“Roger” by David Sonntag

Fiction, Short Stories

Roger was seven when he died.

He was seven but he barely acted his age, always running around the neighborhood as if he’d just shot out of his mother like a cannon five minutes’ prior. He lived next-door to us and you could tell from the precision his Dad cut their lawn with that their family was more well off: shinier cars in the driveway, neater rows of thick bush in the backyard. And the food they cooked Roger for dinner; the aroma that would romance my senses when I peered through open windows nose-first, the magic in his bowl that could awake the kings of the jungle. It was enough to convince us we weren’t just a bunch of animals in cohabitation.

But since Roger died, those things didn’t seem to matter. 

I heard Roger’s parents talking about him the night after he died. I couldn’t make out the words but I sat next to their kitchen window and listened. I knew I shouldn’t have; I knew it was intrusive, but what were they gonna do? Roger’s dad hated me. The old man would shoo me away like I was some rabid dog, even when I was sitting on the curb waiting for the wind to blow and for my parents to come home. 

I watched Mrs. Sherman pick up the toys Roger left behind, and she’d shake them violently, the jewelry on her wrists making sounds like Christmas, and she’d wail and bark at her husband. Mr. Sherman seemed indifferent. I wanted to comfort Mrs. Sherman. I wanted her to pretend I was theirs for a night, that Roger’s things were my things and that they wouldn’t have to be painful for her. I wouldn’t be painful. I ran back home where my family had already eaten dinner and my own cold feast was waiting for me, ready to nourish but not to romance. 

Two months later I began to throw up. Carol took me to the doctor in one of her I’m-too-busy-for-this-Steve moods. Her and Riley weren’t my real parents. They took me in years back, when no one could find my actual parents but sometimes they acted like I was as much of a nuisance as unclaimed dog feces left on the curb. The doctor tried to burn my eyeballs with a bright light at the end of a stick. I swatted at it and the next thing I knew Carol was clamping my limbs to the table, and I looked at her as if to say, “Same team, Carol!” and she looked back at me as if to say, “I’m too busy for this, Steve!” 

The doctor gave me tablets to swallow, but they didn’t last long inside me and I threw them up when we were stuck in traffic on the way home. It was probably the first thing I’d eaten in days. I don’t know if it was Roger’s death, or the changes in these teenage years, or the traffic, but I felt irritated and wanted to jump out the window. 

The next morning, Carol and Riley’s going-away bags were at the front door. The last time they were at the front door I didn’t see Carol or Riley for three moons and four suns. More going-away bags than usual lined the door that day, so I guessed they would be gone longer. I didn’t care much; I wanted space. I went into the backyard and took shade under a row of thick and soft and bright green bush, the type of bush that a desert mirage would envy. Sure, it was a weird place to lie, but no person or animal could make me care.

I lay there and wondered about Roger. I wondered whether he felt much pain when he died. 

Cars drive along our street too fast usually. I know they drive too fast because Riley always yells at ‘morons’ and ‘ya goddamn idiots’ to slow down and informs them there are kids in the neighborhood. There are animals in the neighborhood too, but Riley never mentions them to either the ‘morons’ or ‘ya goddamn idiots’.

The car that hit Roger was a big, black and loud one and it didn’t stop or turn its noise down until about four houses after Roger found his way under the car’s steel belly. Poor Roger laid lifeless and stiff, like he was just sleeping under this very row of thick bush. There was no blood. He just lay there, peacefully. Maybe that’s a good way to go. The neighbors were all horrified, and the driver cupped his hands to his mouth after he’d stopped and realized what he’d hit. The grey-haired woman across the street was the first one to attend to Roger until Mrs. Sherman ran out onto the road, still in her fleecy gown and without any paint on her face. I’d never seen her care for Roger that way, as he lay lifeless and stiff in her arms, her face wet and shiny with fresh tears. 

I heard our front door open and figured Riley was grunting at one of the bags he was carrying out of the house. At the same time Eric from across the road walked into our backyard. He was a bit of a dick and he roared at me to leave, even though it was my own goddamn backyard. I hated Eric, but fear outweighed the hatred, so I didn’t stick around. I ran to the front door, where I could see Carol and Riley getting into a yellow car on the street. They took off quickly and without a goodbye. I knew I’d miss them, but I also wanted to be alone. I wondered if I’d still be around when they got back. I knew things were changing and I felt that change right there and then as I threw up on the doormat. 

I was still around when they got back, five moons later. I’d had to put up with Mrs. Nightingale’s sickening perfume and underuse of top buttons, having visited me several times and showing the two largest teats these vertical pupils had ever seen as she’d bent down to massage my neck. Her cold hands prickled my hairs. After the second moon, she looked at my food, untouched from the previous day, and called Carol to tell her about it. I couldn’t work out why it was such big news; I just wanted her to leave and let me sleep. 

As soon as she was home, Carol took me back to the doctor. She didn’t seem frustrated or busy this time. She carried me carefully inside the bright white room, and when I tried to swat the doctor’s eye-burning fire stick she just stroked my head and calmly held my limbs. After we got back in the car, Carol’s face was wet and shiny with the same fresh tears Mrs. Sherman had when Roger died. 

We got home and Carol carried me inside. It hurt, and my body was weak with the hurt, and I felt like I was a plate of jelly about to spill through her arms. I’d been told for years I always landed on my feet but in that moment, I felt like I’d land face-first.

An hour later, Riley entered the house like he had something important to do and to my surprise he stopped in front of Carol and me. For fifteen minutes he stroked my head, which was hanging from Carol’s arm like a newspaper hangs out of a letterbox on a rainy day. Riley stroked my head the same way they did when I first arrived all those years back. I wanted to run away from both of them. I loved them, dearly I loved them, but I just wanted to be by myself. To be by myself under the row of thick bush. That was where I wanted to be, that was heaven for me. Heaven awaited and I did not want to keep it. 

That night, dinner was not cold, nor pragmatic. It was warm, it was flesh, and it filled the air like it was boasting its beauty to any nose that would have it. I ate, and it was as if I could still feel the explosive pulse of the animal on my tongue. Two mouthfuls were enough. 

Later, I was wedged between Riley and Carol on the couch, their couch, the couch usually out of bounds for me. Riley’s hand stroked my head and Carol’s patted my back, as if she was feeling the quality of an Egyptian rug. I knew whose hand was whose because my head was pushed down like a dashboard bobble-head on a bumpy drive. That was Riley’s way of showing affection. Something I’d missed. It was lovely and all, but what I really wanted was that row of thick bush. I wanted that row of bush to hang like clouds above me. 

The next morning, I pulled myself from the couch. I was exhausted. Each step to the front door was like trudging through thick mud. The door was closed, and I realized it was too early to be let out of it. I saw an opening in the window but was far too tired to jump up there. Riley appeared in his gown. He sat on the floor with me, gently caressing my head and offering to hold me once more with a tap on his chest. I loved Riley, dearly I loved him, but today I sought heaven. I wanted to lay under that row of thick bush. He opened the door for me and I could’ve sworn he had a wet and shiny face, just like Mrs. Sherman’s when Roger died all those suns ago and just like Carol’s when she drove me home from the doctor. 

I hurried around the side of the house as fast as my aching paws would let me, and I found my nirvana. I curled myself into a ball in the soil, like I was about to sink into it and provide the earth with nourishment, something my body had refused for days. The sun trickled through the leaves above me, and the wind made a singing noise with the branches, trying to put me to sleep one last time. I closed my eyes. I thought again about whether Roger felt anything when he died. I began drifting off. I curled my tail over my paws, and my paws over my whiskers, and thought it was time this old tabby discovered for himself. 

DAVID SONNTAG is a freelance writer, content marketer, and singer-songwriter. Originally from Western Australia, he’s a sucker for the ocean, strumming in front of a crowd, and reading under the sun. Dave wrote his first short story in 2017, after ditching his banking career. With Tim Winton and Haruki Murakami as his creative inspirations, Dave writes about family, human behaviour, and overcoming fears – often with a twist.

“Splinters” by Kelby Mackenzie

Fiction, Short Stories

As I step out of the rusted station wagon, the unforgettable scents of Vancouver Island strike me — lilac, gravel, and salt. This place plays tempting tricks on visiting city dwellers, prompting us to question why we have chosen to exist anywhere else. I enter the foyer of the house and breathe in the smell of old wood coated in fresh paint. The panels below my feet let out an earnest squeak with every step I take, and I imagine the house blushing at its inability to hide its age. I head towards the staircase, lifting my bag as not to scrape its wheels on the delicate frames of the steps. The foyer at the top of the stairs presents a crossroad — there are five separate doors, four of which are closed, the other leading to a room on which Laura has already laid claim. There will be four of us staying here this summer—last-minute “girls retreat,” as my friends have been calling it. Since the beginning of university, we have been coming here every spring break. This year feels unique. Graduation is approaching quickly, and we all know that this will likely be our last visit here. I think that most of the girls will be happy to move on with their lives by the time school ends — I’ll be happy as well —but I can’t help feeling as though I still have things left to do. Time rarely leaves warnings for the young. Instead, it teases you with the illusion of endless expanse, offering no apology when you realize you have discovered its deception.

