morwenna secured the brackets and replaced the segments of the outer shell. The final step was flipping the switch that connected the flow of magic throughout the Orb.

Nothing happened.

“When will it start working?” one of the lackeys asked.

Morwenna opened her mouth but found herself at a loss for an answer. She glanced toward Julio.

His appearance seemed to flicker as she looked at him. She saw him clad in his familiar chartreuse and peacock doublet, but then he was replaced by a bulky figure swaddled entirely in gleaming white material topped by a panel of opaque curved glass. The two versions of Julio toggled back and forth several times, until the spaceman won out.

“I think it’s working,” Julio said.

The utility station staff stared around in dumbstruck bewilderment as their individual versions of reality faded and they returned solidly to the control room of the Marais Beacon. A few people started crying. Celia hugged Yuri, and the lackeys ran to the windows to look down toward the ground.

“Well done, Princess Morwenna,” Julio remarked. Morwenna sagged back onto the railing and dissolved into laughter of relief and embarrassment.

“You could have had it worse,” Julio told her in a low voice. “Celia thought that she on vacation at an exclusive resort hotel.”

“I’m glad to be back,” Morwenna said. “Believe me, you’ll never have to worry about me trying to establish a monarchy on Marais.”


Cara Brezina is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago. Email: borealisblue[at]

The Muse

Andrea Stephenson

Photo Credit: Valeria Mezzano/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

She has created me so many times that I don’t know who I am without her.

‘I’ll call you Claudette,’ she announces on the day we meet.

I am standing, naked and posed, waiting for her to pick up the brush. I should be annoyed at her arrogance, instead I tremble with the shock of exposure. She couldn’t know that I have no name, yet she knows enough to christen me. As if she was with me from the very beginning.

That first day I stretch into my new name. My skin feels loose, my limbs lengthened. I have to reach out to find the limits of my body. There is a blush on my olive skin that I have not seen before. Maggie doesn’t talk to me. Her intensity at first makes me cower, until I settle into her gaze. There is a tiny gash in her forehead where she frowns. Her eyes slit in concentration. Her mouth is always in motion: chewing her bottom lip, gurning as she considers the canvas, sucking on the end of a brush.

When I break and stretch, she sits in an old red leather wing chair, watching. I roll my shoulders, stretch out my legs, arch my back. Usually, I would put on a robe, but Claudette likes the weight of the artist’s stare. I strut around her studio naked, studying the paintings on the walls. She doesn’t ask me if I like them.

I don’t tell her my real name and she doesn’t think to ask, until it’s too late to matter.


They found me on the platform of a railway station, tucked in a corner beside the ticket machines. I was in an old baby carrier, wrapped in a threadbare blanket. There was a worn cloth rabbit clutched in my fist. I was found by a conductor finishing his shift. I didn’t cry for days.

I made the national news. They appealed for a mother, someone who might need medical treatment herself. But nobody came forward and nobody was found. My first baby photo is a black-and-white newspaper print of the conductor holding me. He is beaming for the camera.

Before that photo there is nothing but blurred lights and the thunder of trains passing.


Maggie creates me. I wouldn’t exist were it not for her. I am used to costumes and props. I have been painted as many characters. My face is one of those unremarkable faces, ready to become anyone the artist wants it to be. But Claudette is no tabula rasa. It is as though she has been there all along, squatting in a neglected part of my body, waiting to be drawn out.

Posing for Maggie, I become loose and languorous. Opened up. She paints every part of me, brush plump with paint, lingering over each area of the canvas. I watch the narrowing of her eyes, the flush of her cheeks, and try to guess which part of me she is bringing to life. She is putting me together piece by piece. Bone, flesh, skin. I hear the scratch of bristles on canvas. Each brush-stroke like a caress. It’s unbearable.

After a dozen sittings we collapse onto paint-stained sheets. She smells of oil and sweat and turpentine. The bed holds the scent of my perfume from all the times I’ve posed on it. When she whispers my name, she whispers Claudette.

I never go home again.


My parents didn’t tell me until I was sixteen. I had failed just about every exam and was about to make my meagre mark on the world. They chose that moment, not only to tell me I was adopted, but to tell me I was a foundling without a history. They showed me the blanks on my birth certificate that usually contained names. It felt like a punishment for everything I hadn’t done right.

No matter how many times my feet took me there, the railway station held no clues to who I was. If my mother named me, she kept that name to herself. I would never know her name, or the name of my father, or any of the people I came from. Before the railway station there was nothing.

I tracked down the conductor. Tom Ramsay was his name. He was retired and invited me to his home for tea, which his wife brought in on old-fashioned china. I made him describe everything in minute detail. He did it gladly, like a proud parent. He produced the photo and made me a copy. Sometimes, when I was particularly lonely, I went back to visit him. Each time I had him describe that night—until he passed away and another link to my beginning was broken.


In me, Maggie finds something she has been struggling with. Her brush strokes become assertive; they make shapes they hadn’t made before. Through me, she tells the story she wants to tell. She becomes hungry for information about me, but there is only before her and after her. I gloss over what came before.

It’s easy to become Claudette, to settle into a way of being with Maggie. I am her model, her assistant, her wife. When we are hungry, she sells me, for just a few pounds at first. When she becomes successful, it is our success. I look after the house and her. I entertain her friends at parties and am suitably enigmatic at her exhibitions. They can find no information on my past so I am the mysterious Claudette who has somehow brought out the genius in Maggie. They seek my opinion on her work and discuss my influence on it.

She has sold me a hundred times over. Now, I go for thousands. Even so, I will always remain here. The walls are always covered in me.


When I saw the gaps on my birth certificate, everything made sense. It explained why I never felt comfortable in my life, why I struggled to pin down an identity. I belonged nowhere, because I would never know where I belonged.

I went to a support group for a while. Some foundlings were philosophical about their lack of baggage, others never got over the hole inside.

