Life is Good – Contest Results

First prize: Meaghan Hackinen
Second prize: Alan Morris
Third prize: Serena Molloy

Contest Judge
Ed Higgins, Ph.D.

Ed Higgins

Ed Higgins

Professor Emeritus of Writing and Literature Ed Higgins has been teaching at George Fox University for over four decades. His classes have covered poetry, the modern novel, world literature, science fiction and much more. While officially retired now, he still teaches part-time. He’s also published an extensive body of his own poetry.

 

 

Here are his winning selections and why:

First Prize: “Cycling North Cascades Highway” by Meaghan Hackinen

I like the tightness of this piece, every word counts and intensifies the story. The imagery, too, is finely tuned, believable, fulsome without overwhelming other story elements. The narrator/protagonist comes off with panache and I love her wry voice. The Kerouac allusions might put someone off, but I found them apt and they contributed to the protagonist’s character. The kinetic imagery of the story’s close zooms down that hill with exhilaration—and I’m not even a cyclist.

Second Prize: “Life is Good” by Alan Morris

While a bit put off by the title here, fearing saccharine, I was quickly hooked. The dialogue seems real, as does the situation. The setting is nicely done with economy that’s supportive of the story. And the story’s ending affirmation is touching without slipping into feel-good cliché. The last line nicely snaps the lid on the whole story scene that’s been itself nicely played out.

Third Prize: “Road Trip” by Serena Molloy

This piece is emotionally tense, scary even. As intended. The plot line, at first, engages the reader, but with a what’s-going-on-here? concern. The images are harsh, cruel, breath stopping as soon as one realizes what is going on. The cruel cynicism of the central speaking character grips us with horror. And the horror only intensifies in that last line: “The door swung shut once more.”

These three stories stood out for me as exceptional storytelling and craft writing.


TOTAL ENTRIES: 151

FIRST PRIZE: Cycling North Cascades Highway

By Meaghan Hackinen

Saddle sores red like raw ground beef. The climb: tedious. Last night we pitched camp overlooking Diablo Lake. Electric turquoise bordered by steep green. Kerouac was once here; I think of him to escape monotony. Already, Toby and I run short on conversation. But out there, beyond huckleberry bushes and highway firs: Desolation Peak. Matchbox hut fire lookout where Kerouac observed “unbelievable jags and twisted rock and snow-covered immensities,” summer of ’56.

Romantic, if you’re not pedaling up said mountains slower than sap trickling down a trunk on North Cascades Highway in September, surrounded by needled trees like amorphous toilet plungers in green. Forever green, unless cushioned in snow, those doug firs, mountain hemlock and lodgepole pines.

At last: Washington Pass, 5,477 feet. The pain in my ass subsides, momentarily. A printed note stuck to the elevation sign: Congrats Cyclists—you’ve made it! Sharpie arrow pointing down to a brown paper bag gift. Contents: two crisp red apples, two cans of Rainier, one “homemade” brownie. I tear the baked good in two, devour my half on a stump scarved with moss.

Toby chews, contemplative, cautions perhaps I shouldn’t have eaten with such haste.

“I’m hungry,” I say, chomping an apple. Rock dust of passing RVs sticks to moist hairs on my forearms.

He asks if I know what type of brownie this is.

We push off downhill. I am soaring. Speedometer reads 52 kilometres an hour, faster than an osprey flies. Too quick to break for photographs and no need to breathe—air lodges itself into my lungs. I just keep my eyes open, swoop into turns and twist like a feather shrugged loose from a marble-eyed bird perched atop a fir on the cliff of Desolation Peak.


SECOND PRIZE: Life is Good

By Alan Morris

‘’Dad, is it a tumour?’’

‘’I don’t know.’’

‘’Am I going to die?’’

‘’Not today.’’

Within Kyle’s skull his brain floated in a clear fluid. Deep within the recesses of memory and emotion, the fluid flowed through gates, canals down aqueducts. This used to gently bathe his brain, but now the gentle flow was dammed, the floodwater backed up, spilling over, overwhelming.

A Tsunami of the soul.

Vision gone, balance destroyed, a hand that could hardly hold a pencil. Where was my son? My shadow child there but not there.

A scan to assess the damage. A long dark descent into the tunnel of an MRI scanner. The room shook and pounded as powerful forces teased out the secrets of his brain. I couldn’t let go.

I … wanted to know, “Why this, why us, why now?” Unasked unanswerable …

SURGERY

When you cannot sit or stand, all you can see is the hospital ceiling. Pillows provided support, video games encouraged my son to sit. When he could sit up, all he could see was a Boy Zone poster, instant social death when you’re twelve.

One day I hope all will be well.

Overall it is love that strives, survives, moves on but always endures.

I often say I held my son’s hand for several weeks. The truth was he held mine.


THIRD PRIZE: Road Trip

By Serena Molloy

The lorry came to a shuddering halt. People began to wake, unused to the lack of motion after days and days on the road. Limbs ached to stretch, impossible in the confined space. An engine whined somewhere off in the distance, getting louder and then stopping suddenly nearby. There was the sound of doors banging followed by voices approaching. Metal moved against metal, as the heavy door of the container swung open. More people stirred, a nest of new born puppies, shielding their eyes from the sudden, intense light.

The doorway was filled almost completely by the man’s silhouette. From his blazer pocket he took a cigar and struck a match against the side of the container. The cigar fizzed to life and his eyes seemed to smile in the flicker of brightness, then he threw the burning match into the mass of bodies before him. They moved like insects, trying to avoid the flame, but there wasn’t enough space. A small child cried out as the match struck her naked tummy.

He took a step forward, kicking tangled limbs out of his way. He removed his hat, ran his fingers through his greasy hair, then wiped his sweaty hand on his trousers. ‘Welcome to the west,’ he said, holding the cigar between his bejewelled fingers and bowing slightly, ‘where life is good.’

His eyes scanned the crowd, searching something out. People tried to move backwards but there was nowhere to go. He reached in, plucked a young boy from the pile before him, laughed to himself, and then both man and boy were gone.

The door swung shut once more.


Shortlist
In alphabetical order by author name

The Coal Room
By Anne Anthony

Johnny Cash’s song drifted from the distant fairgrounds to the rickety balcony outside my sister’s room. Because you’re mine, I walk the line. I enjoyed his rough voice, and liked picking the rusted paint from the metal railing. I lived in an enormous house crowded with two older brothers, a wailing newborn and a loud deaf sister. The basement’s coal room became my favorite place where their noise could barely be heard, and I could read.

I’d carry in discarded newspapers, a pair of scissors, glue, my scrapbook and spend the afternoon or morning cutting out the brief factoids that filled empty whitespace between columns of worthy news. The slicing sound of my scissors relieved the chaos above. Tiny bits of a vast world excited and inspired.

New York City operates the first unmanned subway train.

I wished to ride that wild train, gripping its speed as it plunged through dark tunnels with no driver.

Wilt Chamberlain scores 73 points against Chicago to set an NBA-record.

I liked his first name though it meant the opposite of this giant grinning man standing proud in the Sports Page photo.

Georgia police arrest Martin Luther King, Jr. during a demonstration.

I worried for weeks about my father’s arrest; if police could arrest a king, they could arrest anyone.

Jamaica breaks ties from British rule after 300 years.

The Queen, so busy with her new baby, ruled too many countries. I’d already figured out the peril of ‘too many’ when my little brother turned our house of six into seven.

My scrapbook expanded with pages crammed with facts I found no need to share; life was simple and good in that place where I gathered the world.

The place where I could read.


Run!
By Wilson F. Engel, III

Shelly and Bronson were in a hurry about everything. They were athletes for life. For them success only came through doing things faster than anyone else—and better. They ran track and high hurdles at their prep schools and at college. They rushed to complete their schoolwork and the part-time jobs that funded their studies. They rushed into a lasting relationship while they were still in college.

People marveled at how much they managed to accomplish both individually and together. The paradigm of speed characterized them early, and they never stopped running all their lives.