I take a left and push open the door directly across from Laura’s room, and decide to leave my bag in this one. It’s small, consisting of only a twin bed and a vanity, but there is one panelled wall adorned with tall windows that fill each corner with natural light. I stand in place for a moment, taking in my surroundings, letting my brain catch up with my body. I am truly, finally, here.

I unzip my bag and start to unpack my makeup and perfume onto the vanity, opening the window so I can make acquaintance with the sounds of the neighbourhood. Cars whizz by on the street outside, a few of the girls laugh about something while smoking in the driveway and from down the hall, I can hear Laura humming along to a Johnny Cash song. Sitting down at the vanity, I take a proper look at myself, which I haven’t done in days. Despite my transition into adulthood, I am still the same Ellery—though my hair has lightened from the sun, and my freckles threaten to expose themselves once again. Those freckles make me think of my grandmother, who used to call them “beauty spots.” Every summer, she would remind me that their patterns were formed by the universe uniquely for my body. A solar system, fitting itself faultlessly on the bridge of my nose. I’ve always thought they make me look childish.

As I lean forward to give my skin a closer look, I realize that I can see Laura in her room across the hall from the left panel of my mirror. I turn my eyes away, not wanting to invade her privacy, but I find it almost impossible not to look back. I feel a lack of control over where I place my gaze, aware of my inappropriate voyeurism. She isn’t doing anything particularly interesting, just unfolding clothes from her bag and transferring them into the nearby wardrobe. Still, her movements catch my interest. She carries herself with such mirthful energy, even when she thinks no one is watching. I place my chin on my hand, steadying myself in place so I don’t lose the precise angle that allows me to watch her from my seat. She continues humming to herself and shaking out the clothes from her bag for a few more moments. Then, abruptly, she begins rummaging through her belongings with new vigour, searching for something. She unzips the front pocket of her suitcase, triumphant. Reaching inside, she pulls out a creme-coloured dress, shaking it aggressively to loosen the wrinkles. She lays the garment down on her bed and begins to undress. My heart is beating faster now. I know I should look away, but I can’t bring myself to just yet. She removes her T-shirt first, pulling it over her head to reveal a wireless lace bra underneath. She then pulls down her skirt, leaving it to lay on the floor. My feet are restless, rhythmically pattering on the ground. Guilt makes my stomach churn. My actions are tasteless and invasive.

Laura raises the dress above her shoulders and slides it on over her head, turning to the mirror to see her figure fully. She leans closer towards the glass to get a closer look, just as I had done moments before, and a rush of panic runs through me when I realize that through the reflection her gaze has met mine. For a lingering moment, we both freeze, and a weighty wash of shame mixed with embarrassment strikes me. To my surprise, Laura’s lips draw themselves into a wanton half-smile, and she winks at me. She turns away to continue with her unpacking as if nothing at all had happened. I stand from my seat to do the same, revelling in the familiar sensation of promiscuity that overwhelms me. But—like a child, whose hands have been burned before by the coils of a hot stove—I know to keep my distance from things that make me feel this way. My body still sears, blistered from the last time I thought it was safe to share this part of myself.

Soon, I think to myself; you will be far from here. Soon, you can walk along a different beach, one far away, fingers intertwined with those of a girl who doesn’t fear her love for you. One who won’t abandon her courage come fall or hide behind mirrored reflections to meet her eyes with yours.

The events of this trip will remain, forever, within the confines of this tattered home, as they always do. Buried beneath lilac, gravel, and salt.

KELBY MACKENZIE is a twenty-two-year-old writer, who currently resides in Victoria, BC.

“Arizona Sunsets” by Charlotte Maertens

Fiction, Short Stories

Bonnie’s parents had said they would be back in five minutes. It had been almost fifteen according to the waterproof watch she received for her birthday, and Bonnie suspected they would be a while yet. Not that she minded, really. She was too hot and drowsy to be annoyed. ‘Languid’ she thought, remembering her last vocabulary test. How far away it all seemed: classes, homework, gold stars. Her parents had taken her out of school a month before the end of the year to go on a family vacation to the Grand Canyon. ‘We are going to have such a good time’ her mother had assured her as she’d packed their bags.

They had been driving around the desert for days now, stopping at motels and roadside restaurants, her parents uncharacteristically vague about their itinerary. At this point, Bonnie started to feel they might never make it to the Grand Canyon at all.

Her parents had spent the past hour arguing about directions, her mother insisting they had missed an exit and should be turning back, and her father adamant they just had to carry on a while longer. With the sun rapidly setting over the horizon and no town in sight, Bonnie had felt the undercurrent of tension in the front of the car build like a rumbling summer storm. The appearance of this squat strip of stores seemingly out of nowhere along the endless desert road had given pause to her parents’ silent dialogue of glares and shrugs. ‘Stay in the car, sweetie,’ her mother had said as they’d pulled into the parking lot. ‘Back in five, champ. Keep the doors locked,’ her father added with a stretch and a yawn.

Now, with her parents presumably stocking up on snacks and directions, Bonnie was alone for the first time since they had left home. Her mind was too sluggish and uncooperative for her to read or even think properly to pass the time. Lying on the back seat of the rental car, staring up through the open sun roof and slowly melting into the leather upholstery, all she could focus on was the dry and relentless Arizona heat. It had a weight to it, an almost physical form: a large cat curled up on her chest perhaps, or the thick woolen blanket her mother pulled out of the closet only on the bitterest nights of January. If Bonnie held her breath, she could imagine sitting at the bottom of the swimming pool on a summer afternoon, the world as still and heavy here as it was underwater. 

The minutes ticked by, the setting sun slanting in liquid beams through the windshield, illuminating specks of dust floating in the air above her. She glanced at her feet pressed up flat against the window, her toes painted a new watermelon pink she had found in her mother’s makeup bag. Her mother had never liked pink. She had never liked the heat either. Or car trips. Bonnie frowned, and propped herself up on her elbows to look outside. Still no sign of her parents. Getting to her knees, she reached into the front seat and grabbed her mother’s discarded sweater, tying the arms in a knot around her waist. Then, before she could change her mind, she used the headrests to shimmy up through the sun roof, emerging into the last golden minutes of the day with the world awash in the deep orange of overripe clementines. From her perch, Bonnie swung her legs and slowly unpicked the French braid her mother had woven her into that morning.

Still no one, just the silence and the emptiness of the parking lot at the end of the day. None of it felt quite real; the rented car, the expanse of asphalt around it, the squat beige stores she could just see out of the corner of her eye, and the desert stretching away from her in its vast, merciless beauty.

Sometimes, when she was swimming, Bonnie looked up through the water at the surface and imagined that if she waited just long enough, and emerged in just the right way, she would find herself in a different world. She never did, no matter how many times she tried. As she sat in the hallowed quiet of the evening, it dawned on her that perhaps, just perhaps, this was the place. The place she had been looking for in swimming pools and wardrobes and potting sheds. The place where time stood still and the fabric of the universe wore to a translucence.

She could stay, she thought. She could wait for her parents to finally come out of the store, their arms laden with treats they would never normally buy at home and their smiles wide like they had not spent the past half hour arguing where she couldn’t hear them. About mom’s new nail polish, and all the late nights dad had been putting in at work lately, and the hundred other reasons they had felt this vacation was so urgent it couldn’t wait until she graduated from the sixth grade with her friends. She could stay, and of course Bonnie knew she would.

Yet, as the sun set and the desert sky bloomed to a bruised purple twilight,  a small part of her whispered, ‘you could go if you wanted to’. She could slide down the side of the car, sandaled feet meeting the asphalt with a slap, and start walking. She could take one step, then another, and then another, across the parking lot, across both lanes of the highway, and into the desert. She could walk with her eyes closed and her hands outstretched, feeling for the edges, the secret liminal spaces between this world and the next. She could keep walking, shedding a part of herself with every step in a puff of desert dust until she walked out of existence completely, leaving nothing behind. Not a footstep, not an echo.

CHARLOTTE MAERTENS lives and works in Montreal.

“The Witch” by Bohdan Enko

Flash Fiction, Short Stories

At night, Misha dreamt of being a witch – a witch with hair so long, it never ended, but would spread out, its trails spiralling throughout the forest; in cobwebs and birches, into abandoned wells and rivers, under mounds of dry leaves and soil. It sunk deep beneath the roots, through the thickening layers of decay, past hordes of bones and fossils. Sometimes, it would even reach as far down as the molten belly of the earth; so that when she moved, and pulled at her strands, everything twisted and churned around her.

