THE RED LINE
With Stories From
Philip Miletic Liam Hogan Andrew Simpson Dina Katnelson Patricia L. Morris James Gibbons David Anderson
Hello Again, After much anticipation and a false start, we have a ranked set of stories for the Time theme. For this competition we were pleased to see another batch of well written and entertaining stories. There were differences of opinion between the judges, as you will see from the feedback over the next few pages, although at the end of it all there was a clear winner. Four of the five judges picked “Lucy’s Train” to receive this months award. If your name is Dina Katnelson, you have every right to feel pleased with yourself. Across the rest of the list there were some differences of opinion, and having worked out the mean ranking of each story, last place is in fact a tie. Second place was hotly contended between Liam Hogan’s “Countdown” and David Anderson’s “The Deadline”. We will not spoil the tension by telling you which one managed to come out on top, but we can honestly say that it was down to the wire. The stories are presented in ranked order in this issue, starting with our winner, and each story is followed by individual feedback from each of our judges. We hope that you enjoy them as much as we did, and thanks again to James, Niamh, and Bettina, who stepped up to be counted when it mattered. Stephen & Toby The Red Line August 2013
Lucy’s Train By Dina Katsnelson
The music lesson is an hour long. Lucy’s mother is sitting straight-backed and her fingers move up and down their old piano. It stands in the light of the living room window and Lucy is watching her mother play, sunlit and swaying with her music. The notes jump and tremble. They cascade and Lucy wants to hold them as her mother does, to toss them about the room in wild bursts and reel them in softly. But now her bum is sore on the wooden bench. Her own fingers are slow to learn; their notes strike sharp and ugly. Outside, Peter has gotten a new bike for his birthday, a two-wheeler, and Lucy watches him struggle to mount it on the sidewalk in front of his house. She watches him swing one stubby leg over and lift himself
into the seat, his knuckles white on the dark blue handlebars. “Lucille! Are you paying attention?” Her mother’s voice, how did it sound? Did it carry at a higher pitch then, in her younger years? Had it been musical, a sing-song voice, or had it already grown into the rough, low tones of her mother’s last years? Lucy couldn’t recall, couldn’t fill the gap in her memory. She remembered the blue handlebars, the wooden piano, the slanted sunlight.
Lucy opened her eyes.
The North-bound train hurtled into her line
-and it’s snowing again. She and Annabelle
of vision, and she took a step back on the platform.
Fisher walk ten brisk paces from the doors until they
The doors opened to a stream of commuters bump-
are both hugging the corner, beyond the school’s
ing past, and she squeezed her way inside. She found gaping windows. It’s cold. She pulls a pack of du a seat next to a dozing man in a crumpled business
Maurier from her bag, handing Annabelle a cigarette
suit, her eyes falling on the window, on the ochre-lit and taking one for herself. Annabelle holds hers like sky. The sun hung low enough to brush the brink of a pro. The first match sparks and dies in the wind. evening. She heard the mechanical sounds of the
“Oh damn. Sorry.” Lucy tries again. Her face
train starting up again, the floor humming and the
is numb, and her heart has a jittery, rapid beat. The
plastic seat vibrating beneath her. She wiggled her
second match catches.
toes inside the hot confines of her shoes. Remnants of the office clung to her brain – an early meeting with Wyatt, neat rows of Post-its lined up like army men on the left side of her desk. Lucy sighed, scratching her hosiery.
The train platform shrank into the distance. Sunlight blazed in her eyes and bounced off glass, bringing out the dusty rain stains. The train stopped again, and students crowded inside, jostling each other with bulky backpacks. Lucy could see their school across the street. It was a brown building with small, square windows.
Annabelle’s cheeks are pale, splotched windblown red. She grins. “Lucy, how do I look?” She strikes a pose with her smoke dangling lazily from her long white fingers, puckers her lips and tosses her scarf over one shoulder like a runway model. Lucy laughs, but she is distracted with her own cigarette. She tries to hold it like Annabelle does, as if it were a natural extension of her body. She inhales, but the taste and texture of the thing are unclear. She never really got into smoking. “So, you gonna be around next year?” Anna-
There was a courtyard of matted gray grass and a winding chain-link fence. Cigarette butts floated in rain muck. Stragglers clustered in small groups, blowing smoke into each others’ pink faces, laughing into the autumn air. Lucy got wind of a memory, smiled. The sun blinked, and-
“Don’t know yet, maybe I’ll be traveling or something.” She is bouncing in place to keep warm, blinking away the too-bright sunlight. Their voices stutter in the cold. “Or maybe I’ll get a job somewhere, save up some cash. Hey, what if we go touring with the Dead? Wouldn’t that be so amazing?”
She pauses for another drag. “Or, you know, maybe
I’ll start college right away. That’s what my parents are pushing for. But, then I’m definitely leaving the
city. I can’t stand living at home anymore. I can’t stand it.” “You’re parents aren’t so bad.” “You don’t even know.” Her eyes are wet in the wind, cheeks burnt raw. She looks down at the cigarette, twirls it. Her fingers are curiously alien in their numbness. “Hey, Lucy-
Lucy opened her eyes. Someone was saying her name. “Imagine running into you here, of all places!” Sandra Rees loomed over her, a loose smile pulling at her heavily made-up lips. Outside, the school had fallen beyond her sight. The school kids had dispersed throughout the train and stood hunched over their cell phones. “Sandra,” said Lucy. “Wow, it’s been a long time. It’s good to see you. I didn’t know you took the train?” “Oh, well, I don’t normally, but Brady needed the car for his new job. I was just catching up on some errands, stopped by the mall. The fall sales are really good right now. I bought some things for the grandkids.” Lucy tugged again at her hosiery. “Oh, really?” The train swayed to a stop, and she stood up to let the crumpled business man out. Sandra squeezed-in to take his place. Her thighs came flush against Lucy’s, her shopping bags piling onto both of their laps. “It’s so crowded!” she said. “The rush is just getting started,” said Lucy. When was the last time she’d seen Sandra? Over a year ago. Maybe more. “It must be later than I thought,” Sandra said. She shuffled her bags around, and something sharp prodded Lucy in the leg. “The time always gets away from me too.” Lucy watched a skinny kid next to Sandra play with his iPhone. His backpack bobbed an inch from the other woman’s face. Sandra, unaware, had begun to talk about her kid’s new job. Lucy’s gaze wandered toward the window, and-
- it’s still snowing.
“Your parents aren’t bad,” Annabelle says. She has light brown hair. A red backpack. Lucy is frowning. “You don’t even know. I feel like I’ve been in high school forever. I just wish time would go faster, you know? I wish I was in university right now. I wish I had my own place already.” “Yeah? So Stephen could come over?” Annabelle grins, smooches the wind with a moist-sounding kiss. “I’m serious, Anna. Everything is going to be different when we’re free of this…” She gestures
generally at the red-brick building. Lucy leans against the fence and lets her head fall back, blowing smoke into the sky. It’s white and broad with a distant sun beyond the clouds. Looking up to watch the snowflakes rush down, Lucy can’t feel them on her face. “I’m so sick of wasting my time here. I want to start living.” The wind roars and carries Annabelle’s reply far above the ro-oftops. Lucy breathes in too deeply and the air tastes like bee stings. Her friend begins to laugh at something, and-
Lucy opened her eyes. The sunlight had shifted, blinding her momentarily. She forced herself to see Sandra sitting beside her, and she smiled awkwardly at this woman, her friend. Sandra’s youngest boy, Brady, had been at daycare with Tom years ago. They met for coffee sometimes, saw each other at community events. These were not the friendships of her youth, Lucy thought. There was no heart in them. She checked her watch; her stop was still a long way off. Lucy’s mouth felt dry, and she wished she’d remembered to buy a bottle of water before getting on the train. She had always been awful at making small talk. “The weather is very mild for fall, isn’t it?” she said finally. “Yes, it’s wonderful!” Sandra said. “Remember last year, with all that hail?” “Oh, it was horrible!” Houses flashed by, strip malls and parking lots and empty fields, and then the train plunged underground. Muffled rock music escaped from somebody’s headphones. “So, Lucy, how is Tom these days?” Sandra asked. “It’s too bad he and Brady lost touch.” Tom lived in Toronto. He was twenty-six now. He had Lucy’s dark blond hair and his father’s pale
eyes. He had some of her restlessness too, but generally he was quiet and distant like Robert and looked
like a young, lanky version of her husband. “He’s still in Toronto, just started his apprenticeship.” “What kind of apprenticeship?” asked Sandra with her loose, lipsticky smile. “He wants to be a welder. It’s a construction job. It’s a huge industry in Toronto right now.” “Oh yes,” said Sandra, “Oh, I know. But I thought he wanted to be an artist or something. Was it a painter? Didn’t he go to art school?” “He did for a few years, but he wants to be a welder now. That’s probably for the best, unless he
changes his mind again in a couple years.” Lucy shrugged as if to say, “What can you do?” and Sandra kept on nodding, bobbing her head up and down like a mechanical toy. A shrill pop song erupted between them, and Sandra jumped in her seat. “My phone!” she said, and began to rummage through her bags. Lucy stared at her without really seeing her: Tom in Toronto, a grown man and still a little boy. Lucy remembered when he was just a little boy, a tiny person with fat knees and soft, wet eyes. Their first house, the house of Tom’s childhood, had had two bedrooms and a kitchen that opened into the living room. It had a small yard where tulips grew every year and where Tommy would play in a plastic pool on the dried-up summer grass. They spent weeks renovating the place by themselves before moving in, terrible weeks that stretched on and on until it seemed the work would never be finished. But they did finish eventually, and they moved everything in without any trouble, and they lived there for twelve years. The train stopped again and Sandra was talking quickly into her phone. A splash of sunlight warmed Lucy’s face, and it felt-
- her skin feels heavy and loose, her hair always matted, always sweaty and in her eyes. The cellophane is drawn out like a lake over the pale blue carpeting, dotted with paint and strewn with stained rags, dirty brushes, paint-caked cans. Warm on bare feet from the sunshine, it crinkles and bunches, catches between her toes. They shout at each other from the empty rooms and their voices echo off periwinkle walls. Soon it is too hot to yell. She makes Lemonade. She makes Iced Tea from powder in a tall can. She gives Tommy an orange Popsicle, a red Popsicle - he always loved the cherry-flavoured ones best.