After college, which they finished a full year earlier than their peers, the pair rushed into separate careers and their marriage. They rushed into owning a large home with room to grow their family. They rushed to have six children—three sets of twins. People remarked on their dedication to principle. For example, Bronson never expected to fly his own airplane, but his computer consulting business forced him to travel. Rather than waste his time waiting for flights that might be cancelled and transferring from airports to taxis, he bought a plane. Shelly picked Bronson up and dropped him off at the local airport. They used the time in transit being together and catching up.

The couple’s children went to high school early and graduated from college early. They earned graduate professional degrees fast to keep ahead of the competition. When their grandchildren started running, Shelly and Bronson bought them all Adidas. They rushed to buy their gravesites early. They also bought plots for their children, their children’s spouses and their grandchildren.

At midlife, the couple were proud of their achievements: they had earned everything that they had ever wanted. When others asked their advice about living the good life, they invariably said, “Run!”


The View
By Matt Ingoldby

Since a young boy, Phil had prided himself on a rare medical condition that prevented him from forgetting. His whole life loomed behind him like the view halfway up a mountain, surging back at him at the least provocation.

Phil had two lives. In one, he was a gleeful success, skating through life by the skin of his teeth, always half a mark above a failing grade. In the other, the universe confounded his every stab at happiness and lifted each of his dreams just out of reach. Either version could be verified by a plethora of pertinent recollections, and were validated only by his present mood.

When Cassandra eventually left him, Phil took the train to his old hometown and climbed the hillside he had clambered up as a child. His unfailing memory led him to a scree-strewn precipice where he paused in thought.

Below, the valley flowed thickly off the slopes and settled swirling around the distant pixel of his childhood home. Remembering everything, he wasn’t given to nostalgia. The floors had been cold and the house was surrounded by the same faceless frieze of mountainside. He remembered as a child scrabbling up the sheer rocks now below him, but he could never scramble very far before the pile gave way, transforming into a different shape that necessitated the discovery of new handholds.

He toed the cliff edge. The scree pile didn’t seem as jagged and unforgiving as he had once thought. He would only be permanently crippled if he fell now; barely the painless end he had imagined. No—he would have to go higher. Phil sucked the valley through his senses; inflating his lungs. Only from the summit could he be certain of a judicious demise. He turned and continued to labour blindly up the slope.


A Christmas Encounter
By Andy Jones

One December evening, in Germany’s Black Forest, I strayed further from my hotel than was prudent. As it grew darker and began to snow, I understood how the unfortunate Roman Legionnaires must have felt as they stumbled in the wilderness, ambushed everywhere by Germanic tribes. A glimpse of the fairy lights of my lodgings in the distance was indeed welcome. In the lobby, a sign pointing to the basement promised a small swimming pool and a sauna.

Entering the sauna, and not expecting company, I stopped dead. Therein, as pink and as plump and as naked as the day she was born, apart from the rakishly tilted Santa Claus hat she wore, sat a smiling middle-aged lady. I began stammering an apology. She dismissed my efforts, waving a large glass of Gluhwein, and smilingly calling “keine problem mein Herr! Why worry, life is good!” Summoning up as much dignity as possible, I cringed as she leaned over my shoulder and doused the hot stones behind me with cold water, creating enough steam to cover my embarrassment.

Gesturing to my oversized swimming shorts, borrowed from reception, then at a sign on the wall, she indicated that the offending garment must be removed. My pretense of misunderstanding cut no ice.

We sat for the next half hour, au naturel, talking about life, as you do. Like many of her countryfolk, she was interested in Ireland’s vanished economic miracle, attributing it mostly to our profligacy with their hard earned taxes. By this time we were almost old friends, literally sitting cheek by cheek as the shared wine worked its magic. Back in my room, I shook my head and wondered if it had all been a figment of my imagination. The appearance of Mrs. Santa at breakfast proved otherwise.


The Audition
By Beth McCabe

When Peg walked into the Recreation Center, Leila McCoy was warbling “Holy God We Praise Thy Name” like some hip hopper. Peg waited until Leila finished and James Hickey, the choirmaster, spotted her.

“Peg,” he said. “Here to audition?”

“I am.” She felt the heat come to her face. James was bald now, but he’d once been the sharpest looking boy at Our Lady of the Catacombs.

“Your mother must be pleased, what with her being the soloist back in the day.”

The old bag hadn’t been pleased about anything since Vatican II.

Behind the piano, grinning, sat Colleen Finch, her nemesis from Sister Charlotte’s ninth grade class.

“Peggy Riley, what a surprise,” said Colleen.

“Well, let the lady give it a go, Col,” said James.

“Have you ever heard Peg sing a note?” the Finch demanded.

“No … ”

“She never does. When we go caroling for the orphans, she mouths the words.”

“I’m ready to try,” Peg said.

The Finch rolled her eyes heavenward. “Music?”

“I imagine you know the ‘Ave Maria’”. That was Mam’s go-to song when she was in her cups, familiar to Peg as the Rosary.

“That’s not a beginner’s ditty.”

“Hit it.”

Later, people claimed that the birds went silent. Teenagers plucked out their earbuds and cried, missing their mothers. A homeless woman on the church steps swore that the sky parted and angels sang harmony. When the last perfect note died away, the Finch looked as though her winning lottery ticket had just fallen through the sewer grate. James hugged Peg, and the choir members gathered round, patting her.

“We practice Thursdays,” said James.

“Oh, I’m not joining,” said Peg airily. “I just wanted to give it a go.” She walked out, her hips still swinging to the celestial rhythm.


Life is Good
By Carol McGill

“You know something, actually? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you dance.”

The kettle clicked off and Sadie poured coffee. She raised an eyebrow at Battie, who rolled her eyes, saying, “I don’t dance.”

“Really? Why not?”

“I just don’t.”

“Hm.”

It was nearing one a.m. The kitchen was scattered with more mugs, half-eaten toast, and pizza boxes; the end of a muted, forgotten movie was playing in the next room.

“I think you should at least try.”

“No … ”

“Here.” Sadie dug around in her bra, produced her phone and selected a song. Battie listened sceptically, but she smiled when Sadie sashayed across the kitchen, flicking her hair and almost spilling her coffee.

“C’mon, Bats, just try it … “

Battie tried. She made an awkward half-move, stubbed her toe and cursed very loudly. Sadie slapped a hand over her friend’s mouth.

“SHH! Parents! Neighbours!”

“Okay. Whatever. Sorry. But I’m not doing it, Sadie.”

Sadie was about to joke, but she saw Battie’s expression.

“Hey…” reaching out slowly, she took Battie’s hand. “What’s up?”

“I used to. Dance. Nasty disco. When I was, like, twelve. All the bitchy cool kids hung in a group, laughing … ” she broke off, sniffed hard, glared at the ceiling. “I don’t dance.”

It was silent for a moment; they could hear the drip from the leaky tap. Then Sadie took Battie gently by the hip. Battie’s fingers clutched her shoulder.

“Sure you do,” Sadie said. “You’re not letting the bitches win. You’re dancing, right now. No one’s gonna see you except me. Okay?”

“I … I … Okay.”

Sadie raised their clasped hands. They swayed as the song came to an end.

“There,” Sadie beamed. “That was beautiful.”

Battie smiled. Sort of.

“Life’s too good,” Sadie said softly, “not to dance.”


Nova
By P. F. Palm

The future accumulates like a weight upon the past, burying it beneath a multitude of small flakes and boulders. Details are obliterated, whole days are crushed, people forgotten, and failures and successes minimized. Yet there is a lightness about the future. It is ever before us, urging us to go on despite any difficulties, despite sadness or joy. Relentless in its progression. Driven by the will to live, to overcome the everyday ho-hum of life. Clinging to the possibility of more joy and the fulfillment of aspirations.

A few nights ago I dreamed of Earth.

I was sitting with my back against a boulder, thinking about what I had done with my life when the sound of a Native American flute broke through my concentration. The sound took me on a journey to a time and place with campfires and the smell of fir trees. The cerulean sky dotted with white and light gray clouds was punctuated by the ruddy sunset. A young man was sitting with his back to a fir tree close to a teepee where a young girl peeked through the flap. She glanced at the young man and lowered her eyes, her demure look belied by the tiny smile on her lips.

