The Niskala by Lexie Angelo

Lexie Angelo is a Canadian writer and poet. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Royal Roads University and completed a literary residency at The Banff Centre. She moved to Edinburgh to pursue her postgraduate degree in Creative Writing and is currently working on her debut novel.

 


 

The Niskala

 

I see it clearly now. I didn’t before. Stringy, matted black hair. Captain Willow. She snuck up on me. Ooooh I hate her eyes. I want to gouge them out with a spoon. Suck on the lenses and feel the tension of each orb explode between my teeth. I want her dead, dead, and dead again.

I mustn’t lose myself. I am a stowaway. Yes, that’s it. If I’m found, I’ll be dead before I see my Niskala again. I am sick for her. I would rather die at the bottom of the sea tethered to her weathered planks than live a thousand years without her. She knows I’m near. We are connected by blood and vein and sinew. I can taste this familiar sea. The weather is a witch’s brew of squid and rotten snails. The clouds are so thick I could eat them. But I want to eat those wicked beady eyes instead.

My crew is dead. I watched their limbs fall into heavy waves. No, you fool, they are putting up a good fight. Guns crack. Smoke curls into the mist.

“Kill as many as you can, Snake!”

“Orda, it’s twenty souls or the locker for you!”

Harhahrhar!

“Save Captain Willow for me. I’ll slice off that fine head of hers. Her stringy black hair will make a fine wig for Pug.”

“You hear that Pug?”

Harhar!

“You’ll get new eyebrows from the hair I’ll be pulling out of my teeth.”

We’ll be at port soon, Niskala. Willow hung from the gibbet. A thousand more kegs of gunpowder, I’ll order. And haul more treasure from the sea. Curse you, Willow! My knife, if I had it, would be plunged ten inches through your back. The first snap of your spine will be the call to dinner. The second snap, the call for wine!

Someone is coming. They say I was captured. Lies! I am aboard a vessel now. I’m hidden under cotton, wheat and iron ore. Choking down rats, and urine and sea. I lost the Gunsway, the Merchant, and the Eastern Revenge. But I won’t lose you, Niskala. She snuck up on me. I thought she was the Greynest. The flags were green. Gannet shouted. “A Clipper! Three masts, a square rig, and forty gunners.” The wind turned easterly when the flags went black. I’ll eat your heart, Gannet. I’ll eat your heart for losing Niskala.


Lexie can be contacted at www.millionsofpages.com.

The White Crag Cartel by Joseph Sax

Joseph Sax is an American currently living Dubai, UAE, where he works for a political risk consultancy. While Joe’s professional interests revolve around the politics of the Middle East and international affairs, he has long been burdened with an overactive imagination and a juvenile love of make-believe.

The original concept for this story derives from a stint shovelling snow for neighbours in the late aughts.

 


 

The White Crag Cartel

 

In middle school, my parents gave me five dollars a week. I could buy the weekly Aquaman comic, a bag of Skittles, and two Airheads. In the winter, when park benches, cars, and houses became misshapen lumps in the great white snowscape of my hometown, I would trudge home, sit in the kitchen, read through the comic book, and eat the candy. “Give him an allowance,” thought my parents, “but not too much. Teach him the power of money, but also teach him its limits.”

At first, it was thrilling to have money. My parents were no longer the gatekeepers between me and all the comic books and sweets in the world, and the Aquaman-Skittles-Airheads bounty became a staple, but when I started bringing back five comics a day, with a big pile of candy, it was immediately obvious that something had changed. My mother later told me that it was this shift in my buying patterns that tipped her off about my second income. I suppose it didn’t help that I obfuscated the reality of the situation to the best of my thirteen-year-old ability. It must have worried the poor woman sick. “Prices went down,” I told her once, mouth full of Skittles, nose buried in Watchmen. Did she buy it? Was she worried for my safety? Did she assume that her son might be dealing drugs, or worse?

Obviously, I wasn’t dealing drugs. I was up to something more ambitious.

 

I was thirteen at the time that all this took place, and living in my hometown: White Crag, New Hampshire. The eponymous white crag is Mount Washington, whose internationally renowned poor weather gave our tiny town what little communal prestige we had, but also profoundly shaped the local economy. Whiteout blizzards were a seasonal occurrence. It was understood that the young and fit helped out the old when everyone got snowed in. So it was that, one December, I was conscripted by my loving but unsuspecting parents to shovel the sidewalk and driveway.

Shovels in White Crag occupied the same niche as the family Brown Bess in the pioneering days of yore. It symbolized man’s attempt to keep nature at bay. Something about the pioneer glory of the smoothbore musket was lost in the transition from guns to shovels, but the local shovel vendor’s slogan tried to capture the nostalgia: “when Jack Frost knocks, we knock back.”

Shoveling snow in one of White Crag’s howling blizzards is about as much fun as it sounds, but tricks of the imagination make it more pleasant. All that snow gear is probably the closest any adolescent in New England can get to wearing a suit of chivalric plate armor. The ten or so minutes you spend putting on long johns, pants, then snow pants, then the coat, then the gloves, makes you feel like the squires are getting you suited up for battle. Thick gloves become gauntlets, snow-pants are greaves. This stuff is the bread and butter of the male imagination until they discover alcohol and sports. The lucky ones never do.

It was a lot of snow, but the biting cold made it a fine powder. Every shovelful kicked up a swirl of glittering, razor-sharp flakes that the driving wind blew straight into my face. I was not working without compensation, mind you. My parents were paying me a couple of bucks for my troubles, which could yield an extra comic if I gave up the Airheads. Eventually, I spent so much time thinking about different permutations of comics and candy that I ran out of snow to shovel. As I hefted the shovel over my aching shoulder and began to head home, someone called my name.

“Eric! Eric, young man, come here.”

We lived next door to the Klabers, an elderly couple. Rudolf Klaber, whose personality was every bit as German as his name, was waving to me from his front porch.

I waded through the pristine snow to the porch, where he was waiting in a light fleece and comically oversized gloves. “Listen, Eric,” he said, “we’re just too old to shovel all that snow. How about I give you a dollar and you shovel it for us?”

That was it. That was when I realized that White Crag’s snow was not a curse, it was a bounty. That was when I began to build my empire.

“How about five?” I asked.

Looking back, this was an obviously cheeky move, but old Rudolf Klaber seemed amused. “Five it is. Go get to work.”

 

Klaber paid me five dollars to shovel the next snowstorm off his driveway, too. It was easy enough to leverage this against my parents the next time they offered two dollars to shovel. “Rudolf Klaber pays me five,” I said. After some protest, so did they.

The next step, of course, was to expand the operation. I landed two more shoveling gigs after Klaber put in a good word at his weekly bridge club. My folks were aware of the Klaber arrangement, but I never told them about the others. This was when they noticed that my expenditures were much higher than what they thought was my income.

Meanwhile, I was reaching capacity. Spending snow days shoveling for old people had great novelty at first, but was exhausting, boring, and solitary. It was with great pain at the thought of dividing my winnings that I brought on Bert Brown, a close friend. He required no maintenance other than half the earnings and some hot chocolate after a day’s work, and did not interfere in the management side of the operation at all (of which I was greedily protective). I didn’t own a computer back then, so I kept simple records on a Microsoft Excel file on the family desktop. It wasn’t sophisticated stuff, just a list of each house I had shoveled, how much they paid, and how many houses I could hit on a particular day.

Neither Bert nor my parents ever saw this file. I put it in a folder labeled “Age of Mythology Saved Games.”

 

While working with Bert made the jobs easier, the real payoff for having him around came after we snagged his family’s snowblower. Most houses in White Crag had small sheds in the backyard, some serving as literal armories; all my parents put in ours were gardening tools and a modest barbecue grill. Bert’s shed was home to the venerable snowblower his family used every winter. I’m convinced to this day that Bert only ever agreed to join my operation because he couldn’t use his own yard as a springboard for his.

The heist took place on a moonless Friday night, with significant snowfall predicted for the next day. At two o’clock in the morning, I slid out of bed and crept downstairs to the closet, where I hurriedly dressed myself. I had a moment of complete paralyzed panic in front of the bathroom mirror, stuck over the decision of whether I should try to camouflage myself against the black of the woods or the white of the snow.

In the end, it didn’t matter. I wanted to stick to backyards and the treeline to avoid detection, but the knee-high snow made for slow going, and my socks soon became drenched. Fed up, I took the sidewalk most of the way to Bert’s house.

Bert had already opened the shed by then, and had the snowblower sitting in his driveway.

“What now?” he said.

I have to admit, I hadn’t thought this part out. When the big weekend storm was first forecast, I did some highly questionable math and decided that having the snowblower would let us hit three additional houses. I factored the additional revenue into my weekly buying plan, resolved to set some aside in Eric’s Lego TIE-Fighter Fund, and worked out that I would be able to buy one in three weeks’ time.

But I hadn’t thought about what to do with the snowblower between that night and the storm the next day.

In the end, we pushed it all the way back to my house, which was unpleasant. The streets of White Crag at night were poorly-lit, cold, and utterly silent. Bert told me during the walk that he had asked his folks for permission to borrow the snowblower that weekend, which left me relieved, but slightly disappointed. We stashed it in the shed in my backyard, which my parents hadn’t touched since the first big snowfall.

Why such secrecy? Why go to such obsessive lengths to plan as much as possible, then reveal those plans to no one? Even as an older, more mature version of myself, I have no explanation. It just felt so satisfying at the time to bury the complexity of my little empire in secrecy. I can still recall that satisfaction.

 

The rest of the winter went pretty smoothly. Bert and I dictated prices, which we set at a flat 10 dollars per yard. Old man Klaber always paid 5 bucks, which I suppose was a sort of loyalty reward.

That summer, my parents enrolled me in economics classes at CTY. I should have just spent the summer playing Monopoly. I spent three months drawing graphs and falling behind on Aquaman, and learned nothing. Come the beginning of eighth grade, I was thrilled when the next blizzard season started early, burying White Crag in gossamer snowdrifts. Bert and I hit five houses. Liz Akgun, a neighbor around my age who was in my CTY class, did three with her older brother, James. I panicked when I first heard we had competition. Bert was (and is) made of calmer stuff, and managed to set up talks at the local Dairy Queen. The atmosphere was very cordial, and the Akgun group agreed to set their prices equal to ours.

Thus was born the White Crag Cartel. For one winter, we owned the town, charged what we wanted, and got rich.

 

You could be forgiven for thinking, from the way I’m telling this story that I hibernated away springs and summers and autumns, and lived only for the planning and scheming and shoveling of White Crag’s near-polar winters. I think of it more the way a dedicated one-season athlete thinks about their sport’s season. That time of year is special. For those few months, everything else steps aside and the athlete becomes a different person. For the rest of the year, one feels bottled up and sluggish, itching to return to top form.

But my secrecy and obsessive monopolization of the planning process was simply not sustainable. I put a piece of myself into the planning and organization of the Cartel, and met at least twice with Klaber to discuss the public relations image he would present at his bridge club. Everyone else was losing interest in shoveling snow and taking instructions.

At the end of that winter, in line to buy tickets at the movie theater with Bert and Liz, I showed them an annotated map of the neighborhood I had made in Microsoft Paint. They exchanged a hesitant glance that at the time I interpreted as a sign of their burgeoning romance (they would go on to be each other’s prom dates in high school), but which I now realize was each one waiting for the other to tell me that they had moved on from the Cartel. Bert was kind enough to tell me that night that he wouldn’t be shoveling the next winter. “Sorry, man,” he said. “I’m pretty into this music thing, and I’ve got this band now, so…”

I hate it when people end sentences with “so.”

 

In autumn of freshman year, I did some yard work for old man Klaber. White Crag’s trees, in the fall, were stunningly beautiful kaleidoscopes of color for all of about ten minutes. Afterwards, all that beauty and spectacle became a carpet of rotting plant matter that needed to be disposed of.

That September afternoon, I sat on Klaber’s back porch drinking hot apple cider, gazing out at the neat bags of leaves. Raking was no substitute for shoveling. Snow was a renewable resource; a leaf could only fall once.

Klaber brought out a tuna sandwich and set it on a small table next to my chair. He put it down and clapped a hand on my shoulder.

“So what’s the next step for the family business, sport? Corporatizing? Opening an East Asian division? When can I start trading stocks on the market?”

I took a sip of the cider. “I don’t know if I’ll be doing that again this winter, Mr. Klaber.”

Klaber sat down. He sat down in that elderly way, exhaling and gingerly dropping himself into the chair. I could almost hear whining hydraulics and grinding gears as his ancient joints bent.

“So what’s the problem, hmm?”

I told Klaber about Bert’s doubts, but that I still planned to keep the cartel running.

“Sounds like you need to think about why you do all that shoveling, Eric. You’re too smart to do be doing it because you like hauling snow. Is it really just all about the money?”

