“The Author’s Ego” By Alexander Blum

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“Here’s how we’re running this down – there will be a twenty-minute exam, where you think the most interesting thoughts you can, and if they aren’t good enough, you’ll be killed on the spot. Here’s how we’ll deal with overpopulation – those who don’t think good things and instead think useless things, idiots, all of them, will be removed from the surface of the planet, leaving only the impressive people behind.

“We do not know, yet, how stringent our criteria will be, or how finely we will pull the culling nets. We do not know how many will be saved and how many will be killed. But practice yourselves, hone your minds, for the next five days, because on the fifth day, we’re going to start shooting anybody who fails a twenty-minute exam of their thoughts on the basis of whether or not they are cool or interesting or worthwhile enough to keep them around.

“Yes, we have a machine that can reach into your brain and see exactly what you’re thinking, imagining, words, pictures, sounds, all of it. And we’re not ideologues, either. We won’t blame you for thinking of controversial things. But if you can’t think of anything interesting at all, you have to die.

“Climate change is coming, anyway, and at least two-thirds of you will have to go. Emissions must decrease. Ah, I guess I spilled the beans there. Yes, two-thirds of you will end up shot. So even if you can think of something sort of interesting, if someone else thinks of something better, and if there are a lot of those ‘someone elses’, you’re dead.

“Lastly, please don’t think of us, the board members of the illustrious CCE, as a pack of ruthless fascists. In fact, we love humankind. We love all humans. We love them when they are at their best. So if a lot of people have to go, it only makes sense to save the best ones. So in fact, we’re doing you a service. We could pick randomly, but we decided, instead, we should pluck the tallest, straightest nails from the board and allow the rest to go down with the ship. Capisce?

“We have a great doctor here, Dr. Jorge Vorhes, and he’s prepared the live test according to perfect medical neuroimagining and neurotextual standards. Basically, if Dr. Vorhes doesn’t see anything but a dim light, a partial flicker, inside your soul, we can do without you. The ark is sailing, people. Get training.”

The blocks of the city that was once Rome were finely-cut black granite obelisks. Walls of sheer polish, criminal perfection. How did they get it away with it, those architects? Those blasted fiends – how did they shine ebon marble to so fine a pitch, so nimble a timbre? It is unfair, what they have achieved with this city. Their symmetry makes it so I cannot sleep at night, so I stay up, leafing through pages, critical of what I’ve done, critical of what I’ve written, stabbed with regret at words I’ve said.

At first, I didn’t believe them. When the architects who erected the city said that they would be killing two-thirds of us, I wanted to rationalize it. I assumed their perfection gave them the right to decide. Their merit was not mine. The city they made was not mine. And they, in the final analysis, could do what they want with me.

I understood that I was the property of the architects. But nobody could put a face on them. If you understand, they were a collection of bankers, gangsters, coin-hoarders, pimps, salesman and policemen. They were the nameless, faceless structure that we call upon to indict criminals.

But then they had Borga, my favorite author, a fanatic, a national hero, deliver that announcement, sitting in a velvet chair trimmed with lionfish gold, his fingers cusped tightly around a glass of Hennessey in his right hand, smiling, in the luxury lounge of some micro-dosing bar in some floating micro-city, and my stomach dropped beneath six or seven other organs in my congested gut, it dropped with despair.

The light emanating from the screen on the marble wall soaked us in a dim glittering gold. That gold belonged to Borga and the architects, not to us. We stood, stupid, in the face of their plans. The panic and murmur of the crowd was replicated inside my own heart. There, in the ninety-nine chambers, I found all my desires to become an author like Borga liquefied, shot, stained. Is it so true what he feels about us? That we are so worthless? My mother, my father, my brother…none of them will pass this test. None of them will meet Borga’s threshold. My father is a lumber worker, he is no intellectual. My mother makes cherry pies for soldiers, she too will be cut down. My brother is a doctor, true, but his intelligence is very narrow. He has no imagination. So I trust, he too, will be shut down and killed.

Only I, the author, have a chance at passing this test of imagination. But I’m not even good. In fact, I’m terrible. I have written seventeen manuscripts and with every single one I have turned around to despise every last one of them. Nothing sticks. I have prolific output, but I am fundamentally mediocre. Maybe age can change that. Maybe, like wine in stale bottles – agh, a stale metaphor. Nevermind. You see how doomed I am? How unoriginal I am?

My mind loops, day in and day out, with facile tides of rusted garbage, discarded stereos, shattered flutes, splintered PlayStations all roiling together in a repetitive tide. There is nothing new I can offer the world. This, I have always known. There is not a spark of creativity in me. I have the will, and the proficiency, to write, to make worlds, to tell stories. But none of them are my own. They are all coming from some demented portal that shits them out improperly, with fundamental defects, a single crack running through a whole story that breaks it, no matter how much I edit and refine, the thing is split in two.

Borga is not like me. Borga is great. He, too, has written seventeen novels, and all of them are masterpieces, sweeping up prizes, New Yorker reviews, Man Booker prizes, even a Nobel Prize in Literature, collected in his fiftieth year. The man is a titan. He is Metatron with wings expanded, each flush of the petals of those metallic feathers dripping glittering gold dust into the streets, into the world, gracing us with magic, symphonies of another world. That is the heroism of the author.

But what do you do, at last, when the hero turns his back on his readers and announces: “I am great, you are mediocre, and I no longer wish to share this Earth with your repetitive, repugnant mediocrity”? Well, I suppose you light the midnight oil.

There were some measures to prevent cheating. A drug test would be administered before the examination. Anyone on mushrooms or LSD or DMT would be shot. After all, it wasn’t really their brain that was doing it. That was the faeries talking. Execution on the spot.

Anyone with a microchip or a program playing a great film hidden inside their brain or stuck to their temple would be found out. Metal detectors were brought to the examination site, inside the remains of the old Roman Colosseum.

Engineers from Tesla were flown into Rome to set up X-rays for the sniffing out of plastic chips and other 3-D printed devices designed to stimulate thought, to stir the pool of colors inside your head and move it along faster and more brilliantly than before. That, of course, would be cheating.

The goal of this movement was to deprive the world of average people. Really, Borga, and the architects of the CCE, hated the average man. “Averages,” reads a famous line from Borga’s third novel, Songs of the Dispossessed. “Averages are the seats of pure mediocrity that sit along the deepest dip of a bell curve. Averages are the measure of the common man, who knows nothing, who can be trusted with nothing. A fear of the average is the healthiest impulse in modern man.”