During the day, he thought of love. He had love, but he wished that he cared, that he really cared. Her name was Andrea. Beautiful and smart, he thought, but could own it more. Principled, even if words trip her up. Most importantly, she was passionate about her work, and he respected that. She was a schoolteacher. He tried. He was present, he would cook at his apartment and clean at hers, and they’d both think of fun things to do together. They’d go on drives, or kayaking, they ate out and snuck into the movies. They had a treasure trove of nicknames and inside jokes. She was Stitch, and he Abu.

One spring evening, they’d driven out to the river, for a picnic. They brought sandwiches and watermelon. The sunset reflected off the rippling waves.

“Look at the fish,” he said, “jumping out the water. It’s cause they wanna take a look at you.”

He kissed her neck, and bit into a melon slice. She stared on ahead.

“You ever think of moving?”

He blinked. “What, like move in together?”

“No,” she said, “I mean leaving Montreal, going someplace else. If you could, where would you wanna go?”

He gave it a moment. “I don’t know. Nice here, isn’t it?”

“That’s just it, though,” she sighed. “We’re too comfortable.”

“You think so?” He sat up, and mulled it over a bit more. “I wouldn’t mind visiting Machu Pichu, save up.”

Andrea shook her head. “It’s different for you. You came over from Alberta, but not me. I’ve been here my whole life. What I want is not to visit. I want to move, to change everything. I’ve been talking about it with Mom.”

She brushed bits of dirt from her jeans.

“Change everything, huh. Don’t you like what we’ve made so far?”

“No baby,” she touched his face, “I do. You come with me. Nothing too crazy. Maybe the west coast, or the US. Not so far that we wouldn’t know what the people are like.”

“What about the kids,” he said, “at your school?”

“Oh, they’re fine. It’s not like we’d up and leave in the middle of the year. And you could bartend anywhere.”

He nodded. “So, it would be next year?”

“Actually, I was thinking sooner than that.”

“What,” he whispered, “this summer?”

She nodded.

“Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“The idea’s stirred up in me just recently. We have a few months left. If I talked to administration in the next couple weeks, they’d find someone by September, and I’d at least substitute somewhere else.”

He snorted. “So you’re dead serious?”

“I know it’s a lot,” she said.

They went over the specifics – the timeline of the move, friends and family, their apartments and furniture, where they might go, whether they preferred city or town, town or country. They talked into the night, and through the mists of the city, the stars shone dimly above them. Misha suddenly felt hungry and, remembering they had half a melon left, he devoured two pieces.

She had some too. “Anyway, give it some thought,” she said.

They slept at Andrea’s, that night. But before that, he stepped out for groceries. He wanted to walk and think. He meditated on their relationship, and questioned himself about whether his intentions were genuine. And if he wasn’t sure, wouldn’t it be wrong to go with her?

He sat down at a park swing, dropped his head in his hands. He thought it was unexpected of her to suggest this change, and he liked that she’d done it. Weren’t emotions made up, anyways? What did it matter if he loved or not, if she was everything he could want, if she surprised him, and if he put in the work, in turn? Wouldn’t the feeling realize itself, as a result of the action? But then, he also wondered grimly, whether he risked hurting her, and derailing her life over something that wasn’t yet real.

The streetlight flickered over the park. He got up and wiped his eyes.

BOHDAN ENKO is a student, idler, and dog mom in Tio’tià:ke. He has no prior publications. Connect with him on instagram @forumanarchiste.

“Connection Disrupted” by Lana Glozic

Fiction, Short Stories

I push the ocular lenses into my tear ducts until I hear a faint click. Derek wants me to meet him in VR. I fasten my haptic suit. My vision blacks out; I’m confronted with the loading screen. I quit VR months ago and now I have to go back. I pick a server and I immediately teleport to the roof of an apartment complex. The buildings are all unrendered 3D assets, white and boxy. A generic skyline glitters in the distance. I cannot identify what city it is supposed to be. The skylines of major cities are copyrighted.

I peer into one of the apartment suites voyeuristically, only to find a fully furnished unit with no one inside. There are dishes, half-washed, left in the kitchen sink. A fluorescent light flickers.

Before I can zoom back out, I hear Derek’s disembodied voice.

“Kyle! Hey, is that you?”

I stumble on the edge of the rooftop, until I remember that I am not actually on a rooftop. I hold the button on my controller, shooting back.

“Uh, hey.”

“You okay?” Derek asks.

“Yeah, just disoriented. Let me figure out where I am, uhh…” I reconfigure the zoom settings, waving my Muppet hands in front of my face. I usually play as Kermit.  “Alright, I can see you.”

He’s yet again using an anime girl model, a pink-haired waif in a sailor uniform. Even as human 3D models were refined to be less creepy, people still opt to play as anime girls – especially the men.

Someone sprints to the edge and does a backflip, jumping up and into the nameless, featureless streets below. Everyone claps and cheers when he instantly respawns.

“He has full-body tracking!” I hear someone say.

“Nah, it’s probably just a script,” another interjects.

Another player approaches the edge, this time it’s Waluigi: “Goodbye, cruel world…waaa!”

And he drops off. An uproar builds in the room.

“Dare you to jump,” Derek remarks to me.

“No. It freaks me out.”

“Everyone’s doing it,” Derek presses. “Wuss.”


I approach the edge again. I look down. Everyone goads me on:

“Jump! Jump! Jump!”

“It’s not easy being green…” I singsong. I inch forward and I fall. It reminds me of a dream that I sometimes have. Although I’m lying in bed, safe, my heart lurches as if I fell from a great height – and I wake up instantly. Like so, I respawn instantly.

“Yes Kermit!” A girl calls out in the crowd. A few people surround me and cheer.

“Go away! Go away!” I yell out in my Kermit voice, running back to Derek. I hide behind him like a shy child.

“Good to see you, man,” Derek laughs.

“We haven’t done this in a while, eh?” I try to say, but it’s drowned out by twelve-year-olds mic-spamming the Soviet anthem, bass-boosted. We’re forced to hop onto another roof, but we can still hear them droning on in the background.


“I said we haven’t done this in a while.”

“Yeah, why haven’t we?” he asks.

“I was busy… I, uh, actually haven’t been doing anything for a while.”

“Oh right, you graduated! Congrats,” Derek says.

My graduating class is the first to complete our entire bachelors’ degree online. In-person classes were more like an occasional treat, something that you’d choose carefully to avoid rush hour.

 “Yup, I’m still applying to places. Employers keep contacting me for an interview, and when I say I’m available – they ghost me. I don’t understand it.”

“Have you tried being a mechanical turk? They take anyone.”

“It burns my eyes too much.”


We go server hopping. On one server (“Ecclesiastical Church Of VR”), we witness a baptism in a river. Someone claiming to be a pastor (some are, most aren’t) stands over SpongeBob, preparing to lower him into the water. The shadows hit his face ominously. I think he was meant to stay two-dimensional. I can hear him crying, exalted, into the microphone.

“I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

The pastor, the only player to use a human model, holds him submerged underwater. We stand around him with a few other people. The river water rushes over my feet, hitting my ankles with a strange sensation, that of water without temperature. With the convert, we all look up. The clouds roll, uniformly, across the sky. I count four rivers in total which lead to a massive headwater, some sort of oasis and a fiery silhouette. The red sun lingers on the horizon and cracks form in the barren soil. At the end of days, seven trumpets are supposed to sound. Angels will rise from the river Euphrates, where they’re bound underwater.

I bring it up.

“What always gets to me about the apocalypse is that they’ll play trumpets. What would a divine trumpet even sound like? What kind of trumpet does an angel play?”

“It’s not Chet Baker’s trumpet, that’s for sure,” Derek says.

“Do you think it’s coming?”

“Couldn’t tell you,” Derek replies.

On the next server (Impossible Maze… 😉 If You Dare), we navigate through a corn maze. The sky is a recycled texture from the previous map. There are only three directions to go in: left, right, and middle. Every direction is a dead end and the map creator drew dicks all over the walls. I try to roll my eyes, but the lenses force them in place. I wipe away the discharge collecting in each corner.

We settle in a mall inspired by ‘80s vaporwave aesthetics: escalators lined with neon lights, palm trees on either side, the gaudy storefronts of fast-food joints that no longer exist. We wear bucket hats supplied at the entrance. Blank Banshee, Floral Shoppe, and other oldies play. I’ll meet the odd teenager in a tattoo choker, who wishes they came of age in the mid-2010s.

“I think we can sit here,” I point to a bench by the fountain.

Players walking by grasp soda cups, I imagine, just to have something to fidget with. Pennies glimmer from the bottom of the fountain, some of them marked with players’ names.  

