James Babbs


Barlow lifted the bottle to his lips and took a long slow drink.  The beer was cold and he thought it tasted especially good today.  Barlow kept glancing up at the ceiling fan and watching the fan blades spinning around and around.  He lifted the bottle again and took another drink of the good beer.

Barlow had been trying to write a story but he couldn’t get the words to cooperate.  Barlow kept seeing bits and pieces of the story in his mind as if it were a movie playing on a screen but putting it into words on the page had Barlow hung up.  He decided he was better off just drinking a few beers as the heat of the late afternoon sun began to wane.

When the doorbell rang Barlow took another long drink before putting down the bottle.  He went to answer the door and found a pretty woman with long dark hair standing in front of him.  Barlow covered his face with mock disappointment. 

“Oh,” he said.  “It’s only you.”

“Ha, ha.  Very funny.”

Barlow laughed before hugging the woman and pulling her into the room.  “Gwen,” he said, “how have you been?”

“I’ve been good,” she said.

“Well,” said Barlow, “you look great.  Care for something to drink?”

“Oh,” Gwen said.  “I thought you’d never ask.”

Barlow led Gwen into the kitchen and sat her down at the table across from his place.  “I’ve been drinking beer,” said Barlow, “but I think I have some wine up in the cupboard.”

Barlow went over to the cupboard above the stove and pulled down two bottles of red wine.  “I was saving these for a special occasion but for you I’ll make an exception.”

Gwen laughed.

“Ah,” said Barlow.  “At least I could always make you laugh if nothing else.”

“Sometimes,” she said, “that’s all I needed.”

Barlow opened the wine and poured Gwen a glass.  He sat down across from her and picked up his beer.  He raised the bottle toward Gwen.  Gwen raised her glass and looked at him.

“What should we drink to?” Gwen asked.

“To death,” said Barlow.

“To death?”

“Yeah,” said Barlow.  “It hasn’t found us yet.”  He touched Gwen’s glass with the bottle and drained the rest of his beer.

Gwen took a drink of wine and smiled at Barlow.  “Is this that same cheap stuff you were always so fond of?” she asked.

“Of course,” said Barlow.  “Only the best for you, babe.”  He went over to the fridge and pulled out another beer.

“So,” Gwen said, “you been writing anything, lately?”

Barlow sat down and took a drink of his beer.  He leaned back in his chair with the bottle still in his hand.  “Now, Gwendolyn,” he said, “you know I don’t discuss my writing.”

“Oh, yes,” she said.  “I forgot.”

Barlow took another drink and studied the label on the bottle.  “I was thinking,” he said, “of writing something about two old friends.  You know, a man and a woman who’ve known each other for a long time.”  Barlow took another drink.  “Maybe they were even lovers at one time but for whatever reason it didn’t work out.”

“What happened?” asked Gwen.

“Well,” said Barlow, “maybe the man was a fool.  Maybe he didn’t know how to be in a relationship.  Maybe he had been alone for so many years it was hard for him to relate to another person.”

“That’s sad,” Gwen said.

“Well,” said Barlow.  “Maybe there was something wrong with the woman.  Maybe she was crazy or something.  Beautiful, but crazy.”

“No,” Gwen said.  “I like the other explanation better.”

Barlow laughed.  “Yeah, well, sometimes they still get together.  Sometimes, they still get together and drink and talk about old times.”

 “Speaking of drinking.  I could use some more of that cheap wine.”  Gwen turned, looking for the bottle.

“Oh,” said Barlow.  “I thought it was on the table.  I guess I left it on the counter.”

Gwen laughed.  “That’s okay.  I’ll get it.”  She got up and brought the open wine bottle with her to the table and sat back down.

“You know,” said Barlow, “it isn’t much of a story.  Something unexpected needs to happen.”

“Like what?” asked Gwen as she refilled her glass.

“I don’t know,” said Barlow.  “Maybe the man gets up and suddenly kisses the woman.”

“What if she doesn’t want to be kissed?”

Barlow took another drink of beer.  “Maybe the man gets up and slaps the woman across the face.”

“Maybe,” Gwen said, “the woman slaps the man across the face and then storms out of the house.”

Barlow held the beer bottle in front of him.  “If she was going to do that,” he said, “why’d she come over in the first place?”  Barlow looked at Gwen.  “She’s probably just sitting there, waiting for the man to kiss her.”

Gwen drank some more wine and then set her glass back on the table.  She sat there for a moment studying her hands.  “Okay,” she said.  “What if the man gets up and comes over to the woman and he grabs her and pulls her close to him?  What if he brings her face right up next to his and she can smell the beer on his breath and maybe, even, what he had for breakfast that morning?  Then he kisses her.  Not in any kind of gentle way but a really rough kiss.  Almost violent.  And then the woman pulls out a gun and shoots the man dead.”

Barlow leaned forward still holding on to the beer.  “What?”  He said.  “Why the hell would she do that after they’ve known each other all of those years?”

Gwen was touching her glass with just the tips of her fingers.  She shrugged.  “I don’t know,” Gwen said.  “Maybe it was something that had been building up for a long time and she finally just snapped.”

Barlow finished off the beer and put the bottle on the table.  His hand was a little shaky so the bottle fell over and hit the table.  Barlow picked up the bottle again.  “Hey,” he said.  “What if the woman suddenly got up and kissed the man and he didn’t want her to kiss him?”

Gwen laughed.  “Nobody would believe that.”

“Yeah,” said Barlow still holding the empty bottle.  “You’re probably right.”

Stuart Stromin


When the Dwarf Queen first brought Pindick to the island, everyone thought he was an idiot.  No-one imagined a fool like that could be a mastermind.  He had a glassy stare, and spoke in monosyllabic mumbles, and he quickly became the object of ridicule, which was exactly what the Dwarf Queen intended.

The Dwarf Queen, it must be explained, was not the monarch of a pygmy tribe, but she was five feet tall on high heels and she did have dwarfish features, as a result of a premature birth which allowed her hands and feet to grow in the womb before the full development of her arms and legs and torso.  Her spine curved outwardly at the top and bottom (like parentheses), making her buttocks pert and round.  There was something provocative about her odd shape, and she was an insatiable flirt.  She had thick raven hair, and alabaster skin, and, if her charisma could not captivate every man on the island, there was no doubt that Pindick hung on her every word.

From the very beginning, they were rarely apart.   With a slight stoop, he always followed a few steps behind her on the promenade, where the island gypsies sold their trinkets; in a crowd, she held his hand.  They were both in good physical condition.  They made a handsome couple, even though there was about a ten-year age difference between them, and his hairline was receding.   She liked to play hot and cold with his emotions to keep him off-balance.  She seemed to read him like a fortune teller, but even the Dwarf Queen, who knew how the intricate cogs were turning in his head, could not have unraveled his scheme to take over the entire show, and, eventually the entire island.

The show was, to put it mildly, an adult themed circus.  There were exotic dancers, acrobatic contortionists who performed simulated sex numbers in the nude, and a bawdy Ringmaster, and there was a decidedly perverse edge to the program.  There were acts with cracking whips, and a girl who did rope tricks, but the stunts which the Dwarf Queen performed with Pindick would shock the audience, and keep them coming back for more.

The theater was attached to an exclusive couples-only resort on a white sand beach.  It had begun as something of a rundown striptease attraction, in a musty old burlesque house, but it became a glittering success when the Dwarf Queen put Pindick up on stage.  The Dwarf Queen loved the limelight, and, even, in the end when it was apparent that Pindick was the real star of the show, she accepted that fact just so that she could be the one to stand beside him.

Pindick was the circus clown, a sad-faced clown with a droopy mouth, a Bozo wig, and the ubiquitous red nose.  He always looked like he was about to break into tears.  He wore purple pantaloons with a ruffle, and flapped around in clown feet that gave him a bandy gait.  The premise of the act, which changed every night, and became more and more abusive, as the audience came back with a bloodlust that turned into a frenzy, was to improvise ways to torment and humiliate Pindick.