How I relished those words! How I turned them over in my head, sitting in the back of a black car, Flashing Lights by Kanye West blaring, the lights of the cityscape pouring into my soul, as I found solace in those words. Now, those words were spears, accusations, assembled in a crown formation pressed upon my heart. I fell in love with luxury, with elite standards. And now those same standards would crucify me.

I had a friend, Alberto, who asked me what to do one night on the phone in a frenzy. I told him to buy and read all of Borga’s novels. So he did. He called me a day later, even more desperate – they’re sold out everywhere. Even Amazon had no copies. Anyone who lives to see the next week can see just how big a publisher’s check Borga received.

Borga was a God. I do not say this lightly. It’s not just that he won a Nobel Prize – it’s that he has written seventeen novels, all of them masterpieces, twenty-six short-stories, all of them masterpieces, nine plays, all of them also masterpieces, and two-hundred and twenty-four poems, all of them, as well, perfect. I do not know how much imperfection Borga had to wade through to get there. But wherever he is, that is where I want to be. At the supple age of twenty-nine, when he hit his stride, it never let up. Not once. There is no slack in Borga’s career. Every writer should model themselves after Borga. He was, at last, the wall through which all writers must pass, and the wall has no doors, it must be climbed. So I read, and I read, and I sought his gold, the gold he had buried in language, the mental sparks that ignited the spirit to sing, not to drudge along in a dismal tune.

The trials began. I watched them unfold on YouTube livestreams. They never showed us the executions, only the machines of judgement and the people passing through, long metal claws clamped on the rounds of their heads. Once the examination was concluded, and the result was shown, the livestream shifted to a new gorgeous actress, a new young woman, a new bespectacled man, seated with his or her eyes closed, thinking, tears rolling down cheeks, conjuring up the most beautiful thoughts, images of magnificence and splendor, the finest poetry, all their souls were working to weave majesty through the loom. And as soon as the test was over, and a pair of eyes shot up, gasping for approval, the camera switched to someone who had just begun the test.

So we had no idea who lived and who died, or how many got through and how many were killed. It was a total black box. After an hour, I shut off the livestream. I’d seen enough faces, the faces of my heroes, cinematic, literary, musical and entrepreneur, sobbing as they worked their brains to produce greatness. It wasn’t enough. I knew, none of it was enough. Even the genius Brahmma looked like death, no faith in his thoughts, sitting down in the chair with grit teeth, his jowls warped by stress and hate.

Days went by, and tabloids began to report: “The actress Gaincarla Solo has disappeared! Surely she was mediocre!” A new headline every day: “Tech magnate Frankas Gipolio has not been back to his apartment in days, says maid, he is reported dead!”

The great went first, and it was a bloodbath. The great weren’t so great. Us ordinary people had another two weeks to study, to hone our grey matter, to prepare. Personally, I was working on a little skit. I had an image playing through my soul, a miniature day dream, of a host of Indian soldiers roaring down white rapids in bear furs, alongside an open snow valley of gorgeous creatures on either side, strange and fantastic monstrosities, camels with the heads of hammerhead sharks suspended upon their tiny necks, elephants with towers rising from their backs, their feet on enormous hooves. I saw brass and bronze lanterns carried at the pinnacles of these towers, and birds, white and enormous pelicans, circling the tops of the towers as the Indians sailing by watched and smiled, copying down sketches in their notebooks, discovering the world anew.

And then it hit me – this was the river scene from Jurassic Park III, where they’re rafting alongside a bunch of brachiosaurs. All I’ve done is replace the characters from the film with fur-coated Indians, and the dinosaurs with my own amalgamations of strange beasthood. Once I made this connection, the images curled. The thought lost all originality. It was a rip-off of an OK scene from a third-rate movie.

I began to pray.

Alfredo called me one night while I was out walking, listening to Kanye West.

“The authors have gone,” he told me.

My neck stiffened. “And?”

“Borga.”

I paused. I stopped at the edge of a red-soaked alleyway, paper lanterns hanging from ebon eaves, holding my phone to my ear.

“He’s dead?”

“Yeah.”

My blood went cold. There was not even an original phrase in my heart to describe my own suffering at the death of my idol, the man who caused all this in the first place.

“You’re shitting me,” I said.

“It happened really suddenly. He got rushed to the front of the line. They showed the full thing, because he was supposed to pass with flying colors. They had a monitor tied up to his brain. They even showed the monitor on livestream. His mind went blank. All we could see was white. There was nothing there. Every few seconds, some image would begin to reverberate around the edges, some semblance of a thought. A word might begin to form on the inlet of his imagination. But it never came to pass. For twenty whole minutes, Borga sat, wide-eyed, the contraption on his head, and couldn’t think of a single thing. He was taken away, and he was probably killed.”

“No…”

“The CCE thanked him for all he’d done, but they said that, probably, they would replace him with Santino Carlo, the novelist who passed an hour earlier, and who had written ten books, all of which were pretty good, and which, perhaps, might have been even better than Borga’s-”

I tossed my phone hard on the cobblestone.

I was never tested by the CCE. The examinations were ended the next day, in the autumn of Rome, when the head of the party, the fat old bastard in the wheelchair, thought about spaghetti and a woman’s tits for twenty straight minutes, with random appearances of the n-word, and at last was removed from the machine and huddled off somewhere to hide. They wouldn’t kill him, and they didn’t kill Borga either. But the embarrassment of the whole spectacle allowed the Unionists to beat them the next fall in an election and usher in a ban on all brain-reading technology. Maybe it was a luddite move. But Dr. Jorge Vorhes and the men from Tesla went back home, and the CCE was disgraced, and the whole event was written about in the foreign press as another glorious failure of a fascist group to immanetize the eschaton and split apart the human species into a grand Ubermensch off-world and the low of us who remained grounded in Rome in autumn.

Those who passed the examination still held a kind of egotism about it. Their careers were more successful, after, than those that had lost. No record label would turn down artists who had made it. Creativity, it seemed, had been given a definite standard. But then again, those that had lost died anyway, with only two exceptions. The author Borga and the party leader, who died of an aneurism the next May.