For whatever reason, at the time, I said yes.

 

The next year, when the big storms started, nobody showed up to the meeting I called at the DQ. I don’t remember their excuses.

The Cartel ended where it all started: Rudolf Klaber’s front yard. Liz Akgun was traveling with the debate team and Bert Brown had a rehearsal with his prog-rock garage band. The snow was so wet and dense that day that it felt like I was hauling shovelfuls of molasses. After the job was done, Klaber handed me the five-dollar bill like he always did. But this time I somehow didn’t want to take it.

It wasn’t my aching back and arms, or that I didn’t feel the need to work for another Lego TIE-Fighter. I just felt no connection between the work I had done and the money I was being given for it. It was too automatic, too simple.

“Keep it,” I finally said to him.

“What, you’re shoveling for charity now?” he said with a grin. “Take it. You earned it.”

He was right, for the most basic meaning of the word “earn.” I had moved some snow and he was willing to compensate me for it.

But I hadn’t put a piece of myself into earning it. There had been no artistry into the planning of execution of that job, instead of another job. It hadn’t been fun. It hadn’t been brilliant.

It was a guy paying some kid to shovel his yard. That’s all.

Sacrifice by Daniel Adler

Daniel Adler was born in Brooklyn, New York and has also lived in Portland, Oregon. He studied at New York University and is currently pursuing an MSc in Creative Writing at The University of Edinburgh. His fiction has appeared in BlazeVox, The Opiate, ThoseThatThis, Five2One, and elsewhere. 

 


 

 

Sacrifice

 

The man woke the child while the mother was still in bed. “Where are we going?” the boy asked, his voice heavy from sleep.

“We have a meeting,” said his father. “I’m making breakfast. Get dressed and come downstairs.” The boy groaned and rolled over. “Come on,” said his father. The boy sighed and threw back the covers, swinging his legs onto the floor. His bones ached; he was growing. He picked up the pants he had left at the foot of his bed, put on yesterday’s t-shirt one arm at a time, and stood, the floorboards creaking under his weight.

The boy’s father stood over the stove. Eggs spat grease, a bowl of oatmeal steamed on the table. He slid an egg from the pan onto a plate and brought it to his son. The boy took the spoon from his oatmeal and dug at the yolk, letting it run over the white, brown at the edges.

“We have a long day,” said his father.

“Where are we going?” asked the boy again.

“You’ll see.”

The morning was still purple. Despite the boy’s coat, he shivered as he opened the car door and waited in the silence. His father slammed the door, blew on his hands, buckled his seatbelt, and turned the key in the ignition. At the light before the entrance ramp to the highway the boy reached to turn on the radio, but his father said, “No music. Too early.” The light changed; the car lunged and did not stop accelerating until the road was passing underneath its wheels at sixty miles an hour. The boy closed his eyes. When he woke large shrubs had replaced the forest, the sun was high and mountains stood on the horizon.

“We’re going to the desert?”

“We’re in the desert.”

“What are we doing?”

“Changing something.”

“What do you mean?”

“I–we have to change how we do things.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll see. Be patient.”

“Is it a surprise?”

“Yes,” said the father, but his gaze stayed straight ahead. The boy stared at his father, mouth ajar and then looked out his window.

Soon the car began to climb. The desert became a sandbox, the sky turned gray, and on the side of the road snow patches grew into fields of white, piles higher than the car. They slowed and crunched gravel on the shoulder. The father turned the keys in the ignition, clicked his seatbelt and opened the door. “Come on.”

The boy inhaled the cold air. His father moved to the backseat and the boy ran to a boulder and scuttled to its sloping crest. From here he could see the back of the mountain, a landscape of rock and hardy plants that gave way to more forest. He recalled a mountain goat he had seen once standing this way. When he turned, his father was at the foot of the rock holding a gun.

“Trust me, son,” said his father, cocking it. “We have to believe this is for the best.”

“What’s for the best?”

“The other night I had a dream. God came to me and said, ‘Take your boy into the mountains and sacrifice him to me. And if he believes, if he really believes, then you can point the gun at him and pull the trigger and everything will be made right. I will come to your aid and fix everything in my name.’ Now don’t be afraid. Just believe.”

“Believe what?”

“Believe that everything will be all right. That it will be okay, that God will make it right.”

“Does Mom know about this?”

“Your mother and I are being run into the ground, boy. Every month the bills come and we pay them with credit. It’s getting worse. We can’t feed you, we can’t buy you clothes for school, we can hardly live. But if you believe, if you really believe, then it will be okay. Now I’m going to come closer, so that when I pull this trigger God will have no objection, he won’t be able to accuse me, I’m not going to let anyone accuse me of not believing. Think–do you really want to go on living this way?”

The boy backed away.

“Please, son. Stop. Just trust me. Trust that you’ll be okay.” Tears of fear streaked the boy’s cheeks. “Don’t cry, don’t be afraid, trust me. Make it easier and get on your knees.” The boy backed up but there was nowhere to go but down. “Please,” said his father. “Nothing bad will happen if you trust me. I swear.” The boy looked into the gray sky, as if for an angel to come save him. His father was only a few paces away, the gun at his side. “Listen to me, it’s for your own good. It’s for our good.”

The boy gulped and wiped his tears with the back of his hand. “Okay,” he said, taking a knee. The stone was sharp through his jeans.

“Thank you,” sighed his father, the gun cold on the boy’s forehead. “Now I’m gonna count to three. Nothing is going to happen, I need you to believe that. Because if you don’t…” The boy could not control his tears and he quivered like a lamb. “Look,” said the man. “You gotta say it to believe. Say, ‘I believe I will live and everything will be all right.’ I’ll say it with you–”

“I believe,” said the boy but his voice trembled and cracked. “I believe I will live and everything will be all right.”

“Now really mean it,” said his father. “Say it again. Say ‘I will live and everything will be all right.’”

“I will live and everything will be all right,” said the boy.

“I will live and everything will be all right,” they repeated together.

“Okay,” said his father, “keep saying it.”

The boy went on, “…and everything will be all right.” And then his father pulled the trigger.


You can follow Daniel via his Twitter, @DanielRyanAdler.

 

 

A Moment’s Surrender by Maeda Zia

Maeda Zia is a graduate student based in Karachi, Pakistan. In her spare time, she likes to binge-watch foreign dramas, hoard books and occasionally worry about her dissertation. 

 


 

A Moment’s Surrender

 

The dars is supposed to start in two hours. Nothing is ready. The biryani–mutton, he’s only been dead a year–is still simmering. The white sheets, wet, flap in the breeze. The dars aunty isn’t here. Phone goes straight to a naat. What, did her saintly nostrils pick up the scent of uncooked biryani, the heek of the gosht, and she bailed? Ridiculous. The dars will start in two hours. Aik tau yeh kameez. The collar’s too high; it hems in your throat. You pull at it impatiently; it’s no use. Ittar swirls around your apartment; you inhale it with every breath you take. The scent scratches your throat. You can’t breathe.

Where is Ali? These caterers will listen to a man, they’ll look to him for the cash, eyes straying expectantly to his wallet (empty). They’ll turn to him even though it was you who stood at the funeral, supervising. Just where is Ali? Why must he always disappear? Are he and darsi churail blessed with the same gift of scuttling away when work awaits? Your sandals thump harder and harder as you walk across the apartment. You’ve checked the kitchen. You’ve checked the drawing room–it’s a 2 bedroom flat; where the fuck is he? As you walk by the bathroom connecting Ali’s room and yours, you hear a yelp and a clatter behind the bathroom’s door. Rats? Not today, please, the phuppos will die of glee. You hate this bathroom. Your cousins renovated it when they owned it. You hate the gaudy golden tiles patterning the sinks, striping the walls, the sink. Fuck this rat-infested bathroom.

Your lips are hemmed in anger as you push the door. No rats. Just Ali. Must he be preening on a day like this?

As you take in the sight, you correct yourself: trying to preen, really.

Your brother–blessed, beloved Ali (last in the womb, first in our hearts) is standing in front of the sink. His chin is slathered with shaving cream. He is scrabbling at his face, fingers clawing away the skin. He bites down at his lip as he squints at himself in the mirror. You don’t think. You are at the sink, gripping his chin, skin and cream and all.

“Are you hurt?”

“Choro!” He jerks away.

You pay no heed and tighten your grip. There doesn’t seem to be much damage. A few scratches here and there. You note the razor in the sink, suspended in the cream. A thin line of red gleams and catches on the silver.

“Were you trying to shave?” You can’t believe it. You snatch the razor and hold it up to the light. You haven’t seen one this cheap since you first started shaving your legs. You were embarrassed at the wiry stubble there, you wanted it gone, so you grabbed the first razor you could find. Stubble gave way to scratches and scabs. You didn’t use that razor again. Yet here it is; same brand, different model, still flimsy.

His eyes narrow. “No shit,” he retorts.

You don’t pay him any attention. He can’t be this old, not so fast. Wasn’t it yesterday he was a gangly child, fidgeting, standing beside your father’s’ coffin? What gleamed whiter? The shroud your father was wrapped in or the kurta your brother wore? At your father’s funeral, Ali mourned; you managed.

Seems like you’ll have to manage this too.

You huff. “You suck at this. Let me do it.”

“Like you’re any better,” he says, but he obeys; he hands over the razor; you dip it under the tap and rinse it. Foam and stubble pool at the drain, a heap of ashes. Your brother eyes you warily.

“Dude, chill, I’ve done this bef–” you bite off your sentence. Don’t let your brother know, the phuppos decreed. You’re never to let him know that A Female inhabits this bathroom, with her pads, cotton soaked red, bound up in plastic, disposed of before their stench can ever pervade the bathroom. Instead, you call your wax-vaali on the days he’s not home so he doesn’t see Annie tottering back and forth, huffing at a cup of hot wax balanced in her palms. No bras, no panties to be left on the floor. Not now, not ever. What if he saw?

You hold the blade and look at your brother. Traces of shaving cream remain on his face. Idiot didn’t apply enough cream. Grabbing the tube, you squeeze out more into your palms. Chalo–at least he bought a decent brand. After the heat of the caterer’s daighs, the coolness of the cream is a balm. You pat down the cream with your fingers and pick up the razor.

You remember your father. He shaved every morning before he went to work. He swirled his razor in a bowl of water before taking it to his face. He would apply the cream slowly, methodically. If you focus, you can pinpoint the exact moment when he would pick up his razor and begin.

You grasp Ali’s chin and guide it upwards. In the translucent light, his skin is almost yellow. His Adam’s apple bobs up and down. What would it mean for the blade to glide upon his Adam’s apple? How hard would you have to press it down to make a welt? How much pressure to make those welts become large, gaping holes? Why are you thinking this? You can’t do this. The razor feels heavy, foreign in your hand. Your brother seems to tower above you. You want your father. This is his job, not yours.

Inhale.

Exhale.

“Seedhay ho.” Your hand curls over Ali’s shoulder. ”You’ll need to sit down. You’re too tall.”

He nods. He shuffles out of the bathroom. You stare down at the sink. Your father kept an engraved bowl on the left. Where did it go? Was it passed on to an uncle or simply discarded? You can’t remember.

A noise makes you look up. Your brother appears in the doorway, dragging a chair (oh God, it’s one of the dars chairs, he didn’t even take off the white cover) to the sink. As he stands in front of the sink, you position yourself in front of him. Your hands encircle his shoulder and you push him down into the chair.

Now that he sits down, you tower over him. You are suddenly aware of the closeness between you two, the air seems to constrict. If he leans even an inch forward, his face would be right in your chest. You cannot let that happen. You propel his chin upward, ignoring his protests. His throat is bared to you.

Lights catches off the razor as you begin. You are careful. You bring it down in smooth, wide strokes.

“Why don’t you have a shaving brush like the one Abbu had?” You ask. That brush had an ornate, wooden handle. When Abbu would step out of the bathroom to take his shirt, and you, hovering in the doorway, would step inside, your feet light on the cool tiles. You would hold his brush, the bristles damp and limp, and graze it against your own skin. When Abbu returned, you would be back in the doorway. He never saw.

“What? What brush?”

“Y’know, the shaving brush, the kind you use to spread the cream.”

He shrugs. “Don’t know, never used–”

“Don’t move! God, did nobody teach you how to shave?”

His silence is answer enough. Necessity forced you to turn to friends. Absence forced him to turn to the mirror, a blade in hand.

If Abbu had been alive, would he have been the one to teach him? Buy him a razor? Guide his hands as he shaved for the first time? No, that’s not like Abbu. He would have stood at the side and issued instructions. Like the time he taught you to drive. Calmly, methodically. He didn’t bat an eye when you nearly rammed the car into the gate. Too bad he didn’t teach you how to shave. You choke back a laugh and focus on the razor.

