The Trade

The Trade

by Nidhi Singh

Paro could hear the spanking new bike purr softly into life as Radhe tentatively pressed the ignition switch. She could see the sheer blue and red of the Suzuki swathed in the comforting glow of the morning sun outside. She smiled and drew the heavy cotton quilt closer. Her two children, the boy, and the girl, snuggled tightly up to her in that January morning when the cold in rural Punjab could creep right to the bone and vex it.

As her husband clicked into gear and drove away, she drifted off as well, into dreams that came to her rather often now, even during the day.

***

“When will you become manager sahib,” she would pester Radhe when he got home from work, as she served him hot chapattis made of pearl millet. Her little brood would gather on the silk bamboo mat spread on the floor around the wood-fired stove, and she would scoop out ladles of piping hot red lentils tempered with roasted spices, onions, and homemade butter.

“Soon,” he would mumble, “soon,” taking large gulps of cool water from the copper tumbler to put down the fire in his throat and wiping the tears in his eyes with the other hand. “As soon as that damn scooter can start and I can make it to office in time. The more clients I see, the more commission I can make,” he would explain.

“Can’t we sell it,” she would ask with wide-eyed wonderment, her chin tucked on her wrist, as she watched him eat.

“Who would buy it? It’s a piece of junk. Father drove it all his life, then left it to me—there’s no life left to be flogged in that horse.”

“So, if you were to get a new bike, you would become a manager?”

“Yes…my boss wouldn’t ride on my back all the time, and I would get more business for the office—yes, it could land me a promotion.”

“And then you could become a member of the District Club?”

“Yes, it’s for officers only.”

“And I could wear a silk sari and go there on Sundays…and play tombola like the other memsahibs?”

“Yes…yes.”

“And Shankar and Swati could join the English-medium school,” she would persist, ruffling the shaggy mop of hair on her children.

“Yes, yes…yes, baba.”

Her knees would wiggle a little, swaying her small, boyish buttocks on the cold, hard floor, and her pretty face would break into a big smile. And that would silence him.

“My father always said you were different from the village urchins. ‘Uncouth,’ he called them. He knew you would become a big man someday—yes, he saw it,—he would tell mama as he gurgled from his hookah pipe. ‘I see a bright future for Paro,’ he would slap his thighs and claim —‘she won’t have to gather cow dung in a pail all her life.’”

Her younger one, the naughty Shankar, would imitate his nana by slapping his scrawny thighs as well and laugh. It was a story she loved to repeat each evening.

***

As the sunrays stole into the clay courtyard, Radhe would begin his morning ritual of struggle with the ancient Lambretta. It would take several tiltings, pumpings, cursings, and kickings to coax the machine to sputter, cough, choke and die. Little Shankar would stand on the kick and shake down his skinny frame, but the machine won’t budge. He would then dash to the hay barn on the side of the house and fetch a small file. Radhe would smile through the sweat, squat by the scooter and clean the carburetor with the said device, while Paro prayed and Swati sat on the worn leather seat of the scooter and played with her wooly rag doll.

The combined will of so many people would finally prevail and the machine would pull itself by the bootstraps and bring Radhe to work.

***

The Insurance office was in a crowded bylane near the town clock tower where cows, rickshaws, pushcarts, beggars; and mongrels and scavengers nosing through open garbage jostled for real estate.

“Late again—scooter troubles?” The clerk on the next desk winked as Radhe walked in and removed his home-knit scarf. “You’re lucky—the Rakshasa is off to a target meeting.”

“What difference would it make, even if I came early. There’s hardly any business—what little insurance people take—they’re taking it online these days.”

“True—had it not been for the fair price shop my father won in an auction—I would be hand-to-mouth myself,” the clerk replied, eating crispy, crunchy savory made from deep-fried refined flour and carom seeds from his tiffin. “Why don’t you also start a side business?”

“No side business—only business. As soon as I save up for the down payment on that tractor—I’ll chuck, and work the land. In fact, I’ve mailed my resignation to the Head Office already. Father-in-law had a lot of land—and an only child—my Srimati Ji. I’ll grow cotton and sugarcane.”

“You’ll leave this job to become a farmer—everyone else is moving to the city?”

“Why not? There’s no future in wrangling commission from these village idiots—they don’t believe in insurance anyway. Indians are resigned to their fate—leave everything to God—to His will.”

“Does your wife know?”