So only Borga was alive to have failed the examination and survive. And I, around the time I was thirty-five, was able to sell a manuscript and published a decent novel that sold decently well. I also worked for a tabloid to supplement my income, and I was sent off to interview Borga, nearly a full decade after he had been jailed for cooperation with the fascists and indicted for eugenic crimes against humanity, a new and recent stipulation placed in international law.

The UN Human Rights Council had agreed that judging a person’s humanity based on their inherent ability was the definition of fascism. After all, no person could control their own thoughts, their own ability to weave up gold in the fine pink fibers of their dusty brains. It was unrealistic and cruel to judge human beings based on ability. This was stamped into law, and corporations judging prospective employees based on ability would be seen as little more than champions of eugenic evil.

I talked to Borga through a glass wall, where he clung to the phone, my former idol, and he told me he had written four-hundred books since he had failed the examination. My eyes buckled, and saw nothing for an instant. Four-hundred? Mad, a light in his eyes, he told me, yes, absolutely, he had written four-hundred novels and every last one of them were his best novel yet, trumped only by the next. But the guards in the prison were not allowing him to disseminate them or even leak them to the press.

He had contacted a friend of his at the newspaper where I worked, and had asked if he could arrange some kind of deal to leak at least one of his new books, one of his treasure pile, to me, and have me bring it to the world. He said that the guard listening to our phone call right now was in on it. The guard had been a former fascist, and loved Borga.

The former fascists all coalesced around one topic – competency. Isn’t it right, they would argue, that the most competent people should rule the world? That the great and the wide should prevail over the small and the narrow? I couldn’t disagree with their logic. I could only curdle at where it took me.

When I sat down with Borga, I only asked him one question: “Why did you fail the examination? After all you’d written, why were you unable to think of a single word?”

Borga, his old eyes and fat face illuminated, only smiled. “Sometimes, when you abuse the powers of God, they are taken from you. That was one of those times. God was sick of me. And I suppose, really, I was sick of myself too.”

I thanked him, got up, wordlessly, and left the hall. There was no interview. There was nothing, really, to say. On my way out, a burly bearded guard handed me a sealed manila folder with a packet of papers inside. A dense brick of printer paper that I knew was filled with magnificent words, truth, beauty and Godhood.

I stepped out into the cold rural air, the orange leaves suspended in the glittering light of a fading sun, the cold mountains surrounding us, only the green grass and the pavement holding the lost splendor of shed leaves. I looked to the book. I considered, for a long time, what I would do with it. I didn’t know. Really, I didn’t know.

At last, when I got home, I had some understanding. I crossed out Borga’s name, on the title page, and wrote my own beneath it. The title was beautiful – A New Symphony. I wrote my own name, Jose Alvarez, beneath it. And I began, methodically, to re-type the novel into my laptop, under my own name, and every last word I stole, and made my own, and I became Borga, and Borga was dead, and I had inherited his corpse.

When I took it to my publisher, he read the opening page intently for about five minutes, then looked up at me.

“This is Borga.”

My heart sank. I clutched the manila folder to my chest.

“No it isn’t,” I lied.

He chuckled, shoving the manuscript back across his desk. “Yes, it is. This is something Borga wrote. You can tell instantly. Honestly, Alvarez, I should kick you out of the literary world forever for this. It’s really a disgrace to envy someone else like that. But I think I’ll give you a break. This is a trying time for us all. Still, how’d you get something written by Borga? That’s an interesting achievement in itself.”

I swallowed. My throat was too dry to swallow. I caked in the desert of my pride.

“You need to offer us something that’s yours,” he told me, shaking his head. “You can’t just be an imitator forever. Maybe it worked for your first novel, for the one after that – but it won’t work forever. You have to think of something original. Really, genuinely new. You’re aping others’ styles and it’s embarrassing.

“God, it’s times like this when I think the fascists were right. Too many mediocre writers, too many copy-cats. Too many influences, no original thoughts. Train your mind, Alvarez. Think of something unique. Then I’ll take a look at it. But not this.

“This theft, what you’ve done here today – this is pathetic.”

 

Alexander Blum is a freelance writer on mysticism and politics. He has a website and a novel.

 

twitter: @AlexanderBlum10

“RSVP” by Michael O’Neill

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No one came to my tenth birthday party. Mother and I awoke at eight in the morning to start setting everything up. I was hardly big enough to carry a wooden picnic table, but I was able to drag it across the lawn and place it by the front walkway. Dad fumed about the tracks I left behind and how I tore up his grass. Mother draped ribbons and streamers along the tree branches and lifted a piñata over our heads. We finished prepping by 11 and waited patiently for everyone’s scheduled arrival at noon.

The Dudleys backed out last second, and Tom and Johnny from the cul-de-sac were grounded by their parents. My cousins Jane and Elisa came down ill from eating too much pizza, and thus never showed. I grew nervous and a little sad when two o’clock rolled around and still no one appeared. I mean, I never expected the Tanners or the Wilsons to show up, but I would have settled for a few neighborhood kids to come, even that big, ugly kid Ross.

By six in the evening the day had lost most of its shimmer and the sun grew more and more tired. Mother and I sat at the picnic table and had picked clean most of the cake. The two of us, together, like sad storefront owners begging for customers. We both stood and took down the piñata, unpinned the tails from the donkey, brought all the banners inside, and placed them back in a box labeled Jacob’s 11th Birthday.

 

Michael O’Neill is a fiction and poetry writer residing in Chicago. His work has appeared in Maudlin House, WhiskeyPaper, the Journal of Microliterature, Unbroken Journal and Great Lakes Review, among others.

twitter: @mt_oneill20

“Camping” by Michael O’Neill

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She had tried for months to get me to go. I’d refused because I didn’t want to head down that path. I didn’t want to do the whole couples retreat thing to save our marriage. I was already out. I had been for years.

In the end there would be a death knell, a final straw. She could tell it was coming and Wisconsin was her savior.

“I made eggs,” she said, passing me a plate.

“Ketchup?”

“No. I didn’t even think about it. I could run to the store. There’s a little place on site.”

“No.”

She had this adventure planned out by the hour. Canoeing at 11. Hiking for the afternoon. Campfire in the evening. I could tell her now and be done with it. I could wait till she goes out to the car, then wander away and make everyone believe I was lost or injured somewhere in the woods.

 

 

“Jackets! Everyone good to go? Alright, we’re gonna push off slowly, then that first current will catch us and pull us downriver,” the instructor said.

What kind of guy wears a neon life jacket for a living and enjoys spending his time with strangers from the suburbs and losers looking to escape their shitty lives? Why is he in this little boat with me and my wife?