My adoptive parents took the time to choose me, to name me, to raise me. Perhaps the knowledge should have pushed me towards them, but instead it pushed me away.


Maggie dies a legend. I inherit everything, including the responsibility for the estate. There are tributes and retrospectives. I am no longer Claudette, I am ‘the muse’. They talk endlessly about my face and my body and how she has portrayed them until I am no longer sure what I am. I began life with no records, but since Maggie, my every move has been documented and analysed.

I see my faces staring down at me, from every wall. They are propped on the floor and stacked on tables. I watch them watching me. I sit in the wing chair in which Maggie once sat and I hear them whisper among themselves. What did you do but pose? they ask. What value do you have except in paint? They will still be selling her paintings of me when I am long forgotten.

I find myself wondering who Claudette really is and why I was so eager to become her.


I could sell the paintings and be rich a dozen times over. But as I feed the first portrait into the flames, a tiny spark of my energy returns. I watch unmoved as the fire melts and blackens paint and canvas, until every last one is consumed.

The critics will hate me for destroying works they could have pored over for posterity, but I don’t care. The empty walls fill me with energy. I dance around the studio. Now that the paintings are gone, there is light and memory. I remember how we really were, Maggie and I. Our lives were about more than her painting me.

I was a child with no past who found a future. I was a woman with no name who found an identity. She has created me so many times that I don’t know who I am without her. Yet. But I have destroyed a hundred versions of myself and I will find me in the spaces left behind.


Andrea Stephenson is a writer and libraries manager from the north east of England, where she lives with her wife and a Border Terrier. Her stories have been published in Popshot and Firewords magazines and in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual. She is inspired by nature, the coastline and the turn of the seasons and she writes about creativity, magic and nature at Harvesting Hecate. She is currently seeking an agent for two speculative fiction novels for adults. Email: beltane27[at]

A Blonde in Love

Ewa Mazierska

Photo Credit: seisdeagosto/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

They met in November, at a congress of film archivists in Munich. It was the last place where Renata hoped to see an attractive man; by definition archivists are old and unsexy or, if not completely unsexy, then married. He didn’t fit this pattern as he was good-looking. They immediately noticed each other during lunch, in a large hall, where a hundred or so people wandered awkwardly with plates overflowing with food, looking for a place where they could munch it in peace. He didn’t even keep his plate, but was talking with another plate-less guy, but Renata felt his eyes touching her face and neck, going down as low as her leather boots. Yet, his gaze wasn’t creepy, but rather imbued with amusement, as if he was wondering what she was doing among this crowd of dust-covered midwits. She was wandering semi-aimlessly, until Liina, a colleague from Estonia, caught her and started to argue for a closer cooperation between their small Baltic countries, so that they would have more clout against the larger players in the world of film archives. Renata agreed and normally would be happy to discuss this matter in detail but, on this occasion, she was distracted, anxious not to lose the handsome stranger from her perimeter. This resulted in her constantly changing position, as Liina kept obscuring the view with her plump body. Despite that, Renata realised that the guy was important as the chairman of the federation of the archives approached him, and he imprisoned the handsome stranger for the remainder of the lunch.

During the afternoon session, the mystery of the stranger’s identity was solved. He wasn’t an archivist, but the owner of an IT company, brought along to digitally connect some resources of the archives belonging to the federation, and his name was Andy. He gave a presentation with wit and lightness, which contrasted with the talks given by the archivists. His English was also different to that of other Germans. It wasn’t just that his accent was less pronounced, but it felt as if his voice didn’t belong to a German, but to a different nationality altogether. This was also reflected in his clothes. Superficially, he was dressed for the occasion: jacket, shirt, tie, but there was a personal touch. They were in different shades of green, as if he was looking for a perfect match to his green eyes. The sea of green gave him a slightly melancholic and absent-minded appearance, which was augmented by his tendency to touch his hair. He could be a bit taller, but only because Renata herself was over-average height.

Liina also noticed Andy’s attractiveness, as in the middle of his talk she turned to Renata, saying: ‘Isn’t he cute, Renata? Like from a different planet: the Archive-Free Planet.’ They both giggled and it improved Renata’s mood to realise how intelligent Liina could be. If she was also single and shed her extra kilos, Renata would consider going on holiday with her.

It was only during the evening reception that Renata and Andy had an opportunity to talk, but it wasn’t easy, as he was again surrounded by other people. Still, Renata managed to force her way through this human barricade and approached him, saying that she was impressed by his presentation. He smiled and said:

‘Thank you. And I’m impressed by the colour of your hair. Is it natural blond?’

‘No, I’m dyeing my hair. Does it matter?’

‘No, it doesn’t. It’s still beautiful, like a wheat-covered field on a sunny day.’

Renata wasn’t sure if Andy was joking, but there was no point in asking, especially as there were already more people gathered around him. She let them talk and walked towards the table with food. She put some cold meat and salads on her plate, although she wasn’t hungry. Liina approached her with her plate: ‘I must say that food at the last year’s congress tasted better. These Germans are efficient, but lack imagination. Still, better to make the most of it, as you don’t know if there will be any congress next year.’

‘True’, replied Renata, but she wasn’t in a hurry to eat what was on offer.

When Renata left Liina to join a queue for food, which tripled in size since they started to talk, she noticed that Andy was approaching her:

‘Sorry we didn’t finish talking. I really wanted to ask you if you are not too tired to go to a pub. It’s a sin to be in Bavaria and not to taste a local beer, and I know some good places nearby.’

‘I will be delighted to go, but looks as if you didn’t have a chance to eat anything.’

‘Doesn’t matter. I can order a pizza, if I’m really hungry. Let’s go.’

Renata felt a bit guilty not to take Liina with her, but was sure that her friend would understand and, anyway, Liina preferred food over alcohol.