We were a thousand light years away from Jupiter when the nova’s flash became visible. After that I settled into the routine of life aboard and dreams of Earth began to fade.


Life is Good
By Kari Redmond

I do not remember the first time I spied her from the window. All I remember are entire summers spent tucked behind the curtain watching her, dreaming things I’d never thought of before, things I didn’t quite understand.

“I’ve seen you, you know,” Molly said to me when we finally met. “I’ve seen you watching me, from your window.” It wasn’t an accusation, but simply a fact. I was unsure how to respond, felt I should deny it, but couldn’t bring myself to do so.

“What are you doing down there?”

“I’m looking for four leaf clovers,” She said matter of factly, leaving me feeling a little stupid for not knowing, as though the only possible thing she could be doing while sitting for hours in her backyard was just that. I suppose she was right.

“Ever found one?” I asked.

“No,” she said, and laughed her sophisticated laugh, as though she knew something I did not. It was then that I knew I wanted to hear that laugh forever.

I do not know if Molly ever found one. I’m inclined to believe that however impossible it is to find one, she did. When we moved away, it was all I could think about. It is impossible to know when the last time you see someone will be. Even harder to understand the impact childhood summers can have. And even though it takes away a little bit of the dream I held so long to, I like to think there is a four leaf clover tucked away in her journal somewhere. And even though it’s not me she tells her dreams to now, I know it was me with whom she first began to dream. And sometimes, I can believe that that is enough.


Love at First Sight
By Howard Sage

Quick thoughts went through the girl’s mind like the sound of a thousand voices screaming all at once. It was sort of nice having a cute boy stare at her like that. She wished the bus was crowded so that they would be pushed together. But she was also afraid when she remembered her mother’s words about being careful of strangers. A look of nervousness filled her face.

A cool breeze was blowing through the window of the slow moving but noisy bus. The sound of gas being fed was like bees humming on an early summer afternoon. Inside everything seemed like a dream. Even though two women were talking to each other loudly from one side of the aisle to the other, this didn’t stop the girl from exchanging looks with the boy’s dark eyes six seats in back of her and on the opposite side.

He had gotten on the bus slowly about ten minutes before and she had been looking at him ever since, imagining what kind of romance they might have.

A sudden stop ended the noise and confusion and brought reality. The bus driver got up, handed the boy his red-tipped cane, and helped him off the bus.


Life is Good
By Nillu Nasser Stelter

My husband died last week. It was my doing. I’d planned it meticulously. I began bolstering his ego a few months ago with little scraps of attention until he was sure I’d fallen in love with him again. Then I loosened the railings on the balcony.

Our anniversary is in fall, and we have quite a view from up there of the trees turning gold and bare. It’s the fifth storey, you see. I handed him a flute of champagne and told him to enjoy the view while I went to change into something I had bought especially for him. He couldn’t believe his luck. At least he was happy when he smashed his head in.

I was equally happy when I returned in my gloriously expensive mourning outfit and saw him lying there, splashes of red all around. A girl has to celebrate. I allowed myself a triumphant smile before I slipped my widow’s mask on.

Oh, I excel in this role. It’s the happiest I’ve been … such a natural fit. I think widowhood is quite becoming actually. There’s an elegance to it that is lacking in a mere mother or wife.

Now I stand here with my elegant up-do, a silken shroud of black accentuating my assets. My lips have been painted in nude and there is a hint of mascara on my lashes. Waterproof, of course, in case tears are required. Subtle glamour is the look I am going for. Too much makeup on a widow is unseemly, crass even, and I have a flawless reputation to uphold.

I am awaiting the reading of the will. Money I know is going to me, not his mistress. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had. I wonder what I should splash out on first? Life is good.


Life is Good
By Sharon Thompson

“Yoga for Beginners” is filling up. Maude hauls up her tight new leggings, ‘I shouldn’t have bought these Mildred. That full-length mirror, at the top of class, isn’t forgiving.’

‘My bra is very tight,’ whispers Mildred. Adjusting it isn’t possible, as two middle-aged men have arrived in skimpy shorts. Everyone is vying for a bit of personal space beside colourful mats. Being early, the best friends have been shuffled to the top of the class.

‘Everyone’s behind us,’ Maude moans loudly, fixing her perm with her fingers.

‘We’ve a nice view,’ says the man with a greasy comb-over.

‘I’m 65 and married! I take no nonsense,’ Maude says over her shoulder.

The man mutters, ‘only being friendly.’ Mildred is quiet as usual.

A young male instructor has appeared in front of the class. The tightest pink t-shirt is stretched to capacity, over very toned arms and abdomen. His big feet are tanned.

‘Oh my,’ Maude gasps.

‘Welcome …’ the instructor says running his hands through blonde hair, ‘but we need naked feet, people.’ He rubs his square jaw as Maude stares and Mildred removes her Nike runners.

‘My name’s Tony. This is different to most classes you’ve been to.’

‘I’m a yoga virgin,’ Maude gushes and stoops awkwardly to loosen her red laces. There are a few giggles.

‘She’s 65. She takes no nonsense, apparently,’ says the man with the comb-over.

‘That was because you were teasing me earlier.’ Maude is crimson and swinging round to defend herself.

Tony interrupts, ‘Sure life’s good. Let us all begin. Take three, cleansing breaths as we all lean forward slowly. Try to touch your toes.’ Maude and Mildred do as instructed.

‘Life sure is good,’ mutters a male voice. ‘That cranky 65 year old’s leggings, are rightly ripped already.’


She Smiled
By David J. Wing

She clattered him in the mush with the frying pan and carried on until the son-of-a-bitch fell to the lino. He twitched, but a clunk or two more put a stop to that. She stared at his body, lying there, not talking, not whining, not yelling, not screaming, not hitting.

He’d been some kind of bastard—the kind a girl could fall in love with. He was tall and fit snuggly into his Wranglers. He’d approached her in the pub when she was all of seventeen, and too young for him, but he didn’t care. He could be charming when he wanted. Her father accepted him but her mother took her aside.

Jeanie, that’s the kind that causes trouble.

They had a church service. He was late. The priest said the words. They danced at the Working Men’s Club, or rather she did. He was busy in the cloakroom for some reason.

She’d re-heat his dinner when he came in smelling of perfume and whiskey. She’d have the breakfast ready when he woke, careful to whisper for the sake of his head. In the morning she’d wake early, pack him a lunch, even though she knew he’d throw it out and go to the pub instead.

She’d hoover the floors, scrub the cooker and empty the cigarette stubs from her hanging baskets. The house would gleam; he’d complain. He’d complain about the size of the house. He’d complain about the food. He’d complain about her clothes and her hair. He’d complain until he ran out of breath and had to use his fists.

It wasn’t his fault. It was her fault. She wasn’t woman enough for him. She was a girl and girls made too many mistakes.

It was for the best. He wasn’t happy. She smiled.


Longlist
In alphabetical order by author name

Driftwood
By Cal Bartley

Lydia walked alone along the seashore lost in her thoughts. There had been a heavy storm in the night and the rough seas had thrown wood and other flotsam onto the beach. As she meandered along the high tide mark she passed a family playing on the newly washed sand. They were making the most of the sunshine, using some washed-up logs to use for games.

Two boys were jumping the waves, screaming and shrieking like seagulls. She walked briskly beyond the sound of their cries, wanting solitude. She couldn’t bear to hear their happy voices carrying on the warm wind. She wanted only to hear the shushing sound of the waves, acting like lapping therapy.

Lydia had moved to southern Italy to live with Marco and now he was gone. She felt as lost and useless as one of the pieces of driftwood nearby, floating helplessly and unloved. It had been six months now and she needed to make a decision; whether to stay cocooned by her memories, or return to England to an unknown, uncertain future.

She continued along the shoreline and then she spotted it amongst the tumble of timber. The piece was light, contoured, worn smooth with age, faded to grey. Time and the elements had sanded away the rough edges, leaving a piece that was a work of nature’s art. Lydia stooped and picked it up; it was dry and welcoming to the touch.

Lydia retraced her footsteps, carrying the piece back to her studio. This wood that once had its own life force would be brought back to life under her care, transformed by her into an artwork that someone would love to have in their home. Satisfied, she made her way back, with a smile in her heart.

