"The Gardener" by Stefan Harich
There’s a strange boy in town. He wears his cap all wrong and doesn’t seem to realize that jeans showing off ankle are not long, but in fact too short. Every time he comes through Hillary Gardens, I see him panting with the strain of walking up the hill. He isn’t bigger than your usual Scottish teenager but that rise always gives him the shakes.
Today – I am just brooding over dead weeds and lost friendships, feeling deserted - I notice him coming to a heaving halt half way up the climb. He is coughing and retching and looks right miserable.
Against the lethargy, I decide to step from the safety of the flower beds and approach him.
He has his hands on his knees and is sweating worse than a bomb defuser deliberating wires. He stops me with a look. “Don’t bother”, he manages between coughs, “there’s no helping.”
I cock my head. “Sure there is.” I take his side and offer my arm. He considers me and after a pause, he places his hand on the glove covering mine. I notice neatly trimmed nails at the tip of filigree fingers. “Hold on now," I tell him.
We start up the rise, his arm’s weight feeling minimal on mine. With every laboring step however, his grip tightens and he inches closer until, three quarters of the way up, he is clinging to me with all his might. Tears are streaking his cheeks and the coughing is relieved by sobs.
He feels on my arm not like a stranger at all now. And as we crest the hill, the desolation in his heart is mine and mine is his, and it begins to heal.
"The Mark" by Livia Kovacs
It stood next to other regular chairs at the kitchen table. Sometimes her mom moved it around till it got lost among the others. She had to know. Had to. When it was time to dine together she wouldn't sit on it even with the threat of torture. Her stomach became wobbly from the thought.
Something had to be done.
One afternoon she accidentally pulled out the string inside of her favorite pants while trying to pull it tighter on her waist. The light gray color made it more visible on the faint green fabric of the seat. Sinking into graveyard's green grass. She tied a knot around the chair back and let the rest hang down on the wooden legs. From now on, she thought, her mom could shuffle the chair around but she will always remember it.
Dinner time the old man sat down unaware of the change. His funny smell filled the room and mixed with the pork slices. She was too young to diagnose liver failure but subconsciously understood the message. He reached his fork out with an indifferent facial expression. Mom was extremely nice and pulled the meat plate closer to him. The girl sat there smiling at the old man, thinking about her victory.
"Sinister Summoning" by Shelbie Kellum
They cross the river, their feet dipping into the warm water before finding purchase on the steep bank. The only light to guide them is the full moon overhead.
“You think she’s here?” Willow whispers, afraid that some monstrous creature will spring forward if she speaks up.
“She wouldn’t invite us if she wasn’t here,” her older sister says in a scolding voice.
As if sensing their doubt, a light at the front of the old cabin flickers to life. The door opens with a creak and Aunt Bel steps onto the porch.
“Come on in!” she bellows. Willow can’t help but giggle and both girls break out in a full run.
The cabin is one big room on the inside with a kitchen, sitting area, and a cramped loft. The décor is rustic but imbued with magic, alternating between old tools and dusty bottles of herbs. They gather around the rickety table, the girls bubbling with excitement and Aunt Bel smiling at their enthusiasm.
A collection of rocks, animal bones, and rose petals are piled in the middle of the table. Once the girls settle down, they eye the centerpiece with suspicion.
“We aren’t doing anything scary, are we?” Willow asks.
Aunt Bel chuckles. “Oh yes,” she says.
The girls exchange a worried glance. Aunt Bel runs both hands through the air, making them dance in the dim light of the cabin. After a tense moment, a spark of magic appears between her palms. The girls gasp.
Aunt Bel flings the drop of magic onto the dark stones with a flare and a wink. Willow and her sister scoot their chairs back and almost bolt away, but what appears stops them. It’s a large bowl teeming with…
“Ice cream!” They shout in unison.
Aunt Bel cackles.
"A Fair Amount of Ghosts" by Zach Murphy
He plays the trumpet brilliantly on the corner of Grand and Victoria. He doesn’t look like he’s from this era. He’s impeccably dressed, from his crisply fitting suit to his smooth fedora hat. There aren’t many folks that can pull that off. He’s cooler than the freezer aisle on a sweltering summer day. He performs the type of yearning melodies that give you the goosebumps. I’ve never seen anyone put any money into his basket.
There’s a formidable stone house that sits atop Fairmount Hill. It’s been for sale for as long as I can remember. The crooked post sinks deeper into the soil with each passing year. It isn’t a place to live in. It’s a place to dwell in. There’s a dusty rocking chair on the front porch. It’s always rocking. Always rocking. I’m not sure if the chair is occupied by an old soul or if it’s just the wind. Maybe it’s both. I guess the wind is an old soul.