‘Do you live in Munich?’ asked Renata, when they found themselves in a noisy place, smelling of beer and roasted sausage. She didn’t like such establishments, preferring Riga’s cafés, but didn’t say anything, happy that they were finally alone, as much alone as people can be in a public place.

‘No, I live in Stuttgart, but I work with firms all over Germany and abroad, mostly in Austria and Switzerland.’

‘You must be very good at what you do to get such big contracts.’

‘To be honest, this one is the largest. But you are right that we managed to achieve a high position in a relatively short period, me and my friend. That said, you must be the youngest delegate at this congress, and the prettiest. I couldn’t take my eyes from you, when doing my presentation and, at the same time, I was thinking that you were thinking “what a creep”.’

‘I didn’t think this at all. I haven’t even noticed that you paid attention to me,’ replied Renata, shyly.

‘Oh, I did and wondered what such a pretty girl was doing among these withered, disfigured archivists.’

Renata laughed and said: ‘That’s what I think about archivists too, when I travel abroad. In Latvia it’s different, though, because our film archive is relatively new and we are all young; my deputy is not even thirty.’

‘What about you?’

‘I’m thirty-five. How old are you?’

‘I’m forty-five.’

Renata was surprised, learning Andy’s age, thinking that he was forty at most, but didn’t say anything. In the past, when she was with a dating agency, she stipulated no men more than seven years older than her but, ultimately, better to date a George Clooney than a creep her age.

‘You have achieved a lot, given your age,’ said Andy.

‘Yes, but there were sacrifices,’ replied Renata.

‘There has to be, if you want to achieve success. Success is easy only for the people whom we don’t know.’

‘True. You are also successful. What were your sacrifices?’

‘Mainly to do with sport. I was once a professional badminton player and hoped to make a lasting career in the sport, but there is not enough money in badminton, at least not in Germany, and ultimately I wasn’t good enough. I’m still keen on the game and play with my son, when opportunity allows, and do projects for the German badminton association, helping it with my IT skills, but now it’s just a pastime. What about you?’

‘The same, actually. I loved cinema and wanted to be in the movies. I tried to be an actress, but without much success. It was the same for other jobs in the sector, in part because the Latvian film industry is so small. Eventually, I did a PhD in film studies and got this job, which I enjoy, even though it wasn’t what I planned initially.’

‘If the job pays you enough, don’t look back. Just think how to make it to pay better.’

Renata was assessing her schedule. She had only two more nights in Munich before returning to Riga. Would it be enough to go to bed with him? She wasn’t, in fact, desperate, but was worried that, if it didn’t happen, Andy would forget her immediately.

When he brought a second round of beer to the table, Renata felt dizzy. She wasn’t sure whether she should allow herself to get drunk or keep a cool head so that she wouldn’t do anything stupid or disgusting, like throwing up in the hotel lobby. She decided the latter and sipped her beer slowly, whilst Andy was drinking one pint after another. And yet, their conversation wasn’t getting more intimate. The more Andy drunk, the more he delved into things which were of little interest to Renata, such as badminton, tennis and surfing, but she went along. In the end, he apologised to her for being so drunk—this being a result of going through a stressful period. He also thanked her for helping him to relax.

‘Would you like us to meet again?’ he asked Renata, when they were leaving the pub.

‘Sure, we can meet tomorrow. We have a banquet in some palace, but I can leave it earlier or even skip it,’ she replied.

‘That’ll be great. Shall I collect you from your hotel? Let’s say seven p.m.?’

‘Yes. That suits me perfectly.’

Andy gave Renata a friendly hug, which she reciprocated.

Waiting for their date dragged on, even though Liina entertained her with her stories from her marriage to Andreas, a fellow jolly foodie: ‘He said that I need to get pregnant naturally. Otherwise I will have to be stuffed with hormones. Can you imagine how I would look like after such treatment? You are slim, so can have children in vitro.’

The highlight of the day was a message from Andy, enquiring about her favourite cuisine, so that he could book a table in the right restaurant. Renata was less concerned about food and more about the ambience. Would the best atmosphere be in an Indian, Chinese, Italian, Greek or Bavarian restaurant? She hesitated between Italian and Greek and in the end chose Greek, assuming that the possibility of being surrounded there by families with noisy children was the smallest.

Andy turned up at the reception of her hotel, as agreed. He smelled of a mixture of dates and pomegranates and, under his winter jacket, he had a yellow sweatshirt—all signs that he avoided chain shops and managed to find his own style. The sweatshirt provided a nice contrast to his black jeans and dark hair, in which this time she noticed some silver threads. They took a taxi to reach the Greek restaurant where Andy had booked a table.

‘Sorry for getting drunk yesterday,’ he said when they sat. ‘I was exhausted after a very busy period.’

‘Busy at work or busy at home?’

‘Both. This year I’m working practically without a break and dealing with various family problems.’

‘What are your family problems?’

‘My family is scattered. My father lives in Hamburg, my mother in South Africa, and my ex-wife recently moved from Stuttgart to Berlin. It’s exhausting to try to be in contact with all of them, especially my son. I moved to Stuttgart to be with them and I didn’t expect that they would leave so soon, and for no particular reason.’

‘I’m sorry to hear it. How old is your son?’

‘Ten. Do you have children?’

‘No,’ replied Renata.

‘Husband, ex-husband?’

‘No,’ replied Renata, blushing slightly.

‘So you are pure like a primrose. I hope you will find a man able to appreciate it.’

‘Not in Latvia. Latvian men are either creeps or losers,’ replied Renata.

‘The entire million of them?’ asked Andrew.

‘We don’t even have a million of men left in Latvia. Maybe we had once one million and hundred thousand, but the smartest hundred thousand from the top emigrated and the hundred thousand from the bottom drunk themselves to death.’

‘You know that grass is always greener…’

‘Yes, I know. Grass is always greener outside Latvia.’