Now it’s twilight and the room is made of grays. The summer air is blossom sweet, slippery
warm. It clings to skin, to upper lips, to eyelashes. Robert is leaning in, hot breath pooling between them. And she is laughing. They are cross-legged on a mattress with the comforter squashed into a corner. The floor is made of long bare wooden planks streaked blue with shadow. They listen for Tommy, alone in his new nursery, and hear Lucy’s new wind chimes clinking in the late breeze. There are cards in chaos scattered between them. Later, they will discover the Queen of Hearts is missing. Right now they are in the middle of Crazy Eights. The cards won’t lie still on the mattress, they twitch and spill over. “Pick up two cards.” “Huh? Why?” “I just put down the Seven of Clubs; that means you pick up two.” “You’re thinking of Six, Robert. You do that with Sixes.” “Can’t be.” He pauses, his forehead bright with sweat. “This game is kind of stupid.” He sounds like Tom, or Tom sounds like him. What happens next? The cards: she throws them at his head and one managed to knick the side of his nose. “Now, now. There’s no need to get violent, Lucy.” He is leaning in, reaching out, and the corner of his pink mouth twitches. Their shadows are long trembling things that stretch up and down the twilit hallway. “Wait.” Lucy listens. “Is that the baby?” They are quiet, breaths suspended. But now it’s morning, and the sun flashes. Tommy is crawling on the bright prickling grass, falling and rolling with chubby arms thrown wide as if to grab the whole of the broad blue sky into his chest. She lifts him high, high above her, and he is air in her arms. Sponge-skinned and noisy, he’s overjoyed. She inhales deeply into his fine hair and the smell of sunscreen is dense in her nostrils, clinging to his jumpsuit. “Tum-Tum-Tommy!” The sun makes yellow streaks on her sandals, and it is the hottest summer in all her wide memory. Her mother is there too. She comes every weekend and most weeknights to help with Tommy
while they are painting and sanding and hauling the furniture around. She stands in the doorway and shouts
advice about where to put the bookshelves, what direction to face the crib. She is smaller now and her hair is cut short, in a kind of dark-brown bob. She wants them to take her old piano. “For Tommy,” she says. “Maybe I can teach him to play when he’s older.” Her mother’s voice. What does it sound like? Lucy opened her eyes. They plunged deep into a tunnel and the lights flickered. She watched the high-beam underground lamps dart between patches of blackness, like days and nights whizzing past her window. She could see her own reflection in the dark glass. Had her voice changed in all that time? No. It had always been the same; she had always been the same. When her mother was dying she did it slowly; her life did not snuff out like a candle flame. It seeped out gradually in little bits, seeped down somewhere into a faraway time until her present-day body was left grey, brittle and empty. Lucy knew this because her mother began to speak exclusively of the past. Later, when her voice became hoarse and inaudible, she said nothing at all. But Lucy could see that her eyes did not look out at her, or at Tom, or Robert, or at any of the people who came to sit by her bedside. Perhaps they had all faded and grown grey in her eyes, just as she was fading in front of theirs. Perhaps it was the other faces, the ones lost in her mind, that grew more vibrant and pulled her slowly back to them. “Sorry about that!” chirped Sandra. She was off the phone and gathering her bags in an effort to stand up. “My stop’s coming up. It was good running into you, Lucy. We should make plans to catch-up.” “That sounds nice,” said Lucy, and her voice sounded strange, like it was coming from outside herself. She watched Sandra wave, then cross the threshold of the sliding doors. She saw her shrinking figure walk down the train platform until she disappeared entirely. The train lurched forward. The crowd had thinned, and Lucy’s own stop was just down the line. Swaying gently with the motion of the train, she gazed out the window at the passing scenery, at the houses and people, the schools and the parents and the rolling sky, at the wind sweeping up the fall leaves into whirlwinds. Her eyes struggled to linger on a particular object or face, but the train pushed on too quickly. The scenery blurred and vanished behind her, and all that was left was a shadow of the thing in her memory.
Feedback on “Lucy’s Train”
James This was my choice for the winning story because it was beautiful, wistful, evocative, poignant – but above all subtle. It spoke to various themes – loneliness, regret, friendship, family – all while quietly tying them to the central concept of time – how it’s rushing away from us, and how, apart from our few fleeting moments of awareness, we hardly even notice. It was a very human story, humble, and managed to fit the feeling of a whole life into a few short pages. It captured the melancholy beauty of the everyday. Niamh
There was nothing I didn’t like about this story. The narrative moved seamlessly from far reaching to near memory. It flowed without effort, the way our own thoughts do in our quiet moments.
The language was elegant and taut. There was nothing superfluous that took away from the imagery.
A really lovely capturing of a moment in time. Bettina
We’ve all find ourselves daydreaming, remembering the past, and bumping into friends on the train. I particularly liked the scene where the pop song interrupted Lucy and Sharon’s conversation, which was described in such a way as you could see it happening. It has made me look at passengers on my daily commute and wonder what they are thinking about. The way Katnelson let's Lucy move from the present (in person) to the past (in her thoughts) is interesting, however it took me a while to realise that that's what was going on. Re-reading it I could appreciate that stylistically this was a well-executed piece, whose language delicately described the familiar and made me notice it. Stephen A simple evocative story that I felt best handled our theme for the issue. The transitions between the various memories and moments are delicately done with subtle details brining to life both the characters and their environment. In its brief length, Lucy's Train manages to condense the lives of its characeters, tracing their changes and losses, without losing anything vital in the process.
Toby Pros This is an ambitious and well executed story, where the author has a flair for written expression and a good control of the form. I really like that the past was written about in the present tense, whereas the “present” was written about in the past tense, giving that sense of immediacy to the past and a sense of distance from the present. This all made sense as I progressed through the story and realise that what I was seeing is a woman in her twilight years, for whom the past has become more and more significant. This is also mirrored in what happened to her own mother before her mother died, and we have a metaphor in the blurred images outside the train that Dina closes with. In terms of the other things happening around her while she sits on the train these also seem to be faded in comparison to the memories that they serve to spark, and you do not feel that the relationship between the two women who meet on the train is a close or enduring one. I think this is a story that has an idea at its centre, rather than a traditional plot.
Cons This is a well written story and so I feel cons are really points for consideration rather than definitive negatives. I think the husband is not realised particularly well, and Sandra Rees is introduced without at first giving her context, which in a short story is an unanswered question that can linger and distract. I also wasnâ€™t 100% sure of the final line of the piece, as I am always wary of vague words lie â€œthingâ€? in key passages. However, none of these detracted significantly from how much I enjoyed and admired the story, and this is my overall personal winner.
Countdown by Liam Hogan
Ten This is a countdown. Nine When the countdown reaches zero – when it ends – so too will my life. Eight My executioners are humane. Preceding the lethal injection is an anaesthetic to dull the pain as the corrosive liquid burns my veins. The anaesthetic must act quickly, so – ironically - they give me a massive, lethal dose. Seven Strange; I might have expected my heart to be racing at this point, but instead if seems to be pounding with glacial slowness. The effects of the anaesthetic? But it is not just my heart that is slowed, so too are the movements of the Doctor, his face masked and his eyes hidden behind tinted shades, and also
those of the select audience of Party Officials. Do they freeze in expectation, in heady anticipation of their
victory over me? Six No, this is wrong! Something is definitely wrong! I try to alert the Doctor, but my muscles will not obey my commands, my throat will not form the words and my hands respond as though moving through treacle. Though I try, and try again, my body rebels. In my former role as Director of Internal Security, I witnessed an incalculable number of executions such as the one I am now subject to. I have watched these ten seconds many times. There is a moment,
shortly after the anaesthetic is administered, when the subject babbles incoherently. I open my mouth to speak again and I realise, as General Karpoc turns his head slowly away in disgust, that I too have reached that moment. Five An anguished howl reaches my ears. Discordant and guttural, an inhuman, meaningless drawn-out scream. It is mine. I cease my efforts, though the howl continues a moment longer without me. And then it stops, and all is quiet again, leading, inevitably, to the seconds of apparent tranquillity that a victim experi-
ences before the poison is let loose. The clock on the wall above the viewing platform mocks me as I try to think. The slim second hand that moves so smoothly, that counts down the scant few seconds left of my life, appears not to be moving at all. I watch it intently â€“ there! It does move; I can see now that it does so by a series of tiny but distinct twitches. Again I patiently wait and again! Another twitch. If my heart, if the people around me, if even the clock keeps such slow time, then it must be my brain that is racing. How is this not known? How useful this knowledge might be! Can I in some way communicate this
to those watching me die, and like Socrates, make something meaningful out of my death? Can I slow my thoughts sufficiently to control my fingers, to beat out a rapid message in Morse code? I try, but my forefinger refuses to budge. And then when it does, it takes an age for the dulled sensation of touch against the cold metal to trickle back along my nerves. I try to think of another, more immediate way â€“ blinking, perhaps, but then I remember that this particular side effect requires a lethal dose of anaesthetic. Many times the lethal dose. It is then merely a curio, a pharmaceutical footnote. Four
I was sentenced to death for a sex crime. A cowardly, heinous act, laughably, despicably, evil; too
terrible for any of my one-time friends to even consider standing by me. It is a crude fabrication, a crime
shaped to blacken my name, a tissue of hearsay and falsified evidence against which I could offer no defence, except to plead my innocence. Even this small rebellion was punished by beatings, by toothless threats. They claimed they had my wife in custody, but I did not believe them, could not afford to believe them. They told me the Party would look favourably on my confession, my repentance, offering me life internment at an institute for the criminally insane instead of execution. But still I refused. I would not allow them that victory. The staccato sweep of the clock slows yet further. I think of turning away, of averting my gaze, but
do not risk it, knowing not how successful I will be, nor where that might leave me looking. Instead, I refocus on the ghouls watching me die. Even this seems to take forever, the blur only gradually sharpening, slowly bringing General Karpoc into focus. I study his granite face, the lines etched into his forehead, the hook of his nose, his looks a sharp contrast to the avuncular Vladimir Arshankin. I contemplate my nemesis. My real crime is more complicated. It always is. Political, of course; everything is political. And in some ways, yes, a sex crime - but not the one I was accused of. I fell in love with Premier Arshankin’s
daughter, Nina. Was it truly love? Perhaps only time would have told. It was certainly a pairing much favoured within the Party, and for a while, my star was in its ascendancy, hitching a ride on the coat tails of that great man. Three When we left for a well earned Summer break - a postponed honeymoon, in effect - Arshankin rode with us in the State Limo to the train station. We talked. About changes in the Directorate, about a bigger role for me. Lastly, he touched upon Aleksey Karpoc, the General’s son. I had attempted to reassure the
Premier, telling him of the close watch I kept upon the man I had not been keen to employ, the man with the same naked ambition, the same hawkish looks as his father, softened only by his strangely sensual lips. I did not go into details of the hold I thought my investigations had given me over him, not with my wife by my side, and I could see Arshankin was not convinced. As we pulled into the busy terminus, he made as if to tell me something, a warning perhaps, but then he shook his head and beamed at us both, squeezing his daughter’s hand. Such matters, he said, would wait until our return. I could not have known that Arshankin would not even last to the end of our first week away. The
trial, sentence, and execution were carried out in my absence with unseemly haste by the young Aleksey.
