Walking into my sister’s house for the first time in three years is like walking into a very familiar nightmare. It smells like the apartment we lived in with our father; burnt oatmeal and, surprisingly because Samantha doesn’t smoke, like an ashtray. But of course it is the maze of stuff that is most shocking. I knew she had been hoarding for years but the sheer amount of boxes, piles of clothing, plastic and paper bags both empty and full, takes my breath away.
“Don’t look so disgusted,” she tells me, looking back over her shoulder and seeing me frozen in place. “I have coffee already made.”
I force myself to put one foot in front of the other, moving slowly through the tunnel of junk toward the small kitchen at the back of the house. Thankfully Sam doesn’t hoard garbage and though the kitchen is full of crap, I don’t see lots of mold or rotting food. In fact there is a small space on the counter cleared for a coffee pot and two mugs. In the corner is a cluttered table but the chairs pulled up to it are free of stuff. Sam serves me a mug of coffee and I keep it in my hands, warming and steadying them, and she places hers precariously on a stack of dusty magazines and what seems to be junk mail on the table.
“You know what you’ve built here, Samantha,” I say, “you’ve built the Canyon.” She stares at me blankly. “These walls, they are like canyon walls.”
Samantha blinks a few times and looks away. “More coffee?” she asks.
I don’t blame Sam for not wanting to talk about the Canyon but I want to shake her so hard. I want to shake her until all the memories fall out, smashing to the floor. We could sweep them up, throw them away and start again.
Our father planned to escape to the Canyon for years. I saw a show about paranoids called “preppers” who, sure of imminent disaster or societal collapse, found a safe place to hide out storing years worth of food and goods. Our father, though he believed these things, was in no way like the goofy men and women stocking up on toilet paper, dried beans and ammunition. He was a sick man who hid seeds and batteries in the National Forest and thought the three of us could live there forever. He lied to us all our lives, forced us to be party to all his terrible plans, and finally brought us to the Canyon where Sam and I almost died. He may have, we don’t really know. His escape was from civilization and reality, ours from the Canyon and from him. After weeks of hiding in the Canyon, living off the meager supplies he had taken years to stash, and joining up with a handful of other deranged survivalists, we were rescued by a teenage girl whose parents were equally insane. And, clearly, things didn’t get any better for Sam after that. She thinks I am weak for giving my life to Jesus, I think she is weak for living like a rat in a sewer with so little hope and a gross house. She says she is content and she may be right. She says I am deeply unhappy and I don’t want to admit it; she may be right about that, too.
I sip my coffee. It is bitter and creamy and actually quite good. Samantha abruptly stands and starts rummaging around in her cabinets. I see some cockroaches scurry and turn my head. I look back into the small living room with its labyrinth of footpaths leading to the other rooms. There are stacks of magazines, newspaper and books, which I would expect Samantha, always a voracious reader, to hoard. But there are piles of clothing, lumpy plastic bags full of god knows what, plastic tubs overflowing with yarn, pots and pans, empty soda bottles and toys. She puts a plate down in front of me. There are some cookies on it, just a handful. They look fine but the last thing I want to do is eat one. My stomach lurches. She is watching my face carefully.
“Oh, just eat a goddam cookie, will you?”
“Don’t say goddam, Samantha.”
“Why the hell not, Marie?”
We sit silently. The coffee is still steaming in the mugs and the smell of the place is overwhelming me. The clear space on the table is dusty and sticky at once. I need to use the bathroom but I am afraid to. Again I think of shaking her, this big sister who tried to protect me from our father; who did, in the end, protect me, saving me from him. None of it is her fault: not the terrible and bare apartment, not the excruciating hikes to the Canyon, not the weeks of deprivation, not the foster homes or the loneliness or the shame or the pain or the nightmares.
“I’ve got to go, Sam. This place is too much for me. I can help you clean, get you help, but I cannot visit you here. You have a serious problem.”
“We both have problems. Serious problems,” she replies. “But, I don’t have a problem with this house. Only you do.”
“No, all normal people would have a problem with you living like this.”
“I’ve lived worse,” Samantha says.
“But you don’t have to…” I begin. “Never mind, I’ll call you.”
I take a cookie off the plate and make my way to the front door. The fresh air on the other side slaps me across the face: cold and startling. Before pulling out of the driveway, I sit in the car a moment, eating the cookie. It tastes like the sweet sap of the Canyon, like loss and like my sister’s love.
Sarah Rachel Egelman is a professor and writer, among other things.
It is supposed to be the princes who go bald. They are Charming or Galant or Dauntless — looks don’t enter into it. They might even turn out to be distinguished with receding hairlines, or at the very least a touch of grey.