‘Do you have siblings?’


‘My parents also have only me and they make sure I don’t forget it, especially my mother.’

‘Why does she live in South Africa?’

‘Because we once lived there. I was born in Cape Town and we moved to Germany when I was nine. But, after that, my parents split and some years later my mother returned to South Africa.’

‘Why did your parents find themselves in South Africa?’

‘I think both were children of the “Nazi on the run”, although only my father admitted it. From my mother’s side, I’m half-German, half-Afrikaner.’

‘How was South Africa?’

‘Nice, warm, but increasingly dangerous. One year before we left, my parents’ friend was kidnapped and killed in a gruesome way. They couldn’t come to terms with this tragedy and decided to move to Germany. Unfortunately, the change proved difficult for them. My father opened a business, but went bankrupt, and they divorced when I was a teenager. What about you? Have you spent all your life in Latvia?’

‘Yes, really in Riga. I spent one semester at Columbia University and I travel a lot for work. My parents divorced, too, and I hardly remember my father, as he died in a car accident when I was seven. I always lived with my mum. I cannot imagine being far away from her.’

As soon as Renata said that, she regretted it. Could be anything more off-putting to a future lover than admitting that one lives like a child despite being over thirty? If a man said that to her, she would dismiss him on the spot. She noticed hesitation in Andy’s eyes and there was a short silence, which made her think that she blew it. If so, better to have it over with: return to the hotel, pack and have a good night’s sleep before catching a flight to Riga tomorrow afternoon.

The waiter brought a pudding: a wet, creamy cake mixed with a large amount of cinnamon and cloves. Renata’s head was spinning from its narcotic aroma, as her sense of smell was overdeveloped. She plunged her spoon in the soft substance and felt as if the warm Mediterranean sea invited her for a swim. She was thinking about Amelie breaking crème brûlée in the famous film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. ‘Think about all these small pleasures and love will come your way, as it came to Amelie,’ said her friend, with whom she watched this scene. Love, however, didn’t come her way by this point; she was only a magnet for misfits and cheats.

Maybe the cinnamon and cloves also affected Andy, as he suddenly asked: ‘Should we grab a bottle of something and go to your, or my, hotel after the supper?’

‘Let’s go to your place,’ replied Renata, thinking about the colleagues who might see Andy leaving her room and think the obvious thing.

‘I will pay half of the bill,’ said Renata.

‘No. I invited you, so I shall pay. Let me pretend to be a gentleman.’

They took a taxi to Andy’s hotel. Renata was thinking that her stay in Munich was like that in Frantic by Polanski: she was in a famous city, but hasn’t seen any of it. But she didn’t regret it: cities could be visited any time, if one had money, whilst meeting somebody like Andy was one chance in a million. Moreover, in late autumn, she didn’t have any desire to spend time outdoors.

Andy stayed in a small hotel, probably cheaper than hers, but more stylish, with old wooden furniture filling the foyer and an old wardrobe in Andy’s room. It didn’t have air conditioning, only old-style windows with curtains. Andy informed Renata that neither windows nor a curtain on one window in his rooms worked properly, which meant that the room was cold and people could see them from outside. But neither of them cared.

He took the bottle of wine he bought in the Greek restaurant and opened it, without asking Renata if she wanted to drink. She had enough of alcohol, but had no courage to refuse him. They drank one glass each and then Andy said: ‘It’s so cold here. Shall we go to bed? That is the best place to be this time of the year.’

Renata laughed, as he sounded so natural and almost childish. He scored ten out of ten for the best invitation to lovemaking.

‘Can I go to the bathroom first?’ she asked.

‘Of course,’ replied Andy.

When she returned, Andy put a condom on his penis. Renata knew that it was a sign of his responsibility, a way to protect them from any unpleasant disease or pregnancy. Yet, she couldn’t help but feel sadness seeing this deflated, pathetic balloon, being given such a prominent role in their intimate encounter—a mediator and arbiter in deciding what was acceptable. She covered her and Andy’s bodies with the quilt, in part to shield them from the cold and in part because she wanted to detach herself from the spectacle in which they engaged their lower parts. They made love almost without making sound, as if trying to keep their fast romance secret not only from other people, but also from each other. Yet, Renata felt that Andy enjoyed it, as proved by the fact that they made love twice, the second time in the morning. Shortly after that Andy said: ‘Everything is so impeccable about you. Your hair is so perfectly blond, your teeth are so white and straight, your eyes have this wonderful, date-like shape, and your body has no blemishes.’

Renata smiled internally, thinking about all the money she spent on braces and teeth veneers, hairdressers and tattooing her eyes, not to mention a gym subscription. Her mother told her that such investment would never buy her true love, only the passing interest of shallow men, yet she replied true love almost always begins with physical attraction. This was even the case with her parents, although admittedly, it was a passing attraction on her father’s part.

‘What do you call this shade of blond?’ asked Andy.

‘Stone blond,’ replied Renata.

‘It is my favourite. I must remember this name when looking for dates online. Just joking,’ he added, kissing her neck.

They had breakfast in Andy’s hotel.

‘You don’t mind if I don’t take you back to your hotel? I have to catch my train in an hour,’ he said.

‘Yes, that’s absolutely fine,’ replied Renata. ‘I’m in a bit of a hurry myself, as I must pack and go to the airport.’

‘I hope you will have a good journey.’

‘I’m sure it will be fine.’

They went together to the foyer, waiting for a taxi. Renata was hoping that Andy would propose they meet again, but he was just looking anxiously at his mobile. Clearly, he was in a hurry now.

‘Would you like to meet again?’ she asked, feeling that, if she didn’t, the moment would pass. ‘I might be in Germany early next year, as there’s another conference for archivists in Dusseldorf.’

‘It will be nice if our schedules coincide again,’ he said. ‘Write or phone me when you are back in Germany.’

