Civil War by Paula Puolakka

After the revolution, after a mob of army fanatics had helped the King to escape from his safe place in Colorado, the whole nation had spiraled into the same state it had been in the 19th century. The police forces were non-existent. All the armed resources had been pulled to Washington D.C. from the nearest states. It was true that the King was already 80 but the three decades of secluded living had made him even more dangerous. Together with his loyal cubs, he had bombarded most of the Eastern state capitals into dust. The first things he had gotten rid off were the base stations and cell towers. So far that had left a third of the country crippled. 

Golden God understood the King. It was the love and the fear of God since, though, he was the sacred one of his state, he hailed his master Kali and that meant the King. There wasn’t anyone else who had gained what he had gained before his capture and after his escape. He was a force of Nature. He was the reincarnation of Krishna in the time of Kali-yuga, the age of fire and steel. The Great Snake knew that he was a mere adder before his feet. He was the first ghetto lord who had acknowledged Kali’s authority after his escape and soon after the first three states had fallen into chaos. For a token of appreciation, the King had sent him a support group of cubs to take care of Ohio. All he wanted was that Golden God paid him taxes and publicly announced his loyalty to him.

Colson’s current status was a miracle. A year ago, he had pondered that maybe this was all: he had gained such a success with his musical career that he had been called a living legend next to Elvis. There had been only a way down, in his mind, and then the prison break had happened. The course of action during the next four months had been something from a movie. For almost a decade, Golden God had been the one who people had turned to in the time of distress. At the beginning of his career, he had cried and felt distressed by the love, admiration, and trust people had shown him. He was a nobody. He was a loser. That’s how he had felt and suddenly, he had become somebody and the rock of those who had been forgotten by the rich and famous of the society. 

When Hell had broken loose, people had automatically turned to Colson. What should we do when the internet is down? What should we do when the electricity has been cut off? Where can we get food and water? Where do we get medication? Basically, he had snapped his fingers and his gang had gone out and freed all the merchandises of Cleveland and eventually of the whole Ohio as the group’s tentacles were long and strong.

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Familial Loss by Charlotte Derrick

“Life,” your father told you as a boy, “has to be taken with a pinch of salt, and it’s the same for marriage.”

Your pinch of salt is screamin in the middle of the night. Bit over the top on it, like, but hardly a surprise comin from your wife who never seems to stop makin some noise or other to annoy the tits clean off you. And she just goes on and on and fuckin on like it’s to mean somethin. Poor wee Tess, with that fuckin voice on her like a politician. Always the same cuntin thing. You don’t know why you listen to half the shite she comes out with, you really don’t. 

“McDougal…”

Somewhere in those vows you made to her, you agreed to take her in sickness. Aye, sickness in the fuckin head! She’s herself convinced that she gets these awful migraines. She probably has one now. It’s all a load of shite, like, but you’ll be the one to nip to Tesco for her to get her some tablets because God forbid if she got off her fat hole and bothered to make the drive herself. The scandal! Fuckin alert th–

“McDougal!”

You’re not for movin. You’re not goin out again for her. You’re not her slave. What about when you’ve a headache, which is every fuckin day because of her gurnin. And, lo and behold, she’s startin at you by shakin your shoulder, then slappin at it, and then she’s for kickin the duvet off and screamin like a madwoman. You’re ready to slap her one because Jesus fuck, you’re tired, fuckin workin all day to come home to some ungrateful bitch, she never helps and she’s not helpin now, will she jus–

“Fuckin Christ, Tess!”

You fumble for the lamp, but before you can see, you feel the sticky sheets under your hands and it keeps spreadin everywhere, so you’re tryin to ring for an ambulance and reachin out to her in the dim light. She won’t stop her screamin and her blubberin and hittin the sodden sheets caught between her shakin legs and all the while there’s a hint of blame in her eyes and no matter where you’re for lookin, she keeps at it.

There’s a voice squawkin down the phone at you, askin for an address and all those kinds of details, and she starts askin about the condition of your wife and you don’t really know what to say. But never mind, because there’ll be an ambulance ‘as soon as possible, sir’ like that’s supposed to help. You’d love to see how she’d cope with a bloated whale for a wife yappin her name repeatedly into her ear, just in case she forgot it, the cunt. 