“I’ll tell her by the month-end—she’ll be happy, I think—the land is begging to be availed.”

“Good luck to you, brother,” the clerk said, slurping tea loudly from a saucer.

***

Paro twirled the end of her sari as the moneylender peered at her land papers through his bifocals.

“The titles are clear,” he said, straightening up when he was satisfied with his study.

“But what do you need the money for—Radhe has a fine government job?”

“Brother, he’s running his father’s old scooter—to get a promotion he needs a new bike so he can meet more clients.”

“Aah,” the greedy bloodsucker exclaimed. “It’s a good decision—it’s such a shame to let all that land lie waste. You’ve put it into good hands, dear daughter—here, sign these papers.” He motioned his munshi to fetch the stamp pad so that Paro could put her thumb impression on the mortgage papers. He opened his till and counted out some money, which he handed over to Paro.

“But the bike—I want the new bike delivered this day itself—before Radhe comes from office.”

“Surely, my child—as we agreed. I hope Radhe won’t create a problem with you over the land?”

“Land doesn’t mean anything to him—he is a babu by birth,” she giggled. “His hands are so soft,” she said, holding up her glass-bangle-covered wrists. “I’ll tell him I got the money from the sale of cows that my father had left with his sister to take care of.”

“That’s good, that’s good,” the moneylender laughed, running his sweaty hands over his huge belly.

***

It had been a night of fierce lovemaking as a grateful Radhe sought to please his wife in ways she’d not imagined before. Paro smiled as he drove off to work in the brand new bike the moneylender had delivered as promised.

◊ ◊ ◊

Nidhi Singh
Nidhi attended American International School, Kabul, before moving to Delhi University for BA English Honors. Currently, she lives with her husband near McLeodganj (abode of the Holy Dalai Lama) in the Dhauladhar mountain ranges. Her short work has appeared internationally in Indie Authors Press, Flyleaf Journal, Liquid Imagination, Digital Fiction Publishing Co, LA Review of LA, Flame Tree Publishing, Four Ties Lit Review, The Insignia Series, Inwood Indiana Press, Bards and Sages Publishing, Scarlet Leaf Review, Bewildering Stories, Down in the Dirt, Mulberry Fork Review, tNY.Press, Fabula Argentea, Aerogram, Fiction Magazines, Flash Fiction Press, The Dirty Pool, Asvamegha, etc. Her translations of Sikh Holy Scriptures, essays on Bollywood and several novels are available in print and online.

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…And Then What Happened?

And Then What Happened?

by M.C. Neuda

Sarah’s eyes came to rest across the crowded networking party on her husband, after roaming over every other man in the room in cool assessment. It seemed to her that she had never seen Larry in such a clear light.

What a disgusting little man, she thought.

Everything about him filled her with a horrifying wonder: his short, fat body with the stumpy legs; his head too large for the rest of him, balding except for the fringe of long, dark, curly hair across the back; his stubby fingers, all out of proportion to his long and powerful arms, just now stuffing a slippery canape down his greedy gullet. Even across the room she could hear him snorting from the catarrh in his nose and throat. She wondered that she had ever been that desperate to leave Wyona, Kansas.

He was a salesman, as middling in that as in his looks. His mother had left him a few acres of land that he was holding onto until real estate prices rose; but it was the serest property she had ever seen, with no nearby power supply or water and abutting a toxic waste disposal site.

That pretty much summed up Larry: barren and unproductive and ever hopeful that something was going to give.

She could have forgiven all that perhaps, if he hadn’t also been such an inept lover.     Oh sure, he could slip a rigid prong into her socket all right, get the juice flowing, find the  switch that turned on her light; but just when she was beginning to burn brightly, he’d yank the cord abruptly, and all those electrons would buzz awhile in her body without having any place to go, leaving her cranky for days. The fact was, she was cranky most of the time.

How to get rid of him. That idea leapt to mind so fast it surprised her. But the surprise dissolved just as quickly into an unwavering and implacable determination. It was as if she had always known it would come to this.

Mentally, she riffled through the means available to her. Poison. She knew nothing about them. Rat poison, maybe. In coffee. But it would probably taste bad and he’d suspect something. Maybe if she gave it to him very slowly, over many weeks.

Guns or knives. No, she didn’t believe in violence. Hanging?  She’d have to get him into a noose and that would be tricky.

