038. Breakaway. Katherine Shaw

He’s noticed she’s missing, she’s sure of it. Would he recognise her? Could she stroll out into the open night and be mistaken for a passing farm boy? No, of course not. He’s been staring at her face every night for years.

Glancing left and right, she edges towards the cover of the thicket, fear sending her down onto her belly to crawl forwards inch by inch. Her baggy clothes drag against rocks and her newly cut hair catches in her mouth. This is taking too long. A glance at the sky tells her dawn is coming fast, and she needs to be out of here, beyond reach. Out in the open she’s vulnerable. One glance outside and she’ll be back, trapped. She has prepared for this for so long, she surely cannot fail. And the consequences if she does…No, never again. Her stomach clenches. She has to succeed.

Once she reaches the border of his land, he won’t pursue any further, she’s sure of it. Just slip through the trees and then it’s 200 feet to the fence. She can climb it in seconds, and he’s getting old now. This is what she’s been training for.

There’s a sudden light in the window behind her. She freezes. Which room is it? Think! It could just be one of her brothers; rules don’t apply to them. Did their windows face this way? Definitely. Hopefully. She can’t stop to look back. She’s exposed. Quickening her pace, bathed in yellow light, she edges towards the greenery, just a few feet away.

Her fingers finally brush against the wet grass when she hears it – a dog barking. The dogs! Are they loose? Does he know? Scrambling to her feet, she turns to face the house. Her stomach drops. The light is in her room.

Breathing heavily, she stumbles through the bushes into the trees, no longer caring how noisy she is. He knows, he knows! Feet pounding, she blindly carries herself forward. It’s now or never, but through her tears she can’t see where she’s going. Shouldn’t she be out of the other side by now? Where is the fence?

Ahead, a new light appears, a lantern swinging. He’s twenty feet away. She crouches and backs slowly into a bush, twigs scraping her skin. She can barely breathe as she closes her eyes and prays he passes by. God, please. Her hammering heart drowns out any other sounds. Hours seem to pass, but she doesn’t move. She can’t hear the dogs, he must have passed. He has to have passed.

Slowly, she reaches out into the clearing, as a rough hand locks around her arm and drags her up onto her feet.

No! NO!

Terror overcomes her. She thrashes wildly but his iron grip forces her down onto her knees. She screams, but it won’t stop him. Desperately, her hand claws at the ground. She grasps a fallen branch and swings it forward. She swings again, and again. The hand loosens. She’s free.

037. One Last Glimpse of My Best Friend. Patrick Eades

They call themselves friends, but they’re not really. They flit in and out her life like sandflies, nipping at her ankles, a warning to others who might like to approach. They slouch with their arms draped around her, passing the microphone around like a joint.

‘I was there when you found out Jagerbombs and parkour didn’t mix like you and I.’

‘Do you remember when we got lost in King’s Cross and that guy tried to sell us tickets to the moon?’

I march up to the front, where she sits slumped underneath her birthday banner, smiling at me, blitzed out of her brain. I snatch the mic from the glitter-smeared gnat clutching it.

‘I was there when you pissed your pants in year 3 science class when the volcano exploded, and I’ll be there when you OD.’

A rush of silence dislodges her smile, and I see her again as she was: scared, alone, and desperate for a companion on her descent into oblivion. And then one of the sandflies hands her a drink, near pours it down her throat, and she continues her disappearing act before my eyes.

036. Flight into Darkness. Howie Good

I seem to have discovered my shadow side – a wardrobe with mystery contents, blue and purple and full of leprous spots. Which isn’t to say I feel sad or lonely. Rather, I’m noticing different details. The world right now, mostly it’s news of the virus. We first heard the rumors from travelers. Men: quiet, faces drawn; women: often sobbing. We didn’t believe them. The weather was just too beautiful. We lazed around, eating cherries, one basket after another, and ignored the shrill, jangly bird cries and the elderly stumbling down the road from time to time, buckling under their loads.

&

I had never done drugs before. It’s many things. And it’s the sum of the many things, and it’s also not the many things combined. I tried telling my friend, but she ignored me. I was shocked at her rudeness and stepped outside. The street was covered with those old plague masks that look like bird beaks. I kept repeating to myself, “Why didn’t I go home early?” When I came back in, my friend had moved the body somewhere. She berated me for being a coward. There was no point in my replying ironically to a person who doesn’t understand irony.