Marco would have approved.


Life is Good?
By Greg Beatty

Jennifer looked at her boyfriend, then away, away from him and from the invisible but tangible crossroads they faced. “How?”

“How what?”

She reached out a hand in a gesture that seemed incomplete. Was she grasping something? Pinching it off? “How can you believe in things like that? Life is good. Things will work out. Angels are watching over me?”

Rick nodded slowly. “When you list my beliefs like that, outside of context, I sound like some crackpot Pollyanna.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“No. You were very careful not to.”

Jennifer didn’t deny it, and she was glad her boyfriend could voice what bothered her when she couldn’t bring herself to, and that he was taking her concerns seriously.

They sat in silence, breathing in different rhythms. “I don’t know what your earliest memories are,” Rick said. “I’ll bet like most people, like me, you’ve got some early flashes of this and that.”

Jennifer nodded. “A big duck. A backyard with a rusty fence around it.”

“Exactly,” Rick said. “Well, besides those, I have this generalized feeling. This presence. My grandparents lived next door, and whenever I climbed something, one of them was just there, hovering behind me. Making sure I didn’t fall. Pressing a hand to my low back just when I needed it. Wrapping me in a towel when the lake got too cold.”

This time it was Rick who looked away, but with a smile. “I sometimes wonder if I can believe in angels watching over me because when my parents were angry or gone or just human, someone was watching over me.”

His eyes went to his girlfriend. Jennifer’s right hand was rubbing the back of her left wrist, where she had a small circular scar. She spoke very quietly. “I can believe in demons … ”


Amos Zuck’s Bad Day
By Del Cain

“What the hell you doin’, Rawls?”

“I was takin’ down this fence. Uh, to put back some of your cows. I was just…”

“The only cows I see are in my fence. So what cows, Rawls?”

The man holding the fence tool looked at his boots. “Well, I’d ‘a paid for it ‘ventually.”

Amos shifted, his hand near his Colt. Rawls’ eyes followed.

“Look, Mr. Zuck, I ain’t got no gun. I ain’t going to cause no trouble. I was goin’ to weight down them wires with them rocks and shoo a heifer out and then nail your fence up.”

“Well, you better get to nailing.”

The fence restored, Amos glared at Rawls. “Now mount and ride up to the house.”

Amos motioned Rawls under a big cottonwood. The rustler looked frantic and Amos eased the pistol in its holster. “We know how to handle thieves out here without riding all the way to town.”

Amos stepped down. He studied the man still mounted. “Your woman just had a baby, didn’t she?”

Rawls stared at the tree limb above his head and nodded.

“What’ll they do without you?”

Rawls drew a deep breath and sat up straight. He looked in Amos’ face for first time. “I reckon it’ll be hard.”

“No rain this spring, don’t suppose you made a crop.”

The man slumped and shook his head.

“And you got no cows.” Amos shook out a loop in his lariat. “Let’s get this done.” He walked to Rawls’ side. “In that pen there’s a half-growed calf and a fresh cow. She’ll be a terror to milk but snub her head to a post and tie her back legs. Lead that calf home, the cow will follow. Now, get the hell outa here.”


Sussed
By Ros Collins

A weekend in Paris; it doesn’t come better than that. I glance across at Matt unable to credit my luck. We’d met at a speed dating evening and clicked straight away. That was three weeks ago and now we’re hurtling through the Kent countryside towards Ebbsfleet. I wriggle in the new underwear I’ve bought and wonder if I’ll ever get used to wearing thongs.

‘Are you always such a fidget, Claire?’ Matt takes his hand off the steering wheel and stokes my knee.

‘Sorry, I’m getting comfy. How much further to the station? I’m sure the sign said twenty miles a while back.’

‘I’ve taken a diversion to avoid some road works. We’ve plenty of time.’

I smile, Matt is so considerate. It’s a wonder he hadn’t already been snapped up: to think he picked out mousy little me from all the other girls who oozed sophistication and pizzazz.

We swing left and I’m surprised to find we’re bumping along a narrow track.

‘Matt this can’t be right. Why have we turned off the main road?’

‘Claire, stop fussing. It’s all under control,’ he snaps, adding, ‘my control,’ under his breath. A niblet of fear worms its way into my chest and I recollect my mother’s concern over me gallivanting off with a man I barely know.

We draw up to an enormous house surrounded by outbuildings. The front door opens when Matt crunches to a stop spaying an arc of gravel into the immaculate flower beds. A woman about my age, dressed in a simple white shift and sandals, smiles a greeting. One that fails to reach her blank eyes.

‘What are we doing here?’

‘Trust me you’re going to fit in perfectly.’

I slump under the weight of disappointment and suss my luck has just run out.


“For What We Are About To Receive.”
By Bruce Costello

Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing and obtaineth favour of the Lord.

The Reverend Dudley Brown raised moist eyes from his Bible to the print on his study wall of a billowing storm cloud split by lightning. Its caption: One life, ‘twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.

“Forgive me, Lord, sinner in the flesh that I am,” he groaned, then clenched his teeth as the door opened and his wife appeared.

“Typical! The garden needs digging and you’re hiding in your study, reading. Lazy wretch!”

Dudley wiped his brow.

“Sorry, dear.”

“Well?”

“Nothing.”

“Pathetic!”

“Sorry.”

“Johnny’s been guzzling the communion wine again and Jenny called me the ‘b’ word. And you just don’t care.”

“Well…”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“You never talk to me! Why can’t you practise what you preach!”

She glowered down at him, hands on hips, lips so tight they’d almost disappeared, then strode away

Dudley rolled his eyes, closed his Bible, then opened it at random.

A man’s enemies are the men of his own house.

Therefore I will look unto the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation: my God will hear me.

The heavens parted and a shaft of sun shone into the room, landing on Dudley’s hand.

“Thank you, Lord.”

*

Later that day, Dudley removed his gardening clothes, put on his dog collar and rode forth on his bicycle.

Whistling ‘All things bright and beautiful,’ he bounced along country lanes towards Fleur O’Leary’s house, first on his pastoral visiting list. Fleur had been widowed the previous year …

Life’s so good, Dudley thought, strolling down the rose-scented path to her front entrance. He was humming “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” when Fleur opened the door.


Life is Good
By Julie Csisztu

Oh, the smile on my face when I think of it, “Life IS Good”. I just returned home after a drive from Montreal to Ottawa to have lunch with a long time good friend. It’s September 27th and it’s one of the most beautiful days one could imagine. The sun is shining, the weather is dry and fair and the daytime temperature is well over the norm for this time of year. As I drive down Highway 417, the trees have only just begun the gentle bloom into the most wonderful fall colours in recent memory and I’m on my way to see good friends.

My dear friend, Mary, is having one of her daughters visiting for the week. The daughter, Nans, is the wife of a Nova Scotia Anglican minister and she is in town to spend some quality time with her mother. Together they took several day trips, one of which was to visit the grave of their dad/husband in Algonquin park—a special trip taken with love and memories. Mary wanted her other daughters and their families also to be part of the gathering and she also included me, a long-time friend, in the generous invitation to come to her house and visit with Nans and the rest of the family, during her short stay here in town.

One of my questions was ‘what can I bring from Montreal’ and Mary’s daughter Nan’s immediate response was “Oh, from Montreal, how about smoked meat?” This solved my dilemma instantly as Montreal is THE place for good smoked meat. I also found some wonderful rye bread made from organic stone ground rye flour made by a local boulangerie—it seems that this baker buys his organic flour from our own Upper Canada Village. How good is that?


Tick Tock
By Tracy Davidson

Outside Manchester Piccadilly I check my watch anxiously. I’m late.

I barge to the front of the queue, leaving angry people in my wake. I flash my doctor’s badge at the man who tries to stop me stealing his taxi.

“Medical emergency!” I yell, holding up the white square box I’m clutching. “Manchester Royal Infirmary please,” I say. “Quickly. My patient’s waiting.”

The driver pales when he sees the box. He’s wondering what it contains—heart, liver, lungs. He doesn’t ask, I don’t tell. He drives fast, weaving easily through heavy traffic.

