The Touring Test

E. F. S. Byrne

Dad got into the car, started the engine and put the air conditioning on. He knew how hot it would become.

Frustratingly slow, the family followed. Lucia, Rosalia and Jimena piled into the back, a shower of squeals, elbow attacks and general mayhem. Finally, his wife struggled into the seat beside him, handbag still open, keys falling out, telephone bleeping.

“Are we ready?” Dad asked, trying not to lose his patience.

“Go, dad, go.”

Dad went. They hit the highway and sailed west.

“I’m hungry.”

“Stop it.”

“Leave your little sister alone.”

“Turn up the music Dad.”

The back seat rocked with chatter and the jingle of cheap jewelry. The smell of strawberry chewing gum stuck to the air. The swirl of growing banter and rising irritations made it difficult to focus on the road.

“He’s not my boyfriend.”

“He is.”

“Dad! Slow down!”

Dad lifted his foot, ground his teeth, and stared at his girls in the rear view mirror. Come on, he thought. Give me a break.

“Push over.”

“Why am I always in the middle?”

“Stop it!”

Their father tried to crowd them out, bite his tongue, focus on the traffic. He loved their excitability, but feared their wrath, the arguments when emotions boiled over.

“Not far to go.” He sounded cheerful, encouraging. He knew he was lying.

“It’s mine.”

“It’s not!”

“Girls. Please!” Their mother tried to keep her voice down. “Let your father drive in peace.”

“I’m hungry.”

“We’ll stop soon honey. Just let your father concentrate.”

“Are you concentrating dad?”

They all laughed. They liked making fun of dad, watching him grow red until the veins on his nose bubbled.

“We love you really dad.”

“But I’m still hungry.”

“Manolo! Slow down!”

His wife reached a hand across to pat his knee.

“They’re not back there.”

The woman sighed, eyes squirming with escaping tears. She withdrew her fingers. “They’re gone honey. Slow down.”

Tenderness laced her words, but Manolo was still staring into the rear view mirror at the speed cop and flashing lights. Sirens blared. Manolo swerved again. She was right. They’d gone. There was no turning back. He put his foot down.

E. F. S. Byrne works in education and writes when his teenage kids allow it. He blogs a regular micro flash story. Links to this and over fifty published pieces can be found on his website. Follow him on Twitter (@efsbyrne).


Zahirra Dayal

Sundays smelled like burnt hair because that was when you had your hair tamed. First, your aunt took your wet hair and marshalled it with crocodile-teeth hair grips. Then, she released each small section from the mouth of the crocodile and aimed the Philips blow dryer like a gun at close range.

The stretching and pulling squinted your eyes. You heard the sizzling of your singed curls. The burnt smell floated around the room and into your nose, making your nostrils flare. You sat frozen to the stool for the hour it took to wage battle with Mother Nature. After your hair was blow dried, you studied the flattened version of yourself in the oval mirror of her oak dressing table. You felt the distance widen between you and the girl in the mirror. 

“That’s better,” she said, smoothing down your brown hair with the coconut oil spread like butter on her palms.  

You could feel the edge of your freedom 

“I’m not finished with you yet!” she snapped, sensing you were about to fidget. 

You didn’t move, supressing the raging restlessness that flowed through you. She divided your straightened hair into two, rolled it into four balls which she fixed with triangular pins that dug into your scalp. Last, she put a brown stocking over your head and told you not to take it off to seal in the straightness. She was terrified that rain, humidity or any form of invisible moisture would undo all of her work in an instant; so precarious is the nature of blow-dried hair.  

“Be careful with it or it will turn frizzy and wild again,” she warned before you broke free and ran outside to play.

Now that you own your hair and your Sundays, you wash it and leave it to dry naturally. It grows bigger as the moisture evaporates. A tangled mass of untameable brown curls rises to frame your face. The woman in the oval mirror smiles back.

Zahirra Dayal is a writer and language teacher living in London. She has also lived in Zimbabwe, South Africa and The United Arab Emirates and draws from these diverse experiences. She has stories in Fahmidan Journal, Ayaskala, Small Leaf Press, Opia, Odd Mag and Melbourne Culture Corner. She tweets (@ZahirraD).

Two Stories

Martha Lane

This is a story about making popcorn

I had a silicone contraption for the microwave. But it, or the machine, bust. A kilo of kernels mocks me for surrendering to whiny cries at the shop. He wanted pop-pop, he wanted pop-pop, he wanted, he wanted.