Car accident. She could get him drunk and drive him off an embankment by the river. Maybe hit him on the head beforehand or strangle him to make sure, like in that Lana Turner movie. But then the police might suspect something, her first and foremost. Besides, she had already decided against acts of force. No, Larry would have to cooperate somehow.

“Hi darling, enjoying yourself?” asked Larry, sliding a damp arm around her shoulder. His large, protruding eyes (like a bug, she would say) swept across the crush of partygoers, looking for the next opening he could slip into. So to speak. Actually, she had never doubted his fidelity. Good thing; she’d have killed him if she’d had even a shadow of a hint of a suspicion.

“Lots of great leads, baby. Yup, Poppa’s going to do some heavy cashing in soon.  You’ll see, baby, I’m gonna give you a life beyond what you’ve ever dreamed. You deserve it.”

God, she thought, his hands are clammy.

Even in an air-conditioned room, where the dying heat of the day couldn’t touch him, Larry managed to add to the humidity.

She bent down as if to retrieve something, breaking his clasp, took out a handkerchief and dabbed at her face and then at her shoulder in an absent-minded way. All those plans of big money. How many times had she heard them?  She never listened to him anymore; he never knew the difference anyway.

“Excuse me, honey, I see Morton, I’ll just be a minute.” He turned back and said, “Can I get you a refill?” She shook her head and he plunged back into the crowd.

Morton, she hadn’t seen him, that little weasel, that two-timing rat. Always coming up with a scheme to fleece Larry, who never caught on. Full of himself because he was good-looking and always praising you for the very quality you didn’t have but most craved.

She winced. He’d gotten her too once, telling her how gorgeous she was and how smart, like he sometimes felt she could see right through him and everybody else. Then he’d told her about a deal of his and how he’d love to give her a dividend. She was the one who’d suggested a non-cash investment, but he’d been angling for it, she just hadn’t seen it. And then he’d reneged. “Who you gonna tell, Larry?” he’d said, laughing at her. She hadn’t even gotten any fun out of it. If anything, he was worse than Larry. She’d pay him back, that dirty little prick, if it was the last thing she did.

First things first…she thought, and went back to her inventory. Guns, knives, poison, hanging, car accident… Heart attack. That would be great, but how could she induce it?  Larry was as strong as he was dumb.

A fall from a window. Now there was an idea. It wasn’t likely he’d survive ten stories. That cheap pendant he’d given her for her birthday— “A hundred percent gold-filled!” he’d said, as if gold-filled meant filled with gold, always somebody’s patsy—she could hang that out the window. She’d read something like it in a book somewhere. Maybe she could rig a hook of some kind. She could tell him that it had come loose and fallen while she was shaking out a dust mop, but she couldn’t retrieve it, she was afraid of falling. Then, as he was leaning out the window… God, she’d have to push him. Or… She could get somebody else to do it… She’d seen it in a movie somewhere… Or…  And then…

A plan formed in her mind.

Larry came over to her again. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “Morton’s got a great scheme, but he can’t tell me with all these people around. He’s afraid someone might overhear.”

Sarah put on her blankest look. “Why don’t you bring Morton home with you for dinner tomorrow night, dear?”

“That’s a great idea! But, you sure you don’t mind?  I didn’t think you really liked Morton all that much.”

“I can put up with him if it helps you out, dear.”

“Yeah?  Boy, are you a sweetheart! Let me go ask him right away.”

Say yes, you bum, she thought.

And when he did, Sarah knew that the forces of the universe were with her.

* * *

The next evening was clear and hot, just the weather Sarah wanted. She was all ready and busying herself in the kitchen when she heard the apartment door open.

“Honey, I’m home!” Larry called. She heard him inviting Morton to fix himself a drink and the sound of the living room window being closed.

Larry slipped into the kitchen rubbing his hands with glee. “It’s even better than I thought,” he said, keeping his voice low. “But listen baby, I gotta ask you a favor.”

Here it comes, thought Sarah.

“Wow a turkey! Wow is that beautiful! Have I got a wife?” He paused. “Isn’t it a little hot for turkey?”

“It’s already cooled off. I’m cutting it into slices, and we’ll have it with a salad.” She took the electric carving knife in hand and turned it on.

“Well…like I was saying… I know you think I’ve got hare-brained ideas, but I’m always looking to make it up to you. And this time I will, for sure, in spades. The only thing is… ” and he rubbed his nose, “… I promised Morton I’d ask you first.”