The razor glides across Ali’s cheeks; you don’t know why he’s shaving, there’s just stubble. You have to step closer, you’re shaving too wide. You don’t think; you step in between his legs. Fuck. Too close.  You can’t go back now. Keep at it. You dab a towel at his cheeks, the foam dissolves, leaving skin behind.

The new rawness of his skin reminds you of him as a baby. Ammi passed away soon after the birth. It was always you and him and Abbu. Cradling his head in the crook of your elbow. You learnt how to nurture before you learnt how to love.

His skin–waxy yellow, clean shaven–looks just like your father’s when you saw him last. Wrapped in white, peaceful. Doesn’t he look like he’s sleeping, you were asked over and over by hysterical relatives. No, he didn’t. You crept into your parents’ bed every Sunday morning till you were too old. Till Ali. You would lie next to your father, watch his chest rise and fall. His warmth. The corpse before you, was cold. But you didn’t say any of that. You had simply nodded. Bile rises in your throat, lines your mouth. One slash and he’ll be next to Abbu, leaving you too.

You focus on Ali’s face until the bile recedes. There’s still a little bristle under his chin.

Your brother speaks. “Do you think he would have been happy? Would he have let this happen?”

You pause. The razor hovers beneath his chin. What does he want–no, need–to hear?

“No, he wouldn’t. We wouldn’t have had to leave home.”

You’re nearly done. One last glide and his skin is smooth.

Will you ever shave a man again like this?

“All done.”

You step back, assessing your handiwork. You need to make sure you did the job right. You rub a knuckle across his face, revelling in the smoothness. You expect your hand to be batted away but he lets you. You both know you will never touch him again like this.

You pause at the worst of the cuts. If you look past the cuts and the slightly crooked nose (10 years old, fell off his bike, broke his nose), he looks exactly like your father did in that old sepia portrait you found in his cupboard. Why can’t he be your father? Need grips you. Your mouth is dry as you lean in and brush your lips gently against the cut. You taste blood; coppery but nothing like the cotton in your father’s nostrils. Your brother doesn’t react. His chest rises and falls. You have only backed away when he rises up from the chair, sending it clattering back.

Ali shoulders you aside. “I’ll go dress, thanks.”

You’re left in the bathroom. You turn on the tap. The wiry hair in the basin swivels down the drain. The chair needs to be put back in its place.  You’ll have to clean up this mess before the dars begins. Your father is still dead. You have to handle everything. Ali’s blood lingers upon your lips. You let it be. The scent of the foam and ittar mingle and that’s all there is.


Maeda Zia can be contacted at ziamaeda@gmail.com.

 

Secobarbital by Asad Zaidi

Asad Zaidi was born in England and moved to Pakistan at a young age, where he did most of his growing up. He has a BA in Biology (with a minor, he is quick to tell people, in English) from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. He is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where he is working at a public health organization.

Secobarbital is a short story about difficult discussions and decisions, and the complicated natures of life, love, and loss. Readers are advised that this piece contains themes, conversations, and scenes on the subject of assisted suicide.

 


 

Secobarbital

 

My mind was elsewhere as my feet carried me through the corridors as they had done every day for countless days before that. I stopped at the right door and knocked. Salma opened it.

My heart ached at the sight of her. Her cheeks were hollowed; her eyes had puffy bags under them. It was as if the flesh of her face had been reshaped by worry and sorrow. Her hair had escaped its usual silver bun to form a limp frame around her face. She had been crying.

“Salma, I…”

Despite the June heat, Salma drew her gray shawl on her shoulders tighter around her body.

“He’s resting,” she said in a low voice. The tightness around her eyes slackened. “But it’s your turn.”  She opened the door wider to let me in.

The room was dimly lit and stuffy. A mud brown carpet lay on the floor. The single window looked into the next building without offering the tiniest glimpse of the sky. The air in the room, stirred by a wizened ceiling fan, smelled of old flowers. Saleem’s bed sat in the middle of the room, a mass of steel and white linen.

The only splash of color was a dresser at the far end of the room. It was laden with dozens of bouquets, cards, letters, and collages. Someone had even placed a digital photo album there, its screen displaying a loop of happy moments. People had been streaming in and out of the room all week to see Saleem, but today was only for Salma.

And for me.

Salma gave me a small nod and left the room as I sank into her chair by Saleem’s bed. It was still warm. I studied my friend. His eyes were closed, but his expression was still tight and contorted from the pain. New wrinkles seemed to line his gaunt face every time I looked at it. I could not get used to how big his ears now looked. Tufts of white hair sprouted from them. Not too long ago, Saleem would not have tolerated that; he had always hated looking untidy. The wispy hair on his head was white too. Once I had taken in as much of Saleem as I could, I cleared my throat.

He opened his eyes and turned his head towards me. A mischievous grin spread across his face and for a second he was the Saleem from decades ago, the Saleem branded into my memory, the Saleem who surfaced in my imagination whenever I thought of him. “You bastard!” he said. His voice had been smooth and deep once, but the coughing had made it raspy. Wincing, he propped himself up against his pillows. “You’re here.”

“Of course I’m here” I said. I didn’t even try to keep my voice steady. “It’s—it’s…”

“It’s my last day,” said Saleem.

He continued to smile, and held out his hand. I grabbed it and returned his grip. Once he had been able to crush my hands but now I was the one taking care not to hurt him. I closed my eyes, damming them shut, and bowed my head. Saleem did not need my tears today.

The lump in my throat hadn’t subsided when I opened my eyes again and looked at him; Saleem was busy examining our intertwined hands. For most of his life, his hands had been pudgy. Salma and I used to tease him for having sausages for fingers. But now they were frail, their bones jutting out, their veins protruding from behind translucent skin. My hands had changed as well, weathered and wrinkled now, when once they were pale and slender. “Dainty,” Saleem used to call them, “just like Salma’s”. Once, back when he and Salma were dating, he had dragged me to a jeweler to try on a ring he wanted to buy her.

“We’ve grown old,” I said. My voice sounded hollow.

“We’ve grown old together,” said Saleem. I tried to smile at that, but my face would not move the right way.

“You know,” he continued; I knew that ‘you know’ well. “I’ve been thinking about how to make my exit. When they’ve made me sign all the forms and I’ve taken the pill they give me, I’m going to do this–” he took a deep breath, raised his free hand as a fist and stuck his middle finger out “–and say, ‘So long, suckers!’”

He grinned at me, but his eyes looked tired. I scowled at him and he laughed a surprising, full-throated laugh, the sound reaching out to me from the years before his illness. I never wanted it to end.

A coughing fit cut short his laugher. His eyes bulged and veins popped up in his neck. His body convulsed, spasming with each cough. I leapt onto the bed, grabbed him by his shoulders, and pinned him to his pillows. He had injured his back in spasm like that some weeks ago. I held him until the coughing subsided. When I let him go, he wrapped his arms around me and buried his face into my chest, whimpering.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he said. “I don’t want to. I can’t do this, Afsar. I’m in pain and I’m tired. It hurts so much.” He shook as he spoke and I knew he was crying in my arms.

I wanted to shake his trembling body by its shoulders, to plead and beg him to try, to continue, to not leave me behind. I thought about all the angry letters I had written to him, to the medical community, to God, to myself. I swallowed the feeling rising up my gullet and held him tighter. I kissed his head and rubbed circles into his back.

I let go when he stopped shaking, and he eased himself back into his pillows. I made to get back to my chair, but Saleem placed a hand on my arm.

“I’m doing the right thing,” he said.

Before I could stop myself, I unclenched my jaw and turned to face him. “Who is it right for?”

Saleem took his hand away. “We are not having this conversation again,” he said, his tone venomous. “I’m dying anyway!”

Memories of arguments we had had over the years–many bitter, some that had almost ruined our friendship–surged through my mind. There was no time.

“You’re right,” I said, my voice small.

Saleem sighed. Then he gave me a small, sad smile. “You will be there, won’t you?”

Somehow I had never thought this would actually happen. I had never planned for that dreadful moment, never thought that I might have to watch. “I…”

“You’d leave me when I need you?”

“But Salma…” It was a time for the two of them to be alone.

“I need you, too,” he said. “You’ve been by my side for every big decision I’ve ever taken. Stay. Please.”

I swallowed and nodded.

“Any way it happens, I’m about to die soon. Any way it happens, it will hurt you. That breaks my heart. I’m sorry, Afsar.”

The sound of my name hung in the air, the final note of a sad symphony. My mind stretched into the past, replaying moments I regretted, moments I cherished, things I should have said, and things I should have left unsaid. I scrambled for words to share with Saleem, my friend, who was dying in front of my eyes. I had always been able to trap him with an intriguing conversation. I wanted to start an endless dialogue with him and perhaps distract him from his own death.

The door swung open and a bald man wearing a white lab coat walked in, wheeling an empty wheelchair. Behind him was Salma, her hair back in its bun. I was keenly aware of each thud of my heart as it crept towards unfathomable loss. I wanted to slow it down. Or stop it. But it was time.

*

Salma wheeled Saleem down the corridor, the bald man beside her. I followed a few paces behind them. We shuffled into an empty waiting area with plastic benches and fluorescent lighting. A woman, also in a white coat, was waiting for us there. She gestured for Salma and me to take a seat. Salma stiffened. The woman, noticing the hesitation, placed an arm on Salma’s shoulder and gave her a reassuring smile. There was some final paperwork Saleem had to sign off on, and he had to do it alone. We had been briefed about the process so many times that I could hear the phrase ‘standard procedure’ echoing inside my skull.

Salma let the woman take over Saleem’s wheelchair. She and I took a seat. Saleem turned around to give us a small wave as he was taken out of the waiting area, his mouth a straight line. She returned the wave with an encouraging nod and I lifted my hand up in farewell.

There was nobody else there. My mind wandered, desperate to latch on to something as we waited. The flat-screen TV hung over our heads showed some singing competition on mute. I played with a hangnail until it bled, chewed on my bottom lip, ripping off small pieces of skin, and counted the leaves on a potted plant in the corner. My stomach churned. I gripped my knees to keep my hands from shaking. The silence in the room was viscous, the oppressive stillness before a downpour.

I could tell Salma was watching me. I heard her take a deep breath.

“I’m sorry,” she said to me.

I didn’t look at her.

She paused for a moment. “I’m sorry about yesterday.”

I turned to face her. She was crying.

“I didn’t mean it…” she said. “I didn’t–oh, Afsar–I didn’t. I swear. What I said about family… You are his family. Saleem loves you so much, and I know you love him. I was wrong to tell you to stay away. You–you’re my family, too. We need you. Afsar. I’m sorry.”

I bowed my head. I didn’t know what to say.

The woman in the white coat returned.

“The paperwork is complete,” she said. I marveled at her businesslike expression. “You may visit him in suite 4A. Please note that a nurse will be present in the room throughout. That is standard procedure. All the best.” Then she left.

Gathering herself, Salma took a deep breath. “I would like to spend some time alone with him,” she said.

“You don’t need my permission.”

She nodded and stood up. “I have something for you.”

She began to pull off one of the many rings on her left hand.

“What are you–” But she was already pressing it into my palm. It was simple band, golden, unadorned. I knew it well.

“But it’s yours,” I said, trying to return it to her. She shook her head.

“It’s–it’s from the both of us. And besides,” said Salma, with a small smile, “you wore it first.”

She left the waiting room. I stared at the ring in my palm, my mind transported to a hot Sunday decades ago when a young Saleem had dragged me and my dainty hands to the gold market. Numb, I slipped it on my little finger.

I watched the clock on the far wall, certain that I could hear it ticking from where I was sitting. Five unbearable minutes went by. I thought about leaving. Saleem had Salma. But I had said I would be there for him. Another five minutes. Had I missed some instructions? Would I be told when I was supposed to go into the suite? Had I failed to catch a signal that Salma didn’t actually want me there?

I got up to start pacing when a man with a clipboard walked in.

“Suite 4A?” he said, looking up from his clipboard just long enough to see me nod. “You can go in now.

*

Suite 4A was airy and bright. Saleem was in bed with his arm around Salma who was curled up beside him with her head on his chest and her eyes closed. Saleem looked drowsily at me as I entered.

“Afsar,” he said. It was barely a whisper. He gestured to a chair standing right by the bed. “I did it.”

My breath caught in my chest. I was both shocked that he had actually gone through with it, and grateful that I hadn’t had to see him take those pills. I held his free hand. He thumbed the ring Salma had given me and smiled.

“I hope you keep it around,” he said. He was starting to slur.

“Always,” I said.

“I had it engraved.”

Salma buried her face deeper into his chest. She was crying. He stroked her hair and kissed her on her forehead.

“Thank you,” he said to her, “for making my life as good as it was.”

He turned to me. “And thank you,” he said, “for a lifetime of friendship.”