He wants.

I want to stop making it in a pan, bopping belligerent fingers away.

‘Hot,’ I snap.

The golden pebbles burst, bright white clouds. Cumulus climbing, rising. Rolling.

The boy’s hunger is climbing. Howls rising, he’s rolling.

I consider burning his precious treat.

But I want peace.

I offer him the bowl, a ceasefire.

‘Pop-pop drop.’

It’s seconds before white clouds clutter a linoleum sky.

Birds? Here, sir. Bees? Here.

Abigail’s tooth came out in the night. She’d spent all morning waggling her slimy pink tongue through the gap. Showing anyone who couldn’t think of an excuse to get away fast enough. Moving up and down the queue like a flamingo, parading. The teacher blows his whistle, and we bustle into the classroom. Fold ourselves into the seats. Human origami.

Abigail stays standing, thrusts her gums in the teacher’s face.

“Have you been kissing boys, Abigail?”

She flushes. Her giggles ripple through the room. I concentrate on my shoes, look at where I’ve picked the stitching away, so only a shadow flower remains. Elbows dig and lips smack until the teacher calls for quiet.

Abigail flutters to her seat. Even toothless, she is very pretty. In the corner of my workbook a swarm of bees appear, stings glinting. I try not to think about Abigail kissing boys as I dig my pencil deep into the paper, wondering how hard I’ll have to push to make it crumble into dust.

Martha Lane writes in short bursts between wrangling two small children. They are an inspiration and hinderance in equal measure. Her flash has been published by perhappened mag, Bandit and Reflex Fiction, among others. She’s incredibly bored of lockdown. She tweets (@poor_and_clean).

This thread

Elizabeth M Castillo

I weave it round and round my hand. It is fine, and bright, and surprisingly resilient. Its taut lines catch the smallest hint of the day that threatens to break at my bedroom window, and I twine it tighter, lacing it like macramé between my fingers and thumb. I hold it fast, more so than I ever have before. I will not let it slip through my fingers. This time, I will not let it go.

For the past ten years it has been there, crumpled in my pocket, occasionally getting caught on my cuff or wedding band as I rummage about in there, looking for some, very likely unrelated thing. At times I imagined I felt it tugging gently at me, as if to remind me it was still there, waiting patiently to be taken up with force. With purpose. With an end.

But sometimes, life goes quiet, and the strobe lighting and bedlam are gone for an instant, and I am left with nothing but to take stock of myself. In those moments I would remember it there, stuffed unceremoniously away in the recesses of my pocket, in the recesses of my memory, and my heart. Left there, as something that is of little consequence, but persists nonetheless. Without food, nor air, nor light, and yet, somehow, still living.

It is terribly fine, and terribly fragile, and for the best part of these years I feared it ended in emptiness. Nothing there. Nothing on the other side. A memory perhaps, of classes and dresses and hopefully a little laughter, but nothing more. How could there be? There was only ever one side to this thing. I looked, and I looked, but there was no trace of anything, or anyone, at the other end. 

But just like the untamed beast that it is, my heart decided it was time to take things into its own hands. After a short labour it gave birth to a story, and with it, a small flicker of hope and its fraternal twin; a tiny drop of madness. Then I looked. I looked once, I looked again, and I looked one more time for good measure. I traced this soft, silken thing as it stretched perilously across the Pyrenees and the peninsula. It tunneled its way under the ocean, battling through the Amazon brush, braving the Atacama desert, scaling the Andes and plunging fearlessly into the restless city streets until it came to its final destination at the other end of itself.

I pull it tight, tight across my palm, and close my fingers over the dent where it is almost cutting into my skin. I hold fast to it, bringing my closed fist up to my cheek where I rest my face against it, as sleep claims me once again. I have tamed both my hope and my madness, and the threat of emptiness on the other side has left. And at such close quarters, with it so tightly wrapped around my fingers, I am sure to feel the slightest pull, the smallest tug, any movement on the other end of this terribly fine thing. 

It is the thread that anchors me to the end of the earth, to the corner of the world, to where you are.

Elizabeth M Castillo is a British-Mauritian poet, writer and language teacher. She lives in Paris with her family and two cats. When not writing poetry, she can be found working on her podcast or webcomic, pottering about her garden, or writing a variety of different things under a variety of pen names.

I trust you now, can you tell?

David Tay

It’s been 8 years since I was here, here at the barbershop a couple blocks from home. I used to call it the “cut hair shop”.