I flip my phone, make a call. “I’m on my way.”

Outside the hospital, I throw some notes at the driver, twice what I owe.

“I hope your patient makes it,” he calls as I run through the doors.

I take the stairs two at a time, not waiting for the lifts.

I make it to the ward with five minutes left of visiting hours. The pretty nurse smiles, waves me into the private room at the end of the corridor.

I am a doctor, just not at this hospital. And the woman in the bed is not my patient.

“There you are darling,” she says. “Come and kiss me.” I oblige.

“Sorry Nan,” I say, smiling at the bossy woman I love. “The train was delayed.”

I place the white box on her bed. She pulls out the contents eagerly … make-up, costume jewellery, best nightgown. All present and correct, as requested.

“Perfect,” she says. “Now I can have my face on and look my best when those handsome young doctors come round. There’s one who fancies me you know … ” She chatters on until the pretty nurse tells me it’s time to go.

I look back before I leave. Nan’s happy face makes all the dashing about worthwhile.


Ascension
By Catherine Power Evans

A cardiac event arrested my stagnant life. After Him, my last heartbreak, I made myself move house.

As the sun dawns from dark night, my inner light re-emerged.

The sale of my obsolete car funded an extravagant refurbishment of the new home – a four-storey lighthouse – making it luxurious, cosy and efficient. I miss the hooting of owls, and the zest from peeling fresh Jaffas. Beyond that, I need nothing more than I have on this remote rock.

Starting with Hemmingway, a labradoodle, my companions are novelists, poet laureates and others. There’s the three rat-catching cats – Duffy, Betjeman and Seamus; Stallone, the rooster and his hen, Beatrix; and a crow, Minerva.

I feared loneliness. And ghosts, souls lost at sea, but the only haunting is a rare artefact of my past.

Self-sufficiency is a privilege. Growing vegetables, sowing seeds and bulbs to brighten and colour the white walled garden, gathering eggs, connects me deeper to my island.

Seasons are tangible to the fingertips, sometimes biting, sometimes burning. Sounds of the sea; birds, animals – are hymns. Curious seals venturing near the boathouse, playful dolphin pods that take my heart leaping with them, and passing whales are prayers in the church of the ocean.

Splashes of yellow furze against green grass and blue sea; pink sea thrift, blue periwinkle, provide the canvas for photographs and ongoing paintings. All around, sunlight fractures over the sea’s whimsical hues. On the mainland, distant mountains are dressed in green and purple.

There are nights I ditch wellies and joggers, pin up my hair and stick on lippy. Lifting a long gown like a film star, I click upstairs in Louboutins to the wraparound glass penthouse. Relaxation is wine and a book under the twinkling stars on the cloth of heaven.

Life is good.


New Potatoes
By Jan FitzGerald

Bill Stanton’s days in his vege garden were earthy and sweet as dirt on a new potato.

“I didn’t get to eighty-five sitting around moaning about my arthritis,” he said to his great-grandchildren as he tended the rows. He’d nearly said haemorrhoids, but how’d you explain that one to kids? A bunch of grapes hanging out your bottom? “Sitting around makes you shrivel up like a walnut.”

Bill didn’t hold much hope for young ones these days. Did they have any idea where milk came from? Or eggs? Now that would scare them!

He hoed around the green leaves.

“Why do you grow so many potatoes, Poppa?” Charlotte, the six year old, asked.

“Because they’re good for you, angel, that’s why. Put your hands in here and see if you can feel any.”

Charlotte plunged her hands into the mound.

That’s a good sign, Bill thought. P’rhaps my green genes will pass on, after all.

“Mum cuts their eyes out,” Byron, four, said seriously. “Is that so they won’t see themselves getting eaten?”

Bill chuckled. “You could say that, I suppose, if you were writing a story. “Help me get out of Byron’s tummy,” he said in a tiny, strangulated voice. “Oh no, there’s a growly gurgler in here and a fart’s bouncing me around.”

Byron exploded into giggles, shoulders hunched up to his ears.

“I’ve got one!” Charlotte held up the white globe. “Ooh, another one! More! Look! There’s lots of them!” She started digging like a cat with urgency.

“Okay, that’s enough. Now pick me some mint and we’ll boil them up. Then with a big dob of butter we won’t tell mum about, you’ll find out what a potato straight from the garden tastes like.”


Life is Good
By Emma Forman

Claudia Forbes was finally free of the office. She had taken the plunge and realised her dream of becoming a freelance artist. Never again would she have to sit for hours data inputting the same figures over and over. She was now the master of her own destiny.

She opened the door to the cottage and set to work on a painting. The swooshing and dabbing of her paintbrush against the canvas soon revealed a scenic view from the cottage window. She had painted views from all over the countryside. Her paintings were magnificent; her brushstrokes were tight flowing and precise.

The garage had been converted into a gallery for her to display her work. Floods of people were flocking to the gallery eager to see the fruits of her labour. It had been an outstanding success with paintings being purchased quicker than she could replace them. It brought her great satisfaction when a picture sold; she would beam with pride when she wrapped them in brown paper before handing them over to their new owners.

Things were also blooming in her love life. She had met a gentleman with big blue eyes and a charming smile. His voice was soft like velvet and his touch was sensational. For the first time she really felt in love. She had finally met someone that she would be happy to marry if he ever did propose, but if not, she was content just to be with him.

Her only regret was a small one, that she wished she had followed her heart a bit sooner rather than leaving until she was in her winter years; but she couldn’t complain as life was being very good to her. What more could she ask for?


FRINGE BENEFITS
By James Freeze

“Why should I increase your income?” My boss asked.

“Because I don’t make enough money to pay all my bills,” I answered.

“I’m not responsible for your inept attempt to manage your personal finances,’ my boss replied. “Let me give you some good advice while you’re still young,” he continued. “When asking for a pay increase the reason should always be valid. For example, what have you done to save the company money or to increase the company’s productivity or to make the company operate more efficiently, things of that nature. Do you understand?”

“Yes I do, sir and thank you for your advice. The next time, I will be better prepared and with a valid reason as you have explained.”

The next day as I went behind a large shelving unit in the warehouse, I unexpectedly walked up on my boss who was passionately kissing a pretty young lady from the accounting department. That was three months ago and three raises ago aided by one excellent valid reason.


Left Behind
By Bear Jack Gebhardt

Rico had stopped to tie his shoe, so when the border guards suddenly beamed their bright lights he was still hidden ten yards back in the desert shadows. He jumped into an arroyo, scuttled beneath an overhang, like they’d taught him, to avoid their night goggles and heat sensors. His companions and the guards were gone in twenty minutes, leaving thirteen year old Rico alone with vast stars, a cold wind and distant sounds of coyotes.

Two months later, after long walks and much hunger and even more hiding, and both kindnesses and brutalities from strangers, Rico finally found the address of his grandmother’s cousin’s barbershop on Cesar Chavez Avenue in Los Angeles.

“He’s not here any more,” the man who was cutting hair barked. “Not for years. Now go. You trouble.”

Rico backed out of the shop. For months, no years, this address had been his northern star. Now … He bit his lip as tears came to his eyes. And then, an angel’s voice from heaven.

“Rico, Rico, my little Rico.”

His mother, crying and running towards him, arms open, her small sidewalk tamale cart left behind.


Compromise
By Rosemary Gemmell

“I’ll build us a house one day,” Mike promised.

Debbie believed him and moved into his caravan for life on the open road. Ready for adventure, she left her final year of school and her parents’ home, without a backward glance. Everyone had gap years these days and she’d no wish to settle down to study yet. Life waited for her and she planned to live it with gypsy-like Mike, whose black hair and deep blue eyes promised her everything she’d ever dreamed of, and more.

They travelled the highways and byways of Britain and Ireland, never settling long in one place. Debbie was happier than she thought possible. They laughed and loved, and she never missed anything about her old life.

Then, one day, beside a clear blue loch, reality beckoned.

“I think we should settle down, start a family,” Mike said.

She pleaded a few more years. “I’m not ready to go back yet.”

