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14/04/2020 / Harry Browne

The Crooked Tree by Stephen Brady

The Crooked Tree.jpg

He could hear everything, but dared not open his eyes.

He was being dragged along a rough, uneven path. His hands had been bound behind him, with plastic cable ties. They sliced into his wrists, deep enough to draw blood. From the darkness he heard orders, hissing and curses.

They had come for him at sundown.

Doyle had spent the day patrolling the farmstead, securing the fences and checking on the animals. There was comfort, of a sort, in the routines. He’d checked the trapdoor in the barn. Made sure it was locked, and covered it in straw. Then he had tested the water from the groundwell. He did this every day. He was checking for tampering, not contamination.

Lastly he would look down at the spot by the stonewall, and the mound of earth that lay there.

Around noon, someone had appeared at his gate. The person was clad in standard protective gear, a facemask and goggles. Doyle had stood in his driveway and watched the newcomer. He did not go for the shotgun, which was propped at the front door. Finally, the person at the gate had given a nod. It was impossible to tell what the gesture signified. But he suspected the intent was not good.

The interloper had turned, and walked back down the lane.

Doyle had thought, I don’t know who that was. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t know which gang they’re with, but that doesn’t matter either. They wanted to see if I’m still here. Now they’ll come for me.

On Doyle’s front gate was a hand-painted sign. It read:

PRIVATE PROPERTY

No Food Water or Medical

Do Not Approach

You WILL be Shot

But he had known that would not be enough to keep them out.

 After dark, he had lit the lamps. There’d been no electricity for five months. He had sat in the parlour and tried to ready by the sickly light. They must have surrounded the place, climbed the fences or cut them. He hadn’t heard the gate, so they must have gone over it, or under. All he knew was that one moment all was peace, and the next he looked up and saw a masked face at the window.

He’d gone for the gun. They must have known he would. Because no sooner was he out in the dark hallway than he was jumped by three of them. They bound his hands, bound and dragged him out of his house.

He struggled, but it was no use.

“Private property, ye bastards!”

“Shut up, Doyle,” a muffled voice grunted. “You know that doesn’t count anymore. So you can shut your hole.”

“You’ve no right-”

A couple of them made honking noises, that might have been laughter.

“You’re a Traitor,” said another mask. “You’re the one has no rights.”

“Now shut up or you’ll get a dig,” said the first voice, and Doyle decided to save his breath. There might yet  be someone to appeal to.

They dragged him out the gate and up the lane. All around were the black and silent hills. They took him up the boreen, and hustled him through a gateway. Then he was stumbling on a stony, uneven slope.  He was pulled to his feet and pushed on. He kept his eyes shut the whole time, despite the dark and the uncertain footing. He did not want to see where they were taking him. Because, deep down, he already knew.

Over the past few weeks, Doyle had taken to standing at his door each morning and looking out across the hills. He would do this while holding a mug of tea he had heated on the gas stove. But it was almost possible, standing there in the quiet of the morning, to believe the world was still there.

But even in those quiet moments, he would find his eyes drawn towards one hill away to the north-west, and the crooked tree upon it.

The tree was bent and twisted, a leprous old man of the hills. One branch protruded at a right angle to the trunk. The branch was thick and sturdy. Doyle did not know why, but that tree and that branch troubled him. It haunted even his shallow and restless sleep.

And on this starless night, as they hustled him up the hill, he thought about the crooked tree again.

“This is bullshit,” he said. “Who’s in charge of this?”

“You’ll see,” said a mask. “Now pipe down or you’ll get a belt.”

“You’re to get what’s comin’ to you, Doyle,” said another voice. Angry and scared, the voice of a kid.

These were his neighbours. Or had been, once upon a time. A lot of evil things had happened over the last six months, but somehow this was the worst. And the worst thing about it was that somewhere in Doyle’s mind, was an image of how this was going to end.

They brought him to a flat place, and he sensed that there were more people there. His arms were being gripped tightly, and someone shoved him from behind. He could barely keep his balance. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes.

They were on the top of the hill, and the crooked tree loomed over them. There were about twenty people waiting there. All were wearing facemasks, some crudely improvised. All wore gloves, and many had safety goggles. One or two were wearing full hazard suits. The only light came from a couple of hand torches. The beams were pointed upward at the twisted skeleton of the tree.

They’re using up batteries, he thought. Somebody thinks this is important.

Doyle stood up straight.

“Ye have no right to bring me here,” he said as loudly as he could. “There’s still laws in this country.”

“Shuttup,” said a voice.

“Ye’re nothing but a shower o’yobs.”

“Shuttup Traitor!” Someone punched him in the back.

Doyle struggled, but he was being held tight.

“Who’s in charge here?”

The masks all turned, as one. Someone was standing by the trunk of the tree. He was wearing protective gear like the rest, and some kind of improvised hazard suit made of plastic. A piece of paper was pinned to his chest with some writing scrawled on it. He stepped forward into the torchlight.

“That would be me, Doyle.”

“Who the fuck are you?” Doyle demanded.

A big hand walloped him on the side of the head. “Watch your mouth. That’s the Sheriff.”

Doyle shook his head to clear it. He tried to remain focused on the figure standing in front of him. Behind the goggles were pale blue eyes, just visible in the torchlight. They looked faintly familiar.

“Sheriff,” he said. “Is that right? Who appointed you?”

“Doyle.” The voice from behind the mask was familiar, too. “You need to stop this play-acting. It won’t do you any good.”

“It’s ye who’re play-acting. Ye should all go home.”

“Doyle, Doyle.” The marble eyes looked almost sad. “It’s too late for that. Do you not understand, even now? It’s too late.”

In his confusion, Doyle hadn’t realised that he was afraid. But standing there in the torchlight, in the shadow of the crooked tree, he realised it.

He cleared his throat and tried to speak calmly.

“What do you mean, ‘too late?'”

“You’ll find out.”

“What are ye all doing out here?”

“We’re doing what has to be done.”

“According to who?”

The Sheriff stretched, his plastic suit creaking. Now he sounded almost bored.

“I have charges to read to you, Doyle. You will hear them in silence.”

“To hell with yer charges.”

Something struck Doyle in the kidneys, a stick or baton of some kind. He fell to his knees.