“Hey, wanna throw one?” Derek suggests.


“I vaguely remember this one movie where like, if you toss a penny into that fountain in Rome, you’ll come back one day,” Derek says. “Maybe the logic applies here.”

“I really hope not,” I laugh. Italy is now a black zone.

I toss the penny in. Another anime girl approaches, trying to strike up conversation. I’m surprised that, when she speaks, it’s actually a woman. Her voice is sugary and nasal, a performative hypersexuality that is in every way sexless. She wears a form-fitting, latex minidress, and thigh-high socks. There’s no life behind the eyes. A link to her OnlyFans hovers above her head in floating text, a demented halo that charges you $20.

“Hey guys, having a good time?” she says, with serious vocal fry.

“We’re good, thanks,” I shut her down immediately. Derek grows uncomfortable and looks off, ignoring her. Some maps disable the blocking function and, as it seems, this is one of them.

“You sure you don’t want company? You two look lonely.”

She sits right between us, and when she moves to stroke the back of my neck, I break away.

“Can you go away? We seriously don’t want your services,” I have to repeat myself to her.

She turns to Derek, trying to cozy up to him, and he kicks her in the shin.

“Ow! What the fuck?” she shrieks, jumping up and away from us. The freak has her pain settings toggled on.

“You don’t know what it’s like for me, asshole,” she hisses. “I got laid off.”

She drops her sultry voice, as well as her model’s initial poise. She slouches, sounding worn out. Her hand massages a knot in her temple in small, tired circles.

Derek finally speaks up. “Yeah, we’re all laid off – why do you think we’re hanging around here? Aren’t there specific rooms for this kind of thing?”

“They’re all full,” she sighs.

We scroll through the server listings and, she’s right, the strip clubs and “private rooms” are at capacity. The woman disappears, and the chatlog in the corner notifies us that she left the room.

“That was…something?” Derek says, trying to lighten the mood. “Did we nearly get assaulted on VR?”

I huff, releasing a long-held breath.

“It’s not funny, and I’m pissed off at you, too.”

Derek pauses, completely dumbstruck. “Wait, what did I do?”

“I don’t know why you wanted me to come on here. The same thing always happens. Someone weird tries to pull something. We watch someone have an epileptic fit, and we’ll have no idea what happens to them.”

“It happens, and it happens offline, too. Get over it,” Derek dismisses me.

“Is that a supposed to be a normal reaction that someone has? Jesus. I hate being here. I hate having to be on here. Everyone’s acting like it’s fun, like it’s all a big joke, but we have to be here, and we’re alone.”

Derek scoffs incredulously. “Oh, that’s what you think being alone means? Socializing in VR, temporarily? No one’s been alone for the past two decades.”

“You see, I don’t think it’s temporary.”

“I’m just saying – Kyle, if this were a century earlier, we wouldn’t see each other again. Is that what you want instead? The good old days?”

“Maybe I do,” I say, fuming. “maybe I do. I could focus on something big, if we were allowed to be bored. I could do something great. You know, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in-”

“VR isn’t stopping you from doing that,” Derek fires back.

 A pall casts over the room. The rebuttals I had prepared in my mind fizzle out.  

“Okay, fine, I’m an idiot, I’m sorry,” I apologize. I still believe every word that I’m saying.

“Thank you, Kermit.”

 “You’re very welcome,” I say with my best Kermit impression possible.

“I saw there’s a rave happening soon, you wanna go? I know it’s not usually your thing,” Derek asks.

“I guess I’ll try it this once. Whatever.”

The rave is more immersive than I expected it to be. I’m able to shake off my inhibitions, drinking some vodka that I have on my shelf. The stage lights and sirens flood my senses; I crank up my volume, I’m okay. There’s a full crowd. We bump up against each other, we flail and jump around. I forget myself; I’m really there, I’m free. I’m surrounded by everything from furries to Hank Hills and Peter Griffins. I have to stop to catch my breath.

But the room freezes. The drum and bass lags on one extended note, repeating ad infinitum, rattling in my ears. The people around me float away. Their models revert to the default T-pose, clipping through the walls, limbs extending and breaking. I reach out, and although I can move, my model does not.

A massive error message looms over me: “CONNECTION DISRUPTED. PLEASE EXIT PROGRAM.”

The only option is OK. Instead of reconnecting, I switch off the haptic suit. My eyes are watering. I grope around for my phone and text Derek.

“sorry had to go. nice seeing you. sorry.”

All of the sensations are gone, and I am playing a game like I used to as a kid, holding a controller, staring at a bright monitor in the dark.

LANA GLOZIC is a student of Classics and Philosophy at the University of Toronto. Her work has previously appeared in Goose Fiction and the Trinity Review.

“Growing” by Nadia Staikos

Fiction, Short Stories

Josh wants nothing to do with my idea of digging up half the back lawn. He thinks it’ll be too much work and plus, he doesn’t have the energy. A garden will save some trips to the grocery store, maybe, a bit, by midsummer, I say. We both know this is a reach. A few carrots and tomatoes won’t make a dent. I need a distraction, I tell him. A project. 

I’ve noticed that people are going back to the basics—growing things and sewing things and baking. My friend tried churning butter. I realize how truly incapable I am. People used to make their own flour, and I can’t even bake a loaf of bread. I tell Josh I need something to help me feel wholesome. I already have the kids on board, so we all know we’re about to become vegetable gardeners. They’ve started painting some wooden stakes, labelling “beets” and “zucchini” in shaky vertical letters, and they’re bouncing around and cheering. Josh gives me his blessing, once he makes it clear that he does not, personally, want to deal with a shovel. 

Digging it up is more difficult than I thought, though I’m too stubborn to admit it. The boys give up after two minutes. I tell them to keep the dirt in the garden, but they chase each other around the yard, shaking the clumps of sod. There are grubs hanging onto the grass roots. Hundreds of them, it seems. It’s revolting, but I can’t help but fixate on the word juicy. The grubs are juicy. They don’t seem to have bothered the grass by chomping on the roots, but I don’t want them in the garden. I pick them off with my gloved fingertips and throw them across the yard. Robins are gathering at the edges, the bravest of them hopping forward for a bite. The boys whoop with delight.

The sun sinks low and Josh turns on the barbecue. I’m soaked in sweat. The boys are gone now, probably sitting in front of the TV. I regret having marked out the perimeter of the garden before I started digging, before I knew how difficult it would be. Josh gives some laughing encouragement, and I appreciate that he hasn’t once said I told you so. He cheers me on for being a third of the way done, and there’s no way I’m stopping now, not until the whole job is finished. Bags of dirt, seedlings and seed packets line the fence, and I’m not going inside until they’re safe in the ground.

I notice Josh and the kids eat the burgers, but I keep digging. The repetition has me in a trance, and the rhythmic tck tck tck noises made by the shovel have become music. I don’t want to interrupt my flow, and as the sky darkens, I see Josh illuminated through the kitchen window, putting my dinner in the fridge for later. Later, later, I see the lights flicker on and off upstairs, trailing the bedtime progress. Bathroom for baths and brushing teeth. On, off. Bedroom lights for the length of a couple of stories. On, off. Pale blue glow of the nightlight. I look up, and I can see Josh’s face reflecting back the light of his laptop from the couch.

My back starts aching in that way that’s tolerable, but indicative of something worse to come. My hands are sweaty inside the gloves, and I know when I remove them, I’ll find a blister sitting atop each tender spot. I almost have all the grass out. I tear at the last few clumps of sod and bang them against my shovel to shake off the excess soil. The grubs appear to glow against the blue smudge of night. The robins have left, so there’s no one there to eat the nasty little things when I toss them. 

It feels like I’ve really accomplished something now. When I step back to survey my progress, it hurts that it looks like a mess. I begin to stalk around my new kingdom, plunging in my shovel like an errant javelin and turning big scoops of soil, over and over again. I smash at the largest clumps I find, breaking everything into smaller and smaller pieces. When I run out of clumps, I look up to the sound of the sliding door, and Josh tells me he’s going to bed.

It doesn’t really get dark in the city. Nights don’t even have stars, not really. I know you can see a few, but when you’ve actually seen a true night sky, it’s impossible to accept a city’s attempt. And if it isn’t dark enough for stars, then I don’t see any reason why I should stop working. I slice open the bags of topsoil and manure and whatever else the salesperson sent me home with, and spread it all around. And then I dig and turn the soil some more. I exchange the shovel for a rake and stab around at the few remaining clumps, and then it feels like it’s time to smooth things out. This part is nice. The rake runs through without resistance, and the little patterns from the tines bring to mind monks and sand. A raccoon pops its head over the fence and then disappears again.