The lump in my throat was back. “Always,” I croaked.

“I’m going to close my eyes now.”

Silence descended on the room. The late afternoon sun slanted through the window and tinted everything orange. For what felt like hours, I stared at Saleem’s chest as it took longer to rise and fall each time. Then his grip on my hand slackened.

“Saleem?” I said. He was gone.

The attending nurse sad something, but I wasn’t listening. I felt as if I had been torn in half, as if a hot, searing hole had opened up in my chest. I wanted to claw back time, snatch back the seconds and return to when he had been right there, tightly holding my hand. I wanted to grab him and shake him until he opened his eyes and confessed that it was all a joke. I wanted to rage and scream and break things instead of confront the enormity of the fact that he was no longer in my life, that he would not be in it tomorrow, nor for every tomorrow to come.

I continued to hold his hand, tracing its veins and circling the knuckles with my finger. I did that for as long as I could bear and then I kissed it and arranged it beside his body. I did not look at Salma – I could not bear to.

Instead, I pulled off the ring and turned it sideways. There were three words engraved inside. ‘See you later,’ it said. Unlike me, Saleem did not believe–had not believed—in a later. I began to cry.


Asad can be reached via his email, asadzaidi93@gmail.com

 

Arbroath by Hannah Tougher

Hannah Tougher is currently working towards her MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Stirling. She writes short stories, flash fiction, and occasionally screenplays.

 


 

Arbroath

 

She was a beach. That’s what she was.

Alison felt her jacket pocket for her cigarettes and then remembered she’d quit. She wondered how long that would last in this back of beyond seaside town. Already she was sick of the small, squashed streets and the smell of smoked fish that clogged the air. She closed her eyes and then opened them again to the faint glimpse of morning-pink light that curved around the dark, heavy clouds. Almost as dark as the sea below.

But she was the beach and not the sea. The sea did its own thing and the beach just waited for the next wave to hit. That’s what she was doing with this community engagement job she’d somehow managed to land, even though she had no idea how to promote public art to kids. And then there was Jay coming up from Glasgow to move into the flat. She couldn’t quite remember how that had been decided, but here she was, freezing her arse off among the seaweed and the sickening smell. Waiting.

She watched a dog scamper in and out of the frothing water with a figure she supposed was its owner: a man wrapped tightly in a black coat, hands in pockets and hat pulled down over his ears, allowing the sea air as little contact with his skin as possible. He walked with his head down, seeing nothing, his feet leaving the same trail of footprints they’d probably left countless mornings before.

An old woman sat down beside Alison. She’d walked right past an empty bench to settle with a few groans and sighs on this one. Alison shifted to the edge. How could she contemplate what an unfortunate life that man might have with this huddled woman sitting so close? How could she summon the guilt she should be feeling at the fact she was utterly unprepared for work on Monday or that she had been wandering around this town for two weeks now, had watched the sea and the changing colours of the sky, and hadn’t once picked up brush and paint? All she could focus on now was this old woman taking up more than her fair share of the bench.

*

There was someone on her bench. Aud had never had to share her bench before, not at this time in the morning anyway.

Well, never mind. She wasn’t about to change the workings of her day just because this bright-haired young thing was sitting where she wasn’t supposed to be.

It was a fine morning, really. Brisk, Robert would say. There was a chill knocking about in the wind. She rubbed her hands. She’d forgotten her gloves again but never mind. She watched the dark waves roll towards her, listened to the gulls and to the water break on the shore, and tried to breathe deeply, finding a rhythm in it, in the back and forth, in the cold that filled her lungs.

After a few moments, she reached for her handbag and felt inside for her sherbet strawberries. Oh, but bother! She’d forgotten to buy some more. She dug into the dark corners and crevices of her bag just in case. It wasn’t a proper morning on the beach without an intake of fresh sea air and the taste of a sherbet strawberry. But her stiff fingers discovered only a used hankie and a scattering of rough crumbs beneath her glasses and purse.

They were his thing, sherbet strawberries. And so naturally in these past five years they had become her thing. She’d never enjoyed the way they scraped along her throat. She made do with staring out at the restless water instead.

She liked looking at the sea. Even when she wasn’t sitting by it she could see it. It tugged back and forth in her head. Although it was not always this stretch of the North she saw, but the edge of the water that had lapped around Leirvik. She could place herself by the deep fjords or by the small bay their village hugged, at the wharf where her father’s boat, Silje-Therese, had sat snug amongst the rows of white masts, its green paint flaked and peeling. The water had been the darkest of blues, almost black in the dim-lit winters. These days she kept dreaming of that round patch of cold sea.

She wondered if it was time to step on a boat or plane and take off across the water back home. She wanted again the smells: her father’s leafy tobacco, her mother’s cooking. Or the sound of the bells that led them down to the small church on a crisp Sunday morning. She wanted to give in to the memories that were bobbing up inside her but how could she go back? Robert was here even if he wasn’t. How could she have forgotten those sherbet strawberries?

The bright red hair of the young woman beside her caught Aud’s eye. It was almost as red as a sherbet strawberry. Well, not quite. There was a flash of reflected light when the girl tucked those free-flowing locks behind a well-pierced ear. What a thing, all those studs curving from the lobe all the way around. And it was the way the girl sat, slouched with her legs stretched out, so casually, so certain, like she owned the bench or the whole town even. She certainly wasn’t troubled by ghosts and dreams and sands that shifted beneath the feet. What a thing.

*

She watched the wind nudge at dark piles of seaweed on the beach. It had to be the worst smell known to man, seaweed. Jay had dragged her out for sushi once and she’d simply spat it back out onto the plate, ignoring his look of disgust. She stood by that reaction, though. Never again.

The woman was shifting around and fidgeting. Alison watched her dig deep into her bag for a few minutes. She wasn’t trying to stare but it was hard not to notice the flash of the woman’s ring. An engagement ring. It was massive and swirled over most of her veiny finger, covering even the wedding band. It looked like the shell of a snail, curving in on itself in a trail of diamonds. It was clearly worth a few bob.

What a pitiful thing Steve had given her in comparison. It was still tucked away somewhere, that ring, that tiny, diamond-shaped diamond, in amongst the clutter and boxes she’d packed into her shitty Ford Escort. She hadn’t thought of Jay ever finding it. But what if he did? By now he’d be on his way up from Glasgow with his own stacks of secrets. She didn’t want to unpack those. She just wanted to hold onto her own and there wasn’t anything in it, although Jay would never believe that. She just liked to keep a hold of things was all. All her life, she’d been a collection of odds and ends.

Alison looked again at the old woman and wondered what it would be like to wear a ring so large, so heavy, so definite. It must hold you in place, a ring like that. The woman gave a sharp tut and stopped rummaging in her bag. Alison watched her fold her hands and cross her ankles. She sat still now and straight, a figurehead protruding from the bench, and the wind gathered up strands of her grey hair. She had eyes much bluer than the sky but not quite as dark as the sea. Rooted. That’s what she was.

*

The girl kept looking at her. It was disconcerting. She was pierced on the corner of her eyebrow as well and had very sharp features; she was like a bird that was trying to peek over and peck into her thoughts. Aud realised she was the one staring now, distracted by the girl tapping her red painted nails against her jacket pocket. She brought her gaze down to her hands and tried to keep her mind still.

Oh, but her hands were cold in this chill. She tucked them into her sleeves. How could this girl be sitting in such a thin jacket? She wasn’t dressed for the October weather at all, with rips and tears in her jeans and her neck and cleavage all exposed. Well.

Mind you, Robert had always teased her for her sensitivity to cold. You’re Norwegian, he’d exclaim, like it was an answer to everything: to why she should enjoy a dark, Scottish winter; to why she might not find his jokes funny; to why she could definitely manage another drink.

The first winter she’d ever spent with him had been her first in Scotland. It was 1963. They’d been snowed in, trapped in the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh where they worked. He’d had no intention whatsoever of trying to escape as they all sat huddled amongst the Egyptian statues trying to imagine a warmer climate. He’d just produced an old, battered hip flask full of whisky and passed it around. Go on, he’d said to her when she’d shaken her head. You’re Norwegian.

She’d been twenty then, probably not much younger than the girl next to her. Aud didn’t think this girl was the kind to get swept up in a winter romance and marry after only six months. She seemed hard, independent at least. Maybe she didn’t even like men. She had the air of a wanderer about her and wouldn’t that be nice. Tied to no place and no one. Aud looked out at the water and tried to imagine herself in the midst of those tossing waves with nothing but the wind behind her pushing her farther out to sea.

*

She’d been sitting here for longer than she meant. Jay would be here soon and she had so much to do. There was no food and really she should cook. That was the thing to do, right? See in the new flat and the new life that was better put together. Had she ever cooked for him? It was getting cold, but still Alison stayed where she was. The guy with the dog had long since wandered off. It was just her and the old woman and the wide sea. The chatter of the waves was soothing in its way. There was even a happy clamour in the conversation of the gulls. Maybe if she came here every morning before work, before a sit-down breakfast with Jay, she could manage. If she inhaled that sea air and let her mind drift on the grey tides, she could find a way to get on with everything that came after.

Maybe that’s what this woman did. She probably had her whole day planned out. It would begin with a healthy breakfast. She’d read the People’s Friend and then she’d take a moment to herself on this beach to breathe away from her husband’s pipe and his rants at the television. She’d look after the grandchildren until tea time. She’d impart some long-held wisdom or some handed-down story before the parents came to collect them. Maybe she’d tell them about the heirloom she carried on her finger. Every move she made through the day would be so deeply ingrained–impossible to give up.

*

She should be getting on her way. She never ended up staying for long and her back was bothering her. She was silly for even contemplating travelling all the way back to Leirvik at her age. If only she had the ability to sit comfortably on a bench like she owned it and not fall victim to the cold.

She had been plucking carelessly at a thread on her jacket sleeve. It had been coming loose and Aud had thought to remove it entirely but now it was stuck. She pulled harder but nothing. She’d have to walk home now with this length of thread hanging from her. Maybe she should take a leaf out of this girl’s book and start ripping at her clothes willy-nilly. Expose her knees to the elements. Oh dear no. No. If she were this girl, with her bright red hair and youthful figure, she’d wear long swishing dresses. She used to have a midnight-blue one. She’d loved the feel of the satin against her skin. But it wouldn’t have been to this girl’s tastes. Too tame, perhaps. Too girly. Not enough tears.

She pulled harder on the thread and it tore from her sleeve, leaving a neat rip in the stitching.

*

She bit her nails knowing she should stop. It was the lack of cigarettes that had forced this habit on her. It was nerves and she was ridiculous. If Jay were here he’d tell her to stop. She’d buy some wine, a good bottle that cost more than a fiver.

She heard a slight jingle and a patter and turned to see a dog trotting towards her. It was a Lab: golden but the sea water had darkened and matted its coat. It looked like the dog that had wandered by with the black-coated guy from earlier. Alison twisted around but there was nobody in sight.

*

A dog padded up to the bench. It was soaked and bedraggled and it dropped a ball right on the ground between her and the girl. Where was its owner? Aud thought of the days when dogs roamed the streets freely but such things were no longer acceptable. She and Robert had always been shooing away strays from their garden when they first moved here. She’d never told him that she used to leave out scraps of meat and cheese to draw them in.

The dog wagged its tail and looked at her with its wet, brown eyes. It seemed confused by her lack of enthusiasm for the ball it had brought.

The girl reached down and picked it up.

*

She reached for the tennis ball the dog had placed at her feet. She’d always wanted a dog. She supposed the guy must be around somewhere but in the meantime, why not? She threw it back onto the stretch of grass behind her. It didn’t go as far as she’d envisioned. Had she just pulled a muscle in her arm? God, that was pathetic.

Her hands were dripping in slime and dog slebbers. She wiped them on her jacket, leaving a damp mark. The ball had been squidgy and sodden and she regretted the action entirely. She should leave other people’s dogs to themselves and stop interfering. Maybe she and Jay should get their own. But that was probably a step too far and she wouldn’t be the one to suggest it. Better to wait and see.

*

She watched the dog race after the ball, full speed, and focused on that thing alone. She wished she could’ve been the one to throw it, to just reach for the ball and take it without hesitation. She’d always wanted a dog but her father had refused, of course, in that decidedly quiet way he’d had that allowed for no discussion, and Robert had been allergic. So that was that.

Aud stood, feeling the stiffness in her legs and back. She clutched her handbag tight in her cold hands and made her way back along the path towards the High Street. She should go to the shops before heading home. She needed to buy sherbet strawberries for tomorrow.

*

She watched the dog bound along, ball in mouth, looking for someone else to play with. It ran in zigzags, towards the sea and then back again. It had forgotten her entirely.


Hannah can be reached via her Twitter, @hmtougher.