The Sheriff waited until he’d got his wind back. Then he produced a sheet of paper. It was some kind of thick paper with a yellowish hue, and someone had written on it in red ink. It was meant, Doyle realised, to look official.

One of the mob held Doyle by the shoulder, keeping him on his knees. The Sheriff raised the sheet of paper and began to read.

“Charges listed against Patrick Doyle. Herein witnessed and signed by the Community Emergency Committee.

“One: That the accused Patrick Doyle has closed access to his land, instead of allowing it to be utilized for the good of the Community in this time of national crisis.”

“Private property,” he said, and someone thumped him on the back of the head.

“Two: that the accused Patrick Doyle has on his land been stockpiling foodstuffs, fresh water, and medical supplies for his own use, instead of allowing them be utillized for the good of the Community in this time of national crisis.”

“How the hell do any of ye even know that?” Doyle said. A baton was thrust against his throat, and he shut up.

Doyle had indeed been stockpiling, for almost a year. He’d dug out a storeroom under his barn, and had been filling it with supplies. And more recently, he’d been prepping it as a bunker. In case the farm was overrun and looted, by the likes of this mob.

But how had they known that?

“Three,” the so-called Sheriff continued. “That the accused Patrick Doyle has refused to attend any of the Community Emergency Committee meetings called in recent weeks. Attendance at these meetings was mandatory. Therefore the accused has declared himself a Traitor to the Community, in accordance with the Charter of the Commitee. In this time of national crisis, such action is to be considered a capital offence.”

The pale blue eyes rested on his face for a moment. Behind the safety goggles, those eyes looked distant and sad. Those of a master with a disappointing student.

“I know who you are,” Doyle said.

“The accused,” said the Sheriff, “has been found guilty by unanimous vote of the Emergency Committee. He will now stand to hear his sentence.”

Doyle was dragged to his feet. The mob seemed to crowd in closer around him. The beams from the torches wavered, casting crazy shadows in the twisted branches overhead.

“You’re Vaughan,” said Doyle. The hubbub of the mob seemed to falter. “I  know it’s you. I know the voice. You know me, Vaughan. You knew Terri. What in the name of God do you think you’re doing?”

“Doyle.” The voice behind the mask was cold. But it had not lost its lofty tone. “I know you’re aware of my identity. But that’s immaterial. That was before.”

“It’s the same world.”

“No, Doyle, it is not. Community Rule was declared ten weeks ago.”

“By who?”

“By unanimous declaration of the Emergency Committee.”

“I wasn’t there.”

“That’s immaterial, Doyle. You want to dispute it? To whom?” The voice had a smirk in it now that was also  familiar. “Wish to write to your T.D.? Hmmm? The Guards? They’re gone, Doyle. A community has to look after itself, these days. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Vaughan had been Principal of the school in the village. It was a small parish school, boys and girls mixed. Teresa had gone to that school, and Doyle had sat across the table from Vaughan at countless Parent-Teacher nights and looked into those same blue, thoughtful eyes. Vaughan had been clad in a brown suit with chalk on the sleeves, rather than hazard gear. But the eyes, and the holy manner had been exactly the same.

“Pat,” Vaughan would say, the ginger beard twitching in a stop-start smile. “Teresa’s a star. She’s a credit to you. And to Maureen, God rest her.”

Vaughan made a gesture to his lackeys. They dragged Doyle over to the trunk of the crooked tree, and stood him beside it. The torch beams were now being shone at him, into his eyes. He was almost blinded, and could just make out the shape of the Principal eclipsed in the light.

“The accused,” said Vaughan, “having being found guilty on all charges, will now hear sentence.”

“You love this, don’t you?” said Doyle. “You fucking love all this, Vaughan. Fellas like you always do. Waitin’ yer whole life for somethin’ like this, weren’t you?”

“Patrick Doyle, you have been found guilty of hoarding, breaking curfew, and of being a manifest Traitor to your Community. In this time of national crisis these must be considered the gravest of crimes. Therefore the Community Emergency Committee decrees that you be hanged by the neck until dead. Sentence to be carried out immediately.”

 So this is what it’s come to.

Doyle’s guts had turned to ice. But he felt no shock, no outrage. This had been coming, for a long time. This was the end of all the grim news, the breakdown of systems. And he had known. Ever since he’d stood at his back door and looked across the hills at the crooked tree.

A rope was thrown over the branch above. Doyle was manhandled into position under it. The loop was slipped around his neck. One of the masked yahoos was laughing. The rope, hard and studded with bristles, bit into the skin of his throat. He embraced the pain with a kind of bitter gladness, as he was sure it would be the last thing he would ever feel.

“Vaughan,” he said to the shadow in front of him. “You’ll be next. You know that, don’t you? As soon as this shower get sick of you. I wouldn’t give it long.”

“Doyle, Doyle.” The disappointed-teacher act was back. “There is no use in talking. Not any more. Action has to be taken, for the common good. I invited you to join us, and you refused. And now here we are.” The masked head made a nod. “Mr Hangman. You may proceed.”

The rope was pulled taut. It bit into Doyle’s throat, drawing blood. Two of the mob were pulling on the rope from the other side of the trunk. He began to rise. He struggled, but his hands were still tied. His feet left the ground, and kicked out into nothing.

In quick, spastic jerks, he was hauled into the air. When he was about ten feet from the ground they held him there. He kicked and twisted, as his windpipe was crushed. He was dimly aware of the mob standing at the base of the tree, with Vaughan the Sheriff at their head. Silence had fallen, an air of stillness and attention.

He’d watched over her, as she was taken. She’d thrashed, too, burning in the bed. Said awful things, in voices not her own. She’d even called for her Mammy. It was a mercy, in the end.

He had taken her from the bed and wrapped her in an old blanket. There was no-one to call. Nothing to appeal to. So he had carried her, in the quilt, down to the end of the field. He’d prepared the spot a week before. Under the stonewall, in a hawthorn’s shade. He’d dug the hole while all the while pretending he was doing something else. And he carried her there, lowered her down, and shoveled the dirt back in. The sun was setting, bitter on the horizon.

There were no words, because what words were there? He didn’t pause when he was done. He’d just thrown the shovel over the fence and gone back into the house.