With a start, with the fearful sensation that I have let him out of my sights too long, I look for Ale-
ksey now. Somehow I had expected him to be seated by the General’s side, but of course, he is not. My vision scans with painful slowness along the row, until at last I find him, where I had known he would be all along - there, at the far end, sat a little apart from the others, just as I had once sat, in the Director’s seat. When the garbled, barely credible news of Arshankin’s swift deposal arrived at our rural hideaway, there was a moment, a brief period, when I might have saved myself. Gone into exile. The cottage was remote, and not far from the border. It would have been possible, if I had acted swiftly. Just. Two
The room grows dim. Can my eyes no longer adjust to the speed my brain is going at? Are my pupils too slow to react, or are they already as wide as they can get? The shadows in the brightly lit room are already impenetrable. The noises, too, are hard to get a grip on. They resonate steadily at the same unchanging pitch, whether it is the drone of the fan or the click of the Doctor’s heel against the tiled floor. The only sense that is seemingly unaffected is that of smell – the constant background of disinfectant not quite masking the sour tang of sweat, some mine, some the Doctors, and some the unfortunate men who have passed this way before me. There’s something sharper as well, something chemical, alien. Perhaps it is the anaes-
thetic, perhaps the poison. Nina tried to convince me to flee. But I was too proud. I had too much invested, and knew that if both of us fled, we could never return. So instead of rushing away from the terrible jaws that awaited me, I foolishly rushed towards them. I thought I had friends in high places, not realising they had not been my friends, but Arshankin’s, and at the moment I needed them most, they were keeping a very low profile. I thought my work in the Directorate proved my dedication. I did not realise that I was viewed as little more than a hatchet man, someone to preside over unpopular executions.
I had thought that yes, being related, even in marriage, to a fallen Titan might be detrimental to my career. But surely it would not be enough to bring me down? Ultimately, I was right, I think. It wasn’t enough. General Karpoc was. Aleksey Karpoc was. No doubt they will explain their decisive actions – within the Party at least – as the need for a clean sweep, a safeguard against the return of the old, corrupt order. Though to treat me as an heir apparent would be flattering if it wasn’t so patently ludicrous. It was not the General’s position that needed protecting, it was his son’s. I fell, to secure for Aleksey the promotion he craved, his reward for his allegiance during Arshank-
in’s trial. I had to fall so very far to remove an uncomfortable roadblock from Aleksey’s path, my death a
way of sweeping aside the embarrassing evidence I had collected of his youthful indiscretions.
One I hope their machinations fail. I sincerely hope that someone realises the foolishness of letting the men who deposed the previous tyrant assume his mantle. History suggests it is those behind the scenes who profit most when a regime changes, that those too close to the purging fire are themselves consumed shortly after. But I will not live to see that history unfold. The last light, the brightest, the one atop the camera filming my execution for posterity, has finally
faded to black. I can no longer see the clock, or the feed into the cannula in my arm or – thankfully – General Karpoc and his son, the new Director of Internal Security. So what now? How do I measure time, when there is nothing to measure it against? Will I fall between a gap in the firing of my synapses? My last thought unfinished, a tiny flicker of light in an infinity of dark? Will time continue to slow, leaving me a deaf, dumb and blind immortal, waiting for an end that never comes? Am I then to serve both life and death sentences, in the space of a single moment? Or will the poison which waits to flood my veins release me from my everlasting tomb?
I have never prayed before, not in my entire life. But now, in this darkness ... I pray for my wife, for Nina, that she might remain safe and out of Aleksey’s treacherous hands, away from this cruel fate. I pray for our unborn child, the gentle swelling of Nina’s slim waist, that he might live an unambitious life, far from this unforgiving land and its brutal politics. And I pray for an end to this countdown. I pray for a zero.
Feedback on “Countdown”
James Through a Kafkaesque trial setting in which the prisoner is administered a lethal injection (which, known only to him and those that have gone before him, serves to radically slow one’s experience of time), Hogan examines the concepts of subjectivity and isolation. The structure of the story – a countdown in which each intermittent period grows progressively longer – is unique and complements the story’s content. The conclusion, in which the character prays for an end to this ever-lengthening countdown, i.e. for death, is a vivid presentation of existential despair. Evocative and succinct. Niamh
Like the concept for this story. The conflict between the reduction of time and the expansion of words.
Was hooked from the opening sentence. I felt however that too much back information took away from the pace. A little goes a long way, trust the reader.
A Greek tragedy in 10 seconds! Bettina
This story hits the nail on the head in its treatment of the concept of time. It portrays very well the countdown during someone’s last seconds, as well as the idea of times gone by. The fact that the anaesthetic does not seem to work as fast as it might, and therefore prolongs the punishment and suffering of the protagonist, is neatly portrayed by his thoughts in the last seconds of his life. What we read is a mixture of his memories and also observations about those who have come to see his death. All of this is filtered through the seemingly mind-altering effects of the anaesthetic. I found this a very moving story; here sits a man who has admitted to a crime that he did not commit, and who will never see his unborn son. A very satisfying read.
Stephen Oh, how the tables have turned on Countdown's protagonist – a former Security Director in an unnamed authoritarian state now meeting the end he has dished out for so many previous unfortunates. The selling point here is the story's structure – its ten second duration stretched out, allowing us to catch up on what lead us to this point. The effect is simple but chilling.
Toby Pros I particularly like the way that the written pieces between each number on the countdown draw out the time until it is stretched thin, which then plays into the ending, which deliberately holds you at that point between “one” and death. This structure could have been trite and mishandled but it wasn’t, largely because of the close, which I thought was well conceived and executed. It’s also bang on the money in terms of theme, which I always like.
Cons I didnâ€™t care enough. Stuck in that split second before the central character is executed, I didnâ€™t care if he lived or died. He was a government stooge, who married for social advantage, being executed by other government stooges. The prose did not spark any of the characters to life for me, which is a shame because with form and intent as good as this, some emotional engagement would have raised this story to the top of the list.
By David Anderson
The deadline was all he could hear. “Midnight tonight.” Those two words resounded again and again in his head. There was no respite. 180 days and nights had passed since he’d watched one ball follow another and another. Each one branded with his number. The first five numbers formed his date of birth. The sixth
number of the winning set was seven. Seven, the number that hung on his front door, albeit upside down appearing as the letter L. He had been using the same numbers since the advertising campaign saturated television, cinema, newspapers, magazines and billboards. Even the only bus on the island was splashed with the slogan: “It could be you”. 180 days ago he was that “you”. “For those of you who live on the Highlands and Islands of Scotland,” the girl from the lottery show had said, “Please, please look in every drawer, in every pocket, under your floorboard, under your mattress, in your sofa, your chair, everywhere and anywhere, as one of you has yet to collect your share of the jackpot. And that share is… wait for it… a massive £360 000. Remember, the lines close at midnight tonight.” He knew he had bought his tickets in Oban, on the west coast of Scotland. He bought his monthly shopping, and he always bought his lottery tickets on the same day at the same time at the same place. He would be on automatic pilot - the food he bought, the whiskey (Irish because he had a personal gripe with Scotland), the lemonade, indeed everything was the same month after month. The only thing that ever changed was where his stuff was shelved. He was in his bedroom turning everything upside down and inside out. Drawers were being ripped from
their chest with venom. Socks, many with holes in them, ill-fitting boxer shorts, his 3 Glasgow Celtic T-
shirts, the 3 green jumpers, Christmas presents from his boys, jeans, shirts missing of buttons, and finally his treasured Celtic strip adorned with autographs of the 1963 European Cup winning team, he had won in a raffle were shaken, before being dumped onto the bed. Jeans and trousers were having their pockets turned out. He tore into one jacket, believing the paper concealed in the lining was his ticket. The paper was an old £1 note. He continued to curse and swear as he had done for months. His vocabulary was limited at the best of times, but now expletive followed expletive, ranging in pitch from soprano to tenor, but with a menacing edge. The bedding was removed and the bed turned over. The wardrobe was moved. The chest of drawers moved. The centre of his bedroom now hosted a growing mountain of his life. A life he fully intended leaving in his wake. The red mist was returning; the red mist that had made him the recluse that he was; the recluse that he himself didn’t so much enjoy but endured. The red mist that had lost him his wife, his sons and his dog, that hung over the house and the life now lived.
Having rearranged the bedroom he transferred his growing frustration onto the bathroom, emptying the towel cupboard and drugs cabinet. There was no real sense in looking in the bathroom, but he needed to look ‘everywhere and anywhere.’ The ticket would be found in the last place he looked. He went into, what was his boys’ room. This was the first time he had stepped into their room for possibly two maybe three years. This was the room he tended to avoid; now serving only to remind him of his loss. He walked around, breathing in the musty air. The smell of life had long been sucked into the walls. He caressed the Glasgow Celtic wallpaper with affection, which was flaking off the wall exposing aged plaster. 1985, was the first and last ‘old firm’ [Celtic v Rangers] game he took his boys to see. The bare floorboards scarred with paint akin to acne. He picked up an old Celtic Supporters Association magazine. He threw the magazine on the floor and grimaced. He was reminded of the CSA (The Child Support Agency). They prevented him from seeing his boys. Their ineluctable pursuit of his money, which never abated had left him penniless. They aborted his capacity to be a father. The room was a visual representation of his life: empty, broken and in a state of decay.
He had to find his ticket. The winning wasn’t about £360000 it was the 360° turn around. His winning
would turn his life full circle, getting his boys back. He would return to the lowlands. He would take his
boys to Celtic Park every week as he had done, in the good old days. He looked to the clock at the top of the stairs. He looked at his watch and back to the clock. His face crumpled. A storm was brewing. He marched down stairs into the sitting room. His face had become unrecognizable and his arms had grown thicker, as he turned the sofa over with one swift flick of his wrists. He ripped the hessian from its underside. A few grapes that had turned to raisins, a bone, belonging to the dog, a present for his ex-wife, still in Christmas wrapping, a penknife with tartan sides, some dried peas were trawled with his large hands. Finally, a toy soldier, missing a limb, obviously killed in action, was exhumed. He didn’t have time to recall playing with the toy soldiers with his two boys, or the castle he had built for them. The chair was flipped over, the hessian ripped. But, there was no lottery ticket. The first sortie on the bookshelf was underway. No compassion was afforded to any author. P.D. James, Rendell, Rankin, Christie, Doyle, the Chandler’s, Raymond and Glennwere fanned with incremental violence.
A noise like a growl forced its way from the depths of his gut as he snarled at the books and the bookshelf. He turned and trudged into the kitchen. He poured a large whiskey into a half pint tumbler and added lemonade to dilute the heat, took a mouthful and left the glass half empty. His palate lacked sophistication. There was no pleasure in his drinking. He drank whiskey to get drunk. It was his only escape. Armed with his glass, he returned to the sitting room and continued his violation of literature. Two shelves occupied by Stephen King were next. One by one they were stripped of their sleeve and searched. Indeed, one book was agitated with such ferocity he cracked its spine. Again, he returned to the kitchen and charged his glass. He stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the sitting room. He had a look that said he wasn’t ready to lie down. He wouldn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. No, he wouldn’t allow himself to be beaten by a deadline. Herbert followed. His acts of vandalism and gratuitous violence continued. A pink piece of paper escaped the clutches of two pages in The Magic Cottage. He knelt down and stared at the small, flimsy, rectangle of pink paper. It was a lottery ticket. The lottery ticket.