Excerpt from The Angel in the Stone by R L McKinney

R L (Rebecca Louisa) McKinney was born in Boulder, Colorado and was raised in Northern California; she came to Edinburgh as a student in 1995 and never left. In various incarnations she has been a bartender, horse trainer, teacher, researcher, community development practitioner, and local government dogsbody. Her first novel, Blast Radius, was published in 2015.

The following excerpt from Rebecca’s second novel, The Angel in the Stone, gives us a look at Calum as he manages the complicated responsibilities of his life in the West Highlands, working to preserve a present still haunted by the past…

 


 

Mary MacDonald’s Farewell

 

As Calum drove, his mind was a confusion of memories and emotions, all punctuated by the same sense of falling through open space that came to him in dreams. Sometimes when he took a corner too fast, he felt the wheels lift off the road and the vehicle turn in slow motion onto its side, roll and sail out into nothingness. The loss of control frightened him, forced him to lift his foot from the accelerator and wipe his sweaty palms on his jeans.

He found his mother on a bed in A&E, turning the pages of a gossip magazine. She was dressed in a hospital gown and sitting on top of the sheet, knotted white legs sticking out in front of her. Her toenails were long and neglected and he wondered for the first time whether she was even managing the basics of personal hygiene. The acrid stench of burnt plastic radiated from her hair.

‘Hi Mum.’

She looked up at him and seemed surprised. ‘I wasn’t expecting you. How did you get here so quickly?’

‘I drove.’

‘From America?’

He sighed. ‘From Glendarach. What did you do?’

Her eyebrows drew together. ‘What do you mean?’

He pulled up a chair beside her bed and sat down. ‘You started a fire. Jesus… I knew this would happen. You promised me you wouldn’t.’

‘Ocht, don’t be daft. I’ve done no such thing. I’m here for tests.’

‘Tests…’

‘Yes, tests.’

‘Right.’ Calum sighed and glanced around for a nurse.

‘Well if you visited more, you’d know.’

He looked at her again.

‘I saw you last Sunday. I spent most of the day with my head under your sink.’

‘Well I don’t remember. I must have blocked it out because you were unpleasant, as usual.’

‘Aye, no bloody wonder.’

‘Language!’ she said in an exaggerated stage whisper. Nothing wrong with her hearing, anyway.

‘What’s happening then? Are they keeping you in?’

She made an exasperated sound. ‘They don’t tell you anything in these places. I expect they’re waiting for Finn to arrive to take me home.’

Calum rose from his seat. ‘Jesus Christ, what’s the matter with you?’

People in surrounding beds stared. Calum drew the curtain beside his mother, sat down again and took a deep breath. ‘Finn’s gone,’ he said, very softly. ‘Don’t you remember?’

‘What do you mean he’s gone?’

‘Mum… he’s dead. You know that.’ It was not news he’d expected to have to deliver a second time.

Mary’s hands shook as she fingered the sheet. ‘He’s… no… that’s not right, Calum. Why would you say that?’ Her voice crumbled and she moved her head back and forth. ‘Why would you do that to me?’

He lifted his hand and held it above hers, afraid to touch her. ‘It’s been twenty-one years.’

She continued to shake her head, but her eyes had filled with tears and her lips trembled. ‘I… of course… I do remember now. I don’t know what I was… oh dear… I don’t know what came over me. I think I must have dreamed about him last night.’

Calum allowed his fingers to settle over hers, tried to expel his temper with a long, slow breath. ‘It’s all right.’

Her eyes narrowed as the recollection seemed to solidify in her mind, and he turned away from her so he didn’t have to see the accusation that would inevitably accompany it. Perhaps this creeping amnesia would cure her of the need to blame him for something that had never been his fault, but right now he could feel her gathering her energy for an attack.

The arrival of a young doctor diverted her attention. By the state of his stubble and crushed shirt, he looked to be nearing the end of a very long shift.

‘Now then, Mrs MacDonald, I see your son has arrived. I’m Dr Robertson. You must be Finlay.’

‘No, I’m Calum,’ he replied tartly. He wanted to walk away and leave Mary to the mercies of the NHS and Highland Council’s Social Work Department. He wanted to claim no further knowledge of his mother or the dilemma she now posed for ever-dwindling public budgets. He gripped the sides of his chair and held himself down. ‘My brother Finlay passed away in 1993.’

‘Oh… ah… ’ the doctor glanced down at his clipboard and quickly composed himself. ‘I’m sorry, she… asked for him.’

‘Mrs Macdonald is having some problems with her memory,’ Calum said, and glared at his mother.


The Angel in the Stone arrives in stores via Sandstone Press on August 17th; you can follow Rebecca on Twitter and you can stay up to date on her book’s release by following Sandstone Press on Twitter and Facebook.

Excerpt from A Message From the Other Side by Moira Forsyth

Moira Forsyth is the author of five novels and has also published poetry and short stories in magazines and anthologies. As editorial director of Sandstone Press, she has edited both fiction and non-fiction, including a novel long-listed for the Man Booker Award and the 2017 Betty Trask Prize.

The following excerpt from Moira’s upcoming novel, A Message From the Other Side, gives readers a glimpse into the life of Helen as she navigates the 1990s–and all the intrigue and excitement of a new, uncertain world…

 


 

Excerpt from A Message From the Other Side

 

You could not rely on Joe. Years later, Helen thought how different her whole relationship with him might have been had it happened twenty years later and they both had mobile phones. She could have kept track of him, and he might have told her what he was doing, or given her more warning if he wasn’t going to be around. As it was, Joe was one of the first people she knew to get a mobile phone, when many of her friends still scorned them. He saw the advantages.

There were times when Joe’s unreliability worked in her favour. He appeared out of the blue, probably letting someone else down, with a new car or–once, alarmingly, a huge motorbike–ready to take her out. He wanted her to drop everything, the moment he was back. Mostly she did, since being with Joe was much more exciting than being with anyone else.

‘Right–where do you fancy tonight?’

‘I’ve not had supper–do you want something to eat?’

‘We’ll eat up in town. Little place in Soho I fancy trying–my pal Bernie runs it. All right?’

‘I’m not dressed for that. ’

He was in her tiny hallway and she was in his arms. ‘Bed first? You lovely girl–come on then.’

It was ten o’clock before they were eating in Bernie’s cramped restaurant, full of people who knew each other.

‘You’re ruining my digestion,’ she told Joe. ‘I never eat so late.’

‘Try this,’ he said, pouring the rioja.

What was Bernie going to do when his friends stopped coming for dinner? It was such a small restaurant she didn’t see how he made any money, since everyone stayed for hours and he never got the tables cleared for another sitting.

Sometimes they were not back in her flat before three or four in the morning, taking expensive taxis home. He always had cash and rarely used his American Express card. He was not a man who liked paperwork. He took a roll of notes out of the inside pocket of his leather jacket, peeled off what he wanted, gave a generous tip, and was off and up the stairs before Helen.

‘Come on, girl, get your key out.’

‘Hush, you’ll wake the neighbours.’

‘Give them something to talk about.’

‘You’ve already done that, with a new car every other week and that motorbike!’

As soon as they were indoors his hands were all over her.

‘I wouldn’t like to get in a fight with you,’ she gasped, feeling the hardness of muscle as he gripped her. ‘How tough you feel.’

‘Women think they can fight men off,’ he shrugged, ‘but they don’t stand a chance. Men are always stronger.’

She wasn’t going to get in a fight with him, so what did it matter? His strength was good; she felt protected. He had old-fashioned ideas about the frailty of women.

He smoked but, in deference to her, not in bed. He sometimes got up again after sex, pulled on his jeans and a jersey and sat in an armchair with another cigarette. In those early days she rose too, giving up the night since it would soon be morning. During that first summer when Catherine went to Scotland, it grew light while they were sitting there, the grey London dawn coming bleakly into her little sitting room. ‘I’m exhausted. I don’t know how you do this.’

He shrugged. ‘It’s the weekend. Party while you can.’

‘If it was just the weekend–but I’ll soon have work to go to, even if you don’t.’

‘I’ve got work.’

‘What?’

‘I’m my own boss. I suit myself when I start and finish.’

‘What kind of business is it?’

They had been seeing each other for two months. The school holidays were nearly over and she still had little idea of how he spent his time when they were apart. They’d gone all the way to Brighton on the back of that motorbike, and walked over Hampstead Heath one morning he was full of energy he needed to work off. Once when he was driving a Jaguar, they had gone to Cambridge to meet someone who was keen to buy the car. She assumed he was some kind of car dealer, but he shrugged off questions about his business.

‘Ask no questions, you’ll be told no lies.’

She hated this answer. Seeing him lounging in her Windsor chair, dropping cigarette ash on the carpet, filling her room with smoke, she wondered if she even liked him. He wasn’t her sort. He said he had grown up in Glasgow then left at eighteen to find work in London. He had never gone to university, though he admitted to being ‘at college’ for a while, but she was no wiser about that than when she had first met him.

‘You know all about me,’ she said. ‘What’s the secrecy for?’

‘No secrets,’ he said. ‘I have a few things going, that’s all.’

‘Selling cars?’

He stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray she’d put by the chair. ‘Furniture, antiques, that kind of thing. We got a warehouse just outside Watford.’

‘We? You have a partner?’

‘Two. You met them. Charlie and Brian.’

She could not remember which was which, or even if Brian was the man she was thinking of, that they’d met one night at a club, and whose wife had said to her as they occupied adjacent cubicles in the Ladies, ‘Joe says you’re a teacher, right?’

Unused to carrying on a conversation while she peed, Helen said only ‘yes’ until they were out and washing their hands. In the mirror their eyes met, Gaynor’s heavy with make-up. She was older than Helen, glamorous in a showy way, with heavy jewellery and short skirts.

‘I’m a music teacher. I work in primary schools and I have a couple of private pupils too.’

‘You’re not his usual sort,’ Gaynor said, amused, ‘but he’s smitten right enough.’

She watched him now in the cold early light, the white sky outside revealing nothing about what kind of day was coming, though the flat was stuffy from yesterday’s heat.

‘It’s just that school starts next week. You could come here in the evening, and I’ll still have weekends, except I’ve taken on a couple of Saturday morning pupils, so–’

‘Will I move in?’

‘What?’

‘Would it make it easier for you if I move in?’

She had not reached that stage. Where, anyway, was his home? In bad moments she wondered if he had a wife somewhere. There had been a speculative look in Gaynor’s eye when she questioned her that night in the club. So you’re his bit on the side this time, she might have been thinking.

If he offered to move in, there was clearly not a wife. Relieved, she said, ‘Would you like to? What about your own place?’

‘I’ve been kipping at Brian and Gaynor’s when I’m not here, to be honest. I gave up my place weeks ago.’

Perhaps the wife had thrown him out. Perhaps Gaynor had had enough of putting him up.

‘We could see how it went…’

‘Just say if you’d rather not.’ His smile was rueful. ‘Sorry, didn’t mean to put you on the spot.’

‘No, no it’s fine, it would be lovely.’

‘Tell you what, I’ll give up the fags. You’d like that?’

Laughing, she went to sit on his welcoming lap, and put her arms round him. ‘I would.’

 

Afterwards, she began to panic. She knew so little about him, and there was a dangerous edge to Joe, with his secrets. Too late: he was moving in before school began.

She expected him to come and go mysteriously as he always had, out of contact for a few days, reappearing without warning. For the first few weeks, it was not like that at all; it was a kind of honeymoon. When she came home from school he was there, cooking the evening meal. He went outside for a cigarette when he couldn’t do without one, and he filled the only vase she had with flowers, then brought her a jug that looked old and valuable. Perhaps it was true about the antiques, for the next week he brought home a round mahogany table. Her kitchen was a galley, so she had no dining table and was tired of eating from a tray on her lap. The wood was burnished, the bow legs intricately carved. It took up most of the middle of the sitting room.

‘Pity you’ve got that piano,’ he said as they edged round the table on their way out one day. ‘Takes up a lot of space.’

‘Not as much as your table!’

‘I thought you liked it?’

‘I do. It’s beautiful.’ She kissed him. ‘But I need the piano.’

‘Got to get a bigger flat then,’ he said as they went downstairs to the street door.

‘I can’t afford a bigger one.’

‘Don’t you worry about that.’

He opened the passenger door and she got in. He made sure she was settled in the car before he got in himself. He always did this, just as he always walked on the outside of the pavement when they were together. In some ways, he was what her mother would call a gentleman. Not that her parents had met Joe and she was in no hurry for that to happen. They lived in the house where she and Catherine had grown up, in a leafy road of 1930s half-timbered houses, her father growing tomatoes and playing golf in his spare time, her mother a stalwart of the WI.

Joe took her to an exhibition preview at a small gallery in Highgate. Another surprising thing was how wide his acquaintance was, how catholic his interests. He knew the gallery owner, not the artist, but he said they should buy something as this was a painter whose work would increase in value.