Back in the hotel, Renata met with Liina, with whom she was flying back to Riga. Liina didn’t ask Renata where she had been the previous night, as she knew. Instead, she asked: ‘Was he as good-looking without clothes as in them?’

Renata laughed.

‘Yes, he looked good and we had a great time.’

She didn’t want to say more, as she didn’t want to jinx anything. Therefore, at the airport, they talked about the conference and a need to organise a similar one for the Baltic countries. Maybe it would be an opportunity to invite Andy?

‘I will be happy to be in charge of it,’ said Liina.

‘That will be great,’ replied Renata absent-mindedly, when looking nervously at her phone, waiting for any message from Andy. There was nothing. Instead, only her mother asked what to prepare for supper. This made her angry, frustrated by the thought that all the people around her were concerned solely with trivial matters, although she knew that she should be grateful that her mother always looked after her so well.

‘What do you think about the dress I wore yesterday?’ asked Liina.

‘Do you want an honest answer?’

‘Yes, please.’

‘I don’t think it suited you. You need clothes which don’t accentuate your round figure, but hide it; it’s better not to show one’s waist, if it’s wider than one’s thighs.’

Renata regretted what she said as soon as she said it, knowing it was callous and not a true reflection of her attitude to Liina, but the state of her nerves.

Luckily, Liina wasn’t offended. Instead, she replied: ‘That’s what I thought too, but Andreas bought it for my birthday and insisted that I took it to the congress. It cost 300 Euros; my most expensive dress.’

‘It would have been better if he’d just given you the money.’

Luckily, there was a short message from Andy when she landed in Riga and boarded a bus from the airport to her apartment, asking her whether she had a good journey. It improved Renata’s mood immensely and she replied as soon as she reached home. Her mother kissed her and, after they finished their supper, told her that one of their three cats was unwell. Renata should have noticed it herself, but she lost interest in their cats a long time ago. They were also a source of conflict between Renata and her mother. Her mother didn’t want them to buy cats as there were plenty of cats in shelters, looking for a home, and they’d be resilient to illnesses and more intelligent, because mongrels are smarter than pedigree cats. Renata, however, couldn’t resist getting them, seeing them so perfectly white and cute, more like animals from Disney films than real animals. Yet, her mother was right: they were beautiful, but sickly, stupid and they failed to fill the hole in her life: they weren’t surrogate children for her; more like mechanical toys constantly malfunctioning. Her mother didn’t like them either; they were an everyday reminder that her daughter ignored her advice, falling for the wrong things: beautiful on the outside, but ugly or empty inside. Renata, however, disagreed, as she didn’t believe in inner beauty, if they were ugly outside. Outside was what mattered; it was the real mystery, as Oscar Wilde noted. Focusing on the surface didn’t guarantee to find a beautiful interior, but prevented one from ending up with an ugly toad, wrongly assuming that, under his skin, one finds a prince.

Renata needed to take the sick one to the vet. The problem was a kidney failure. He needed special food and to be kept away from the other two cats. Renata’s mother didn’t say anything, but her expression said it all: ‘Too beautiful to be healthy, as I told you.’

There were no further messages from Andy for a week. When she wrote to him, he replied briefly that he was busy with his company and the family situation. His son was sick and his ex had to work so he had to travel to Berlin to look after his son. She replied that her cat was also sick and, some time later, enquired about the boy. He’d recovered by this point, Andy replied, but without asking about the state of health of her cat. Admittedly, a child is more important than a cat, so Renata didn’t bear a grudge.

Their next contact was two weeks before Christmas. This was enough time to have made arrangements to meet for the New Year, but it turned out that Andy was busy, spending Christmas with his son and ex-wife, and New Year with his mother in South Africa. It was mid-January when he returned and he had many things to catch up. ‘My life is complicated’ was a sentence which he wrote to Renata at least three times.

Eventually time came to book a trip to a conference in Dusseldorf. Renata wrote to Andy, telling him she could come earlier or stay longer in Germany and visit him in Stuttgart. He informed her that he had many trips in February, but in fact it was possible to meet just for one day, after Renata’s conference. So, things worked out fine, thought Renata.

He met her at the platform, taking her suitcase and handing her a bunch of roses.

‘I tried to find flowers matching the colour of your hair—stone roses, but I’m not sure if I succeeded. It seems to me that your hair is lighter.’

‘It doesn’t matter, it is nice that you remembered. These days men rarely give women flowers.’

‘Maybe because they give them something more enduring. Unfortunately, I specialise in ephemeral things. At least this is what my ex always accused me of.’

‘I don’t think people one has split from are the best judges of one’s character,’ replied Renata.

Half an hour later they were in his apartment. There was something American Psycho about it. It was bright, spacious and clean, no doubt a result of employing a cleaner, but also betraying a natural preponderance to order. Renata didn’t mind it; in fact, she appreciated it, being orderly herself. In the past, if a guy lived in a filthy house, she wouldn’t have a second date, irrespective of his other qualities. What worried her, however, was a sense that with this perfection streak it would be difficult to satisfy him. She needed to keep her hair stone blond and be patient.

Andy cooked for them a meal: a stew made of meat and vegetables. There was also a chocolate pudding, but this came from a bakery.

‘Thank you for your effort. I didn’t expect it,’ she said.

‘If you come from so far away, at least I owe you some food,’ he replied.

‘I also brought you something.’ Renata took from her bag a yellow scarf and a set of DVDs. ‘These are masterpieces of Latvian cinema, as masterly as a country like Latvia can produce.’

‘I’m sure every nation produced some masterpieces. Just some are better marketed to the world. Countries which trampled on others, as Germany did for centuries, managed to impose their cultural standards on other countries and nations, so that everybody thinks they are universal, like Bach or Beethoven music.’

Renata looked at Andy in awe. From their first meeting she thought he was smart, but such statement was much more than she ever expected from an IT specialist.