You hang up on her and turn to Tess, lookin her dead in the face. You smooth back her hair because it’ll be fine, she’ll be fine, it’s nothin serious, can’t be, you promise her. She collapses in on herself, collapses into you, tryin to catch her breath, but she just chokes on the air because the only thing she really can do is clasp her cunt and smear the gore up her arms as she cries even harder for you.

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The Claws of Trust by Zoe Fenster

“Ron, Julia, why don’t you three head upstairs so I can finish dinner uninterrupted?” Her voice was still warm despite the slight sting of her words. I remember my dad’s soft chuckle, and our obedient steps that followed. Up the curved staircase, lined with exotic plants, the carpet plush beneath my tiny feet. My tiny, dainty feet, exposed to no more than seven years of ground. My innocent feet that had no idea what they were walking into. The life lasting memory; a life long scar.

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The Nature of Loss by Julia Gagliardi

Nick paused and looked at his twin. Her arms were crossed over a black t-shirt, holes littering the bottom hem where her fingernails lingered and pried threads loose. Even if she was wearing blue or green or even yellow, it would have still looked dark in the night. 
“You say that as if it’s a bad thing,” he said, and leaned over the handles of the bicycle towards Nora. 
Nora whipped around to face her brother. Stringy dark hair muddled her creamy complexion. Nick thought of the coffee their father drank in the morning, when he tipped too much half-and-half over the rim. “Don’t you think it is?” she asked. 
Her knuckles gripped the edge of the bench seat. They paled to a bleach white as the air thickened to black around them, the night absorbing everything around the twins. The river and Nora’s bicycles lost their outlines.

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Societal Happenings by Chidera Onyebuchi

It was a sunny afternoon when Nody finally woke up and went to the veranda. She liked to look over the small houses and shops. The naked children running around. The sound of the cobblers and cloth menders. The sound of the man hawking puff puff while hitting his fork on the showglass that held them. School children returning from school in large crowds. sometimes two different schools got into fights she enjoyed. That day was different. The entrance to the gate of Ama’s house was crowded which was never so and she heard wailing. She wondered if to call Ama and tell her about the situation of her house. Did the landlady die? Nody held her growing tummy as she walked down the stairs and out of the gate, towards Ama’s house. Why were people parting the way for her and looking at her sympathetically. She walked into Ama’s house and found her lying still and swollen up while people prayed. A tear dropped from Nody’s eyes as she moved backward, not another person she loved. Not again, Not the mother of the child she was carrying. Memories of her brother lighting up in flames and rolling on the floor shouting and pleading for mercy then her sister in the coffin. She could not do it, she could not watch her bestfriend in the state she was in. She was distracted by a woman asking where Ama would be buried. Nody could not believe her ears. They were thinking of how it was an abomination to bury Ama in her father’s house because they had given her out in marriage and how they could not bury her in her husband’s house because they were no longer together. The way Nody’s aunt had been buried outside her husband’s compound in the village because she had not given them a child. Some people were saying Ama was probably killed in her dream or had a heart attack but Nody knew it was the dirty game of politics. Ama would have fought, she would have woken up from whatever dream she was having. The prayers of the pastor would have woken her up. The wailings of the people there would have woken her up. She did not know what came over her as she went to pick up Ama’s car keys and she drove straight to a building that made her feel like she had been there. She walked into the building, touching every furniture. She stopped in front of a door and looked through the peep hole. Why did she feel like she had done this before. She saw Ama’s husband in bed with another woman who looked strangely familiar. The sounds they made too. She pushed the door and they both turned to look at her startled
“Do you have a problem with locking the door while doing this thing?” she asked
“Nody? Why are you here?”

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LEGAL TABOO by ABDULLAHI BALA MUSA

A taboo or an abomination in centuries ago. Today, it is legally and constitutionally permissible and popular practiced.
With legislative backing in some criticized countries, Benjamin can now openly and happily get married to Bernard while Benjamin’s father can now make love to her daughter without legal or religious consequences.
When Benjamin was interviewed on how he feels getting married to a fellow man, he explained that the homogenous marriage is more economic compared to marrying the opposite sex. Bernard also submitted that their unisex union is a contemporary call to reduce explosive population growth and maintain a new world order. The newly married men disclosed that their same sex solemnization is sweeter than the conventional wedding in the sense that both Benjamin and Bernard will enjoy a unilateral understanding of what concern or affect them because they both share the same sense and sensational stand.
At the white wedding of Emmanuella and Emelia, both the Master of Ceremonies, Disc Jockey, friends and well-wishers where all young girls and women. Unlike in the past, such unisex solemnization is usually conducted behind closed door and at odd or evil hours but the elegant wedding between Emmanuella and Emelia was publicly celebrated with all pump and pageantry expected in a conventional western white wedding. At the wedding registry, their wedding names were written as Emmanuella Emelia and for the first time, we get to create a marital form with the gender column to contain two same sex spaces e.g. female and female.