It occurs to me there is probably an ideal time to put plants into the ground, and after midnight is not that time—but the moon is hanging low in the sky, full like a breast, and that has to count for something. The boys and I had drawn a map together, laying out where everything should be planted. I reference the creased sheet as I work. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, herbs, zucchini. I pile up some furrows and pop in carrot and beet seeds.

It’s so humid, and the air presses in. Time eludes me, but it must be late because none of the interior lights are on in any of the houses around me. The garden centre boxes have been emptied, and an untouched swath of dirt across the front edge alerts me that something is missing. I consult the map again. Marigolds. We didn’t write the word in, but the boys had drawn orange flowers along the edge. We had planned on planting them along the front of the garden to help keep pests away, and I forgot to pick some up. I step back and try to admire my handiwork, but it bothers me that I can’t complete the job properly. I can’t remember the last time it felt like I was fulfilling any of my roles completely—a bit of an employee, a bit of a mother, a bit of a friend, a worn-out shell that’s a bit of a partner. I feel weary, and realize that it isn’t just the marigolds; it isn’t just the physical labour. I’m exhausted.

I sit in the grass and take off my gloves. I run my hand along the empty space, pinching tiny clumps of soil with the tips of my fingers. If I were a plant, I would like to be here, I think. There’s a comfort in knowing that the world is asleep around me. Now that I’ve stopped working, my arms heave a sigh of relief and make it known that there will be no more exertion from them tonight. I take off my shoes and socks, and step into the garden. I’m sweaty, and filthy, and because it doesn’t matter, and because it is so tempting, I gently lay down and stretch my body along the plot of the missing marigolds. It’s soft. Alive, like a body. I snuggle in until the earth is comfortably hugging every part of me. I close my eyes, and at some point, I fall asleep.

I wake up to a fat, cold rain, falling through thick air—not drops, but balls of water exploding all around me. When a person swallows a mouthful of water, they must first form it into a ball, and if one loses the ability to do that properly, they will choke. It’s still dark out, but softened in a way that belies morning. I’m surprised that I don’t feel cold, and I’m surprised that I have no urge to stand up and go inside. The soil is still holding all of the warmth from yesterday’s sun, and is breathing it on me and around me. And because the dirt is taking care of me, and everything is alive and grateful for the rain, I go back to sleep.

I see red light through my eyelids and feel the sun on my skin. When Josh comes out with the boys, he looks worried. The boys kiss my cheeks and then run around the garden, careful to stick to the paths between furrows, exclaiming about the new plants. I had saved some of the label stakes for them, and they match the plants to the stakes and verify with me before pushing them into the ground. I decline breakfast, and I smile at Josh, letting him know that everything is fine.

It’s the boys who understand best, sooner. Instinctively. It’s afternoon, and as if it were sand at the beach, they scoop soil with their hands and sprinkle it over my body. I used to take pictures of their hands. Sometimes, scrolling through my phone at night, the photos made me cry; their delicious puppy-paw-chubbiness, their potential, disbelief at the man’s hands they would become, and the things I pray they’ll never be used for. The handfuls become bigger, and they make sure to cover every inch of me. Not my face though, not yet. And because I’m smiling, and Josh notices my encouraging nod, he helps the boys with this last task. They kiss my forehead, my eyes—the last things left—and when they are finished, I feel the water. I’m so grateful they remembered the water. 

I feel held, everywhere—what I imagine a womb must feel like. Warm and enclosed, pulling everything that I need into myself from my surroundings. I am comfortable. I exist. I’m not sure what else there is.

It’s hard to judge how much time passes, drifting in and out of sleep without a view of the sun. When I can feel them walking around above me, I know it must be daytime. To hear their voices fills the space between us with the energy of a smile. I feed off of it, and send it back with all I can muster, which is everything now. That’s what I can finally give to them: everything. What is it, to love?

The changes have been so strange. I have tendrils. They are being pulled from the back of my body, and instead of getting pulled out, they tug and reach deeper into the ground. I keep burrowing deeper, glad the grubs are gone. I’m the unraveling ends of a knit sweater. It doesn’t hurt, and I don’t feel as if I’m becoming less, but more. It makes me feel powerful—more and more as time goes on. And even though I can’t feel the drops on my skin, I know when there’s water falling on the soil above. It soaks in all around me, and I pull it up from below. It’s an insatiable thirst, but I haven’t yet felt anything lacking, and I recognize that I have everything I need. I used to imagine what this must feel like. 

I know something is about to happen, so I’m not frightened when I start to split open. It is just meant to be, and I feel accomplished because I realize everything has been working towards this. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, one step after another. When I break through the soil, back in the sun again, the children are delighted to see my split shell. They each take hold of a half and help to pull my old self away. And the sunshine, it fills a cup I’ve never had before, and I drink deeply, with purpose.

Now that I’m back on the surface, the people spend more time with me. The small ones make a plant marker that is different than the others, and they stick it into the ground beside me. I am pleased, and I recognize that the markings on it used to mean something important. On dry days, they give me water. They spend more time in the garden on those days, when the light is most nurturing. They uproot some plants, but tend to others. And often, when it’s dark, the large one sits beside me and makes sounds I can’t interpret; they roll in and out in comforting waves, and flutter and vibrate in the air around me. We are alone, together. I am entranced. I reach, I stretch my leaves. I grow.

There are patterns and cycles. Things that help, and things that don’t. There are things that could help—I have cravings and desires they may never comprehend, but would be within their grasp to fulfill if they ever learn to use their other senses. This is enough though, enough for now. I flower, and the small ones exude energy of pure joy and surprise. They stick their noses right inside my blossoms and as they breathe in, I curl my petals around their soft skin. Loves, I will create something for you. I sing, and the bees come.

All of my energy is directed into my offerings now, and they get larger as the days get shorter. I hope for acceptance. And there’s a feeling I know I used to have a word for, and I feel like I would do anything for these beings, and I want the best for them. I want them to feel good. When they reach to pick from me the fruit I have created, I feel realized. It’s all I ever wanted, to be able to give them a piece of myself. I give them all I can. And they take from me—they take and then they give some back, saving my seeds to return to the soil next year, and in this way we will always be together. They understand.

NADIA STAIKOS lives in Toronto with her two children. Her work has appeared in perhappened mag, Blue Lake Review, and The Daily Drunk. She is currently working on her first novel. You can find her on Twitter @NadiaStaikos.

“Momentum” by Jaclyn Pahl

Fiction, Short Stories

Tendrils of purple vine, voices floating on temperate air—Findlay park, empty in the cold morning dew, was now brimming in the warm embrace of midday.  A myriad of people passed through the park.  Many of these people moved with a brisk liveliness, a purpose.  A minority of others moved slowly with slumped shoulders, a concede in their walk, a relaxed sort of tiredness behind their squinting eyes.  These people were heading home.  A woman with black hair moved like failure and was headed home to a cramped, cellar-sized apartment, or perhaps she was going to a more spacious dwelling, which she shared with strangers or with family, or, else, maybe these tender horizons were still another train ride away.  If you really look, you can always identify the people going home.

In the park people stood around each other in awkward, misshapen semi-circles, like candlesticks placed by a self-conscious altar boy.  Children ran over patches of grass, the rapidity of their movement leaving behind them colourless trails, like heat from a flame.

The sun was low.  The early afternoon light was brimming with humid freshness.  The shadows were soft upon the brown, uneven earth.  The light was long and hazy.  Each patch of sunlight was blurred around the edges, as though rendered by an Impressionist.  The green undergrowth glowed translucent under the afternoon light.

In the midst of the park’s activity, two men sat still and focused under the shelter of two oak trees. One man placed his queen carefully on the board, taking the other’s knight.  Mere moments ago the younger of the two had been engrossed in the game, each move the sole occupier of his attention, but now awareness called him to accept the inevitable.  Two ebony bishops and a queen held his king cornered in the right edge of the board. He had only his rook left, save for a few forgotten pawns. These next few moves would determine when the end would come.  He looked up, losing interest in the strategy of the game, and glanced at the man across from him, who was his senior by quite a few years. The older man knew that he had won, but the end game, the closure, he always found to be the most difficult part. He glared at the board with tense, full eyes.  How to frame the king such that another move was impossible?  The task overwhelmed his concentration.  Resigning momentarily, he broke his focus, and upon glancing up, noticed the younger man had already lost interest in the game.  The older man then looked around, remembering his surroundings, and became aware of music drifting over the park from afar.  The beat was barely audible from the distant stereo from which it emerged.  Thump, thump, thump. Checkmate.

