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.

First Contact

Daevid Glass


One twilit morning late in August, mere weeks after the Curiosity rover landed on Mars to look for evidence of alien life, alien life landed on Earth for the only time in the planet’s history.

It plopped onto a pavement in residential north Oxford, plunging to its demise from the skies.

It had the texture of a starfish with the plumpness of an overripe mango and was curled in on itself like a human foetus. It went unnoticed until a lurcher sniffed it during a morning walk. The dog found it uninteresting and moved on to a musky lamppost.

Half an hour afterwards a sparrow had a go at it, nibbling off a morsel here and there, but the bird soon gave up and sat squat and puffed up beneath a sickly elm.

Later, a passing child kicked it rolling into the unseen shade beneath a hedgerow. By sunset the flies had seen it off.


Daevid Glass reverse-engineers morsels of reality and extracts their meaning, injecting this concentrate into carefully assembled words and hoping for a positive outcome. This process began when, as a child in Essex, a school teacher asked him to write a poem about a rocket launch. He hasn’t stopped writing since. He lives in Oxfordshire and is working on his novel, Resuscitating God. Find out more here.

Divorce

Shirley Hilton


Her mother asked, “What do you plan to do now?”

“Take up lots of space,” she replied.


Shirley Hilton writes in multiple genres, never knowing which she is creating until the words appear on the page, and at times not even then. She is also an accidental lyricist for award-winning Jazz musician Ryan Middagh. Her writing has most recently appeared in Backchannels, Cedar Valley Divide, and Lyrical Iowa.

The Stone

Eleanor Silk


When Hob the baker’s son whispers that the cows speak to him, I tell him to stay far away from Madam Thistle and that bloody tavern of hers. It’s not right. 

He’s not been right for days. It’s to be expected; his wife’s having their third and it’s not been smooth sailing according to him. I tell him to pray, but mostly because I don’t want to broach the subject any more than he does. Me and Maggie are expecting our first, and the last thing we want is any bad luck. 

“A stone, Mik,” he gasps, “a stone… red as anythin’, right there in the middle of the milk pail…” 

Can’t understand the man. Too much mead and too many humours, I decide. I offer him some leeches, you know, draw the bad blood out. He shakes his head and says they tell him they’re suffocating. 

I avoid him for a bit, but a few days later I’m out in the field and every man and his wife are running down into the square. Curious, I follow, and Hob’s there, writhing. Everyone’s gathered around him, and there’s some kids hovering, pebbles in hand.

He’s brick red and screaming, screaming as if he’s been set alight. There’s some crows circling, and I swear they’re laughing; their cries mingle with the kids’ braying as I prop Hob up and drag him off. There’s blood down his chest where he’s smashed his face into the ground.

I clean him up, and hand him over to the farthest inn I can find, one where the news hasn’t yet reached. God, I’ve never seen a grown man cry like that before. He kept looking at me, not really looking, because his eyes weren’t right. They were all funny, all dead-looking. He kept saying ‘red’ but it wasn’t really the word, more a long, agonising groan.

I’ll be taking him to the church-house tomorrow to speak to Father. Goodness knows where his wife’s got to. Or their little ones. He sobbed that they’ve left him, but I just can’t believe that. I give a bit more to the beggar outside the inn today as penance. Lord protect me from whatever’s rattling on inside his head. 

I eat my last meal quietly. The dog keeps giving me looks. Strange creatures they are; my old man reckons they know exactly what’s going on. I sleep soundly, waking up alone as I suppose Maggie’s gone to milk the cow. Don’t know why she won’t let me do it, it’s not long until the kid’ll be born and all that bending can’t be doing her any good. The dog licks my hand, reminds me gently that Maggie’ll be wanting eggs again for breakfast. I stumble into the chicken coop, and listen to them all chastise me for waking them. 

I feel my hand curl around the eggs, and jump back. Nestled among them is a warm red stone, red like the setting sun, red like old blood. 