‘What if you don’t like the pictures?’ Helen teased.

‘We don’t have to put the bleeding thing on the wall, girl. I’ll keep it in the lock-up, wait a bit, then in another year or two, sell it on.’

‘That seems a waste. I’d rather buy something I liked and have it to look at.’

‘If you like one of them,’ he said, ‘I’ll get it, and you can hang it on the wall in our new place.’

As they reached the gallery he said, ‘What about Highgate then? D’you fancy a place here?’

‘Can we afford it?’

He put his arm round her waist and squeezed. ‘Course we can. Come on then, this is it.’

There was no missing the gallery, since on this warm summer evening the preview guests had spilled out onto the pavement with their glasses of wine. She felt the buzz of excitement that went with all Joe’s excursions.

Joe introduced her to the gallery owner, a little man in an embroidered waistcoat waving a cigarette in an ebony holder. His laugh was hoarse with years of smoke inhalation and he had a Glasgow accent many times thicker than Joe’s, whose veered between Govan and North London depending on his mood and who he was talking to. Helen thought Frankie a bit of a poser, but he made her laugh and seemed such a friend within five minutes she felt she could ask him, when Joe drifted off to speak to other people, ‘Which one is the artist? I can’t imagine, looking at the paintings. Everyone looks too civilised to produce one of them.’

‘Over the top, eh?’ Frankie said with a wink. ‘They sell though. I don’t see him in this crowd. He’ll be outside having a fag, pontificating aboot his art.’ He reached out and caught a girl by the arm. ‘Never mind, here’s Rose, she’ll tell you about the paintings. Won’t you sweetheart?’

‘Oh, hi, Frankie,’ the girl said. She looked Helen up and down.

‘I’m Helen Guthrie.’

‘She’s with Joe,’ Frankie said, grinning, so that Helen worried this meant more to Rose than mere information. Not that Rose would attract Joe. She was stocky, with no looks, and dressed in dusty black. She also seemed, as Helen shook her hand, a bit grubby, her dyed red hair unbrushed and lank.

‘Right,’ Rose said. ‘How long’s that been then?’

‘That I’ve been with Joe? Oh, not so long. A couple of months.’

Rose raised her eyebrows. ‘You’re doing well.’

Catherine had a gift for chilling you with a look. It was a gift Helen longed for sometimes.

Later, she said to Joe, ‘Who was that girl, Rose something? Is she Will’s girlfriend?  The artist.’

Joe stopped outside an Italian restaurant. ‘This do? I’m starving after all that cheap wine. Frankie’s commission’s about ninety per cent and he still buys antifreeze.’ He pushed the door open. ‘Ok?’

‘Rose?’

‘Oh, give it a rest. I’ve known Rose for years. She’s always hanging round some guy’s neck. It could be Will now, for all I know. Piss, his pictures anyway–I wouldn’t waste my money.’

‘So you didn’t buy one?’ She wouldn’t have minded Will’s painting being consigned to a lock-up in Camden.

‘Too right. Frankie’s losing his touch.’

They went into the restaurant, where it turned out he knew the waiter and there was a long conversation about football before they even ordered their food.

Rose. They had barely spoken before Gaynor appeared, and Gaynor by contrast seemed quite a pal, so she had gone round the exhibition with her. Gaynor had drunk several glasses of the cheap wine, and was able to tell her a lot about Frankie and the artist and several other people, that Helen found illuminating. Joe’s world opened up a little more.

Gaynor said nothing about Rose, except, ‘That cow.’ Then with a squeeze of Helen’s arm, ‘You keep away darlin’, she’s not the kind you want to get friendly with.’

 

There was no need to worry about Rose–or anything else. In a fortnight Joe had found them a three-bedroomed flat in a 1930s block in Highgate, close to Hampstead Heath. He arranged it so that Helen got out of the lease of her own flat without a penalty, and he took her to Heal’s to buy furniture, since the new flat was largely unfurnished. She did not see whether he counted out several thousand pounds to pay for all that, since she had wandered off to look at lamps and coffee tables while he arranged delivery.

Go back to the Highlands and live with her sister? She was glad she hadn’t even considered it.

Three months after they moved into the new flat, Helen realised she was pregnant.


A Message From the Other Side launches in Inverness on July 20th. To keep up to date on the release, you can follow Moira on Twitter and Sandstone Press on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Notes and Addendum by Jenny Wu

Jenny Wu is currently working toward an MFA at Washington University in St. Louis, where she edits The Spectacle literary magazine. Recently, some of her fiction was selected for WTAW’s Features Chapbook Series and, on another occasion, shortlisted for the Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction.

 


 

Notes and Addendum

 

There was one who called herself a doctor on the expedition. I distrusted her right away. “You are not a doctor,” I said. We were now several months into the expedition, but I had not bothered to study her when we started out. Likewise, I have not mentioned her before because I found her trivial and typical of her kind. “You are a mystic,” I said. “Just admit it.” We were walking through a night market in the center of the capital; on both sides of the street colonial edifices with eighteen bays cast their twitching lights like fishermen’s nets onto the rubble.

Perhaps it was not the right time to say such a thing. We were trying to enjoy our night off. Amidst nocturnal peoples selling medicinal herbs like astragalus–slightly toxic, with giant hairy tuberous roots rolling off the stands despite not being round. Often the locals went to barber shops after dinner; visited massage parlors at three in the morning; bought a crate of oranges at midnight. Darkness was something expelled into the atmosphere. On the ground, poverty and its fluorescent reflections; the barber shop employees were all family members, large extended families always hanging around, drinking tea out of paper cups; and whose children were these playing poker? A man and a woman shivered in the cold, on the steps of a bar where workers on either side of the steps were rolling a fried dough balloon–a local favorite. They slapped the sphere of dough in the oil and nudged it with long, thin reeds until an air-pocket rose. They used the reeds–one in each hand–to roll the dough, while the bubble expanded, glistening with oil. So we were out walking in the middle of the night. They stared as I walked past, as if telling me to go to bed, as if simple foot-traffic laws could direct me like the changing chords of a jazz improvisation. Stop. Go. Let other people pass on your left. Do not flash your camera in their eyes. They want to be away from home but they want privacy.

The shorter the street, it seemed, the shorter the street name. Maybe the proportion had to do with the printing of the map. Some were horrifyingly long words, emblazoned on streets that careened off the edge of the paper, made you think the street would take your whole expedition into the Parcae.

Overhead, a white solarium with casement windows and slick tile walls, a ghostly light within. Four hangers arranged in a square, three jean shirts and a pair of jean pants, each piece a different shade of blue. Apartments with no right angles, the balconies turned into rooms with shabby roofs–in other words, rooms with glass doors; in other words, lean-tos suspended in the air. A drove of grey laughing-thrushes diving in from the north. We went to a shop to get our hair washed. Our hair had not been washed in a week and it was almost too enjoyable. The young girl, younger than me, began to tell me the story of her birth, how her parents abandoned her at an orphanage, as she lathered my hair. I would rather have done it myself. But in this city there were no membranes separating one person from the next. They looked inside your shirt when measuring you for clothes. They asked for advice on their bowels. Death and illness did not frighten them.

We scientists were all wearing hiking boots, which was somewhat conspicuous. But that was the only difference. We did not make trouble for the locals. We wore hooked scarves sewn into hoods with neck wrappings over our clean hair, since, in this city, most women on the street wore these. We were cold nevertheless; temperatures dropped below zero after sunset. That night I was drawn to the colonnade’s yellow light, having tricked myself into believing it might be warm.

According to this mystic, I was nothing more than a mouthpiece for my expensive education. I will admit, when I was younger, I knew nothing. By the end of my schooling, though, I had read extensively even outside of my own scientific field and continued to read extensively. By flashlight I read poetry and philosophy in three languages. She mocked me. She admitted to having no formal training, but claimed she had saved more lives than your average doctor. She was middle aged–more “life experience.” Later on, before I had even said anything, she pointed to an old couple inside an illuminated jewelry shop; they were sitting in the back on those fake leather swiveling stools, examining some jewel in the display case with their elbows on the glass, wearing winter coats. The mystic said she had sensed last night, while the rest of us were sleeping, that they were going to have a heart attack, that she had rushed over to save them.

Them?” I said. “Both of them? One heart attack or two? Where? Where did you rush to?”

She said nothing.

Them?” I repeated. I, for one, had never seen these people before.

The mystic pulled up her messaline sleeve, revealing a bracelet. “They bought me this bracelet in gratitude,” she said.

Doubtful, though the bracelet did look like something that would be sold in this city; it was a bit gaudy.

We had been eating cakes with crushed almond powder mixed in under an awning. It had started raining heavily. A restaurant worker was taking a bunch of pots to the back alley for scrubbing. She poured boiling water over an empty soup bowl, over her fingers, rubbing their leathery prints together to remove the oil. She began to explain to me the perplexities of human anatomy. The food here–the tubers–when you ate them your whole body itched, but they tasted so good, especially with salt…

When the heavy rain on the street subsided, we could hear street musicians.

*

In the daylight we each carried binoculars and a slide projector. The villagers of S– were friendly to our expedition despite the politics–first comes the scientific exploratory expedition, then come the army and tanks, as is always the case. I glimpsed the top of their heads from afar, in the ruins. Through one arch I saw a wall with another arch; through this hole I saw a vague figure the color of flesh. It ambled and swayed amidst oblong yellow flowers with dark, fecal bulbs sprouting from their heads, plants with red stalks, blackberries choking an old sawed tree with antler branches, vines and long green beans twirling overhead, weeds like white hairs stomped flat on the ground, and an array of snake skins and milk teeth. The mystic spoke of the field as being otherworldly, occult, spirited, eastern or easterly, of a man falling into the ground never to be found again. But I understood immediately that she was talking about the Greek philosopher Thales, who while walking, staring into the sky, fell into a well–in other words, while staring at air was consumed by water. I was annoyed that I understood this. I was frightened too. The field was quiet so our thoughts were loud.

Three of us explored the foliage. I would rather have been anywhere else–alone under a tree, for instance, getting started on the mandatory report. Instead, a persistent drone of insects. Standing by a stream, feet getting wet and cold. I had the feeling I was being watched. The mystic bent over suddenly.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m tying my shoe.”

After rain, the colors intensified, time passed slowly. The other two were talking but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. The mystic led me to the ruins–to look at something painted on the menhirs, or so she said. Again, that childhood habit–climbing on stones to prove you are not afraid of heights. Walking along the top of a stone wall the height of two men, one foot in front of the other; there was a gap in the wall. The mystic said she had been up here many times; she knew the structure of the ruins; she knew where to place her feet. She leapt effortlessly over the gap. She motioned for me to leap. I couldn’t. She held out her hand for me to shakingly take; she looked so far away; besides, I didn’t want to take her hand.

Outside the village of K– we sat around a small fire boiling tin cans. The cartographer rolled some tobacco and another expedition member, the conservationist, struck a match for him. The mystic was off to the side performing a bloodletting on a villager who had smelled our lunch and ventured into the field. Distracted by this spectacle, the two lingered with the match too long and the cigarette went up in flames like a candle. The cartographer shook it and embers fell to the dark wet ground. The conservationist pointed at the papers on my lap–the beginnings of my report. “I just finished mine.”

“You’re the first one to finish his report,” the cartographer said to him. Some of us who went on these kinds of expeditions were known to procrastinate for months after we got home. “Let me give you a gift of congratulation,” he said. Took out a small thing.

The conservationist suddenly panicked, leaned away. “No! Keep it! I don’t want your things!”

The cartographer rummaged through his bag. “Just a small thing I picked up. Thought you would like it.”

The conservationist grunted. He was drinking a soup made from berries, with a medicinal smell.

“Here is a photograph of that man who refused to be photographed,” said the cartographer, trying to give it.

“Mm!” said the conservationist, pushing his hand away.

“And here,” I said, retrieving another bulging envelope from the cartographer’s bag, “are the two-hundred Polaroid photos of a black sky that you took the other night.”

“Because I was trying to capture the lightning.”

“You were very drunk.”

The mystic came over to sit beside me. We spoke about our credos. “Once,” she said, “I was asked to read the palm of a man from the north who was visiting my city on business. His palm revealed to me that at the age of fifty a great tragedy would befall him.”

“What do you tell them,” the conservationist asked, strumming a lap dulcimer, “when the news is bad?”

“I tell them the truth,” said the mystic. “It does them no good to lie.”

“Do they get angry at you?”

“In fact, this man did not,” said the mystic. “What happened was this: the year he was supposed to turn fifty, one day in the spring I received an international call from him to meet me for tea; a few days later he flew all the way from another country to meet me. His twin had died.”

I said, “Ah, so the tragedies you predict are unspecific.”