“How much?” she asked.

“How much what?” he answered, blinking.

“How much seed money. There’s always some investment, right?”

“Five thousand dollars…”

Sarah’s hand twitched, and the electric carver slipped and tore into the turkey’s spine.

“Careful honey,” he said, “let me do it for you.”

“No, I’ll do the rest of it at the table,” she said, turning off the carver. “Why don’t you carry the turkey in for me?”

“Okay, but let me unplug the knife first.”

“Don’t bother. I bought an extension cord so I wouldn’t have to replug it.”

“That’s a pretty long cord,” he commented.

“Actually, it’s the shortest one they had.”

“So sweetie, before we go in…what do you say?”

Sarah’s eyes darted from side to side. “Can’t we talk about this tonight?  When we’re    in bed and relaxed?”

Larry’s eyes shone. “Oh baby!” he said. … “But…you see… I promised Morton I’d let him know this evening.”

Sarah thought a minute, then said, “Sure. Why not?”

Larry’s face exploded into joy. “You mean it?  What a woman! What a wife!” He made a move to embrace her but was deterred by the carver between them. “God was really looking out for me when I ran into you. I’ll tell Morton,” he continued, picking up the turkey platter.

“Sure,” she said affably, “you can take out the money tomorrow.”

Morton paused. “Well, see,” he said, “I was really hoping you’d say yes, and in case you did, I already took it out. But hey,” he said, seeing her face, “I’d have put it right back if you’d have said no. No way I’d do it without your approval.”

And with that, he sashayed to the kitchen door, bearing the half-cut turkey. Sarah was tempted to hit the switch on the carving knife and make an end of him immediately; but then he turned as if struck by something and said, “By the way, did you have the living room window open for a reason?  That’s a waste of money, you know, with the air-conditioner on.”

Sarah went into her act. “Oh Larry,” she whined, “you have to do something for me now.”

“Anything, baby, you know that.”

“You know that beautiful gold pendant you gave me for my birthday?  Well, I was dusting out the mop when the clasp came loose and it slipped and I couldn’t catch it. It’s    caught on a nail or something outside the window. It’s hard to reach. I’m afraid to lean out and get it.”

“Don’t worry, baby, leave it to me.”

With that, he trotted out of the kitchen bearing the platter, and Sarah followed, knife       in hand. Morton rose from the couch as they came into the living room and called out, “Hi beautiful! She’s a beauty, isn’t she, Larry, and smart as they come! You’re a lucky man.”

Larry put the turkey on the table and drew himself up. “You’ve got that right.”

“So, what’s the deal?” said Morton.

“Larry, the pendant,” Sarah said.

“Oh yeah,” said Larry, looking from one to the other. Then, thrusting his open hand over to Morton: “The deal is...consummated!” he said.

Sarah almost laughed. Screwed, you mean.

Morton clasped Larry’s hand in both of his. “Good! Terrific!” he said. “You’ll never regret it!”

You’ll never live to regret it, dumb-ass, she thought. She glanced over at Larry’s briefcase lying on the sofa. She could almost discern a five-thousand-dollar outline.

“So what do you say we put it together right now and then we can really enjoy our meal,” Morton prompted.

To Sarah’s surprise, Larry withdrew five thousand dollars in small bills from his jacket pocket. Morton took an envelope of similar bills from his breast pocket and showed them to Larry. “Here’s my five thousand dollars. Go ahead, count them.”

Larry proceeded to do so.

“Larry, that pendant means the world to me,” Sarah said.

“Pendant?” said Morton, lifting his head as if scenting new prey.

“In just a minute baby,” said Larry, “I’ll be all yours.” He finished counting the money and then put all the bills together into the envelope and handed it to Morton. Sarah watched carefully as he put the envelope into his breast pocket, paused, and then withdrew it again.  “Tell you what,” said Morton, “why don’t you hang onto the money until I’ve got all the details worked out?  Why shouldn’t you handle the finances for a change?  I trust you.”

Larry beamed and put the envelope in his pocket. Sarah breathed easier. She was pretty sure her money was safe for the moment.

Larry strode over to the window and opened it. He leaned out, Sarah and Morton close behind.

“Hey, that’s not so far down,” Larry said. “All I have to do is put my hand on the ledge and… ”

And Larry slipped far out just as Sarah thought he would, having greased the ledge to a fare-thee-well. Morton reached out, caught hold of the jacket, which slipped from his grasp, and then the pants legs. Sarah screamed incoherences.

