Tag Archives: short story

Sarah Salway

On Hold

She was just passing the phone box the first time it rang.

Or that’s what she said afterwards. She checked her mobile of course, but her boyfriend had recently changed her ring tone to ‘Hello Barbie’ so he could find her easily. This was an old fashioned dring-dring. It brought back so many memories that when she picked up the receiver she almost imagined it to be her mother telling her to be careful.

‘Hello,’ she breathed, ‘hello, hello, hello.’

She gently touched the four corners of one of the postcards plastered on the wall as she waited for the torrent of words in a language she couldn’t understand to finish. And then she replaced the receiver.

***

The second time she took the call, she’d been waiting for half an hour.
The phone box wasn’t even near her house, but she changed the route of her run so she could pass it. Every third run, she’d wait. Just to see. Her boyfriend complained that she wasn’t losing that much weight for someone who ran so much, but she told him muscle took time to build up.

When the phone rang she didn’t say anything at first, just let the voice on the other end run on, smiling at the way it rose and fell, how the consonants tripped over each other. As she listened, she let her fingers trace the women on the postcards. They were all so happy looking.

‘Sweet dreams, be safe,’ she whispered as she replaced the receiver. It was what her mother always used to say to her before she went to sleep.

She threw the cards into the bin by the park. ‘Sweet dreams,’ she whispered as she imagined them nestling together in the dark.

***

It was some time before she could go near the phone box again. Her boyfriend insisted on running with her and he liked easier routes, ones he could measure after on his computer. He liked to run for twenty-five minutes exactly and then have sex for another twenty-five minutes. Ten minutes for a shower. He called it their productive hour. ‘I don’t understand why you used to take so long,’ he kept saying.

It was a relief to get out without him. The roads seemed familiar, as if they were welcoming her home, and the phone box gleamed like a red present waiting for her to open it.

There were new girls pasted up, all still smiling though. She was counting them, cataloguing them in her head – brown haired, Asian, blondes – when the phone rang. Dring dring. It came as such a shock that she almost dropped her stack of girls.

It was a different man on the other end this time, but the words were the same. Unintelligible, and such a hard rhythm to the language that she shut her eyes as if that might stop her hearing.

‘Mum,’ she whispered, ‘Mum, hello, it’s me, Josie.’

She was still talking when the phone box door swung open, an arm grabbed at her, swiping the cards so they fell, forming a circle around her.

‘Sweet dreams,’ she told them. ‘Be safe, be safe, be safe.’

###
Sarah Salway is the author of six books: three novels (Something Beginning With, Tell Me Everything, Getting the Picture), two collections of poetry (You Do Not Need Another Self-Help Book, Digging Up Paradise), and one short story collection (Leading the Dance). She is a former Canterbury Laureate and RLF Fellow at both the London School of Economics and the University of Kent. She writes about gardens at www.writerinthegarden.com, and tweets @sarahsalway. Her website is www.sarahsalway.co.uk.

 

Elaine Chiew

Insurance

 

You go diving with him in the Bahamas as a leap of faith, even though you’re not sure whether it’s a leap of faith in yourself or in him or in your togetherness. It’s new still in your relationship; you’d met him at a medical conference, out lounging on a cabana. He had drawn up close, in his tan linen jacket and sharply-creased blue trousers, and asked if he could buy you a drink. Not that you are looking for a relationship, or even a carefree fuck, because your mother is in her last stages of Alzheimers’ and it’s just you and her but between shuttling on the commuters’ train from her home of assisted living and your job in insurance sales, you’d begun to find chit-chat with strangers nauseating. But there was something about his blue eyes and shaggy hair that spelled an aura of wanting to please and you thought to yourself, oh why the hell not? Your mother would disapprove of his slight put-on dishevelment and crude jokes. When it’s just the two of you, he is altogether more serious, more real, more himself, but he truly comes alive when the audience is ten or more. Then he would sing Nessun Dorma in a faux baritone (which your mother would find kitschy or attempt a ballerina stunt and split his pants). But your mother will never meet him, or if she does, she will never remember.