At first, it was just about throwing pies at him, while he stood helpless with that mournful look on his white painted face, but the Dwarf Queen knew no limits.  She slapped him around, beat him and whipped him, the lash cracking against any part of his body or his head.   She put a bit into his mouth, and gave him a donkey tail, and rode him around the stage, using a crop and spurs to make him trot.  Dressed in fishnet stockings, top hat and tails like Marlene Dietrich in the Blue Angel, which was her favorite picture, she drizzled honey and chicken feathers over Pindick, and invited onlookers to aim raw eggs at him until he was dripping with yolk and eggshells.  She handed out tomatoes to the first three rows, and, like a medieval mob, they hurled rotten fruit at him while he sang in a falsetto voice.  She forced his jaws open with a metallic dental device, and allowed members of the audience to pour surprise fluids into his yawning orifice.   It could have been a shot of Vodka or a glass of liquid soap, or sour milk, and, after a while, she would encourage them to shoot spitballs through a straw into the target, and then, there was a squirt gun apparently filled with urine.   

But, since this was an adult-themed show with plenty of nudity, on private property, where no-one was policing them, the highlight of the performance was to expose the clown’s genitals.  Some nights, the Dwarf Queen would de-pants him unexpectedly, creeping up behind him with a wicked smile to the spectators while he was trying to juggle, and jerk his pantaloons down with the elastic around his ankles; some nights, she would have him perform a clumsy striptease, while the men and women of the audience cawed and chanted.  As the drums rolled, there he stood shell-shocked under the probing spotlight, with his tiny shriveled penis on display for jeers and cackles, and, ultimately, brutal silence.

This was what they had all paid for tickets to witness.

The Dwarf Queen led him off triumphantly, as he pulled up his trousers and bunched the waistline in his fist.   She always had to be attentive to him afterwards, like a mother with a child, or, if the mood was right, she would keep him going as if they were still on the stage, handling him harshly and pushing his face into a backstage corner to wait for her while she went to get a drink.  She knew that after the performance, his head would be wobbling like a china plate on a bamboo pole, and she had to bring him down slowly.

By the time they were alone together in their room at the end of the long night, they spoke freely, discussed the reactions of the audience, and thought of ways they could improve the act, or new tricks to perform.  Pindick was always brimming with suggestions.  She always admired how clever he was, but no-one would have imagined it.  Even the Dwarf Queen did not realize the levels to his manipulation.

Of course, any man who called himself Pindick and who revealed his undersized member to the world had to have a sense of inner security that did not depend on factors about which other men were sensitive.  In fact, as the Dwarf Queen knew, because of how he had been raised, and because of his intellectual abilities, Pindick the clown was vain and arrogant.  He felt so superior to the spectators who paid money to snigger at him that their mockery meant nothing.  In a way, studying their responses, he was the one who was mocking them.

The customers did not see it that way though, and word of the outrageous act spread through the island, and around the globe.  People came from other hotels along the beachfront, and from towns on the opposite shore, and in the hills, and then from distant lands.  Guests returned annually to the resort, bringing new guests in tow, and business increased rapidly.  Tickets for the show were sold out months in advance.  There were masks, postcards, souvenirs and posters for sale, but the Dwarf Queen was adamant that Pindick could not be photographed on stage.   The act had to be experienced in person.  On rare occasions, before the evening performance, when Pindick was in full white-faced make-up, wig and costume, she led him along the boardwalk, and visitors flocked for photographs with their arms around him.  They always tried to pinch his nose, but she prevented them.  Little did anyone realize the sinister secret that the red spongy nose was concealing.

If anyone were paying attention, they would have noticed how alarmed the clown became when a giddy fan reached for his nose.  But the Dwarf Queen always made sure that his nose was safe.

Pindick became so popular that a second scene was added.  The clown usually appeared late in the program, just before the finale, because there really was no-one to follow him.  He was what they had all come to see, and it was the climax of the show.  The Dwarf Queen negotiated an additional fee for a sort of a warm-up teaser early in the presentation.  This kept the impatient spectators calm, and whet their appetites for what would come later.   The Dwarf Queen would not appear in the teaser, and it would be performed wholly between Pindick and the Ringmaster.

The Ringmaster was a big-bellied foreigner in a scarlet topcoat with a booming voice, and a collection of vulgar jokes and songs, which he would belt out into a microphone in different languages.  The ruse that they worked out was that he would ask for volunteers from the audience, and Pindick, making his entrance from the back of the hall, would be the one that he selected.

The Ringmaster was a natural to play the part of the bully, and he found new ways to abuse the clown each night.  He made him wear a dunce cap, used a whip to crack a playing card from between his teeth, and tricked him into sitting on a cream pie.  The clown always seemed terrified of the Ringmaster.   One night, when the crowd was insatiable for it, he hypnotized Pindick to copulate with a stuffed sheep.  He did not like to tell Pindick before the show what he was planning, but he always consulted with the Dwarf Queen in advance.

The Dwarf Queen did not care much for the Ringmaster, but she was envious of how much the spotlight shone on him, as the centerpiece of the show.  There were always allegiances and jealousies among the performers.  There were the strippers and chorus girls who idolized the Dwarf Queen like infatuated schoolchildren.  There was Jumba the circus strongman, with hairless, oily muscles, who felt deep sympathy for Pindick, and stood up for the clown long before he became so celebrated.   Jumba was always bewildered by the way that Pindick was maltreated.  There was Wanda the man-girl, who rivaled the Dwarf Queen, but they kept an easy fellowship between them.  She was called the man-girl, not because of any ambivalence about her sexuality, but because of her athletic build.  She was blonde and voluptuous, and dressed like a mythological goddess, and she did an act that was mostly about whip-cracking.  Once in a while, when her co-star had been too soused or marked up too badly from the previous night to appear in public, the Dwarf Queen let Wanda borrow Pindick, and bind him to the post.

The whip, Pindick scoffed in private, was not his specialty, but he had trained to take the lash.   What he displayed was more cerebral, the whip was mindless and barbaric.   Most of it was bluff and showmanship.  There were loud snappers which did not hurt, there were vipers with a silent bite.  The trick was that as long as the coils struck the body after the crack, the force had all been shaken out of it, and, as long as the reaction of the victim was believable, the audience would think he had been stung.  Of course, mistakes could happen, and, let’s face it, once in a while, it was deliberate.  

It was Wanda who would take Pindick to the stage on the night of his final performance.

By that time, Pindick had become such a celebrity on the island that he was not even referred to by name.  At first, people enjoyed the jape of calling out to him, because his name itself was such an insult.  But, after a while, they were uncomfortable about it, and he was called Mister Pindick, and then, it was just Mr P, and no-one dared to breathe the real name of the legendary artiste.   People pointed and nodded and whispered when he was seen.  His infamy overwhelmed the rabble.   His antics became less about his victimization than his daring.   Everyone had witnessed the show, and they all had a favorite feat which they remembered.  They always wondered what he would accomplish next.  

He never paid for a drink at any bar or a meal or a taxi anywhere on the island, and he was never kept waiting, and everything was complimentary.  The Dwarf Queen relished it, but Mr P accepted his fame with modesty, as if it was simply his due.  Offstage, he took to a stylish black pinstripe wardrobe.  He started to go around without her more and more, but they always yearned for one another when they were apart.  They could not stand to be apart from one another for too long.

This was especially true before and after the performance when they were both in their roles.  

They always used to have a few drinks to wind down after the show, but, on the night before what was to be his last appearance, Pindick could not find her, and he started to panic.  He had been in the communal dressing room backstage, removing his greasepaint and his costume, and she was not at the pool-deck bar where they usually met.  He waited until closing time but she did not come.  

He went down to the beach because, on a hot night, the Dwarf Queen liked to swim in the ocean under the moonlight, and he feared that, a little under the influence, and easy prey for the seductive tides, she might have been swept away by the backwash.  There was nothing but empty paddleboats and beach chairs with no cushions, and all the umbrellas were folded.  He heard the sound of the wind and the breakers.  The smell of salt was in the air.  He was the only one on the sand.  He stared into the black waves.