“Morton, no!” Larry yelled. “My pants are falling down!”

With a quick move, Morton caught hold of Larry’s legs and pulled him upwards.
Dammit! thought Sarah, he’s going to do it.

“Stop screaming and help me,” Morton gasped. In answer, Sarah turned on the carving knife and jabbed at Morton’s wrist.

Morton cried out in pain, and Larry’s legs disappeared out the window.

“Omygod, omygod, what have I done?” she gabbled.

Morton backed away from her. “Turn off that knife, you blithering idiot,” he said.
She did so and put it down. All at once collected, she said, “Let me take care that,” whipping out a handkerchief from her apron. She dunked it into one of the water glasses on the table and, gently taking his hand, dabbed away at the wound, then wrapped it tenderly. She continued to hold his hand.

“Gee,” she said softly, “all that money out the window.”

Morton chuckled. “You don’t think I’d trust that boob with my money, do you?” and he tapped his breast pocket. “Oldest trick in the book and he falls for it. What a sap! Rest in peace,” he added as an afterthought.

“This is just awful,” she murmured.

“Yeah, too bad,” he said.

“No, I mean the way I feel. I don’t know what it is, but all this excitement…it’s got me excited.”

“No kidding,” said Morton.

They were undressed by the time they got to the bedroom door. Sarah opened it and a blast of air greeted them.

“Jesus,” said Morton, “it’s freezing in here!”

“Larry always liked it really cold. Just slip under the electric blanket for a minute and I’ll be right with you.”

She darted into the bathroom and picked up a pail of water that was standing just inside the door.

Now for you, she thought.

Just then, she heard Larry’s voice at the bedroom door. “Morton, I found these in the living room.”

She peeked out. Larry was standing at the foot of the bed, holding Morton’s jacket and pants and her dress. He was rumpled and had some bruises but otherwise looked alive and well.

“What is going on?  I mean, the minute I disappear, you move in on my wife?”

“We were devastated Larry, we were trying to console each other. Uh, how did you manage to… ?” And Morton reached nervously for cigarettes that were on the end table.

“On my way down I bounced off all those awnings that I always thought were so ugly. Not any more. They broke my fall.”

“What a miracle,” said Morton, taking a drag on a cigarette. He tossed the electric blanket aside, inadvertently flicking the match onto the sheets. “Well, I’ve got to be going,” and he got up and reached for his pants.

Sarah drew a scratch the length of her cheek with her fingernail. Then she came out of the bathroom and slipped in front of Larry.

“You’re alive!” she said, with a tremble in her voice. “I was so afraid! He forced me!” She turned her cheek for him to see, for emphasis, picking up the blanket and drawing it around her.

“Why you… ” said Larry and rammed his powerful fist over Morton’s heart, who keeled over, never to rise again.

Sarah screamed, pointing to the bed. It was blazing up.

“I’ll get some water,” Larry shouted and ran to the bathroom, where the fateful water bucket was waiting. Sarah ran past him but was caught short by the blanket’s electric cord, which had wrapped itself around the jamb of the door. Larry ran back, tripped over the cord and sent the contents of the bucket over Sarah, who only briefly knew what hit her. Larry was torn between disasters, but the rapidly mounting flames decided him. He struggled out of his jacket and was about to use it, when some alert part of his brain stopped him. He snatched up Morton’s jacket instead and beat at the flames. It was no use; they were consuming everything. The only thing he could do was flee.

* * *

At the police station, he wept about the cruel outcome to all his hopes.

“I didn’t mean to kill either of them, officer. You’ve got to believe me. Sarah, every hair on her head was precious to me. And Morton was my best friend. I only punched him out because he…he was forcing his attentions on Sarah.”

His head fell and he sobbed aloud again. Officer McCluskey exchanged looks with his partner.

Larry lifted his tear-stained face. “There’s ten thousand dollars in that envelope,” he said, motioning to it on the table. “I’m sure you’ve counted it. Five thousand dollars was mine and five thousand was Morton’s. I want it all to go to his daughter.”

“Ten thousand dollars,” said McCluskey. He looked at his partner again.

Larry sobbed in reply. There was a pause.

