Smell a Rat

by Kate Maxwell

         When they all came in together, flooding the room with spikes, and swells of the last hour, minute, and now, it was always my favourite part of the day. The still panting ones, filling the room with sweat, green leaf volatiles, and just a faint trace of hot rubber from their sneakers. The squealing sherbet-breath brigade, seeping that sharp chemical punch of coloured textas from their fingertips. And oh, the delights of raspberry Slurpee pings, lingering lilt of tuna fish, and cheddar cheese preservatives, all swirling around the room in a pungent post-lunch storm. Sometimes ripe garlic belches and egg farts punctuated the masterpiece with bold and brilliant force. But nothing ever came close to me. I was, of course, the most profound and powerful force in the room.

         They’d been searching for me for weeks. Cleaning out desks, fossicking in cupboards. But I knew how to lay low, how to build and fade when necessary. I greeted the sensual smorgasbord, arriving after break time, with relish. All those familiar and new friends.
The class had moved shelves and tables, checking for mouldy sandwiches, or rotting
fruit that might fester in hidden peace. As if something that inane could create such glory. Beneath the carpet, beneath the floorboards, beneath perception, I putrefied
at glorious leisure.

         When I first took control of the room, everyone immediately blamed William. It’s true,
the boy can cultivate aromas usually too advanced for his years. A rotund child with large pores and a penchant for hard boiled eggs and kimchi, who often refuses to take off his woollen jumper on warm days, William does indeed have a unique and memorable scent. But, despite his talents, he was never a match for me.

         Today, the big one, that smelt of hand cream and deodorant, wafted behind chairs, instructing children to check their bags. Admittedly, some scents had stewed for weeks, months and were quite impressive; a deliciously rich, rotten banana in one bag, and in another, an almost stinging cocktail of wet socks mixed with rancid yoghurt. Oh, this was a good day. If the weather heated up a little more, it could be a great day. But, of course, opened windows and spinning fans denied that pleasure. Smells struggled and held on as best they could, but faded, settling into the carpet, walls, and skin instead. That rush of air, sprinkled lightly with pollen and dust, swept through in a stream of smug carnage
to diminish us. But I had reserves left. I could wait.

         Not long after recess, a strange scent entered the room. Hairspray-and-Stale Perfume I recognized, but another smell of metallic bitterness mixed with perspiration was distinctly new.

            “Mrs. James’ and Year Four, please welcome our regional director, Mr. Saville,”
Hairspray-and-Stale-Perfume said.

         An upthrust of scent as chair legs scraped the musty, cookie-crumbed carpet
and students stood. Less raspberry Slurpee and sweaty sneakers smell by now, and
more pencil shavings and bored farts. But what was that other smell? Hairspray-and-Stale-Perfume I’d smelt before, but this acidic aroma was definitely new; a corrosive overwhelming force pushing out all other scents. A smell of compliance and domination that sought to set one standard smell to rule the others. A growing whiff of fear emerged, sparking like tinder throughout the room.

         Even Hairspray-and-Stale-Perfume emitted spices of stress as she said, “Children,
Mr. Saville is here to explain the new testing system for next term. Once a fortnight we will test in preparation for final term assessments.”

         Metallic Acid interrupted, “It’s an exciting way to learn and will only take up ten extra minutes of your lunch time.”

         The children grumbled. A charred scent of scorn filled the room. Not the rich wonderful scents of the playground, flesh, and classroom, but a heavy, thick aroma, threatening to cover all the rich layers in the room.

         “Now, Now, Year 4. You and your parents will see that this academic immersion will
be of great benefit to the school and students.”

         Then I knew what must be done. If he wanted immersion, I’d show him immersion. Fortunately, the day had heated up, and a dense warmth had melted into carpet, settled under armpits, napes of necks, and baked into my core like radiance. I was ready to rise.

         There was a scuffing of leather on carpet. Hairspray and Metallic Acid were leaving.
It had to be now. Mustering a surge of aromatic outrage, I let him have it.

              “Oh, that smell!” cried Hairspray.

            “Yes, I thought it had gone,” Hand-Cream-and-Deodorant inhaled, “We’ve checked
everywhere. It’s been hideous this week in the warmer weather.”

        The students groaned, coughing and spluttering. Metallic Acid gagged. William,
who could not resist my call, added in some beautifully ripe kimchi farts. The classroom was in uproar. Students flapping, Hand-Cream calling for them to settle, but leaching out her own stale hungry breath into a kaleidoscope of scented air.