He checked their room on the ground floor.  Their bed had not been touched, everything was neat and sterile.  The soft pastel colors and the utilitarian fixtures of the hotel room made it feel like an infirmary, but for the vivid textiles of their theatrical costumes and property.   Her half-finished drink was still on the table among her make-up vials and powders, but the ice had melted.

He looked all through the resort.  No-one seemed to know where she was.  He was filled with a sense of foreboding.

It was almost four a.m. when, without even knowing why, he went up the steps and along the open corridor to the Ringmaster’s room.

The door was ajar, and he could tell that inside the lamp was glowing, and there were muffled sounds.

He tapped on the door.  “Its Pindick.”

“Come in, Pindick,” he heard the Dwarf Queen’s voice.  “I’m in here.”

He was relieved that he had found her, and he let the door swing open.

The Dwarf Queen was naked in the bed, her dwarfish body across the big buttery flesh of the Ringmaster.

“You can sit in the corner, and watch us,” she instructed.

“Yes, Pindick,” guffawed the Ringmaster, “Watch me do her.”

The clown stared transfixed, and collapsed like a marionette onto the floor in the corner, unable to take his eyes off the bed.  He could not understand why the Dwarf Queen would allow a bloated bully like the Ringmaster to use her so obscenely, and, as if to make matters more hurtful, the Ringmaster was naked in every way, except that he was wearing Pindick’s bright red nose.

“How many times has wormboy witnessed you with a real man?’ the Ringmaster asked the Dwarf Queen.

“Actually, you are the first,” she told him.

“Oh, what an honor,” he said sarcastically, as if they were all on stage doing the routine.

Pindick watched them at it, and tried to see himself from the outside, like he did when he was under the spotlight with his trousers around his feet.   The Ringmaster grunted out some taunts, but they became so absorbed in what they were doing together, that they did not seem to notice him in the corner any more.  The foreigner was too big to lie across her small child-like body, so she rode him astride, and then, he got behind her with the Dwarf Queen on all fours on top of the sheets.  She moaned with passion as he thrust into her.  The clown curled up into the corner, with his legs to his chest, and his eyes covered, but he could not stop himself from peeking through his fingers.

They finished – for the moment – and then, they half-turned their attention back to him.

He got to his feet, sliding up the wall.  “I’m going back to the room.”

“I said to watch us,” the Dwarf Queen repeated, because she never liked to be defied.

“I don’t want to watch.”  He stumbled to the doorway. “I said I’m going back to the room.”

“I will deal with you later.” she said sharply.

He went out, and, not quite realizing the strength of it, he slammed the door.

In their room, he could not sleep.  It was not the same without her in the bed.  They always slept topsy-turvy, like an endless circle, because, restless sleepers, they found they would disturb each other less through the night if they lay head to feet.   He rested on her side of the bed, his head on her soft pillow with a trace of her scent.  He knew that she had had too much to drink, but he was hollow and confused.

As day was breaking, the four walls of the room closed in like a painted cage, and he could not catch his breath, so, outside, he found a hammock between palm trees where the resort met the beach.   He could hear the sound of the waves lapping at the shore, and the hammock swayed gently.

He lay in the curve of the hammock like a fish in a net, and dozed off as the breeze rustled the palm fronds, but he kept waking to the same picture in his mind of the Dwarf Queen and the Ringmaster.   He memorized all the words that he would say to her when they saw each other.

After a few hours, he rolled off the hammock and went to look for her in their room again.  She was not there, although now, he knew where he could locate her.  He did not want to disturb her.  He guessed that she was probably trying to sleep it off.

He had no appetite, but he realized that, with little sleep, he should at least try to have some food.  She had drummed into him how to take good care of himself.

Lined up at the lunch buffet, where the performers were eating among the guests, he encountered the Ringmaster.   In baggy flannel pants, and a loose shirt to hide his paunch, and with a plate of sardines perched on his fingertips, the foreigner did not seem so intimidating.

“Mister Pindick,” the Ringmaster took him to one side, “I wanted to apologize to you…”

“No, no, no.  There is no apology necessary.  The Dwarf Queen can do whatever she wants to…”

“You know, Mister Pindick,” the Ringmaster said earnestly, “We all have such great respect for you.  We really like you.”

“I could give a damn what you think of me,” the clown said fiercely.

The Ringmaster did not flinch.  “I just wanted you to know that.”

“Look, just give me a wide berth today,” warned Pindick, “Just stay out of my way.”

“Of course.”  

“I’ll be ready for the show tonight, but keep out of my face until we get on stage.”  He caught a fishy whiff of the sardines, and suddenly felt queasy.

“I’m going to make you eat fire,” the Ringmaster said politely, “If that’s all right?”

Pindick nodded.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” the Ringmaster assured him, “There is no air in the human mouth, and it is full of moisture, so the flame will die instantly.”

“I know how to do the trick,” Pindick said, “You won’t hurt me.”

The Ringmaster set down his plate on a table, put out his broad palm, and beamed.  He held it out until Pindick shook his hand, and, the burly man wrapped his other arm around Pindick in a sweaty hug.

“Thank you, Mister Pindick,” he said, with a little bow.

“Thank you,” said Pindick, “You handled it just fine.”

At around five p.m., as he approached their room from the rear across the lawn, he saw her silhouette through the bathroom window.  She was in the shower, and the soapy water was so scalding that the steam fogged the glass.   Even though he had practiced their conversation in his head all day, he did not know what he would say to her.  He waited on the grassy walkway another thirty minutes before he went through the door.

For once, she did not seem to know what to say either, and they both mumbled hello, but they could not make eye contact.   This was the time of day when they would usually start to prepare for the evening performance.  He would fetch their drinks from the bar.  She would do her own make-up first, sitting on a stool in front of the mirror, while he waited mutely on the mat.  He would try to concentrate on his role, and lay out her wardrobe on the bed.  Then, she would get him into makeup, and his costume, and, lastly, she would apply the nose.  By the time they left for the theater, they would be in character.

But she showed no signs of beginning the preparations.

“Look,” he broke the silence at last, “I don’t think I can do the act tonight…”

She glared at him.  “You will do the act.”

“My head is not in the right space.  I am not going to be able…”

“Are we going to have a problem?”  she tried not to raise her voice.

“I don’t want to have a problem.  We have had enough problems.  I just don’t want to go on….”

“You will go on.  People are expecting you.”

“I have never missed a performance before,” he said sullenly, “They can go one night without me.”

“You will not miss a performance tonight either,” the Dwarf Queen said, her voice rising  now, “You are not sick.  You are not injured.  You don’t feel like going on, well, too bad.  How do we know you will feel like going on tomorrow?”

“I will get over myself in a few days…”

The Dwarf Queen would never let the clown prevail.  “You will get over yourself now.  You are not going to let everyone down.  You wanted to be the center of attention.  You are the number one attraction in the freakshow.  This is the price of being the star.  The show must go on.”

“I just don’t think that I can do the show with you,” he admitted, hoping to hurt her feelings.

“I am not stupid,” she declared complacently, because she had an ace up her sleeve.  “I have already thought of that.  I know you so well.“

Pindick realized she was ahead of him.  “Then, how?”

“You will do the act with Wanda.”

He liked the idea of doing the performance with the man-girl.  He did not appreciate how she always tried to compete with the Dwarf Queen, but he could not deny that there had been a spark of electricity between them whenever they had appeared together before.  It was not the same, but she had her own set of skills.   At first, it had been easy; it was getting harder and harder to do the act.  He was curious to see where Wanda might take the scene.

“I have already discussed it with her,” the Dwarf Queen continued, “And she has agreed.”

“What about the nose?”  the clown asked sheepishly.

“She knows about the nose.”

“What did you tell her?” 

“I didn’t tell her everything.  I told her that you need the nose to get into character.  She understands.”

He did not feel so isolated now. Over the years, everyone had weak moments.  Intoxicated, she had followed her impulses and now she was ashamed.  She had no reason to feel shame, he understood, she was a free spirit.  They could forgive each other for anything.  He had the feeling that despite what had happened she was still trying to watch over him.   She was always so protective towards him.  She had considered his feelings.  It would all be easy if he was wearing the nose.  

Pindick surrendered.  “All right.  I will do the act with Wanda.”