She said, “Twins, you know. They have the same palms.”

The villager told us how to make it over the summit by sunset. His village was located on a crag that overlooked a treeless section of the mountain whose inner rock layers were showing, the orange colossus broken and lying at the bottom of the drop. The road ran dangerously close to the edge. The people in this region fetched their water from a nearby stream. Pleasure to see clear water slopping over the half-buried rocks–you could lie belly-down on a flat rock and drink from the green and black current. Upstream, in the middle of the rushing waters, was a woman squatting on a rock, washing her clothes.

Uphill the whole way and, mid-ascent, out came the peasants selling their wares–they charred sardines on sticks atop an open coal fire. A pile of skewered sardines sat raw on the side, their bluish-white scales still wet and glistening. Other vendors had skewered some sort of long-necked bird. In the fire these birds’ bodies turned gray and brown, their blue innards peering through transparent breasts, while their heads reddened and bulged. Some sellers had whole eggs boiling in metal pots, plates of red chili powder at their feet, their children crouched beside basins of live fish. A man smoking a waterpipe made from a stack of bottomless tin cans slumped on a footstool, swarmed by red-faced cockerels. Women sweeping with hand brooms. A single yellow monkey scoured the hillside for fruit, and, when it found some, turned and stared suspiciously at everyone as it ate. For half a kilometer beside the stream the mountain economy was concentrated where travelers passed by. The women sold charred meat.

The children sold flowers. The very small children sold pebbles. These were mountain people; despite the cold they sit outside.

We could no longer understand their language. For the rest of the day we communicated with rudimentary gestures. Went up the mountain and took a detour, picked up a stone from the grass, weighed it in my hand, and held onto it.

“Who needs to piss? Show of hands… Alright, we’re taking a detour.” The men unzipped their pants and pissed in the dirt, off the cliff.

“Would it be wrong to call us a choir?” They stood in a line, shoulder to shoulder, facing the abyss.

“I’ve heard that saying used,” said another.

“Next time we have to piss we’ll call it ‘going to sing,’” they chuckled.

I waded alone through brambles, sometimes cutting my own way through the entangled branches with my knife. I came this way because I wanted to–there was no other reason. Eventually I came down on another side of the mountain, evergreen trees and white twiggy underbrush: a vast expanse of land flanking a crude road stretching as far as the eye could see. Maybe I beat the expedition here; they should be coming up the road any time now. The road was gray gravel pounded into flat scales. It looked new, with no weeds between the stones and no cart ruts to either side. I had to criticize, however, the irrigation practices of these peoples; the deforestation; the roads, like the manmade ponds, partitioned with stone slabs that disrupted runoff. Water and land must have, I would argue, a natural meeting point. The trees on each side grew dense and green like spears over the land, gradually steepening into the sides of the mountains that contained them like a bowl, and the sky dropping–cloudless–in every direction like a dome. I continued west. Behind me, the gravel disappeared into the green hills, and I noticed every so often there was a big stone on the side of the road. As I walked on I realized that someone, for some reason, had been marking the distances on the road.

Wherever the trees stopped growing, the patch of land was left destitute and foreboding. Pockmarked landscape with cairns. Upon closer inspection, some of the cairns were mausoleums hidden under grass. At least five mausoleums in a jagged line, all facing the road. Were they, I wondered, a family? Or strangers who met only after death? Sitting on the roadside writing this entry, I looked at their land and saw that they could grow pears, walnuts, chestnuts, wild honey. There was even evidence that these crops had grown here before. There ought to be some goats in the mountains. The threat of tigers? After all, tigers factor into their paranoid superstition: on the first day of the fifth month, I was told, each person must sleep alone. Stay hidden while the ghosts and tigers prowl the yard, they said…and if a villager is sick, they pray to the tiger head.

*

Our first night in the countryside. Awake due to some indigestion. Snuck out and went into the field and took a night-photograph. It turned out blurry. The kitchens and outhouses in this region were communal; both types of mudbrick houses clumped together on the periphery of the village. There were giant crystals of salt on the road; they gleamed in the moonlight, winding down toward the houses.

Woke up in the morning to caterpillars and white butterflies. Found all sorts of animals in the garden: the usual gray rabbit, the locals gestured–now twice its original size–then a Maltese cat, then a prickly hedgehog, then an orange-and-black fox whose tail I snuck up behind, whose fur was rustling, who looked at me suddenly over his shoulder. As though our villa had become the setting of a fairy story.

The mystic came outside, stretching, and said, “It feels like we’ve lived here all our lives, doesn’t it?”

That day we found a village where they spoke our language; stayed there, visited homes, tasted their tea, even though the people were not particularly pleasant. The men in this village were gamblers. Subsistence farmers: grow some sprouts, eat them, and gamble. Any money in the village was locked in drawers, away from the prying hands of the women.

Next was a house with old man on the floor. Perhaps it was the age of the man, his refusal to present himself, refusal sit up straight, even when there were people observing him. He had coarse black and gray hair knotted in the back, but strands around the temples seemed to have been torn out of the knot and were standing on end. He had no eyebrows–probably from age–but his brow was permanently raised, his mouth permanently pursed in a horizontal line. His eyes stared at nothing, two pinpricks. Extremely long ears. He was wearing tweed trousers, dark gray, and a ramie collared shirt underneath a sweater in the faintest shade of lavender imaginable. He was resting on one elbow, the hand on his stomach, the other at an odd angle on an old quilt. The old quilts were all over the floor, gray bundles with the occasional square of city-colors. Not a scrap of furniture. “It’s been gambled away, so be careful,” said the mystic. “That old man sees that you have money on you.” Where the blankets did not reach there was cardboard taped to the floor and the corners of the wall with yellowed translucent packaging tape. The walls were covered in pages from an atlas, maps of the same area of land with different routes marked in red, showing different sized portions of the ocean. Above them, magazine clippings showing the latest styles of cassimere, voile, damask, muslin… all the pages pasted perfectly straight, not a slapdash effort. The paint on the windows was flaking; there were thin pages of some book printed with gray ink covering the window jambs. On the sill, strangely, two pieces of porcelain; they looked like soap dishes with dirt in them, a shriveled stem and some excavated roots still visible in one. On the wall–on top of the atlas pages, beside the magazine clippings–a colorful flower print, an ultramarine background with tricolored peonies and a golden border. Pasted on top of that, as though the larger flower print was a frame, a blown-up image of paper money–a bluish note with the profiles of the heads of state and everything. Was this decoration? The mystic explained. “They paste any paper they can find on the walls for insulation and because it looks better than the blank wall underneath. Every so often they need new paper because the existing layer turns black.”

An old woman hobbled into the room and told a story of their relative–pointing at the seated man–“his brother.” We listened to her story; we watched her hobbling around holding her wet laundry in a knot, as though she did not know where to put it. She was the shortest person I had ever seen in my life. “His brother,” she said, “gambled the entire family’s savings; his mother and father starved, some of the younger ones starved to death. He was the only one who took pity on this brother; the rest had planned to tie him to the bed and lock him in a back room for the rest of his life. Ah, I’m telling a story that’s fifty years old.”

“Whose brother?” the old man suddenly said.

Your brother,” the old woman said. “This idiot”–her index finger shaking–“brought his brother to come live with us, eat our food, and gave him a portion of our land and even a share of his ensete trees, livestock, and our business. He loved his brother so much, you know. They were closest in age. They went everywhere together, did everything together. When his brother got whipped in the yard he would cry, cry, cry for him. And the first thing he did was destroy our business. The fruit on the trees? The goat? All gone. Then he stole everything of value in our house. I set up traps for him and even caught him with my own eyes. Still this idiot took pity on him.” She set her wet shirt on the windowsill. “Our village has been debased by these men. Do you know how our women make a living? They sell rocks to travelers. Well. You want to guess what this man’s brother did after all that? You’ll never guess what happened then.” She cackled; she showed her silver teeth. “Then he disappeared!”

We spoke at length with local experts. Governments would be alerted. Aid would be sent to this village, preferably in the form of microcredit. We were to leave the village through a narrow mountain pass; from a distance we saw the women lined up on both sides. As we entered the pass a child approached–young, naked, protruding navel. He was holding something in his hand. A ruddy volcanic rock. The women, too, were selling stones–polished limestone bracelets, heavy pendants, crude sculptures. Some of them had stands, and some were sitting on threadbare blankets with the rocks spread before them. They clamored over each other, describing the rocks as artifacts unique to the region, that such-and-such rocks were blessed by a goddess. One of the rock sellers smiled at me. I realized that for however many months we had been traveling, I had not seen a single local smile. The girl was pale and fat and sleepy, but–was I mistaken?–she had smiled. I approached her without confidence; I approached her politely; I bought a rock. I felt oafish, conspicuous.

“You saw the village where I live?” she asked.

“I was just there,” I said.

“Why do travelers prefer to come in winter?” she asked. “In the summer no one comes.”

“A lot of travelers pass through in the winter?”

“Every three days or so, a group passes through.”

“Have you ever considered leaving with them?” I regretted asking; I could not make any promises.

But she shook her head. “I’ve never thought to leave my family. Or to be alone. Where would I go anyway?”

I told her I’d lived on my own for five years, since I was fifteen.

“We’re the same age then,” she said.

I didn’t know what to say; I wondered who was more surprised. So I told her, “It’s nice to be on your own. But being alone causes you to form all sorts of weird rituals.”

“Like what?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know… I can’t think of any off the top of my head.”

“You’re so brave,” she said.

Suppose I moved to this village and married this girl? Immediately following this thought I was seized by dread and tremors. I didn’t even know if this girl liked women. I looked up and down the mountainsides; their immensity dizzied me; for a moment I forgot which way we were walking, which way we were coming from.

“That girl,” said the mystic, “is your soul mate.”

Looked back at her over my shoulder; the sun was setting and getting in my eyes. “But I have an expensive education, remember?” I waited for the mystic’s reaction. Getting none, I said, “I doubt she can read.” I had never thought much about marriage, always buried in my studies. And I had no feelings for this girl beside the thought that I ought to…

“She will be very surprised.”

For the first time I looked closely at this mystic’s face. She had a square-shaped face, brown skin, crow’s feet, and black moles. Compared to the average head, hers was relatively small.

“She won’t know why, but she’ll say yes. She’ll never be able to understand why she said yes, but she will think about it much, and she’ll never argue with you.” The mystic seemed utterly convinced by what she was saying. “And day by day you will find yourself more accustomed to the traditions here.”

She embraced me. I patted her on the back. How rare, I thought, that my life should cross paths with the likes of this mystic. There was truly no one like her. She went on to predict that I would spend the rest of my life working with my hands, specifically with wood. We looked around at the trees of the region–aspens.

“I must catch up with the expedition,” the mystic said.

 

 

 

 

When the army and tanks rolled into the region, they were met, in this mountain pass, with a funeral. The funeral happened to be processing in the opposite direction, momentarily blocking the army’s path. The funeral, they learned, was for a young woman scientist who had, five years earlier, married one of the locals but for whom the combination of harsh working conditions and the high elevation proved to be too much. She had overworked herself trying to provide for her wife, a baby-faced woman seen walking in the procession with her head down, weeping tears of unmatched devotion.


Jenny can be found at her website, jennyzw.com.

 

Excerpt from The Health of Strangers by Lesley Kelly

Lesley Kelly is a Scottish novelist with twenty years’ experience in the public and voluntary sectors. Having dabbled in both poetry and stand-up comedy, Lesley Kelly’s fiction has won numerous competitions, including the Scotsman’s Short Story award in 2008. Lesley now lives in Edinburgh with her husband and two sons.

What follows is an excerpt from The Health of Strangers, Lesley Kelly’s upcoming novel, in which the North Edinburgh Health Enforcement Team faces new threats and unforeseen risks.

 


 

Excerpt from The Health of Strangers

 

‘He’s dead all right.’

Mona stepped back, and ran her eye over the corpse. She’d seen worse than this, much worse in fact, but not in the last few months. Funny how quickly you forgot the sights and smells of death. Maybe you had to forget, maybe the amnesia was some kind of defensive mechanism; if you remembered what it was like you’d spend every night downing a bottle of wine while surfing jobs websites for less traumatising employment. She glanced over her shoulder to where her partner, Bernard, was standing, and quickly stifled a laugh at the expression on his face. From past experience she recognised the signs that he was channelling all his energy into keeping his breakfast safely lodged in its rightful place. He ran his hands over his short hair a couple of times, tugged at the collar of his polo shirt, and, despite his distress, managed to choke out a few words.

‘The Virus?’

‘Hard to say, with him being so decomposed.’ She took a further step away from the armchair. ‘I mean, when the skin’s turned black like this, and the teeth and hair have started to fall out there’s not much to go on. And look at this–there’s some kind of larvae on his cheek here.’ She waved him closer. ‘Come and see.’

