Pantry Prose: The Room Was Bright and Laughing by Sean Cahill-Lemme

He put his hand over mine and it looked so old. “No one will even want them,” I said,

“They’re dated”. He said that wasn’t the point and walked over to the white dresser by your bed.

“Let’s start with her shirts,” he said, and I told him your shirts were in the tall dresser by the window. He put a shaky hand on your bed for support, and I could hear his knees creak as he stood. The last time we were in your room together he could have carried your dresser over his shoulder.

“The top drawer?” he asked.

“No,” I said, “the third down.”

He opened the drawer and pulled out a neat pile of tiny shirts that were so colourful. When he took the shirts out of your drawer, the room changed. It wasn’t how it was the last time you were in it, and so it wasn’t really yours anymore. I started crying, and he came over to me with your shirts and sat down. He said, “We knew this wasn’t going to be easy, Elle, but you’re doing a great job.”

The shirt at the top of the pile was yellow with a little smiling duck on the front. I thought, if only this duck knew—everything in your room seemed so unexpectant of tragedy.

I could see your dad looking at me out of the corner of my eye. He had that same look when he found me with the pills in your closet. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Elle, she’s not here.” He took your shirt from me and went to put it in a black garbage bag.

“No, Christ, no,” I said, “I brought boxes, they’re downstairs.” I went to stand up, but he offered to get them. He left the room and I listened for his footsteps to reach the bottom of the stairs. I stood up and walked to the door and locked it.

On your bedside table there was a framed picture of us. I picked it up and saw from the dust that it had been moved. I heard him coming back upstairs, and then I heard him gently trying at the door handle. “Elle,” he said from behind the door, “come on, let me in.”

“So,” I said, “you have been in here.” He didn’t say anything at first, and I waited for him to deny it, but then he said,

“Once, when I was drunk, but I didn’t take anything.” Then he said, “Elle, you told me I could keep the house if I promised to keep the room just as it was, and I did, I have.”

I knew he was telling the truth because the rest of the house had gone to shambles. There were cracks up the walls, the wood floors were black and warped, a musty smell was coming up through the vents; the whole house was falling apart except for your room. This room was the same, even structurally, like the house was helping to keep his promise too.

I picked up the picture and looked at us. “Hi, sweetheart,” I said to you, “beautiful, beautiful little sweetheart. I never stopped thinking about you for one second,” I said. “I just couldn’t come back here, you know? But I never forgot, no ma’am, and when your dad said that I had moved on, baby, that wasn’t true. I didn’t move on, I just kinda’ kept on surviving. I met another man, I did, and it wasn’t your daddy, I know, but your daddy wasn’t the same after, baby. And this new man, he was as nice a man, as nice as they come. And he gave me your sisters, and all growing up they asked about their big sister, and all growing up I told them about you. Well, they’re a lot older than you are now, and have babies of their own, but you’re always their big sister watching over them, protecting them, I know”.

I put the picture back down. I heard him from behind the door again.

“Elle,” he said.

“Just one more minute,” I said.

The sun was coming through the window, which was strange, you know, because whenever I pictured your room, it was shrouded in gloom. But that’s not how it was, not with that eastern-facing window. The room was bright and laughing, and I remembered how I chose the colours for just that reason.

I opened your door to let him back in. His eyes were red and he kind of shrank away from me. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. He had the boxes folded flat under his arm and said, “It took me a while to find these, flat boxes.” He smiled a little, that crooked smile that you both have. He put the boxes down in the centre of the room and started putting them together. “All to Goodwill?” He asked.

“No,” I said, “but I’m going to mark each of them.” I was staring at the door frame where we had marked your height. I followed the notches inch by inch, and when they stopped at three and a half feet, my eyes kept climbing.

“Okay,” he said, “they’re ready”. He pulled one of the boxes next to the pile of shirts and sat back down. I joined him on the floor, and he said, “So, how far away is Tessa and…” He tried to remember my son in-law’s name. I told him that I didn’t want to talk about anything else outside of your room. He nodded and reached for your shirts, but I stopped him. “Elle,” he said. And I said,

“Can you put them back just how they were? Just for a second, then I promise we will pack everything up.” He nodded and got up and then I said, “Sit down with me after.”

He put your shirts back where they were and stepped away from the dresser. He grunted a little as he squatted down next to me. I took his hand in mine and held it. And the two of us sat there, for a while, in your unchanged room.

Sean Cahill-Lemme was born in Park Ridge, Illinois—yes, he does consider that to be Chicagoland—to a family of raconteurs, the Northside descendants of Erin. He has no problem admitting he’s not the best storyteller in his family (you wouldn’t either if you ever shared a pint with his gramps), but he does believe storytelling can be more than just entertainment after the real work is done.

He has always been hesitant to share his stories, but encouragement from an incredible culture of Chicago writers has convinced him otherwise.

When it comes to writing, Sean puts truth above all else—if readers walk away feeling something real, he will have done his job. Beyond that, he hopes that readers enjoy his stories as much as he has enjoyed writing them.

Pantry Prose: Life of Joy or Fear? by Kerry Barlow

It was time to go back, time to walk again the path that I had walked so many times in my memory across the years, time to try and put the past to sleep.

I remembered that summer so well. It had been long, and sweltering, with days that seemed to go on and on. The day it happened we had all wanted to cool off down by the river. We had congregated at a wide curving stretch where the apparently slow-flow of water suddenly went at breakneck speed as it cascaded over the fifty-foot-tall waterfall.

Nestled down in a red sandstone valley, the river, and its surroundings, could have been so beautiful, if it hadn’t been for the landfill site that ran within a hundred feet alongside the bank where the waterfall smashed into the rubbish-strewn river bed and tumbled away over broken bikes and shopping trolleys. It was the warm mellow sandstone that was, in a way, to blame for what happened. We loved the fact that we could carve our names so easily in the exposed red-rock faces that rose up high above the slow-flowing river before the waterfall, but it was also that softness that let the river carve its character into the rock, a character that was cruel and vicious. The warm glow that filled the valley when the sun shone down upon the red-rocks belied the malevolence of the wicked relationship between water and stone. If they had never met, at that point on earth, or spent so many centuries enmeshed with each other, it would never have happened.

We knew the area so well as it was our playground, a playground that we had to reach by clambering over a tall chain-link fence. We then had to scramble through bramble and bindweed entangled undergrowth, crossing the freight live-line and the old passenger dead-line of the railway. Most had no fear of crossing the live-line, but I did. I was always the coward. I used to imagine the train hurtling towards us and taking us along with it as it passed, just as my parents said it would, but I never did see a train on the live-line. That fear of railways was embedded in my heart though, my parents’ warnings made sure of that. They didn’t know we crossed it regularly, they thought we heeded their warnings, but our main playground was the dead-line: the place we built our dens and fought our imaginary battles. They didn’t know we went beyond even there and played down by the river, our favourite summer place. They told no stories of the dangers of water, but instinctively I knew that the river was out to get me, and hurt me, just like the trains were.

It was a long trek to reach our favourite place and we were hot and bothered by the time we reached the river that day. There were lots of us there. Some children I knew, and some I didn’t. The girls were in their homemade floral summer shift-dresses and sandals, and the boys were in baggy shorts, t-shirts and black plimsoles. There was joy in the air, a joy that reverberated off the sandstone and swept down the river, letting everyone know how happy we were. Even the smell of sewerage and chemicals in the river didn’t deter us. Nothing was going to stop us cooling off. Nothing was going to stop the fun.

That day some of us were bold, brave and daring, diving and surfacing. Some of us were cowardly, just paddling in the shallows. I was, of course, one of the cowards. She was one of the bold, brave and daring amongst us. She was the one that first dived off the top of the waterfall. She was the one that encouraged others to join her. The joy oozed from every pore on her body and was like a rainbow aura all around her. Adding to her beauty were flowing golden locks that streamed outwards as she dived. She had the innocence of most eight-year olds that had not had fear etched into their heart: a child that knew life was for living to the full. She was the one that had the most fun. Meek, mouse-like me, envied her courage as I paddled in the shallows. ‘She’. I can’t remember her name; fear that day, carried it away.

The first we knew of anything being wrong was when her best friend suddenly noticed she wasn’t around. We thought she was acting the fool, as she did so often, but then we started to panic. “When did you last see her?” shouted one of the boys. Everyone agreed that they last saw her diving off the top of the waterfall. None of us knew what to do. We were frozen in place, fearful of running for help because we knew we shouldn’t be there. Then a man walking his dog came by and we told him that we hadn’t seen our friend since she dived off the top of the waterfall. “Stay away from the water! I’ll get help,” the man shouted to us all, “but stay away from the water!” he emphasised, and then he turned and ran.

It seemed like a lifetime before they came. There were police, firemen, and an ambulance. They couldn’t get close with vehicles and had to walk to us by skirting around the edge of the rubbish dump. When we saw them coming we were scared to stay, but we were also scared to leave. They started to question us about where she had jumped from, but all we could say was the top of the waterfall. After they had taken our details they told us to go home and to stay away. We knew we had to tell our parents. We knew we had to face their wrath. In some ways facing their wrath was worse than what had happened.

“We’ve told you again and again not to go over that railway line!” screamed my Father. He was a man we always dreaded to cross. He had a stature and hair colour that matched his temper and nature: short and black. He never missed an opportunity to lash out, and this time was no different. It was my Brother that took the brunt of it as he was closest, but we all felt the stings of his blows. “Why can you never be trusted?” he shouted. “Are you thick? Are you too stupid to understand what we say? Get out of my sight! Now you retards!” He turned to my Mother and said “I’ll teach them! I’ll make them sit down by the river and see her body brought out! That will give them a lesson they will never forget!” My Mother said nothing, just as she always said nothing when he was on one of his rants.

We weren’t the only ones back there by the river the next day. No one could stay away, not children, not parents, not nosy locals. The place was like a giant magnet drawing every bit of scrap metal to it. We all sat and watched, day after day. We sat with my Father on a bare mound of soil in an area that separated the tip from the river, not far from where the police divers scoured the area below the waterfall. I picked up a piece of rubbish and tore the paper into tiny strips to pass the time. A police officer walked past, and my Father shouted to him “You should show the body to all these kids when you bring her out! You wouldn’t catch the idiots swimming in there after that!” There was pure hatred on the officer’s face as he stared at my Father for a long moment before he turned and walked away without saying a word.