So you think of him as insurance. A kind of biological safety net, safe enough to risk an underwater world where you go diving with him. You are such a terrible swimmer that once you’d sunk to the bottom of a kid’s pool at the swimming club and thought you were drowning and surfaced and screamed for help and when people rushed over and someone finally pulled you out, you claimed a leg cramp because you were so embarrassed.

Down now in these murky watery depths, you panic and start hyperventilating. Water rushes into your mask. Your heart drops to a new plumbing depth. Someone grabs your shoulder and then holds your hand and guides you with finger gestures on how to empty your mask of water. You suck in lungful after lungful of oxygen and begin to feel giddy. All you can see behind his mask are his eyes, but not the expression in them because there is a film of moisture over everything. A school of fish swims past and you think you’ve never seen anything more beautiful in your life. You think the man holding your hand is a godsend, and you wonder if he isn’t the diving instructor, with his rapid gesturing and purposeful movements. There, before you, are schools of marine bioluminescence. Florets of musky coral. Plumes of purple anemones. Membraned jellyfish, lit from within, rising as clouded fumes. Seawhip. Polyps like thousands of eyes. They sense your dark presence. An entire school of fish changes direction. Your lungs swell, you feel the massive ache in your jaw even before you hear the snap upon bone. What is blue becomes red, then black. You are neither fish nor human now. There is no name, no memory, for the undersea monster you’ve become. You power through subterranean coves, your body sleek, aerodynamic. Swimming. Finning. The water closing over you is icy, instantly numbing. Your sleek tail torque, you rappel down to seabed level.

When you finally surface, you are delirious.

You tell this man it’s the most amazing trip of your life. The two of you are sitting eating lunch at a seafood place with all the other divers, and that’s when you learn two things: the school of fish is barracuda, and the man who had held your hand is no instructor but the man you are dating for insurance. You burst out laughing and you simply can’t stop. Everyone around you first smiles indulgently, including the man you are dating, and then their smiles become more hesitant, and the way their smiles start to fade made your epiglottis seize up and you almost choke on your mouthful of tilapia.

###

Elaine Chiew is the editor/compiler of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015). She has won prizes for her short fiction and also been shortlisted in numerous other U.S. and U.K. competitions. She is currently based in Singapore and has just completed an M.A. in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts.

Joy Kennedy-O’Neill

Animals at the Ball

 

A sequined ball gown glides past me. Eyes in an ostrich mask narrow. “Are you a donkey?”

I waggle my mask’s brown ears. “Aardvark. They eat–”

She’s spun away by a guy in a lion costume, his wire tail bouncing and flirting along dancers’ legs.

Fine. I don’t know what an aardvark eats anyway. Ants? The only reason I picked this is because I heard the new hire will be a zebra. I’ve been practicing my pick-up line for her. “Hey we’re A to Z. Get it?”

Shit, do I really look like a donkey? When security helped ease me through the protestors and picket lines outside, no one said anything.

I adjust my tux. The company ball is in full swing and people take its theme “Go Wild” to heart. They’re screaming laughter. Shouting songs. Tufts of artificial grass wave on the dance floor, and recordings of exotic birds shriek over music. Of course, the company’s made so much this year, hell, there might be real birds in here. With the roll-backs on environmental protections, we’re fracking and drilling like it’s a party. It is a party.

I look for zebra-girl.

The buffet has fancy faux cheese and chefs searing real lab-grown steak. A jokey sign says, “Do not feed the animals.”

“Really,” a flock of women in flamingo masks mutter. They pull down plastic stripes that look like iron bars and shove them in a corner. “Zoo decor? So inappropriate.”

“Unethical. At least the caterer is woke.”

I grab a drink and hors d’oeuvres wrapped in fakin’ bacon. Then I see her. God almighty. She’s wearing a black leotard and striped stockings that come up to her thighs. I can’t see her face; it’s under a zebra head. But she’s a knock-out. A is for aardvark. Z is for zowie!

“Ooh, are you an elephant?” Someone looks at my long nose.

I angle my way over to zebra-girl. She’s sitting beside a masked pregnant woman who’s a kangaroo, with a little sign over her pouch: “Coming soon!”

“Do you want to dance?” I ask zebra-girl.

She nods and paws her slender foot on the floor. My heart soars.

We do a little shuffle. Her waist is warm in my hands.

“Want a drink?”