“Not a good sign, that,” sighs a fat hen to my right.


Eleanor Silk has previously been published in literary journal Strukturris, and is currently working on her first fantasy novel. Most days she can be found knitting, baking and blogging.

Sexist

Annabel Banks


She knows it will be a boy, because she eats blue fruit; blueberries, yes, but also plums, served with aubergine and dusty, dark grapes, while she soaks the stiff red cabbage and drinks the coloured broth. There are other foods, but no strawberries, or some pinkly perfect peach. While taking her meals, she activates her aggression in controlled circumstances, watching Hollywood movies about women who’ve had enough, feeling the swell of euphoria at each justified killing as they take their third-act revenge.

The blood looked like her cabbages. She licked her lips for more.

In the daytime, she reads articles from hunting magazines and angling periodicals, or the newsletters from sites about cars. She makes new social media accounts and follows large-breasted models, aggressive CEOs, hedge fund managers and tech billionaires, scrolling page after page of their thoughts, manoeuvres, and preoccupations — or at least the ones they allow to slip from their minds to the minds of people like her — eating lunches made of last night’s leftovers, checking the balances of accounts held with high street banks.

It’s not enough. She needs more, so fires a gun, shoots an arrow, harasses women online. Hoodied and heavy-footed, she follows teenaged girls through darkened streets, imagining she can smell the flood of their pheromones, the stink of fear, breathing deeply as she thinks of her body’s delivery system, tiny globules of hormones balancing her blood.

She gave birth. The baby’s passage from womb to world is long, with pain like a guillotine blade, like a punch, like pain from food poisoning or from a torturer being appraised.

Congratulations, they say, on your beautiful child. She looks just like you. Just like you.


Annabel Banks‘s work can be found in such places as Granta, The Manchester Review, Litro, The Stockholm Review and 3:AM, and has been broadcast by the BBC. Her recent collection of short fiction, Exercises in Control, is available from Influx Press. She lives in London.

New Neighbors

Mandira Pattnaik


in a new normal, is a cauldron. Always boiling. Two souls, okay, two bodies, combined, and put in a two-room apartment next to mine. Conditioned in salt and pepper, between toil and tears. Throw in a spell without work for either, a wailing bundle just too soon. We’re placed on a slow burning stove. If you happen to be here, smell it burning. A recipe failed. The other day, I overheard — their dough just too gooey. They were trying to retrieve bits. Weather turned soon enough, pans and ladles flew; shout and screams echoing back from the walls. I’m mapping out ‘where else’ scenarios, because I need to finish the only project I have at hand. I’ll be thinking out rental budgets while I’m out for a smoke. I hope they know what’s ruined is ruined. Maybe they’ll be adding wine or love; but, I’m sure, the baby will wail still and the man will be shouting more. She’ll try crying; let the whole thing simmer. She’ll be checking for tips/shortcuts, realize there aren’t any. If you’re one of us, you’ll meet her and me at the snaking queue for employment registration at the JFK Library one of these mornings. We’ll all be trying to start all over again. Quickly realize it’s no use. It might not be the worst yet.


Mandira Pattnaik writes short fiction and poetry. Recent publications include Splonk, PanoplyzineCabinetofHeed, Lunate, BrilliantFlash and Spelk. Twitter: @MandiraPattnaik.

A little more

Sarah Alcock


The bridge stands proudly on struts of experience, rising above the mist. Knowledge reaches high and far, sweeping through complexity to distant prosperity. Anxious faces peer along the route, ready to embark and I am the gatekeeper, selling tickets to their dreams. Open mouths and eager eyes, staring up at strength and skill in awe, wondering if they can ever be worthy. They pile treasure into my hands as I sing the praises of the formation and the magnificence of the land beyond. There are alternative routes, different bridges, but none shine like mine, none rise like mine, none are as straight or as true. Their amalgamated wealth buys my promises for a chosen few.