Parallel to the park walked two young women.  Their burgeoning friendship would be short-lived, despite that they shared much in the way of experiences.  The woman on the left walked slowly.  A stoic comfort was compressed behind her dark eyes, but beneath her atropine exterior there lie a gentle stirring.  Permeating her demeanor was an anxious resistance, an inability to accept the evils of the world.  The other, to her right, was a somewhat frenetic young woman.  Detectable in every flick of her cigarette was a restless hunger.  A palpable fear, like she was waiting for the other shoe to drop.  She had a gnawing feeling inside that something dark and destructive was nearing.  In this moment on the sidewalk the two felt connected.  They laughed as time slipped away.  There is a lushness to young friendship, a kind of magic. The same kind of magic that makes summer feel eternal.

Strange things swell in the heat of summer—an idea bursts forth.  The former of the two saw in her mind a vision of the day unfolding. She could see the gold sunshine become empty darkness, but not in the gentle way of a gradient.  The sun did not sink evenly behind the forested trees and slip gently beneath the horizon.  The day twisted and tautened into night.  The evening pulling strong against the day, the light becoming angular with tension.  The day became distorted, strange, and when the last bit of light slipped away and the night finally moved over the earth, it was an empty darkness, like a shadow. A gaze, a vacancy—two headlights flare and move with heat over a road.  A dark like this needs whiskey.

And opposite the two women, up the street walked a father with his school-aged daughter.  She ran ahead of him, the pavement scuffing her white sneakers. She departed from the sidewalk to run through a bush on a bordering property.  It was tall enough for her to run in circles around without her head hitting the branches.  As she frolicked she began singing a playtime song.  “Are you the sunshine? Are you the rain?” Her father watched her carefully.  When he was her age, he would sit with his sister next to the Port Island River most afternoons during the summer.  The air was black, hot with the smell of sewage and rot.  He can recall seeing a body surface in the river.  He never would forget it.  The slow pull of the water shifted its weight uneasily—grey, brown, yellow, purple, plump and bloated, covered in grime and matted hair.  His sister denies that this ever happened.  And maybe it didn’t, he sometimes found himself thinking.  The memory was too vivid.  Nothing in the real world looks that vivid, he’d concede.  In a strange parallel memory, he can remember standing with his mother on a street corner when he was eleven.  As he stood, a passing bus ran over his foot.  The vehicle was moving so fast that, although he felt its pressure, it didn’t hurt.  In shock, he told his mother what happened.  Over the blaring of horns she simply rolled her eyes.  This he was sure did in fact occur.

 “Come out of the bushes,”he called to the child.

Diagonally the two groups approached each other at the intersection beside Findlay Park, where the two men still sat contemplating their game of chess.  It was not with all the white rush of a flooding river, or the uproarious thunder of a jet plane, that metal meetingmetal.  Instead the crash was quiet.  No one could remember the sound that caused them all to look toward the middle of the intersection.

On the road lay a cyclist.  His limbs askew over the street.  His bicycle lay limply at his side, titanium twisted into knots.  The car that had crashed into him was parked at the angle at which the driver had tried to swerve, spread diagonally across the intersection.  The vehicle’s chrome sparkled under the beating sun. As the driver-side door opened, a woman stepped unsteadily out onto the road.  The cyclist did not move as she approached him.

JACLYN PAHL is an aspiring writer and journalist.  She was raised in Edmonton, Alberta.  She now resides in Toronto, Ontario, where she attends the University of Toronto.  She loves to read, watch films, and visit libraries.

“Breaking Wheels” by Meg Clavel

Fiction, Short Stories

Siobhan already made two appearances in the parlour room to pick up the extension that morning. Her husband Frank, preoccupied with his garden, gave her ample time to ring Luke. Perhaps invite him over for tea if he could spare some time before the train. In each attempt, she managed to pull only four digits of the sequence. As she watched the dial tick back around, she knew it was just a matter of time before she resolved to hang up. The telephone, hidden in the back corner of the parlour, no longer seemed so discrete when she entered the room again for the third time. This time, she was accompanied by a rag and some polish. Buffing the polish in a circular motion, she worked in sections. Meticulous as she was, the phone’s brass fixtures would shine before she tried him again.

Luke had always made her feel this way, a feeling she couldn’t quite explain. Mopping floors were customary when he grew inside her belly. The sweep of a mop across the floor or soap suds arched around the window pane felt like a necessity even in times of complete exhaustion. With her all-consuming condition, which seemed to appear overnight, the blissful pregnancy she expected was not her reality. Childbirth was not to be discussed; her own mother had educated her well. The torments of Siobhan’s term were spoken of only in her mind and even there it felt her mother would be in earshot. Confinement was what it was called, because that is exactly what it was. She learned every crack in the house during those months, contrary to her mother’s incessant advice. There were corners of the floor that collected more dust. The removal of carpet stains, from tea spills to food remnants of long-ago parties, became experiments that helped pass the time. She would rummage together glass jars to store her creative compounds, often pilfering chemicals from Frank’s garage. She worked the house clean, day and night. Her chest felt heavy, her steps slowed; she couldn’t stop. 

Labour came early, but Luke grew strong. He was like her, though she would not admit it. He was clever though. Often she struggled to find the right words to praise him. When she couldn’t, silence became her default. She sat with him across the round table when he completed his arithmetic after school. His brow relaxed no matter how difficult the equation. On rare occasions she might offer cornbread, knowing that was all she could offer him. Academia didn’t interest Luke as it did not interest her. When he came home to the typical after school snack of tea and toast, his Mother didn’t stop to greet him. She would fuss over household tasks to be done. With her apron tied so tight, everything else just seemed to drape over it, like ruffles on an old canopy bed. On some days he would find her bleaching the base boards. The smell gave him a headache. When supper was over, she would whirl past him with a sudden need to polish the silver. A leaking roof that had yet to be repaired, but a sideboard full of silver, inherited from his grandmother, now deceased. Her delusion was a puzzle he wanted to solve. At fourteen Luke left school to work for their neighbor, Mr. Owen. A successful automobile mechanic by trade, Siobhan ignored Frank when he said Mr. Owen owned half the town. Luke took note of his father’s warning, but learned from his mother that it was best not to ask questions. 

Rows from the Owen household echoed down the block at all hours of the night. Siobhan was happy when Mr. Owen took her son on, regardless of his family’s reputation throughout the neighborhood. The day Luke came home in a suit, she remarked only on the suit itself. Crimson curtains were delivered one afternoon. The house carpets, still cleaned daily, were replaced with chic rugs. She accepted Luke’s gifts with thanks, but the silence that had grown between them was deafening. On nights when her son didn’t come home until long after supper, she would wait for him. Transfixed by the muted glow of the street lamps, she peered through the glass of their oculus window, wondering if her son might ever return. 

When he did return, she found in her a voice that could shout louder than all the members of the Owen household combined. Her accusations of his tardiness seemed useless. A stain on his suit, not of tire grease, but what he claimed was spilt red wine came with a request for assistance. These requests carried such weight, that Siobhan’s hopes grew high once more. While knowing the stain was not red wine at all, she scrubbed the fabric clean over the sink, imagining Luke standing beside her as she taught her son household cleaning remedies as her mother taught her. This was never the case. Instead her son, now fully grown sat at the table. Head in hand, as he iced his swollen brow. Sometimes, she got greedy with offers to polish his rings, but he snapped at those offerings. They would be polished at the jewelry store in town free of charge, but not before he removed what might be remnants of the previous night’s tavern brawl. At eighteen he moved out, sending a cleaning woman daily for his Mother, except Sundays. Sunday became Siobhan’s favourite day of the week, though her glass jars had not been refilled of late. A good day’s work put her at ease. She had the buckets in the attic too, which needed emptying when it rained. Small pockets of rest until Luke took up space once more. 

On the morning of his train, Luke lingered in his flat in hopes of a grand farewell, though no one knew of his departure. He examined the envelope, mysteriously left in the breast pocket of his suit, which contained one train ticket. It was placed without a note, a dead giveaway as to who left it for him. This was just his Mother’s way, he accepted. There was still a silence, but today it seemed less loud. Clutching the envelope in hand, his suit was all he left behind. He boarded the train in jeans and a t-shirt, an intentional uniform where he would not be recognized. As the train pulled out, he let out a deep breath he felt he had been holding his whole life. With the top window of the cabin open, he smelled the fresh sea air of his home town one last time. With a jolt of the engine, the train went in reverse for a couple hundred yards, its wheels switching tracks. Then, they were moving forward. 

Siobhan returned the brass polish to its home under the kitchen sink. Luke had boarded the train, this she knew. The train was far away now, yet she could somehow hear its wheels moving at a steady pace. Never screeching to a halt, but roaming through hills and valleys of places she did not know. Luke needn’t come back and she wouldn’t follow, unless invited. A distance between them, a clean break. She put her feet up that afternoon. The drapes, though dusty, stayed on their hooks.

MEG CLAVEL is an aspiring writer from Toronto, Ontario. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Concordia University and a diploma in Makeup Artistry. Her passions include makeup design, creative writing and photography.