The first couple of waves were nothing. The tail end of the canoe would swing out, the bottom taking on a little water, but we kept moving. I was expecting waterfalls or maybe falling rocks.

But no. It was just me, Jan and this guy. Every now and then I’d rock the boat a little, or try to stand up just to throw a little fear into the action. I didn’t like this guy leading the way and telling us what to do. You’re not gonna save my marriage with a wooden paddle.

Jan was having the time of her life; her face said it. She’d turn around and peak back at me to see if I was smiling or not. I’d just look away like I didn’t notice.

I could see up ahead a small channel where the river narrowed and the rocks were larger, sharper. The current was forced into an opening, breaking against the rocks. Jan went to adjust her helmet when the underside of the canoe flipped over.

10 seconds went by before I finally reemerged, my torn life jacket barely able to keep me above the surface. All I could see were three paddles floating on top of the water but no sign of Jan or the guy. The canoe rocked back and forth. The instructor was trapped underneath, his leg bent. I swam over and tried to upright the boat, but I had no traction and was swallowing water. I went under and tried to free him, tugging at his jacket, but the water had begun to flood into his nose. I couldn’t tell if he had stopped moving or not, but I left him there.

Jan, I could see, was struggling against a rock about 20 feet away. She was screaming, but I could only hear the sound of her hands slapping against the water. She was trying to hold on so she wasn’t pulled further downriver where the water deepened, blood covering half her face.

We made eye contact and it was almost effortless how we both knew.

She tried once more to call for me before she slipped and her body was dragged underneath. I waded motionless, braced on a tree branch closer to shore.

The police confirmed within an hour that both of them were gone. I asked the cops to leave me be. I would pack my things and leave in the morning, head home.

We never got to go hiking that afternoon but I still made a fire out behind the little summer house, just as Jan had planned. I tried to start it myself but I gave up after five minutes and began spraying gasoline on top of crumpled newspapers and threw a match.

It was peaceful, sitting there alone with my stick held over the fire. The flames turning green then orange then a soft yellow. I could stare into them and try to imagine a shape, her face maybe. I could try to see my future in the streaks of black smoke. I could try to bring her back. I could try these things.

And yet, seeing the fire struggle for oxygen, trying to hang on before succumbing to the night, was almost too easy. Letting her go was that easy.

I drove back to Illinois the next morning at sunrise. It wasn’t difficult. I tried to conjure up a meaning for the beautifully sunlit September day, locate some sort of metaphor for the long ride home. And I know this is where I was supposed to feel something. But I didn’t.

Many years ago, I too had died. But I did it slowly, hovering above the flatline until I was shocked awake by her absence. How final it was.

 

Michael O’Neill is a fiction and poetry writer residing in Chicago. His work has appeared in Maudlin House, WhiskeyPaper, the Journal of Microliterature, Unbroken Journal and Great Lakes Review, among others.

twitter: @mt_oneill20

“Bottleneck Effect” by Michael O’Neill

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(originally published by Bottlecap Press 2016)

I’ve only recently come to understand the Bottleneck Effect, which occurs when a segment of a population is alienated from the rest of its pack and thus lives in seclusion, creating generations and generations of offspring that begin to differ from the rest of its original species. It’s often found in marine mammals due to the violent nature of hurricanes, as evidenced by the African elephant seal, which nearly went extinct. It can sometimes be seen in large groups of sloths, which are slow to adapt to their surroundings, the runts even more so. If you’re handy with a magnifying glass and are vigilant enough to brave the dangers of the rainforest, you will notice the many different pigmentations of insects that have devolved from their original beauty, ant-sized nonetheless. Or, if you ever make your way to Fairfield, Nebraska, you can come to 621 Henderson St, into the back room on the left with the door tightly locked and examine the human boy that lives there. Notice the stale wallpaper, the dust-ridden baseboards, and the stained carpet of his habitat. Brush your hand overtop his head, touch his cheek with your gentlest finger, feel how odd he is. How strange and different he seems. Please do this. Please.

Michael O’Neill is a fiction and poetry writer residing in Chicago. His work has appeared in Maudlin House, WhiskeyPaper, the Journal of Microliterature, Unbroken Journal and Great Lakes Review, among others.

 

twitter: @mt_oneill20

“Reflections So Much Like Starlight” by Chris Panatier

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Susan pulled the mosquito shield onto her forehead to get a better look into the cave, but they were on her in seconds. She thrust it back down and spit the insects from her lips.

Back in the tent, she fired a lantern and unearthed Dr. Novello’s notebook. On the cover were her trademark maxims and aphorisms, scrawled there as she worked to save the world from malarial collapse.

 

Oremos para que la Tierra perdone.

Pray for the Earth to forgive.

Aprende la humildad o pereces.

Learn humility or perish.

 

Susan had no quarrel with the sentiments, unvarnished though they were. If she had, she wouldn’t be crawling through caves in search of microscopic glowworms hypothesized to possess humankind’s last hope.

The Herald Moth was a Russian nesting doll of parasitology. Its gut served as an incubator for roundworms called nematodes, that, in turn, carried a rare strain of bioluminescent bacteria known to be toxic to certain insects. The question was whether or not it would work on the new breed of mosquitos that swarmed the globe. Doctor Valeria Novello had come to the cave seeking the answer, but had likely perished inside.

Susan flipped through the pages for her mentor’s observations on the moth’s life cycle. Near the end of its dormant period, the worms would erupt from their hosts and drift through the cave in a poisonous bloom. The notes, thankfully, were meticulous. The current dormancy had two more months. It was safe to enter.

Susan stripped to her shorts and undershirt, bathed herself in repellant, and donned her bulky mosquito suit. She turned to the first blank page and scribbled a note:

5/12/26: Went in. -Dr. Susan Boyd

A gibbous moon bounced light through the cave’s moist interior, allowing her to see for the first thirty yards. Night vision optics led the way further in as artificial light could interrupt the dormancy cycle. She marked her progress on the walls in chalk X’s. Dr. Novello’s own signposts were absent.

At a narrow tunnel she knelt to look inside. Novello lay face down mere feet from the opening. Susan crawled in and grasped the fabric at her mentor’s shoulders. The body moved easily, its flesh having become food for the cave.