She cut more than my hair though.

What she wielded wasn’t so much a buzzer as it was a lawnmower. Too loud. Too close to my face. And then the scissors. Snip, snip, snip. What if she cut my ear? Snip, snip, snip. She never did cut me, but I’ve left the shop with my skin red and burning. Mom said that I always left the place in tears.

But how do you cut someone’s hair when they’re kicking and screaming all over the place? When they’re crying before you can even get to work? Like they don’t trust you.

Now I’m here again, eight years after. I hear a familiar chime as I open the door. She hasn’t changed, not a single bit. Silent and strong as I remember. She studies me, gestures to the seat. Does she recognise me still? Is it because of the mask?

“You’re so big already” she says. I smile beneath the mask, and I hope she sees it in my eyes.

How long? Do you want a fade? You want your sides shaved? The usual.

She plugs the buzzer in. BZZZZZ. Good old lawnmower.

I close my eyes. It’s a bit of trepidation. But really, it’s to show you that I can sit still now. I trust you. I trust your hands. I trust your juddering buzzer and your sharp scissors.

I stiffen as the buzzing closes in on my ear.

My eyes are shut.

Hair falls on my shoulder and my feet. The strands that spill in front of my eyes tickle, itches. Not going to scratch it. Not going to interrupt your work. Obediently, I tilt my head as you pin the flap of my ear to get to the sides.

Are you smiling? I can’t tell with my eyes shut. I trust you. I trust your hands. Your cold blade doesn’t frighten me anymore.

That one hurt a little. I wince, twitch, but I’m not kicking and screaming in the chair, am I?

Yes, I’m heading back to Singapore next month. Yeah, my brother’s already working. And yeah, time really does fly, doesn’t it?

David Tay is a Sarawakian studying in Singapore. His writing and photography seek to capture the emotions felt in the unconscious everyday. Find him on Twitter and Instagram (@oidavidah). ‘I trust you now, can you tell?’ is a work of creative nonfiction.

My Girl and Little Princess

Marcy Dilworth

“Go get ‘em, Little Princess,” yells the helmet-haired woman from her monogrammed camp chair on the soccer field sideline, and go Little Princess does, dribbling downfield around My Girl’s teammates, weaving through them like a slalom skier until she attacks My Girl, my solid fullback, and Little Princess jukes left and My Girl falls for it; Little Princess swings her heavy blond braid thwack into My Girl’s eye socket then elbows her right in the ribs as she completes her sortie and thumps the ball into the net and punches her fist in the air and sticks out her tongue at the goalie, but the tongue disappears in a flash and by the time she turns around she’s morphed into her junior beauty queen simper and girly squeal and like a My Little Goddamned Pony with her plaited horse’s mane and equine prance she permits her teammates to cheer and high five her as long as they step back so Mommy Helmet-Hair can snap photos of Little Princess, victorious, again.

The whistle blows. Little Princess’s kickoff bounces straight at My Girl who passes it forward, a perfect arc, but Little Princess steals the prize and steamrolls along the sideline, taunts My Girl’s teammates as they flail and fail to reclaim it. My red-faced, tight-fisted Girl runs, a calculating assassin, driving in for the kill, carrying her team on her back, flying fueled by the fury of her nine years on this planet, she runs at Little Princess – only at Little Princess – and digs her toe in the dirt, pretends she’s tripping, but My Girl’s aiming the missile that is her sturdy body and levels Mommy Helmet-Hair’s Little Princess, belly flopping, chest thudding, an earthy thump resounding when her dense braid bounces off the pebble-littered turf. The world stops for a collective inhale. Then coaches and players and parents flood the field, step over My Girl to examine and pat and fuss over Little Princess; My Girl pushes herself up, covered in dust and dirt, scuffed from cleat to cow-licked brown bob, and trots off the field sporting a serene smile and plops herself down for a breather until the drama subsides and My Girl and Little Princess meet on the field once more.

Marcy Dilworth is a recovering finance professional pursuing her love of writing. Her stories have appeared in FlashFlood, Writer’s Resist, and Literary Mama. She lives in Virginia with her husband where they serve their precocious rescue pup, Kirby. Oh, and she has a couple wonderful kids. Find her on Twitter (@MCDHoo41).