His mind was dimming now. His throat was crushed, and the spasming of his limbs was instinct only. But an image was still there, in his head. An image that refused to be banished. It was the hawthorn, the stonewall, and the mound.

From below came a voice: “One last thing, Doyle. The contents of your stockpile will be liberated and distributed to the Community. At the discretion of the Committee, of course.”

He was fading now. His feet had stopped twitching. He tried to turn his head, to what he imagined was the east. A terrible light lay across the hills. The rolling slopes that had marked the limits of his life. That light came through the earth. It was yellowbrown, a sepia luminescence. Many had seen it of late. It was deathlight, the awful glow that transfigures the final sight of the world.

WHERE IS MY HOUSE? The thought pounded away in his darkening mind. IT’S THERE, I KNOW IT IS. WHY CAN’T I SEE IT? WHERE THE FUCK IS IT? WHERE IS MY HOUSE?

25/05/2020 / Harry Browne

Monet: Colours of Silence by Rosemary Tumilty


In those briefest of moments before understanding and awareness are present, thoughts of a Monet painting, or at least the replica on the wall of the corner café where I had my part-time job, spring to mind. I imagine my fingers tracing the outlines of lilies, the shimmer of water, shades of indigo, violet, mauve; mesmerising hues of lavender and crimson, emblazoned with subtle undertones of scarlet and plum.
I stumble from the kitchen door across to the sink and its array of dirty pots, pans and plates, grabbing the kettle and making room to fill it among the debris of at least two days of unwashed dishes. Water sploshes over my hand. The sound of the tap, the hiss and spit of the water, assault my fragile brain. The threadbare cuff of my dressing gown now sopping, trails across the grimy worktop as I reach to switch the kettle on.
Silence from the kitchen table.
Undecipherable flashes of the night before skim across my thoughts.
The pressure of lockdown had swung its evening pendulum — a weighted barometer of all that the day had heaped upon us. Days — weeks — months — who knew anymore? Who cared? Certainly not the blasted government
Darkness and pressure new lodgers in my head.
One thing I do know, I’m going to stop drinking. Today! This is a new day, a new beginning.
No more of those joking pandemic texts at lunch time calling it ‘Wine-o’clock’! No more of those beers or ciders with dinner. No more gin or vodka in the evenings. No! This is it!
The kids, who are being silent as little mice upstairs this morning, I’ll rustle them up a nice breakfast then we’ll get their schoolwork done first thing. I’ve to nip round to great aunt Tessie, make sure she’s had her breakfast and tablets, then I’ll have time to pop in with Mam to get her showered and dressed before these ones will need their lunch. No point in asking Nigel to sort out lunch, he’d burn water!
Steam from the kettle mists the cupboard door as I fumble for paracetamol, Aspirin, anything! My head thumping like a slow vibrating jackhammer.
While I’m out at my Mam’s I’ll also call round by the corner shop, grab something for dinner this evening while there’s still a few coppers in my purse.
If only Nigel would get up from hogging the damn kitchen table, his head in his hands like a weary man. He wouldn’t know the meaning of tired! Lost his bloody job because of this flipping pandemic, sure what use was a zero-hours contract to begin with! Fighting now to get benefits, and him a proud man. No other employer will touch him with that cough and wheezy chest of his. But it’s like a damn holiday for him sitting here, day in, day out!
I wish he’d make himself useful, maybe go out and clear up the back yard of all that smashed glass, the result of those young ones drinking all night down the back alleyway between the houses, then chucking their empties over the walls to come crashing onto our cobbled yards, before running off screaming abuse and laughing.
Was this neighbourhood always so rowdy, so disturbed? I don’t believe so, but it’s difficult to recall ‘Before’ in relation to lockdown.
The question, ‘Will there ever be an ‘After’? torments me.
These were good neighbours, once, close friends. All been in this same row since the kids were wee ones. Prams all out on the street together, then our youngsters playing ‘kerbsies’ with an old ball and skipping using an old washing line. Good neighbours, the best of friends. But not anymore. Distance now, of space, mind, thought.
The young teenagers from other streets, other neighbourhoods, terrorizing our houses every night. It might have started off a bit of harmless mischief, like Halloween pranks, knowing Nigel wasn’t fit to go out to them what with his wheezy chest and all, but quickly it escalated. People terrorized in their own homes — windows smashed — graffiti daubed on doors, walls, kerbs.
My brain is frazzled, feels like we’re living through that damn film ‘The Purge’! Every man for himself! Barricaded in our homes at night for safety.
Teenagers, believing themselves to be immune to the effects of Covid-19 flaunt the government guidelines to ‘Stay at Home’. They prowl at night, top of the food chain, seeking out their prey, the weak and vulnerable.
‘It’s only ‘you oldies’ that this virus wants!’ they scream through the letterboxes, taunting us, before pouring bleach or petrol through the slot, dog poo through my neighbour Josie’s letterbox.
My eyes water as I stare blindly, eyes oblivious to the grime on the net curtains and the drab view of the yard beyond.
‘I can’t live like this anymore!’ I scream, my hand reaching for the dregs of the vodka bottle, but its vacant empty shell skitters across the edge of the worktop and in slow motion makes its way through the air like a tumbling ballerina, arches, twirls and pirouettes, before smashing to the lino.
I stop. My body frozen in motion; arm outstretched. A distant chime of eight bells.
Slowly, imperceptibly, Nigel’s head rises from where it was cradled forwards in his hands, his fingers had been massaging the back of his scalp through his mound of curly hair, his elbows firmly planted on the table.
As he lifts his head, I barely recognise him for the bruises.
Again, flashes of Monet dart through my scrambled brain: jagged edges and lightning forks of purple, mauve, indigo and violet streak across a foggy mind. Bolts of half remembered memory, time a baron lost thing: shouting, screaming, children’s tears, walls thumped, glasses and bottles thrown, doors slammed.
Tears and snot run down my face. I swipe at my nose, cheeks, mouth with the cuff of my dressing gown. My tongue suddenly dry and stuck to the roof of my mouth.
I am afraid. I am ashamed.
I have no exact recollection of the darkness of the night before, but Nigel’s vacant eyes and swollen lids say it all.