‘How did your romantic life look before?’ asked Renata in the morning, when they had breakfast.

‘Before what?’ he asked.

‘Before I came?’ she said.

‘I didn’t have much sex life lately. I was too busy travelling and growing my business. When I had time, I used Tinder.’

‘Did it work for you?’

‘Yes, men don’t need much to be satisfied. Most men, anyway. Occasionally, I also had sex with my ex-wife.’

‘How come?’

‘Simply. She is single and available. It’s also a way to appease her, as she still resents me for leaving her. Sex is sex; if it’s good, it’s good, but there is no need to make of it more that it is. She understands and accepts it. What about you?’

‘I would like sex to be more than sex, but I accept when it’s just that.’


‘Now, it’s your turn to visit me in Latvia,’ said Renata, when Andy acknowledged her farewell at the railway station.

‘I will try, maybe this summer.’

‘You must come. We will go to the coast. We have some wonderful resorts near Riga. They are probably more German than anything you can find in Germany these days.’

They were exchanging e-mails and text messages for the next three months, in which Andy talked mostly about his business and Renata about her work in the archive. It was mid-May when Andy sent the e-mail: ‘I decided not to come to Riga this summer. I enjoyed time spent with you, but unfortunately I’m not in a position to have a serious relationship, especially one which is long distance. I hope you will find a man who will appreciate your stone blond hair as much as I did, but give you all love and security you deserve.’

Renata cried reading this e-mail and kept re-reading it and crying, but eventually she stopped and said: ‘He was just a jerk. A jerk and a Nazi.’

Near the end of summer, Renata received an e-mail from Liina, asking about Andy’s visit. She replied that the visit was great and that they’d spent several days in Riga. Andy was enchanted by the Art Nouveau quarter and Riga’s restaurants and cafés. They went to Jurmala on the coast for the rest of his stay, booking into Renata’s favourite hotel.

‘Did he buy you anything?’ asked Liina.

‘Yes, he bought me a silver bracelet and a ring with an amber. He said that the yellow stone suits my hair.’

‘Send me a photo of the ring,’ replied Liina.

Renata attached to her reply a picture of an old ring, which she bought in Sopot in Poland but didn’t wear, as she’d grown out of rings.

‘Andy has great taste, unlike my husband,’ replied Liina. ‘The last time he bought me a ring it looked like something from a 1970s Russian film: gold, crude and with a purple stone the size of half of my finger. But looking the way I look, what should I expect?’


Ewa Mazierska is historian of film and popular music, who writes short stories in her spare time. She published over thirty of them in The Longshot Island, The Adelaide Magazine, The Fiction Pool, Literally Stories, Ragazine, BlazeVox, Red Fez, Away, The Bangalore Review, Shark Reef and Mystery Tribune, among others. In 2019 she published her first collection of short stories, Neighbours and Tourists (New York, Adelaide Books). Ewa is a Pushcart nominee and her stories were shortlisted in several competitions. She was born in Poland, but lives in Lancashire, UK. Email: EHMazierska[at]

Empty Shoes

Bari Lynn Hein

Photo Credit: Trinity Lancaster/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Nathan hated his goddam phone. Not the phone attached to his kitchen wall. That one was fine. You pick it up, you press some numbers, you talk. His “smart” phone, however—the one that served every function except to carry on a conversation—that one frustrated him to no end. His kids had tried to help him out with unhelpful advice like: “Close your apps.” Or: “Open your settings.” Again and again they had demonstrated how to scroll, which was something his arthritic fingers could barely manage. They meant well.

He also loved his phone. Three months ago, quite by accident, he found Joan’s voicemail message on it. Every night since, he had listened to her say: “I’m right here waiting for you, my love.” She’d recorded it while they were Christmas shopping at the mall two years ago—two years to the day, in fact. December sixth. They’d gone off in separate directions so she could buy a six-pack of cinnamon buns and he could stop by the men’s room. They had agreed to meet on a bench outside Cinnabon, where it smelled like Christmas.

December sixth also happened to be St. Nicholas Day, when Joan would fill the kids’ shoes with chocolates. After they grew up and moved out, she filled Nathan’s. Every year, first thing in the morning, without fail. Except today, of course.

He perched on the edge of his bed and typed in his password. Having practiced this for nearly one hundred nights, he went straight to voicemail and, with some difficulty, flicked (his children would call it scrolled) the screen twice until the message from his darling wife showed up. A cloth fiber of some sort sat on the date, a remnant from his pocket. For no reason other than to give this nightly ritual the solemnity it deserved, Nathan swept the speck to the left and then, instinctively, touched the little red rectangle that appeared.

Dear God no.

No no no.

Joan’s message vanished, just like that.

He cried. When he’d calmed down he made his way to the kitchen and called his daughter, who didn’t answer, then his son, who did. At the sound of Ben’s voice, Nathan began to cry again. Between sobs he managed to explain.

His son asked if he’d saved his messages to the cloud.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

“Dad, I’ve told you, you need to save the messages you want to keep.”

If Nathan had known he’d get a goddam lecture, he would not have called.

Just before mounting the stairs, he looked at his empty shoes, as if expecting to find chocolates. Back in his room, he checked his messages again. Joan’s had been erased while others had remained: a reminder from his rheumatologist about an appointment, a request from the local fire department for a donation and a plethora of scams. Now that he knew how to erase them, he did—skipping over the messages from his children and grandchildren—each time tapping the red rectangle with added vigor.

Soon he had accomplished a year’s worth of deletions, then another, then another. His heartbeat quickened when he came across a voicemail message that had been left by Joan on June tenth, three-and-a-half years ago, at two-forty-five in the afternoon.

Nathan stared at his screen, stunned. June tenth. That was the day he’d flown home from an old friend’s funeral and Joan had picked him up from the airport, wearing a bright pink scarf he had never noticed before. The message had been left while he was still in the air and until this moment, he had known nothing of its existence.