The sun was setting over the ocean, and they had not yet turned on the lamps in the room.  They gazed at one another in the half-light.

“I will prepare the nose for you beforehand.”  She softened her tone, and came closer to where he was standing.  “So, you will have nothing to worry about.”

But the Dwarf Queen would never see her partner again after that night.

Wanda the man-girl came to the room to get Pindick about half an hour before curtain.   She was wearing a tight spangled leotard, a short cape, elbow-length gloves and high shiny boots, and she had her signature whip coiled about her.  In white face paint and in costume, the clown was ready.  She took hold of him roughly.

“Let’s go, fool,” she laughed.

Pindick blinked at her vacantly, and muttered an inaudible response.

The Dwarf Queen smiled at Wanda.  “He’s all yours.  Have fun.”

“Enjoy your night off,” said Wanda.

They went out into the corridor, and the Dwarf Queen watched them leave.  Wanda strode a few steps ahead, with a swing in her hips, while Pindick waddled behind her in his clown feet with his head bowed.   

A warm breeze was stirring.  The night had fallen, and the half-moon rose over the sea.   

It was a short walk through the resort to the backstage entrance of the old burlesque house.  From a distance, illuminated, the creaky building loomed spookily against the dark horizon.  It gave him that same ominous feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Pindick took his place at the back of the theater as soon as the house lights went down.  He had never felt nervous before.  He always waited until his cue, when the Ringmaster asked for a volunteer, someone ridiculous.  Then the spotlight would sweep through the audience and discover him at the back of the hall.   At first, he pretended that he did not want to go up on the stage, and the Ringmaster would be insistent.  People started clapping and whistling, sometimes someone would give him a shove, as he gingerly went forward and up the small flight of steps at the apron.

But on that final night the Ringmaster thought better of it.  He went through the motions, and the spotlight raked the seats, and skimmed right by him.  The harsh beam of it settled instead on one of the hotel guests, a tall, thin, lantern-jawed man on holiday.  The Ringmaster called him up, and egged on by his group of friends, the volunteer did the fire-eating trick while Pindick watched from the back of the theater.

Half-relieved, half-jealous, he shuffled out through the side doors, and went backstage to wait for his turn with the man-girl.

Wanda strutted up to him as he waited in a corner of the wings, getting her face so close to his face that he could count the tiny beads of perspiration on her forehead.

“Nobody wanted to see you eat fire,” she teased, “Oh, poor little Pindick.”  Then she playfully squeezed his spongy nose.  “What on earth am I going to do to you tonight?”

A kaleidoscope of naked bodies, feathers, glitter, scenery, backdrops, trampolines and trapezes tumbled through his mind.  There was frantic circus music and laughter and applause and he imagined that he could hear the drumbeat of his own heart.   His head spun like a pinwheel.  His legs felt weak.  He saw the blurry features of the man-girl in front of him, her white teeth gleaming in a lascivious grin, but he could not focus his eyes.  He tried to catch his breath, sucking in the air through his lips.  He hardly recognized where he was.  Everything in the grand universe seemed pinpointed to the overwhelming image of the Ringmaster and the Dwarf Queen doing it.

Time sped up, and, before he knew it, he heard the Ringmaster wielding the microphone to announce the act which everyone had been waiting for, and then, Wanda was marching him out onto the stage, and he heard the crowd stamping their feet, and jeering in unison, “Pin-dick!  Pin-dick!  Pin-dick!”

The spotlight hit him, and a roar of delight came from the throng.

Wanda circled around him, in front of him, in his face, then behind him, invisible.  She prodded him, poked him, and, all of sudden, she jerked his trousers down around his ankles, and he stood exposed.

“We’re going to do the Penguin tonight,” she declared, crossing to the far side of the stage, “Let’s see you do the Penguin walk.”

Hands perpendicular to the sides, he took a few awkward steps towards her.  He saw the Ringmaster leering from the wings, his lips curved in a nasty smile.  Pindick looked around, lost without the Dwarf Queen to encourage him.  He took a deep inhalation, and, in his stupor, stumbled leadenly towards the bleary figure in the spangled cape.

It was not quick enough for Wanda.  She uncoiled her whip, and cracked it once against the hard wooden planks of the stage so that the yellow dust rose from the floorboards.

“I’m waiting for you,” she said, with a lilt in her voice, and he tried to get his legs to work faster.

Then, as he approached her, Wanda did the cruelest thing that Pindick could have imagined.

She tossed her whip aside, and before he knew it, she reached for his face, and, in a flash, she had plucked off his nose.

“No!” cried the clown.

The audience erupted with laughter.

“You want it,” teased Wanda, “Come and get it.”

He hobbled towards her, hampered by the oversized clown shoes and his trousers coiled around his feet.  She moved away as he got closer.  She tossed the phony nose from hand to hand.  She pretended that she was about to give it to him, and then snatched her hand away again as he reached for it.  She tucked both hands behind her back, hiding the nose in her fist.

“You don’t understand,” Pindick stammered, “The nose is very important….”

“It’s v-v-very important,” mimicked Wanda, “Then you had better go and get it, hadn’t you?”  She stepped to the edge of the stage, and, to the horror of the clown, flung the little red nose into the audience.

The spectators got into the game at once, throwing the nose like a ball from one hand to another.  Pindick pulled up his trousers, and clambered down the stairs at the apron into the dimly lit hall.   From the balcony, the spotlight was pointed at him.  He chased the nose, as the audience members transferred it from the front rows to the back of the house, and somehow or other, as the theater ushers got into the lark, it went out the back door, and Pindick followed his nose.

It was a spectacular exit, and the man-girl took a bow on the stage to thunderous applause.

His nose, as it turned out, would elude Pindick.

About an hour after the performance ended, the Dwarf Queen hammered on the door of Wanda’s room.

“I can’t find Pindy,” she said, when Wanda came to the door.  “He’s not at the bar, he wasn’t backstage, and he did not come back to our room.”

“I know,” Wanda replied, “He ran out of the back doors of the theater at the end of the scene, but then he was nowhere to be found.”

“How was the show?”

“Hilarious.  The audience loved it.  So did I.  He was a sensation.”

“What made Pindy run out of the back of the theater?  He has never done that before.”

“Oh, my darling, you should have seen it,” Wanda laughed, “He was chasing his nose.”

“He lost his nose?”

“I took it off him.”

The alabaster complexion of the Dwarf Queen seemed to turn a paler shade.  “That nose is what puts him into his trance.”

They heard the distant smash of glassware from the pool-deck bar.  Someone started shouting in another language.

  Wanda thought that the Dwarf Queen was about to faint.  “You’d better explain.”

“The sponge of the nose soaks up a special concoction which he inhales.”  She drew a sigh.  “He is completely addicted to it.”  She was embarrassed to say the truth, so she spoke it quickly.  “It’s amyl nitrate, a little alcohol and some powder.”

A gust of wind swept her black hair across her face.

There was a stamp of boots up the staircase.

Still in his circus wardrobe, the Ringmaster lumbered down the corridor.  “There might be a problem.”

“Do you know where Pindy is?”

“Jumba the giant said he saw Mr P running down to the beach.  The wind caught his nose, and he chased after it.”

They ran through the resort, with Wanda and the Dwarf Queen striding ahead, and the Ringmaster wheezing behind them, holding onto his top hat.

Jumba, the big muscle man, was standing on the sand barefoot and stripped to the waist, and his trousers were soaked.   He was shivering, even though the night was warm.  He had swum out into the treacherous backwash, but he had had no luck.

As the Dwarf Queen, the Ringmaster and the Man-girl approached, Jumba shook his head somberly.   There was no sign of the clown in the water or anywhere down the beach, not even a footprint on the sand.  There was no shadow under the moonlight.  The four performers with their outlandish physiques stood in a frozen tableau, gazing into the tides, not sure what to do or feel or believe.  Nobody moved, nobody dared to breathe a word.

But then, bobbing on the dark waves, they spotted the little red dot that was his nose.  Jumba and the Ringmaster had to hold the Dwarf Queen back or she would have plunged into the breakers.