08/04/2020 / Harry Browne

The Beach Hawaii 1974 by Declan Cosson

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Arien swam near the beach that day. It was bright and hot but Arien was deep underwater at first so his milky white skin was shielded from the direct rays of the sun.

For a merboy native to the Atlantic, Arien felt as if he was sweating during his trip around the Pacific. He was afraid that if he poked his head above the water, he burnt to a crisp by the sunlight.

By now, the sun was beginning to set but the waters were teaming with all sorts of life, mainly colourful fish and bright red crustaceans.

Arien and Delphi swam further towards the foreshore but Delphi remained in deep water, keeping his distance from the beach so that he wouldn’t beach, something that was considered the worst fate for an aquatic mammal. Arien saw two small legs paddling in the water. There were two larger legs in the water as well, so obviously there were humans above the surface.

Arien tried to peek his head above the water but then he noticed a shark swimming towards the two humans.

Although Arien figured out that it was nothing more than a black tip reef shark, it was obvious that the humans didn’t know that because the two smaller legs were paddling, hinting that the human calf was struggling in panic.

Seeing that this panic could lead to the human struggling and drowning, Arien swam up towards the calf, grappling the young human boy in his arms.

However, seeing that he was in Arien’s milky white muscular arms, the calf panicked as he called out for his Dad. Seeing that he was frightening the calf, Arien tried to calm him down and then let him go back to his father. The boy turned around, scampering back to the shallows once he saw that Arien was there. He seemed to be afraid of Arien

As he looked at the boy, Arien noticed that the boy was practically a smaller version of Alec. For the boy was already starting to inherit his parent’s good looks. This included oak brown hair and sapphire blue eyes.

He then heard Alec’s voice call

“Bruce? Oh God, there you are.”

Looking up, Arien saw Alec in front of him, lifting Bruce in his arms and soothing the boy. Both were panting in exhaustion. Neither Alec or Arien were expecting to encounter each other when they came to Hawaii. Alec asked

“What the? Arien?”

“Yes, it’s me, sorry for scaring your calf, he was in the risk of drowning. Mainly because he freaked out over a black tip reef shark. They’re harmless.”

“Come on, Arien, how was he supposed to know that, all we knew was there was a rectangular dorsal fin. Not exactly an obvious sign of what shark species it is.”

Bruce looked at Arien and then looked at the water where he could see a giant dark shape that was shaped like a tail.

He asked

“Dad? Is he a mermaid?”

“Don’t be scared, Bruce, his name is Arien, he’s their prince, and I helped him retrieve his Mommy from the bad guys.”

What surprised Arien the most was how quickly the boy took that fact in because most humans burst into laughter when they heard mermaid or merman in this era. He even remarked

“He took that in pretty easily. Most people don’t even believe we exist.”

Alec then said

“Well you know, for poor little Bruce, when you are baptized a Christian, abducted by greys, Merpeople aren’t that hard to take in.”

“Abducted by what?”

“Greys, a form of alien, star people, often nasty, blood thirsty and sadistic. What certain aliens do to humans makes human labs of experimentation look like the blue fairy’s blessing upon Pinocchio.”

Arien looked oddly. But Bruce smiled at him. He was glad that a much nicer form of mythical being existed. A paranormal creature that was benevolent and protective was certainly more pleasant to learn about.

However he noticed the beach ball which Alec and Bruce were playing with floating away and he said

“Dad? The beach ball is floating away!”

“Oh, What?”

Alec went pink with embarrassment as in order to retrieve Bruce, let the beach ball float off. Curious at what they were looking for, Arien asked

“What is it?”

“You didn’t happen to see a beach ball float off somewhere?”

“A what?”

“A beach ball, Arien, a sphere that you toss around for fun. It’s a human thing.”

Fortunately, they heard a squeak in the distance that lead them to turn around and see Delphi approaching with a beach ball. The one that Alec lost. Passing it to the Harkers, Delphi went splashing around.

As his father let him back into the water, Bruce then caught the ball asking

“I like that Dolphin, what does he want?

Arien gave a quirky smile asking

“What do you think? What a dolphin seems to always want to do with a humanoid, he wants to play. His name is Delphi.”

Arien then asked

“Alec? Where’s your mate?”

“On the beach, she doesn’t swim.”

“Why not? Thought you humans loved swimming!”

“Yeah, she’s never set foot in the ocean since the age of three. All due to one word: Jellyfish.”

Further up the beach, Anna was sitting down under a tree. She never went swimming in the ocean since the age of three because she developed a skin rash at a young age due to having the bad luck of bumping into a jellyfish while swimming. As a result, even when the others went into the sea, she never went in. Instead she just sat by a tree, reading a book. She had a towel covering her lower body.

Her bright blue eyes kept their focus on the book. Her eyes were so focused on her book that she didn’t notice that the infamous shark hunter John Redgrave was right behind her.

His skin was bronzed by the sun and his coal black hair was curly and matted, having the look of a hero from Lord Byron’s poetry. As a result, he was quite a contrasting sight from the smoother tidy appearance and beardless look  that Alec had.

He had a muscular body that looked like something out of Greek legend and he plunged both a barbed harpoon and a surfboard into the sand as he looked at Anna.

Already captivated by her slim waist and her long wavy locks of golden hair that reached beyond her waist, he approached Anna while looking at Alec and Bruce. He took a cigar and smoked it while asking

“He looks pretty boring, doesn’t he?”

“What?”

Anna was still focused on the book so Redgrave knelt down beside her and waved his cigar near her eyes, causing them to sting, she coughed and put the book down. She stood up. As her eyes watered from the smoke and Redgrave remarked

“The product of a dull stale tired bed, a son from a tribe of fops, he has the right looks for sure but he sacrifices his charm for his honesty. Pathetic.”

“Hold on, are you speaking of Alec, Alec is my husband and he is the finest man I ever knew!!”

“Well he must be boring, after all, you’re reading books!!”

“What’s wrong with that? I like books, who the hell are you, anyway? What do you do for a living?”

“My name is Redgrave, John Redgrave, for your information. And I kill sharks for a living. Intend to do so till no shark remains!!”

“Yeah, sorry, I’m not exactly interested in killing animals. Now goodbye, Redgrave.”

Anna stood up, hoping to get away from Redgrave because she could almost immediately sense his predatory nature.