“Sorry, love, it has to be soon,” he insisted. “I’m ten years older than you. I’ve had enough of this kind of life. And I want to spoil you now, give you children.”

They saved every penny, tackling odd jobs until they could afford a plot of land to build their house. Mike withdrew the savings he’d kept aside in the building society.

As Debbie grew bigger with their child, she gazed at the night sky, remembering the freedom of open roads. Her suburban lifestyle, with its four walls and a roof had become a prison.

On the day she gave birth, Debbie listened to the cry of her newborn son and held the squirming tiny body against her breast. Tears and laughter mingled on her exhausted face. It was the best day of her life.


Bon Champs
By KJ Hannah Greenberg

I pushed Harriett-the-Cat away from my fresh acrylic painting, answered my youngest teen on the cell phone, and otherwise declined the breakfast offer of my oldest teen (what-do-you-mean-I-have-to-clean-the-frying-pan-before-I-leave-for-school-I-offered-to-make-you-eggs-didn’t-I). Teens, I have plenty. Young adults, I borrow as often as possible (having lived, once, literally, as a college professor). The dearth I suffer is adequate time in my garden.

Most mornings, I hear the lamb’s ears and cockscomb noise the sunrise without me to share their cacophony. Sure, the porcupine agave growing in a pot on my kitchen sill sniggers as I pour my coffee, and the spider plant that hatches babies above my staircase silently glares at me each time I tumble down from my bedroom, but those indoor denizens lack the verve of my raised beds’ barnyard.

Tomorrow will be different. I will cup the morning dew alongside of my leopard plant and will dance among the stems of my toad cup lilies. If I set my alarm for five, or, maybe even four, I’ll witness the stars fizzling from the dawn sky and, perhaps, see an actual fairy or two wink into oblivion.

No adolescent trauma, short of insufficient lunchmeat in the fridge, will call me back over the threshold, to domestic pandemonium. As long as the hound remains asleep, on one of his young master’s beds, I’ll be able to skip among my alligator coleus and to twirl past my narwhal plants.

Of course, it’s likely that one princess or another will have to borrow my mascara or a pair of my pantyhose and won’t deign to do so without my supervising my bureau drawers. Similarly, I might have to give a ride to school to a prince who overslept.

For today, though, I dream of frolicking among ferns and fauna.


The Time Capsule
By Gary R. Hoffman

“Okay, here’s the deal,” Walt said to his family at mealtime.

“Does this mean we’ve gotta collect more rocks?” eight year old Jeremy said.

“No. We’ve plenty of rocks for our new garden wall. I thank all of you for helping collect them.”

“Did we have a choice?” Brenda said. Brenda just became an official teenager, and based on her present behavior, her parents weren’t looking forward to the next six years.

“Here’s what I’d like to do,” their dad said. “I think we should put some kind of time capsule in the wall. Then someday, if someone wanted to destroy our beautiful piece of work, they would find it and know what kind of people we were.”

“What’s a time capsule?” Jeremy asked.

“Who would really care?” Brenda said.

“That might be a nice idea,” their mother said. “Jeremy, we could all put something in it to show the finders who built the wall and what was important to us.”

“My CD games are important to me,” Jeremy said, “but I sure don’t want to bury them.”

“It would have to be something pretty small,” their dad said. “I was thinking about using a mayonnaise bottle. It’s plastic, so it would protect whatever we put in there.”

“I can’t think of any of my stuff I’d want to get rid of,” Brenda said.

“Come to think of it, it would be really a tough decision,” their mother said.

“You guys are always telling all of us how much you love us. Why don’t we just write LOVE on a piece of paper and all put our names on it?” Grant said.

“Grant, honey. That’s a beautiful idea,” his mother said. She looked around the table for approval. Even Brenda had a tear running down her cheek.


The Swimmer
By Sharon Jackson

I come from Heaven.

Like a swimmer I dove down to this dimension of murky illusions, breath of life held guardedly in my lungs. I know my task, and it is not to drown here. Determinedly, I wrapped my arms around this world, and with its weight against my chest, I kick hard to bring us back to the surface, tiny bubbles of air slipping out of my nose all the while. There are other swimmers with me, and in the darkness of the deep, it is all too easy to forget which way is up.

One day I will run out of air, and I will let go of all I’ve come to know and shoot back up to the surface. Gasping and blinking in the light of Day, I will tread water till I’ve caught my breath.

Then, with new air filling my lungs, I will dive back down with the promise that I will raise us even higher.


C’est Si Bon
By Myra Litton

It was that twilight time like an Old Nat King Cole Christmas video where marshmallows were toasting on the log fire and the effects of mulled wine pulled on closing eyelids. The house with the Old English rafters, split level, protected against the cruel whistling wind outside made all them feel cosseted and protected. No huddling in street corners like you didn’t have a home to go to.

Sharon had earlier kicked off her loafers after a punishing day around the Department stores with the Teens that not so long ago were Tweens.

Dutiful husband had done the lion-share of the cooking and made his wife feel pampered and loved.

A late night talk show rumbled on in the background with the celebrities of the moment.

Later Sharon slipped into her Janet Reger nightgown and indulged in some languorous bordering on Tantric love making with her golfer husband who scrubbed up well for his age. The walls were very thick so all was well.

Life was good, she mused as she took off her jewellery and closed her conditioned lashes.

And even more so she thought as she got in to her Smart car to London for the beginning of the week as an anchor on a top TV show. Her life was split-level like her period house, compartmentalised, great, with all the little fortune cookies and crackers to open throughout the week like little pearls in oysters.

Yes, life was good Sharon reiterated to herself.


Life is Good
By Tyrean Martinson

I glanced over at her. “What?”

She smiled softly at me and then faced the road again, the tight grip of her hands relaying her inner tension.

I scowled and turned away to watch the rain pour over my passenger window, turning the world into some kind of blurry, Monet-like painting, the kind my dad loved.

“When someone dies, we have a choice in how we mourn them. We can grieve and let that grief consume us, or we can honor them with our lives, and life is good.”

As she emphasized the last three words, I winced inside at every one of them. I knew she meant well, but I wished she would just shut up. But I couldn’t say that, and I didn’t have the energy to find the right words, the ones she wanted to hear that would get her to stop talking. So, I sat and wished that I could blur into something beautiful like the rain over the gray world and neon lights turned into some kind of mad rainbow.

I could hear her swallow. She was getting ready to say something again.

“I’m okay, mom.” I paused. “I understand.” I bit my lip, turned to her, and put on the best smile I could. “I mean, I will be ok. Because you’re right. Life is good.” Then I shifted my shoulders a little so that I was half-turned and hoped that she couldn’t see my face when I dropped the smile.

“Good.” She started humming.

I turned on the radio and gazed out at the colors beyond the glass. Maybe I would paint them when I got home, even if … I would be painting for only myself now.


Blessed
By Elizabeth B. McGill

I lay back, exhausted, on the damp pillows. Labour was certainly the correct term for the miracle of childbirth. I knew about labour. In fact, I felt like an expert. Five pregnancies moved me beyond novice status. Two of those pregnancies had been disastrous. Two baby boys did not survive but two beautiful, strong, and healthy girls did.

I heard a boisterous howl. The doctor congratulated me on delivering a healthy child.

“Another girl,” I thought.

Experience taught me that only my female babies survived. In my drug-induced haze, I must have voiced that thought.

With a hearty chuckle, the doctor boomed, “What the hell do you think this is?”

His hand gently cupped male genitalia as he held the child high for me to see.

“I don‘t have to get pregnant again. We have a boy.” With a satisfied sigh, I inhaled his scent as my son nuzzled my breast.


Life is Good
By Frank McGivney

“You know that humans came from the monkeys?”

“It that right now, Patsy?”

“It is Timmy, some lad by the name of Darwin discovered it by studying pigeons.”

“Pigeons?”

“Yes indeed. Pigeons and monkeys.”

“What type?”

“All sorts of pigeons and some cut of a monkey that roamed in the trees in Africa who discovered potatoes were to his liking.”

“Potatoes.”