“Pindy!  Pindy!  Pindy!” wailed the Dwarf Queen, but it was only the blind moan of the wind, which offered any response.

Years after, when the Dwarf Queen was no longer welcome at the resort, they said that at the half-moon, you could still hear her voice on the whispers of the wind, calling, “Pindy, Pindy, Pindy.”

Haunted by the black cloud of uncertainty, the circus lost its popularity without its star, and the resort fell on hard times, and the theater itself fell into disrepair after a bad winter storm damaged some of the wooden framework.

Every night, it was Pindick who closed the program; that was the grand finale.  On the island, after that night, there were many who thought that it was the sad-faced clown who had had the last laugh, but, many believed that he had disappeared into the salty waters as if he had drowned in a sea of his own sorrowful tears.

Whatever happened to the clown after that remained a mystery.  Eventually, the tales of his lively antics for a few short seasons faded from memory to legend, and, like all legends, nobody knew for certain if any of it ever even existed. Like the shrinking spotlight at the end of his act, it all just vanished into a tiny pinhole.

J.J. Campbell

with a tear in my eye

woke up on the edge
of the world watching 
the sunrise with a tear 
in my eye
every magical moment
of my adult life has been 
spent alone
unless i’m going to count
all these bottles as the 
friends that would never 
leave me
it’s the quiet nights
the nights where the pain
cuts a little deeper
where i wonder how long
it is going to take to find 
my body
when you slip through
the cracks there are no 
calls to the police for 
them to check on you
i’d love to move to
someplace where 
i could die alone
just the casual sound
of water as i drift away
ashes spread along
some coast i never
got to enjoy
i’m sure the poems will
be good enough to help 
start a fire

David O. Hughes

The Agency

Wank lines don’t cut it anymore, and prossies are far too expensive, especially when you want the weird shit, Bobby thought, tossing his mobile onto his bedside table. Besides, fake, phony play doesn’t do shit for me these days, even if the whores can act well! My brain knows the difference, and it needs the real fucking deal

Raking his moist hands through his shaggy hair, Bobby looked at his naked form in the mirror above his bed. “So, now what am I going to do?” he said. “I’m horny as fuck, I have a raging hard-on, and I’m all out of options. Bollocks!” 

He pounded the mattress with his fists and legs like a toddler in full tantrum.

I need to take shit back to that level, but how? he thought to himself. No, I can’t, I could have done some serious jail time! I was lucky to have never been caught; it was a good thing I sought help when I did

Just wank! came a voice at the back of his head, sounding a lot like his ex-therapist. When you get like this, fighting against your urges, just wank. Wank it out. 

Fucking easy for you to say, doc! You have no idea what it’s like having urges you can’t control. All that ‘Write your feelings down,’ bullshit. Where did that get me?”

Bobby could feel his anger bubbling over.

“Wanking for wanking’s sake is boring!” he yelled at the voice in his head. “Besides, the urges will only come back stronger if I don’t give myself what I actually need…”

You can’t go on with those kind of behaviors, Bobby, his therapist continued. 

“I wish you’d get out of my fucking head!”

Don’t let your kinks control you, Bobby. They do not define you!

Ugh!” Bobby said, abruptly rising to his feet. “Shut up, shut up, shut up!” He glared at himself in the wall mirror. “We’re losing it again, Bobby!”

Just wank, Bobby.




Bobby stepped back and slammed his fist into the mirror, relishing the sound of tinkling, falling glass.

“How do you like me now, doc?” he said, staring at the shards about his feet, hundreds of tiny Bobbys staring back at him.

Get a hold of yourself, Bobby, a new voice interjected. 

“Oh, it’s you…”

Miss me?

Bobby nodded affirmatively. “Have you come to instruct me, as you used to, like the good friend you are?”

Yeah, now you’re not taking those stupid little pills anymore. You won’t ditch me again, will you, Bobby? I’ve been so good to you… 

“I won’t. I promise! Please, just help me out! I’m fucking clinging on here, old pal.”

I want you to settle yourself, Bobby. Remember your breathing exercises.  

Bobby did as instructed, lying back and stretching out on his king size bed.

You’re forgetting something, Bobby.


Think, Bobby. Think! What day is it? Where are you right now?

“It’s Friday, I’m at my cabin…”

And who is coming here to meet you?

Bobby racked his brain for the answer he should have already known. Then suddenly, it dawned on him.

“Oh shit, Tilly!”

That’s right, Bobby. You better get ready – you don’t have long before she arrives.

Bobby turned his head and saw the handcuffs hanging from the corner of the bed. His heart began to race as he imagined himself at Tilly’s mercy.

Stop fucking daydreaming, Bobby! She’ll be here soon.

Bobby grabbed the handcuffs and snapped one of the bracelets around his wrist. Then, putting his hands behind his back, he fed the loose cuff around the headboard and clicked it onto his other wrist. Settling back onto the bed, he could now only watch the clock as he eagerly anticipated Tilly’s arrival.

A few minutes later, the phone began to ring. Reflexively he rose to answer, but the cuffs held him firmly in place.

“Hey Bobby, it’s Tilly—” came the voice on the answering machine.

Bobby’s heart sank as he stared at the phone across the room, the handcuff keys in the bowl there beside it.

“—Sorry,” she continued, “but I won’t be able to make it this weekend. I did try your mobile phone, your home one too, and when I couldn’t get an answer on either, I thought you might have already been there at the cabin… Anyway, my mother died last night, in her sleep, and I’m a wreck. I’m not sure when I’ll be back, so I’ll contact you in a few days. I hope that’s okay? Again, I’m sorry, and I know this is short notice—”

Then the line went dead.

No! No, no, no! Oh, fuck! Fuck! Fuck this shit!” Bobby thrashed against the headboard, trying to dislodge something, anything. “This can’t be happening! Nooo! Aaargh!”

Hello?” came a voice from downstairs. “Mr Gerald? Bobby Gerald?”

“What, wait! Hello?! Is someone there?”

“Oh, hi… Bobby?” came the voice once again. “My name’s Janeen – the agency sent me.” 

Oh Jesus, thank God! he thought, forgetting about his predicament. “Yes, I’m Bobby!”

“Brilliant. Shall I come up?” Janeen said.

“I—” he started, hearing her footfalls on the stairs. “No, I don’t think—”

The door creaked open and she entered.

“Well, well, well, Mr Gerald,” said the attractive woman standing over him, regarding his naked body. “What a predickament you seem to find yourself in…”

“I-I wasn’t expecting anyone, sorry! Could you just… the keys are over there, just behind you,” he said, indicating with a nod of his head. 

“There’s no need to apologise, Mr Gerald.”

“Please, call me Bobby,” he said.

Her eyes bored into him and he turned away, trying to hide his erection. 

“No need to be shy, Bobby,” she said as she drew nearer. “I’ve seen all sorts, so don’t you worry about that. It’s always the rich ones…”

“What’s always the rich ones?”

“That are kinky and perverted. You were expecting Tilly, weren’t you? Come on, spill,” she said, narrowing her eyes.

Bobby shook his head and kept mum.

“What do you think your bosses at the bank would say about all this?”

“W-wait… This is all just—”

“Yes, yes, just a big misunderstanding,” she said. “That may have worked on young, dumb Tilly, but not on me, Bobby. I know a rotten egg when I see one…”

Shit, what the fuck am I going to do? he thought, hoping the voices would help, but they’d abandoned him. 

“Now, I’m sure you’d love for me to ridicule you, to whip you, to piss and shit all over you, but I’m not going to do any of that. No, sir. Because that would give you what you wanted, wouldn’t it? It would make you shoot your muck all over the place.”

“Please…” he whined. “Please just let me go…”

Bobby whimpered as she sat down beside him, gently cupping his balls in her hand.

“Don’t hurt me!” he shrieked, as she slowly began to squeeze.

“Oh? You’re not the pain-liking type?” 

Bobby shook his head vigorously in response.

“Well, that’s bad news for you.”

“Wha-what do you mean?”

“It means you won’t like what I’m about to dish out, Bobby. Not one bit. So, shall we get started?” 