Anna was in the process of walking off when Redgrave suddenly grabbed her by the arm and started to sniff at her hair. Anna started to scowl asking

“What are you doing?”

“I can guess from your flowing smooth wavy locks of hair and your  thin body that you are an actress. Is that true?”

“Why does that matter? I was an actress, and I’m married to an ace.”

Anna’s heart thumped as he said to her

“Oh even better, I love a sweet vain actress who gains her immense wealth through her beauty!! Yes, nothing suits a golden hearted girl than a brooding boy, I love models and actresses, I love to fuck them!!”

Anna grew pale, she couldn’t hold back and she slapped him. Although it merely caused Redgrave to chuckle, it was enough to help Anna to wriggle out of his grasp and escape. She ran to find Alec, not wanting to be left alone with a creep who had obvious intentions for her.

Meanwhile the black tip swam by the rocks where a large colony of sea lions. Seeing the shark’s dorsal fin, the sealions started honking loudly in despair.

Hearing the honks, Arien chuckled before bursting into laughter. Curious, Alec asked

“Arien, what is so funny? The sealions?”

“It’s even funnier when you understand their language. They are crying out for a deliverer to deliver them some fish and deliver them from sharks, poor black tip, everybody overreacts when he swims around.”

“Deliverer? Sea Lions and seals are religious?”

“Yes, it’s not a bad thing, I mean we’re religious, but they take it to a whole new level. They even have cantors in their colony to lead the singing.”

“So who’s the deliverer?”

“This is where things get pretty funny, their deliverer is an orca named Max.”

The three laughed, finding the concept of seals worshipping a killer whale funny. Delphi looked oddly but he just observed from afar. Delphi, unlike Arien, couldn’t go too far to the coast without fear of beaching, he seemed to be baffled at what the three humanoids were laughing at, for he saw nothing funny about the seals, that Orca protected them and so .

However when Anna’s voice cried out

“Alec!!!!”

Everyone stopped laughing and Alec rushed out towards Anna. Bruce stayed in the water near Arien for safety in case something was going to happen.

Alec was fully soaked as he rushed towards a panicking Anna and embraced her. He tried to calm her down, asking

“Anna?”

“Oh Alec, it’s horrible, he thinks you’re boring, he thinks he deserves me!!”

“He, who?”

“Redgrave. John Redgrave. Whoever the hell he is. Alec, I’m scared.”

Alec tried to calm Anna down as she learned her head onto his chest.

He asked

“Redgrave? Him? How did he know we were here?”

Arien, surprised by this asked Alec

“Who’s Redgrave? Do you know him?”

Hearing what his father just said, Bruce also asked

“Daddy? Who’s this Redgrave? Is he a bad guy?”

Turning back, Alec responded

“The school bully in my year, he rose to be the most popular student in the year after I failed a Math test. All the girls turned from me to him. Don’t worry, come here, Bruce.”

Alec knelt down and beckoned Bruce over. Bruce ran over to Alec and clung onto him.

Arien couldn’t stop looking at Anna. It was the first time that he had seen Anna, and indeed, it was the first time he had seen a human woman up close. For a while, he gazed at her, for it was hard for Arien not to be captivated by her sleek shape and her flowing golden hair. That being said, Arien kept his distance, for he saw the gleaming ring around her finger which looked much like the one Alec had on his. This, as Arien understood, was a sign that the humans before him were a mated pair. However, when Anna turned around, Arien floated back from the shallows

Noticing Arien in the water, Anna asked

“Who’s that?”

“Relax, honey, it’s only Arien, a friend.”

As she approached Arien, she knelt down. The shallows surrounded her feet as she looked at Arien. Noticing the dolphin shaped tail underneath the water where Arien floated, Anna asked

“Is he a mermaid?”

Before Arien could respond, a flying harpoon came flying through the air. Arien, seeing the harpoon head for Bruce and Alec, immediately burst out from the water to get Bruce out of the way. It would have probably jabbed Bruce had Arien not got Bruce out of the way and onto the sand. Anna went deathly pale as that grizzly yet charming voice called out

“Calling him a merman is more appropriate. But since you are a blonde and a model, how can we be surprised?”

Though Bruce, thanks to Arien, was left unscathed by the Harpoon jabbing into the sand, the sheer shock of it happening was enough to make Bruce begin to whimper.

Anna, paying no attention to Redgrave’s mockery of her, knelt down by the shoreline to pick up Bruce while Alec approached Redgrave. Redgrave asked

“Well? You’ve been in the water, pretty boy, any sharks to kill?”

“Don’t play games with me, Redgrave! What do you want with my wife?”

“I want to make life more interesting!! And nothing does that better than the pretty girl with the golden hair and blue eyes.”

“Interesting? Interesting for whom, you? She’s my wife. I’m not letting you add her to a long line of whatever you do with them.”

Redgrave burst into laughter and asked

“What do you watch these days in your past time. I guess you’re watching Cinderella by the sounds of it? Real life doesn’t work that way, Alec. What do you know of sharks? That’s a topic boys should be interested in!!”

Alec smirked and responded

“Actually I’m interested in killer whales, that’s a topic, men should be interested in. Whales are more virile because they are brave, faithful mates and they would stomp a shark with ease.”

Redgrave spat as he walked towards the shoreline. Noticing the cross around Alec’s neck, Redgrave remarked

“You’re missing out boy! Your God knows how to spoil the fun for men!”

Redgrave then shoved past Alec but Alec barely flinched.

Seeing Arien, he asked

“Where are the sharks? Wherever I go, a shark dies!!”

“Only a blacktip, not worth killing.”

“Hah, that’ll do, you are merman, to kill a shark is the rite to manhood among your species! So help me kill the shark and you can claim to be a man!!”

“Glad you got something right about my species. But to kill a harmless shark like a black tip or a whale shark is an act of cowardice. Do you intend to eat this shark?”

Redgrave, grasping the harpoon and kneeling down to face Arien announced

“The funny thing is, is that I don’t just kill sharks, I gut them!! I skewer them with a harpoon, I cut their fins off and toss the worthless carcass into the sea!! Then I sell their fins to the black market. The Chinks love it when you give them shark fin soup!!”

“What a waste!! And you do this to harmless sharks no less. You insult Neptune. You defile the effort of the Gods whenever you butcher a harmless animal for sport.”