For decades the bridge has stood, and only I know its secret. Only I know the lie of its shining façade. Somewhere in construction, before I was born, mistakes were made. The seed of destruction was planted. And now great growth hides internal damage, the path looks steadfast but rotten collapse is inevitable. One day I must close the barriers. If I judge the moment correctly this edifice will remain forever admired, with me in quiet reflected glory. If I wait too long it will crumble, plunging innocents into nothing. Promises broken, I will have questions to answer; my destruction will be lengthier although just as complete.

But it can endure a few more footsteps. A few more coins in my hand. A little more weight on the fatigued structure.

I’m sure it can.


Sarah Alcock began writing in 2016, inspired by the success of a childhood friend. Her first short story, ‘The Manor’, won the monthly Dark Tales prize in 2018 and her flash fiction ‘Lucky’ was published in the Writer’s Retreat UK Super Shorts 2019 anthology. In 2020, her flash fiction ‘Drowning’ was long-listed in the Writers’ HQ quarterly competition. Sarah lives with her husband and two children in Buckinghamshire. An introvert with a keen interest in human behaviour, Sarah has a degree in psychology and works in online learning design. Hobbies include angsting over her first novel and planning the next family holiday. Find out more here.

The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Camel

David Henson


The boy didn’t remember when he first wanted to be a camel. Maybe when he was learning about animals that start with C in first grade. Maybe sooner. Perhaps the desire had huddled in him since birth. 

The boy felt if he behaved like a camel, he might become one. He began to bellow after he spoke. He grazed in the back yard and asked his parents for a potted cactus so he could toughen the inside of his mouth. He tried to sleep standing up, but realized that would require much practice. 

The boy knew camels could go months without water. Because he wasn’t a camel yet, he decided to start with a week. When his parents realized what the boy was doing, they put a cup to his lips and forced him to sip. The boy spat out the water. He hated to be disrespectful but knew it was a camel’s nature to spit when upset. 

The boy’s parents asked his sister to talk some sense into her brother. 

“It’s really stupid to go without water.” the sister said.

The boy squinted to keep the blowing sand of her words out of his eyes. “You won’t think so when I’m a camel.”

“Whatever.”

The parents took their son to the hospital to be hydrated intravenously. A counselor visited the boy and asked why he wanted to be a camel. 

“Because” the boy said. He was immediately embarrassed by his childish answer so he bellowed. 

The counselor pointed out that just because a camel can go without water, doesn’t mean it will if it doesn’t have to. The boy hadn’t thought of this and agreed to drink water if his parents took him home. 

The mother and father hoped a breakthrough had been achieved but instead the boy’s obsession gripped him even more tightly. He refused to go to school because what use is arithmetic and grammar to a camel? Each time the boy’s parents pressured him to behave normally, he snorted and seemed about to spit.

One morning the mother went to her son’s bedroom. Instead of her son, she found a camel. She screamed the father and sister into the room. 

The father wept and accused the sister of spiriting away the boy and replacing him with the camel. 

“You would’ve heard the beast climbing the creakwood stairs in the night,” the sister said.

The camel bobbed his head, but no one noticed. 

The father ran to the closet, looked under the bed then knelt and buried his head in his hands. The mother and sister continued throwing accusations and denials.

The camel watched the three shout and sob. He was sorry to upset them. Even sorrier for their flat backs and short eyelashes. He felt the tug of the desert thousands of miles away. Beyond the sand were forested mountains. A beautiful place to be a moose, the boy who became a camel imagined.


David Henson and his wife reside in Peoria, Illinois. His work has been nominated for Best of the Net and Best Small Fictions and has appeared in various journals including Pithead Chapel, Moonpark Review, Spelk, and Eunoia Review. Find him at his website and on Twitter (@annalou8).

Flowers for My Daughter

DL Dowling


“I can’t begin to imagine what you’re going through, Kay.”