It was eight days before they found her. They said that the river had corroded the sandstone, making tunnels under the waterfall which created lethal whirlpools that had dragged her down and into a tunnel. They made us all leave when they brought her out, so my Father didn’t get his wish fulfilled. We stayed away from the river after that, and we stayed away from the railway lines. Not long afterwards we moved away from the area, but I never forgot, and I knew that one day I would go back.

I passed my driving test when I was eighteen and I started to explore the places from my childhood again. At first, I stayed away from the river, but I knew that the tip was no longer there, and that the area had been landscaped to create a country park for the local people to enjoy. One hot summer day, a day that was just like that fateful day, I decided the time had come to visit and try to put the ghosts to rest. I no longer had to clamber over fences, and through undergrowth, as a carpark now stood at the entrance to the valley where the deadline met the old railway viaduct. Willow and hawthorn lined the route up along the deadline, and birds sang and flitted from bush to bush, while crickets chirped in the long grass. Gone was the odour of rotting rubbish, replaced now by the scent of flowers and nature. Gone were the dens made of wood and corrugated iron that we had made in the undergrowth. This was no longer a wasteland of rubbish; this was an area that Mother Nature had clothed in beauty, one she could be proud of.

I walked slowly along the dead-line and appreciated every tree, every bush, every flower. Did I do that to delay my visit to the river? Was it my subconscious mind trying to keep me away from the past? I don’t know, but I know a ten-minute walk took me an hour.

The dead-line was above the river which was now hidden from view by woodland. A wide path led downwards through the trees to meet the river just by the waterfall, with another path curving off upstream, running beside the river, under the towering red-rock, where we had paddled and dived all those years ago. The long grass was dry, and crackly, just as it had been on that terrible day. I sat down amidst it and watched the slow progress of the river until it once again dashed over the waterfall. The river no longer smelt of sewerage and chemicals, and no one could ever dive from the waterfall now: they had filled the riverbed below the waterfall with huge boulders after that tragic incident. The sound of water hitting those boulders mingled with the bird song that filled the valley with beautiful music.

I sat there, for a long-time, watching swallows flying joyously back and too, low along the river, catching insects for their young. They flew close to me also, so close I felt I could reach out and touch them: the acrobats of the air putting on a special show just for me. I heard a call then, a long low whistle, the whistle of one of my favourite birds: the kingfisher. I sat stone still and watched for its approach. On the edge of the opposite bank was a willow whose branches hung over the river, and it was there that the kingfisher alighted. She watched the water with an inquisitive eye, and then dived boldly down into the river. Moments later she shot upwards back through the water surface and towards the branch, a rainbow-like aura surrounding her iridescent blue and orange feathers. Water droplets that caught the gold of the sun fell earthwards and spread sparkles across the river. She sat on the branch, upright and proud, the performer in front of her audience. It was then, in the corner of my eye, that I spotted a movement on the ground. I slowly turned my head just in time to see a frightened furtive little mouse scurry away back into the long grass.

Mother Nature had healed this place, but the joyful and the fearful still played here. Seeing life acted out in nature, I wondered if it was better to live a short life full of joy, or a long one full of fear? Would the kingfisher or the swallow swap places with the mouse, and would she have swapped places with me?

Kerry Barlow has studied creative writing with The Open University.

Pantry Prose: Toska by Robert Keal

– Must be.

– Seriously, Dad, there’s nothing in there.

– Ah, but what about that big rock that just moved?

– Whoa!

As soon as the colour-crazed Toonal TV logo and its accompanying laugh-track jingle both erupt in sync, and the Sock Puppet Squad whoosh on-screen with their googly button eyes and wide sticker grins, Joe Easton wakes up much faster.

“Quick, Mum – you’ll miss it!” he shouts through the lounge doorway, holding half a bowl of cereal under his already milk-damp chin.

10 minutes later…

It’s almost the break when she appears, still wearing her threadbare dressing gown. She doesn’t carry any cereal or toast. Not even a manky old banana from their fridge’s blue-tinted plastic drawers.

“Sorry,” she says, sitting beside Joe and making the tired sofa sag even more. “I dozed off again for a bit there. Right, what’s been happening?”

He shrugs.

She leans forward, peering across at him. “Ignoring me, are we?”

“No.”

“So, spill then.”

“Fine.” He twists round towards her, his own seat groaning. “They keep rapping about kindness and how being kind’s most important when times are hard. It’s easy for them to say, though – they’re socks!”

“You don’t think being kind’s important?”

“Yeah, but not every single morning.”

“Hmm.”

Joe lowers his bowl.

“Oi.” Mum points at the glass tabletop. “You’ll leave a ring if you’re not careful.”

Except Joe’s not really listening anymore. Ads hopscotch on the telly, jumping across the screen one after another, each eager to show off.

Several slots in, that promo from yesterday repeats, all jungle backdrop and CGI vines, with some cartoon creatures lurking about too; not as realistic as they could be, but they’ll do. Letters golder than buried treasure reveal clear instructions while wild animal noises play on loop:

HEY, KIDS!

WE KNOW YOU KNOW WHO RAINFROSTEDS’ NEXT MASCOT SHOULD BE… WE JUST NEED YOU TO TELL US.

PLEASE SEND YOUR DRAWINGS AND TOP 5 REASONS WHY TO:

Contact details, deadlines, etc.

Soon followed by:

OPEN TO CHILDREN AGES 6-11 (WITH PARENTAL/GUARDIAN CONSENT)

£1,000 PRIZE UP FOR GRABS!!

Joe presses pause on the remote, waiting for his mum to notice.

“Is this real?” she asks after a few moments.

“Seems it,” he says.

“OK, OK.” Now she’s nodding loads, reminding him of the bulldog bobblehead inside her car. “OK, we’ll start brainstorming today after school.”

Joe scoffs.

“And what’s that supposed to mean, young man?”

“No offence, Mum, but you barely ever eat breakfast.”

She mumbles something about “not always my choice”, which Joe can’t quite hear.

*

– Looks sort of like your mum in the morning.

– I’m telling.

– Don’t you dare!

Their kitchen table is round, biscuit-coloured with brown flecks all through it; a large inedible cookie. Joe found this out when he was really small, and his teeth still hurt at the memory.

He sits there now, not tempted in the least, crushing A4 sheet after A4 sheet into compact snowballs, before letting them fly behind him – where the recycling crate lives. Whether against wall, floor or hard plastic, each crumpled projectile thuds weakly.

“Maybe we should have a breather.”

Mum rises from her squealing chair opposite.

“I’ve almost got it,“ Joe insists.

“Fair enough, but I need water. Do you want some?”

“No, thank you.”

“Suit yourself.”

She walks to the sink. It’s almost lunchtime and she’s still wearing her Do Not Disturb Before 10AM pyjamas. Outside, sunlight eggs the dirt-smeared windows while giant weeds grow taller between slate tiles.

Joe rubs ink-stained fingers across his closed eyelids.

“Why don’t we ever go to the zoo?” he asks, yawning. “Dad used to take me.”

Mum slurps, replying, “Because it’s too far and I’m not comfortable driving long distances.”

“We could ride the bus.”

“Why are you so fixated on the zoo all of a sudden?”

“Because I need a cool animal for this, and the zoo’s full of them.”

“So’s the internet.”

“It’s not the same.”

“It is cheaper, though. Go on, get searching.”

She hands Joe her phone while he’s still groaning; however, he soon relents, unlocking it and typing ‘weird wildlife’ into the top bar.

Results flood the screen like a pixelated Noah’s Ark.

Several taps later, he grins and reaches for his pencil again, plus some fresh, unballed paper.

Mum sits back down. “Find anything good?”

“Maybe,“ he says, doodling fast.

*

– Do you think he enjoys pretending to be still all the time?

– I would; it looks peaceful.

Its limp, grey nose reminds Joe’s mum of those old windsocks they have around airfields. She starts giggling.

“Why are you laughing?” he asks her.

“I’m not, just appreciating.”

Joe flips the page. “I wrote my reasons why he should win, see?”

Mum squints as she reads each scribbled bullet point aloud:

“1) He’s cute.”

“People love watching cute things on TV. It makes them softer.”

“OK, if you say so. 2) You probably haven’t heard of him.”

“Me and Dad didn’t until we saw one.”

“Hmm. 3) He really does live in the rainforest.” Mum nods. “Nice and topical. Or should that be tropical?”

Joe rolls his eyes.

“Tough table. 4) He could make people smile.”

“Not enough smiles these days.”

“5) I want him as a pet, but he’s too big for our garden.” Mum chuckles. “Don’t even think about it, mister. Has he got a name?”

“Crap, I forgot to add it!”

“Language, Joseph.”

“Sorry.” Joe reflips the page, writing rapidly in the top left corner. “Will you send it for me?”

Mum tugs at the edge of her pyjama top. “Yes, on my lunch break on Monday.”

*

– What is he?

– Name: Toska. Species: Malayan Tapir. Age: 7 years – same as you, mate.

– He’s a long way from home.

Two weeks later and Joe keeps running home from school. Always the route sweats his heavy breath right out of him, but he still manages a feeble gasp of “Any post?” after letting the door slam shut each time.

Today’s no exception – standing there in the hallway, fists clenched at his sides and jumper clung around him, a superhero’s fallen cape.

He peeks into the kitchen, but his mum’s video-calling on her laptop (at least she’s dressed for this one, he thinks). She waves him off sideways towards the living room.

When he enters, his tomato cheeks ripen into a smile. He attacks the big cardboard box faster than he can see it; ribbons of brown paper float like the remnants of long-dead fireworks, before falling slowly to the crumb-fed carpet below.

Joe practically sticks his head inside, grabbing the creased note from on top. Swallowing hard, he unfolds it and reads:

Dear Joe Easton,

Thank you for submitting to Rainfrosteds’ Next Mascot competition.