Then McCluskey said, “Let’s go over the sequence of events one more time… ”

◊ ◊ ◊

M.C. Neuda
M.C. Neuda explores darker human strivings in short stories of all lengths.  Flash fiction pieces have appeared in, among others, Flash Fiction Press, Shotgun Honey, Yellow Mama, and Flash: The International Short Short Story Magazine.  A longer story is scheduled to appear in Crimespree Magazine.

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Destiny, Inc.

Destiny, Inc.

by Andrew Johnston

Maria was faintly in awe as she stepped into the main chamber of the local Destiny, Inc. branch office. There was no waiting room and no offices, just one endless corridor stretching for what looked like miles in each direction with a desk every few yards. In lieu of a reception aide, a series of lights embedded into the floor guided the newest arrival to his or her Destiny, Inc. representative. Maria’s path was already lighting up as she entered the building, and for the moment she entertained the possibility that they actually could see the future. After a brisk walk, she found herself at a desk opposite a middle-aged woman with an impossibly broad smile on her face. “Hi! I’m Representative #029A!” read the nameplate on her desk.

“Good afternoon! I’m your Destiny, Inc. representative!” she chirped.

“My name is Maria…”

“Maria Kay, correct? One moment, please!” The preternaturally chipper woman hastily tapped at her keyboard. “What’s the nature of your problem, ma’am?”

“Well, it started when I lost my job about six months ago. I’ve been shut out of every opening, my friends won’t visit me, and my boyfriend left me. And apparently, it’s all because I have a low Destiny Score. But that has to be a mistake.”

“Are you asking for a simple score check or do you wish to make an adjustment appeal?”

“Uh…”

“We’ll start with the score check.” The representative glanced at her screen, then back at Maria. “Your Destiny Score is less than ideal, I’m afraid. It’s about twenty points below what most employers would look for. A little low for most life partners too, I’m afraid.”

Maria shifted in her seat. “Well, I don’t understand that. What is it exactly that I did that brought my score down?”

“It’s not necessarily anything you did, ma’am. The Destiny Score is based on numerous factors: credit score, work record, hereditary, demographic factors, probability analysis and our own special algorithmic formula.”

“Look, I don’t understand how any of this works,” said Maria. “Could you explain the system to me?”

“Sorry! Can’t do that!” Her upbeat attitude was beginning to wear on Maria’s nerves. “The Destiny Formula is proprietary. We can’t just let anyone see it! But, I can tell you some factors that may have contributed to your Score. How’s that sound?”

Maria held back a groan lest she offend this person. “All right, I’ll live with that.”

The representative typed furiously for half a minute while Maria sat in silence. “Okay, here’s what I’m seeing. Ooh—it says here that based on your family structure and education, your predicted lifetime earnings are 12 percent below the national median. You are 19 percent more likely to die young, and…ooh, 67 percent more likely to develop a substance abuse problem! That explains the Score right there.”

“Substance abuse?” Maria shot to her feet. “I don’t drink, and I’ve never used a drug in my life. My whole family’s that way!”

“Please stay in your seat, ma’am. This will go easier if you’re calm.” Maria complied, and the representative turned back to the screen. “While the Destiny Formula is mathematically perfect, there is a technically non-zero chance that an error was made in the tabulation. You know how it is—a computer runs a little hot, and next thing you know, those ones are coming out zeros instead!” She laughed to herself.

“Okay, so there’s a problem in the Score. You can fix that, right?”

“Sorry! Representatives of Destiny, Inc. are not allowed to adjust an individual’s score. Adjustments require the client to file an adjustment appeal.”

Maria leaned forward. “How can appeal to change my score if you won’t tell me about the formula?”

“Well, ma’am, Destiny, Inc. has affiliates that will give you the tools to track your Destiny Score. And once you find a mistake, you can tell us about it and fix it up right away! And the fees are very reasonable.”

“I don’t understand. You…you want me to pay to fix your mistakes?”

“Oh, that’s a very negative way to put it, ma’am.”

“Negative?” Maria stood up, knocking her chair aside. “This is insane. Who gave you the right to dictate our futures? By whose authority do you get to put a number on me and declare me unfit?”

The representative thought for a moment. “Why, Destiny, Inc. gives us that authority, ma’am!”

It took every ounce of willpower for Maria to tear herself away and leave without striking the representative. God forbid that she would lower her score further.

◊ ◊ ◊

Andrew Johnston
Andrew Johnston is a former ESL teacher who, on some days, wishes he was still in the PRC. He has written a number of obscure novels, the most recent of which can be sampled at burningoasis.wordpress.com.