“Labyrinths” by Sophie Gazarian

Flash Fiction, Short Stories

Lily builds mazes in her dreams. When she’s awake, she draws them with colouring pencils on sheets of loose-leaf paper.

Her parents pay little attention to their child’s strange hobby until they notice rooms and passageways appearing in their house that weren’t there before. Her mother finds a door behind the washing machine that leads to a dark, never-ending corridor. When Lily’s father goes down to the basement, there are twice as many steps as usual and they lead into the back garden.

Her father finds a sheaf of drawings tucked in one of Lily’s colouring books and connects the dots. He’s unnerved, but Lily is a well-mannered girl otherwise, so he gently asks her to keep her mazes to paper only and leave real buildings alone. She’s going to hurt someone, he warns. Lily agrees and continues to draw her labyrinths in private, creating new rooms with trapdoors and hidden entrances.

When Lily is thirteen, a middle-aged man sees her walk home from school from the doorway of a run-down pizza parlour. He follows several paces behind her, watching with delight at the way her body sways with every step. 

Lily takes a left into an alleyway the man’s never seen before. She then takes a right through a door that materializes in the brickwork. She jogs down a flight of stairs that appear before her and lead into an underground tunnel. The man pays no attention to these anomalies, so absorbed is he in his pursuit. He follows Lily as closely as he can but he’s soon out of breath as it becomes harder to keep up with her. Lily turns another corner and disappears from view.

“What on earth…?” the man says as he comes face to face with a dead end and no one else in sight.

And then the walls close in on him.

SOPHIE GAZARIAN is an emerging writer from Montreal. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from Concordia University and an MA in Library and Information Science from McGill. She is a member of the Quebec Writers’ Federation.

“Prayer of a Pariah” by Aqueb Safwan Jaser

Fiction, Short Stories

In the crowded Kamalapur Railway Station, Arunima could be found wearing heavy make-up and gaudy salwar kameez. She’d vehemently clap her hands, pursue passengers, and collect money. As odd as it may seem, this was her vocation. Arunima was transgender, a hijra, an outcast, a pariah.
In the train station, she’d often sing Rabindra Sangeet when she wasn’t asking for money from the passengers. If she felt elated, she’d even prance to her melodious tunes. Her movements were graceful. The way she swayed her waist made the other hijras envy her.
One winter morning, except for a few stray dogs and a couple of slum children, Arunima was all by herself in the train station. There were no passengers either, so Arunima couldn’t start her work. To bide her time, Arunima puffed on a Derby and hummed on Bideshini

Pressing the cigarette between her scarlet, quivering lips, Arunima stared into the fog before her. There was nothing, yet Arunima fixated her gaze toward the fog. After a while or so, Arunima heard the thumping of shoes, as if someone was pelting towards her. Almost abruptly, a dark, tall figure emerged from the whitening of the fog. Arunima shrieked and just when she was about to leap off from her seat, a middle-aged man thumped on the ground before her.

He was gasping for breath and as he did so, froth started to emerge from the corners of his mouth. As much as she did not want to believe it, the man was dying. Arunima wrapped him up with her midnight blue shawl. She woke the slum children from their sleep and asked them to help her drag the dying stranger to the entrance of Kamalapur Railway Station. By then the stray dogs woke up as well and goggled at the apprehensive scene occurring before them.

After arriving at the entrance, Arunima thanked the children and halted a CNG. ‘To Karwan Bazar, mama!’, Arunima instructed the plump driver in a panic-stricken voice. Thankfully, Dhaka streets are empty in the mornings, so the driver was able to reach the destination in a very short time. Having reached Karwan Bazar, he pulled off in front of a dreary, five-storied building. It was where Arunima lived.

Both the driver and Arunima hoisted the stranger up to the third floor. Upon reaching her apartment, Arunima made the stranger lay in her dingy bedroom. She drew the floral patterned, magenta-coloured curtains so that the stranger could breathe fresh air. After clearing the froth off the stranger with a sewn napkin, Anurima went to the kitchen. The kitchen was half the size of the bedroom. It had a single stove, a faded wooden cabinet, a frying pan hanging on a hook in the ceiling, a ceramic bowl, and a tin glass beside the basin. 

As fast as she could, Arunima prepared a hot bowl of chicken soup for the dying stranger. She took the bowl to the bedroom and discovered him lying on the floor, blood spewing from his mouth. Arunima felt helpless but she was determined to help him. She hoisted him up on the bed again and sprinkled a few drops of warm water on his face. He woke with a start with an eye still half-shut.

‘Where am I?’ he inquired, alarmingly. His sight was hazy, so he couldn’t properly perceive Arunima. She spooned the soup into his mouth and he obediently gulped it down his throat. Arunima couldn’t help but feel miserable for the man. The way he was devouring the soup told her that he was starving for quite a long time. After he was done, Arunima made his head rest on the pillow. He fell asleep at once.

It took a long time for the stranger to wake up. As a matter of fact, he woke up in the afternoon of the next day. As soon as the man woke up, he was startled to find a hijra slumbering on the floor before him. He thought he had been abducted. Without interrupting Arunima’s sleep, the man attempted an escape. But he had fallen head first on the floor, waking Arunima up from her sleep.

‘What on earth are you doing? You aren’t properly fit yet to walk,’ Arunima said, while heaving him up again on the bed. She didn’t realize that he was trying to elope and the man was quiet with fear of being harassed by a hijra. ‘You have been asleep for a long time, you know,’ Arunima said with a benign smile on her face while putting a blanket over him. She was struggling to be as amiable as she could. It has been a long time since she normally conversed with anyone other than her own kind.

‘What’s your name?’ Arunima inquired with the strained friendliness almost visible in her tone.

‘Umayr’ the man replied under his breath. He was still too feeble to talk. By now, Umayr realized that he wasn’t abducted. As a matter of fact, he was far from being abducted. He was being cared for. ‘Thank you’ Umayr murmured. Arunima felt a strange delight in herself, the kind of which she never felt before. No one has ever expressed gratitude to her, so she didn’t know what to say. Instead, she smiled her benign smile.

Umayr looked around the dingy room. His sight was still fuzzy from being frail, but the blazing sunlight helped him look around more distinctly. He saw a copy of Rabindranath Tagore’s Geetanjali covered in dust and reposed on an oval, wooden table. An imperceptible, crunching noise indicated that termites are feeding on the insides of the table. The curtains were still pulled away. In the far corner of the room, there was a retro cassette player. It too was covered in dust. On the ground below, there was a dusty tower of cassettes of Bangla classics. On the wall above, there was a shabby poster of Satyajit Ray’s Charulata.

‘I’ve watched it countless times,’ Arunima said, noticing Umayr looking at the poster of Charulata

‘It’s one of Ray’s finest,’ Umayr said. 

‘Charu is a timeless character. Such poise yet so poignant. Don’t you think there is a Charu within all of us?’ Arunima said with a vacant expression on her face as if she was lost in the far end of a cave of suppressed memories. 

‘I very much think so,’ Umayr replied in accordance with Arunima’s apparent grief.

‘What’s your story, Umayr?’ Arunima asked while shaking her head to draw herself away from her musings. Umayr was silent. His eyes reflected the persona of a man who’s striving to procure the best vocabulary to describe a difficult situation. After a long, subdued silence, Arunima placed her hands on Umayr’s, which were still cold and bony.

‘I… I…escaped from home,’ Umayr said, with great endeavour. ‘It’s not my fault. It’s, it’s not. I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t,’ Umayr continued, tears streaming down his pale cheeks. Arunima pressed his hands more tightly. ‘It was too much, it was. Yes, yes, I started taking drugs. I wanted to kill myself. And why shouldn’t I? It was too much to bear. I never expected Aditi to leave. She promised she wouldn’t. But she did, anyway.’ 

A part of the blanket was drenched with Umayr’s dropping tears. 

‘And then my family. It wasn’t home anymore, it, it wasn’t. They loathed me for who I became – a drug addict. I brought dishonour to the family, they said. It was torture. I couldn’t take it anymore. I sought peace, I sought death, and I escaped…’ 

Umayr couldn’t finish his sentence. His throat was dry. Arunima handed him a glass of water, which he gulped down immediately.

The silence ensued again. Umayr looked down at his scrawny hands with an empty expression. Without contemplating what’s right or what’s wrong, without giving any thought to the consequences of the unpredictable society, Arunima wrapped her arms around Umayr. It felt like the right thing to do. The two stayed like that, embracing each other until the blazing sun gave way to the crisp winter evening.