No! Let me out of these cuffs, please. Please, I won’t say—”

“You won’t say a word to anyone? That’s rich!”

“You’ll lose your job if the agency finds out about this!”

“What agensssssy?”

Bobby stared in horror as her long, forked tongue darted in and out of her mouth.

No, this can’t be happing! I’m just seeing things, that’s all!

Bobby shut his eyes tight against the madness. When he reopened them, Janeen was mere inches from his face, glaring back at him with yellow, reptilian eyes.

“Jesus Christ!” he shrieked, pissing all over himself.

“Oh, you mucky boy!” she said. “That’s going to cost you extra…”

“Wh-what are you?!”

“Something old,” she said, tracing a talon down the side of his face. “Something your filthy, dirty, rubbish-filled mind could never comprehend…”

Searing pain flashed across his cheek as she dug in, drawing blood.

“Oww, you bitch!”

“Oh, but Bobby, we’ve only just begun! Soon we’ll discover who’s the bitch…”

“You can’t do this! I pay your goddamn agency, for fuck’s sake!”

“I can do it, and I am!” she said. “And besides, I work for a different agency…”  

Who?! I haven’t done shit all!” he screamed, thrashing against the cuffs. “Please, I beg—”

“Stop that, you snivelling toad!”

Janeen raked her talons down his chest, leaving red gashes on their way towards his groin.


“You’re going to make sure Tilly’s set for life, Bobby. You’re going to pay her on behalf of all the women you’ve abused…”

“Wh-what?! You can’t do this! You’ll never get away with—”

Janeen took his nuts in her fist, twisting them until he was sure they would burst.

“Just a bit more pressure, and…”

Bobby screamed in agony, blood and cum seeping between her claws.

“Don’t you pass out on me, Bobby!”


“What will you do for me?”


“Will you give all your money to Tilly?”


“Good! Tilly will be most happy, Bobby.”

“Ta-take me to the hospital…”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Bobby. Not just yet. You still have one more price to pay, and that price is your ticket to Hell…”

He screamed as she flipped him over, breaking his arms and wrists, popping his shoulders from their sockets in the process.

“Ha-have mercy…” he moaned, as she slowly worked her talons up his ass. His entire body began to seize as she dug deeper inside, ripping his organs to pulp. 

“Come for me, Bobby. Come for me!”

The last thing he felt was her claws bursting through his chest.

Suzie Sabia

Van Gogh

The media dubbed him Van Gogh because each of his victims was missing her right ear. They reported that Van Gogh sliced off the ears post-mortem and that none of the ears had been found. His seven victims were women, though no particular type was singled out. One was tall, one short. Black, Hispanic, White, old, young. Women panicked.

Then the media said all of the victims had been prostitutes. Other stories overshadowed the murders, and the murders were relegated to obscurity. So the whores still worked their corners, a little leery, but willing to get into a car if the john looked all right.

Tonight Van Gogh thought he may have found his next victim. An Amazon of a woman with long, supple legs and honey-colored skin. She wore a gold mini skirt slit to her waist, revealing a firm rounded hip, and a black halter top barely covering her small breasts. Her hair hid under a shoulder-length silver metallic wig, which reminded Van Gogh of tinsel dangling from a Christmas tree, and as he drove by her a second time the wind played the tinsel against her head, allowing one large-lobed ear to peek through.

That little peek hooked him.

He stopped the car one store front away from her, blinking his taillights to let her know he was interested, and hoping she’d notice his bumper sticker – “Jesus Saves.”

She leaned through the open passenger window far enough for the wig’s fringe to brush against the inside door, giving him a glimpse of both ear lobes.

“Hey, baby. Want a date?” she asked.

“Yes. Yes I do. How much will it cost?”

She licked her lips. “Well for you baby only 20.”

“Twenty? I-I can give you 40 if you have a room. I don’t wanna do it in my car. It’s my wife’s car.”

She laughed and reached for the door handle. She hesitated. “You ain’t no freak, are you baby?”

“Fr-freak? No. It’s just my wife…”

She pulled the door open and climbed in. The front of her skirt rested between her legs. “You don’t have to explain it to me, baby. Just go ‘round the corner and pull into the parking lot.”

Van Gogh drove to the lot. A sign that read “Roo s by the our” shone over a one-story hotel which looked like several old trailers linked together by the rusted railing running the length of the structure.

“C’mon baby.” She got out of the car. She negotiated the potholes and cracked pavement with her four-inch heels as Van Gogh untucked his shirt to hide the knife he had stuck inside the front of his pants.

He caught up with her. “What’s your name?”


They were silent as they walked past the unoccupied hotel office. Jade pulled out her room key from inside her halter and smiled at him. As she bent forward to unlock her door, her right ear emerged from the fringe, illuminated in the incandescent glow from the parking lot light.

Van Gogh was mesmerized by the exquisite shape of the ear’s helix and antihelix. The concha was deep and dark, just as he preferred. The entire auricle was flawless. Perfect. He almost went berserk right there.

Jade went right to the bed, untying the top of her halter as she walked. “I need the 40 first, baby.” She said.

“Why do you do this?” Van Gogh asked.

“Well.” Jade sat on the bed, the halter hanging from its bottom straps. “I am, what’s the word?” She took off the wig, exposing cropped black hair and two beautiful ears. She dropped the wig into her lap, the fringe covering her thighs. “Promiscuous. I love to screw. So I figure why not get paid for it, right baby?”

She stood up, letting the wig drop to the floor. She stepped on its fringe as she wiggled out of her mini skirt.

Van Gogh watched her, thinking how easy this was for her. How it shouldn’t be. But tonight he would save her. He wasn’t “Van Gogh.” He was the Oracle. The Oracle speaking the divine word of the Lord into the auricles of the harlots.

Jade lay on the soiled blue bedcover, naked except for bright red panties. He straddled her.

“Jesus saves,” he whispered into her right ear. He pictured his ear collection laid out on a mirror in his top dresser drawer. He whispered into them every night. “Close your eyes.”

Jade did.

Ben Newell


Not even 10 minutes ago
I signed for my neighbor’s package,
a rather suspicious-looking package 
shipped all the way from some distant land.  


Beats me;
the writing on the label 
is far too poor to decipher. 

In retrospect
this wasn’t a wise move on my part.

I shouldn’t have heeded the knocking 
on his door across the landing,
shouldn’t have emerged from my lair
to play Mr. Helpful Fellow Tenant…

“I’ll see that he gets this,”
I said to the mail carrier. 

And I will—

The sooner I part with this thing, 
the better.  

For all I know 
I’m currently in possession of cocaine,
ecstasy, anthrax, explosives, child pornography
or even a snuff film. 

Don’t get me wrong.

He seems like a nice enough guy.  

Quiet, keeps to himself. 

But that’s pretty much what
the neighbors said about Dahmer, 
after the cops found a head
in his refrigerator.

Sam Paget


Prison wasn’t a holiday. For some blokes it was the best they would ever have: a bed and food, methadone if they were junkies, and some semblance of a routine. For other blokes it was just time cut out of their lives. They would go stale in prison, while their kids grew up without them and their girlfriends cheated on them. I was only in for nine months, so I was hopeful that Emily would stay faithful. I was certain I could tell by her eyes and her face if she felt guilty, should I need to, but I expected her to stay loyal. 

Carrying a knife will get you six months minimum to four years max, or at least that’s how it was when I got caught. I was an idiot for carrying a weapon while smelling strongly of weed. I’d gotten stoned with an old school friend, and headed home in the hopes of some stoned sex with Emily. My self-defense kitchen knife was stashed in my trousers, as it always was when I expected to walk home late at night. That stoned sex never happened. 

My actual sentence was a year, but I kept my head down and my nose clean in the hopes of early release. I had those precious three months shaved off of an already soft punishment. My skin is white, and I’m made to believe that this must have gone in my favor at every stage of my relationship with justice. Sad but true; I’d change things if I could, but in reality I was just happy to get out as soon as humanly possible, after having made the most of a bad situation.

