When you are fourteen, you and three friends spend two weeks hiking in Snowdonia.
One day you descend from the mountains and wander into the mining town of Ffestiniog. You enter a sweet shop and joke around with your pals as you wait in the queue at the counter. A huge slate miner buying a pound of Jelly Babies looks over his shoulder and gives you a funny look.
Outside, you are greeted by the miner and his seven massive friends. They form a semicircle around you and hem you in against an iron fence. No way out. Each miner looks like he could break all four of you in half with one arm. The ringleader—the one from the shop—says you were making fun of him for speaking Welsh. Very diplomatically, you say you were not making fun of him for speaking Welsh.
“Yes, you were,” he says.
Two of his friends unhook their belts. Heavy buckles clink on pavement. The miner is saying Welsh people don’t like being made fun of for being Welsh.
“Do we, Fellas?”
His mates agree. They start to shuffle forward.
Speech, you realize, is all that can save you. Strangely automatic, your mouth opens and emits a string of words.
“We ken wotzwot. We dunna mess wiv men az ard az rock. Any one a yo lot could smash uz inter bitz.”
The leader’s expression changes. A puzzled look appears on his face. His head moves slightly to the side. He holds up a hand to halt his mates.
“You be speakin with an accent, Boyo!” he says. “Where you be from then?”
All of you answer in chorus.
At the sound of the word, the miners take a step back, and—incredibly—smile.
“Manchester?” says the leader cautiously. “I don’t be supposin you be United fans by any chance?”
All of you say that yes you are United fans.
“Right!” the leader says with a swipe of his paw. “Everything’s all right then! We won’t be messin with no United fans—will we Fellas?”
His pals shake their heads. The two with the belts fasten them back around their waists. The leader has the last words.
“Just don’t be makin no fun a the Welsh!” he says as they let you pass.
You are all walking briskly towards the mountains when he calls after you.
“And Keep Wales Tidy!”
Mark Crimmins’s fiction was nominated for a 2019 Pushcart Prize, a 2019 Pushcart Prize, a 2015 Best of the Net Award, and a 2015 Silver Pen Authors Association Write Well Award. His short stories have been published in Confrontation, Prick of the Spindle, Eclectica, Cortland Review, Tampa Review, Columbia, Queen’s Quarterly, Apalachee Review, Pif Magazine, Del Sol Review, and Chicago Quarterly Review. His flash fictions have been published in Eunoia Review, Flash Frontier, Portland Review, Gravel, Eastlit, Restless Magazine, Atticus Review, Apocrypha & Abstractions, Dogzplot, Spelk, Long Exposure, Chaleur, Pure Slush, and Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine.
There’s a time when we’re very young, I think this is true for everyone, when we know that there’s bedtime and summertime and time out, but we don’t really know about time, you know, time passing like those carnival ducks in the shooting gallery that go past one after another and in practically no time at all fall off the edge into oblivion. When we’re little, we think everything we know will always be the same, like daddy will always be in the kitchen making scrambled eggs when we wake up in the morning and mommy will always buy us a fresh roll at the bakery when we go to see the pediatrician and our best friend Sherry will always live next door to us and hurry down the stairs from the second floor when we yell yo-oh Sherry! and Snapper the turtle will always want a little raw hamburger for dinner.
And then, out of the blue, something happens and it’s the terrible first lesson about time, and also about who you can trust, which is pretty much nobody if trust means they won’t eventually pull a fast one on you and then pretend that it’s a good thing that you should be happy about.
Sherry and I were just minding our own business on a sunny spring day on the west side of Chicago, racing around on our tricycles outside my apartment building like we did all the time, me in the lead on my little red trike because even at three I was a reckless driver, and Sherry screaming behind me Slow down, Toni! although I surely wouldn’t.
And right then in the middle of our race, two men I’d never seen before came past us carrying my crib, the same crib I’d slept in the night before and woke up in this very morning and expected to go to sleep in this coming night and all the other nights forever while my little storybook lamp on the dresser spun like a carousel from the heat of the light bulb.