A shriek, likened to that of an animal being murdered, sliced through the fetid air in the sitting room, be-
fore breaching the walls of the cottage. The fox, the owl, even the cows some 10 miles away could be forgiven for seeking refuge such was the depth of his holler. As he tipped back his head, yet another whiskey was consumed. He held the ticket to his mouth and kissed each number as he danced around the sitting room. He skipped around the mountain of stuff, kicking books, watching them fly across the room and smash into the wall. He didn’t care. He had £360 000 in his hands. He was singing the names of his boys as he danced his way into the kitchen. Placing the ticket in the centre of the bare table, he sat down and sighed. He poured another half pint tumbler of whiskey and lem-
onade. He looked around for a pen before finding one in the ‘odds and sods’ jar, and signed the back of his winning ticket. The ticket was now his. No one could claim the money. He knew when and where the winning ticket was bought. He had his boys back. He wasted no time pouring the remaining whiskey down his throat then he laced up his boots, put his woolen hat on his balding head and pulled on his wax-less, waxed jacket. He would need to travel across the island to the town to the telephone box. The CSA were responsible for him not having a phone in the cottage. This only added fuel to his fiery relationship with them. There was no way of contacting his boys other than through the postal service. He wasn’t a writer or a reader for that matter. The books he had treated with such contempt belonged to his ex wife. BT was still no further forward in installing the Internet to the island, not that there had been much interest. There were notices on the ferry to and from the mainland warning tourists about the lack of reception for
mobile phones. Again, no one on the island bothered. It tended to be inconvenient only to tourists. 11:30 was his estimated time of arrival in town. He would avoid seeing anyone. He normally only went to town to catch the ferry to the mainland, the day he got his dole cheque, the first Saturday of every month to be precise. He hadn’t spent any time there since she left him taking the boys and his dog. He didn’t want anyone to know his business. He would be off the island for good, as soon as he had the money. No one on the island would miss him.
He skipped upstairs, although he nearly fell over, to raid his ‘loose change’ bottle. He tipped the coins
onto the floor then filled his pockets with 5p, 10p and 20p pieces for the phone box. He took more time going down the stairs. He kicked a few more items as he crossed the living room before lifting the keys for his ‘Taveller’, from the ‘key bowl’ in the kitchen. He stood on the doorstep having closed the back door, and sucked in the cool fresh air, and smiled at the moon. He opened the door of the ‘Traveller and eased himself into the leather seat. Having prodded the key into the ignition, the engine started first time. His ‘Morris Minor Traveller’, black with wooden trim, was his baby and had never failed him. Foot on the clutch, into gear, and he was driving, with surprising care, out
of his muddy drive way and onto the one-track road to town. He had the ticket in his right hand in full view, the whole time. The drivewould take him no more than an hour. The clock on the dash showed 10:25 when he set off. The car was cold inside. He had to wipe the windscreen until the heater kicked in. His eyes were not truly focused either, the whiskey had to be taking effect. Singing along to the radio, although his words and rendition were not necessarily a true representation of what he was hearing, he increased his speed. The moon was full. The sky was midnight blue, filled with twinkling diamonds. The clear sky was an ideal night for the Aurora Borealis, an ideal night to become £360 000 richer. The whiskey was overwhelming his liver, compromising its ability to metabolize the alcohol in his bloodstream. His singing was becoming slurred. His eyes were reddening. His muscle coordination was being put to the test, as was his ability to drive. He lifted his wallet from the dashboard and began to rake through it. Business cards, receipts and pieces of paper, with messages to himself, were extracted until finally he found what he was looking for. With
tenderness, he eased the last remaining photograph of his boys. The picture was ragged down one side where his ex-wife had been. He kissed the boys twice. He raised his head slightly, peering over the top of the photograph. Out of nowhere he was blinded by the sight of a fully, grown cow. He pounced on the brakes whilst swerving the ‘Taveller’ to avoid impact. He was half way into a ditch. He shouted to the heavens, swearing at God. The clock on the dashboard screamed 10:45. He got out of the vehicle ensuring that he wouldn’t trigger any movement. He opened the back door to get the shovel and stones, standard in any vehicle on the island. With great effort stones were shoveled
behind all four wheels.
He got back into the car and turned the key. The engine faltered. He took a deep breath, kissed his kids,
kissed the lottery ticket, apologized to God for his indiscretion and turned the key again. The engine started. He crossed himself. Putting the gear in reverse he eased the ‘Traveller’ out of the ditch. 11:10pm. The car was still at least 40 minutes away from the town. He set off again, but had reduced his speed to 30mph. His winning ticket and photograph were still residing in his right hand, despite his fingers feeling numb. The clock on the dashboard read 11:50, as the ‘Traveller’ came to rest at the top of the hill, overlooking the small town. He rested his head on the steering wheel for a moment before gazing into the horizon. His eyes followed the light reflection of the moon. The de luxe, velvety, splendor of the red telephone box sparkled against the midnight sky. Everything appeared so tranquil and surreal. He left the car at the top of the hill and walked the few hundred yards into town. There was one road in and one road out. Walking to the telephone box, he maintained his grip on the ticket. Not too tight for fear of tearing his future apart. Not too loose, for fear of losing what lay ahead. He was a mere phone call away
from his two wonderful boys and £360 000, a huge sum of money. Huge. He looked out to the horizon with a smile and opened the door of the phone box. He created pillars of 5, 10, and 20pence pieces on top of the moneybox and took a final breath before lifting the phone from the receiver. He held the phone to his ear. The colour drained from his face leaving him as white as the moon. The dead line was all he could hear.
Feedback on “Deadline”
James This was an intense read for such a short story – I really felt like I was racing along with the protagonist. It was an interesting application of the concept of time too – it almost plays the role of a character in this story, and is as immediate and present as the nameless main character himself. While there is one glaring question that the story leaves unanswered – i.e. why did he leave this so late? – and even though the whole thing really seems to just hinge on a play on words – “deadline” and “dead line” – it was still a captivating read that felt, at the end, complete and cohesive. Niamh
Great pace in this story which is kept consistent throughout. I am on his side, his anguish and hope for redemption is palpable. His search is for so much more than a ticket. What a disappointing end for him, I felt adrift after reading it!
Watch the small things: unclosed quotation marks, spacing between words.
Bettina The subject matter of this story is interesting but obscured by unnecessary details which make it, at times, an irritating read. One or two edits would make this a stronger story; there are good ideas here. Missing the deadline because of a “dead line” is clever and also evokes sympathy because the reader knows what rested on the main character making the call. A re-write with a view also to leaving out some of the repetitions could make this a better read. Less is more.
Stephen A pacy, focused story that keeps backstory and character building to a minimum in favour of in-themoment action. The last line grates slightly but the suspense built throughout keeps you reading.
Toby Pros, and Cons For me there is great story here, just trying to get out. Here you have plot and character working together, a real sense of jeopardy, and a snappy ending that words as a pun as well as a good close to the story. I found it believable and sad, so that it took me on a bit of an emotional journey as well. However, I felt that at times some of the sentences didn’t scan naturally, and I found the prose not quite as evocative, the descriptive language not as rich, as the writing in Lucy’s train. Also there is a lot of exposition, and I am not really that interested in the contents of this guy’s wife’s bookcase. I think this story figures so highly in my list because of the story it could be as much as the story it is, and I think a couple of redrafts could really elevate it to a high level.
All the World’s a .gif By Philip Miletic
“I want out, Em. I really want out.” “Morris.” “Really, I need to get out.” “You know you can’t.” “There has to be a way.” “There isn’t, so just accept it okay. We all do here.” “Well, I’ve been accepting it for I don’t know how long since I found out.” “It’ll pass, and you’ll fall right back in to the routine of things.” “I’m coming to hate this routine and falling back into it. If I can escape routines in general, I’d –” “Shh. Here it comes. It’s coming now.” “Right on schedule.” “Nnn–”
The buzzing of the alarm, the effort to get out of bed, the shower, the breakfast, the lunch (a ham sandwich with one slice of provolone cheese, more than average amount of lettuce, plain mustard, and dashed with pepper) prepared and packaged for later, the drive to work, the work, the drive back home, the half-assed effort to make a dinner that doesn’t satisfy, the unwinding in front of the television that feels like an effort, and then it comes, the eyes are closed what feels like barely a minute. Barely. And then it comes again.
The only things detailed are what occur most frequently, most commonly experienced, and what doesn’t fit, disjunctive and contrary.
“Em?” “Shh.” “C’mon, we still have another five minutes.” “Mrrfph. What?” “What do you think would happen if someone broke loose?” “Not this again.” “I was just wondering, because –” “Because you want to break out of it, right? You’re not wondering what would happen if someone broke loose, you’re wondering what would happen if you broke loose.” “…” “Am I right?” “Yeah, but.” “Well, I know you wouldn’t be able to, but let’s say you do, okay, let’s just say you fucking break free from this constant loop, okay? Alright? I said, alright?” “Alright. I’ve broken free from my constant loop.” “One, you’d lose me, unless they caught you right away and slotted you back into the swing of things. But I bet they’d want to make an example out of you, so when they catch you – because they will eventually catch you – you’d probably be killed in some kind of grisly and gruesome manner.” “Okay. Thanks for your feedback. It’s much appreciated.” “I don’t know why you’re putting on this act, pouting and complaining about what so and so’s got when you’ve got everything you need right here. Morris…Morris!” “…What?” “Morris, you should be happy that we have a roof over our heads, that we always have food in the house, that we’re not getting by by the skin of our teeth, and that we have each other.” “Yeah.” “Morris. The world’s not a stage for you to play a myriad of roles, for you to partake in a series of adventures, for you to don personalities and be something you’re not. The world’s a loop; the earth ain’t flat, Morris, it’s fucking round.”
“Here it comes.” “Now–”
“Hello?” “Hey Morris.” “Oh, hey!” “Can you do me a favour?” “Oh, I’m doing alright. Work is going as usual.” “Very funny.” “What’s up? “Could you grab something for dinner tonight? We have nothing in the fridge and I forgot to go to the grocery store last night.” “Not to be rude, but can’t you go? You work pretty well right beside a grocery store.” “I’ll be working late. Something happened.” “What?” “Nothing, just someone…fucked up is all. So I’ll be staying another hour or so, and by the time I get off work, I’ll just want to get the hell out and come home to a lovingly made dinner by my loving husband.” “Heh, okay Em. I’ll have dinner ready for seven, alright? If you’re late, I’ll wrap your plate in tin foil.” “Sounds good, thanks. I gotta go now.” “Alright. Bye.” “Bye.”
Morris found himself standing in the line of a grocery store’s checkout line for the first time in a long time. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d gone shopping – it was always Em that did the shopping since there was a grocery store right down the street from where she worked. It felt strange standing in line. Something so banal, a routine task that drains the life out of some people, livened Morris, filling him with infantile wonder. It was the best part of his day; it was the only part of his day for all it mattered to him.
Eventually, we all fall in. Some stand at the edge, hesitant, unsure of when to fall into the swing of things. But eventually, they are given the needed push.
It’s all part of growing up, as they used to say.
“So what happened at work today?” “Some idiot killed himself in his cubicle. Of all places.” “How’d he do it?” “You’re sick.” “What? I’m just asking.” “It was weird.” “You saw it?” “Yeah.” “Why was it weird?” “Well…it wasn’t…it wasn’t like he…it wasn’t premeditative. He had gotten up to go to the washroom. And there’s this clock above the washroom. And when he closed the washroom door, the clock fell and shattered. No one wanted to divert from their work they were attending to, so it was just left there. I kept on looking over at the area where the clock shattered. I don’t know why, I was just curious to see who was going to clean it up. I was easily distracted today. And then Jeffrey – his name’s Jeff – he came out of the bathroom but immediately stopped short of the broken glass. He looked down, studying the glass, thinking, he was clearly thinking, thinking about something. He looked around the office, and then he looked right at me. I couldn’t look away, I couldn’t. But he did. And when he did, he bent down on his knees, picked up a shard of class, and slit his throat. I watched it all, Morris. I watched it all. But after he fell onto the ground and spasmed, I continued working.” “Jeeze.” “Yeah…” “Well, here it comes now. By tomorrow it’ll be off your mind.” “Right.”