“Yes, spuds. You see what happened was the monkey had been born out of Irish emigrant parents. At the time the place to travel to was Africa, on account of all the free bananas and free thinking female primates. Somehow this monkey got a liking for the taste of spuds but discovered that he needed to be walking in order to plant them so one day didn’t he only get up on the two feet, leaving the rest behind.”

“So all of mankind came from an Irish monkey with a weakness for the taste of spuds. Is that all true?”

“Well according to your man Darwin that’s the truth of the matter. I read it on the internet.”

“Well then it must be true.”

“That only applies to men,” the barmaid’s voice interrupted.

“Two pints of the usual, please Maire. You’re looking well tonight. It wasn’t the monkeys that you came from but straight down from heaven itself, a child of an angel.”

“Well now Patsy McCabe you should know, considering you are about the same age as my mother. Wouldn’t it be more in your line to say that to your wife once in a while rather than to every woman who comes your way of a night?”

“Life is too good and too short to be having her worried about me by telling her things like that.”

“Well now if they aren’t the words of a true monkey.”


Life is Good
By Alan Morris

I am the darkness between the stars, the scream that fills the void.

I cast my shadow as life crawled from the mud.

I was the worm in the apple that fell in Eve’s lap.

I took the last room in the Inn, the first to cry crucify him.

I paid Judas thirty pieces of silver for a job well done. I preached both jihad and crusade. I presided over treason trials and witch hunts. I was at the gas chambers and the killing fields. AIDS and Ebola were my gift.

Despite my best and worst efforts bringing both dark desires and despair, Life continues to bring an infinity of small kindnesses as well as innumerable petty cruelties.

Life may be both good and bad.

I am not.


Life is Good
By Catherine Morris

The loaf sat on the table or should I say slumped. It was convenient, vacuum packed process sealed. My mother was very proud, from the convenience store to the table in minutes. No out of town hyper markets then. Pre sliced, long-lasting, factory made, was this the staff of life?

When you have one handicapped child and a noisy busy three year old, anything to save time or energy was a Godsend. The loaf still felt like rubber and tasted of … Well nothing.

As I grew older, I would scramble over the garden wall to the house next door. The house was the same as ours but never repainted up dated. The kitchen was tiny, dark full of mystery and magic.

I called her Auntie Lilly, it was her kitchen. She was baking. My Mum still did not have the time, and had never learnt the skill at her mother’s knee. When Mum should have been learning, bombs were falling and she was moved from one evacuation home to another. Auntie Lilly had learned, Oh how she had learned. Her kitchen produced by magic or alchemy …

WONDERFUL THINGS

Cream horns, piquant tarts and now this …

An aroma that hot-wired itself straight to the centre of my brain.

BREAD

One day I awoke in my then girlfriend’s house. A scent stole up the stairs; I was taken straight back to my childhood. As I gazed into my soon to be wife’s eyes and adored every morsel. I knew the secret ingredient of baking …

It could only be love! Life is good.


Dog Day Desire
By Sandra Ramos O’Brient

The dog got off the couch and stared hard at me, trying to convey … something.

“Outside? Pee-pee outside?”

Mary sat down. She didn’t need to pee. I glanced at her food dish. It was full. She laid her massive head on my knee. Her brow was crinkled now, and Mary sighed, but kept her kind eyes focused on me. A meditative stare-down, an implied Om, we settled into the pure Zen of our silent discourse. I blinked first, a snapshot of her desires imprinted on my mind.

The dog wanted everything we had and to do everything that we did. Mary wanted to sit in the recliner and eat while watching TV, sleep in the bed with her head on the pillow and have her own key to the door so she could take a walk anytime she wanted. She also wanted to choose her own collars, and she wanted to pick the art.

She confessed that her favorite picture had always been the one of the dogs playing poker. Mary wanted to play poker. She wanted friends. She wanted me to serve chips and bacon-flavored cheese dip to her friends while they smoked and played poker.

Her enthusiasm rose and then waned. Mary became more and more morose as the distance between what she wanted and what she had sunk in. She led a dog’s life. She would never play poker with her friends.

Mary sighed again and went outside to sleep in the sun.


Who Stole the Tarts?
By Ron Puckering

‘I’m telling you, the Knave of Hearts stole those tarts,’ the King of Hearts exclaimed. ‘He’s changed since he started hanging around with that Georgie Porgie fellow.’

‘You’re too hard on the boy,’ the Queen of Hearts said sulkily. ‘You’ve no proof he took them.’

‘True, but I was so looking forward to having them for my tea.’

‘No matter, I’ll bake some more.’

The Knave is making my life intolerable, thought the King. The boy’s twisting the Queen round his little finger. I shall have to do something about it.

A second batch was baked but they too vanished almost before they’d had time to cool.

The police were contacted and they advised that a surveillance camera should be installed. When the third batch of tarts disappeared they found to the Queen’s horror that they had caught the Knave of Hearts red handed on the recording stealing the tarts.

The Knave was charged with the crime and sent to trial. When the Queen came back from the Courthouse she told the King that the Knave had received a twelve-week community service sentence. ‘He would have received less but he categorically denied stealing the second batch of tarts.’

‘Really,’ the King said, hastily brushing crumbs from his waistcoat. Life was suddenly getting a whole lot better.


Life is Good
By Karen Seaton

A cold night, the steel wheels of the train met steel track and seemed transmuted by the depth of cold, almost tempered by it, shiny and at the same time frosted. An amazing feat that they would pull forward at any moment, Kira thought. She seemed to merge with that cold steel as she stood transfixed by it, her spirit having come thru a great testing, now lay at rest too, hardened, tempered. She held her leather satchel in both hands, this was her train car, and her soul lay deeply reflective while all amongst her noise and souls jostled with their own plans, actions. But Kira lay still inside …

‘Noooooo’! Kirwana cried out in anguish … ‘Noooooo’ … she held her infant, only days old, now lifeless in her arms. As soon as Kira realized where her memories had taken her, she sought the feeling of holding Kirwana in her arms, as Kirwana’s grief was like the Zambezi unleashed after being barged up. Unstoppable.

Memories usurped.

Weeks later, after a rain, the women were impromptu singing a song of life after the rains, she saw Kirwana laugh as women, she had known since birth, friends, found a way to her heart and brought a bit of light back to it. Like an invisible crystal, the sun shining thru it and hundreds of shards of light sung out, that was what Kirwana’s laughter was like, like rain to parched land, it brought life, faith, hope.

‘What we dwell on we become,’ she had told her … ‘the long shadows or the sun.’

Kira looked out across this very different land, yet held another deep within. She felt her heart, felt the love, with that she knew, all things were possible. With love, life is good.

The cold steel mammoth came to life, pulled forward.


The Match
By Rose Servitova

Edgy John Ryan nipped himself shaving and shakily stuck toilet paper to the wound. Herself liked him clean-shaven on a Sunday night. The twins, thirteen, upstairs in bed, must have guessed by now.

Parents all dickied-up for 10.30 pm every Sunday could only mean one thing.

John’s jitteriness had increased over the evening. His right leg, unconsciously pumping during dinner, banged the table leg, disturbing the brimming gravy jug, causing brown lava paths down the sides.

He knocked the salt cellar. He was unusually quiet.

The Ireland – Brazil match would kick off at 10.30 pm, the same time as you-know-what. He couldn’t tell her. Only three weeks ago he tantrumed over the extra-long episode of ‘Downton Abbey’ which delayed their business, effecting his performance.

He left the bathroom and joined his pyjama-ed wife on the couch, ignoring her arched eyebrow look of “Ya big thick bog-roll face, ya” and faked watching TV. The clock read 10.29. She got up and began collecting cups littered around the room. Jaysus, could she move any slower? A minute later he heard the kitchen door open, close, then the bedroom door open, close. He set the channel, put on mute. Lifting his chest, setting his jaw, John Ryan determinedly strode into the bedroom recalling an old Marilyn Monroe poster he once had cellotaped to his college dorm.

Four and a half minutes later a content husband cracked open a cold beer and stretched length-ways on the couch. The match was on, nil-all, he’d missed nothing.


Tail-hunted
By Helen Shay

‘Sandy, wash my next one!’ says the artistic director.