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Greed by John Mulligan

There are villages, towns and cities. Cities are the most undesirable of the three. There is a great lie protruding through society connived by the ‘responsible men’ who falsely claim the cities are the places full of civility, liberalism and decency. These same cities are no longer the hotspots they were once considered, they have changed quite drastically, and the reason for this was simple enough. There is nothing in the newspaper archives written by shameless journalists, neither was there anything in the academic journals written by dishonest scholars. The reason can be explained plainly and truthfully without grandiosity. There was a government policy which was quite clever in itself and devious to remarkable levels at the same time. The clandestine plan was to force the underclass, the unemployable, the elderly, single mothers and so on out of these cities and into more gruesome areas and the way this was achieved was through economic policy. It was a war by other means, but it had backfired...spectacularly. 

In one country which is the home of the greatest writer of his age, of any age, and the city which is the birthplace of the author of Paradise Lost is where we draw our gaze. The streets, roads, paths, bus lanes, train stations, shop entrances, in parks and everywhere else it seems are a certain category of people who are considered be the modern-day pariahs. These are the homeless who have come to the city to make their money begging on the streets. But this is untrue. They are not homeless but would have everyone believe so. They receive their training just outside the city, that is right, they require training to fill out their role in convincing the public that they are in fact homeless. The training takes place in a colossal building which looks like a gas chamber from some years ago, but it is not a gas chamber. The leader who trains these conniving beggars is an aging man called Percy Pickleflower, if that is the name he was born with then more the fool him for not changing it. Currently he is training the reprobates in the unknown location just outside the city.

‘Go about the city unshaven or with an untidy, scruffily dangling beard if it creates empathy from the public. The golden rule is this: most will ignore you, they will mutter obscenities, others will give you grotesque looks. Whatever they do the golden rule is to compliment them: have a nice day or enjoy your evening, then if they see you again, which they will, there is an even chance they will spare you some change. Remember you must act like businessmen, hunting your prey. Seek out the vulnerable and the naive. You must behave like there is a hunger in your stomach, look dejected, always be pathetic and put on a suffering voice. The time has come to make yourself proud. Let us make the free market proud and rein in the profits. Go, and like Henry the fifth, fight for England!’

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Aging Redemption by Joseph Ferguson

DAY 1

“Seeds can be stored indefinitely. There are cases on record of hundred-year-old seeds producing tomatoes every bit as plump … ” 
The lines of Ambrose’s face are etched deep blue by flickering cathode fingers. Hair ablaze with the sun’s first rays, his body sprawls motionless on the couch; a 3-d crime-scene outline.
The television drones. Words, like tiny insects float briefly then alight on his prostrate form. He stirs, eyelids sputter like a little-used faucet. His head moves enough to escape daylight. His children-of-the-damned eyes are blue saucers that only reflect the cathode-blue pantomime.
Such is the life of Ambrose: day, night, sleeping, waking, all merge endlessly in an uninterrupted and meaningless stream. While conscious, he watches whatever the TV spits out until sleep claims him, when he dreams whatever his mind broadcasts, until the blue void reclaims him.
Neighborhood children call him, “The Incredible Sleeping Man,” often holding vigil at his window; each secretly hoping that today he would really be dead. 
Ancient porch wood groans. Children scatter like birds.
Ambrose rises.
Sunlight, now grown to a perfect triangle, frames him like some B-movie space ray. He begins to move, shields his eyes, waving his arms jerky as the Frankenstein monster, unused to newfound limbs.
A few brave children reassemble at the window to watch Ambrose stumble about like a robot.
From deep within, a tugging, nagging, griping, primeval pull: hunger. He staggers, rifling cupboards, shelves, refrigerator. Nothing. Less than nothing – an open soda and what may once have been pizza, now a crawling, fuzzy infestation.
Ambrose holds his head as though playing some great tragic role. His stumbling takes him in wider and wider arcs, circling like a loose wheel until he comes upon needed items: a shoe, a wallet, the bathroom. He runs water and stares into a mirror so dirty there is no reflection. 
The children giggle. Best show in town. Ambrose cocks his head like an animatronic dog at the sound, then continues his helter-skelter rampage. To the group at the window, he is a pinball, bounding off walls and furniture, the rattling of cups, and other household detritus the bells and bumpers.
His random motions, like the birth of worlds and stars, solar systems and galaxies gradually assemble a man dressed to walk the earth.
Part human, part machine, he lurches to the door, his young sentinels, but memories of cartoon smoke.
Ambrose throws open the door as though tearing it from its hinges. Sunlight bleeds into the room, soaking brilliance into the faded rug. His own gray visage absorbs the spectrum until his clothes take on the colors of life – flannel checks, blue pants, fleshed-out face.
He is on the move, movements more lifelike with each step. Houses, trees, trees, houses, the world slips by as he slips through, destination a white light burning in his mind, more real than the reality he passes. His steps pound the pavement in automatic motions. One foot follows the other. Below, worms churn the earth, above, vultures circle.