Morris was right: Em didn’t bring up Jeff’s suicide in the morning and appeared to be in her usual morning mood, bright and alert. Yet, Em’s story of the man who killed himself still lingered, even after a couple of days, in the mind of Morris. Usually, something out of the ordinary doesn’t linger past a day, let alone a couple of days, because it gets lost in the repetition of routine. This was the first he had heard of a man killing himself. No one fell out of the routine. They all knew what they had to do, everyday. If someone fell out of routine, it was typically by accident, something that can easily be knocked back into place, easily readjusted, then forgotten. When Em called him, Morris asked if she wanted him to go to the grocery store after work, but she said it was okay, that
they didn’t need anything. Despite this, Morris stopped by a convenience store right by his place of work and bought a coca-cola and loitered in the parking lot for five minutes.
A work day is a work day; a daily day; a day. There is no night and no end of the week. The work at work pays for the work at home: the cooking, the cleaning, the organization, the conversations, the attempt to unwind, and a comfortable sleep.
“Wasn’t there an old saying that went something like, ‘a day off’?” “I’m not sure. Doesn’t sound too familiar.” “Well, no one says it anymore, that’s why it’s not familiar. I’m just wondering if you know what it means.” “Where did you hear it from?” “I read it online on my break from work, an old article that somehow surfaced.” “How old?” “Not sure, it didn’t have a date on it. But it had that phrase, ‘a day off.’” “How was it used?” “Like: ‘Finally, I’ve got a day off!’” “Hm.” “It’s strange isn’t it? It’s like it means, a day off track, off beat. You know, when something’s slightly off. A day off, an off day.” “Seems unappealing.” “I want a day off, Em.” “Oh, c’mon, we’re not having this argument.” “I know.”
Morris exited his workplace, but instead of taking the usual right towards home, he went left. He continued on the left side of the streets, always following the left sidewalk, turning left down a side street or at an intersection. When he arrived at a grocery store, he turned into it and grabbed an assortment of groceries. As he stood in line, he watched everyone, studied everybody that was in the line. It was the end of the day, the people in line all looked tired, but they didn’t looked annoyed, just tired, detached from what they were doing, where they were because, Morris could see it in their faces, they’ve been here before again and again so why bother ‘being there.’ They were all lost in thought, but Morris knew it was empty thought, it was thinking that didn’t really think, it was just blank. And here, in this line, Morris’s mind was full of thoughts as he looked all around him, a
new environment, a new path, new faces; he was thinking about what to do next, something unheard of, unthought of. After paying for his groceries and exiting the building, Morris continued on the left side of the street, walking along the left sidewalk.
“Hi, Mr. Morton?” “Yes, speaking.” “It’s Em, Morris’ wife. Is Morris still there? Did anything happen at work today?” “No, work ran right on schedule, as always.” “But he’s not home.” “Well, he left work at the usual time.” “Nothing seemed…out of the ordinary about him?” “No, he did his work as he usually does at his usual pace, being very productive as he always has been. And then he left when the whistle blew.” “He’s not home, Mr. Morton.” “Hm. Did you call the police?” “No.” “You should.” “Ugh. Do I have to?” “Em, I know we all hate doing things we usually don’t do, but sometimes we all gotta do something out of our routine. Little things, Em, that’s all. Little things are easily readjusted, and before you know it, you won’t even know you had to make the call.”
Morris began to grow paranoid the further he walked away from work and his home. He didn’t recognize anything around him; the area was completely foreign to him. He didn’t even have the time, his watch he left – perhaps on purpose, perhaps not – on his desk. But he kept walking. Unfamiliar faces staring him down: he was a strange sight, a stranger in someone else’s familiar route, someone else’s familiar area. Areas and routes, they all had them, including Morris, but his area and route were suffocating him. Like he said to Em, he had to get out and now he was out, but he was unsure where to go now that he was out. He wasn’t sure if he felt liberated, liberated in the sense of a good sense of freedom. He did feel liberated, but he felt unsure of himself, the paranoia erasing his past joviality and replacing it with a want of security. He knew at this point that Em would be calling his work to find out where he was. God forbid that she may call the cops, but she might, and she probably will. People have been kidnapped or mugged before, things like muggings and kidnappings being a routine for some people, but even-
tually everything got righted, the mugged returned, the muggers punished, then let loose to repeat their day. She might call the police, thinking Morris was kidnapped. She would figure something for sure was wrong and that it needed to be righted, something she couldn’t do. But Morris didn’t want to be righted. He was determined to keep on walking until he knew for sure that he was free, that he was out, outside. He had no way of knowing, but he told himself, he would know when the time came. He could feel dusk coming on, the sun slowly dipping behind the high rise buildings, just about to disappear. Perhaps it will occur to him where to go in the night. And then time stopped. Morris was completely conscious, but he couldn’t move, he couldn’t talk. He couldn’t think, his mind was blank, but he could process what was in his line of sight and what he heard. He could hear footsteps behind him, walking slowly. “Tsk, tsk, tsk,” said a male voice behind him. “Another one,” said another voice, a female’s “It doesn’t happen that often.” “But it’s happening more frequently.” “It’s not frequent, though.” “No.” “And so we should keep it that way.” Two police officers, male and female, stepped in front of Morris, looking him up and down. The male officer stretched out his hand and closed Morris’s eyelids, so that now all was black. He felt the touch of the female cop’s one hand on his wrist, and then, shortly after, a prick and something injected into his veins. “Anyways,” said the male cop. “No matter how frequent it gets, we’ll always catch them, we’ll always recalibrate them. No one, yet, has broken free once they’ve been recalibrated.” “Yet.” “C’mon, how likely is it.” Morris began to feel his body shutting down, his hearing slowly being muffled, the cops’ voices being barely audible. “True.” All sensation was leaving his body, but he could feel, just barely, that the cops were now dragging his body back the way he had come. “There’s nothing they can do.” “There was the man that killed himself not too long ago.” “Okay, well, hurrah for him. According to our monitors, the majority of people immediately forgot about him, and soon after, so did everyone else. And what good did he do for himself? He never got free. He died in his workplace. Whoop-de-do.
He’s an example that you can’t escape the frame alive, and what good is escaping the frame through death – nothing is accomplished, and it goes against the whole purpose of them trying to get out, to get outside.” “Yeah.” “There’s no outside, not anymore. No outside.” “A labyrinth but not a labyrinth.” “Exactly. Hear that bud?”
The buzzing of the alarm, the effort to get out of bed, the shower, the breakfast, the lunch (a ham sandwich with one slice of provolone cheese, more than average amount of lettuce, plain mustard, and dashed with pepper) prepared and packaged for later, the drive to work, the work, the drive back home, the half-assed effort to make a dinner that doesn’t satisfy, the unwinding in front of the television that feels like an effort, and then it comes, the eyes are closed what feels like barely a minute. Barely. And then it comes again. Now.
Feedback on “All the World’s a .gif”
James Miletic tells a tale of fairly typical middleclass discontentment – dissatisfaction with work and other lived routines, the desire to escape from the perceived fatalism of life – but sets it in a pseudo-Orwellian alterreality where time can be stopped, non-deviation from routine is state enforced, and each day’s repetitiveness is actually literal. The story’s themes are sure to resonate with most, and the succinct, unembellished style in which it is written works well with the piece’s overall feeling of austerity and soullessness. The central question it asks is contemporary and relevant: where do we find the freedom to create our own meaning in life in a total system such as capitalism? The related question it fails to examine, however, is what actually constitutes a meaningful life? Apart the proffered ideal of “freedom,” the author fails to provide much of an examination. Subsequently, the author’s analysis of the essential life-concept of labour is uncritically one-sided: labour, and indeed all necessary repetitiveness, is exclusively presented as banal and unrewarding – a somewhat jejune simplification, as routine and repetition are integral parts of all human life, not just life under capitalism, as the author is trying to critique. As Hannah Arendt wrote: “The blessing of labour is that effort and gratification follow each other as closely as producing and consuming, so that happiness is a concomitant of the process itself. There is no lasting happiness and contentment for human beings outside the prescribed cycle of painful exhaustion and pleasurable regeneration… [Labour’s] very repetitiveness, which more often than not we feel to be a burden that exhausts us, is what provides that minimum of animal contentment for which the great and meaningful spells of joy that are rare and never last, can never be a substitute, and without which the longer lasting though equally rare spells of real grief and sorrow could hardly be borne” [italics mine]. By ignoring alternate facet of labour, the author’s analysis of the piece’s central theme remains somewhat simplistic. Niamh
This story started out strong but lost its speed as it moved along. The long snatches of dialogue slowed things down. Some of which worked, some didn’t. Getting dialogue right is particularly tricky.
Trust that the reader is committed to the idea and work with the assumption that they know what’s going on or are trying to figure it out. Over explaining things can bog down the narrative.
The bravery of the character is convincing and well-drawn. I want him to go to where it is he shouldn’t be. This is the universal identifier!
Bettina This story captures very well the way we can find ourselves trapped in our lives. It reminded me that bold action is necessary to break the routine. This probably speaks to a lot of us, and conjures up the feelings of both trying to break free from routine, and also finding ourselves being dragged back into it. The story feels slightly fantastical but the simplicity of the writing makes this accessible - I normally don't enjoy fantasy. The ending is powerful and frightening.
An interesting play on the theme with a premise somewhat reminiscent of Philip K Dick. Despite the scifi premise, there is something very contemporary in the angst and frustration the characters feel about their lives, being trapped, not only by routine, but also by a technology whose benefits have become oppressive. There was also a strong use of dialogue though parts were maybe a little too on the nose.
Toby Pros It’s mostly pros with this story. On reading it I had a strange experience of being both on familiar territory and also wanting to know what was going to happen. It felt familiar in the way of the old Twilight Zone story when the soldier and the bear and the girl are trying to get out of their prison and you find out they are toys, or a bit like The Truman Show. However this story kept its freshness through its style and also in a tension between whether it was a quirky science fiction piece or some kind of social commentary. I liked the sharp dialogue, the lack of weary exposition (except when the exposition was meant to seem weary), and I liked the way that quite a lot happened using relatively few words. Cons Having read it three times, I still have no idea what was going on in this story. Were they in a .gif? Or were they in some dystopian future where every day was a work day? If it was a .gif, how were they able to talk and why were articles about “days off” old articles from the past, which suggests a sense of changing history? There is no consistent internal logic to this piece that couldn’t be exploded with relatively little scrutiny. I imagine some people don’t mind about this, but I found it a bit disappointing.