We’re pleased to inform you that we loved your entry and will be making Toska the Tapir our new spokesanimal.

Tune in next Friday after SPS Adventures on Toonal TV (7.30am) to meet Toska on the telly.

And don’t forget your free Rainfrosteds to enjoy while you’re watching.

Congratulations again!

Yours sincerely,

The Rainfrosteds Team

Joe’s chest constricts a little and he sends more paper dregs spiralling. They must just have forgotten the money, he tells himself, as Mum appears and asks, “What’s the verdict?”

*

– Says here he was born in the zoo.

– So, he’s never even been to Malaysia?

– ‘Fraid not.

“Listen here, sunshine.”

Joe’s mum practically spits into the speaker of her mobile phone.

“No, I’m sorry, you guys screwed up. We did everything right. Now what are you” – she uses that last word for target practise – “gonna do about it?”

It’s been over two weeks of this; her slippers have left tracks in the living-room carpet, and her voice is deep as Dad’s used to be.

Joe says nothing, watching CGI undergrowth stir once more on the telly screen.

“No, I didn’t check social media… Because I haven’t logged onto any accounts since my husband died, that’s why. Grief’s one way to keep you out of the bloody Matrix, let me tell you.”

Blurred around the edges, Toonal TV’s latest cool-guy presenter appears as if emerging from digitised bushes. He wipes invisible sweat off his forehead and keeps panting too loud.

“Hey, guys.” An exaggerated Australian accent makes Joe cringe; tapirs aren’t even from Australia! “I’m just looking for my new mate. You seen him?”

“The point is my son worked hard, won fair and square, and now you selfish people won’t give him his prize money. So, what am I supposed to tell him? That it was all for nothing?”

Joe braces himself as the final insult waddles into shot.

Identical to the updated cereal box perched on the table in front of him, Rainfrosteds really did turn his beloved tapir purple for some reason – with tiny white spots dripping like paint-splatter down his back and lime-green tufts of hair quiffing out of his head and tail.

Joe shivers, getting major supervillain vibes.

OTT again, the presenter cries out “Oh, there you are, Tim! Where were you hiding?”

So that’s why Toska hadn’t appeared on the box. But it’s only two syllables! If Joe can remember reading it years ago, Dad by his side trying his best to keep up and stay awake, then everyone else could understand it too.

Kids aren’t stupid, he wants to scream at the screen.

“Another free cereal? Are you actually serious? Fine, we’ll just see you in court. Goodbye.”

Mum jabs the button, then slams her handset on the table so hard the case cracks even more.

Right now, they can’t bear to look at each other, not with Tim the Tapir’s smug little grin, the colour of long-expired milk, all around them, and the creature’s high-honking laughter curdling in their eardrums.

Robert Keal hails from Kent but currently lives in Solihull, where he works as a copywriter. His recent fiction can be found in 100 Word Story and The Ekphrastic Review. He loves walking the tightrope between strangeness and reality.

Pantry Prose: Climate Fiction: The Enchanted Forest by Sunil Sharma

The Shaman was grim.

“The warning is loud and clear! If things are not mended soon, there will be nothing left…except a sun-scorched land without water and an air you cannot breathe!”

The listeners shivered.

“It will be the Land of the Un-Dead! Mark it, the warning from the Tree of Life! Change or die!”

They gasped.

The Baobab had spoken to his priest!

They were doomed—the small community of the Guards of the Trees (GoT). Dwindling fast—their numbers; like disappearing eddies—in a landscape rapidly changing, from pastoral-rural to the industrial-commercial.

Mid-morning light shone with the brightness of a desert sun. The once-verdant land was already bleak, stripped, bare, dotted with verticals, all steel, glass and concrete—bald giants outlined against a smoggy sky.

Only a stump remained of a once majestic tree.

Scary!

The Baobab had been sawed off in the early hours of the morning, while the world slept.

Sacrilege!

The spot looked like a raw wound. In the distance, loomed the blocks of apartments; a cluster of ugly giants that dominated the scene of the murder, taunting, horrid monsters hungry for green and open lands.

The tiny community stood in silence—poor peasants and casual workers—the rag-tag band of the zealous watchers of the sacred tree.

The Tree of Life!

How they were tricked by the Foes!

While the former snored after a large meal served by the Foes, their minions chopped down the tree that had inspired awe in the simple devout folks working the land.

They cried—lost children, helpless and powerless—before the supervisor who laughed at their belief system and dire warnings.

“Idiots!” the supervisor laughed. “Trees do not speak! They are just timber and leaves. Fetch good money on the market! Stop wailing!”

His henchmen stood with guns and tractors.

“Vacate this land. It belongs to the Corporation now,” he hissed. “Three hours.”

They were badly shaken by an evil force called the Foes, an inhuman collective that did not bother about anything other than its selfish pursuits, own agenda and ruthlessly demolished every obstacle on the way towards realization of that goal—super profits from its enterprise of loot and destruction of earth.

The GoT stood motionless.

“Go! Leave!” barked the supervisor. “You are trespassers!”

“No, we are not! This belongs to the oldest tribal family who have allowed us to live and till their vast land in this sprawling forest for decades,” one of the younger workers protested in a shrill tone. “You are not the owner. You cannot push us out from our huts. We will not budge. Not yield to threats! You are the trespassers!”
The supervisor retorted: “Fools! The tribal family sold the land to the Big Corporation a month ago. Understand? You are homeless now!”
The GoT exhaled sharply, grew quiet, hit hard by this betrayal.

Crestfallen, the group became silent and morose!

The angry Shaman stood defiant. “The Big Corporation, our sworn Foes! Listen! Listen carefully to the warning by the Ancient Tree. You know its history?”

The supervisor said nothing. Only glared at the lone challenger.

“Almost 2,000-year-old, this tree, the benevolent one that nourished tribes and animals under its protection, this Baobab, with scarce water stored inside its thick trunk and fruits and flowers. You cut it down! You will pay heavily for this murder!” He shook violently going into trance, eyes half shut, tongue darting, “The Foes are inviting the wrath of the God by this desecration! Beware of the Curse of the Baobab!”


The goons of the Foes stood smiling, eyes mocking, arms crossed, indulging the old frail man with grey beard, beads, matted hair and blood-shot eyes, a tattered skirt and a bunch of feathers tied on a short pole as a totem, delivering his prophesy in a raspy voice.

“Heathen! Savages!” the supervisor said loudly to the assembly of believers facing the sceptics on the other side of the stump, a provisional border between the mighty Corporation and the displaced tribals.

The Shaman drew up to his full height and said in a changed voice:

“The Baobab says it will return as a ghost! And wreak havoc here, this new settlement done on his wounded breast and body!”

The GoT shrieked and fell down at the stump, prostrating in the dust, seeking forgiveness of the fallen colossal.

They sobbed, “We have been orphaned! Have pity, O, Great Baobab!”

The supervisor stepped near the band of grieving folks and changing tactics, said in a soothing voice:

“The Shaman is phony! Don’t listen to this imposter! Join us. We are going to develop this rocky land into a landscaped property of immense value. Huge complexes of apartment buildings, swimming pools, gardens, schools, clinics and hospitals. It is called the Paradise,” the supervisor paused for effect and after few seconds, resumed the appeal, “Our bosses are kind and considerate. You will be employed as workers. Get good wages, food and shelter here. Schooling for children. The bosses care for their workers. In their saw mills and cement factories, you and kids can be absorbed as the staff on good daily wages! Ha!”

The GoT stood silent—undecided.

The Shaman laughed derisively: “You have no heart! You are mocking the tradition of a shaman. The knowledge, skills and lore passed down from one generation to another. We are special souls, guardians of the sacred, connected with the spirits of the land, water and sky. These elements speak through us. We will not join the Foes, murderers and thieves! Go away!”

The supervisor laughed and dismissed them with a smirk. “Idiots! Ignorant pagans! Three hours only! Leave or join us!”

The GoT left with few bags and bundles strapped on the donkeys, and cats, dogs and hens—their worldly possessions.

The Shaman collected the big chunks of the soil from that spot as a totem and brought up the rear with his family.

The army of bulldozers and excavators and cranes arrived soon after.

The woodland was systematically assaulted. The discordant sounds of the dynamite and saw chains and hatchets echoed through a thick forest that was once an enclave of purity and peace.

Machines and men combined in the rape and pillage of the earth and the rivers running in the heart of the deep forest, home to rare birds, trees and animals and flowers.

It went on for months—ripping, digging—the destruction, unchecked, cynical, merciless!

The Tree of Life was completely stamped out.

Its bleeding spirit watched the large-scale destruction of the rich and fertile soil that had yielded rice and millets and vegetables; thickets of trees were felled and bushes, vines and shrubs cleared cruelly by the gangs of matchet-wielding men; the cleared ground dug deep and deeper, disturbing the water table, top soil; hills were raided for stones and sand, reducing them to mere bald mounds.

Finally, the housing-cum-residential project was announced by the Big Corporation, in the presence of the top bank officials, investors and political leaders, including a minister. Media announced the project in their infra columns, paid news but sold as reports by their real-estate team of experts.

The massive project attracted good response and was sold out within a few days.

Second phase of the Paradise was launched with seductive discounts and offers.

In fact, the Big Corporation bought the entire range of adjoining forests, hills, farms and ponds at a cheap rate, displacing more tribals in a single stroke, and, destroying flora and fauna in a repeat of ruthless operation, ignored by the parliament and the press, except some urban activists made ineffective by a counter narrative of urban growth and development for the urgent needs of city expanding fast.

Over the months, more forests were cleared and only the barren land remained for further development by the teams of the biggest realtor conglomerate of the world eyeing the sea, ocean and land of the poor, impoverished nation.

The Corporation sold the upcoming projects as the New Greens as exclusive gateways to a life-style in the midst of nature for the elite through a media blitz, on-site events, early discounts, multi-colour brochures, ads and calls.

Sold as attractive gated communities with all the world-class facilities in a post-colonial country, haven for global investments for quick returns and an easy life supported by cheap manual labour; a must-have holiday address for the celebs and successful honchoes; a romping ground for the super-rich players.