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The Concept Of Change by Shivam Roy

“ Sorry, Mridang i have to crash, enjoy your party, you deserve this.” said Bindra. “ Hold on, wait a second where are you going and what for” i said. “ Wait, why does it sound like my crackhead girlfriend is talking.” Said Bindra, “ Hey, mind your language Bindra, it’s me you're talking to. I just wanted to ask what is the reason of this rush.” I said. “ I have some work” replied Bindra and sidelined me. “what work is so important that you can leave your best friend’s graduation party?” I said in agitation. “I think this the right time” said Birju bhaiya, “after all he's thirteen now” “No, don’t….” Bindra tried to interrupt Birju bhaiya but he went on precariously “ we do the business of distributing bhukki in the village area, we were under the dilemma of telling you or not, but this thing had to come out today in my opinion. We were also skeptical about how you would take this.” I did not know what to say or think at his point of time, bhukki was a tablet which was always in the dainik patr which was the daily paper. I had briefly read the articles over time to understand to what it was, according to the papers it was a drug tablet abundantly used in our district, the sources did not know where it came from, but what they did know was it is extremely harmful and is increasing in numbers. And today i realise that the only friends i had are in this business. “ What is the need of this? doesn't uncle provide enough money for you to spend, Birju bhaiya?” i said in shock and in contempt. “ What do you think Mridang, how common is a farm business is in Haryana? My father is a commoner, rather a dying commoner living the winter phase of his life. His land was reluctantly reduced to 1/4th of the original land, i came to your sleazy dad for help…” “ Aye! you cant bring my dad into..” “Shut the hell up, Mridang ! you don't know what we are going through you're just a rich bastard’s son, you can’t understand the pain we are going through and what struggles we have to face daily. You just sit in your bed, under the peaceful shade of the air conditioner while we bust our butts in the daily grind of life.” At last, Birju bhaiya ended his rant and i was spellbound and my legs became sore. “ What could my dad do about your dad’s land. He’s just a civil servant, he's not like the other corrupt officers residing in Haryana, his hands are constricted by the orders of the government.” i said in a mumbling tone. “ Are you done with your drama, am i allowed to go?” asked Birju bhaiya. I could say nothing, with that he just sped off. In about 30 minutes we silently finished with the food, with all the people gazing at us for making such a big scene.

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Life Journey by Tracy Morris

Roller Coaster:


We knock on the door with purpose. How did I let Sarah talk me into this. A fortune teller for crying out loud. What a load of rubbish, I think to myself. The door opens a man smiles “come in, come in” he says. He looks to be in his mid fifty’s, his hair is all grey. The lines in his face make him look animated when he speaks. “Come in ladies, sit down” he continues beckoning us to sit at a old but clean pine table. Sarah and I take a seat each, there doesn’t seem to be anyone else here. I am suddenly aware that we are alone in a strange mans house. This makes me slightly uncomfortable. 

Sarah is bouncing with excitement. “You must be Dave” she says shaking the mans hand. “Yes that’s me, and you must be Sarah, and this lady must be Vicky” he states looking at me. “Erm yes I mumble”. “Right ladies, who’s going first”? he asks. “Me.. me please” Sarah gushes. “I cant believe he knew which one was which, I’m so excited” She whispers as she brushes past me. Lucky guess, I think to myself he has a 50/50 chance of being right. Why am I here? I wonder there is so much going on at home. My husband and I barely see each other as it is and when we do all we do is fight. The kids are picking up on it and I can sense the tension in the house. It wasn’t supposed to be like this why cant we just be happy like normal people?