She nods and stamps the floor again.

I’m well on my way to getting shit-faced. The zebra head is getting unnerving though. What if I wake up next to it, like a scene from The Godfather? But she finally takes it off.

It’s Susan. My ex-wife.

“What tha–”

“Hiya.” She smirks, tweaking my aardvark nose.

“I’m not a donkey.”

“You’re still an ass.”

Okay, I had a wandering eye when we were married. I admit it.

“Why would you keep dancing with me like that, and not say anything?” I ask her. “I thought you were–”

“It was fun! Call it payback.”

I take another drink and frown. “What are you doing here anyway?”

“I came with Kali.” She points to the pregnant kangaroo. “Bob left her,” she whispers.

“Kali’s pregnant?”

“Jesus, you work with her every day.”

“I–”

Two guys inside a camel costume trot past. “Hump daaay!” The IT guys are hyenas and they cackle. I know they’ve jammed everyone’s cell signals tonight, at HR’s request, so no one can live-stream any party antics.

In a corner, I see the new hire in a zebra-striped dress. Ah! Z is for zipper down the back!

The drinks are hitting me hard, and I try to make my way over to her.

But drums pound and our CEO waltzes in as a big game hunter. Pith helmet, boots, the works. He pulls back a curtain to reveal a backdrop for pictures. We can pose triumphant with hologrammed dead lions, giraffes, elephants . . . big as boulders.

3D lamps project our profit margins. Stock going straight up the walls, straight for the moon! And the room is glittery and champagne-heady. The IT hyenas laugh. Hump-day the camel is literally trying to hump everyone.

I’m drunk and it’s a party.

I lurch around to the real zebra-girl and grab her shoulder.

“Congratulations to us!” I point to the holo-charts.

“Let me go!” She jerks away.

I stumble, falling into the plastic zoo bars in the corner. Conversations spin around me.

“Big game hunting? It’s not ethical.”

“But I hear the money saves the animals.”

I laugh. “Kill ‘em to save ‘em!”

I watch Susan dance and she’s beautiful.

A is for aardvark. B is for bitter

Someone whispers, “Our profits are unsustainable. And the environment . . . “

C is for complicit.

D is for drill.

Picking myself up, I lurch around the room, tripping over the fake savanna grass. The dancers spin faster. Pregnant kangaroo girl sits in the corner, chewing on her lip. The CEO takes center stage and whoops, throwing his pith helmet. It skitters across the dance floor like a khaki beetle.

The flamingo ladies nibble the cultured filet mignon. “Clean meat makes me feel slimmer.”

One watches a couple necking. “Some things never change at these things.”

Another says “And really, the zoo thing is just not ethical . . .”

The holo-flow charts swoop and color everyone in disco-ball yearly profit bling-bling, and I laugh and laugh again, but also feel a little sick.

When the lights flit to a golden yellow, it’s as if we’re all caught in amber.

I fall toward the exit. But I miss the door and hit the glass hard. A smear of blood. Protesters outside watch me, surprised.

My tie’s askew. I’ve lost my mask. I don’t know what I am anymore. I didn’t even know the A to Z’s in my own marriage.

E is for end.

I wipe my nose and wave to the “no Arctic drilling” signs. Behind me, birds shriek and insects hum and music throbs.

A protestor feels sorry for me, the bloody-nosed drunk inside. He lifts his hand.

Waving at all the beautiful animals.

###

Joy Kennedy-O’Neill teaches English at a small college on the Texas Gulf Coast. Her works have appeared in Nature, Strange Horizons, Flash Fiction Online, New Orleans Review, among other places. More of her work can be found at JoyKennedyOneill.com.

Pedro Ponce

The Library Shelves of Babel

The Library’s closure went largely unremarked, apart from a segment or two on the nightly news. Our screens filled with colored bars charting the inevitable: Maintaining books was too expensive. The city budget had been slashed. Key supporters had left the Library Board. In the live shot from downtown, the lights of the front lobby streaked the pavement beyond, despite the hour. Such waste was precisely what led city auditors to recommend closure, noted the reporter, pushing fruitlessly for effect at the pane of a sliding door.