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Awkward Snowflakes

Awkward Snowflakes

by Mileva Anastasiadou

I wipe my hands with my last handkerchief. I feel the cold sweat on my back, as I realize I have ran out of them. I need two more handkerchiefs.

“Two what?”

I don’t want to look crazy the first time we meet, after the separation. Hard as I try to swallow my panic, you can’t help but notice my trembling hands, as I take a picture of the snow. Have you noticed? Falling snowflakes seem like white sticks on photos.

“Only if you don’t have the settings right,” you answer. You must have learned so many things since I last saw you.

I think it’s only the snowflakes feeling awkward. They’d rather look longer and thinner. Perhaps, they’d rather be raindrops instead. On this awkward moment, I wish I was some one else too. A proper father, with steady hands, a steady life and a steady mind. I wish I was wiser, like a father should.

I tie my shoelaces as fast as I can. If I’m quick enough, the germs won’t have time to reach my hands. The eternal unresolved riddle: how fast are they?

I open my arms and you run into them.

“Hugs are nice for a change,” you say. The thought I had to leave you in a minefield is killing me. In a house made of pretension and indifferent smiles. The next mine you step on, might kill the child in you.

I kneel by your side, throw away the used handkerchief and hand you the present. Here we are: two awkward snowflakes, shining remnants of a wasted love, facing each other, wishing things were different.

“I’m too old for that kind of stuff,” you tell me with the certainty of an older man.

Are you really? I’m happy for you. Getting too old so young.

I still haven’t grown too old for this.

And I’m already your father.

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Mileva Anastasiadou
Mileva Anastasiadou is a neurologist, living and working in Athens, Greece. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in many journals and anthologies, such as The Molotov Cocktail, Foliate Oak, Maudlin house, Menacing Hedge, Midnight Circus, AntipodeanSF, Big Echo:Critical SF, Jellyfish Review and others.
https://www.facebook.com/milevaanastasiadou/

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Sleeping Nanny

Sleeping Nanny

by Preeti Singh

‘Horror is not a word but a feeling, being lonely and helpless in a haunted house, waking up in an empty apartment that looks familiar, as if, you know the the place. You were born here, lived here and then died. Think again, Think hard, were you not buried here.’ These were not just words but repeated messages. Rachael used to get up, hearing the words since she was five. She was living with her grandmother, who was suffering from amnesia. The poor old lady did not recall who she was, the only strong memory that she had was of an empty apartment with a lot of voices.

A broken house, made up of wood; the walls were cracked-up and filled with termites all over the place and gave the impression that it could fall down anytime. The tap in the bathroom was running with muddy water which had a strong pungent smell. There was a black kitten that was searching for her mother, she was hungry, it was her feeding time; but her mother was missing. Furthermore, there was something at the door which was knocking too hard to be let in. No one was seen either at the outside or inside the house besides the small kitten moving restlessly.

The place was in a complete chaos with disturbances everywhere. It seemed like the house was trying to communicate something and wanted to give a sign.

This was the only faded memory which the old lady recollected from her past. She was living alone in a big house with her granddaughter. They did not have any friends or relatives. They lived alone and their only companion was a kitten, who was now grown up into a fierce black cat. Time past gradually, but they never stepped out of the house, nor did anyone ever step in. They have not seen the sun or a single ray of light all these years. The door was always shut and the windows remained closed all the time. Five years passed by with no movement in the locked out house.

Rachael, was now ten years old, since the last five years she has been living with her grand mother, she had no memory of her life before five, she did not remember who brought her here, she had not seen a human figure all these years. She only had a grandmother, who did not wake up from sleep. Rachael, did not understand what has happened, all she could hear was a voice, “Living here is not a child’s play, horror is not a word but a feeling.”

Rachael always wanted to know, who this lady was, she heard this voice very often, but did not see anyone. She wondered if this was her mother, or might be her sister who she never saw. She was still living with her grandmother who did not wake-up in the past few days. Rachael did not hear the chanting anymore, she was left alone in silence beside her grandmother who did not wake-up.

The little girl was left alone, only to realize she was not alone in the empty apartment. For the first time, she just not heard a voice, but even saw a face. Her grandmother woke up and was chanting ‘Horror is not a word but a feeling; do not cry my little girl, death can never take me away’

The girl embraced her grandmother and smiled magically; the locks broke down, the door slammed fiercely and the windows were banging hard; the night was enchanting. Dogs were barking at the open door while the black cat screamed in wilderness.

