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By Mark Holman-Lisney
I stare out the rain-splattered window as conversation is difficult. She’s eaten all her chips but left the fish despite my cutting it up to encourage her. Bored with her food she’s now playing with the vinegar dispenser, creating a line of amber droplets on the grey Formica tabletop as she hums what could be the first line of a song, again and again.
Down over the cobbled street rivulets of water run into drains only to be leaked into the brown-grey sea less than half a mile away. A shop opposite has shrimp nets and plastic buckets hung between animal-shaped floatation rings which are being buffeted by the wind. It was the type of shop that meant everything to me when I was here as a child.
The excitement as we sat in the back seat of the car, blankets discarded into foot wells, the smell of the early morning air changing as we craned our necks for our first sight of the sea. One hand in my pocket clutching the holiday money that was the key to my dreams.
A butterfly net became my treat that year, and I’d run around the dunes making the sound of an aeroplane for some reason. I just enjoyed the thrill of swishing the net like a gladiator fighting off clouds shaped like windborne lions.
There was no sense to anything I did back then, and there didn’t need to be. Now the lack of sense gnaws at me.
She’s moved onto the sugar dispenser and is creating what might be impressionist seagulls above the vinegar seascape. It is hard to tell whether she is enjoying herself, but I’m reassured that she is occupied and not complaining.
By the second week of the holiday my net was ruined, looking as though something had burst its way through ripping the threads and combining many smaller holes into one big one. A family photo shows me gap-toothed wearing the remains of the net over my face as if captured by an overzealous explorer.
I can remember telling Mum that I was wearing the net over my head to try and catch my thoughts. She’d suggested I might need a bigger net. I used to make her laugh with quirky questions like, “Why can’t you un-spill a cup of tea?”
The waitress doesn’t seem bothered about the creativity on the tabletop but decides that the tomato-shaped ketchup dispenser requires moving when she collects our plates. She nods and winks when I order another coffee, understanding that I am willing to pay rent on our space to keep out of the rain.
My Dad used to tell the story of a drunk found walking around a lamppost searching for his keys. He didn’t think he’d lost them there, but because the light was better it seemed a good place to look. It was this type of reasoning that had sent me around the country after his death to the places where we had been on holiday, the places where the light of memory is better.
This chip-shop café could have been the same one we used to visit. It has the right vintage with a giant ninety-nine ice-cream cone jutting out into the street like a fossilised medieval fire torch, next to a sliding window through which customers are served when the weather’s better.
When my coffee arrives, I lean back to the table behind as our sugar dispenser is still in use.
Mum looks up from her drawing, eyes my sugar dispenser, twitches her face into what could be a smile and continues spilling hers onto the table.
I prefer being out in places like this because home isn’t home anymore. She’s still my mother, but I’m not sure she knows she is. Here, by the sea, it is easier to still feel like a child.
I’d brought some photographs of our holiday, but she has no interest in them. It was worth a try.
In the hospital they’ve shown me brain scans, and among the thick mesh of cells there were what looked like holes. Year after year the holes have enlarged.
These holes are perhaps where the memories are escaping like butterflies fluttering over the dunes and headlands being chased by a lost boy searching for a shared past. Sense has deserted her, and I feel myself being drawn in, painted into a corner as an indistinct piece of a crumbling landscape.
Mark Holman-Lisney’s writing is rarely let out into the wild, but he has been published in a few journals and competition anthologies. Often accused of daydreaming, he believes the key to a happy and contented life is to aim low and miss, and therefore is grateful if readers find his writing entertaining or thought provoking.
‘A’ is for Meenakshi
By S. Barb
I don’t know what I’d expected. Maybe that she’d come out speaking, smiling, eyes bright with curiosity and her mother’s carpe diem vibe.
Instead, she was a tiny, hairy, always-sleeping thing.
Until she became a sickly thing.
The four doctors in the family as well as two who owed us eventually shook their heads.
Prepare yourselves, they intoned.
Understood, replied the shaven-head priest, resplendent in fat gold bangles and a fine silk dhoti, his Rolex reliably counting down the minutes. He piously gathered the purification materials, ready to sacrifice another girl.
It might be for the best, the neighbours consoled. A girl-child is inauspicious, after all.
Our Abhithi’s a fighter, was all her father said.
Then, the maid, wide-eyed, Babaji is here.
Babaji. The village shaman.
Who apparently moonlighted as an office worker, going by his simple dress shirt and pleated pants.
And as he held knobbled hands, decades older than his unlined face, out over the tiny figure, we all held our breath.