He drew in his breath and pressed the little triangle and listened to the voice of his darling wife saying, “I’m here, my love.”


Bari Lynn Hein’s stories are published or forthcoming in The Saturday Evening Post, CALYX, Mslexia, Jewish Fiction, Vestal Review, Mud Season Review, decomp, Verdad, The Ilanot Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction and elsewhere. Her prose has been awarded finalist placement in many national and international writing competitions, among them The Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest and the OWT Fiction Prize. Her debut novel is on submission. Email: barilynnhein[at]

Five Days to Buff

Mary Sophie Filicetti

Photo Credit: Jonnie Anderson/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Day 1:

The in-laws have landed. Monica is wandering the supermarket aisles arguing with Adam over whether he’ll allow his parents to purchase Velveeta, Cool Whip, and other assorted foodstuffs Ron and Leslie consider necessities.

Adam has meticulously planned the menu for The Visit, and he’ll be damned if any processed foods are going in his refrigerator. She tells him to keep his voice down, or they might hear him, but he continues on, aggrieved over the tragic landscape of his childhood, where cheese existed solely in this unnaturally colored form.

“I’m holding the line,” he insists. “There are principles at stake here.”

Monica couldn’t care less about the Velveeta. It’s later, when her father-in-law grouses about the cashier’s accent—“Why can’t they hire people who speak English?”—she hopes Adam will exercise those very principles.


One week before arrival:

The house is subjected to the same scrutiny as the food, beginning with a stem-to-stern cleaning, ending when Monica pulls the plug on Adam’s plan to touch-up the white molding and trim.

“Why are you making yourself crazy? Your parents barely bother to tidy up, much less paint, when we come.”

“It’s their first impression of our house. If Dad has any idea of the amount we’ve spent on this place, he’ll be searching for defects.”

“Your mother is the one who will judge, not your father,” Monica says, piling tools onto the paint can for Adam to return to the basement.

“That reminds me—do you know where we’ve stored the decorations Mom’s given us?”

Which is how Monica finds herself hunched in the attic, searching for decorations gifted by Adam’s parents. The clothing items can’t be retrieved—a lavender sweatshirt emblazoned with silk-screened puppies comes to mind—most swiftly removed from the house in donation bags, but somewhere in this stifling space are other presents saved for this reason.

The box has been pushed to the back corner behind plastic bins holding Christmas ornaments and a china set inherited from her grandmother. Opening the folds of the box, a light floral scent wafts out. The fragrance, originally applied to a blue-and-yellow silk flower wreath, clings to other articles inside: framed religious quotes, figurines, and a pink crochet toilet paper holder. In general, Monica appreciates home-made crafts; Leslie’s afghans warm the couch in the winter, and the wedding quilt holds a place of honor on their bed. Creating cozies for kitchen appliances and toilet paper somehow crosses a line.

She hangs the wreath on the guest bedroom door, and replaces family photos in the hallway with the framed quotes. She wants to remind her husband of her own mother’s visits. How she does for them—helping with the cooking and cleaning-up without being asked.

How they once returned to their grad school apartment and found her sitting on a chair, hemming the too-long, white curtains from the Salvation Army. Settling into their world, and making herself at home.


Day 2:

Leslie is perched on the edge of the couch beside her husband, poised like a runner on the starting blocks, ready to bolt. They’ve visited the couple one other time, preferring to host from familiar turf, Leslie presiding over the kitchen, Ron at the head of the table. It’s Monica and Adam who are expected to make the every-other-month, every-other-holiday, six-hour drive to Ohio.

“To be fair,” Adam says whenever the subject comes up, “it’s hard for Dad to get away from the farm for even a few days.”

Which doesn’t explain their lack of manners over dinner. Leslie, who might have appreciated the night off from a hot stove, accepted the merest dollop of Adam’s stir-fry, the green broccoli a bright pop of color surrounded by a large expanse of white plate. Both picked at the food, and neither parent complimented their son on his cooking.

After a coughing jag, Leslie complains the air conditioning is wreaking havoc on her lungs, still recovering from a bout of bronchitis. Adam adjusts the temperature right before she steps outside to smoke a cigarette.

Monica’s phone lights up.

Are they there yet? Julia texts.

Monica retreats to her bedroom, claiming a work emergency. Before she calls Julia, she drops to the floor for a set of push-ups. The push-ups are her version of a drinking game: one set for every insulting remark from either in-law. She’d prefer an actual drink, but Ron frowns on the ‘use’ of alcohol.

“It’s been two days,” Monica tells Julia, “and so far, my father-in-law has targeted women, ‘foreigners’ and the entire LGBTQ community.”

“Keep doing your push-ups,” Julia says. “You can make it.”

“Either that, or by next Saturday I’ll be on Xanax.”


Day 5:

Monica cuts out of work early and asks Julia to meet for coffee, before she faces the scene at home. “How do you manage to stay calm when your mother-in-law is in town?” she asks. Jana, who travels from Poland, stays with Julia’s family for months at a time.

“Communication is an issue,” she says. “I only know a little Polish, and Jana doesn’t really speak English. She waits until Dominik comes home, then bends his ear with complaints.”

“And that doesn’t create friction between the two of you?”

Julia smiles briefly. “Only when he feels compelled to translate.” She swirls the last dregs of her cappuccino, then sets the cup back down onto the table. “Jana once made a remark—Claire wasn’t yet two at the time—which I consider unforgivable.”

A cheery five-year-old, Claire receives speech therapy for disfluency, Monica knows.

“Claire had begun trying to communicate, and Jana made an ignorant comment about her future prospects as a woman. I understand there’s a generational difference, but some thoughts you should keep to yourself.”

Monica waits, unsure what to say.

“I used to make an effort—studying Polish, learning to cook family recipes,” Julia continues. “Now, I keep things civil, but I’ve given up trying to forge a relationship.”