Rachel took a baby step outside the bewitched house and looked at the world with dreamy eyes.

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Preeti Singh
Preeti Singh, French Interpreter, writer, artist is based in Mumbai-India. Some of her work has been published by: Ashvamegh Literary Journal, Scars Publication, Entropy Squad, Splickety Publishing Group, A story in 100 words, Fiftyword Stories and others. Preeti is a multi-linguist who communicates in English, French, Hindi and other regional languages with adequate fluency. In her free time she loves to play challenging characters for television series. You can get in touch with her at: http://languages-consult.com Twitter:@PreetiWrites

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Close Your Eyes

Close Your Eyes

by Diane DiGennaro

Christina never dreamed in color. She had plenty of dreams, but never in color, until now. When she was little, most nights she struggled up from the depths of nightmares, screaming. Her parents would bring her into their bed to quiet her and she’d finally fall into a slumber, wet and clammy from her crying. The nightmares left her as an adult. She would fall into bed so exhausted that there were no dreams to be remembered. Just a vague, unsettled sense of things left undone. Two babies, a divorce, and mom living with them by then. Even after the girls were grown and she retired from serving up lunches at the school cafeteria, she didn’t dream in color. She never really allowed herself to languish in bed and relax, even in retirement. Too much to do.

 Be careful what you wish for, she could hear her mother saying.

She repositioned herself tenderly in the bed and thought about this. Looking at the yellow gingham curtains on the hospice room windows, she pondered. Smoothing down the soft beige blanket, she ran the worn edging through her fingers, back and forth. Why now? It was probably all the medication they gave her for the pain, but lordy, this dream was too beautiful to come from something so ugly as cancer.

She lay back listening to the muffled tones of busy hallway nurses. Melanie, her favorite nurse, was teasing one of the other residents. She smiled, thinking of Melanie’s warm hands. Hands that spoke of peace, that spoke a language of reassurance. Closing her eyes she willed the dream to return. The scene opened at the ocean’s edge. An apricot and lemon sunrise over the water brought the dawn softly into day. The ocean waves were periwinkle blue like her mother’s hydrangeas and just as perky. Waves lapped at her feet. She looked down at the frothy swirl and realized that it was made up of small, pink hued pearls. The pearls from the back of her wedding dress. They danced and chattered at her feet, tickling her ankles until an unseen choreographer called them back and they tumbled into deeper water. She waded out farther to be with them. A fresh wave danced in and met her at her knees. The chattering swirl was like an old girlfriend, happy to see her and so much to tell her! She couldn’t make out the specifics, but she knew it as an invitation.

Each wave out took some sand from under her feet. The speed of it unsteadied her. Looking up to get her bearings, she noticed a flotilla of miniature sampans out beyond the crashing waves, in calm water. Each boat no bigger than a dinner plate. A Lemon Drop Marigold was nestled on the deck of each. The yellow marigolds at the edge of her mother’s tomato patch. The lemon yellow jauntily floating on the periwinkle sea lightened her. She dove into the chattering pearls and they carried her out to the marigolds. She surfaced surrounded by the Lemon Drop flowers and could smell their pungent strength. There was such peace in floating with them.

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Melanie, the day nurse, knew as she entered the room that Christina had passed. There was always a shift of energy that could be felt. The air was weighted and silent, except around the edges where it seemed to pause, trying to get its bearings. Melanie always wondered about why it hesitated, why it hovered before leaving. She and her husband Mike would talk about it on the couch late into many nights. Her warm little hands wiping away tears. Then she’d go to bed and she’d fall into an exhausted, dreamless sleep. Tonight proved the same except for the faint scent of marigolds when she awoke to the sunrise.

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Diane DiGennaro
Diane has pounded keys all of her life. She started with stories on her mother’s IBM Selectric typewriter. Her keystroke has lightened with each successive computer. She has freelanced for PrimeTime Cape Cod, The Burlington Free Press (VT), the national magazines Adoptive Families and New Moon, as well as many parenting publications. Diane wonders whether the keyboard will be obsolete before she completes her novel. Maybe she’ll just talk to a screen and it will spit out the tale. She’ll miss those keys, for sure; they’ve unlocked a great many secrets.

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