&

A usually bustling city is eerily vacant. Essential supplies now include liquor, guns, and toilet paper. Who isn’t secretly embarrassed? Around midnight I take a puzzle apart just for the hell of it. The next morning my department holds a Zoom session on how to prevent cheating in online classes. Other professors mention they also have been having strange dreams. In mine, I’m eating Crown Fried Chicken on a bench while eyeballs the size of boulders roll across the grass and dirt and a woman I recognize from TV weeps into her hands.

&

If it wasn’t for lack of encouragement growing up, I might have become an avant-garde artist, someone famous for his stick figures drawn on toilet paper. Instead, I’m an empty egg. I keep my face blank, even when a self-driving Mercedes sacrifices pedestrians to save the driver. In quite a few of these stories I’m telling you, I didn’t get their point until years later. The passage of time has normalized unnatural acts, unspeakable practices. A bug-eyed gas mask hangs on a hook on the back of the door. Sometimes I actually forget it’s there.

035. Why the River? Zach Murphy

Shannon sat in her tattered recliner chair and scowled at the cheesy infomercials on the television. It’d been exactly four years since the Mississippi River took her son Gus away. 

Gus was a freshman at the state university where he became a victim of toxic substances, barbaric rituals, and a desperate will to fit In.

Shannon’s fight for justice fell into the cracks of despair until her cries went completely unheard. She cursed the Kappa Sigma fraternity for continuing to exist. She cursed the university for its disgusting negligence and its audacity to ask people for money. And she cursed the river for carrying on as if nothing had happened.

When the clock hit 2:00 AM, Shannon decided to take her pickup truck for a drive to the university campus. Her passengers were a bucket of black paint, a dirt-covered brick, and a ladder. 

As Shannon slowly pulled up to the fraternity house where Gus began his final night on earth, her heart sank and her blood boiled simultaneously. But she wasn’t going to turn back. 

She grabbed the bucket of paint, quietly closed the truck door, and fetched the ladder from the back. She ran toward the house and hoisted the ladder against the front of the balcony. She took the paint and drenched the Kappa Sigma symbol in black. Then she wrote “Leave before it’s too late” boldly across the house’s siding. 

Her next visit was to the Dean’s office. She pulled up outside, attached a note to the brick that said “I’m gonna haunt you until your world knows no happiness” and tossed it into the office window. The glass shattered like Shannon’s life when she first heard the news about her son, and she sped off with an ear-piercing screech. 

After picking a shard of glass out of her boot, Shannon parked the truck under a shadow and walked across the road toward the river’s edge. The street lights flickered as if they had a secret to tell. She always wondered if Gus was alone when he wandered off. She wondered why he decided to walk toward the river, or if he even decided at all. She wondered if he slipped and stumbled into the river, or if he was just trying to soak his pain into oblivion.

Shannon looked out at the river. The moon reflected upon its rolling ripples. She tossed the paint bucket into the water, along with any notion of a shred of remorse for what she’d just done. She closed her eyes as the early morning breeze whipped around and the cold water splashed onto her weathered face. And for the first time since Gus’ death, a tiny sliver of her soul felt alive.

034. Premonitory Signs of Decay. Howie Good

So far today it’s been the usual – derailments, riots, floods, domestic murders – and now the gods of death and destruction are clustered around the microwave in the break room, smirking at something one of them, the really fat one, has just said.

*

In 1911 Duncan MacDougall, a physician from Haverhill, Massachusetts, attempted to photograph the soul leaving the body. But, after a series of highly publicized experiments involving some dozen terminally ill patients, Dr. MacDougall was forced to concede that “soul substance” might become too agitated at the moment of death to be photographed. I don’t like having my picture taken either.

*

It’s a scientific fact, a lot of people get depressed on Sundays, usually starting about 4 o’clock. They feel a kind of inexplicable grief as the afternoon is infiltrated by premonitions of the week to come. “Aren’t you scared?” you ask. I’m not entirely immune, if that’s what you mean. I crack open a fortune cookie and there’s no fortune inside.

*

People kept coming into the apartment to collect stuff. One carried off some sort of boat. No one seemed to care. A neighbor from down the hall started stroking my face. Her boyfriend was standing right next to her, but didn’t say anything, just watched. Barely a week had passed since the man who had lived there shot himself in the head. Anyone can get a gun. It takes a person with a special grudge to use it.