With the remains clear of the passage, she took to all-fours and started through, staying low to avoid the miniature stalactites that hung from above like rotting teeth. Farther in, the tunnel narrowed. She tried to squeeze through but caught a snag. A machine gun pop of threads, and the suit was buzzing.

She launched clear, completing the gash down her spine. Mosquitos settled upon the skin of her shoulders and the tunnel echoed her screams as a thousand needles found home. Delirious, she collided with a knuckle of rock and the optics sputtered to black.

The tunnel emptied into a chamber, and she rolled across the sand like a person on fire. The ground swept some of the insects clear and she tore away the suit to release the rest. Blind, her skin crawled in anticipation of another wave, but none came.

She gathered herself, shuffled to a wall, and probed the rock. Its contours conjured visions. Faces and ghosts. Her father and sister, two nephews—even Dr. Novello, who had made Susan promise not to follow on what was surely a suicide mission. The memory brought a smile—the promise had been a charade for both of them. Susan was always going to follow if Novello failed—and Novello knew it.

Her thumb happened on a dozing moth. From a pocket she produced a scalpel and a sample tube preloaded with enzymes. She felt her way to the centerline of its abdomen and made a small incision. A luminous blob breached and dribbled into the tube. That was it. She wouldn’t know if the bacteria reacted with the enzymes until it was back in the light of the tent. The lid snapped shut and she set her mind on re-finding the tunnel. A touch of lightheadedness came and went.

The rock undulated as it passed beneath her palms, and again the shapes played tricks with her mind. Were they tricks? Something felt different now. The forms—the rocks themselves, she realized, were no longer imagined. A bluish glow kindled, filtering down to grace the walls. She briefly thought she was outdoors, the reflections so much like starlight. Her gaze tracked skyward.

The stars were falling.

She splashed through a shallow pool in the center of the floor, her limbs growing weak and clumsy. Short of the tunnel, she collapsed in an anesthetic haze. The dormancy period had ended and the bloom was upon her. How could this be? Novello’s notes had suggested that it was safe to enter.

It was snowing in the cave now, tiny flakes of sapphire, and her skin sparkled in the dust of a billion worms that held no malice but gave their poison nonetheless. They lit the cave like dawn, drawing shadows down the walls. In the new light, a patch of mottled chalk emerged.

Nosotros éramos el azote.

Bacteria pulsed within nematode bellies, forming bright constellations across the cavern’s dome. Susan sipped air into her ever-constricting lungs and forced the enzyme tube toward the light. A bittersweet smile. The experiment had worked. They had the answer.

Her head lolled to the side, sending tears to the loam and her eyes to the chalk, the words scrawled there an unrepentant confession of the last human betrayal.

We were the scourge.

 

Chris’ short fiction has appeared in “Ghost Parachute”, “The Ginger Collect Magazine”, “Fiction on the Web”, and “Tales to Terrify”, with forthcoming work in “Trembling With Fear”. He also draws album covers for tiny metal bands. He lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife and daughter. Plays himself on twitter @chrisjpanatier

“Before the Fall Guy” by David O’Donoghue

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Trading in junk derivatives and as yet publicly unconfirmed insider trading..

I tried to focus on the words on my cracked phone screen but the sounds of thumping steps and slaps kept jarring me out of my concentration. I looked up to find Stephen had gotten out of his chair and was pacing a short distance up and down the hallway, slapping himself repeatedly.

“What are you at?” I asked with an exasperated exhale. He turned on the ball of one foot. Tears were taking root in the bottom of his blue eyes and his cheeks were now splotchy and red with the risen blood.

“Stanislavski man. You ever see these guys when they go on TV? Apologising and all this. Always with a face like a smacked arse and like they’re about to ball. You have to really live in that skin if you want people to buy it. What does it say on the website…give them…catharsis”.

I looked at him. It was pleasant sometimes to be surrounded by my fellow theatre graduates in my new line of work. And sometimes, at times like these I thought, they’re eccentric devotion to what was always referred to as ‘the craft’ was just irritating.

“How can you be sure anyone has ever seen them on TV?”

Stephen murmured something like agreement and took a seat again. He rubbed at his whiskers. They’d be taking a couple hundred off for that attempt to maintain the art-student identity.

“Mr Cowen…the studio is ready for you now!”

Neither Stephen nor myself took our heads out of our phones  to see the woman in the pant-suit peering out the doorway at us. Our thumbs flicked furiously through the interview prep (“I apologise unreservedly” “I will be taking time to be with my family” “It is a systemic and not individual issue”) to hit the point where the bolded, main biographical details of the case would bump against the soft yellow branding strip at the top of the app’s windows labelled “Pat-Si”. Mine eventually bumped to a halt and the canary-coloured corporate logo gave a little wiggle against the block reading Name, Age, Occupation and Scandal.

“That’s me. I’ll be out in a bit bud”.

I doffed my phone slightly at Stephen who had a look of minor relief on his face. Not his time to sweat on the boards just yet. He could have a bit more time to hone his character with whatever Marlon Brando crap he wanted to indulge in. I tipped the phone, gave some of the words a little flick and brushed up on a couple of trickier points. Confident enough I slid the phone into the right breast pocket of the crisp pink business shirt I hadn’t quite yet learned how to comfortably wear. Had to make sure it peeked out just a bit. The public had to get a bit of flash with their mea culpas for this thing to really work right. I allowed the pant suited woman to lead me into the barebones studio.

In the centre was a stool pooled in harsh lights. Beside it was a little dresser where a glass of water from a branded bottle I didn’t recognise stood. I took a seat and squinted as the lights glared into my eyes. The pant-suited woman came over an affixed an ear piece to my left ear, given that the right one had a bluetooth headset that had been a last minute addition on my walk to the performance. An excellent touch even if I did say so myself. The woman’s fingers were all I could see silhouetted in the harsh lights, shadows dropping away steadily into the light and counting down as the ear piece crackled. And then it was show time.

“We go live now to Reginald Cowen, Senior Executive at Hibernian Finance to explain exactly how this all could have gone disastrously wrong…”

And for 5 minutes I shut myself away in a little cavity in my chest. And Reginald Cowen came to live in my skin. Not the actual Reginald Cowen of course, who was no doubt on some yacht or at some occult sex party, indulging in all manner of bacchanalian pleasure as he arranged for the swiftest possible legal resolution to his problems. But the Reginald Cowen that the seething mass of the public could rage at was sat in a little study on the outskirts of the city, wearing my skin and sweating my sweat. He was running his palm nervously through my hair and hinting at maybe crying my tears in the tensest moments. I, the unemployed theatre graduate, could give the public the Reginald Cohen they wanted: a blood sacrifice. And after they’d ripped out my still-beating heart, which was Reginald’s heart now, they would offer it to the setting sun on the 6’oclock news and go looking for the next sacrifice.