Self-contained enclaves with helipads and luxury villas and private cinemas and casinos spread out among denuded hills and bare valleys.

The Curse of the Baobab was forgotten as a figment of the primitive imagination, superstition of an uncultivated mind.

The Corporate minted gold out of the dirt.

and planned more of such raiding of the cheap forest lands and quick conquests

One night, the Curse did strike.

A strange fever gripped the residents of the Paradise. A fever with cough, cold and lung and breathing problems. It spread in the land and spread across the world—borderless epidemic, fatal, quick contagion and a silent killer!

The world stopped in its mad tracks!

The air grew noxious, damp and lack of tree cover made breathing tough!

Lungs got affected.

Air quality decreased.

Emergencies were sounded by the governments and WHO (World Health Organisation).

Few weeks later, series of tsunamis and earthquakes and forest fires destroyed the global properties and profits of the Big Corporation—a trans-national oligarchy; mastermind of mergers and acquisitions.

The loss was monumental.

Its stocks went down.

Profits plummeted.

Staff downsized.

The post-industrial plague resulted in the loss of billions for the Big Corporation!

Its multi-national offices closed down in some of the capitals of the world!

From being a top Fortune-500 company, it went down to the bottom of the pile!

Then the teenage son of the CEO got the rare fever and gasped for breath.

The medicines did not work.

He understood the pain of the poor who were not given proper treatment in the hospitals run by the Big Corporation due to their inability to pay exorbitant medical services—only the elites could somehow manage the medical costs involved in long procedures and buy injections on the black-markets prescribed by the robotic system of the care-givers!

The vampires—finally out in the open!

The utopia turned into dystopia!

Riots broke out in many cities.

The poor could not afford the inflated medical care and died in numbers that were staggering, never discussed by the governments.

Adding to the pandemic was the extreme change in climate: summers that were winters; winters, summers; droughts, flooding; scarcity and incessant rains at a stretch.

And mutations of the fever.

First the son.

Then the family got affected.

The anxious father was told of the Enchanted Forest!

A forest that promised fabulous solutions to some of the ills of the civilization!

He went there with a select staff.

And found things that surprised the visitors from another planet!

“Welcome to the Dhara Family,” the young volunteer said with a smile.

The paths, lined by trees, led to a self-sustained community. Cottages, schools, hospitals, kitchens, working-sheds, farms, tool houses—everything arranged around trees and shrubs. A sparkling river flowed in the heart of the forest full of verdant hills, birds and animals.

A green oasis!

“Meet our Guardian!”

The five guests were astonished to see the presiding deity: The Baobab!

Spread in its austere beauty and wide girth, the tree stood in its natural splendour, an evolution of millions of years showcased by God in this stocky figure.

The volunteer bent down in reverence, eyes closed, hands clasped, saying softly, “The Tree of Life! Please accept greetings of our guests!”

She mumbled some mantra.

The group, overawed by this majestic sight, bowed down heads and folded hands.

Next, they were greeted by the Shaman: “Welcome! The Forest is Enchanted. Listen to its old songs and benefit from its benediction!”

The CEO never felt so small!

The Shaman looked same, even healthier. No trace of malice or bitterness in his tone or gaze.

And, contented.

“The forest is made enchanted by the people. My son, Masters in agriculture, came back and developed this remote treeless and barren area into a thick forest by planting, over the years, the native varieties of trees and fruits, along with a team of dedicated young men and women from nearby tribal hamlets, displaced by the Big Corporation.”

The CEO was stunned by the strange transformation.

“Rest is done by us, the members, young and old here. We embraced the organic way of living and created a unique ecosystem out of an expanding desert!” The volunteer explained. “Each month, at least hundred applications are received for volunteering here for this project.”

“And a better and meaningful life,” said another voice. “Paying back to mother earth, collective debts!”

They turned around to see the agro-scientist, the founder of the famous Enchanted Forest, whose pictures were staple of the Internet. He was frequently interviewed by the global media and quoted by the experts.

Films and documentaries were made on him and the forest, a miracle.

“Meet my son Adi!” The Shaman said with pride.

“The strange fever hardly touched us! We work hard and lead a life organically linked to nature. Our guardian tree blesses our ceaseless efforts of revival!”

After spending two days and three nights, they returned with seeds, plants and herbal medicines that promised fast relief.

“Plant the holy seeds in the corner of your house…and feel the benedictions of the Spirit of the Enchanted Forest!” the Shaman said. “Do it for your grandkids!”

Adi added, “We cannot wait for the governments to intervene and try to stop climate change—they hardly do anything! Corporations failing. We should not depend on them but seize the day. We did that only!”

The CEO was impressed: “Great! From dystopia to utopia…”
“Sorry!” the scientist interrupted. “It is all real! You have witnessed that. It is possible.”

As they were returning to the big city, the accountant said, “Sir, should not we buy tons of their blessed seeds and sell them on the overseas markets under our agro brand? A good business opportunity!”

The CEO glared. “Not everything is for sale!”

That night, the CEO saw the Tree of Life smiling in his dream.

Sunil Sharma is a humble word-worshipper: catcher of elusive sounds, meanings and images.

He has published 26 creative and critical books— joint and solo.

A winner of, among others, the Golden Globe Award-2023, and, Nissim Award for Excellence for the novel Minotaur.

His poems were included in the prestigious UN project: Happiness: The Delight-Tree: An Anthology of Contemporary International Poetry, 2015.

Editor of the monthly Setu journal (English).

For details, please visit the website.

You can find more of Sunil’s work here on Ink Pantry.

Pantry Prose: Skid Marks by Wayne Dean-Richards

All the time thinking, he paced back-and-forth-back-and- forth-back-and-forth. Was determined to find who was doing it. The same thing every fucking day! The first skid mark always saying, Fuck, the second always saying, you, the third always saying, Fitton.

His old man had warned him that he should get used to people trying to get at him because they were jealous of what he’d accomplished. His old man it was who’d set him on the path to success in the first place. Sending him to a lesser-known public school but hammering home that the odds were massively against playing football ever paying off, whereas the right accent would pretty much guarantee him a top job.

Fitton had a voice that would cut glass. Though he steadfastly believed his sheer relentlessness was what had endowed him with the wherewithal to become a CEO.

When PQC Logistics appointed him, he’d wasted no time in making his relentlessness clear. Axing a hundred jobs during his first month in post surely some kind of record. Early mornings had prowled. Sometimes slowing to stare out of windows when blue inched up from the horizon but only genuinely moved by the fear on the faces of those who arrived to find him already there. Thought of his early starts as an act of will rather than a by-product of insomnia. Strode through empty offices shutting desk drawers that hadn’t been properly shut and straightening items of stationery left skewed on desks whilst deciding who should stay and who should go…

The final week of his third month in post was when he saw what – nothing accidental or unconsidered about it he was certain – had been left for him in the second cubicle from the left in the toilets on the first floor…

That the cleaners were to blame was his first thought. Insulting him as an act of revenge. Lowered rates of pay and a raised commitment to productivity things he’d forced their contractor to sign up to.

Deciding that if he discovered skid marks at the end of one of their shifts, they were all for the chop, Monday through to Friday he arrived between midnight and 3.45AM…

But there were never any skid marks left during those hours. Meaning the cleaners were in the clear. Why – alone in his office – Fitton gulped Gaviscon as if it was going out of style and re-configured his approach.

A fortnight of surreptitious checks narrowed the time frame of the deposit to between 3.45AM and 9.15AM. Nor did it matter whether it was one, two or three skid marks, he told himself at this point. The message was still unequivocally the same: Fuck you Fitton. Believed the fact that the message was never in the same toilet or cubicle two days running was indisputable proof that whomever it was, was intent on taunting him, teasing him, humiliating him – and promptly put the night-time security man in the frame. Harold Lever someone who smiled agreeably at all and sundry.

Fitton didn’t trust any man who smiled. With a clear view of the lobby, each night sat across from PQC Logistics in his Mercedes E Class Saloon and watched Lever make his rounds on the hour. Always waited ’til the security man’s shift was almost over before he strode in.

Seeing that all the porcelain was spic and span, Fitton chewed his bottom lip till he drew blood. Whilst doing so latched onto the idea that the day-time security woman was responsible, so following her hourly patrols relentlessly checked and re-checked the toilets on all floors.

Nothing.

Meaning that like Harold Lever, Sheila Parkes was off the hook. Meaning it wasn’t a contract cleaner or contracted site security. Meaning it had to be one of PQC Logistics’ own staff who was each day leaving him a message in shit!

Claiming that it was part of an efficiency drive, ever more desperate to find who was responsible Fitton ordered state of the art CCTV. Cameras installed everywhere. Including the entrance to the toilets on all floors. Would have had a camera in each toilet cubicle if he hadn’t anticipated the reaction of PQC Logistics board of directors to such a directive.

Throughout the installation Fitton lost weight and cultivated dark smudges beneath his eyes. Shook when he signed the release confirming completion, then spun to face the monitors occupying an entire wall of his top floor office.

With the necessary means for discovery in place process became everything. Having first patrolled to make sure all the toilets in the building were spotless he’d study the monitors scrupulously and make a dash every time he saw a worker exit a toilet –

It sounded straightforward but wasn’t since sometimes workers on different floors simultaneously left their workstations and headed for the toilets on their floor – PQC Logistics eight storeys high.

Fitton needed to be as quick as he’d been as a boy with a football at his feet and to facilitate this took to wearing lightweight Nikes rather than hand-made leather shoes.

No one mentioned his suited sprints. No one dared, though the fear of his staff no longer comforted him.

Discomforted, Fitton estimated that it’d already been several weeks since the installation of CCTV and still skid marks appeared like clockwork: Fuck you Fitton…Fuck you Fitton…Fuck you Fitton…

Well fuck you right back, I won’t give up, he assured himself relentlessly. Wouldn’t give up. Couldn’t give up. Wouldn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t! Why after gulping more Gaviscon – all the time thinking – he resumed pacing back-and-forth- back-and-forth-back-and-forth…

Wayne Dean-Richards has worked as an industrial cleaner and an actor. Currently he works as a teacher. He says, like Bukowski, ‘These words I write keep me from total madness.’ Over a hundred stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies. The Arts Council funded a collection of his stories – At the Edge – and a novel – Breakpoints. Cuts – a second collection of stories – is available from Amazon as an eBook, as is a collection with his youngest son: A Box of Porn.