Pray with Dirty Fingers

Leah Sackett

He’s got his self-righteous fingers in your pocket, just now. He brokers the towering, stony-faced edifice of concrete and stone spirituality. He is steadfast with a hand out at the threshold of faith. This man strokes his masculine show of a robust goatee, a little too Saturday night. In his other hand he is charging fees to climb the stairway to heaven. With the slight-of-hand of a sweaty palm he opens the coffers of token-based religiosity; he delivers dogma bent on cleaving you into the fold with the absolution of your mind.

There is another way to spend your money. The spirituality that hangs out in incensed-burning storefronts selling smells and crystals. A “natural” way to include capitalism in the skein of meditation bowls and tarot cards. You exchange community and a weekly congregation for the “shaman salesmen,” leaning against the Mystic Shoppe wall. He looks familiar to you as he overcharges for the paraphernalia he sells. You dig in your pocket feeling for bill and coin. Your rummaging rains down a feeling of cardboard faith in exchange for the spending of self-respect.

Leah Sackett is a short story writer. Her debut book, Swimming Middle River, was published with REaD Lips Press in 2020. Her short story, The Family Blend, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize with Crack the Spine. Her work has won various awards such as the Gold Award in Art Ascent, Two Sisters Publishing Contest the Institute for Women and Gender Studies’ Creative Writing Award. Over 50 of her stories have appeared in literary journals. In addition, she is an adjunct lecturer in the English department and the Communication & Media department at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, where she earned her MFA. Her short stories explore journeys toward autonomy and the boundaries placed on the individual by society, family, and self. Learn more about Leah’s published fiction here.

The First Snowman of the Season

MM MacLeod

You kneel in the small front yard, scooping snow together with red-wool-mittened hands. Two inches fell, and the patches you clear show grass which no longer grows but, in its greenness, does not quite appear dead.

The first almost-spherical shape uses up half of the white blanket, so you make the second ball smaller than it should be. Once the third and smallest piece is formed it is placed on top. You pull adornments from your coat pocket: a small and crooked carrot for the nose, two black four-hole plastic buttons for eyes, and a cardboard party hat – because you could find no other headgear – for your snow being to wear. You will need to find more; a snow being needs arms and a mouth, at the very least. You find a thin fallen branch at the base of the lone tree in this yard and push it into the right side of the middle snowball. An arm. You are peckish and will have to continue later.

You are looking out the picture window at the yard. The neighbourhood dogs have visited. There is a yellow, drizzled line halfway around the bottom of your snowman, and a splotch – the size of a grapefruit – on the back of the middle ball. That was one tall dog.

Did the night pass? It is morning. You had breakfast… maybe. You go outside. There is newly fallen snow. It covers the canine artwork made the day before. The fresh snow makes the snowman new again – and blind. You wipe at where the buttons should be. Someone has removed the buttons and replaced them with pennies.

You know the nose is wrong – it doesn’t protrude the way the crooked carrot would. You wipe away the snow and see a plastic nose there – the kind from those plastic-nose-with-black-glasses disguise gags. But no glasses, just the nose.

There is red showing through the snowy chest, where a heart would be. Maybe colour seeped out of your wet mittens yesterday, and you didn’t notice. You are afraid to wipe the snow away to see what is beneath. You look around the yard – no tell-tale red drops or splotches, but you don’t touch the snowman, except to wipe away the snow from that one arm.

That isn’t a branch. It looks like… like a bone. The kind of straight pale bone with double-knob ends you would see in a cartoon. The kind a cartoon dog would have in its mouth, but it is pretty long, like lower-arm length. You pull it out of the snow, because it can’t be real; has to be plastic, a toy. But it is heavy and there is red on the end that emerges from the snow body. You drop it and run – well try to run, but it is a shuffle – into the house. You remove your mittens, and one brown-spotted and gnarled hand reaches for the telephone as you try to remember who to call for help. And you try to remember why that butcher knife is laying on the hallway telephone table. Were you carving something for dinner? Was that today? Or was it yesterday?

MM MacLeod writes fiction and poetry in Hamilton, ON, Canada. She also edits and publishes Frost Zone Zine.

Mom Wasn’t Wearing A Lampshade

David Henson

When I brought Mom back from Dad’s cremation, she walked to a corner of the living room and stood. To give her some space, I went into the kitchen and had a cup of coffee. 

When I returned, Mom appeared to have a lampshade on her head. That was surprising because Mom was never the life-of-the-party type, not to mention now was no time to be having a party. Then I realized she wasn’t wearing a lampshade – her head had become a lampshade. 