Artistic director, my arse! You don’t ‘direct’ hairdressing. As for artistic, what about that blue rinse and demi-wave he did? More like a Tsunami and Marge Simpson on a bad hair day.

Five years I’ve had of highlights and straighteners, sinks and sweeping, giving free counselling and babble about holidays—living for tips. Not that clients (a salon with an artistic director has ‘clients’ not ‘customers’) tip much. Except Ms Waters. She gives me pearls.

She arrives every Wednesday in a taxi—from her care home presumably—in a wheelchair covered with a blanket from the waist down. She always sings whilst I comb her long hair—a mournful siren-song. Suddenly it’s like I’m not trapped here, but am in a blue expanse where the only waves are wild and foam-crested.

Last time she said, ‘Sandy, no-one grooms hair like you. Come work for me—and my sisters. Our personal coiffeuse. We live on the coast, where you can be free.’

I know she’s mad and the pearls can’t be real. But who wants ‘real’, if reality’s like mine. Next Wednesday, I shall say yes.


Life is Good
By Nillu Nasser Stelter

My husband died last week. It was my doing. I’d planned it meticulously. I began bolstering his ego a few months ago with little scraps of attention until he was sure I’d fallen in love with him again. Then I loosened the railings on the balcony.

Our anniversary is in fall, and we have quite a view from up there of the trees turning gold and bare. It’s the fifth storey, you see. I handed him a flute of champagne and told him to enjoy the view while I went to change into something I had bought especially for him. He couldn’t believe his luck. At least he was happy when he smashed his head in.

I was equally happy when I returned in my gloriously expensive mourning outfit and saw him lying there, splashes of red all around. A girl has to celebrate. I allowed myself a triumphant smile before I slipped my widow’s mask on.

Oh, I excel in this role. It’s the happiest I’ve been … such a natural fit. I think widowhood is quite becoming actually. There’s an elegance to it that is lacking in a mere mother or wife.

Now I stand here with my elegant up-do, a silken shroud of black accentuating my assets. My lips have been painted in nude and there is a hint of mascara on my lashes. Waterproof, of course, in case tears are required. Subtle glamour is the look I am going for. Too much makeup on a widow is unseemly, crass even, and I have a flawless reputation to uphold.

I am awaiting the reading of the will. Money I know is going to me, not his mistress. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had. I wonder what I should splash out on first? Life is good


Life is Good
By Sharon Thompson

There’s a sign saying, “Intervention” above the mantelpiece. It’s written in bright, red lipstick on toilet roll. I know it’s Granny May’s work. She’s a Dr. Phil fanatic. A lunatic of a Granny, but I do love her enthusiasm. I’m wondering as I glance round the room, if everyone really feels I need this. Their grins tell me, that Granny May has surpassed herself this time. She has a project for everyone that can incorporate nibbles.

Granda Joe is scratching his unshaven face. He’s still in love with Granny May despite her finding he has many syndromes and putting him through the ringer of Jeremy Kyle-like dramas. I’m surprised poor Granda is not in trouble, as he hasn’t shaved. Granny’s best pearls gleam as she takes my hand and says “don’t be shocked honey, this is all for the very best. We all love you.” Her American accent is convincing. “Life is good for you but … ”

“Granny really, this is embarrassing,” I interrupt. Dad and Mum are now looking suitably sombre. I implore them with my eyes. I’m ignored. My sister is handing around the nibbles. Even our retriever dog has taken against me. She’s looking at me with sympathy.

“GRANNiiieee?” I whine, feeling embarrassed.

Dragging me under the banner with her, Granny May goes on, “It’s time dear … We feel it’s time for you to admit your addiction. You need to know that life is good … but you know you must give it up. Hand it over. Just for a while pet. You understand? It’s so you can get your life back.”

I give in. I delve to the depths of my handbag and pull from it … my addiction, my life and my all—

My laptop.


Widows Without Weeds
By Julia Wallis

‘Mmph, that’ll do for now.’  A creaky 87, Eileen levered herself up on Reggie’s headstone.

Limping lopsidedly to the bench, she dusted herself off before delving in her shopper.

‘Lunch break.’ She trilled over to Brenda, and another cauliflower-curled head popped out three graves down.

Years ago, Reggie and Archie had succumbed within a couple of months of each other. The tandem churchyard tidying had become a comfortable habit since. Side by side, they regarded their handiwork with satisfaction and a sandwich – until distracted by quick crunching footsteps on the gravel path.  Eileen put name to face first.

‘Why Sharon, is that you love?’ Hesitance gave way to authority: ‘Glad to see you’ve not let yourself go.’  Halting opposite them in a red top which revealed as it concealed, Sharon’s lycra leggings contrasted sharply with her elders’ elasticated waistbands.

‘Mrs Wilkins, Mrs Douglas.’ Formal titles recognised the generation gap.

‘You remember Sharon, Brenda?  Her and Ronnie had that bungalow down from me – until he passed. By, you look thin – ‘spect you gone right off eating.  I was like that when my Reggie departed.’

‘No, Mrs Wilkins – just resisting the urge to vegetate, now I’m not running after ‘im.’

‘Ah, you did ‘im proud, girl. Meat and two veg before ‘e could shout for it. An’ home-made fancies between times, after he couldn’t get up. You kept ‘im well fed – told all ‘is visitors that. Heart attack took, him, wasn’t it? Then one o’them barrier ambulances – like on the telly.’

‘Bariatric.’ Murmured Sharon, then, shoulders straightened: ‘I’ve come to see grave marker.’

‘Grave marker?  But he’s barely cold.’ Disbelief stripped Eileen of tact.

‘Five months, Mrs Wilkins – look.’ Barely visible in the close-mown turf beside them, a stone marker announced:

“In his end is my beginning.”


Reclaimed World
By David J. Wing

He rode over the sand and felt the breeze pass over his cheeks and through his mane. The wind whipped and whirled into a frenzy, but barely did he notice.

The sky—a hue of green and blue, lashed the beach with light and care, while the sea’s lips dampened the land.

A song could be heard as the waves met—a calming, loving ache, as if to lull a male, a female, or a child to sleep and capture for the depths.

His four hooves battered and tore the ground, freeing it to fly on a wisp.

The horizon ran further away, never stopping no matter how he pursued. His small friend—also four footed, tore along, desperate to catch him and play—calling with a rough joy.

The hills—as if pawns, guarded the mountains beyond and watched over the motionless mills.

The houses, now empty, empty for centuries, struggled to stand and often met the ocean with a crash. Their driveway colleagues broke apart and provided homes for vegetation.

With an opportune break, the water dozed and the two followed suit. Sitting there, watching the elements, languid, they panted and thought of their lives, their loves and of their friendship.

The others would be along shortly, but for now, for here, they were free to think, to feel, to run and to simply be. Be happy, be …


Life is Good
By Malgorzata (Gosia) Zarosa

The world was speeding, the pace increasing and Human ran forward and forward.

At times – actually most of the time – he didn’t think where he was running or even … what for?

The hours hustled, dashing with tasks to do, goals waiting impatiently to be achieved, the boxes to be ticked on the to-do list. Mornings changed to evenings, weeks turned into months.

Human reached such a speed that in his own acceleration, running headlong, he lost control over everything. A moment longer, a second of inattention and it all could collapse.

And so he banged on. With the force equal to the speed he was at.

And he sat shocked with a blackout.

The world around stopped and all you could hear for a moment was the sound of silence. Human looked around slowly, wondering where he was.

Trees rustled, the air was filled with the smell of grass and camomile. Clouds moved lazy on the sky and some sun rays lit the scene.

A sudden noise of a squirrel jumping nearby intertwined with a voice added by a woodpecker. Human was sitting amazed with a bump on the forehead and he was gently filled with peace.

He didn’t run anywhere, nor did he chase anything. He wasn’t achieving or realizing any goals … and nonetheless life went on. There was no catastrophe; Human did not stop existing either. The reality was there as it was ages before him and as it will be for the unknown number of years yet to come.

Illusions dropped like a heavy burden carried for a long time. Human blinked, smiled under his breath to the lack of thoughts in his head. He stood up, kicked the stone lying beside him and moved ahead with a light step, counting no time.

 

 

 

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