Eventually the news anchor bid me farewell and the possession ended. I turned and swished the whole glass of water back in one go. It was pure and sweet and classy. The kind of water Reginald Cowen drank, I mised. I stepped back out into the hall to see Stephen sitting there, looking edgy.

“Have you seen the latest job?” he asked, his eyes wide and white as a deer’s tail.

I pulled out my phone and noticed one new posting from the Pat-Si app. I saw three words that made my stomach roll with what I’ll tell you was disgust to preserve some dignity.

Child molestation ring

Apartments were so expensive then. Especially ones that weren’t in danger of being swallowed by the sea. Maybe Chloe and I could finally afford to have kids? I tapped “Accept Role” with my thumb and thought about what colour we were going to paint the nursery.

 

David O’Donoghue is an Irish author, journalist and activist currently resident in Limerick City. His fiction has been published in The Singularity, Sci-Phi Journal, The Runt, Flight Writing and Tales From the Forest. He won the 2015 Kerry’s Eye creative writing competition and was shortlisted for the 2015 Hot Press Creative Writing Award and the 2016 Penguin Ireland Short Story Award. His short story “Beautiful Along the Break” made the Top 6 Shortlist in the 2016 Aeon Literary Award. His is presently contributing editor at fiction/art/political essay zine the Lunatic Soviet. See him do a bad impression of weird Twitter @DavidJODonoghue

“A Gap Where Love Used to Be” by S. D. Jones

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‘Slow down!’

‘Okay.’

‘Slow down.’

‘I heard you.’

‘Where did it come from?’

‘The ocean. Down there. It’s pretty common around this area.’

‘But so suddenly? There were green fields over there a second ago, and those great grey cliffs. Now I can’t see anything. Even those sheep have disappeared.’

‘I can’t see a damn thing.’

‘We should stop somewhere.’

‘Where? There’s nothing out here. And if another car comes barreling down this road?’

‘There might be a village?’

‘Like the last one?’

‘Stewart?’

‘Stewart doesn’t know.’

‘That’s true, I’m afraid.’

‘Shit.’

‘There’s a light up ahead.’

‘Thank god.’

A wind was whipping at the side of the car as it inched forward along the narrow road. The driver, Raymond Woods, was hunched forward over the steering wheel, peering out at the mist. A hundred metres ahead a lamp shone like a beacon in the grey haze. Beyond, its irresolute outline just visible, was a small stone building set into a steep hill. The car wheels churned in the gravel as Raymond pulled up outside the building. The other two occupants were out of the car and had run to the small front door of the building before he had had a chance to switch off the headlights.

Inside the lights shone feebly, the bare bulbs flickering and giving off an amber glow that cast long shadows into the corners of the room. The cold had swept in with the three strangers and filled the small room. Raymond managed to pull the door closed and the three stood huddled in silence.

‘Should we be here?’ asked Caroline Woods. She was a petite woman, pretty with short-cut hair. Her cheeks were flushed red from the cold and the wind. Raymond put his hand on the small of her back.

‘It’s a pub. I think,’ said Stewart. He is older than the other two; his hair, cut short and tight, sis greying at the temples. He stepped further forward into the room.

A door opened and a thick-set woman appeared at the back of the room, her grey-white hair pushed up in a bee’s-nest on her head. She stared at the newcomers for a moment and then walked slowly behind a bar set against the back of the wall. Raymond took Caroline’s hand, ready to pull her back outside and to the car. He hoped that they could escape, and maybe leave Stewart there alone with the forbidding looking woman.

‘Crazy weather, eh?’ Stewart called out.

Raymond tried not to wince. He was cold and tired, but sharper than either of these discomforts was the constant grating of Stewarts forced cheerfulness, his brash arrogance and false entitlement.

The woman shook her head noncommittally.

‘It’s good to be out of the cold at least. Nice and warm in here. I’m Stewart. Stewart Grandley. And these are Caroline and Raymond Woods. What’s your name?’

Caroline put a warning hand on her husband’s arm.

‘Travers. Mrs Travers,’ the woman finally said, ‘What can I get you?’

Raymond move up to the bar. A drink might help.

‘I’ll have something in a short glass. Whatever’s going,’ he said. The woman grunted and pulled a bottle off of the shelf behind her.

‘You aren’t from around here,’ she said. It wasn’t a question. Not hostile but not particularly friendly either.

‘No, I guess we aren’t,’ said Stewart, moving forward until he was standing directly behind Raymond. ‘I’m from the States originally, but I live just north of London. These two — all the way from Australia of all places — are visiting. I’m showing them around.’

Raymond sat down on a high stool and cupped his drink gratefully when it came. He tried not to listen to the what the others were saying, but it was difficult. Like trying to ignore a persistent itch.

‘Stewart’s a friend of my aunt’s, he’s been very helpful during our holiday,’ Caroline said. She stood with her hand resting on Raymond’s shoulder. She seemed to be trying to force him to relax, which made the feeling of tension all the more unbearable.

‘Helpful, yeah,’ Raymond said.

‘Not a good day for sight-seeing,’ said Stewart.

‘No, no I guess not.’

‘What can I get you?’

‘What’s good?’

‘It’s all good.’

Stewart pointed at a tap.

‘If that one’s good and local, that’d be just fine. Caroline? Two of those.’

The woman filled two large, grease-smudged glasses. The beer was thick and dark, almost black in colour. It swirled sickeningly with each heavy pull of the tap.

‘Stout eh? Now that’s more like it.’ Stewart said. He tried to hide a shiver of distaste at the acridity of the drink.

‘So, um, Mrs Travers, is there anything you can tell us about this area?’ Caroline asked.

‘I guess that depends on what you would want to know.’

‘I’d like to know what you can tell me. Legends, folk tales, any good stories that may be told around these parts.’

‘I’m afraid I can’t help you with that. There’s a cinema on the mainland, not two hours drive from here.’

There was a lull. Raymond tried not to laugh.

‘Stories huh? You want to know what us backwards, isolated, sheep-shaggers tell each other on the long winter nights?’