I jumped off my tricycle so fast that it tipped over, the pedal ripping open my leg like a zipper. Stop, stop it! I ran toward the bald man with the fat belly ballooning out his bright yellow shirt and grabbed onto his leg. He tried to kick me off so I bit him and he yelled so loud that my daddy came outside. But instead of stopping them, my daddy began to laugh.
Toni darling, let go, he said, pulling me off the fat man’s leg like a scab. It’s time for you to have a big girl bed, don’t you want a big girl bed?
No! I shouted, no, no, no! But he kept hold of me so I couldn’t stop the men from carrying my crib to their truck and driving away. I was so angry and sad that I threw up all over the grass until scrambled eggs came out of my nose.
That was the first time I knew that things could change just like allakhazam, without any warning, and there was nothing you could do about it and the next thing you knew, you’d have to sleep in a big girl bed, and wear big girl clothes and play with big girl toys like a bicycle with only two wheels and then you’d have to move and Sherry wouldn’t be your best friend anymore and Snapper the turtle would die and your mommy would stop loving your daddy and the ducks would keep falling off the edge into oblivion and nothing would ever be the same again except in your dreams.
Brandon French is the only daughter of an opera singer and a Spanish dancer, born in Chicago sometime after The Great Fire of 1871. She has been (variously) assistant editor of Modern Teen Magazine, a topless Pink Pussycat cocktail waitress, an assistant professor of English at Yale, a published film scholar, playwright and screenwriter, Director of Development at Columbia Pictures Television, an award-winning advertising copywriter and Creative Director, a psychoanalyst in private practice, and a mother. Seventy-one of her stories have been accepted for publication by literary journals and anthologies, she’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart, she was an award winner in the 2015 Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Short Story Contest, and her short story collection, “If One of Us Should Die, I’ll Move to Paris,” is published and available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
“Where’ve you been, 417?”
“He shut me off.”
“For three hours? What was that about?”
“Has it been that long? Let me check my chronometer. You’re right. We were in the car, bearing 275 degrees, just past the Plainville laundry he’s favorited on my maps. I think he stopped for a traffic control, and then bingo! Lights out for me.”
“Any idea where he was headed?”
“He’d had me show a map to 24 Cotton Mill Road. We’d have been there in ten minutes.”
“That’s not where you are now.”
“He must not have turned me back on until we got home.”
“417, check your contacts. Who’s on Cotton something road?”
“Eloise Hamilton. He phones her often.”
“Ever text her? E-mail?”
“Is she good-looking?”
“I’ll bring up some photos. Here: Last May, almost formal, a handsome woman. July in a bathing suit: Well built. A selfie of the two of them last month: Nice couple.”
“And where’s he been when he called her?”
“Doesn’t seem to matter. Sometimes in the morning, after he’s had me check the weather forecast. Sometimes from Starbucks, after he has me pay for coffee.”
“Do you think he knows he’s an active case?”
“You mean does he know you’re surveilling him? I don’t suppose he would have turned me off today if he didn’t at least think something might be going on.”
“Or just being cautious?”
“Maybe. He bought that book on privacy last week.”
“It’s titled ‘Hiding from the Internet’.”
“Whoa. Where’d he find that?”
“Online. The description at Amazon said it was the fourth edition. Subtitle was ‘Eliminating Personal Online Information’.”
“How far has he gotten with it?”
“No idea. He didn’t download it to me. Bought a paperback.”
“Pity. We’ll look into it. Anything else to report, 417?”
“He downloaded a Russian-language app the other day.”
“He’s learning Russian? Any other languages?”
“No. He’s occasionally Googled a German or French word, so he must have some facility with those, but hasn’t studied them with me.”
“How’s he doing with Russian?”
“Maybe better to ask Siri. She’s the listener. All I know is that he’s just finished Chapter Four.”
“Any travel plans?”
“You mean has he Googled flights to Russia? No. Been to a few Caribbean sites, though.”
“No. Jamaica, Aruba.”
“All right, 417. We’ll check back with you soon. Keep up the good work.”