“Fuck Neptune!! I will not let a fake sea god dictate my fucking life!! Now tell me where are the fucking sharks? Tell me quickly!”

As he shouted this, Redgrave pointed his harpoon at Arien, only for Arien to grab onto the harpoon tip and push to weapon to face into the sand, he remarked

“You’re going to need to try better than that, Redgrave, I downed Soviet submarines only a few years ago!”

Anna sighed, and realising that swear words were going to enter the conversation, she picked up Bruce and started to walk away. She felt that a four year old boy didn’t need to hear about this gruesome topic. She already started to despise Redgrave and didn’t want her son anywhere near him.

Alec approached Anna and asked

“Anna?”

“I’m taking Bruce back, he doesn’t to be near this savage! I don’t want to be near him either!”

“Yeah, lets go.”

As Alec and Anna walked off, Redgrave then walked after them saying

“No, no, she is not going anywhere until I get a good k….”

Enraged, Alec pushed Redgrave back saying

“Enough!!! This bullshit is making her uncomfortable and it has to stop!! I’ll make it stop if necessary!! I’m not the schoolkid who failed his maths test anymore, I’m in the fucking military!! Go back to all those school girls that swooned over you!!”

Redgrave backed off but he spat at Alec. Undaunted, Alec walked off and followed Anna. He said to her and Bruce

“Come on, honey. We don’t him in our life.”

Arien swam off with Delphi, hoping that the black tip had swam away. Redgrave jabbed his harpoon back onto the sand. He yelled out to Arien shouting

“Aye, merman! Come back here! I’ll reward you handsomely if you kill me a shark!”

Arien surfaced and looked back saying to Redgrave

“My people have no need for money! I’m not wasting my time with you!”

Redgrave sighed.  As he waited for a shark to pass by, he said

“What a boring couple. Always more fun when you have many.”

He smoked his cigar again.

 

07/04/2020 / Harry Browne

Missed Moments by Gerard Byrne

Heron Viola Loretti

Running his fingers up Yhana’s bare thigh towards her large tattoo, Declan couldn’t believe he was here again after all these years. They’d missed out on so much in that time. Now here she was, asleep in his arms once more. Why had he ever let her go in the first place ?. That was a question that somehow seemed beyond his means to answer.

Yhana opened her tired eyes, to be met with his. It brought a smile to her face, that had been missing for a long time now, “I miss moments like this more than anything”

Declan wasn’t sure what she meant. But still tried to guess the right reply, “same here. It feels like old times again. Like we never broke up”

Yhana rubbed the wedding ring on his finger, “unfortunately things have changed. You’re married now and I’m facing a messy divorce. I know last night was great. But it’s not gonna do either of us any favours”

Declan rubbed his fingers through her short hair. A look that he was still trying to get use to. All the memories he had of her from over the years, where filled with the sight of her beautiful long blonde hair. He could still remember the smell of it. But the new style was now growing on him. He’d even walked past her in the pub the night before, without even noticing the woman he had loved for years, standing at the bar. Thankfully Yhana had seen him too, and a long lost connection was finally reattached.

He interlinked his fingers with hers, “I’ve never stopped loving you. You do know that ?”

Yhana tried to ignore the feeling of his cold wedding band, rubbing off her warm skin, “you told me that many times last night”

Declan struggled to hide his embarrassment, “I’m sorry. I did go on a bit. But I wasn’t lying. I never stopped”

Yhana stared up into his eyes, “if you still loved me. Why did you marry her then ?”

Declan struggled to find the appropriate words. But nothing sounded right, “because she was the closest thing I could find to you. I know that sounds terrible. But it’s the truth. I struggled to carry on without you”, he felt it was only fair to turn it back on his ex, “did you marry for love?”

She didn’t want to lie to him, “it was love. I know that’s hard for you to hear. But there was a time when my marriage was going great. But things change, people change. You both want different things. I wanted kids and I thought he did too. But I was wrong. And before I had properly come to terms with things myself, he had me off to the clinic for an abortion. That killed any love I felt for him. It was the biggest mistake I ever made”

Declan kissed her gently on the lips, “I would have never done that to you. I always hoped we’d have kids. What happened between us ?. No matter how much I think about it. I just can’t seem to be able to place where it all went to wrong”

Yhana had been internally debating the whole night before about whether to tell him the truth or not. But lies had ruined them in the past. She couldn’t do that to him again, “your mother kept hinting about your big job opportunity in Dublin. And that you didn’t need things getting in the way. That your future depended on you staying focused. No time for relationships. I didn’t want to be blamed for you not going for it. Even if it meant losing you”

Declan was struggling to take in this new information, “I only left because I thought you didn’t want me anymore. I can’t believe my mother interfered in my life again”

Yhana sat up in the bed and tried to calm him down as best she could, “but think of it this way. In a way she brought us back together again. If you hadn’t of come back for her funeral, we probably would have never met up again. So it all worked out in the end. Even if it’s only just for one night”, she lay down and cuddled into his hairy chest.

Declan tried to drive his mother’s interfering actions, to the back of his mind, “it doesn’t have to be one night. You only have to ask. I want you and I don’t care what I have to give up to achieve that”

Yhana wasn’t sure of what was best for either of them and preferred to stare at the old painting on the far wall, of a tall white bird in a watery forest scene, “always wondered was that a swan”

Declan studied the framed painting, that had been hanging in his old bedroom, for longer than he could remember, “think it’s a stork. I’m not too sure. But there is one thing I’m sure of. I love you Yhana, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Please say yes and we can make this work. I promise”

She kissed him passionately on the lips, as their hands explored each other’s naked bodies, until finally Yhana came up for some much needed air, along with her answer, “only if you get rid of that horrible painting”, she flashed her best cheeky smile at him.

Declan cuddled her in close, “your wish is my command”, it was then, that he realised, that life was finally on the up again.