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Pantry Prose: The Farmer and the Field of Dust by David Greygoose

There was once a farmer who ploughed a field of dust. Each day as he raked and hoed, the dust billowed all around him until he was the colour of dust, his face, his hands, his clothes.

At night his house was filled with dust. Dust covered his table, the cupboards, the floor. Even his bed was dry with dust. Each morning as he woke, all he had dreamt was dust, fields of dust and hills of dust, barns stacked high with nothing but dust. Then he rose and shook the dust from his pillow, from his sheets, from the curtain which covered the window to block out the dusty sun.

Each night when his work was done, he sat down to eat a bowl of food. But the food was dry. It looked like dust. It tasted of dust. Beside him on the table lay a wooden flute, and when he had finished his meal, the farmer would blow the dust away and then he would sit and play. The tune was fresh and clear, sweet as water running. And the farmer would smile and gaze through the window stained with dust as if he was remembering.

But next morning he returned to the field again. The field of dust, the field where nothing grew. And he would set to ploughing and raking and hoeing and the dust would rise around him all over again.

Then one day he saw the shadow of a traveller approaching through the dust. A stranger in a long grey coat who stopped to ask the way. The farmer pointed on along the road and the traveller thanked him and was about to take his leave. But then he paused.

“Tell me, what do you grow here?” he asked.

“Nothing,” said the farmer. “Nothing grows here at all. Every year I plough the dust, I rake it and I hoe. And then I plant the seeds. But nothing ever grows. Nothing at all.”

The traveller shook his head and put his hand into his pocket. From the very depths of the lining he brought one red seed.

“I can give you this,” he said. “And I promise you it will grow. It will yield the finest crop that you have ever seen.”

“Yes, yes,” said the farmer, about to grab the seed, but the traveller closed his hand.

“Wait,” he said. “First you must give me something in return.”

“Anything,” said the farmer. “Anything at all.”

The traveller scratched his chin.

“This seed is precious to me,” he said. “So you must give me something that is precious to you in return. What can you give me?”

The farmer spread his hands in despair.

“I am only a poor farmer. My crops fail year after year. All I have is the clothes that I stand in.”

The traveller gazed at him with piercing eyes.

“Nothing at all?” He put his hand back in his pocket. “Then I will keep the seed.”

The traveller was about to make his way down the road when the farmer stopped him.

“Wait!” he said. “There is something.”

The traveller turned.

“Tell me more.”

“I have a flute…” The farmer’s words came tumbling out. “I have a flute, it sounds so clear, sweet as the wind in springtime.”

“This flute I would like to see,” said the traveller.

And so the farmer took the traveller to his house and there he showed him the flute. Then the traveller smiled and gave him the seed, tucked the flute into his bag and soon was on his way.

Next day the farmer dug a hole in the ground right in the very middle of his field, just as the traveller had told him. And then he planted the bright red seed. Covered it over with dry grey dust and sprinkled it with what little water he had. And then he waited. He waited and he waited, day after day in the dust and the sun. But nothing happened. Nothing happened at all. At night he would sit and eat his meal which tasted of dust and slept in his sheets which felt like dust and dreamt of his flute which sounded so clear, sweet as the wind in springtime. The flute which he could play no more.

Next day and next he returned to the field, but still nothing had happened. Nothing happened at all. All was grey dust, just as before. But then one day, a shoot. A tiny green shoot peeking up from the ground. The farmer was overjoyed. He rushed to his house to fetch water and when he returned the shoot had grown even more. When he saw this, the farmer danced all about the tender shoot and sang the song he once played on his flute so that the air blew sweet and cool.

Day by day the shoot grew and grew until it was a firm green stem, and then a bud sprouted at its top. One morning the farmer left his house and tramped across the field until there in the middle he saw that the bud had become a flower, the brightest flower he had ever seen! The farmer sprinkled water on its petals that glowed so red and golden. He watched as the sun rose higher in the sky and spread its rays across the field of flat grey dust. But at the moment when the sun struck the petals of the flower, to the farmer’s astonishment it burst into flames. He tried to douse them with the last of the water in his can, but to no avail. The flames licked higher, brighter and hotter so that the farmer had to move away.

And then from the centre of the fire stepped a woman. The most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She wore a robe the colour of flame, red and golden as the flower’s petals, though the flower lay burnt and blackened now on the flat grey dust as the woman followed the farmer all the way back to his house.

They sat together at his table and the farmer asked the woman many questions, but each time she answered only with a smile, and spoke slowly in a language of another land that he did not understand. And then she sang to him, humming the tune that he had played on his harp, the tune he sang to the flower. And the woman laughed, and the farmer laughed too and every day they worked together to clean the house and tend the fields, though some nights the farmer wished he still had his flute so that he could play for her.

But then he shook his head and remembered that if the traveller had not taken the flute, then he would not have the seed. And without the seed there would have been no flower and without the flower the woman would never be here at all.

And if the woman had not been here, the seeds which they planted in the fields would never have begun to grow. For grow they did. They grew to give fine crops of corn which the farmer took to sell in the market. Every night when he returned, a sumptuous supper was set on the table and the house which once had been grey with dust now stood sparkling and clean.

But one day when the farmer came home, the woman was lying in the bed. There was no supper on the table and dust had already gathered on the shelves and across the floor.

Each day the woman grew more listless, her tired face pale against the bright red and gold of her robe. Even though the crops in the fields still grew higher, the farmer was sad. The woman no longer smiled at him, they no longer laughed together and she did not sing the song to the tune he had once played on his flute.

One morning he left her lying in bed and went down to the field to tend the crop. He hoed a little, picking out stones, but his heart was not in his task. He straightened his back and peered down the road. In the distance he saw a shadow, a figure coming closer. Not many passed this way and so the farmer waited to see who it was.

It was the traveller.

The farmer greeted him.

“I see you still have the flute,” he said, for it was sticking out from the traveller’s bag.

The traveller hauled it out.

“I still have the flute,” he nodded, “but it is useless now. The wood is cracked and no notes will come. I could never learn even one tune. But I see your fields have yielded a great crop. My seed has done its work!”

The farmer agreed. “The seed has brought me all that I wished for.”

“Then why look so sad?” the traveller exclaimed.

The farmer paused.

“I wish I had the flute again. It is no good to you, now that it is cracked. Let me take it back.”

The traveller looked at the flute and considered.

“I will give you the flute if you return the woman to me.”

The farmer dropped his hoe in surprise.

“How do you know of the woman?”

“It was I who gave you the seed, remember? And the seed has done its work…”

The farmer scratched his chin and looked at the flute, looked at his crops, then looked at the flute again.

“The woman is sick,” he said at last. “She cannot sing.”

“You should have told me,” the traveller cried. “Take me to her straight away.”

The traveller followed the farmer across the field all the way back to the house. There the woman lay in bed. She scarce raised her head when they walked in. The traveller took her hand and began to talk to her in the language the farmer did not understand. She tried to smile, but as the traveller stared into her eyes, her hands turned to fine grey dust and then her face and soon her body too.

The traveller shook his head and walked away, leaving the broken flute lying on the table. As soon as he stepped through the door, the crops in the fields all withered and died and soon the soil returned to dust.

The house filled with dust. Dust covered the tables, the cupboards, the floor. Each night the farmer slept in a bed of dust, though he knew that once the dust had been woman, had been flame, had been flower, had been seed. But now all was gone and the dust had returned and the farmer sat each day in his flat grey fields and coaxed the tune from his broken flute that once he had sung with the woman he would always remember. The woman he could never forget.

David Greygoose‘s published works include Brunt Boggart (Pushkin) and Mandrake Petals and Scattered Feathers (Hawkwood).

You can find more of David’s work here on Ink Pantry.

Pantry Prose: Jazz Apples by Neil Leadbeater

Jazz apples had caught Steve out more than once and ruined his act. Described as an exciting fusion between a Royal Gala and a Braeburn, the look of them always made him nervous. Steady up until this point, they constantly wrong-footed him and sent his logic into overload. They might be great for snacking on but they were not great for Steve’s purpose. Steve was beginning to regret that he had added them into his act. Compared to other more traditional apples, the Jazz ones were a relatively recent phenomenon. The original cross had been done in 1985 on some trees at Hawkes Bay, New Zealand and the apples had launched commercially in 2004. Coming from down under they had up-ended his logic and disturbed his equilibrium.

For days after they came into his hands he had studied their colour as a means of identification: flushes of red and maroon over shades of green, yellow and orange. It was quite a colour range to remember.

All in all, there were now 20 different varieties of apple that he had committed to memory but the more he increased the number, the more difficult it was becoming to hold them all in his head. At the local village fête, some people liked to recite the alphabet backwards at speed, but Steve was the only one who could guess at the name of a row of 20 apples by sight alone that had been placed in a certain order by a third party beforehand. He had managed this feat for several years now and was beginning to gain a reputation for his extraordinary skill but since he had introduced the Jazz apple, his luck had begun to run out. The Jazz was the joker in the pack.

He took it so seriously that he practiced for weeks before the event. Each day, his son Billy would arrange the apples in a different order and listen while his father reeled off the names, names that conjured up the fires of autumn and harvest. Sometimes Billy would act the fool and tease his father by placing a rogue apple in the pack, a rare one like the foxwhelp, a bittersharp cider apple, one of the oldest, from Gloucestershire. Steve would agonise over its identity and, finally giving in or getting it wrong, would sigh with relief when Billy told him that it was only meant as a joke and did not consist of the usual run that he was trying to remember in his head.

Guessing the names of 20 varieties of apple might seem like a feat to you or me but when you consider that there are over 2,500 different varieties in the UK alone, a spoilsport would say that it was no big deal.