Many of our last Library visits were years ago, for school, and these we remembered for reasons having nothing to do with the Library itself—the novelty of leaving class in the middle of the day, the teacher’s distraction as we boarded the bus, our chatter ignored as she counted heads, the free boxed lunch sealed with the arched golden emblem familiar from birthday parties. Perhaps we were, briefly, enthralled by the taxidermy displays on the second floor, the moose and calves grazing at the base of a waterfall, the shadows of snake and badger against the starkness of desert sand. But soon enough, we snickered knowingly at the artifice of painted backdrops and plastic vegetation, the anatomy bared in tableaux of nursing animals or prehistoric caves. We looked overhead, as instructed by an associate librarian, at the whale skeleton suspended over the entrance of Science and Technology. Mistaking obedience for attention, he proceeded fastidiously through the specimen’s provenance and natural history. The pallor of rib and mandible blurred as we fixed on the skylight far above, where the sun’s slow tilt teased us with the hours remaining before our release to dusky driveways.

The closure was an unfortunate necessity, we all agreed. Were there any way to stop it, we would certainly do our part. Some of us began petitions and fund drives, even as the first public works vehicles arrived to clear the collections for demolition. We happily lent our signatures and spare change. But when the news reported their failure—often by wide margins—we had to resist the urge to gloat. We had always chafed at the Library’s stillness and sterility. We could see now, not without some shame, that we wanted the Library gone, its vitrines shattered, its artifacts discarded, its volumes surrendered to wind and rain.

The problem started small. As work approached its seasonal apex, as reverie yielded to family routine, it was hard to recall the last time we had scanned the sky for the Library’s tessellated dome, the stilled face of the inset tower clock. From behind treasured picture books read as bribery for sleep, between nightcaps hoisted to televised laughter, we could feel the Library’s vacancy. Nostrils filled with the musk of marbled pages; fingers idled, remembering the crisp cards of the outmoded catalog, the texture of continents as we spun the globe in the street-level atrium. We came to ourselves in slippered feet, peering out through the gaps in closed curtains.

The intrusions proliferated, forming paths the further we pursued them. Over the straps of cocktail dresses and smoking cigars, glanced askance as we checked wallet phones, the ridges of an old volume emerged in our line of vision. Above restaurant booths, in a corner we hadn’t noticed before, a stuffed wombat from the time of Cortez, a twig bearing a hummingbird nest, a ten-cent piece inset for scale. We took our time coming back from the lavatory to confirm what we had seen. Indeed, the book spines and pedestals bore numbered labels typed long before we were born. The City seal appeared in purple ink at the fore edge of closed volumes.

The more we found of the collection—in pawn shop windows, outdoor bazaars, waiting rooms—the more vivid and inscrutable the uncollected, which piled at our feet in windswept detritus, and rose to the sky in towering opacities. The pigments on a pottery shard, the legs of a dung beetle, the oar recovered from the last great disaster at sea, all hinted at a secret order, now dispersed invisibly throughout the quadrants of the city.

Dissembling a growing panic, we approached the city’s representatives themselves. What had happened, we inquired, to the Library’s collections, so vast and comprehensive that a full catalog was never completed? We had no plans to claim any of what remained; to possess a mere volume or artifact would only recall the missing whole.

The contents had been claimed, we were told, before the call abruptly cut.

Popcorn and concession candy staled as we recognized the map pinned with a fictional president’s campaign strategy in the latest war room thriller. Volumes lent credence to law offices, hotel lobbies, bank vestibules, furniture displays. We stared through transparent reflections at the growing array.

We gathered outside the abandoned Library. If we encountered any barriers warning of impending demolition, they fell with little effort. The revolving doors spun smoothly as they gathered us towards the central stairway. We ascended the bowed marble, faster as we reached the top. Before us rose a ziggurat of empty shelves, diminishing to a point far above. The spaces between were wider than we remembered when, as children, we could barely run a finger between the bottom of one shelf and the row of books below. We tested the lowest rung. The surface was firm, withstanding the pressure of hands and feet. With some effort, we folded ourselves into place, nestling back against the dark concrete, the coolness of metal bracing our heads.

~~

Pedro Ponce is the author of Dreamland, a dystopian noir novel that is being published in serial form by the Satellite Collective’s online journal Transmission.