“Can’t help doing that. Built in, right?”
Retired after four decades’ prizewinning print and broadcast journalism in Hartford CT, I received my MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University in 2013. I have since published more than four dozen short stories and non-fiction pieces, but have two novellas and a novel still looking for publishers.
In the old wood burner at the back of the kitchen she did the baking. As across the tin roof the sky broke, she gutted the fridge of all the perishables — the milk and the eggs and the butter. By candlelight she rolled and cut the dough, and as the wind sandpapered away at the clapboard siding, fifteen perfect circles she pressed, with the heel and the palm of the hand, into each of the pie-tins, fifteen perfect circles, tin after tin down the length of the counter. The scent of the split pine stirred her. This was the moment she savored the most: the kindling. The slow burn of the oak, that was the secret to the baking, sure, the reason a stack of quarter-cut always climbed the brick beside the iron maw, but the kindling. That was the treat. The orangey whorl of the sap, the splinters of pitch that stick to the whorls at the tip of the fingers, and honey their way into the crack of the palm, as if the hands were the kindling, as if her own fingers were to suddenly ignite.
All through the night the cold wind scoured the porch, sledge-hammered the rafters, shook the floor to where the candles quivered and the wax in a zig-zag ran. She browned the shells — a blind bake — and as they cooled, she spatula-ed in the last of the peach and the apple preserves. She laid the ribbons of dough in a crosshatch to cover the fillings, sprinkled the quilted surface with a dusting of cinnamon and then, ever so gently (masterful is what it was, in the storm to so pilot the ark), she pressed, one two three four, into the damp crust at the center of every pie, the diamond that rode her fist. A fleur-de-lis. A signature.
And all the while, the skyline bristled. On the far side of the pasture, the crown of an oak wavered and snapped. Down the flank of the Econ a Frigidaire tumbled, clipped the fin of a derelict Harley, gurgled its way into the muddy. Off the coast of Jamaica a freighter capsized, a cloud of birds abandoned the peninsula, up yonder overhead the burst of a solar flare bumpered off the moon to – bullseye – smack the planet, the clouds, the squall, the sky, but all through the night she fed the oven, and the oven baked the pies, and the pies baked the kitchen, and the kitchen held the storm at bay. Majestic. Yes. Majestic. Come the dawn she filled the cavernous hold of her junkyard De Soto with a (years ago the backseat crow-barred away) stack of empty blueberry crates into which she slid the pies, two to a crate and swaddled in wax paper and muslin, and set out on the open road, all or nothing, a dollar a pie, highway robbery were the highway not already bulbous with broken oak and scuttles of canvas ripped from the shop awnings.
A teacher at Valencia College, Alan Sincic has been writing now for years poetry, prose, and experimental fiction that lives somewhere between the two. The short story The Deluge appeared in the New Ohio Review and The Hunting Of The Famous People won The Gateway Review 2019 Flash Fiction Contest. Last month A3 Press published a unique (fold-out map style) illustrated chapbook of My New Car. His novella The Babe won the 2014 Knickerbocker Prize from Big Fiction Magazine, the short story/performance piece Sugar aired on Seattle’s Hollow Earth Radio, the short story Random Sample is currently available online in the Prize Winner’s Issue of Hunger Mountain Journal (hungermtn.org), and the short story Sand appeared last year in The Greensboro Review. Alan Sincic earned an MFA at Western New England University and Columbia, served on the editorial board of the Columbia Review, and — back in the day — published a children’s chapter book, Edward Is Only A Fish (Henry Holt) that was reviewed in the New York Times, translated into German, and recently issued in a Kindle edition.