When the time came, Steve was ready for the challenge. The local grocer placed each apple in its proper place and in an order that Steve did not know about. In front of each apple there was a number and all Steve had to do was to call out the name of the apple and hope that he had got it right.

No. 1 gave him no trouble at all. It was one of his favourite varieties and so he was used to seeing it every day in the fruit bowl on the kitchen table. It was a fruit packed full of juice that delivered a lot of sweetness. Its blush and its stripe was at once familiar to him. It was one of the first “bi-coloured” varieties, a characteristic now regarded as essential for sales purposes. ‘It’s a Braeburn’ he said. There was a round of polite applause.

No. 2 was a Pink Lady. Steve always referred to Pink Ladies as his blushing beauties. They were one of the first to blossom and the last to be harvested. All those hours of glorious daylight in the sunniest of places gave them a wonderful patina.

No. 3 had a stripy red skin that made him think Royal Gala.

No. 4 was a Worcester Permain, named after its place of origin.

No. 5 was causing him problems. If he couldn’t guess one immediately, he was allowed to come back to it later so he moved on quickly to No. 6. The shiny, orange-red skin with its golden background made him think it was a Kanzi or ‘hidden treasure’ in Swahili. He wasn’t entirely sure about this but he said it anyway and waited anxiously for the grocer’ response. Steve breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the word CORRECT.

He went back to No. 5 but was still unsure about it and so he passed on to No. 7. It was a striking red so he said very confidently that it was a Junami. He was doing well but there was no room for complacency. It got easier as he progressed because none of the apples he had already identified came round a second time which in turn narrowed the list of those still to come.

No. 8 was of medium size, orange-red in colour deepening to bright red and mottled with carmine over a deep yellow background. To Steve, it was easy-peasy, it could only be a Cox’s Orange Pippin. CORRECT! A round of applause followed. The adjudicator then asked the crowd to be quiet while Steve thought long and hard about the next one.

Behind him, the gymkhana was in full swing at the village fete. Further away to his right there were cake stalls, cream teas, raffles and tables brimming with home-grown vegetables. There were plenty of other competitions going on. Some children were trying to guess the number of sweets in a jar, one little girl was trying to guess the name of a doll while another one kept asking her mother if she could have a cuddly toy. It was easy for Steve to get distracted but he kept his focus all the time on the apples. By now he had guessed Discovery, Rubens and Red Prince. For some anxious moments he’d been unsure about the Kingston Black but it turned out that he had been right about that one too.

Morris dancers were dancing round the maypole. People were queueing up for the tombola. The place was getting busier and Steve was finding that his powers of concentration were beginning to wane. The audience noticed that he was taking longer to reach his verdicts on the apples lying in front of him. Sixteen down and four to go. So far so good. It would all come right in the end.

No 17 was easy. It was one that even an amateur would know at first sight, a distinctive apple with a light brown skin, dull sheen and cream freckles. Without hesitation Steve said that it was an Egremont Russet. CORRECT! Another round of excited applause.

Other distractions weighed in from time to time: some children were playing skittles while others were having a go at pinning the donkey’s tail. Every so often there was the sound of a can ‘popping off’ at ‘tin can alley’. Punters were flinging beanbags at a row of coconuts, and children hurling wellies as far as their strength could throw them.

It was time to get this apple business over and done with. No. 18 was a cinch. Its green waxy sheen was a giveaway. It was a Bramley – ideal for cooking up a culinary storm. On to No. 19. This one, by some process of careful deduction only known to Steve, was an Evelina. Everything now rested on No. 20. Steve suddenly realised that the Joker had so far not made an appearance. This, he concluded must be it. With a sense of relief and not undisguised excitement, he declared it to be a Jazz apple. CORRECT.

That just about wrapped it all up until the next time.

Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), Sleeve Notes (Editura Pim, Iaşi, Romania, 2016) Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017), Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019), and ‘Reading Between the Lines’ (Littoral Press, 2020). His work has been translated into several languages including Dutch, French, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.

You can find more of Neil’s work here on Ink Pantry.

Pantry Prose: RNA by Gary Beck

As I rounded first base I felt a tear in my hamstring that shot up my leg with a stab of hot pain. It forced me to slow down, but I had to keep running because I was on the edge of the bubble and was afraid of getting cut from the team. I risked a glance to right field and saw that the ball would get to second before me. I tried a desperate hook slide into the bag, but the second baseperson blocked me and came down hard on my legs when she tagged me. A streak of fiery pain that made the hamstring feel like a tickle seized me in an agonizing grip and I writhed in anguish. I heard the second baseperson’s hoarse voice through the haze of shock: “Your season’s over, old man.”

The team treated me as I expected: abrupt removal to a third level med-center, since I only had a tier three contract. I was very lucky to see an intern, since tier three didn’t entitle me to a doctor. The most I could normally hope for was a med tech. Tier three didn’t include x-rays, but after moderately careful manipulation the doc informed me that the anterior cruciate ligament was definitely torn. So second base was right. The team’s HMO representative had accompanied me to the med center to ensure that I didn’t exceed my benefits. He announced my options: laser surgery and three days care in the open ward, with appropriate medications, then departure by public transportation; or laser surgery, transport to my residence by ambujit and one week of home care by a licensed nurse’s aide. All veteran ball players knew what open wards were like, so I didn’t even think about it before opting for home care.

The HMO rep was already indignant that the team would have to pay for a doctor and had me sign various forms exonerating the team from any liability. I had to sign, or risk losing my meagre pension. The HMO rep had more power than the coach. He tucked the documentation in his bizsac, authorized the doc to provide laser surgery and spoke into his comphone. A few minutes later a nurse’s aide entered and properly identified herself according to guild requirements. “Hello. I’m nurse’s aide Felicity, guild registration number 672, reporting for assignment. The HMO rep gave her the care restrictions. While she listened attentively I had a chance to look her over. She was tall, about 5’9”, with an athlete’s body and looked as if she could handle any kind of emergency thrown at her. She was around thirty years old, but her untroubled face, bright blue eyes and blonde hair cut in the short lezzie style made her seem much younger. I had worse caregivers over the years.

Nurse Felicity looked at me reassuringly while she drew a hypo. The HMO rep hovered fretfully and verified that she used the minimum Demerol dose. He was beginning to annoy me almost as much as my aching leg. The injection started to take effect and although it didn’t remove the pain, it made it bearable. I had nothing else to do while I waited for the doc, so I began to take stock of myself. I was a thirty-eight year old professional ballplayer with a body going on sixty. I had lasted years longer than most players because I still looked young on camera, the prime career determinant now that ball games were no longer played in front of live audiences. If I recovered from this injury, if another team wanted me, if a little hair dye could fool the judgmental camera, I might eke out another marginal season. After that I didn’t know what else I could do.

It felt like centuries ago when I graduated from George W. Bush High School, in Amarillo, Texas, as a star football, baseball and basketball player. I wasn’t college material because of poor academic performance, so I opted for a professional sports career. Fortunately the pro teams will take anyone who can play well enough, despite the lip service they pay about the necessity for education. Then I made the most intelligent decision of my life. I knew even then that I couldn’t do much besides play ball, so I chose baseball, because it was less of a contact sport than football or basketball. I thought I might be able to extend my career longer, if I didn’t get knocked around every time I played. It turned out to be the smartest move I ever made.

I didn’t often think about the past. I had some good years as a right fielder, including five with the Hiroshima Dragons. I had been very popular with the local fans, who easily recognized a distinct American from afar. My only regret was that I didn’t learn Japanese so I could talk to people. It would have been fun to jabber away in their language, but I never could remember enough words. I did like their manners. They still showed some respect for others. I would have stayed in Japan for the rest of my career, but they got a younger, faster token American. After that I came back home and moved from team to team, sometimes on the field, sometimes on the bench. I hung on when younger and better players were cut, because I could play any outfield position and first base in an emergency. It also helped that I could still manage to hit close to .250.

So here I was in a grubby med-centre with at least a season ending injury, probably a career sign off, with no ideas for the future. I didn’t have a nest egg. I never managed to save, despite a meagre life style. I was an ancient journeyman in a young profession, without name or fame that could be traded in for civilian security. I had no skills, no credentials and no experience, except as a marginal pro ballplayer. I wouldn’t even be desirable in a low life sports bar, because I lacked sufficient celebrity. I guess I had to start thinking about what to do with my life, but I wasn’t well-equipped for making a life plan. Too many years of just being a hit and fetch ball dog had worn away most of my thought process. I sort of accepted whatever came along, without worrying too much about the future.

Nurse Felicity brought me back to the present with a gentle pat. “We’re ready for surgery now.” She lifted me onto the gurney with surprising ease and wheeled me to the laser room. Despite all my injuries over the years that included broken fingers, toes, sprains, strains, as well as innumerable aches, pains and other ailments, I never required surgery. I was scared and it showed. Nurse Felicity crooned soothing sounds that were supposed to reassure me. The HMO rep kept getting in my face, babbling about how grateful I should be for receiving generous extra contract services. All I wanted to do was look at strong, shapely nurse Felicity, but the HMO rep kept blocking my view. I couldn’t insult him because he controlled health benefits, so I drifted into a fantasy, where I picked up my tungsten bat, swung for the fence and blasted the chub’s head clean out of the ball park…. I idly wondered why they called it a ball park.

Nurse Felicity looked at me as if she could read my mind. I instantly forgot about the HMO rep and tried to look innocent, because I wanted her to think well of me. I didn’t have a girl and it had been a long time since baseball groupies chased me. The thought of a week with a pretty nurse who could haul me around made me forget my fear for a while. At least until the doc came in. He looked too young to be an intern and I suspected they could be pushing a med student on me, but I didn’t dare say anything. If I offended the HMO rep he might cancel my treatment and I’d find myself on the street. So I carefully bopped my tongue stud on the roof of my mouth so it couldn’t be seen and didn’t say anything. A tier three contract didn’t allow piercings.