Inside I hit the weights every single day for as long as I could. I took classes as well. The classes were pretty neat. I learned how to wire a plug socket, how to put up a shelf, and how to cook. Cooking excited me the most. I wasn’t too hopeful about getting a proper job on the outside, but cooking would come in handy no matter what. Emily and the baby came to visit every week. She didn’t have anything particularly interesting to say, but it felt relaxing to sit and hear about the outside world. A new chippie opened up, so-and-so got pregnant, some twat had died… It was all a lot more entertaining than Emily’s drivel had ever been before.

When release day rolled around, I was itching to get out, get drunk, get high, and fuck. Emily’s mom picked me up. All three of us, plus the baby, crammed ourselves into her little Punto in the prison car park, and I was on my way home. Emily and the baby lived in the same council house they’d had when I was sentenced, and now it was my own official legal address.

“What are you going to do, now that you’re out Rob?” asked the mom.

“I kinda like cooking now,” I said.

“Oh yes, Emily said you’d been doing classes. Are you going to try get a job in a restaurant?”

“I’ll see. Have to take whatever comes, won’t I?”

She dropped us off at the house and waved goodbye. I carried the baby inside and we sat for a few hours watching TV.

“Are you going to cook something?” said Emily. “You can show me what you’ve learned.”

“What have you got in the cupboards?”

“Tins of veg, pasta, rice… Stuff like that.”

“I’ll see what I can do. I’m guessing you don’t have any spices or seasoning?”

“No, not really; just salt and pepper. Normally I just bung something into the oven or the microwave, same as always.”

I knocked together a ratatouille that wasn’t half bad. Emily was pretty impressed with it. We put the baby to bed and sat fooling around on the sofa. I’d been dreaming about women’s bodies the whole time I was inside. Nothing can ever really live up to dreams, but Emily did her best. 

“Have you got much cash on you?” I asked once we were done. 

“A few notes in my purse. Why?”

“I feel like having a smoke, and maybe some sniff.”

“Do you really need all that? That’s hardly straight and narrow, is it?”

“I’d settle for some booze.”

“Could get a bottle of vodka or something from the shop.”

“Go on then. Let me go get it.”

I went out with some money from Emily’s purse and picked up some vodka from the shop down the street. I also picked up a twenty-pack of Marlboros. I’d been smoking roll-ups inside, so proper cigarettes seemed like a nice way to celebrate getting out. We spent the evening drinking, smoking, and watching a couple of movies that had come out while I was locked up. We screwed a couple more times as well. Emily fell asleep on the couch at two in the morning. Family Guy was on. 

Sat there with a glass of vodka and a Marlboro, I concluded that Emily wasn’t half bad. She was the kind of girl to put up with a lot; I’d have to push things awfully far before she ever got fed up with me. The baby was probably enough to keep us together, as long as I wanted to be with her. That’s assuming it was mine, but it probably was. We hadn’t exactly been an item when she’d gotten pregnant, but we’d been meeting often enough and the baby had my nose and jaw. Seeing myself in something small, new, and fresh had gotten me thinking: should I remain in the picture or not? Would I help it or hurt it? Assuming it was mine, I surely owed it something. I’m not the kind of guy to get into debt, and I like knowing what I owe and what I don’t. The conundrum lay in figuring out if I owed the kid my presence, or my absence. My own dad vanished before I was old enough to memorize his face. According my mother, that was the kindest thing he ever did.

Emily ended up getting a job not long after my release, doing cleaning or something. It was only part time, and she was hardly better off than before once her benefits were cut, but I think she wanted to feel productive. Her mom had the baby whenever she was out working. I started picking up ounces of weed from a chap I went to secondary school with, and selling it in draws. I could shift an ounce in a week at the most, and about eighty quid of that was profit. I ended up smoking about forty of that every time. Why not, after all? Money isn’t everything.

One time I had an appointment at the job center, and I ran into Ayaz. He was a tall, muscly bloke I’d been friendly with inside. He’d only just got out after a five-year stretch for beating someone up. We’d worked out together in the prison gym quite a lot. We talked and caught up, and he convinced me to come round to the gym he’d signed up at. It was full of jacked, tattooed fellas you wouldn’t want to mess with.

“How long until I’m as big as you lot?” I asked while I was resting from a set on the bench.

“Years and years,” said Ayaz. “ But it’ll be a lot quicker if you get on the steds.”


“Yes. I can hook you up if you want.”

“I’ll think about it.” I’d known Ayaz had taken juice before prison, then hadn’t been able to get the stuff he wanted while inside. Over the next few weeks he swelled up impressively, and his veins started to stand out. I decided that I wanted to look like that. I didn’t want anyone to want to mess with me. I stopped smoking weed, and starting vapeing instead of smoking fags. I quit drinking because Ayaz told me alcohol and steds don’t mix well at all. Once I’d saved up a bunch of money from the draws I had him sort out a cycle’s worth of gear. He helped me inject it. I started off in my right arse cheek. It hurt a lot but I only had to inject twice a week. 

Emily wasn’t a fan of it at first. She worried, as women do. By the time I’d finished a twelve-week cycle I’d put on a fair amount of weight, and my arms and shoulders looked bigger than ever, and I think she was secretly happy. She probably thought other girls would get jealous seeing her with me. Another cycle or two and people would be moving out of my way wherever I walked, like they did with Ayaz. People would listen whenever I spoke. Something I’ve noticed is that if you intimidate people, then they listen to you. Seems obvious right? The question is: how important is it that people listen to you. Ever since I’d left prison, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was important, but that no one really was listening.

One night I cooked a lentil curry. We sat round the table eating it. The baby was having cut up carrots and cucumber and kiwi.

“Rob, can I go out with my friend Hayley tomorrow night?” asked Emily.

“Yeah sure.” Hayley was some other girl from work. Emily had mentioned her before.

“Would you look after Kenny?”

“Why? Is your mom busy?”

“Yes, she’s going on a date.”

“I suppose so.” I’d have preferred not to have the baby on my own. It was too much pressure, having to look after it. I couldn’t think of a reason not to agree though. 

“We’re just going to go for food and some drinks,” said Emily. “I’ll be back before midnight.”

The next evening Emily got tarted up, and left me at home with the baby. He cried off and on, which did my head in. He finally piped down at about ten o’clock. I played video games and waited for Emily to get back. I was in the mood for sex, and she was always more fun in bed after a few drinks. I texted Ayaz and asked him to sort out another batch of steds for me. I wanted to get on cycle again soon. Whenever I looked in the mirror, what I saw wasn’t intimidating enough. I wanted to be dangerous looking.

I heard keys fumbling in the front door, then the door opening and the shouts and giggles of female voices. The baby started to cry.

“Sorry babe, the pub just closed and we thought we’d bring the party back here,” said Emily from the hallway, struggling to take off her shoes. “Don’t worry, I’ll sort him out.” She came into the living room. Her hair was all mussed up like she’d been dancing. She stood a little taller than she did when she was sober, as if an invisible weight that kept her fractionally hunched over had been dissolved and washed away by alcohol. “Rob this is Hayley. Hayley, Rob.” 

I stood up, and came face to face with a ridiculously fit-looking woman. She had blue and green dye in her hair, piercings in her nose and ears, and tattoos on her arms. 

“Hello,” she said shaking my hand. “Emily worships the ground you walk on; it’s nice to finally meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too,” I said.

Emily disappeared to go quite down the baby.

“Would you like a drink?” I asked. “We’ve got some spirits in the kitchen. Brandy needs finishing.”

“Go on then. I’ve had a few already so just a small one.”

I went into the kitchen and fixed us two brandy and Dr. Peppers. I took them back into the living room and gave one to Hayley. Emily came back in.

“He’s back to sleep now. Was he alright?”

“He moaned a bit while you were out, but he went to sleep about ten. Did you two have a nice time?”

“Yeah it was nice. I haven’t been out like that for years. Makes me feel young again. We’ll have to do it more often.”

Emily went and made herself a drink in the kitchen. I sat and tried to look at Hayley without her noticing. She had a nice body; probably hadn’t had any kids yet. 

“So you do cleaning as well?” I asked.

“Yes, I was with the company for a while before Emily started. She helps me get through the day without killing myself, or anyone else. What do you do?”