But that is just one of those things no one ever warns you about. Your handsome prince will spend year after year becoming a king more handsome still, while your own currency fades. No, not even as graceful and leisurely as that. It implodes.
Three days lying prone in a glass coffin with a suspended circulatory system left Snow White with patches of alabaster scalp showing through. The hunter broke her rib cage in half, held her still-beating heart in his hands — but that is the worst part of it all. She would give him back the heart, or anything else he asked of her, if only he could make her raven curls grow.
Beauty — what a wretched curse of a name, we all feel sorry for her — turned out to have an allergic reaction to Beast fur. Her skin swelled and puckered, her nails and hair lost their shine. She takes cartloads of antihistamines, but her hormones are all out of sync. And even though her Beast is now a man, she continues to swell and shed and dull.
Rapunzel started losing hers because of the sheer weight and pull of it. At first, she hid coils of it inside her mattress, trying to keep it secret. (We all start out trying to keep it secret.) When the seams of the mattress split, she tried to bury it, to burn it. But there was always, always more hair to lose, until it seemed like she was drowning.
Now, she uses her hair to make darling little wigs for the rest of us. She dyes them chestnut and ochre and ebony, and adorns them with little ribbons and bows. And not a single person is fooled.
At first, we each thought we were alone. We each were desperate to fix the problem. Now we know that there is no fixing it, but we have each other. That is something.
Briar Rose is the worst off. One hundred years. By the time she woke, what little hair was left intact had matted into spider webs and mouse nests. It tangled on thorns and was heavy with dust. She ripped it out with her arthritic fingers, leaving a pale, sad fuzz that wasn’t even alive enough to be grey.
She will not wear her wig. She will not cover her peach-fuzzy head at all. She is trying to convince us all to open our eyes, to see what we know lies before us.
There are things no one warns you about.
How fragile beauty is. How meaningless. How easily a princess who has used up her beauty can turn into the wicked witch.
Better a witch than nothing, she says. We are starting to agree.
Heather Morris lives in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Her work has appeared in Every Day Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, and Bards And Sages Quarterly, and she reviews books at thebastardtitle.wordpress.com.
I didn’t really expect her to be dead.
Well, you don’t do you? Right as rain one minute, yapping away like she owned the place and then this morning — gone. If this was a hospital where the old biddies keel over every five minutes, or one of those places they shove you when there’s not long to go, you’d know then, wouldn’t you? Know that at least some of them aren’t going to be around the next day. But this place, well, just a glorified skyscraper. Place where ordinary folk live. And die, apparently.
Couldn’t believe it when Susie grabbed me first thing and says Old Evie’s gone an’ popped off. I just looked at her. What d’you mean Popped Off? And of course, being the spiteful cow she is, she gives me that look like I’m a total cretin and goes, Bleedin’ dead, ain’t she?
I could’ve smacked her stupid face for her. Talking about Evie like that. I mean, I know she wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but she’d more life in her than most folk. So at the handover when they ask for someone to sort her things out, I put my hand up. The other girls don’t like to do it cos it means hanging around and going through all her clothes and that. But I don’t mind.
The men come just before lunch. Two of them.
I thought they’d have a trolley or something, but the little fat one, he says they’ll manage. I take them up to the flat and let them in.
The tall one, I’ve seen him before, think he came last year for Mrs Armitage’s things. He has a list. A long list. Says this is all the stuff she’s had over the years, so naturally they want it all back.
He shows me the list. I tell him I don’t think Evie ever used a ripple mattress, and he just shrugs. Doesn’t matter if it’s not all there, he says. Often isn’t.
His mate, the fat one, he laughs. Probably end up on a car boot stall, he says. Or eBay. He obviously thinks this is hilarious and nudges the tall one like he’s expecting him to laugh.
No-one here would take anything, I say. I feel like I should have a go at him, but instead I give him an evil stare and hope he knows what I’m thinking.
Oh, yeah, I know, he says. Just, you know, some places…
We’re still standing in the entrance hall so I take them through to the living room. It’s a nice room, bright and airy. Lovely view. Looks out onto the park. I always liked it.
The tall one gets busy sorting through the bathroom equipment while the fat one sets about dismantling her chair. It’s one of those big heavy electric ones that lifts you up. It must weigh a ton cos he really struggles with it and I suddenly feel guilty and think I should offer to help. So I go over and I’m just about to say D’you want a hand? When he turns and breathes on me. Not sure what the smell is but it fair knocks me over, so I move back to the window and watch him struggle.
When he moves the base of it, there’s a square of flattened carpet underneath. Crushed and stained. All that’s left of her.