This town is full of posters for Missing Cats. There’s one for a sweet, fluffy Maine Coon named “Bear.” He’s been gone for a while now. I’ve searched through every alleyway, under every porch, and inside of every bush for him. Sometimes I think I see him out of the corner of my eye. But then he’s not there. The rain has pretty much washed away the tattered posters. If he ever turns up, I worry that the posters will be missing.
I met the love of my life in Irvine Park, near the gloriously spouting water fountain, beneath the serene umbrella of oak trees. We spent a small piece of eternity there together. We talked about whether or not the world was coming to an end soon, and if all of our memories will be diminished along with it. After we said our goodbyes and she walked off into the distance, I never saw her again. So I left my heart in Irvine Park.
"Slow as Molasses" by Melissa Taggart
While growing up in Alberta, Canada I often heard the expression “slow as molasses." It was often followed up by “running uphill, in January”. January being the most frigid of months meant everything moved turtle paced if you were lucky. Besides this outdated simile, nevertheless we often had molasses on hand in my house.
My dad had grown up in Nova Scotia where molasses had been a staple. His birthday cake was often spiced. It paired perfectly with the winter flavourings of cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. The smell of cinnamon and cloves often wafting through every corner of his home as if it had always belonged there. Christmas baking, molasses cookies provided “the warmest of hugs on a winter’s night” as he told it. When eaten straight from the oven. My father always sharing this tale from yesteryear as a rule each time he had a hankering for some cake.
Dad arrived home from work. A factory worker for years meant he hobbled while he made his way into the Livingroom. At the ripe old age of 45 he moved as quick as one would expect Methuselah could manoeuvre. Physical labour long ago claimed my father’s body and soul. Happiness was hard to come by. As if it had been stuck in a black strapped sludge of exhaustion, relinquishing all hope of a life outside of the almighty paycheck. A colorful expletive soon exited his mouth as his backside met his old recliner. Here he would remain for the rest of the evening. His dirtied baseball cap missed the side table landing onto the floor.
“Is that spiced cake I smell Frankie?” dad wearily asked.
Cracking an ever so slight smile. The Albertan winter had not hardened my father completely. After all there was still cake.
"Lover" by Miri Aung
You know, the couples in romcoms always have their conversations lying on a grassy field somewhere, probably braiding daisies into each other’s hair. That’s what they do in books or in films, but not in real life.
In real life, the conversations don’t appear all lined up like dominoes, or neat pages in a book. They’re smaller, squeezed in the spaces between the fridge and the wall, in the gap under the next step on the stairs.
Jonny was hanging his clothes up again. Kim thought he did it periodically, like a reflex when he had nothing else to do with his hands.
“Did you pick up the washing?”
Kim shook her head. The walk-in closet was big enough for the both of them, so she was getting dressed as they spoke.
“I thought it was your turn.”
“Hmm,” he replied. Jonny was always going, hmm. When he was frustrated. When he was upset. A quick, tangy hmm when he was about to laugh.
“What about the newspaper? You know Noomi loves it in the morning.”
“I got it,” Kim answered, tying the edges of her shoelace.
“Ok, then. Thanks.”
“Okay,” said Kim.
These days, maybe their conversations weren’t even big enough to fill the space between the fridge and the wall. More like the beat between their breaths.
"The Change" by Jennifer Vandenberg
The day Jamie finally turned invisible came as a relief. She was tired of people asking when she would turn. Her mom was the only one telling her not to rush it because invisibility was forever. Jamie didn’t care. Four of her best friends at middle school were already invisible, and it was all they ever talked about. Jamie had felt excluded.
Excited to share the news, Jamie ran downstairs into the kitchen. Her mom stood at the stove, scrambling eggs with a spatula that seemed to float as she held it in her see-through hand.
“Mom!” Jamie shouted. “I’m invisible!”
Her mom turned, the front of her colorful button-down dress now visible. “I’ll miss your beautiful smile, sweetie. It’s a shame you can’t change back.”
Jamie’s smile slipped as she realized no one would see her expressions again. Was this why her mom wasn’t celebrating with her? No, she chided herself. This was a good thing. “I won’t ever want to change back. Now I will know what my friends are talking about. It’s exciting!”
Her mom hugged her. “Today it is. Eventually, it will just be normal. It’s our burden as women.”
Jamie shook the doubts from her head. “It’s not a burden. I’m glad I went through the change.”