“I sell drugs to be honest.”

“Oh…” I wondered if that was really a surprise to her. She must’ve known that I’d been inside, and that I didn’t have a proper job. Perhaps she was a little surprised that I came right out and said it. I couldn’t be bothered with anything else.

Emily came in with a pint of cider she’d poured into a glass. 

“Shall we order takeaway?” she said. “I’m hungry. We could do with some food to soak up the alcohol.”

“No no no,” I said. I saw an opportunity to impress Hayley. “We’ve got stuff in the cupboards and the fridge; I can cook something before any food gets here by delivery.  I know how to cook you see,” I said to Hayley.

“Are you sure? I don’t mind ordering,” said Hayley. 

“Yeah, sure. I like cooking. I can do something really nice. Hey, I have an idea. Lets have a smoke, and that’ll build up our appetite. We’ll have the munchies by the time I finish. I know what I can make: sweet and sour chicken. I learned how to make a really good sweet and sour sauce while I was inside. It’s quick, and I’ll do it better than a takeaway.”

“You mean smoke weed?”

“Yeah sure. You smoke?”

“Not in ages, but go on then! It’s been a while, but I used to like it. I hadn’t drank or smoked in a while, now both in one night!”

I went and dug out my rolling stuff from the bedroom, then sat back down to make a joint. I used a lot of weed, and just enough tobacco for it to burn properly. Emily had gone to sleep straight away the last time she’d smoked, years before. Hopefully she would again, and I’d have some time alone with Hayley. 

We sat smoking for a while. Then I left them to it and got started on the sweet and sour chicken. I heard the girls giggling in the living room while I banged away in the kitchen. The baby woke up again, and Emily went to soothe it back to sleep. Hayley followed her so she could have a look at the baby and goggle at it. I finished the food, and took three plates in. The girls had left the joint half-smoked in the ashtray. Emily’s eyes were drooping already, but Hayley still looked lively. We turned on the TV and sat eating.

“This is brilliant Rob,” said Hayley. “Best sweet and sour I’ve ever had, and I’ve had at least a thousand.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I try my best when it comes to cooking. It’s one of the few things I’m good at.” 

Once we’d all finished eating I sparked up the joint again. We passed it around a few times, and that was enough for Emily. She curled up on the end of the sofa and started snoring. Hayley got up and put a hoodie over her, then sat back down next to me. 

“You got a boyfriend or anything?” I asked.

“No actually. I broke up with my ex last week. That’s why we went out tonight. Emily wanted to help me drown my sorrows, even though he was a waste of space and I’m well rid of him. She told me to forget him and move on. I said that a good drinking sesh is a mandatory step.”

“That’s a nice tattoo,” I pointed to one of a koi fish on her left arm.

“Thanks. My grandma had a pond with koi in it. I loved looking at them.”

“I’ve wanted to get a tattoo for a long time.”

“Any ideas what you would get?”

“A few I guess. Maybe a ram… My star sign is Aries, so I was thinking of getting a ram on my chest you see.” I pulled my shirt off and dropped it on the floor. I flexed my chest muscles so that Hayley could admire them.

“Oh…” she said, “that could be…cool.”

“Have you got any other tattoos? Anywhere else I mean?”

“No…not really…”

I leaned in to kiss her on the cheek. She ran her fingers down my back for a moment, then froze and pushed me away. I looked into her face and saw that her eyes were on Emily, who was still asleep.

“She’s out for the count,” I whispered. “Trust me.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “No thank you.”

She stood up and patted her pockets. She had left her phone on the cushion beside her. She picked it up and slipped it into her pocket.

“I’ll see you soon,” she said, without looking at me. “Tell Em I said goodbye.” She leaned down to kiss Emily on the forehead and then walked out. I heard the front door open and close.

I sat there for a while feeling pissed off. I rolled another joint and smoked the whole thing. It must have been too much weed at once, especially since I’d been cutting down lately. Out of nowhere I started crying; I couldn’t stop from shaking and crying. All of a sudden I was worried about everything; every last single thing was scary to me. What if the steds had wrecked my organs? What if I got caught selling weed? What if Kenny grew up to be a murderer, and I got called a deadbeat dad? It all came tumbling down inside my head.

Emily woke up. She was scared and confused at first. Then she saw me crying and came over to comfort me. She stroked the back of my head and kissed me on the shoulder. I hated feeling out of control, it was worse than being locked up. At least then I’d had control of my own body. The sobs and tears kept on coming, and snot dripped out of my nose. I’m fairly certain that I haven’t cried in front of anyone since; I’m just as certain that I never will again. 

“What’s the matter?” she said softly. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I said wiping my eyes. “Nothing really. I don’t know… Hayley went home by the way, a while ago. She said goodbye.”

“Oh. Do you want to go to bed?”

We went to bed. We both undressed, and tried to make love, but I just couldn’t. It didn’t work. After that I lay there with my head across her chest, listening to her heartbeat. Was it supposed to be a comfort? The heartbeat of the mother of your child? It was too loud with my ear right next to it, and it reminded me that a human body is just a soft, wet pile of material and it will always be cruelly fragile and it will break apart and rot away no matter what you do. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t bring myself to pull my head away from her chest; I couldn’t bear to move my body at all. 

I was frozen with panic; my mind and soul had been seized by an idea. An irrational, pathetic idea, but one that dominated my every fiber for all that: the idea was that the entire world was an illusion, fabricated to withstand the scrutiny of my eyes and senses. The sense of unreality was so strong that my rational mind stood no chance against it. 

 “What’s wrong baby?” said Emily, stroking my hair. “Whatever it is I’m here for you. I’m here for you no matter what.”

“Nothing…” I said, “nothing…”

“It doesn’t seem like it. You had too much to smoke?”

“He’s…he’s mine isn’t he?”

“What do you mean? Kenny? Obviously! Who else’s would he be, you idiot?”

Jon Bennett

Proof I’m a Great Artist 

My parents were folk dancing 
you may wonder what type 
Balkan folk dancing 
it was always Balkan or Greek 
until mother weakened 
then it was just father 
doing Scottish reel dancing 
Anyhow, they were doing Balkan 
folk dancing 
in a community center somewhere 
Off to the side  
I had my G.I. Joe doll 
and was putting him through his paces 
He ran along the weird 
institutional wainscoting 
across the backs of folded metal chairs 
he did flips, G.I. Joe did, 
occasionally flew, spun 
Yes, I really put him through his paces 
A woman was watching me 
I was cute, 6 or 7,  
and she came up and said, 
“You’re going to be an artist.” 
I remember little of my childhood 
but this proclamation stands out 
it’s an ego thing 
So now I sit here 
with my feathered quill pen, 
my brushes, paints, the kiln, 
the marble blocks and chisels 
and my voluminous  
silken ascots 
still seeking validation 
it’s like a soul-sized hangnail 
following me through life 
So I’m vicious, laying waste  
to my competitors 
with my razor sharp tongue 
I was good with that G.I. Joe 
but maybe the woman was wrong 
maybe what it meant was 
I’d make a good 

J.J. Campbell

the sweet nectar of death

they never warn you as a 
young poet about the nights 
digging through the garbage
for a meal
that all the good poems will 
come to you while taking 
a shit
that no one wants to read
anything other than what
they have written themselves
there is no money in it for you 
until you taste the sweet nectar 
of death
yet here we all are
scribbling down random thoughts 
and swearing someone is going to 
nourish the genius trapped between 
each phrase
there are no rich women to take 
care of us
no fans mailing you dirty underwear 
from another country
hell, even the stalkers have given up
it’s an old barn in the middle of nowhere
the trusty shotgun from the corner
the last bottle of scotch you’ll ever 
get to enjoy

Daniel S. Irwin


Spirits come to me in the night.
My fault: bad booze, cheap dope.
Or rather, cheap booze, bad dope.
That compounded with insomnia.
My visitors always want to talk.
I could care less, but they stay.
A volley of mangled refrains in
Bygone dirges of hopelessness
Spoken by headless chickens.
A good host, I compliment them
On their flawless French, though
I don’t understand a word of it.