And I’m standing in the middle of the room and I can’t help but hear her voice. That high, whiny, don’t-fucking-tell-me-what-to-do voice. Not saying anything in particular. Just there. In my head. I can feel the tears welling up so I grab a tissue and blow my nose.
Got a cold coming, love? says the tall one.
I nod. Don’t forget the rails, I say.
We don’t take them, love, says the fat one. Adaptations, they are. Anyway, some other poor old dear’ll get the benefit. He starts heaving the two parts of the chair out into the corridor.
There are kids playing on the swings. I go and close the windows and for a while I just stand there and look. Evie would’ve liked this, I say. Blue sky, children playing. Her sort of day.
But they’ve already gone.
Colin Garrow’s short stories are forthcoming or have appeared in: The Grind, A3 Writing Maps, Postcard Shorts, 1,000 Words, Inkapture and Scribble Magazine. He currently lives in a humble cottage in North East Scotland where he writes unpublished novels.
It was like a medley:
Why can’t you scrape even average marks at school? We don’t ask you to be more than ordinary. His mother.
Not even my ugliest friend wants to date you. His sister.
I can’t promote you, Jacob. Your rightful place is the bottom of the pile. His boss
A medley of meddlers.
Only his Gran had seen something special in him.
Because her glasses needed replacing. His father.
She bequeathed him her small house: two up, two down, with an expansive view over the sea in a town no one else wanted to live in. Jacob moved in and commuted.
His gran’s front doorknob was spherical, brass-plated and burnished except on one side where several generations of sweaty hands had rubbed it to a mottled grey. When he stayed with her in school holidays she would show him the continents and limitless oceans that traversed the shiny part through the reflections of sun and sea, and point out the shapes of the galleons and sea monsters that inhabited the mottled part. Every year on his birthday she’d taken him by bus and train to a museum with ancient maps on large globes and shown him continents and oceans, galleons and sea monsters like those on her doorknob.
‘Take care, Jacob dear,’ she’d say when he rotated it. ‘Mind your knuckles. Watch for that scraping screw.’
The scraping screw was proud a quarter-way round. From the time Jacob could use a screwdriver, he had tried to twist it all the way down for his gran or to remove it, but no screwdriver could get a hold and no hardware store had an answer.
His wife, who refused to look into it, used gardening gloves to turn the wretched thing, hoping every time to wrench it off for good. She begged him to replace it with an ordinary door handle, like their friend Harry’s, who lived in the nearby new town, but Jacob couldn’t bear to part with it. Every day on his return from work he would gaze into his grandmother’s doorknob and see again continents and limitless oceans, galleons and sea-monsters, and then he’d put his large hand around it and try to turn it without scraping his knuckles on the proud screw.
Before their first year in the house was over his wife left to live with Harry whose house had brand new door handles from IKEA.
Once again, Jacob scraped the knuckle of his ring-finger. He wished his wife were there to put on his Band-Aid: it was difficult with his left hand.
He pulled several plasters out of their packaging and lined them up on the doorstep. As he lifted the protective wrapping off the first, a drop of blood fell onto it. He sucked his wound and the medley began again.
He attacked the second plaster with tears in his eyes.
Not even my ugliest friend.
The two ends clung to each other as if to mock him—he had married his sister’s ugliest friend.
He ripped open the third Band-Aid.
The bottom of the pile.
Biting one end between his teeth, he pressed the other onto the side of his scraped finger. Keeping the rest of the plaster at a right-angle so it couldn’t stick to anything before he was ready, he prepared to swat it down like a man determined to kill a fly—
A screwdriver bent at a right angle would do the trick. It would make his round brass doorknob safe.
Jacob’s invention was his love-child. He voyaged forth to present it to the world as if it were a king’s long hoped for son.
He pinned brightly coloured adverts in the tool sections of supermarket notice boards and sold out his first batch.
Not just average.
He starred in his own infomercials and sold out again.
Propositions from pretty women.
His bank offered him a loan to build a factory.
Top of the pile.
His wife asked to come back.
My glasses don’t need repairing.
Jacob designed brass doorknobs that only his screwdriver could attach.
More than ordinary.
Now grey-haired and stocky, Jacob possessed factories on seven continents.
Why don’t you sit back and enjoy the rest of your life? His children.
Buy a house with a gym and a pool. His doctor.
Buy a yacht. His friends.
Jacob sold his patents to a huge corporation and he sold too his grandmother’s small house which had no room for a pool or a gym. He now had billions in the bank, yachts sailing the seven seas, and several houses each with its own expansive view, and as many models and starlets around him as he wished and yet—however hard he gazed into the spherical solid-brass doorknobs he’d had screwed onto every door, he could see neither continents nor limitless oceans nor galleons but only the monsters that surrounded him. He’d given his love child away in marriage, and there was no way he could get it back.
