The rain tapped against the window intermittently for days, hypothetical ellipses leading nowhere, until noon today, suddenly intensifying into staccato exclamation points. Monsoon season arrived during the bus ride back from the clinic at Hannam ogeri.
Not impossible to get an abortion in Korea, despite what the first doctor said, immediately offering to perform an ultrasound in his neat, contraction-free English. “We cannot do that. Would you like to see the baby?”
This clinic is forty minutes away on the 110A, on the same block as all the embassies: not behind, tucked away on a backstreet, but right on the corner, like a welcome mat. The clientele is exclusively foreign, save one Korean woman, clinging to the arm of a boy no more than 19, so blond he’s nearly translucent, the faint lines of his veins showing through his crew cut. Her nails dug gouges into his forearm, but the rest of her body angled away from him. If not for the armrest, she’d topple to the floor. At least she caught him, brought him here, even if the welts on his arm say he’s still trying to get away. Every other woman in the waiting room sits alone.
The clinic accepts cash payments only. The borrowed credit card of a pragmatic, unflappable coworker who comes from money and enjoys the association with something sordid isn’t going to cut it. Five days before the next available appointment to scrape together sixteen hundred dollars. The receptionist still demands two hundred for the appointment today, for taking up time that could’ve gone to another patient.
Did they say cash-only on the phone, their meaning lost between the language barrier and the code words?
Women, foreigners especially, in this part of Korea must be prone to problematic miscarriages, judging by the quantity of grimaces in the waiting room, the dozen pairs of eyes focused just to the left of the television. These women, all waiting to see a doctor who will record they underwent non-prosecutable evacuations.
He transferred to Japan a month ago, Seoul to Osaka, left Korea in a haze of Jagerbombs and shitty beer and cigarettes and fibbing about the condom. Everyone was thrown out of the bar at 4am, proceeded to the norae bang, where he spat the entire Eminem oeuvre, sharp joy evident with every over-enunciated bitch and faggot. It was well into Sunday morning before collapsing together on the apartment floor, because it was only going to be the once, and the sheets are clean, washing them again too much of a hassle. Worse, somehow, that he lied in the daylight, lied when he was mostly sober. Worse to have lain there and let the lie happen.
It’s impossible to leave a place entirely: a sock behind the dryer, a book lent and never returned, old text messages from now-defunct numbers. In all the ways that matter, though, he will be gone entirely by Thursday next.
Tristan Durst is a graduate of the MFA program at Butler University, where she served as the fiction editor for Booth. She will, no lie, step on your baby’s face if there’s even an 11% chance it gets her off an airplane half a minute faster.
It was evening. We were standing near a line of trees that looked like conifers; the sky was darkening behind the trees. It was time to go back. This was the last crossing: our damaged equipment would permit no more. We had seen things that were almost impossible to believe. Ahead of us, our scientist turned a dial as her assistant busied himself next to her, attaching leads, connecting wires. Before long we saw the familiar blue flames, the portal hanging in torn space. One by one we stepped through. As soon as we emerged on the other side, we hurried down the corridor and up the stairs: it was necessary to conceal the equipment. We had already been away for too long.
In the small room at the top we worked quickly, boarding up the passage to the stairway, dragging bookcases across the room.
One of us stopped working. It was the scientist’s father. He looked around curiously, as if he had forgotten something, pushing between us, peering short-sightedly into the corners of the room. When he didn’t find what he was searching for, he looked at us, searching our faces for what we all knew, although none of us knew how to tell him. As his eyes looked up to one of us, that one of us would look towards another helplessly, who would then shrug and turn his own gaze towards a third, who herself would look away with a small gesture of impatience towards a fourth, and in this manner his terrible expression was deflected between us like a beam of light, until, with a sudden violent gesture he began undo our work, shouting and dragging the bookcases away.
But the bookcases were too heavy; he took the books down from the shelves, but the piles of books proliferating at his feet made it impossible for him to drag the bookcases away; and when we, taking pity on him, began to help, we ourselves only blundered, getting in his way and in each other’s way; and when at last we had removed the bookcases, it still remained to pull the boards away from the boarded-up passageway; and with every new delay, he became more frantic and inconsolable, and we milled around and watched him, hardly knowing what to do.
Then, quite suddenly, the way was clear. I followed him down the passageway and down the stairs. The portal was still open, burning at the end of the flickering corridor. It was difficult even to move through its blue light; impossible to actually approach it. Through it we made out, for the last time, the scientist and her assistant making an adjustment to their apparatus, preparing to close the portal forever.
The scientist’s father raised his hand. He was crying inconsolably. The scientist, glancing up through the portal, stopped and raised hers. They stood there for a moment, looking at each other through the burning doorway. Then it flickered and went out.
Tom Payne lives in London. His work has previously appeared in Lighthouse and The Sun.
The last night I slept soundly was the night before my wheezing father announced the succession. He named me – his daughter – as his heir. He hoped aloud that my brother would advise me faithfully. The pulsing vein in Damian’s forehead suggested otherwise. With one word my father had severed our fraternal connection more effectually than any witch’s curse.