Over the next few days, Arunima and Umayr’s relationship deepened. Umayr looked at Arunima as his caring sister and addressed her as Di, while Arunima cared for him as her brother. In the mornings, when the streets were empty, Arunima and Umayr would go on a stroll in Ramna Park. A few passing pedestrians would throw dubious stares at them while they rode on a rickshaw but they knew better than to pay attention. On their way, they would see a flock of crows cawing into the brisk morning air. During their strolls in the park, the soles of their feet would get damp from the dew appearing on the surface of the grass, which they crunched on their way. If the mornings were too frosty, they would sit on a bench in the park and puff on Derby, the smoke of which made them feel cosy. 

One day, Umayr found a shattered mirror on the leaves strewn across ground of the park. He picked up a shard with great curiosity. Upon scrutinizing the reflection, Umayr was taken aback. He saw that his hair was dishevelled and that his cheekbones began to emerge, making him look skeletal; his body was thin as a rake and his eyes were pale. ‘I have destroyed myself, Di’ Umayr said in a great state of melancholy. It was true. The drugs had ruined the once handsome structures of his face, making him look ghoulish.

Arunima took the shard of glass from his hand and threw it away. ‘You are my brother, Umayr, and know that you are the most handsome person I have ever seen,’ Arunima said with such firmness that it was clear that she meant what she said. She took Umayr’s hand and began strolling to the never-ending curves of the park. It was her effort to make Umayr forget about the predicaments of life.

The days passed with gusts of cold wind. Arunima made Umayr eat as many nutritious foods as possible. But to no avail, Umayr was still gaunt. She mostly relied on her chicken soup, which she prepared with a special blend of herbs. It was her medicine for all sickness, however, it wasn’t quite working for Umayr. And she couldn’t find a doctor either for hijras are often met with contempt in society. And Umayr wouldn’t go without Arunima. 

Other than her effort for keeping Umayr well-fed, Arunima also tried to keep his mood elated. On Umayr’s 24th birthday, Arunima cooked a succulent dinner for him. She kneaded dough to make butter naan and kindled tandoori, which was marinated with minced garlic and onion, cayenne pepper and garam masala. She also prepared raita by seasoning the yoghurt with cucumber and mint. A bottle of Coca-Cola was bought to abate the jhal.

After spreading a tattered carpet on the floor, the two sat down and dined in gaiety. While munching on a leg piece, Umayr thanked Arunima for making the effort to make the day special for him. Arunima said nothing but she smiled her benign smile. Umayr noticed that she bore a certain melancholy in her heart. He was meaning to ask for a long time but he couldn’t get the opportunity to do so. Umayr knew about how most hijras are abandoned by their families and later regarded as pariahs in the society. This in turn leads to their joining of the hijra community, where they are taught the art of their occupation.

“What’s your story, Di?” Umayr inquired, haltingly. Arunima looked up from her plate, which had a half eaten naan, and into Umayr’s curious, unflinching pair of eyes. The benign smile gradually faded away. But Arunima wanted to tell her story, her miseries, her laments, which she suppressed in the deepest corners of her heart for so, so long.

‘My mother said I was born a beautiful baby. Such beauty was rare in boys, many claimed. As a child, I was provided with singing lessons. Yes, that’s where I picked up my adoration for Rabindra Sangeet. His notion of romanticism enchants me, truly. But I was only taught to sing and not dance. I remember the first time I attempted to dance. It was a sunny afternoon, Maa and Baba were away, and I played Aloker Ei Jhorna Dharaion Baba’s old gramophone. Oh, I tell you, Umayr, I never felt such ecstasy in my entire life. I performed kathak, bharatanatyam and odissi just by myself. I knew I did well. I felt it in my soul, Umayr. 

Then suddenly the music stopped. Baba was standing beside the gramophone. He smashed the vinyl into pieces. Maa was weeping her silent tears. I knew from their faces that their worst nightmare came to life. My true identity was their worst nightmare! 

By the time I was fifteen, my identity was becoming more and more apparent. I was locked in my bedroom without any contact to the outside world because to everyone, I was a hijra, a pariah. I hummed many Tagore Songs just to keep my soul alive and to pass my time, I read and re-read the Geetanjali. In those dark, doleful days, that book was my Bible. 

Then one day, the locked door was open. Baba and Maa stood in the doorway, their faces heavy with regret. I thought they’d finally accept me for who I am and not what they want me to become. But I was a fool to think something like that. They came to throw me out of the house. They said they had had enough of me. It didn’t take much effort to throw me out. I remember standing in the entrance, staring for the very last time at my house, where I spent my childhood in the arms of who I believed were my parents.

I left with nothing but the copy of Geetanjali for it was my solace, my only accomplice in the forlorn days. I remember walking for miles on end until I discovered my own kind. I met my guru, who taught me how to survive with my identity. I made friends, I made enemies yet I was lonely. 

Sometimes we don’t realize who we really are to the world, to ourselves. And that lack of understanding puts us in a state of sheer isolation. We spend too much time finding our place in this world that in the end, we discover that there is no place at all. We are all vagabonds in this world. 

You know, Umayr, I sought my purpose in this forsaken world. I didn’t find any.’

Arunima was not weeping like Umayr did when he shared his own story. He understood that all her tears had dried up a long, long time ago. But he also knew that there was still a pang in Arunima’s warm heart, which left her confused and strayed. Umayr held Arunima’s hand and squeezed it tightly. Arunima smiled once again and kissed Umayr’s forehead. ‘You are my Di,’ Umayr muttered as he rested his head on Arunima’s lap, ‘and that’s your sole purpose in this forsaken world.’

The next morning, Arunima and Umayr went out a bit late. They felt heavy from last night’s dining. But they wouldn’t miss out on their daily walking routine. It was almost at the end of winter, so it was already sunny when they arrived at Ramna Park. The park was already filled with many pedestrians by the time they arrived. This disconcerted them a little, since there were too many unwavering stares this time. Of course, they tried to ignore them but the gazes fell heavy upon them.

Turning a corner in the park, Umayr stopped dead in his tracks, apparently gazing at the crooked branches of a tree. Though utterly ordinary to the eye, they gave Arunima the ominous premonition of some phantom gradually approaching. She was just about to convey this to Umayr, when she noticed his wholly vacant eyes. He abruptly collapsed to the ground and began shuddering.

Froth appeared on the corners of Umayr’s mouth, he was having a seizure. Terrified by his violently twitching body, Arunima screamed for help: ‘Save my brother! I beg of you! Please, save him!’, but her cries fell on deaf ears. The pedestrians far off dwelt only on what their eyes could see, and they saw a hijra attacking someone, someone of their own kind. Some soon rushed to the scene, eventually dragging Arunima away from Umayr’s convulsing body. 

They threw punches at her; kicked her, while others hurled stones. Arunima repeated ‘Please! Save my brother!’, but to the crowd Arunima was a persona non grata, a hijra, an outcast, a pariah and she attacked one of them. She deserved no mercy. Her forehead began to bleed. Her skin was scathed. Her gaudy Kameez was torn in places. Someone yelled, ‘You are dead, you bloody hijra,’ but it didn’t matter to her. 

She was beaten until her mind blanked, losing consciousness. The last thing she had seen was Umayr being carried away by a few people. And the last thing she muttered was his name, her brother’s name – ‘Umayr’.

Time passed by. Now raindrops fell on Arunima’s blood strewn face, waking her up with a start. A repugnant stench nauseated her, upon looking around she saw that she lay on a pile of garbage. 

Her attackers left her in the filth to die. She tried to rise, but her feet didn’t allow her. She could feel some of her shattered and broken bones. Arunima clasped her hands in a silent prayer, with such effort that it were as if she were hauling a sack of stones up a steep rocky hill. 

She may be a hijra, but today her hands were held together instead of one palm thumping on another. Her prayers had to be answered, for she was praying for Umayr, someone who unlike her, who is accepted in society, in religion and perhaps, even in eternity. 

Feeling the damp cold sludge against the grazes of her skin, Arunima began to weep. Through her tears, through her gritted teeth, and through her devastation, she kept on muttering, ‘Save him. Please…’

Arunima’s hands then let loose and thumped on the pile of garbage. Her eyelids drooped. Arunima was no more.

In a hospital bed, Umayr woke up with tears streaming down his haggard face. In the darkness of his barely conscious mind, he knew he would never see Arunima again. Pressed onto his chest, he felt the face of a weeping woman. The scent of henna told him it was his mother. ‘I’m sorry, beta,’ she mumbled, ‘please, forgive us’, Behind the bed, stood his father, rigid, but just as sorry. Umayr barely reacted, his eyes occasionally veering off towards the foggy window. 

How unusual to have rain during this time of winter, he thought to himself. Just as unusual to find someone like his Di, who may have finally found her place in this forsaken world.

AQUEB SAFWAN JASER is a Bangladeshi creative writer who appeared in an anthology titled ‘Ten Square: Hundred Word Stories From Bangladesh’ and The Elixir Magazine. Being a cinephile he also writes for High on Films. Currently, he is pursuing a degree in Marketing while working as a Content Writer.