The procedure itself didn’t take long. Nurse Felicity curled me on my side, the doc adjusted my position with a clumsy hand that gave me a jolt of pain, then zapped the torn spot with a beam of light. He looked me in the eye for the first time. “Don’t put any weight on that leg for two months, then carefully begin to walk on it. I think we can give you crutches until then.” He looked inquiringly at the HMO rep, who consulted his handbook, then begrudgingly nodded yes. “With any luck you’ll be good as new in six or eight months,” the doc said. Right. Good as new. I wasn’t good as new when I was new. “Can you give me some pain pills, doc?” The HMO rep was there like a shot. “Your benefits package doesn’t entitle you to painkillers. You’ll have to manage with neurodumps. Now let’s conclude the treatment session and get you on your way.” This chub was really ticking me off, but I didn’t dare offend the power structure, so I gave him the same conciliatory smile that had worked for me for years.

The doc condescendingly waved goodbye. I guess he was a little miffed at treating a lowly tier three patient. Nurse Felicity lifted me back on the gurney and we headed for the ambujit. The HMO rep had me sign the fair care release, the med centre doors closed, nurse Felicity stowed me in the back of the ambujit and we pulled away from the curb. The ride to my crib seemed to go on forever. Every pothole reminded me of the current state of urban decay with a jab of pain. My only consolation was that at least the injury happened at a home game. If it happened when the team was on the road I would have really been torqued. I don’t know what they would have done with me, but they probably would have dumped me at the nearest tier three med-centre and left me on my own. My only option then would have been a dubious appeal to the players union, which like most other American unions, had been worn down over the years, or bought off by the bosses.

The neighbours didn’t bother to look when nurse Felicity rolled me into my crib. They were more accustomed to seeing people carried out, than brought in. She quickly and efficiently organized the small space so I could get to the bathroom on my crutches and easily reach the kitchen unit for meals. She adjusted the couchbed so I could watch the large wall TV, my only luxury. She was the first woman who had ever come into my crib. Well I guess the landlady counted as a woman, even though I thought she was a nasty old bag. One of my neighbours, a rabid sports fan, once told me she had lost all her assets, except this building, in the big technology crash of 2001. Well, no wonder she was bitter, living in a dump like this, if she was used to better.

As I watched nurse Felicity do things around the crib, I had an unaccustomed feeling of well-being. I wasn’t used to a woman’s presence, especially in this little room that I never thought of as home. The last real home I could remember was a foster home when I was five or six. The ortho parents wanted a bright, artistic child to enrich their lives. Instead they got a morose brooder, who they quickly tired of. After that I shuffled from one group home to another, until I finally graduated from high school, where I was never the life of the party. In fact, except for time on the ball field, I was pretty much invisible for most of my life. Well it just made me feel worse when I felt sorry for myself, so I just enjoyed the treat of nurse Felicity fussing around, trying to make me comfortable.

She finished her chores and got ready to leave and a well of loneliness rose in me. I urgently snatched at a reason for her to stay a little longer. “Could you just show me how to make a freeezemeal?” She looked at me with an understanding twinkle in her serene, sky blue eyes and my heart raced. She knew I didn’t want to be alone. It only took a few moments to prepare the meal and she was ready to go again. I wouldn’t shame myself by pretending to be in worse condition and I couldn’t find another pretext to keep her with me, so I said the only thing I could think of: “Do you want to have something to eat with me?” She smiled sweetly: “No thank you.” I got a pang of rejection. “Is it because I’m black?” “Oh no. Only the Chinese don’t like black people and you know they don’t like any Americans. In fact they have their own med centres and I’ve never even had one as a patient.”

I was getting desperate for her to stay and asked plaintively: “Then why won’t you eat with me?” “I don’t really eat.” “What do you mean? Everybody eats.” She shook her head. “Enhanced sentients don’t. I take liquid nutriments.” I didn’t know what she was talking about. “What’s an enhanced sentient?” “A flesh and composite being with A.I.” I looked at her, uncomprehending. “You mean you’re not a real person?” “Of course I am, even though the nurses union wants to prove that we aren’t human in its class action suit. I don’t think much about it though. I’m too busy taking care of my patients.” I was stunned. Was I being turned down by an android? After this what was I supposed to do, ask the ball boy machine for a date?

I was at a complete loss for words as she headed for the door. She turned with a bright smile. “I’ll see you tomorrow for your first day of home treatment.” I felt like laughing or screaming, but I did neither. I watched her leave with a feeling of despair that plunged me into a pit of self-pity. The only thought that kept racing through my mind was that I couldn’t ever seem to connect with anything real.

Gary Beck has spent most of his adult life as a theatre director and worked as an art dealer when he couldn’t earn a living in the theatre. He has also been a tennis pro, a ditch digger and a salvage diver. His original plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles have been produced Off Broadway. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines and his published books include 21 poetry collections, 7 novels, 3 short story collections and 1 collection of essays. Published poetry books include:  Dawn in CitiesAssault on NatureSongs of a ClerkCivilized WaysDisplaysPerceptionsFault LinesTremorsPerturbationsRude AwakeningsThe Remission of Order and Contusions (Winter Goose Publishing, forthcoming is Desperate Seeker); Blossoms of DecayExpectationsBlunt Force and Transitions (Wordcatcher Publishing, forthcoming are Temporal Dreams and Mortal Coil); and Earth Links will be published by Cyberwit Publishing. His novels include a series Stand to Arms, Marines: Call to Valor and Crumbling Ramparts (Gnome on Pigs Productions, forthcoming is the third in the series, Raise High the Walls); Acts of Defiance and Flare Up (Wordcatcher Publishing), forthcoming is its sequel, Still Defiant); and Extreme Change will be published by Winter Goose Publishing. His short story collections include: Now I Accuse and other stories (Winter Goose Publishing), Dogs Don’t Send Flowers and other stories (Wordcatcher Publishing) and The Republic of Dreams and other essays (Gnome on Pig Productions). The Big Match and other one act plays will be published by Wordcatcher Publishing. Gary lives in New York City.

You can find more of Gary’s work here on Ink Pantry.

Pantry Prose: Click Bait by Balu Swami

Laila was a bush pilot, crocodile hunter, face climber, BASE jumper and, more recently, wingsuit flyer. She was also asthmatic, arthritic, and anaemic. According to her doctor, she also suffered from tinnitus – a diagnosis that she had a hard time accepting. Initially, the doctor thought that her condition was caused by damage to auditory cells. When tests showed no damage, he termed it ‘perceived’ tinnitus. What she heard, on occasion, is a muffled clicking sound that seemed to come from a deep well. The clicking had a pattern although she couldn’t quite map it. She sure as hell knew it was not ‘perceived’ or ‘subjective’.

When billionaire Carlos’s New Horizons Corp announced it was seeking astronaut candidates to work on a Mars-orbiting space station, Laila jumped at the opportunity. Although she did not have a degree in science or engineering, her pilot experience and her notoriety helped her leapfrog to the front of the line. The notoriety was a good bet. One of the cable networks dug up a photo of a naked Laila with a python around her neck. When a reporter asked her if there was any truth to the story that she slept with the entire football team in college, she corrected him saying, “the basketball teams – men and women.” All of this brought tons of attention to the mission and the company’s stock went up which, in turn, helped the company raise more capital. Carlos couldn’t be happier.

During the two years of training, Laila noticed that the clicking sound got clearer and more distinct every time she performed zero-g manoeuvres. But then parabolic flight does all sorts of shit to the body, so she filed it under the ‘who the fuck knows’ bucket and forgot all about it. During launch, she was all nervous energy and during different stages of ignition, she was too excited about the prospect of leaving Earth’s orbit to focus on anything about herself. It was the same thrill she felt BASE jumping or wingsuit flying: Rush, Rush, Rush.

The clicking returned several months later during her first spacewalk. This time, the sound was more pronounced and had the structure of an algorithm. She found the experience quite unnerving. She kept telling herself, “This isn’t happening. Sound waves can’t travel through space.” In the following days, as she worked with the crew on the building blocks of the space station, she trained her mind to shut out the sound. Once phase I of the project was complete, she called ground control and asked to speak to Dr. Allen, the chief astrophysicist. Dr. Allen didn’t have an answer for her, but she asked Laila to document, as much as possible, her auditory experience. Laila was sure Dr. Allen meant auditory hallucination.

Back on earth, Laila noticed that her vision had gotten blurry and the clicking had returned, only this time it was no longer faint. She underwent a battery of tests and it was determined that weightlessness in space had reshaped the structure of her eyes. Neurobiologists called it neuro-ocular syndrome. The tests, however, found nothing wrong with her hearing. There was a lot of babble about auditory cortex and neural responses, but the simple conclusion Laila came to was that her hearing had gotten more acute to compensate for the vision loss.

There it rested until she got a call, one morning, from Dr. Chandra, an acoustic scientist at UK’s Centre of Astrophysics. They wanted to record the signals Laila’s auditory nerves were sending her brain. They wanted to compare them to the gravitational waves from solar flares, supernovae and other cosmic happenings that the Centre had been recording for years. Laila thought the whole idea was bizarre but agreed to participate in the study.

Two years later came the answer: The clicking sound Laila had been hearing came from a black hole 1.5 billion light years away. Soon they were finding ‘hearers’ all over the world – a farmer in Uzbekistan, a monk in Bhutan, a 24-week-old foetus inside a pregnant woman in Romania. The foetus could hear the clicking that the mother couldn’t. In the traditional and social media, the headline was the predictable ‘Is anybody out there?’ For Laila, the question was ‘how can I get there?’

Balu Swami lives in the US. His works have appeared in Ink Pantry, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Flash Fiction North, Short Kid Stories, Twist and Twain, and Literary Veganism.

You can find more of Balu’s work here on Ink Panty.

Pantry Prose: Shit Lottery by Perry Genovesi

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On the first night it snows, she finally discovers who’s leaving the trash bags outside her apartment. Luna follows the bag’s track to an unassuming rowhome one block south of hers. The air smells of car exhaust and a yellow glow shines above the porch in the upstairs window. From the front door, a thin hand appears, gripping another black bag’s top knot like a marionette. Then the vestibule light flicks off. A porch light blinks on.

“Can I help you?” the woman calls.