By Patricia L. Morris
0% “I was happiest on the cruise. I told stories —fairy tales for grownups. I swam. Even rescued the Cap-
tain’s watch from the bottom of the pool.” Her shoulders slide as if the weight of wings pull them back. “Later, after my expiry date, the Captain wouldn’t help. He puffed and puffed on his cigar. He said it was because I beat his boss in a chess game.” Snowflakes stick on her plaid jacket and now her torso collapses in on itself and my body slumps in sync. These are her first words in the seven weeks, six days, five hours and four-three minutes that I have known her. This pixyish octogenarian Ms. Lucy Gauge is the only one ever to leave the luxury liner Luminous Liminality alive, and now she is finally telling me about it. This must be progress towards my own cruise. You see I’m on God’s hit list with pancreatic cancer. I’m not willing to die like my partner Art in a landlocked hospital with medical deities calling the shots. My only choice is to put something between me and death. Something proactive, something novel. Last night in bed Lucy’s grey hair unfolded in the bottom of my pyjama pocket affirming my wish to play my last game of pool on the over-the-top cruise for the terminally ill. In today’s snow luminescence I am a hopeful yet fearful lone wolf, still irritated at my tumour and uneasy about sea legs.
I ask, “Should I go for it?”
“Boris, you have one life.” She walks away with blue heron grace leaving bird-sized footprints in the snow. Across the inlet, in this late morning light the North Shore mountains rise flat behind the encroaching cityscape. They make the city look like a pop-out postcard of glass and concrete, a vertical village with twirling snowflakes. I catch up to Lucy and wave my cane making the mark of Zorro for comic relief. She says, “The feasts delight all six senses.” She has a sixth sense. Her account of the surreal cruise is what fiction is: it’s a life stamped with
imagined meaning. There’s conflict, an impossible room tacked on a ship, and an extra moon. She can prepare me for the uncanny if anyone can. Lucy coaxes my reluctant doctor to reveal my expiry date and sign the necessary papers. My brother orchestrates the purchase of my own stateroom and alters the itinerary to stop at SGang Gwaay, the remarkable heavenly-forested settlement off Canada’s west coast. I almost drowned there fifty years ago and secretly believe the place belongs to me. Lucy promises to meet me there on April 14, 2016, my expiry date. Life delivers but with Mad Hatter urgency. By the time I finalized my affairs, I only have eight and a half weeks on the cruise.
Once aboard the Luminous Liminality in Australia life turns into full room service. I can scarcely fathom this situation steeped in the sea’s fragrance surrounded with my wants and other dying souls. Straightaway I’m attracted to Patrick’s proud spirit. He’s a clever forty-something black man who lived his
entire adult years with the same expiry date as me. He tours me through the ship. In the massive aluminum kitchen he expands his arms to expose his well-defined pecs through an open shirt. In the glass elevator his solid butt grazes my squishy paunch. Poolside as he pours me a drink the promise in his voice when he says ‘soon’ makes me woozy. Such form and substance. He shows me the ropes as he doesn’t want me to fall prey to ‘my Captain’, who rules this floating kingdom. From what I have heard about the Captain from Lucy, my brother and now Patrick he seems like the sort of megalomaniac guy that I go out-of-my-way to avoid.
On the deck the fresh winds are electric on my pale thin saggy skin. Spirited elders are pam-
pered to death and the ocean dazzles cerulean. I flinch at the shattering sound of the ship’s horn bellows as it signifies another exit. At my first dinner at sea the Captain slinks into the room with a slimy expression. His diamond ring on his pinkie catches the candlelight, his fingers tuck a Cuban cigar into his right breast pocket. As he approaches our table he pulls a watch from his heart pocket, and positions himself on my right. I stand up and the fringe of his epaulette scrapes my nose. He sniffs and offers a cursory handclasp like a dog pat. “Welcome. Just a reminder —I’ll need your luggage tag and passport ASAP.”
The twist in his mouth suggests my hands are not up to snuff. I knead my skull with a twill of nervousness. He says, “It’s good to eat light on your first night. Boris, isn’t it? I leave you in this capable company.” Every strand of his greasy hair is arranged to produce effect. The fringe on his broad shoulders leaves me with an unfilled impulse to prostrate. He strolls toward the distant corner where he greets his faithfuls including Patrick, at Poseidon’s Table. The first port-of-call is Papua New Guinea and I plan a canoe trip up the Sepik River. This adventure is a nod to my dead partner Art, who’d always wanted to visit the vanilla gardens of our insolvent
dream. Organizing the tour I have my first tangle with the Captain. The fellow flexes his damn apparatus of power by limiting my trip’s food ration. I go anyway. For three days my guide paddles me through the mud river. My mettle is tested by sleeping outside, bushwhacking through the jungle, and eating Maggi noodles morning, noon, and night. I’m clearly not the wimp Art pegged me. Still, in my heart of hearts I know I deserve the refusal my never-seen son and his mom dealt me. On board my nephew messages that he will meet me at the upcoming stop with a birthday surprise. Enlivened, I invite Patrick to join the Bali excursion. The Captain claims our passports have been
“stolen” and we cannot leave the ship. I calibrate my response. Like the little engine that could, I think I can keep it together. My competitor is ‘the man who doesn’t die’ while all around him do. When Patrick takes me into his stateroom after yet another memorial, the smell of his spicy body tickles me. Sitting on his bed, I swell under my chinos. White noise from the air conditioner whirls and he concentrates on his computer screen under the porthole. I get up, move to him; my penis brushes his left arm. Electricity transfers though my body. He swivels his desk chair around, and catches my swell in his hands. He unzips me. His tongue laps my shaft; his lips are a drawstring. Then he takes me out of his mouth and kisses up my belly. He puts his wide palm on my shoulder and squeezes. With a sigh he gets
up. I can’t breathe. Why is he leaving? Is this the end?
He floats to the head and returns with a condom. I feign passive but on the inside I have overpowering bolts of pure hunger. This is appetite I haven’t felt in decades. I disrobe. He takes possession. His bold sucking mesmerizes my mind with rushing tones. His fingers greedy to fondle my stomach and grasp my thighs. There is no free will. Our dance slides into frantic flinging, dripping, pouring, and spattering, swirling blacks and blues Jackson Pollock with bits of white teeth, with the sound of a breaking shot…I explode. The world slows. Now it is a sensuous De Kooning painting when I touch. Hands brush, stroke, and
crush. He takes me with him into myself. Our bodies press and release, shove and squeeze. Genital kisses and finger fucks. Touch abstracts sight; body trumps mind. The gutters between us intoxicates. I unroll a condom on Patrick’s cock. He thrusts and rams me and I yelp with his dominance. We lie satiated. Patrick exposes the netting of his hand. A dried riverbed sits at the extremity of this juicy man. We ferret each other’s sexual grounds over the next couple of weeks. I understand that I share him with the Captain alternate nights. I don’t want to picture what Patrick has to do in order for the Captain to allow us to visit my brother when the ship docks in Kolkata. Whatever it took, I’m the winner — rewarded with a precious visit to India and the chance to introduce my love to my brother. When we return back to ship opulence Patrick goes directly to the Captain to appease him. The Captain gives him a package, and Patrick delivers my nephew’s already-opened DVD to me. It shows that the birthday surprise was to have been a visit with my son. My son whom I have never laid eyes on. Now
as I watch him on the screen over and over again, alone in my stateroom there is crushed glass in my chest. He’s a vital twenty-seven year-old man who looks like his mom did at that age. My son wanted to see me and the Captain ruined it. I’ll never see my legacy. I’d like to (you fill in the blank) him. But if I do anything to make him madder he’d bring my expiry date forward. I hide out in my room. Now, Patrick spends most of his time with his Captain, checking in with me daily always promising he’ll be back soon. The covetous Captain challenges Patrick to an April Fools Day pool game. There’s an ultimatum. If the Captain wins he’ll capsize the ship. If Patrick wins, the ship survives and we will die to-
gether as scheduled. His round ass leaves me salivating as he walks out my stateroom.
The wager gets me to decamp from my stateroom dressed in a rabbit costume. Why am I dressed as
Presto the magician who looks like a rabbit? I was feeling so time crunched before I left for the cruise I brought a Mad Hatter costume for the masquerade ball. So I wear it. I surprise the twosome on the Captain’s balcony at his pool table and luckily the Captain is so absorbed in his cigar and his game, he ignores me. My tail repositions the eight ball unnoticed. Patrick cues his winning shot. Y ahoo! The good guys won. Two weeks later my expiry date and destination SGang Gwaay arrive. When I wake up I tremble. The air is heavier. The sky duller. The Captain never wanted to travel this far north and fellow passengers fidget in the cold. With up to thirteen hours to go before my death, I want to take Patrick to meet Lucy but
he is too ill for the Zodiac ride. I summon the energy to go meet her at my special place by myself. Aged cedar totems, Lucy and her family welcome me as I land. It feels right to return to this landmark beach where I almost drowned. It is the authentic home of all those misappropriated totems and me. Time is tenseless. Something’s different, my body sluggish and my mind precarious. But Lucy’s here. She is willing to face her own dread of the Captain and revisit the Luminous Liminality to meet Patrick and attend my memorial. In sixty minutes we’re back on the ship. I uncouple from Lucy and search for Patrick. I can’t find him. I can’t locate him anywhere. I am frenzied. I become a tightrope walker who will fall if somebody screams. I panic and trip. The ship is an unending nightmare stretching the sea. Finally I unearth him on his balcony. He is naked, facedown, and dead on the lounge. A weight of stone drops into my heart and ripples. I seek out Lucy only to crumple in her arms. Patrick had the beauty to “totally eclipse” my liminal heart and an identical expiry date. Our end was to be beside each other. I want to lie down next to him. My death coach speaks softly, “Patrick was ready. Let’s turn his body and you can use your camera
to say goodbye.” I spend hours inspecting him through the viewfinder. My skin feels how each part of his body felt against me. Each click is a celebration and a loss. When the Captain appears I ask, “Did he cry out for me?” He is solemn, “Everyone is alone in the final Velcro rip.” I ask, “Were you with him?” “It’s business.” The Captain looks down at the floor as he moves backwards toward the door. “My reward?” he raises his shoulders. “More work.”
Lucy approaches the Captain who waits at the door.
I ask, “Did Patrick know you?” No answer. I insist, “Did he?” Droplets roll down the Captain’s cheeks. “We were both there for my boss. These are the rules. No one wins.” Lucy removes her reading glasses. “Captain, why’d you turn my friends against me? “That’s what you think?” “After midnight you realized your mistake too late and then they started throwing things at me. I replayed it over and over. I was content on the ship. Ready to die. You created the scene. All of us in costume dancing.” Lucy says. “Not true. I’m not director, or writer. I carry the suitcase.” His wink at Lucy insinuates, ‘I’ll see you in private.’ “It was because I won the chess game, wasn’t it?” His eyes shine, “Take your time.” My throat tightens.
“You’re here for us?” Lucy asks the question that I couldn’t. The Captain looks at Patrick, presses his thumb to his watch, glances at the message, and murmurs, “Soon, very soon.” I remember Patrick’s first smooth ‘soon’ with our first drink together.
Feedback on “Soon”
James This was a unique and surprising story with a surreal, dream-like feeling to it that I enjoyed reading and found to be well written but frankly not very closely related to the topic of time. The imagery was vivid and the plot intriguing – but it also felt incomplete, like this was only one part of a much larger story. The general themes it addresses – love, death, mortality – are huge, and would seem better suited to a novel than the short story format. Niamh
I never felt that I had a firm grasp of the characters in this story, I had the sense of circling around the story rather than being in it.