I didn’t know whether to call a doctor or an electrician so I did neither. There was no reason to be hasty because I didn’t have to get back home for a couple days.

By next morning, Mom’s transformation had progressed to where she was a floor lamp. I knew it was Mom because the base of the lamp bore a strong resemblance to her pumps. 

I was concerned that, even though it was a sunny day, Mom was on. (My folks had taught me to not waste energy.) I attempted to switch Mom off, but electricity arced from the harp and zapped me. It hurt like a son of a gun (I’ve always shocked easily), and a cartoon image of my hair standing on end and my skeleton flashing flared in my mind. 

I thought about unplugging Mom, but was afraid if I did, she might starve. How was I to know? No one in our family had ever become a lamp before. I decided that when I left town the next day, I’d leave her on. It wasn’t as if a lamp was going to meter up the utility bill washing clothes or dishes. Besides, I’d watched enough medical shows to know how important it is to first do no harm. 

I spent the day running errands, reading and talking to Mom (a strictly one-way conversation) until bedtime. 

Next morning I awoke to the sound of dishes clattering and found Mom making a big breakfast like she always did when I was home. When I told her what had transpired, she sighed and said it was ironic I would dream about her becoming a floor lamp because Dad always said she was the light of his life. 

Mom almost convinced me the whole thing had been in my mind. But when it came time for me to go, I leaned in for a hug and noticed the pupils of her eyes were shaped like tiny light bulbs.

Mom admitted she’d changed into a lamp. I reminded her how she used to warn me when I frowned that my face might freeze that way. What if something similar happened to her when she was a lamp? She said she couldn’t promise it wouldn’t happen again if her emotions got the better of her. 

What could I say? Everyone has to deal with grief in their own way. Some people transform into floor lamps. Others write a silly little story. 

David Henson and his wife have lived in Brussels and Hong Kong and now reside in Peoria, Illinois. His work has appeared various journals including Briefly Zine, Moonpark Review, Literally Stories, Riggwelter and Pithead Chapel. See more of Dave’s work on his website and follow him on Twitter (@annalou8).

Killing Time

Jan Howcroft

I’m round the back at Earlham Road, throwing a tennis ball against the brickwork on the wall that has no windows, reciting names of vegetables. Mum’s just bought elastic off the market so I’d be in the wash house Chinese-skipping, if I could, but she’s scrubbing the wash house floor and doesn’t want me trailing muck. I need to wee.

By the outside toilet there’s a white hydrangea that’s taller than me; it rained last night so when I lift the latch and push the door, water trickles down my neck. I leave the door ajar.

The walls have been distempered but the damp’s come through and there are things you just don’t want to see like spiders in the corners and the empty husks of houseflies in the webs. Grey light enters through a tiny window level with the garden, high up on the right. Outside, you can see it just above the ground.

While I sit there on the wooden seat, I hear my father digging, his sharp blade cutting into the earth. He’s going to put potatoes in. The Izal roll is damp. When I’m done, I pull the metal chain and run.  

I go to see how many spuds my dad’s put in and if he needs my help. The forsythia’s out. There’s a robin on the handle of his spade, waiting for worms. Dad’s buried the potatoes and is making furrows with a stick for beans.

‘Ugh! What’s that,’ I say, pointing at a long brown object on the earth, about the size of my little finger.

‘Don’t know,’ he says. He picks it up and turns it over in his hand. It sticks to his skin. He drops it on the concrete slab and grinds it underfoot.

‘Don’t touch it,’ he says.

For a while I practise handstands on the grey-green garage door, but I can’t stay up for long so instead I balance on the wall outside the greenhouse. Inside are dad’s geranium cuttings. If Diana was here, we’d be running our obstacle course – flicking cardboard off a jam-jar to let the sixpence fall inside, or double-skipping on the driveway – but she’s in France. I’m going to see if I can climb the apple tree.

It’s getting cold but I’m hanging on till Dad’s gone in because I want to know what the weird thing is. I can see it from my tree branch lying in its slimy stain beside the gooseberry bush.

I don’t want to touch it so I get two twigs to prise the thing apart. It’s not easy because what was round is now flat but eventually, I succeed. Then I wish I hadn’t, because you can’t un-see a thing: that the wings are bruised and shredded; that someday soon it would have been a butterfly.

Jan Howcroft lives in Essex. She started writing when she retired. Since then, she has produced a wide variety of short stories and flash fiction and her work has been shortlisted in several national writing competitions.