“No!” says Luna, standing in an empty parking space. “You weren’t going to bring that trash to the house on the corner down on Rodman, were you?”

“No,” the woman says. She heaves the misshapen bag down the eight steps and onto the sidewalk it thumps. Snow culls in its ridges. Then, from the bag, an entire doghouse, with a shingled, rust-red roof, tumbles off the curb and flips into the street. Its inner walls are painted glittering green. Luna says, “Last week it was…plates. All made up like dimes…and…the week before that, laundry bags with dollar signs on them? I’m not angry,” Luna says. “Are you a set designer?”

“A what?” says the woman.

“A set designer. Do you make props for a stage, a movie set? A movie about money? About Wall Street?”

“Oh, no.”

The woman gives a little shout Luna is ascending her steps. “You owe me a confession,” she says.

“Listen. There’s someone I’m taking care of right now. This is all him.” Then the woman pouts. “My name’s Amara. I can tell you more about him more about Mr. O’Hanlon, if you want to come inside. There’s coffee. That’s your house on the corner there, right?”

Luna nods. “A coffee.” She cozies up with the thought of a drink with a new person who is not a man. “That would be,” Luna feels the need to pause during a passing car’s rumble, “nice. Do you mean now? Who’s Mr. O’Hanlon?”

“Mastermind behind all this. I guess he’d like that,” says Amara, rolling her eyes. “I usually don’t. Look, maybe we can stay on the porch?”

“No, it’s freezing out! And I…want an explanation.”

The door opens a crack and a line of light stripes the floor.

A week ago, a bag full of dark dinner plates greeted her. On the plate’s surface someone had etched perfect profiles, in silver marker, of Roosevelt. And the week before that, she’d pulled a bag open, the bag lightening around its edges, to reveal deflated basketballs. Each ball featured the same jumble of black lines. She pulled one out and it flopped onto the curb. The lines formed a familiar face in profile: Lincoln. They were admirable renditions, with varied dates.

Luna follows Amara into the living room. Gardening tools, two dull junk flamingos, a grungy beach umbrella and green skis clutter one of the enclosed porch’s corners.

“You want a glass of wine, or water? He has some Jameson left, probably, if you want something stronger.”

Luna cowers in the moss-smelling living room. The wood panels dim the room. “Oh, wine would be great, thanks.” She pulls the bottom of her jacket over her hips. She wants to stay frozen but she’s made it this far. She creeps to an end table next to a boxy beige couch. There’s a stack of photographs on top of six shoeboxes ranging in colour from grey to brown point, and a picture of an attractive white man with a moustache and a bomber jacket stares at Luna – he’s holding a giant prize check in the foreground; in the background, a woman cheers from a doorway. Amara strides into the room with a bottle tucked under her arm and two glasses of red wine quivering.

“Thank you,” says Luna. The wine tastes like cloves and sickly-sweet cherry.

Luna lowers herself in front of a coffee table. “I do home care,” says Amara. “My, Mr. O’Han-Paddy. If I left that trash here, he’d take it, rip up the bags, bring all his crap back inside.”

“Oh,” says Luna. “The one in the pictures?”

“That’s him,” says Amara, pointing to the man with the prize check. “He used to work for a sweepstakes company. Brought those big ass checks to people’s houses. So now, I know it’s crazy but he keeps trying to make that happen again. Make stuff he thinks he’s gonna give someone. And it’ll change their lives.”

“I – there’s nowhere else to put these bags besides my house? It’s rude.”

“He gets out here and tries to find where I’ve put them on the block. Tears up other bags. He recognizes the white CVS ones with the red. I had to change out the bags. Hasn’t found where I’ve been putting them on your sidewalk yet.”

“What does he do when he finds them?”

“Stops people on the street. Tries to push frisbees, treadmill belts he says are dollarbills on them. I caught him with a stack of pancakes in February. Or brings everything back and pushes everything around. Throws it over the lamps. On the stairs. Says I’m censoring him. Says I’m getting in the way of changing lives, people winning.”

A creak echoes from where Luna assumes is the kitchen and then a heavy step resounds. Amara’s cheek flashes in profile. “Sir!” she says. “Mr. O’Hanlon?” An empty can hits the floor and rings. Then something slides toward Luna. Amara snatches it off the floor and stands, holding a small, stuffed, turquoise sack. It resembles the kind of sleeping bag Luna once took to with her ex to the Poconos.

“Let’s…see what’s inside,” says Luna.

“You don’t want that,” says Amara.

Luna takes it from her anyway. She opens the bag. Wrapping paper? The insides of a frog costume? She plucks out a tissue hodgepodge. It feels crisp and dry. The tissue is all green-marked – the same green as the doghouse.

“Well, he made you a wallet,” Amara mocks. Black dollar signs mark each leaf of paper. “Full of money. You’re rich now. You won the shit lottery.”

Luna laughs; the curtains waver in her vision.

But Amara says, “No! This is what I deal with. This right here is why I hide his trash.”

“He made it for me. It’s kind of sweet.”

“Maybe it used to be. Years ago. I tried to get used to it. Tried to appreciate his-”

“Well, there’s something special here.”

Amara shakes her head. “No. I talk to him about it. At least twice a month. For two years I’ve dealt with this.” Amara finishes her wine. “I tried to channel this mess into something regular. Something useful. Took him to the library Tuesdays. See if he wants to volunteer at that church on Rittenhouse. At the soup kitchen. Fool kept talking about how he – how he wanted to contribute. OK, I said, let’s contribute. We go to the soup kitchen for three days and then he yells at a man about – personal responsibility. They made us leave! But Paddy loved showing up at people’s doors with those big checks.

“When I can’t find him now, I know I’ll catch him at the dollar store. Stack of bodyboards under his arm.” Amara laughs a little. “He’ll carve into them with a bread knife. Write one out like one of those prize checks.” And she feigns carving, shutting an eye and sticking out her tongue. “And then I find three or four of them shoved under his bed. He’d address them to people. Neighbours. You never got one?”

“No.”

“Well, I guess he’s moved on. You got that now.”

“It’s…charming. He made it for me.”

“Nuh-uh.” Amarah thrusts her hand out and curls-in her fingers. “Give it.”

“Why?”

“I can’t keep encouraging him. He stops people on the street. Tells them they’ve won some vacation to Brazil!”

“It’s mine,” says Luna.

“Don’t make me get angry,” says Amara.

A deep voice behind them booms: “It belongs to her!”

Amara rolls her eyes. “Stop. Giving. Her your crap, Paddy.” She tugs the bag from Luna’s hands.

In the light, his pale skin and white hair shines. A crumpled yellow oxford appears draped over a round body; he looks like an egg in a carton. Wrinkles crisscross his cheeks and lips. His pants have, dotting down each leg, bunches of mouse-sized holes. He glares at Amara. His scent is peppery, leathery. In a rough voice he says, “I know she’ll take them away. And so I must make more.”

“What?” says Luna.

Amara says, “Listen to him.”

Paddy nods. He puts his finger to his lips and disappears down a hallway. Shakily, Luna pours more wine into her glass. Then a scuffing makes her turn. Paddy is scraping a blue and orange bodyboard down the hallway. The bottom of it rubs against the wall; he has to carry it sideways.

He displays it to her, grinning with very white teeth. The print is a fine, professional font featuring decorative flourishes outlined in blue. Luna Vesna, 5501 Rodman Street, Philadelphia PA 19143. The cheque is for $500,000,000.

“Lord,” she says. “You know where I live.”

He drops the cheque and it thumps against the couch. Amara clutches green tissue paper. “He wants to make me happy. You’re keeping him from that.”

“Oh, you want him to make you happy?” She drops the tissue on the parquet floor.

“I don’t know why you’re being so rude,” says Luna. “Aren’t you supposed to help people?”

You try keeping up with him.” Amara presses her finger to her lips. “Paddy,” she says, but he turns to the hallway. Then to Luna she says, “Tell Mr. O’Hanlon why you’re here.”

“What?” Luna tips her wine glass.

“Tell him what you came here tonight to say.”

“I’m…here because you invited me for a glass of wine out of the blue.”

“Nah-uh. At the very least, tell him, tell me to stop bringing his trash to your house. Go ahead.”

Luna bites her lip. “I can’t.”

Amara says, “Can’t or don’t wanna?”

Luna shoots the rest of the wine into her mouth – it burns. ”Yes, it’s – at least it was true. Before I knew what you were trying to give me.” She looks at the cheque. “It’s very nice.”

Paddy’s lips soften and seem to melt to a frown. He whimpers. Amara says, “Oh, you’re not happy? Tell her what’s keeping you from paradise. Because I bet it’s not me having to confiscate your bags of newspapers. Treadmill parts. Beach towels, plates.” She turns to Luna. “It’s when his fantasy steps all over people. That’s when it irks me. It really irks me. I mean, lest we forget, the reason you marched over here was to tell me about it!”

Luna says, “Stop! You’re what’s keeping him from happiness! You’re slapping the ball from his hand every chance you get.”

“So, what?”

“I want you to stop. Stop getting in his way.”

“Leaving his crap everywhere? It disturbs people, you know. I’m not doing that.”

Luna turns to Paddy. “I’m sorry.” She bends for his cheque against the couch. Paddy’s stare bores into her. The cheque is bristly against her fingers. Amara says, “Get out of here before he tries to kiss you.” Paddy stares at his boots.

Back home, Luna turns on a Netflix movie she saved years ago. But she eats the rest of a box of Cheez-Its and passes out.

When she moves into her next apartment she brings the cheque.

The next man she dates is a bass player in Roxborough, David. The first night David will sleep over, he spies the cheque under her futon. He asks what the hell it is. “An art project?”

“From an interlude in my life,” she says.

The next trash night she leans it against a stop sign.

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Perry Genovesi works as a librarian in Philadelphia, USA. He serves his fellow workers in AFSCME District Council 47 and plays in the empty arena rock band, Canid. You can read his published fiction in the Santa Monica Review, Maudlin House, Heavy Feature Review, and collected here. He’s come to the realization that most ‘conversations’ between two people are just subtle battles to see who has to send the first email.