Something warm touched her cheek, and Jamie leaned into her mother’s hand. The gesture felt reassuring, but her mom’s sigh sounded sad. “If you’re happy, then I’m happy for you.” After another quick hug, the spatula waved in the air toward the stairs. “Go on, and wake your brother.”
Jamie walked away, sure her mother was wrong. Being invisible was the best, even if no one could see her, right? Puzzled, Jamie knocked on her brother’s door. Change was harder than she had expected.
"Non nobis, Domine, non nobis - Not unto us, Lord, not unto us" by Ryan Diaz
Oh how they loved Father Steve. Whatever he said was holy and right.
He arrived two years ago from the adjacent diocese and became highly popular among the faithful ladies.
It was his birthday last Friday, they praised the Lord before the barbecue, backstabbed the choir girl during, and walked him back to their Lord their God after.
The congregation gathered this Sunday, they arrived three minutes late. ‘No biggie, he is up there, we’re down here.’ They sang their hearts out, with their floral dresses swaying sideways and oblivious to the divine bread still sticking onto their fleshy gum. Lord have mercy.
Father texted on Monday asking for volunteers to help out the service, he got as many disciples as his Lord had in less than five minutes. ‘Father needs help. Stacey, you coming?’ They sat in the pews for an hour, scrolling for updates and adding to carts. ‘No biggie, He is up there, we’re down here.’
They brought their sons and daughters to the luncheon on Saturday and clapped after Father Steve put down his microphone. ‘Well sung, Father!’ ‘You should be on talent shows!’ They commented as they spooned their soup and forked their salads.
Prayers followed the luncheon and they faced the crucified Lord. Father spoke of his celibate life and the graces from the vocation. He thanked the ladies for the food and the Lord for the gifts He laid.
'See you Friday, Father Steve!’ It came out moisturized by an always-gossiping tongue.
'Ben, honey, forget what Father Steve said.’ It was commanded by another.
Oh how they loved Father Steve. Whatever He said was holy and right.
Non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam — but to thy name give glory.
"Red Raw Knuckles" by Alan Kennedy
Red raw from knocking, Andrew’s knuckles throb like a cartoon character’s. When they deigned to open the door, a uniformed guard ushered him into this cubicle. Six hours squirming on the edge of the plastic seat. He checks his form to remind himself why he is there, goes over his personal information for the fifteenth time and pleads with the screen number to change.
How much longer?
Through the bullet-proof glass partition, a steady stream of smiling people trickles out the exit door clutching the coveted permission, stamped and triplicated. Two of them give Andrew the thumbs-up sign. The machine above the way in hums into action, whirring faster and faster. Andrew’s heart matches its rhythm. He takes a slug of water from his canteen.
Click! Sixty-seven becomes sixty-eight.
Despite his bladder being on the point of bursting, Andrew doesn’t dare to shift from his chair. Every morning for the last week he has repeated this ritual. Today’s the day. He’s not going anywhere.
The apparatus throbs one more time before cutting out with a wheeze like a heavy smoker’s last breath. Andrew jumps to attention when a clipboard holding civil servant strides out. The pin stripe suited man looks down at his notes and clears his throat.
‘Sorry. No more interviews till tomorrow.’
Andrew crumples the slip of paper with ‘sixty-nine’ into the wastepaper bin. Blinded by his tears, he shoves his way out past the queue already forming for the next day’s consultations.
"Hell's Cobblers - Stick on Souls" by Lesley Anne Truchet
‘Why am I here? I was a priest for God’s sake.’
‘Mistakes happen, Father.’
‘I want to go up there. It’s your mistake. Do something, you flaming horn head.’
‘To go up you must replace your lost soul. Try Hell’s Cobblers, over there.’
‘Hi cobbler. I need a replacement soul.’
‘No problem, Father. I can stick one on you. However in payment you have to nominate someone without a soul to die.’
‘I need the business. No one wants to be here.’
‘Ok. Hal E. Luya. He’s a Horrible Bishop.’
‘A Bishop. Fantastic. Come back in one hour.’
An hour later I found myself rising heavenward, my soul floating behind me like gossamer wings.
‘May I come in?’ There were too many pearls on the gates for my taste.
‘No, Father. You’ve caused Bishop Hal E. Luya to die.’
‘It’s the only crime I’ve ever committed.’
‘One is enough.’
‘But I don’t want to go back down there.’
‘You can’t. If you choose to leave Hell they don’t let you back in. You’re stuck with the multitude in Dead Man’s No-Man’s-Land.’
‘Hey. That’s my soul.’
‘Not any more. I sell them back to Hell’s Cobblers.’