Monica returns home to find Adam cooking dinner while his parents are watching a news segment on the recent Women’s March. The search for an acceptable source of TV news, an ordeal lasting several days, has finally been resolved with a local station.

“I don’t see what all the fuss is about,” Ron says, gesturing towards the screen. The National Mall bobs with pink hats, cameras zooming in on a few controversial signs. “What are they even trying to accomplish?”

Monica, who knitted her own, somewhat misshapen ‘pussy hat’, says, “Tackling equality, encouraging more women to enter local politics.”

“Well, I don’t go in for any of that chanting and complaining. You ask me, I think this just stirs people up.”

“Good. Some of us could use a little stirring up,” she counters.

Ron scowls at her and returns his attention to the set. Leslie looks up from her own knitting, the corner of her mouth lifting up slightly. Monica can’t tell whether the response is approval or snark.

She’s putting in another set of push-ups in the bedroom when Adam walks in.

“What’s the point in arguing with him?” he asks. “You’re never going to change his mind.”

“If you let it go, it’s as good as signaling we agree with his attitudes,” Monica says, her voice muffled as she pulls back into a stretch, feeling the muscles of her neck and back elongate.

“I just think the visits will be more pleasant if we ignore his comments.”

“And you’re ok with him venting his ‘opinions’ without challenge?”

Adam reaches out a hand to help her up. “It’s how I survived my childhood. Keeping my distance, and my mouth shut.”


Day minus 1000 (approximately):

Monica’s parents have invited Adam’s family to their home in New Jersey for a meet and greet, and to celebrate their recent engagement. The same preparations preceded this visit: house cleaning, spiffing up the guest bedroom, her father cooking all day. An Italian feast is being laid on the dining room table when her future in-laws knock on the door.

The moment occurs when her father rolls towards the foyer for the introductions. Ron, registering the wheelchair, falters and stalls out mid-stride. Her father makes up the distance, left hand on the wheel, right hand extended. Ron automatically responds with a handshake, but his eyes are on the chair as he murmurs a greeting.

Monica attempts to bridge the gap during dinner, pointing out similarities between the families. Leslie and her mother, stay-at-home parents originally, both joined the workforce in their children’s teen years. Ron, clearly curious about how her parents manage, asks and says little. It’s not as though they haven’t answered these questions their entire married life. The way she cuts the lawn and he handles the bills. Divvying up household chores the way every other couple does.

Her mother picks up the conversation, seeks Ron’s advice about a withering tree on their property. Her effort seems to rebound, as a stretch of silence follows his response. In Ron’s world, a man is what he can physically do; it’s baling hay at the end of the summer, surveying crops from atop a John Deere. Managing your own property.

Leslie and Ron make excuses and retreat to sleep in their camper overnight. Monica rises early after a night of tossing and turning. Her parents’ beagle follows her around the kitchen whining to go out as she puts on a pot of coffee. Leash in hand, she doesn’t see the slip of paper stuck in between the screen door and the frame until she steps outside.

We needed to get back home—Ron’s worried about the chores stacking up. Thanks for having us—see you at the wedding. Leslie

Monica stares at the note, then leans around the corner, still expecting to see the RV in the empty space where they’d parked. The planned two-day visit has turned into a kind of drive-by, leaving her stunned in its wake.

She thrusts the note in Adam’s hand as he enters the kitchen. “Do you want me to call them once they’re home?” he asks.

“What would you even say?”

“Say about what?” her mother asks, entering in her robe. She pours herself a cup of coffee and reaches out for the scrap of paper. Adam obliges with the expression of a wayward child caught passing notes in class.

“Mom, it’s the way they are,” Monica says as her mother reads. “They’re only comfortable in their own space.”

She’s never asked if her parents recognize how the perceived disability played a part.


The big farewell:

Monica stands by the car, braced for the family send-off. The emotional good-byes are bookended in her mind by Leslie’s traditional ‘I have a bone to pick with you’ greeting, which precedes a half-hour, stomach-knotting discussion where the two apologize for some imagined slight from the previous visit. Like the time Ron berated Monica for her ‘lack of common sense and consideration’ after she locked the doors of his car. (“Wouldn’t they need to have the keys to drive the car?” she’d asked Adam later. “It doesn’t even make sense!”)

Leslie clasps Adam one last time. “You’re too skinny,” she says, glancing over his shoulder at Monica.

“You remember he’s the one who does the cooking?” Monica asks.

Adam shoots her a look as he detaches himself from the embrace.

“Yes, and he’s a grown man, after all,” Leslie says, patting his arm.


The after-visit recovery:

Adam has taken himself to the batting cages to excise childhood demons. The tally for the visit totals four arguments between them. The final clash, when Adam repeatedly interrupted her bath to update her on the latest drama, ended when she’d ordered him out of the room. For now they’ve established a truce, agreeing to disagree on her new tactic with his parents.

Somehow, despite the stress, the piles of linens waiting to be washed, and the offensive foods remaining in the fridge, Monica feels a sense of accomplishment. Their photos are again hung on the wall, the objects which temporarily replaced them slated for the donation bin.

She’s spent the last hour working her way through an old yoga routine, inspired by the dozens of sets of push-ups logged in the past five days. The house is quiet, radiating a sense of calm. Changing her mind, she dumps the pile of laundry in her arms onto the guest bed, shuts the door to block out the sight, and retreats to the couch with a novel and a glass of iced tea.


Mary Sophie Filicetti is a teacher of the visually impaired who once spent time writing stories in the myriad coffee shops around DC, and now writes at home. Her fiction has appeared in AEL press’ Locked Room anthology, Montana Mouthful, Every Day Fiction, Nightingale and Sparrow, The Magnolia Review, and The Phoenix. Tweeting @marysfilicetti Email: mfk2009[at]