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The Fundamentals Of Joy by B.B Blerta Berisha

A sigh escaped me as I turned back around, offering a smile to a woman who stood idly near me. I grinned at the smaller candles by her sides, who stared up at me unknowingly, their miniature flames flickering with curiosity. 

“A great day today, m’am? Mm?” I greeted, offering my hand, waxy from the heat of my candle. “How would you like to hear a joke?”

She pulled her candles close towards her, protectiveness radiating from her as if I was hazardous. They assembled themselves together, fearful of my words. I saw the gloom in the trio, the complete disgust they saw in my smile, the shock at the idea of happiness in this town. It was not a positive shock. In fact, they seemed to want to escape it. I raised my eyebrows in question, offering a warm glow. She only lowered her eyes, avoiding contact with me. The joy I radiated that fought with her unhappiness, it was something she didn’t like. I watched as the children glared at me, their own little flames flaring.

“Good day to you,” she murmured, her head low as she grabbed the children and began scurrying off. I watched as their lights flickered back and forth in the wind as they walked with speed, with motivation. My eyebrows furrowed together with confusion, for I had been turned down a second time.

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Loss by Miles Woolcock

Lila met Mr Hocking by the steps of Holy Trinity Church on Clapham Common and they walked along Rectory Grove to the Sultan Cafe and sat in a booth at the back. The cafe was warm inside and the windows were clouded with steam, the wooden sill beneath swollen and blistered from the damp. An elderly man at a table by the window looked up when they came in and regarded them with mild curiosity. He rubbed his sleeve on the glass and peered out into the morning cold like some grizzled watchman sentineled over the empty street.

Lila removed her scarf and hat and placed them on the seat beside her. She kept her coat on and when she caught him staring she told him that she felt the cold more than most people did.

‘Bad circulation,’ she said, almost apologetically.

They ordered tea and eggs and toast. The waitress didn't write down the order, she nodded when they were done and disappeared through the saloon doors into the kitchen. Mr Hocking slid the menu back between the bottle of ketchup and napkin dispenser. His hand tremoring as he did so.

‘It’s the medication,’ he said.

‘You sound embarrassed.’

‘Well, I am. That stuff gets to me.’

‘Okay.’

Two workmen came in and sat at a table across from theirs. Mr Hocking watched them. One of the men nodded to him politely as he drew out his chair to sit down and he nodded back. Both men sat forward, resting their elbows on the table. Staring at their mobile phones, wordlessly.

The waitress brought their mugs of tea and set down two spoons beside them. ‘Can I get you anything else?’ she said, glancing at Lila.

‘Can we get some more milk?’

‘Sure.’

Mr Hocking smiled and nodded to her as she left.

Lila stirred the black tea, thinking. It was only after a while that she realised he was murmuring under his breath. She said, ‘Are you okay?’

‘I’m fine. I’m just collecting my thoughts. It’s been a long time, you see.’ He folded his hands over the tabletop. Watching her. After a while he spoke, ‘I suppose I should start at the beginning.’ And so Mr Hocking, the frail and unassuming elderly man she had been visiting and reading to for eight months now, began regaling the story of the time he had a shot and killed a woman outside the Flamingo nightclub on Carnaby Street in 1952.

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Life and Death by Teninlanimi Owolabi

Nine.

Nine mouths to feed, excluding her own.

That is what Papa left behind.

No money, no wealth, no land.

Only nine open mouths attached to malnourished, searching faces.

She watched the mouths tremble at her father’s funeral. She watched them wail in sadness, calling the name of the man lying in the casket.

Her mother wailed the loudest. She had cried from the minute Papa’s body slammed to the ground in their kitchen, until now. Her will to mourn is unstoppable, she is an endless stream of tears.

Peace, on the other hand, stood stone faced, watching them from afar, thinking mostly of how she desperately needed a cigarette.

Peace works in numbers.

This is how she has learned to survive for the past 17 years. She always had to determine how much rice each person must eat for their bellies to be sustained and for the food to last the next day. She counted how many inches her siblings had grown so she could add more material to their already worn out school uniform for the next year. She also counted how many hours her father was gone at a stretch. What percentage of that time Mama spent crying. The number of times Peace had to find a way to provide the food for the family.

They cry as though they have forgotten.

Like they don’t remember those times that Papa coloured Mama’s body with bruises. As though they don’t remember how he was always with some other woman. They forget how he treated them like ants that he wished to stomp and extinguish.