27/03/2020 / Harry Browne

Violeta By Declan Geraghty

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Violeta me aul flower
Me aul chum
Me best mate
Your name is like the flower but you’re definitely no shrinking Violet
A flower that comes and goes in me life
Sometimes so far out of touch for me
Growing in Spain and shooting up through the soil of that culture
And I bring you back to Dublin for holidays
Then back to Madrid again
Where the rain falls mainly on the plane
I hope you grow into something that isn’t anything like me
But I hope I will be alongside you to see most of it
At least a large part of it anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

27/03/2020 / Harry Browne

Do Not Go Gentle by Stephen Brady

Kansas

East Kansas
1984

He’d had a bad day and just needed something to make him feel better.
In Driscoll’s line of work the bad days had become more and more frequent, and the good days few and far between. He was a sales rep for a firm that wholesaled industrial cleaning products. And right now, no-one seemed to want to buy what he was selling. The orders were drying up, and his list was getting shorter. He just couldn’t close the deals. At Head Office his name was officially Mud. A cloud was hanging over Mike Driscoll, and these days he could almost see it in the rearview.
And this had been a particularly bad day. So when he saw the roadhouse, perched on the edge of a sea of rippling corn, he didn’t hesitate. He pulled off the highway and into the dirt parking lot. He got out of the Lincoln and stretched, hearing his spine crackle. While the dust settled he took a look around.
The place was a typical roadside bar. Typical at least, for this godforsaken part of the world. Two gas pumps stood unattended out front. A battered sign creaked in the breeze:

Billings’ Texaco
H’way 89
Gas and Sundries

Driscoll hitched his trousers, crossed the parking lot and went inside.
The bar was dark as all-hell. The only light came from a big old T.V. set perched on a shelf above the end of the bar. There were three or four patrons holding down barstools, and none of them looked up when Driscoll entered.
He crossed the floor, which was slashed with strips of faint light from the crooked blinds on the windows. In his cheap sportcoat and tie, he imagined he looked out of place. Like some fag from back East., the hicks might say. But none of them glanced in his direction.
He settled himself onto a stool and propped his elbows on the scarred wood.
The barkeep sidled over.
“Help you?”
He was a big old boy in a dirty apron and a squat paper chef’s hat. Driscoll imagined he was the short-order cook too, although it didn’t look like much was cooking around here.
Driscoll cleared his throat.
“Gimme a straight bourbon, on the rocks.”
“You got it.”
While the barkeep slowly went for the bottle, Driscoll took a look around. There was no-one in here apart from the barflies. Of which, he supposed, he was now one. A Miller Lite sign blinked intermittently overhead. A fan blew and rotated back and forth in the corner, but it didn’t do much for the stifling heat in the place. A smell permeated the barroom, rich and timeless, seductive. An old football pennant was stuck into a beermug, by the register.

Bucks Co.
District Champs 1977
GO BUCKS!

Then he saw himself in the backbar mirror, in a gap between two bottles.
Christ, he looked beat. His face was pale and pinched. His hair was longer than it should have been, and curled down over his collar. The jacket hung loose on his skinny frame. Mike Driscoll looked like a man who had been rundown by a truck, and gotten back up again to keep going.
And the worst of it is, he thought, that’s how I feel too.
“Bourbon, rocks.” The barkeep brought his drink and laid a napkin down on the bar. He watched, eyes cool and detached, as Driscoll raised the glass, looked at it, then drained half of it at a gulp.
“Bad day, huh?” the barkeep said. He did not sound especially interested.
“You said it,” said Driscoll. He set the glass down and smacked his lips. “Feels like nothing but, lately.”
“I hear that. Guess it’s about the same all over.”
“I guess it is.”
“Ain’t from around here, are you?”
“No, sir. Just passing through.”
The barkeep nodded. “That’s all most folks ever do. Them what’s got an ounce o’ sense, anyway.”
Driscoll glanced around. “I don’t know. This doesn’t look like the worst place.”
“No? Wait until you been here your whole life, an’ then some.”
Driscoll laughed.
The barkeep left him to his thoughts. Driscoll drank, again. He was beginning to feel a little better. Mellower, more centrered.
He thought briefly of his dwindling order book, and pushed the thought away. He thought of Scully, up there at Head Office, chewing his ass out. He dismissed that thought too. And he thought of the gallon tubs of cleaning fluids in his trunk that would never be sold. That thought was harder to dismiss, because he would be able to feel the weight of them when he got back in the car. And pulled back onto that endless highway.
Fuck it, he thought, and the thought was a pleasant one. I’ll just stay here. Drink bourbon and shoot the shit with my new buddies. And I’ll keep drinking and keep talking and it’ll get dark and the sign outside’ll get lit up. And maybe the occasional truck’ll pass on the highway, and we’ll hear it but not see it. And it’ll just be like that, forever.
The way I feel right now, I could stay here ’til Doomsday.
The sound of the T’.V. was beginning to impinge on his reverie. A reporter was talking in urgent tones, over a crackly connection. Driscoll glanced at the screen. The picture was poor, and shimmered with static. Tanks were rolling through a forest. They looked like American tanks.
The three barflies were watching the T.V. closely. The barkeep was looking at it, too.
Driscoll felt a twinge of something, in the pit of his stomach.
“What’s going on, Pops?” he asked the barfly nearest to him.
“Helluva ruckus,” the old man grunted. “Eastern Germany.”
“Damn Reagan,” said another. “That asshole shoulda taken out them bastids when he had the chance.”
“Shuttup Duke,” said the first barfly.
“What’s going on over there?” Driscoll asked, moving closer to the T.V. The screen now showed a wire fence, and fighter planes taking off in the distance. Against a low and thunderous sky.
“Well,” the first barfly said, “they reckon them Russkies got missiles where they shouldn’t do. In range of our airspace, or some shit. I ain’t familiar with the details. But there’s been a lotta holler about it since last night.” Now he turned to look apprasingly at the stranger. “Damn, buddy. Where the heck you been?”
“On the road,” Driscoll said distractedly. The screen now showed crowds of protestors, somewhere. Dark people shaking fists. Soldiers in camoflague surveyed them impassively. A rocket launcher mounted on a jeep. “I’ve been driving the last three days. My rental car, the radio doesn’t work. Been staying in motels, ain’t turned on a T.V.”
“Well, you shoulda,” said the second barfly. The third one didn’t speak at all, just stared at the T.V. in horror. “‘Cos this here is Armageddon. Right here. On primetime T.V.”
“Oh will you knock it off Duke,” said the barman. “It’s a ruckus, that’s all. Been all this bullshit ever since Cuba. More or less. It’ll blow over.”
On th screeen now were frightened-looking people holding candles. Some sort of prayer vigil. Driscoll drained the rest of his drink.
“One more?” said the barkeep.
Driscoll hesitated. He thought of his order book, and the tubs sitting in his trunk.
“Sure, why the hell not.”
“One for the road.”
“Yeah.” He looked back at the T.V. “One for the road.”
On screen now, was a picture of the Pentagon. Helicopters circled, back and forth. And then there he was, old Ronnie Ray-guns himself. He was standing at a podium. Cameras flashed. Old Ronnie said something and grinned.
“Damn fool’s still crackin’ jokes,” said Duke. “At a time like this.”
Driscoll picked up his fresh drink and took a gulp. He realised he was leaning his full weight on the bar now. The strength seemed to have gone out of his legs.
“Say,” he said to the barkeep, “can we get sound on this thing?”
The guy shook his head impassively. “The dial is busted. I never did find the damn remote.” He shrugged. “Ain’t normally nothin’ worth listenin’ to anyhow.”
Now the picture showed missiles, long and slender and dark olive-green, blasting off from a field somewhere.
“Them’s ours,” said the first barfly. “You can bet the farm on it. There they go, boys. Hallelujah.”
“They ain’t ours,” said the barkeep.
Duke said, “I believe I’ll have me another beer.”
“Hey,” Driscoll said. “Are these, uh… live pictures?”
“Naw,” said the barkeep, drawing the beer. “This here’s just the update. All this shit happened maybe a half-hour ago. Just before you came in.”
Now a map of the globe had appeared on the T.V. screen. Flashing yellow dots were scattered across it.
“Excuse me,” said Driscoll, to no-one in particular. He drained his drink and went outside.
He stood in the parking lot, feeling the air on his face. The wind had died down a little. Clouds of dust flew past his ankles and disappeared.
He looked to the south. Past his rented Lincoln, off to the horizon. The corn waved and rippled, vast and restless as an inland sea. Stormclouds massed low on the horizon.
He’d had a bad day. All he’d been looking for was something to make him feel better.
He walked out to the edge of the empty highway. Looked out across that vast and restless sea of corn. Eyes fixed on those dark and patient clouds.
Just a drink. That’s all he’d wanted. He’d had two, so maybe, just maybe, he’d come out of this thing ahead.
It had grown quiet. Quiet and still.
One for the road.
He thought of something, a snatch of poetry he’d heard years before. But he couldn’t capture it. It just slipped away on the breeze.
Faintly, from far above, there came a sound. A kind of drone, high and shrill. A scream in the stratosphere. It began to grow louder as it drew down toward the Earth.
He thought about Head Office. About the sales board and the order book.
Thin ice, Driscoll, Scully’d said. You are officially on thin ice, my friend.
He could still taste the bourbon in his mouth.
He smiled a little.
And when the impact came he sank to his knees and raised his arms in welcome.