He bolted out the door, and Mona gave in to a grin. You either had the nerve for these kinds of things, or you didn’t. That being said, the smell of the room wasn’t doing her stomach any good either. She gave a quick look over to the door to check Bernard wasn’t about to reappear, then negotiated her way between the heavy wooden furniture toward the window, stopping only to pull a handkerchief out of her pocket and clamp it over her nose.

The curtains were a seventies relic, a lurid orange-and-brown mess of swirls and curlicues. She pulled at them one-handed, and after a couple of tugs they opened, filling the room with weak April sunshine. Yellowed netting covered the length of the pane; she reached behind it and found the catch. She fiddled with it for a minute, succeeding only in cutting herself on the rusting paintwork. She cursed and pulled her hand back. The rust had dyed her fingertips brown, and a small cut was sending a river of red down her index finger. Wiping her hand on her jeans, she made a mental note to dig out the Savlon when she got back to the office. There were enough ways to die at the moment, without succumbing to good old-fashioned tetanus. She gave the catch another try, and to her relief, it opened. She hauled the window up a couple of inches and crouched on the floor next to the fresh air.

Mona pulled her notes out of her bag and gave herself a quick refresher on the facts. Their visit had been triggered by the non-appearance of one Reginald Dwyer at his monthly Virus Prevention Health Check. According to her notes Reginald was in his seventies, Caucasian, 5’6” tall, with grey hair and blue eyes. She poked her head and handkerchief back round the curtain and eyed up the corpse. The nylon trousers and woolly cardigan combination suggested a senior citizen’s wardrobe, but the other facts were lost to the indignities of decomposition.

Now it was a judgement call–phone the Health Enforcement Team first or the Police? Alerting the Police to a potentially suspicious death made it their problem. Phoning it in to the office as a Health Check Violation Due to Fatality left it resting firmly in her in tray, with a tonne of attached paperwork. She walked back into the middle of the room, and looked round in search of anything that could justify her phoning her former colleagues in Police Scotland.

A little wooden side table next to the corpse had a newspaper resting on it, open at the TV listings. She picked it up, trying her hardest not to disturb the deceased. The last thing she wanted was a shower of teeth, hair, or worse, falling off the late Mr Dwyer. The date on the paper was the 21st February, just over a month ago. Probably the length of time he’d been lying here, which fitted in well with her gut feeling about how long he’d been dead.

‘Bernard?’ She removed the hanky from her face.

‘Yes?’ Her partner’s voiced echoed feebly down the hall.

‘Can you check with the neighbours when they last saw him? Or when they first noticed the smell?’ She put her makeshift face mask back on.

‘I tried. No-one’s in, apart from a woman in the ground floor flat who doesn’t speak English.’

No surprise there. Getting the average Edinburgh tenement dweller to answer their doors to a stranger had always been a struggle, but these days a warm welcome would have been some kind of miracle. She didn’t blame people for their caution. After you’d spent a fortune germ-proofing your home, why take the risk of opening up to find someone coughing and spluttering on your doorstep?

Bernard’s face appeared in the doorway, wan as a waxing moon. ‘I peered through the letterbox of the flat across the hall and I don’t think it’s occupied.’ He paused and grimaced. ‘Can we get out of here now?’

‘Just a sec.’

There were two doors leading off the living room. She threw open the nearest one, which revealed a bedroom, the divan resplendent with an orange candlewick cover. She took a couple of strides and pushed open what she assumed was the door to the kitchen.

‘Bernard–look at this.’

He appeared at her side, and gaped, as she had done, at the tinned goods that were stacked from floor to ceiling all across the room.

‘He didn’t pay much attention to our advice about not hoarding food, did he?’ Bernard took a step back. ‘Ironic really, given how he ended up.’

Mona smiled. ‘Poor sod.’

‘Can we go?’

She took a last look around the room, and sighed. ‘Yup. Just let me phone it in.’ She dug out her mobile and selected the North Edinburgh HET office from her contacts list as she walked toward the stairwell. ‘Maitland, it’s me, Mona.’ She pulled the door of Reginald Dwyer (deceased) firmly closed. ‘We’ve got a stiff.’

 

‘So–did you puke?’

Bernard ignored the question and walked purposefully in the direction of his desk. Undeterred, Maitland rolled his chair across the office and ground to a halt an inch from his side, trapping Bernard’s little toe under a castor. Bernard pulled his trainer loose, booted Maitland back toward his desk, and was gratified to hear a tiny squeak of pain from him as he collided with a sharp edge. Unfortunately, the injury was not enough to silence him.

‘But did you?’ Maitland was beaming from ear to ear, every inch of his six foot three frame bouncing up and down with pleasure at Bernard’s discomfort. He sat back, knitted his fingers together, and rested them on his dark hair. ‘C’mon, Bern, did you spew when you found the body?’

‘No, Maitland, I did not spew, as you put it.’ Bernard reached the safety of his own workspace, and lowered himself into his seat. OK, so he had left Mona to deal with it and stood outside trying to overcome his nausea. But he wasn’t going to give his colleague the satisfaction of admitting it. ‘I’ve seen dead bodies before, as you are well aware.’

‘Aye,’ Maitland grinned and dived toward Bernard’s desk, ‘but those were in a medical setting, where everything is nice and clean and neat.’ He rested his elbows on the back of Bernard’s chair, and lowered his voice. ‘This time, we’re not talking hospital corners and disinfectant. We’re talking weeks-old corpse, maggots, bluebottles burying their eggs in the decaying flesh…’

Bernard’s stomach heaved, and he leaned on his desk with his hand over his mouth. After a moment, he pushed Maitland’s arm off the back of his chair, and his tormentor turned away, laughing.

‘Mona, so did he puke or what?’

She dismissed Maitland’s question with a wave of her hand. Her hair hid her face and Bernard wondered if she too was mocking him under the blonde bob. It was impossible to tell. He thought about going over to see if she was actually laughing, but worried he would seem overanxious. Mona had made it plain over the past few months that she did not like needy men.

Maitland wandered back to his side of the office, still chuckling.

Bernard sighed, and started looking for the piece of paper that would let him know just how bad the rest of his day was going to be.

It wasn’t in his tray, or on top of the neat pile of previous cases he’d left sitting prominently in the centre of the desk, in the hope that someone would file them. It wasn’t caught up in his personal papers, and, when he picked up his copy of the Guardian and shook it, it didn’t fall out from within its pages.

Bernard leaned back in his chair, sighing again. There was definitely no Defaulter List on his desk. ‘Mona–have you got our DL?’

Across the room his partner was still engrossed in paperwork. She looked up, shook her head, and shrugged.

In the four months he’d been working for the Health Enforcement Team this had never happened before. As surely as night followed day, by 9am every morning a memo appeared on each of their desks outlining who had defaulted on their Health Checks that week. The idea was that this notification arrived the day after someone had defaulted. The demise of Reg Dwyer was testament to how well this system worked. Bernard looked round the office for someone else to ask. Maitland’s desk was now empty, although his coat was thrown over the back of his chair.

He looked over at Carole Brooks’s desk. In amongst the pictures of her kids, and a range of handmade and, probably, fair trade clutter, Carole was on her mobile. Bernard overheard snippets of her conversation.

‘So, how much is his temperature up by?’

Bernard winced, and feeling suddenly breathless, sat down at his desk. This was what grief felt like, the poleaxing power of a stray comment, or a TV show, or, like this, an overheard conversation to knock him sideways. Six months now since his son had died, too young and weak to fight off the Virus. And when the memory hit him, it wasn’t just of the boy’s death; it was of the paralysis, the helplessness, the overwhelming impotency he had felt in the face of the illness. He’d not told his colleagues about his loss; how to describe it to these people he barely knew?

Carole ended the conversation but sat staring at her desk. She pulled out the band that was holding her hair up, and let it fall loose. She ran her hands through it, then after a second she gathered up the strands and tucked them away.

He decided not to bother her and reluctantly looked in the direction of his boss’s office. Once upon a time, the building that the HET occupied had been a grand Georgian house on the Southside of Edinburgh. It had remained intact until the owner had racked up gambling debts so astronomical that the only method of staving off creditors was the sale of the family home to the newly formed South Eastern Regional Hospital Board. Lothian Health Board had taken the premises over in 1972, and had knocked through rooms, boarded up chimneys, and bricked up doors with a cheerful disregard for the intricacy of the cornicing, or the delicate tiling on the Adam fireplaces. In a final mortification, when the HET moved in, a corner of the room had been partitioned off with MDF to create an internal office for the head of the team. Bernard knew that deep within this temporary structure sat Team Leader Paterson, drinking tea, regretting the day he left the Police, and thinking of new ways to make Bernard’s life miserable.

Bernard caught Paterson’s eye through the office’s window, and within seconds his boss threw open the door. He stood in the doorway, his greying crew cut scraping the top of the door frame. Paterson was a very big man, in a very small office.

He pointed a large finger at Mona, then Bernard. ‘You two–in here now.’

They exchanged glances and got to their feet.

‘You were right, Guv, the No Show was dead. Looked like he’d been lying there for weeks. Seems that he’d…’

Mona broke off as she walked into Paterson’s office. Bernard peered round her side and saw there was someone else in the room. This was interesting; Paterson was not in the habit of entertaining visitors. A stranger in the boss’s office, hot on the heels of the missing Defaulter List, meant that today was veering off the fairly repetitive course that Bernard had experienced since his arrival at the HET.

The man was tall, with neat blonde hair and square, brown-rimmed glasses. A raincoat was folded across his knees, and at his side was a brown leather briefcase. He radiated an air of controlled competency not often found nestling in the chaos of the HET office. The new arrival had been given the only comfortable seat in the office and was sitting behind Paterson’s desk.

The Team Leader leaned his considerable bulk against his desk, and gestured a thumb in the stranger’s direction.

‘This is Doctor Toller.’

The three of them shook hands, which involved a fair bit of manoeuvring, given the limited dimensions of the office. Mona sat on the plastic chair that Paterson had swiped from the canteen some months ago. Bernard looked round for somewhere to sit, and in the absence of options, stayed standing.

‘Toller here works for the German Government and is investigating a Missing Person. Heidi Weber, eighteen years old, exchange student at Edinburgh University. Showing up on our Defaulter List for the first time today.’ He passed a case file across the desk which Mona grabbed and started reading. ‘I want you to give Doctor Toller every assistance in locating this young lady.’ Paterson pointed his finger at each of them to emphasise the point. ‘Every assistance.’

Mona spoke without looking up from the file. ‘Can I ask why she is of interest to you, Sir?’

The Doctor smiled. ‘She is not, of herself, of particular interest.’ His English was good, but tinged with a German accent. ‘We are concerned about the Health Status of all our nationals who are living abroad. As you know our infected population is much lower than yours, which is twenty-eight per cent, I believe?’

‘Twenty-eight per cent average, lower for older people and children, higher for young adults.’

Paterson coughed. Bernard ignored the hint and carried on.

‘But the infection rate is falling year-on-year. We’re anticipating an eight per cent infection rate next year.’

A thin blonde eyebrow was raised by the German. ‘Yet you still have mortality of 2.5 per cent?’

‘2.4 per cent, to be precise.’

‘Bernard…’ Paterson had a familiar tone of warning in his voice. He wasn’t a big fan of Bernard’s ability to remember facts and figures relating to the Virus. Bernard was torn between avoiding his boss’s wrath and defending his country’s public health record. Patriotism won.

‘And twenty per cent of the population is already immune.’ He finished the sentence as quickly as he could.

‘In Germany we have mortality of less than two per cent.’ The Doctor smiled and folded his arms. ‘You can see why we are concerned about any health risk that our citizens may be encountering.’

Before Bernard could open his mouth to pursue the point, Mona spoke up. ‘She hasn’t been reported missing by her parents.’ She waved the case file in the air. ‘Although they have expressed concern that they hadn’t heard from her?’

Paterson jumped to his feet. ‘Doctor, I think my colleagues have enough to go on. I need to brief them about a couple of things, then the three of you can make a start on locating young Heidi.’ He yanked opened the door, causing the walls of the office to vibrate.

The Doctor stayed seated for a moment staring at Paterson, then slowly stood up. ‘I wish to use the lavatory before we leave. I will meet you in the main entrance.’ He stopped and turned to address Mona and Bernard. ‘I am not overly concerned about this young woman. We made a check of her room, and all her documents were there, including her passport.’

Paterson smiled expansively at his guest and extended an arm in the direction of the exit. He waited until the door shut behind the German. ‘Dickhead.’


The Health of Strangers releases on Thursday, June 15th, 2017, and will be available as a paperback and e-book, courtesy of Sandstone Press.

An excerpt from Lesley Kelly’s previous novel, A Fine House in Trinity, can be found here.