They cry as though they have lost something.

They say “My father is dead! My father is dead!” as though Peace has not been their father for all their lives.

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Everything is connected

Human body is supposed to consist of 70% water. But what if it's pouring into your body, and the level is rising every second?

Water. The kind that stings your eyes. The kind in where you thrash your arms about, trying to fight it. The kind that wraps its hands around your throat, and squeezes. All you can do is watch. A mere spectator of a horrifying puppet show. Watch, and await the end. Because the end is near.

Scream. Again, and again. Although, all that does is push more water into your mouth. But when death is the closest, is when humans lose all sense. It is then that they forget every rule, every basic fact, and fall into a deep hole of despair. Of trying to get out, by scratching the walls, but realizing that the more you move, the bigger the hole gets.

Scream.

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Sherlock of the West

The stagecoach pulled up in a cloud of dust, the coachman reining in the steaming horses with an oath. He jumped down, spat into the conveniently placed spittoon, and opened the stagecoach door.

“Help you down, Ma’am,” he said, his moustaches quivering appreciatively.

“Thank you.” Clara Belle descended into the arid atmosphere of Gorey Creek, looking like a dewy rose in a desert.

A young lady of some twenty-five summers, her glossy chestnut hair was swept back into a knot at the nape of her slender white neck. She lifted her long skirt slightly as she climbed down, to reveal starched white petticoats and buttoned boots.

Clara waited patiently as the driver swung down her trunk from the luggage rack on the roof, and then extracted a dollar from the purse attached to her slim wrist as a tip.

Her fine blue eyes surveyed the town. On the whole, she decided she liked what she saw.

Gorey Creek was an up-and-coming township in America’s mid-west. There were several similar settlements dotted around the county, becoming prosperous by the region’s rich gold seams and enormous cattle ranches. Yes, Clara thought, Gorey Creek would suit her and her business very well indeed.

She left her trunk in situ, and crossed the road to a large and noisy saloon bar.

Pushing open the swinging doors, she walked in. The noise was turned off, as if by a tap. Unperturbed, Clara walked briskly to the bar.

“Good day, bartender. Can you tell me where to find Mr Walter Stoner, please?”

Cowboys, ranch-hands and saloon girls turned and looked at each other in astonishment, but it seemed the bartender was used to out-of-the-way questions.

“Large house on the edge of town,” he replied, laconically. He nodded the direction. “Name of Star Creek Ranch. You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you. May I rent a room here for a few days, please? My trunk is across the road.”

“Sure.” He reached behind the bar and brought out a register and a key. “Name and address?”

“Miss Clara Belle, England.” There was a hum of excitement and interest behind her, like someone had stirred a hornet’s nest.

The bartender passed her a key. “Room 8. I’ll have your trunk brought up.”

Clara, smiling sweetly at a couple of cowboys who were regarding her with open mouths, ascended the stairs. She was followed by the bartender’s assistant carrying her trunk. After testing her bed, she re-powdered her face, and set off to explore the town.

Outside, she located the Sheriff’s office and marched in. The Sheriff was talking to his deputy, and both men jumped to their feet when they saw Clara.

She quickly sized them up. Mmm, yes. The tall, good-looking one is the Sheriff. His deputy looks keen – might be after his job. Aloud, she said,

“My name is Clara Belle. I intend to set up business in this town as a private investigator. I thought it only fair to warn you. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes!”

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ADDICTION by Daniel Murphy

September 2, 2018

‘Take a good look at yourself, Mr Slob.’ Jen said. All I’d done was say that I was going outside for a fag. Now I was backed into the kitchen sink. Her angry voice was overlaid with fruity notes of scorn and disappointment. She poked me in the stomach. ‘You’re more useless every day. Just a useless big galoot, that’s all you are,’ she said. ‘And how did you manage to find that smelly old sweatshirt. I thought I’d thrown that one out.’ She looked at me like I was something that she’d found on the sole of her shoe. ‘Is this really who you want to be?’

I had no defence to offer. She was right. The thing I most wanted to do, even then, was to reach for my tobacco. Either that or get frisky – she’s so sexy when she gets angry, her sharp face all flaring nostrils and wide eyes. But since I was keen to stay alive, that wasn’t an option. Hasn’t been an option for quite a while actually.

‘P–A-Thetic.’ she said, ‘You better sort your shit out or we’re finished.’