I think that the idea behind the story has potential but a little more work is needed to pick away its covering.
There is some nice use of language but be delicate in the use of adjectives. Bettina
The idea of Time in terms of “time running out” is portrayed here in a rather contrived manner. I am afraid I did not feel anything for any of the characters. The name of the liner, “Luminous Liminality”, I’m afraid annoyed me from the word go. Nonetheless, Soon portrays well the sense of a very alien, at times comforting, at times frightening, place: is this what a dying persons mind might be, especially under the influence of heavy painkillers or drugs? I don't have anything to criticise about the use of language; it is well written but, I’m afraid, it leaves me cold.
Stephen The voice of the doomed protagonist – a cancer patient – is what sells this story. The characters circle each other in a disturbing yet vibrant world aboard the most bizzare of cruise ships. Something in the ending didn't ring entirely true, which was a let down given the story's early promise. Nonetheless the sense of melancholy mixed with a touch of the surreal makes for an unusual and provocative read.
Toby Pros Lively, imaginative prose and layers of leftfield metaphor make this a challenging and entertaining read. On top of that add a great sex scene, written about characters of a different gender to the author. More than the other stories, this one comes to life on a second and third reading, slowly moving up the ranking. Cons None of the characters are real, so I expected them to be allegorical; if allegorical, it was not clear to me what they are supposed to represent. I felt that either I was missing something or I was seeing it all and that the style was surrealist, or absurdist, and I should not look for firm, explainable meaning. This left me wanting either greater clarity of purpose, or a richer emotional engagement with the story. At the end of the day it was difficult to see what this story achieved. It made me think, but not about anything outside the story itself.
Life in Four Hours By Andrew Simpson
The cosmos introduced its first major new technology in millennia: PVRs for people’s lives. It’s a big deal because it means that now you can skip all the boring shit that happens in your life, the transactions with the cashiers, the trips to the doctor, the standing in line. You can also cut out the awkward moments where everyone just looks at the ground and wishes they were somewhere else. The PVRs have changed things a lot. They’ve opened up a ton of free time for people. The big new thing is to host a party where people come over and watch your life. You skip through to the highlights and you do your best to weave the scenes together with a voiceover.
Some people get arty with it. They throw in a shot of themselves at eight years old, asleep in the suburbs in the summer with the window open and the crickets chirping. Some people have even showed their lives out of order. Most people stick to a pretty standard formula though, and it’s just a question of how interesting their lives were and how self-indulgent they are. Most people’s lives boil down to something the length of The Godfather. Gone With the Wind is considered to be the upper limit for length unless you’re really somebody important. It’s a long haul and most people have the sense to throw in an intermission somewhere between thirty and thirty-five. The majority live past seventy these days, but childhood is cuter and you do most of the
really crazy shit when you’re in your teens and twenties.
It’s a much better way to live your life than the traditional way, and you can pause for a bathroom break any time you need to. It has created problems though. The parties are very political, and you have to be careful who you invite, because the thing is, friends and family often have a different perspective on things than you do. My friend Sammy, his sister invited her friends and family. It turned out that when she was nine, Sammy’s sister stole her best friend’s necklace and Sammy’s sister was also responsible for the rumours about her best friend’s bedwetting in the seventh grade. Sammy’s sister’s friend held it in through the necklace, but when she found out about the bedwetting she lost it and she went after Sammy’s sister right there in the den. Sammy’s sister lost two teeth and ended up missing the rest of her life in a twenty-four hour dental surgery clinic. Sammy went the other way. He didn’t invite any of us. He went downtown and sold tickets for five bucks. He crammed three hundred strangers into his basement to watch his life. Now Sammy’s mom won’t talk to him.
Sammy told his mom that everyone needs secrets from their parents, but she didn’t agree. Even worse is she can actually watch Sammy’s life any time she wants. One of the three hundred strangers brought a video camera and bootlegged Sammy’s life. I found a copy of it for three bucks at Byward and George and watched it one night with Sammy’s sister. It turns out Sammy never even liked me. He tells a bunch of people that I’m just a friend by geography. He says he didn’t even like me when we were kids, but he hung out with me because I had the only Commodore 64 in the neighbourhood, and now he can’t get rid of me. He had some bad things to say about his sister too. His sister and I became an item after that. We made a point of dropping by Sammy’s house when we knew he’d be home and we’d try to accidentally bump into him when he went places. I still hadn’t shown my life. One night we were talking and Sammy and his sister said I should sell my PVR. “Even if you only get half your money back,” Sammy said. “Just hole yourself up for the next eighty-six years the way people used to,” his sister said.
I said that people didn’t used to hole up for eighty-six years, and that that was the point. I said lives
used to be a lot shorter and they happened non-stop, and nowadays there was so much dead time. I said I’d go nuts if I had to live my entire life from start to finish, and I didn’t know how anyone could stand that. That’s pretty much how the marketing goes too. The slogan they use to sell the PVRs is “You can’t put a price on living. Your life. Your way.” In the end I did something different with my life. It’s ninety-four minutes, all continuous. I’m thirty -seven. It starts with me walking down the street. I say hello to an old man at the corner and I turn to watch the ass of a teenage girl. I go to a coffee shop and I sit at a table with a woman I don’t know. I say hi to the woman and we end up talking for an hour and it’s the most amazing conversation about all sorts of things. After an hour, the woman gets up and leaves and I don’t get her number or even her name. I booked an auditorium for it and just threw the doors open. My hope was that this woman would come and that we could get to talking again. My friends and family are all pissed off because they’re not in my life at all, except for a phone call from my mom that I don’t answer. Sammy’s sister was so pissed off about my life that she broke up with me.
She said it was obvious I still had a thing for the woman. She said I was so fucking transparent and that my life was a disgusting display. Sammy was there when she broke up with me, and he had this big grin on his face, like finally I don’t have to hang out with you anymore. The woman wasn’t at the screening, but she heard about it from a friend who was and she got in touch with me. She asked me why I didn’t ask for her phone number, and then she asked me why I didn’t put a missed connection on Craigslist. She said she’d been interested in me, but it was different, because we were alive then, and now she was seeing someone and it was pretty serious. I got drunk after that and I smashed the PVR. Still, eighty-six years? Who has that kind of time to spend on life?
Feedback on “Life in Four Hours” James A story about PVRing your life. Then editing it, and presenting your life as a movie – a trend in the notso-distant future of Andrew Simpson’s story. Humorous… but kind of insubstantial. Which is to say, I didn’t really get what I was supposed to take away from this. But maybe that’s the point – that life’s inconsequential? That it’s all just a series of fleeting surface images that can be re-presented in various different ways? Is this a commentary on the concept of contemporary narrative? That like life, it’s too lengthy to take the proper time with…? (That seemed to be the implication of the story’s closing line.) I don’t know. I found this piece entertaining, but not particularly moving. Niamh
The way we live now. The careful construction of the information we choose to release out into the world of social media. Like the root of this story.
I felt that it was cut short. Would have liked to be given a little more to explore the character with. (Although this would probably fly in the face of the idea of the story – but none the less as a reader I wanted more!) Bettina
This is a quirky, cheeky little number. It is well-written, short and snappy. Its subject matter is curious and the brevity of the story, coupled with what it tells us, conveys that life is short. The idea of editing your life is thought-provoking, not sure, however, how many of us would do it using video tapes any more...
Stephen Another story about technology's effect on time and its subsequent effect on us, Life in Four Hours, has an intriguing premise. However, I felt we were presented with more premise than story. More time spent with the characters (not least of all the random woman our protagonist meets) would have lead to a more satisfying piece overall.
Toby Pros Great idea, and Sammy and his sister really come alive through very few details. There seem to be two narrative threads, about what the narrator is going to do with his own life PVR, and the narrator’s relationship with Sammy and his sister. Both of these narrative threads are dealt with in a satisfying way and the relationship really starts and ends with different examples of the personal PVR art form, tying it all neatly together. Cons Both the opening and closing lines don’t work, or make sense, for me. The first great scientific advance in a millennia may be ironic, but this is not clear, or it may just be missing out things like computers and quantum physics. The closing line seems to contradict things said by characters in the main body of the story, or maybe I’m not getting it, but for me it sounds good but does not really mean anything.
By James Gibbons
That morning a haughty tug loosed a tooth I’d busted up. The day prior a baseball had hit me square on the mouth, busting the tooth and all but uprooting it. I’d been playing catch with Jacob and got distracted, probably by something useless like a dog barking and couldn’t get my hand up in time. The bathroom has one of those farm style sinks that you could probably wash a baby in, with steel faucet handles that would probably last for the rest of time. The sink was messy with a bit of blood that was making it down to the drain. My mouth looked messy and hot with blood, and my top lip was a bit smashed up. I wondered if I should go into town and see a dentist, but the pain wasn’t so bad and doctors make me feel sort of uneasy, I’m not sure why though. The three of us had rented this cottage outside of Orminson, Ontario for a month. We’d only been down there for two weeks when Jacob had followed one of his girlfriends back to Montreal. Marcello’s father, an American who had fought in the Gulf War, had taken ill and Marcello had gone back to Montreal
too. That morning I woke up and made a large breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausages and a pot of coffee and sat on the porch working on the coffee in peace, looking out at the lake and the mist drifting on the water, and those ripples that appear when the fish bite at the bugs resting on the water. I was just slouching on the old beat up furniture, the wooden legs stripped of varnish and the upholstery mostly eaten up and read one of the books I’d brought up. I was in the middle of this book The Moviegoer that seemed okay. It was about this guy who didn’t have a brain to do anything but watch movies and wander around. It wasn’t because he was dim, but because he was too sharp, or something like that.
At midday I went out on the water in this large steel rowboat that was death to row. The oars were
somewhat chewed up, especially close to the hull where splinters of wood were sticking off. I needed that
exercise though. The thing is I’m quite the physical specimen. If I just sit around all day it’s like heat building up in a furnace with no way to release it. After a while do you know what happens? That furnace blows. I rowed for about an hour. Because the rowboat was so sturdy, I could bring the oars in and just sit in the boat any way I wanted, it was impossible to tip over. The time when I got sore about the guys dodging was at night. We’d usually play checkers or chess or something like that. We’d sit around chewing the fat in our undershirts, empty beer bottles crowding the table. There’s a dartboard and a pile of darts – I’d just sit on the armchair with ten or fifteen darts on
my lap and fling them at the board. The guys would cackle when I missed and a dart would get stuck in the wall, “we don’t own this place,” they’d say. They didn’t know that sometimes I’d miss on purpose, just to rile them up. Actually, I have a very sharp eye and a quick, precise throw. Jacob knew a few girls, more than me anyhow. I wouldn’t say he was a handsome man, but he managed to be both loud mouthed and cool at the same time. He often suggested that he didn’t really care about anything, in fact one of his most common answers was “I don’t care.” Even though he’d suggest he didn’t care about anything, he still managed to ask for things – which would suggest he did care somewhat. Anyway, sometimes Jacob would invite one of the girls he knew, mostly from Montreal, and they would come down to the cottage. I would describe most of these girls as rough looking, but isn’t there something miraculous and exciting about every girl, even the rough ones? They weren’t all rough though, like this one girl named Alison. I’d already met her in Montreal, and when Jacob told me she was coming down I put on the best shirt and pants I had, shaved and put on cologne. Alison was this short, smallframed girl who had dark eyes and dark hair and a nose that looked more like a button than a nose. She’d go swimming, and even with her hair all wet and her makeup washed off she still looked like a movie star. I remember one morning when I got up, she was standing out on the porch with her back to me wearing one of Jacob’s shirts and her panties, they were these white ones and I could kind of see her skin and the outline of her behind through them – that made me wish I’d never been born. She didn’t really care for me though, I could tell because sometimes she called me “Billy,” which isn’t even close to my actual name. I’d rather not say what my real name is, but you might know how rotten it is to be dotting on someone and they can hardly remember you, even though you’d been in their face for two whole days. She never got Jacob’s name wrong.