Finally saying, Well, the good news is, we won’t need my lucky goat, and ignoring the priest’s snort.
I do need butter. All the butter you have. Bring it.
We rushed to comply, energised.
No, no, not this junk. Homemade.
Word was sent to the neighbours, who relished the chance to help such a powerful family.
You. He pointed at Abhithi’s mother, my aunt. Wash the butter 100 times in cold river water and a basin of stone until it changes colour. Apply it to the afflicted child each day.
We looked at each other, doubt replacing hope. Was that it? What could butter do?
And her name. It must change.
The doctors exchanged looks, but, as far as I was concerned, they had blown their chance. To my young mind, Babaji’s second prescription made an odd sort of sense.
Rename her for a long life, or luck, I pleaded silently. She needs it.
Meenakshi, he proclaimed.
Ew! I wrinkled my nose. Who wants the name “Eyes Like a Fish”?!
But Abhithi died that day, and Meenakshi lived.
S. Barb started coming up with stories as a child to cope with boring situations (of which there were many), a habit which followed her into adulthood. She has only recently started sharing her stories with others.
THE ROTTEN ROSE
By Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte
He bump-rolled into town in his greyscale Volkswagen bug on three good tires and an uncooperative spare. The flat tire that happened ten miles back on the desolate country road had made him anxious. The now familiar gut-wrenching disquiet was beginning its slow creep and would soon take over, breaking him down, blocking his compulsions.
Pulling into the dry dusty driveway of the Daily Night Inn, the rotten smell again filled his nostrils. It had come back to him several times as he drove from Nashville to this awful place in nowhere Texas, but no amount of searching the small car yielded any clues as to the where the now acrid odor was coming from, so he just drove on.
His destination was more important than that smell and besides, he would be rid of all that very soon. He had now arrived at the place where it would all end.
A lonely motel room. A lonely man. One shot that no one would hear.
No note. No explanation.
They would come in two days and find him only because he would not have paid for the extra night.
She was in this town so she would know soon what she had done to him. She would have to be the one to come and take care of him. He had no one else.
He was thinking about this and how she would feel when they told her. Would she be sad? Resigned? Relieved?
He was thinking about this when he banged his fist into the crumbling, fragile VW dashboard. The force of his blow caused part of the dash pad to fall away.
Right there, wedged between the broken needle gas gauge and the mileage spent odometer was the source of the smell. A dead and rotting rose, the stem still embedded in a tiny holder with just enough stagnant water to change conditions in this miniature space. She always had a rose on the dashboard in that finger sized vase. How it had gotten to this place, he did not know.
The last time he had seen that flower she had been driving and he was in the passenger seat. They were arguing about something stupid that he could no longer recall. It had not been that long ago, but he had stopped living within the measurements of time.
He picked the brown and rotting rose out of the maze of dust, hoses, numbers, and rusty wire connections to find a small sliver of paper attached.
I will always love you. No matter what. Love, Jenine
Rose in hand, the man made his way to the desk of the seedy motel and rang the bell for service.
A short, sweaty rotund man appeared and in an almost comical drawl asked,
“What can I do for you today, mister?”
If he noticed the rose, he made no mention of it.
“I’d like a room please,” the man said.
“For the night?” the clerk asked.
“For the week, please,” the man replied.
“My, I tell you that’s a surprise. We don’t get many around here who want to stay that long!” the clerk replied excitedly.
“Well,” the man said, “I am just having a feeling,”
The clerk narrowed his eyes as he turned register around for the man’s signature, “And what feeling would you be having if you don’t mind my askin’?”
Through his shining and broad smile, the man said, “Optimism.”
Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte is an award-winning, internationally published indie-author and poet. In addition to being a short story writer, she is also a highly praised novelist (Betrayal on the Bayou), teacher, presenter, panelist and speaker for writing and literary events, conferences and affinity organizations. More at www.sheryljbize-boutte.com
Also Third Place:
The Shock of Denial
By Amber Kessinger
That’s not really him . . . she chanted silently to herself as the tiny coffin lid was lowered.
That’s just a cheap wax replica.
The weight of one hundred sympathetic eyes boring into the back of her head made her scalp itch.
They are like spectators at a pageant.
Her gaze latched onto the green of an exit sign as her skin began turning into shrink wrap. The image of the empty booster seat burned into her brain.
. . . That’s not really him.
Amber Kessinger (she/her) is a neurospicy mom of four, currently residing in the Pacific Northwest.
With a degree in Psychology and a love of poetry, art, and people, she does a little bit of a lot of things.
Honorable Mention: Robert Marsas for
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