After I heard the front door slamming behind her, I let out another notch on the belt, sat on the back step, took out my pouch of Amber Leaf – at least she hadn’t asked me to hand it over – rolled myself another perfect cigarette and scratched my stubble. Thinking time.

* * *

It was only a week since she’d first told me she was pregnant. She’d made me read the NHS website on passive smoking again, then she read some of it back to me, slow and deliberate, like I was a kid in her classroom. ‘Exposure to second-hand smoke,’ she read, ‘Increases the risk of miscarriage, low birth weight and … - … as if that wasn’t enough,’ she interjected. ‘If, by some freak of luck, the baby is born OK – … there is also increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome. Or …. ’ She closed the lid of the laptop and looked at me, all smug and dominant, ‘…. as it is commonly known, cot death.’

‘I never smoke in the house,’ I said. ‘So the baby won’t inhale any second-hand smoke…’ I carried on, though I should have read the signs. ‘I’m much more at risk,’ I said, ‘than the baby.’

I know. Looking back, it probably wasn’t the smartest thing to come out with. She stormed out the room. But she was back, seconds later.

‘It’s not about your health,’ she said from the door, ‘though I certainly won’t be looking after you when you get cancer. It’s not even the foul smell ... ’

‘That’s a bit harsh,’ I thought, ‘I’ve been paying much more attention to personal hygiene recently,’ but she was still talking …

‘… there’s more important things to think about now there’s a baby coming,’ she said. She was standing over me then, her arms folded. ‘How much are you spending a week on tobacco?’

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MEMORIES OF A SUMMER MYSTERY by Anthony Pont

One day we were doing grass work for the council. Ralph was hogging a borrowed motor-mower. A little tractor that was the most fun we had. But I didn't mind too much as that left me with our petrol strimmer which was second best. It was compelling to watch the undergrowth vanish in a green spray as I worked through the banks and hedgerows. Tommy pottered around with a rake, forming piles of scrub. This was thirsty work in a hot July and at our ages we were carrying more weight in cash than responsibilities so a lunch time visit to the pub was in order.

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FOLLOWING YOUR DREAMS by Noah Crawford

Her forbidden dreams would become her everyday life. She wanted to disappear forever and build an optimistic house that showered her in healthy white rose petals as she opened the dam to her mind and allowed the river of thoughts to flow onto a blank canvas frame. She wanted to surround herself with supportive people who will stare at her artwork in awe of the talent no one knew she had as the sun shone proudly through the trees. And she almost did. Almost.

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DISFIGURED DIGNITY (WITH A HINT OF DARKNESS!) by Sohom Das

You’re probably intrigued to know if I’ve become inured to my own image over the years. I think I have. I don’t really see the monstrosity that others see. That YOU see. When your eyes dart up for a sneaky peak. I mean I do, obviously, but I also just see me. The outside of me. The inside of me remains undamaged, normal. If anybody is every really normal. I’m probably as normal as you. On the inside (just to be clear).

I have often wondered if that would have happened with Lana’s beauty. If, over the years, I would have become inured to it. Maybe all of my awe would have run out one day. We will never know.

You might think that Lana was heartless to have left me, after it happened. My mother slipped me an aphorism at the time: “If she won’t stand by your side now, she was no good for you. It would have ended in sadness”. I disagreed, but at the time my face was covered with bandages and I was exhausted. A plethora of plastic surgery, strong painkillers and anaesthetic hangovers will do that to you. I couldn’t speak, so I didn’t disagree. But it DID end in sadness, I might have said.

Lana was at my bedside for a few weeks before she disappeared from my life and deformity crept in. You could argue that she owed it to me to have waited longer. Maybe after I’d gotten over the immediate shock. But then again, does anybody really owe anything to anybody? Also, it’s been twenty years. The immediate shock has passed, obviously, but I didn’t FEEL it pass. So when did it happen? How would she know? How would I know? What is the usual etiquette in this scenario? What is accepted and what has been agreed? These matters are confusing. So she just left. I couldn’t stop her.

On the tube, I stand and let the vibrations of the carriage gently massage me. The lights above flicker, as if desperately trying to communicate some urgent message. A pretty young black girl wears headphones that look far too big. Phones and computers have shrunk before my very eyes, but headphones are getting bigger. When did THAT happen? She screws up her face and sings along melodically. Her voice is stunning, but the angry clanging of the tube keeps drowning her out. How rude.

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