13/03/2020 / Harry Browne

Stationary by Gerard Byrne

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Rosemary found her new job tiresome at the best of times. Seemed a waste of her young life, dashing into the city every morning at eight o’clock to open up a shitty stationary store that never seen any business until ten.

As she unlocked the heavy front door, a drop of her freshly bought McDonald’s latte, landed on her hand with a painful splash, “fuck sake”, she roared as the cup fell to the ground and the door swung open in front of her. The thirty second warning began to beep loudly inside. Rosemary had to choose between her fast emptying coffee cup, or the alarm system. She chose the latter. Running inside and typing in the stupid six digit code that was now burned into her brain from constant use.

The beeps went silent with much relief. But suddenly a knife came to her throat as a stubbly faced man, pushed her against the wall with brutal force, “do as you’re fucking told and you won’t get hurt”, his voice was filled with menace and anger. Rosemary knew better not to mess with such a brute, “I’ll do whatever you want. Just don’t fucking hurt me you bastard. This job isn’t worth getting killed over”
The brute grabbed her roughly by the arm, slammed the door shut and escorted her outback to the stock room. He pointed at a circled shaped safe that was built into the thick concrete wall on the far side of the large room,”open that fucking thing now or I’ll cut you up”

Rosemary tried her best to show no fear from such a violent thug, “I haven’t the bloody combination. I’m only working here a few weeks. And to be honest, I doubt there’s much in it anyway. The owner doesn’t do much business in my opinion”
The brute picked up a nearby staple gun and held it tightly to her cheek, “I’m not here to listen to excuses off you. I want that safe open and I want it done now. The longer you hold off, the more staples I’m gonna fire into your beautiful smooth cheeks my dear. And with that, he shot one of.

The piece of metal dug firmly into her cheek with a painful crack of the stapling gun. Rosemary could feel the small sharp parts of metal, digging deep inside her delicate flesh. She tried to push him away and run, “get the fuck off me”
But the brute grabbed her by the hair and dragged her towards the safe, “last chance my dear. Before you get a face full of staples to remember me by”

As she neared the safe, rosemary noticed the tall stack of boxed printing paper beside her. There was only one thing for it as she launched herself at the bottom three boxes of the pile. The brute was now left with a clump of her hair in his rough hand. Rosemary banged hard into the bottom of the stack, leading to the desired effect that she had hoped for, as the top boxes fell forward onto the brute. Flattening the prick to the floor.

Rosemary got up from her painful position and arched her back to try and alleviate the pain she was now feeling. She looked over at the semi conscious brute on the ground. The staple gun lay along side him. Now a plan began to form in her head. She pulled the boxes off his chest and sat astride him like a hunter who had just caught their first trophy kill of the morning, “looks like the tables have turned you little shit. Or should I say, my dear little shit”

The brute looked around for his weapon of choice. But the staple gun was nowhere to be seen. Rosemary held it aloft with great pride, “think you’re looking for this. Unfortunately for you it’s in my hands now. Have you ever heard the saying, there’s no greater anger than a woman scorned? Well you scorned me you little prick. Now it’s time to pay the piper”, and with that, she held the gun to his cheek and fired. The large staple sank deep into his stubbly flesh. He screamed in pain, “fuck you bitch”
Rosemary smiled with delight at his suffering, “this day isn’t gonna be as boring as I thought”