I sit up in bed watching the candle-gleam on the door handle, making certain it doesn’t move. Four guards stand watch outside. The points and hilts of their too-long swords scrape the stone of the narrow corridor. My clock chimes three. Four. Five. I doze…and rise…and drift.
Father dies. My soul screams; my desiccated eyes are tearless.
I order a spinning wheel brought to my room; and the motion of my hands allows me to stay awake. I watch the gleam. A week goes by thus, or a year.
“You don’t deserve to be Queen,” says Damian.
Phantasmagoric creatures haunt my darkness – no beneficent elves, these. Sinister witches leap from the fireplace’s shadows; a dragon bars my escape.
At my coronation banquet, my taster grows purple – and still. Damian is strangely unruffled.
The replacement is the dead boy’s sister. Her lip trembles; she hugs me. The ladies-in-waiting hiss; I hush them, and stroke her mouse-colored hair. Her breath is warm against my chest.
Something boils within me.
I address my captain of the guard: “Teach me to fight.”
He laughs – then remembers his place. “Your highness –”
“That was not a request,” I intone. “Captain.”
My sword arm droops; I feint altogether faintly; I forget his corrections after mere moments. He peers into my face. “Forgive me, your highness…you look exhausted.”
“Again. Let’s try it again.”
My captain doubles the guard and arms them with knives: “You’ll be safe.” The blue has fled my eyes and they blaze like fire. The clock strikes twelve, still I thrust and parry…
One night, outside my door – shouts, shrieking steel, unholy screams of men – “Don’t open the d–” roars the captain, before his words are cut sickeningly short.
The gleam pauses, dances, vanishes: In its place stands Damian. He has a knife in his hand and a sword at his waist. He hurls his knife – I drop – I draw my own sword from beneath my mattress. His blade clangs against it before I can draw breath. There is murder in Damian’s heart, and there are no good fairies coming to my aid…
I stumble into the spinning wheel, steadying myself against it even as it collapses…I prick my finger on something but manage to hold on…
…his sword kisses my neck. “Any last words?”
The man who used to be my brother has bulging blue eyes –
“Go to hell!” I cry, plunging the broken spindle into his belly. He staggers, falls, curses me, even as his blood pools.
I keep silent watch while he dies.
I send my taster back home to her mama.
I feel I could sleep for a hundred years.
Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, and Foreign Service Officer who has previously served at U.S. embassies in Africa and Asia. She calls Wisconsin home, and currently lives outside Washington, D.C.
Old Whitworth, a seventy-year-old dentist who should have retired a decade ago, endured in the practiced removal of ailing choppers. Yet his fees were a pittance in post-war years, offering irresistible rates – if you weren’t too particular about the origin of his dubious credentials.
Whitworth, white-haired, save for rounded bald spot, reddened by anger from a patient who didn’t pay! Since then, everyone paid before they graced his torturing chair?
“Two shillings for an extraction.” He would say, in a tone that defied his ethical teachings, “but only one shilling and sixpence … without anesthetic?” Some took the cheaper route, surviving to warn others of the ordeal, amongst sympathetic pub ears.
Whitworth, tamer of pain, with rusted pliers on calcium bite. He heaves upon uncared wisdom teeth, their term welcoming a sorry end. Grip rigid, clamp bending soft gums, as cursing yelps pierce the cold damp room. A single light bulb the only heat, except patient’s hot-bloodied anxiety. He yanks back and forth, the grip betraying his years, as another fractured precipice splinters from contaminated crags of white and brown. Decay is another battle.
A rinsed reprieve. Calming moments, before the onslaught continues. Whitworth composed, displaying his treasury of gold fillings to the bearer of pain. Vice-gripped, he scrapes a craggy wisdom tooth, and surreptitiously dabs medicinal swabs to spare agony. Not many taste the brandy – for one and six.
Whitworth lunges, pliers re-clamped. To and fro, up and down, aligning with victim’s high-pitch shrieks! Nerve tissues severed, gum walls oozing, blood spilling, victim coughing, and Whitworth must withdraw to permit another rinse. Pity, when he was close to seizing his volatile prey.
“It’s all in the wrist,” he explains to numb, self-invited guest, as they all are. Whitworth has no favorites, only deeds for payment.
The victim slouches deeper into the flattened leather chair, eying pliers that glisten from his own slime and spit. Crack …! Blood gushes, and Whitworth is quick to sense the moment, yanking to and fro, back and forth. Until finally, he holds the prize to relief-strewn eyes.
A wisdom tooth taken, no more to trouble, torment or chew, by old Whitworth.
Educated in England, John is an immigrant to Canada. John has non-fiction articles, travel articles, fiction and poetry published in several local newspapers and anthologies. His short fiction has appeared in the Poetry Institute of Canada, Polar Expressions and Sentinel.
Tell us about your scar. Does it hurt?
Only when I smile.
I suppose it has a story?