After I ate supper that night, I sorted through the stack of videotapes the cottage had. They were real-
ly bad, mostly BBC shows that aren’t even worth listing. They all had snobby highbrow names like The Fortitude of Complacency and really gaudy cover photos, mostly of rough looking British ladies in oldfashioned clothing. With nothing much to do I sat by the window having a nightcap. Mosquitos and moths poked at the screen, sometimes they’d back off a bit when I exhaled from the cigarette I was smoking, but they’d always come back. The next day I drove half an hour into Orminson to buy some groceries. After I put the groceries in the car, a 1986 VW Golf, I wandered around a bit. I bought a scoop of chocolate ice cream at a booth that
was decorated something like an ice cream sundae, with pink and yellow panels and some tacky sprinkle colouring painted on the top part. A shaggy redheaded teen with arms like broomsticks served me through the booth window. I was scooping the ice cream into my mouth with a flimsy plastic spoon and reading some of the bulletins posted beside the booth’s opening. One of the bulletins was for a local fair – it had a picture of a ferris wheel in black ink. It looked like it had been damaged by rain or something, because the ink was running in places and the paper had the hard noisy texture that wet paper gets after it dries. I had already noticed the fair – it was just outside of the town, and I could hear music playing from the rides as I
had driven past it. The taller rides, like the ferris wheel, could be seen from anywhere in Orminson. I had a late lunch that day and was drinking a bottle of beer on the porch and playing a game of solitaire. I had the cards spread out on a large wooden board resting on my lap – a bit of wind blew the cards out of place, ruining the game. It was still fairly early in the afternoon. I went inside to change: I put on a clean shirt, a pair of jeans, a decades old Seiko watch my father had given me and took my Harrington jacket, thinking it would probably get cold after the sun set. I thought I would go into town again to check out the fair. I figured I could get a hot dog that’d been spinning in some humid rotisserie all day and call that dinner. I parked my car on the grass close to the fair – it had been sectioned off with ropes into a makeshift parking lot. There were a few people walking around, and I followed some of them to the entrance where I bought a string of tickets that I shoved into my jean pockets. There was a rollercoaster, a ferris wheel, a bunch of game booths all lined up, bumper cars, a swing carousel and just a normal carousel, a tilt-a-whirl and a bunch of others. People were walking around with cotton candy and popcorn in those large movie theatre boxes that have red and white stripes on them. First I played a game where I had to shoot a target
with a pellet gun before a pump filled a balloon with water. The target was in this clown-dummy’s wide-
open, grinning mouth. On the second try I managed to do it. Like I said, I’ve got this sharp eye and a really quick hand. The man at the counter, with a dirty t-shirt and a cigarette pressed in the corner of his mouth, grabbed a stuffed flamingo from the wall of tacky things and handed it to me. I couldn’t tell, but I think he might have been a bit sore. It’s not everyday someone actually wins something at these rigged booth games. I gave the flamingo to the first kid I saw, a little girl who had no front teeth and who was decked out in yellow rain gear, including a rain cap and rubber boots. “Expecting rain?” I asked her. It was still kind of sunny, and I would’ve described the weather as being
bone dry. She was too shy to say anything, and she soon disappeared into the crowd toting the flamingo. I went over to the ferris wheel – it had the longest line. I was putting back a hamburger while waiting. There was a young couple in front of me. The guy had draped his university letterman over his girlfriend’s shoulders and was holding her by the waist. The university was in a neighboring Ontario honky tonk. I thought it would be just as good to make up your own university and say you graduated from there; no one in the country or world even knows half of these rural Ontario schools. At one point he looked back and gave me a long look. He had a pretty good-natured face and a bunch of freckles. I noticed that his girlfriend was pretty rough. “Sorry pal, you look just like someone I know,” he said when he realized I’d noticed, and gave a smile. I wanted to smile back but thought about my missing tooth and smiled with my mouth shut instead. “That’s ok, and yeah I get that sometimes,” I said, and it was true. What most people didn’t seem to realize was who I looked like to them, but I knew. There was this villain in American movie called V engeance, Rediscovered. It was probably the worst movie I’d ever
seen. It was about this macho cop named Al Strong, who had arms like a rhino’s legs, and who was trying to rescue his family from this villain whose name I can’t remember. The actor who played the villain was this Canadian named Hank Carson, who most people couldn’t identify by name but most people knew by appearance, because he’d had bit roles in a bunch of movies. Once someone had even asked me if I was him, even though he’s about twenty years older than me. Once I finally got to the entrance, I handed over three tickets and a man guided me to a bench and latched a bar across my lap. As I was going down on the wheel I could see the couple that was ahead of me in line making out on the bench below me. The wind was blowing the layers of the girl’s dark blond
hair around. Occasionally I could here the girl let out a cartoonish giggle. Even on the ride the guy was
holding her by the waist, maybe to keep his letterman from flying off. At the top of the ride I could see the entire desert they call Orminson, and the surrounding woods. Something like a waltz was coming from a speaker located on the platform. I suddenly felt a bit lonesome, and worse, like I was wasting my time. When the ride ended I walked around a bit more, even though I didn’t want to play any more games or go on any more rides. I was making my way back to the front gate when a man with tattoos on his arms and face grabbed me. “Young man, would you be interested in seeing the most beautiful woman in the world, and her strange
problem?” he asked, his eyes looking out from a pair of droopy, tattooed lids. “Well, sure why not,” I said, and handed him three tickets. The truth is I hate freak shows, I think they’re cruel. It’s like looking at a car wreck or something. It isn’t all right to gawk at a lady with lots of girth and facial hair at the mall, what makes this the exception? Inside the tent smelt pretty bad, like dirty hay and piss. There were a bunch of dreadful things pickled in jars, like two-headed pigs and such. I noticed a short woman at the far end of the tent and walked over to her without really looking at the other stuff. She was wearing some black dress and a hat with a veil obscuring her eyes, like some kind a widow in mourning or something. She didn’t say anything, just lifted a tent flap and I passed through into another, smaller tent. It was a bit darker in this tent, luckily I can see for miles though, even in the dark. Sitting in front of me was the girl the tattooed man called one of the most beautiful in the world. She was in the middle of brushing her hair. She was chewing gum loudly and looked as bored as a person could be. I wouldn’t say she was the most beautiful girl I’d seen, but she was something. She had the kind of pale buttery skin that burns right away in the sun. Her eyes were dark, and her hair was blonde. Her lips were large and sensual, and had a quality not unlike fruit. She was probably older than me, but not by too much. She stood up. She was wearing a dark navy dress that looked homemade. She pinned her hair to the side with droopy flowers as she stood up. She held one of those folding semicircle paper fans over her mouth as she spoke. “You ready,” she said in a way that made her sound brainless. I nodded. She let the fan drop and smiled. By the looks of it there were no teeth in her mouth, not on the top, and not on the bottom either. “That’s it?” I asked.
“Yup,” she said and sat down, making a fist, turn-
ing to turn around.
ing it over and staring at her fingernails.
“Hang on,” she said and she stood up again. She
“But you have teeth, I just saw you chewing gum.”
walked right up to me, so that I could even smell
“No I wasn’t. I was chewing with my back teeth.”
the damp flowery smell coming off of her. She
“Open your mouth again.”
opened her mouth and pulled a black film off of her top teeth, then another off of her bottom teeth.
“No.” “You were right, I have all my teeth,” she said. I took a step forward. “Bye,” I said. “Check this out, I’m actually missing a tooth, for real. I took a baseball to the mouth a couple days ago and smashed my mouth up somewhat.” “Oh.” “Anyway, when do you get off work?” I asked. “In about two hours.” “Wanna get a drink with me?” “Where?” “Here, in town.” “There are no places to drink here.” “Oh, well I have lots of booze at my cottage, it’s about thirty minutes away.” “Why would I go to your place, you’re a complete stranger.” “You don’t trust me?” “Nope.” She wasn’t looking at her nails anymore, instead she was looking me over and twirling her hair. “Alright, well goodbye forever,” I said while start-
“Bye,” she said.
Feedback on “Teeth”
James As far as I could tell, this was a story about wasting time, and that seemed to be the whole point of it – that there’s not much point at all. It wasn’t bad – it was entertaining, and I like the narrator’s voice – but it didn’t really seem to go anywhere. It may be called “Teeth”, but there’s not much to bite into. Niamh
Liked getting caught up in the stream of consciousness which stays consistent through-out. But I was a bit let down by the ending I felt that his journey to the fair was going to be a little more revealing.
A well-drawn character study.
Bettina If I’m honest, I don’t really understand why this story was entered into this competition. It is not badly written, in fact following the protagonist on his wanderings was intriguing, but I feel that it has nothing to do with "Time". I'm not quite sure why it was shortlisted, and if it was supposed to portray time, then perhaps that would need to be made a bit clearer. I also didn't really know what to do with the ending...
Stephen Teeth's protagonist is a man who doesn't quite seem to know what to do with his time. We meander with the character, observing the world he lives in and taking a detour to a fair. The final scene of his encounter with 'the most beautiful woman in the world' is the perfect close for a story about a man looking for a distraction and finding instead only false starts and illusions.
Toby Overall Thoughts Although this is a well written story I am not sure it is sufficiently linked to the theme to be considered a runner. The writing is solid enough to pull the reader along but I did not really feel in step with the narrator’s motivations, or understand where the story was supposed to be taking me. On first reading I enjoyed this story although I fear that, unlike other stories on this list, it did not fare as well on later readings. Thematically it holds together well; the narrator’s broken teeth offer a good way to engage with the woman with supposedly no teeth at the fair, but I did feel that the final encounter, though the most memorable part of the story, died without really getting going.
So there you are. No more rabbits in the hat for this time around, and not much more to say that has not been said. Next theme is “Power” and after that we are looking for Urban short stories. Please note that we have numerous ways to subscribe to information on the competitions, including following the blog, facebook, and our mailing list. If you enjoy Stephen’s concise judging style you can find more of the same on our Twitter account, where we also try to keep you up to date with other competitions and relevant noise from the writing world. Links to all of this can be found on the home page of the site.
We are always keen to hear your thoughts, which you can send to email@example.com. Thanks, as always, for bearing with us to the end. We hope you enjoyed Time’s shortlist and keep an eye on the site for the Power list which should be up very shortly. Toby and Stephen
THE RED LINE