The three turned. The voice had come from a dark lounge area to their right that they had taken to be empty. From behind a high chair-back stood a short, stout, grey-bearded man, his face lined and weather-worn. He pushed his flat cap up from over his eyes and gave the three newcomers a wide smile. Raymond noticed the shine of two gold-capped teeth, bright against  a mouth that was otherwise the grey of the ocean during a storm. He was was holding an empty glass which he brought up to the bar with exaggerated care. Stewart shifted back on his heels slightly as the man bushed past him.

Mrs Travers took the empty glass and re-filled it with the same milky-black beer, placing it gently back down on the bar.

‘Don’t bother these people George,’ she said.

‘Don’t mind me. I’m just taking the piss.’ There was a burr in the small man’s voice, a lilt that played softly over his vowels.

‘We don’t mind,’ said Caroline.

‘Though it is true that we are quite seperate from the big world out here,’ he continued, ‘and isolation does breed strange stories. So what do you want to know about our simple, shit-stained, backwards folklore?’

‘That’s some language,’ Stewart said.

‘The extra words are free of charge.’

‘Just any stories that are specific to the island,’ said Caroline, ignoring the exchange. ‘This is fact-finding mission of sorts. I’m studying recurring variants of common folktales for my doctoral thesis.’

‘Caroline’s an academic,’ said Stewart. Was there a note of pride in his voice? It wasn’t his damn achievement. Not that it was Raymond’s either. But he was proud of her, no matter what had happened.

‘I guessed as much. Hmm. Fact-finding doesn’t sound quite right. Nothing factual about most folktales. So you want to know if we have any island version of Cinderella or Bluebeard, only known to us villagers?’

‘Yes, that’s absolutely right!’ Caroline said. Her cheeks were glowing a brighter red now and there was excitement in her voice. It was an excitement that had always made her attractive to those around her, who wanted to share in her enthusiasm. Stewart and the other man leant in closer to her.

‘Well we don’t have anything like that. Nothing that I can think of right now that you wouldn’t be able to get out of a book. Though you might be interested in a story of immortality?’

‘Who wouldn’t be?’

‘Yes, there is something about the idea of cheating death. Better than the alternative, I suppose. ’

‘What do you mean vampires and werewolves, those sorts of things?’ asked Raymond.

‘No, nothing so commercial as that. No, the story I wanted to tell is one that they used to tell here on the island, back in the day when we knew something more about these things.’ He took a long drink. ‘It had to do with an old well that sits just up the road from here, on a track that leads along the hillside. Nothing to look at, really, just an old well, walled up in stone, but it must have been important in some way. People say that it used to stand at the centre of a village, though there’s no-one left to tell you who dug it or to what the water was used for.

‘What they can tell you, though, and what you might find interesting, is that on days like this when the mist lies thick on the island, the water in the well shines in a very unusual way. If you go and look down into it you might see something that resembles mercury; you’ll see a reflection that looks so clear that some swear they can see the future in it.’

‘So what’s that got to do with immortality?’

‘Well the thing about the well is that it is supposed to be able to gift immortality. Or at least longevity. Some such thing.’

‘How?’ asked Caroline. Her shining eyes, her slight smile; she was entranced, but whether it was because of the story or its potential use in a dissertation was unclear.

‘Through sacrifice. There’s always an element of sacrifice in these stories isn’t there?’

‘I’m sure Caroline could give us dozens of examples,’ said Stewart.

‘Well the sacrifice you needed to give the well,’ continued the old man, ‘was in fact the sacrifice of self. It was said that if you broke yourself in two and consigned half of yourself to the well, then the other part of you, the part that was left, would live on forever. Forever, that is, as long as it remained physically on the island. Immortality. Or a sort of stasis. A broken thing existing for all eternity.’

‘But how is it possible to break yourself in two?’ asked Caroline. She made a moue with her lips and shook her head slightly. ‘That sounds horrible.’

‘Ah, well it’s not what you think, you’re not discarding limbs, no, it goes deeper than that. You take your love, your dreams, your expectations and all the things that make you strive to grow older and more complex and you throw them away. Down the well. That’s about the long and short of it’

‘Doesn’t sound very tempting.’

‘Doesn’t it?’ said Raymond. He was thinking not about the promise of longer life but more about the other part of the story, the side effect of discarding a part of yourself. Weren’t there parts of himself that he wanted to get rid of? Or people. His jealousy would be one. And whatever spawned that jealousy. There was something to the idea of being able to rid yourself of emotional turmoil and upheaval. Maybe if he didn’t love Caroline quite so much — he could see himself living in just one place, having a routine that never changed, going to the same pub, and never feeling too much any which way.

The small man was still speaking:

‘The older folk used also say that many of the people around here had already given their half to the well, which is why so many of us seem so lost, morose and melancholy, and why no one and nothing ever seems to change around here.’ He chuckled to himself, went as if to take a drink and then putting his glass back down on the bar. ‘As far as myths go it’s not by a long way the most imaginative, but its still there and there is something about the well that draws people… and pushes them away. You need some strength to walk that path.’

‘You’ll never see someone piss in it and that should tell you something,’ said Mrs Travers.

‘Don’t ruin my story Mary.’

‘It’s just a fucking hole. Pay no attention to him and just keep to your drink. Nothing else can keep you alive like being drunk.’

Raymond nodded. His drink was good and he wanted more. He suddenly wanted a lot more. He wants to keep on drinking here, in the warm, and everything else forgotten, pushed away.

‘Might be worth a visit,’ said Stewart. ‘When the mist has cleared.’

‘They say it’s in the mist that the well is most powerful. It’s something about boundaries and the edges.’

‘Even so,’ said Caroline. ‘I think I’ll stay in here for now.’

Raymond looked across at the man, and then to Caroline and Stewart. They were standing close together, her shoulder pressed up against him. He saw that entranced look in her eyes again.

‘I think I’ll go have a look,’ he said.

‘Are you sure, Raymond? It’s awfully cold out there.’

‘Yeah don’t worry about me, I’ll be back soon.’

Before reaching the door he looked back at the others: Stewart and Caroline were still arguing with the strange old man, the woman, Mrs. Travers, interjecting occasionally.