Yes, but not a very interesting one. I have another.
No. Another story. Would you like to hear it?
Please. Our readers would be most interested.
I was nine. There had been an accident.
An accident? Nothing serious, I hope?
A garbage truck had overturned on Bruckner Boulevard, and they were re-routing the traffic through the South Bronx. It was quite a torrid Sunday morning in July.
Not a good morning for garbage, I dare say.
No. I was seated half-naked on a curbstone picking through the bottle glass for diamonds and sharpening my popsicle stick into a defensive weapon, when a funeral procession came by—a line of stretch-limos with Connecticut license plates. One of them pulled over to the curb, the rear window went down, and a lady, a lovely lady in a black veil, asked me if I could give them directions to Woodlawn.
She was lost.
Yes, and did I think I could show her the way out of the South Bronx—and to Woodlawn Cemetery.
And could you?
I had given it a great deal of thought. She invited me to get into the back seat with her and give directions to the chauffeur.
I liked riding in that limousine. I didn’t want to leave.
Of course you didn’t.
It had air-conditioning. And a rather distinctive plum-plush interior. She let me out at the southeast corner of Jerome Avenue and West Gun Hill Road. In front of the Santa Maria bodega.
Such a sense of direction.
She thanked me for getting her there so quickly. She gave me an orange. And the Sports section to her Sunday New York Times.
For a very deserving little boy. You’ve grown since then.
“When I was a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
1 Corinthians 13. Ol’ Saul certainly knew his frijoles.
I believe that was Paul. The apostle. He experienced a conversion.
He did. Saul to Paul. Presto change-o.
His frijoles. Very good. Do you mind if I use that?
Be my guest.
To your lovely lost lady. Wherever she is.
To all my lost ladies.
Of course. Does that include me? We really must take a raincheck for dinner. I could always use an extra man.
I’d like that. If I ever get out of here.
Charles Leipart was a finalist for the 2017 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize for What Wolfman Knew, Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival; What Wolfman Knew is published in the September 2017 issue of the Jabberwock Review; Tea with the Tin Man, a flash fiction, is published in the quarterly issue 82 of Burningword Literary Journal, July 2017. Frank & Mia & Me, a flash fiction, is published in issue 7 of Panoply Literary Zine. Charles is a graduate of Northwestern University, a former fellow of the Edward Albee Foundation and a member of the Dramatists Guild. He lives and writes in New York City.
“This started when I moved to Amy’s house,” Judy said, as she and James set out for their evening stroll. It was the same stretch of the East Coast Park that they had walked every evening, for the last forty-seven years. James was still in his work clothes, a navy-blue Coast Guard uniform. Judy wore a beige top over black trousers.
“A churning in the stomach. Heart hammering loudly into my chest, drowning all other sounds. It grows faster, like going downhill on a roller coaster. My hands shake and go cold. See…”, she halted and held out her trembling hands.
James looked at them sadly and said, “I’m sorry, dear.”
They came to their usual patch of sand and sat down with some effort.
“No, don’t be. The only time the pounding stops is when you visit. When I see you, I can breathe. And think.”
James picked up a handful of sand and poured it over her fingers.
“You must come and see Amy. She doesn’t believe me when I tell her that we still go for walks. You know the way she lowers her eyes when she’s holding back something, she does that. “What did Baba say?” she asks. I told her to come here today and see for herself.” She leaned back to see if Amy was in sight. “There she comes”, she pointed to a blurry figure at distance, walking towards them.
James’s gaze followed Judy’s hand. “She is still angry. “Baba shouldn’t have gone after the little girl. The guard on duty was already there” she says. And she worries about me. Says I don’t sleep well ever since that day.” Her eyes started to feel heavy. “I don’t know…I look forward to sleep. Sometimes you come in my dreams. Of course, you’re always in this uniform.” The new Gallantry Medal glowed in the light of the setting sun.
“But there, it’s just the two of us. You don’t talk much, and when you do, you repeat the same things. That scares me more than anything”, she said, sucking in the warm air urgently. “And when it’s time for you to leave, the thud-thudding starts again, gently, from far away…I wish Amy would walk faster… and gets closer, and louder…why is she turning back? I reach out to hold you, but my hands feel heavy.” A flutter of alarm rose in her chest as James patted her hands firmly, deep under a mound of sand, and stood up.
“I call after you, but there’s no sound, only a wheezy sort of gasp. Once Amy heard it and came rushing into my room in the middle of night. But not you.”
“I’m sorry, dear”, he said, brushing sand off his clothes. He gently stepped over her buried hands and walked towards the water, footsteps in perfect rhythm with the deafening pounds that grew faster with every beat, and disappeared into the waves, again.
Nidhi was born and raised in India and currently resides in Singapore with her family. She is a business consultant by training and a writer by passion. She writes short fiction, poetry, essays and reviews. Her work has been published in Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore, Open Road Review, Mothers Always Write and Thrice Fiction and an anthology of fiction in Singapore. https://www.facebook.com/nidhi.arora.52206