That’s my best friend, Sally. And she’s right. She can’t imagine.

I’m using my imagination now: I see Beth, walking down an aisle, her arm threaded through Pete’s, as he leads her to the man of her dreams. This man of her dreams would love her, cherish her and… look after her. Better than I did? No, that’s unfair, I did look after her. It was taken out of my hands.

I imagine my grandchildren playing in my garden, running into their grandmother’s arms. My arms. 

I imagine dying. I imagine dying before Beth. The way it should be.

I look up from the table as Pete enters the kitchen.

“She’s here.” He touches my shoulder: “Come on love. It’s time.”

I sway as I get up from the chair. I put one foot in front of the other. Pete leads me out of the kitchen and towards the front door. I turn to look for Sally. She’s right there, behind me, pressing a tissue to her eyes.

Daylight invades my darkness. I pull sunglasses down from my head, onto my eyes. Black clothes. Black car. Black day. Everything; black as the cancer that brought this day here.

I force my eyes to look into the back of the car. A white coffin. Beautiful lilies, white and pure, pure as my beautiful little girl, who lay inside.


DL Dowling is the Editor of Secret Attic.

Communicating With Cheese

Steve Lodge


I made my way through the wet car park to the Institute Of Puthing building in Ringstad, the capital of Belzonia. This would be the third time I was to hear Dr Quadrant Ears speak on the subject of “Communicating With Cheese”.

Such opportunities to hear Dr Ears were becoming less frequent since he married the actress, Nola Lovelock, who almost never allowed him out of her sight unless she was filming in the Egyptian desert or Paris.

I forget where Nola was, but the good doctor occupied himself with another of his Cheese Talk tours. The Institute of Puthing was my best option to see him as I don’t need a visa when visiting Belzonia. Some years ago, I had donated a stilt and striathlete motif to the Fledgling Sportsklub of Ringstad and have been treated as something of a minor celebrity/mentor ever since.

I looked down the Boulevard Of Heroes as I stood outside the venue, nibbling camembert and brie blended to my own recipe with wasabi and Otis Atomik Mustard Preparation. I’d had some good times in this desperately shabby city. Famously, ‘Mule’ Edgar’s Silent Band played a gig here in 1972. It was memorable in ways that only jazz gigs can be when they are held in small, smoky clubs with 500 people crammed into a space that looked full with only the bar staff in it. The club was The Coldhead Aubergine, owned by Professor Olaf Flute, a good friend of Dr Ears, who lectured in Advanced Football Statistics at the Ringstad University of Belzonia.

The gig lasted over 3 hours, during which the band only played one song, their haunting “Find The Lady”. There was no encore. “Find The Lady” was later adapted and translated by Belzonian Poet Laureate, Istvan Manuskript-Texte, and is to this day the National Anthem of Belzonia, under the bonkers title, “Music With Belzon”. The original song was, of course, written by ‘Mule’ and long-time band member, Kieron Wolfe. Kieron left the band in 1985, blaming musical differences and a long-running feud over royalties. He later formed a band called ‘Disturbed Rabbits’ and was never heard of again.

My mental meanderings were brought to a rude conclusion when screams were heard coming from the auditorium. Jolted into action, I replaced the camembert and brie blend in my raincoat pocket and ran inside. Dr Ears’ secretary, Ingrid Kaltenbrunner, was sobbing uncontrollably. Then I saw why. Dr Ears lay on the floor surrounded by his notes. His face covered in what looked like Minstralig Veined And Lightly Tickled Triple Matured, his favourite cheese. He would not be the first to have taken too much of this massively powerful vintage Belzon speziale from the Minstralig family dairy in the nearby town of Kontaminatsi.


Steve Lodge is a wandering minstrel from London, now living in Singapore. By day he sells food ingredients and by night he writes short stories, poems/lyrics and plays. Prior to lockdown he has acted on stage, TV and film and done stand up comedy and improv, and played in a band.