The wind woke him as he stepped outside. It was colder and darker than when they had entered the bar, and the fresh air stung his eyes. There was an aroma of the ocean and of frost hanging in the air. For a moment Raymond stopped, lost in thought. It was a smell of his childhood, of playing out in the cold in winter, of bright mornings and long evenings in front of the fire. But the memories transfigured and now there was just the previous few weeks — meeting Steward in London, and all that came after; time spent driving and arguing, visiting quaint towns and doing all the things that he couldn’t stand but that Stewart and Caroline seemed to enjoy together.

He stopped thinking then and looked around for a path. In the glow of the street lamp he saw nothing but the car and the mist. He walked in the general direction that the man had indicated, his footsteps making long grating sounds in the gravel. Maybe he’d piss in the well, in the way that that peculiar woman, Mrs Travers, had said that no-one did. That would be something. He could tell the story at parties. People would cringe and they might think less of him, but they’d remember the story and they’d remember him. Yes, it’d be fitting.  It’d be a fuck you to Stewart who brought them up here, to the stories the two of them had searched for together, to Caroline’s interest in them — to this god-forsaken rock and the others like it, and to the whole damn trip. He tried to smile but the self-satisfaction wasn’t there and his face fell into a look of empty melancholy. No, he wouldn’t piss in the well, but he was out now and he had to go see it. If just to be the one who saw the damn thing while Stewart stayed warm inside the pub.

He found a small dirt path that led up the hillside and into the mist, it looked like it might be the one the man had described. It wound up and around the hill, a thin line of dirt and mud that clung to his shoes as he walked. Powder white stones like bones slashed up from the ground; he slid on one and stumbled, landing on one knee and smearing his jeans in mud. There was a movement and Raymond turned to see a set of three rabbits huddled under a low bush. Two bounded off together, leaving the third to stare blankly at him. It shook out its long ears and and hopped away, unhurried.

There was a bend in the path and around it he could see the ocean; it lay clear and dark through a window in the mist. Out in the distance he could just make out some smaller outcrops of land, dimples of grass and rock fenced by churning waves. And there, to his left, was the well, standing alone on a slight grassy slope. It was an incongruous thing, somehow seeming more solid than the land it stood on, but clearly man-made. There were sheep in the distance but the land around the low well was barren and rough. Up close it didn’t look like much: just a low well built out of the same white, coarse stone that littered the hillside. The old man had likely as not made the whole thing up, he had probably just wanted to hold the attention of a few naïve foreigners, trying to see which of them would be dumb enough to go actually try to find the damn thing. Well it was him alright, but he might as well go look at it, though, see it through.

The wind whipped at his hair and clothes and he shivered as he stepped forward to look down into the well. It was a shallow hole, nothing much. He bent forward, leaning his weight over the rocks. And suddenly he saw that it wasn’t shallow at all, it was in fact deep, somehow cavernously deep, and down in the darkness was a shimmer something — a silver coin of water — scintillating and iridescent. Above Raymond could just make out the mirrored coin of the sun high above behind the clouds. The longer he stood there the more he was entranced by the water in the well. As he watched the water the sun shone brighter and the water appeared to rise up towards him, so that — while the well was still infinitely deep — the silvery liquid looked close enough to touch. He could see himself reflected in it, older but unchanged and completely, utterly, alone. There was something tantalising about the image; he felt the inexplicable desire to swing himself into the hole, to drop down and sink into its depths.

A strange thing to feel, like he was being hypnotised by that depth. There were things there, images that he couldn’t get out of his head. There was Caroline’s hand as it had been the night before when it had brushed the back of Stewart’s at dinner: porcelain white and delicate, full of an electric thrill and a single beguiling promise. Strange how vivid the image was, and how strongly it made him feel. He could feel his love for her rise in his chest, feel it mingle with his suspicion and jealousy until it was all that there was; there was no more biting wind or strange wells. The feeling rose up and bubbled in him until he was drowning in it; he was being torn in two by the gale of everything he had allowed himself to feel.

There was a ripple in the water below and the mist rose, the clouds above covering the sun more completely. The the cold had set in again. What a strange thing to be doing. What was he doing out there in the wind? Why was he standing next to some old well? Why he had left the warmth of the pub, where he could at least be drinking, and therefore doing something worthwhile?

He turned and walked quickly back down the path, slipping occasionally in the mud. Maybe he had drunk his first whisky too quickly. It must have been strong stuff.

There was the light of the streetlamp and the little car sitting there, waiting. The sectioned glass window of the pub window was warped and distorting and through it he could see them still huddled together and seemingly happy. He could see the woman, Mrs Travers, reaching for a bottle and he found himself unaccountably thirsty.

The conversation didn’t break as entered the small room.

‘But how could it ever be worth it to suffer like Tithonus, if it means cheating death?’

Caroline looked up at him as he took his seat. If she saw the change in his face, she didn’t show it.

‘Well it depends, doesn’t it, whether you’re willing to give up the things that make us human, the things that are worth suffering for.’

Raymond signalled to the Mrs Travers. The voices washed over him, the words didn’t seem to mean anything. Caroline’s eyes lit up as she argued, there was that flush in her cheeks and catch in her voice. They were things which had always sent a shiver through him. Strange how he couldn’t feel that now. How now he felt nothing, nothing at all except a throbbing dullness and a need for another drink. He poked at his feelings like at an aching tooth, trying to see if he could still feel the keenness of them. He tried to bring himself to remember what first drew him to Caroline but there was nothing there, just a gap where love used to be.

‘Are you alright young man?’ said the gold-toothed man, leaning over to him. He smelled strongly of stale beer and pipe smoke.

‘Yeah,’ Raymond said. ‘Just tired.’

He was tired. More tired than he had felt in a long time. Maybe he should stop travelling for a little while. He could let Stewart and Caroline get back in the car without him. They probably wouldn’t put up too much of a fight. It wasn’t such a bad island and Mrs Travers might have a spare room. He could stay for a while and do nothing but rest. He did need a rest.

‘How was the well? Did you see your future?’

‘I couldn’t find it,’ Raymond said. He had a drink and turned to look outside the window. The mist had begun to clear, he could see the ocean. Somewhere beyond that deep cerulean expanse was mainland he no longer wanted to see.



S. D. Jones is a Swiss/Australian writer currently living in France. He has recently completed a MSt in Creative Writing at Cambridge University and will soon be starting a PhD in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. Examples of his work can be found at STORGY Magazine, Typishly Literary Journal, Short Fiction Break, The Esthetic Apostle,  Ink & Voices and The Drum Literary Magazine. Voices.outofsightspeech.com