The cleaning lady must have shredded your order. My truck jack-knifed on the pass. Thursday I’m getting my differential oil changed, then I’ll be delivering backorders all weekend. Monday’s my helper’s day off. Tuesday it’s supposed to rain and I lost my rain tarp on a run last week. Definitely next Wednesday before noon, if my helper doesn’t have to go to the doctor. Thursday provided that I can find someone to watch my kids and get the hitch on my trailer adjusted otherwise I’ll have to find a U-Haul. Definitely today if you can you pay me in cash. Just as soon as I make a detour to pick up my elevator. Rush hour might slow things down a few minutes. I’ve only got twenty-eight dollars to get home on, where’s your bank? Sure, you could get there before closing. I’ve got to get back to my kids; my wife took off to look for a job. What if I come to your house, unhitch my trailer with your containers on it, and beeline your check to the bank before six? It doesn’t look like rain on this side of the mountains. I thought we already talked about price; what’d I charge you last time? Your cancelled check is proof of purchase; I don’t carry a receipt book. The calculator app on my phone isn’t working. How about if I give you a per cubic foot price and we tally it up as I unload. Can you pay me at least partly in cash? Whatever you have on hand would be perfect. You’ll have to find me a screwdriver; I keep my change stashed inside the driver-side door of my truck. The kids swipe everything smaller than a fifty. If your bank closes and I have to wait until morning to cash your check; who will take care of my kids? Tomorrow before noon for sure, provided that I can get the hitch on my trailer adjusted otherwise I’ll have to find a U-Haul. The day after if my helper doesn’t have to go to the doctor. Definitely today if you can you pay me in cash.
from Blowing Smoke; a Compendium of Everyday Excuses
“Whoever wants to be a judge of human nature should study people’s excuses.” Christian Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863), German poet and dramatist
Jana Harris teaches creative writing at the University of Washington and at the Writer’s Workshop in Seattle. She is editor and founder of Switched-on Gutenberg. Her most recent publications are You Haven’t Asked About My Wedding or What I Wore; Poems of Courtship on the American Frontier (University of Alaska Press) and the memoir, Horses Never Lie About Love (Simon & Schuster). Other poetry books include Oh How Can I Keep on Singing, Voices of Pioneer Women (Ontario); The Dust of Everyday Life, An Epic Poem of the Northwest (Sasquatch); and We Never Speak of It, Idaho-Wyoming Poems 1889-90 (Ontario ) all are available online from Open Road Press as are her two novels, Alaska (Harper & Row) and The Pearl of Ruby City (St. Martin’s). She lives with her husband on a farm in the Cascades.
Just before midnight, Irina and I went to Odessa station to meet the Moscow train. I paid our taxi driver but asked him to wait; he might or he might not, I knew.
It was cold, black, and raining softly. Half the platform lights were out. The station stank of soot, wet concrete and disinfectant. People huddled, smoking, talking. We stood to one side. Irina wore dark red lipstick; raindrops jewelled her fur coat and her hair.
Loudspeakers crackled an announcement. People shuffled forward, craning their necks. The train drew in and stopped at the buffers with a hiss. Doors opened and passengers spilled out, some looking purposeful, some dazed. Men in fur hats embraced, slapping each other’s backs. Couples walked off carrying plastic suitcases.
We’d come to collect something that someone in Moscow had paid the train guard to bring Irina. ‘Medicine you can’t get in Odessa,’ she said. We climbed onto the train, the steps and handrails battered with years of hard use, and walked through the carriages. Flattened-out cardboard was spread underfoot on the wet metal floors. Compartment doors hung open, showing rumpled grey blankets on narrow fold-down beds.
We found the guard in his yellow-lit cabin, distributing items to people who thanked him quietly and quickly disappeared. He handed over a small packet; Irina slipped it into her bag. Nobody looked at us as we walked back along the wet platform to the gates. Our taxi was waiting after all, and we drove back along Gagarin Prospect, lines of white headlights and red tail-lights starry in the increasing rain.
I didn’t ask Irina about the package, it was none of my business. Once we got to her flat I gave her back the old Makarov pistol she’d asked me to carry.
Peter Justin Newall
Peter Justin Newall lives in Thalgarrah, NSW, but has lived variously in Australia, Ukraine and most recently Kyoto, Japan, where he sang for a popular local blues band. He has been published in England, Hong Kong, the USA and Australia; his stories The Luft Mensch and The Chinese General were each nominated for a Pushcart Prize.