Joy Manné writes in Vaud, Switzerland.
Angels can only see in metaphors, and this fact tends to be as inconvenient for the Heavenly Hosts as it is for the people we try to help. Each Angel has a unique interpretation of the world. Mine is beaded bracelets.
While I know life consists of far more complex things—falling in love, dealing with illness, achieving a dream or losing one—all I see are millions of people sitting calmly on the floor and quietly stringing colored beads on strings.
Here is a man making a bracelet of only one color. Over and over, he adds dark blue beads to the string. He doesn’t even look at the other beads lying in tidy piles around him. I think his true life must be repetitive and he is afraid to seek change. I kneel close and whisper, “It’s okay to try something new.” He strings another blue bead, so I try again. “Different doesn’t always mean frightening. See what else is out there.”
After looking at the colors suspiciously, he selects a green bead and adds it to the bracelet. He returns to blue after that, but I am proud of him just the same. I don’t know what that bead represents, but the experience wasn’t easy for him. “Good job,” I whisper, kissing his forehead.
I trust that God has a good reason for only allowing us metaphorical views of the world, but I still think it’s sad that my advice is so vague. I wish I could do more.
Here is a girl struggling to force a bead over a knot. This means that some obstacle is keeping her from having an experience she wants. She grinds her teeth and yanks at the bead, and I am afraid that the string will break and all of the previously ordered beads will scatter into chaos.
“Slow down,” I whisper, but she shuts out my words. “It’ll be okay. Just untie the knot.” But here I’ve made a mistake. To her, it isn’t a knot; it’s an injury or financial difficulty or unfulfilled obligation. I try again. “Take a step back. Trust me.”
She hesitates, but then pulls the bead off the string with tears hovering at her eyelids. “I know, Sweetheart. I know it’s frustrating. Let’s just look at the problem, okay? What’s the real reason you can’t move forward?”
I want to continue helping her, but I don’t know what that knot represents, let alone how to untie it. That is something only she can do. After a long time, she starts picking at the knotted string. I kiss her and say, “Well done,” and move on.
An old woman reaches out to me as I pass. Her eyes meet mine, so I know she is praying. “What’s wrong?” I ask. In response she holds out two beads, yellow and purple, begging for help deciding between them. These are the moments in which I feel most useless. How can I possibly tell her how to proceed without knowing what the real choices are?
“Follow your heart,” I whisper. She holds the beads out again, eyes pleading me to choose for her. I know she would follow my advice without question. Why am I here if I can’t answer the prayers of a woman with such admirable faith? “I’ll stay with you,” I say, because it’s all I can offer. She chooses purple, and I am proud of her, but ashamed of myself. I did nothing.
Then I notice a young man who hasn’t put a single bead on his bracelet. What could that possibly mean? “Are you afraid?” I ask, but he doesn’t hear me. “Are you lonely?” No response. I look at the string. “You’re empty, aren’t you?”
He whimpers softly in a way that tells me I’m right. He begins tying a knot in the string. “No… You don’t want to do that,” I say, hovering my fingers close to his and wishing I could touch him. “Please don’t. It will make life so much harder.” He seems to understand, and yet keeps tying the knots anyway.
I understand now that he is lost in depression. He eyes the golden clasp that can only be attached to the bracelet at the end of life. Normally God does that part, but he is thinking of doing it himself.
“Please don’t,” I beg him. “I’ll find a way to help you. Wait for me.”
He gives me fleeting nod, but his eyes are so glassy I know I must be quick.
I search for people with the same sadness. I see bracelets with little sections too knotted to hold any beads. Some just accept the gap and move on. Some become angry, looking at fuller bracelets and seeing their own as ugly and incomplete.
Then I find a woman with the answer I was hoping existed. Her string is filled with knots, but they are not merely hindrances to the beads. She found ways to make knots decorative. It was a much harder bracelet to make, surely, but it was beautiful beyond words.
I turn to run back to my sad boy, but then stop myself. How can I describe the woman’s life without mentioning bracelets? I look back to the lady as she weaves beads in with the knots, and I know I can’t teach him how to do that.
But maybe she can.
I bend close to her and whisper, “Will you come with me? Someone needs you.” She stands and follows as I lead her to the boy. I’m sure they talk in real life, but I can’t hear their words. Through my eyes, she sits down beside him, shows him the bracelet she is weaving, and he makes a hesitant attempt at copying it. It isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t have to be.
And for once, I don’t resent only seeing in metaphors. I can see enough to know which people can help each other. That’s all I really need to know.