                                                                                        *

        Later, after the ammonia and detergent ones had done their best to subdue us all,
I pondered the day. The room, now empty, had only the faintest trace of glue sticks, banana and Cheetos left. I contemplated my spread. If I could merge into the sub cavity,
I may be able to infiltrate along the hall and enjoy other rooms too. I needed heat and maybe some moisture, but it was entirely possible. I could make these rooms reek like
the dungeons of hell. And on cue. Specifically, I could target those extra ten minutes
of learning allocated for the students. They’d be forced outside and then return with all their wondrous fragrances, big and small, bursting back into the room where I could then demur to entertain my old and new friends once again.

        Tonight, I would rest while the cleaning products reigned, and the sky was black
and cold.

        Tomorrow, William and I would take down the system.

 


Kate Maxwell is yet another teacher with writing aspirations. She’s been published and awarded in many Australian and International literary magazines. Kate's interests include film, wine, and sleeping. Her first poetry anthology will be published with Interactive Publications, Brisbane in 2021. She can be found at https://kateswritingplace.com/.

Sock and Buskin

      by Steven Bergmark

     

      There are moments in life that rip so close to a body such as almost missing the last chopper out of Saigon, or almost being hit by a bus, or almost kissing that person you know you shouldn’t, that when the danger’s passed, what almost happened still seems inevitable, and yet...

“I get this feeling in the back of my head.”

“Really? I feel it more on the face, like a mask I pop on and off.”

They sat at a mesh iron table, hot to the touch. It was early afternoon at a bar beside the highway. Less coarse, more elegant kinds of bars they once frequented in a better part of town were seemingly behind them now.

“Admit it though, where we were raised, where we went to school, we should have achieved much more.” He squint-scowled at the sun and noted it would be at least another half an hour before reprieve would reach them. There was something in his heart like those predecessors who named the god of Pompeii, the god of the Plague, the god of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Chernobyl. Some kind of coal that glowed with menace and burned cold.

At the time, the two were twenty-five.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, his cold beer resting, sweating, and wetting his belly. “I suppose in one, narrow way.” He squint-smiled at the sun and set his beer down. His heart also had that cold-burning coal--everybody’s got one--but it was not nearly so large. There was something in his heart of his predecessors who named the gods of holidays, the gods of fucking and drinking, the gods of the sky and the as-yet unborn god of global comity.

“I think you need to ask somebody,” said Squint-scowl.

Squint-smile ignored him and jerked the umbrella closer to their table roughly, and
Squint-scowl peered tensely at the bar’s black windows.

“You should have asked first,” Squint-scowl said.

Squint-smile shrugged, and with a relieving grunt, fell back into his mesh iron chair.

“So you feel it in the back of the head?”

“Yeah, when I worked that job at the mall especially. It was this pressure back there as
the rest of me did the work. All jobs, really.”

“Yeah, I feel it in my face. Something I put on, but I’ve been told it doesn’t always work
properly.”

“You reek of contempt.”

“It’s nothing personal,” Squint-smile said. “So, how do you relieve the pressure back
there, with a spoon?”

“Liquid lobotomy.” Squint-scowl raised his pint and took a couple drinks.

“I see,” Squint-smile said and laughed.

Years elapsed and the history of their friendship accumulated like sand compressed to stone. Sedimentation is rarely so simple as some imagine, and all the time chunks crack and break apart, and yet the sand continues to compound over the craggy scars. Their personalities were brought together by accident of birth and circumstance, but they were held together by that engrossing mystery of the dance between clear water and golden oil swirled, resting, or slopping in a bowl. Comedy and justice. Ebullient and irascible. God of the sky, god of underworld.

Life went on and it turned out they were both right, but their fortunes bent away as quickly as light upon the bottom of a spoon. Squint-smile had many misfortunes to come, in time, but also with a few important, auspicious turns. Squint-scowl had misfortunes, and some auspicious turns, albeit not quite so auspicious, and in time, those rare victories soured in one way or another.

Squint-scowl lost his father, but he didn’t tell Squint-smile until one blind-drunk night of wine, when Squint-scowl smashed a box fan in his filthy apartment and stomped on it until he fell over and Squint-smile grabbed him and held him as Squint-scowl sobbed and pushed and Squint-smile kept holding him until Squint-scowl gave up on saying, “No, no, I don’t want it”, and he slept until the next morning, when he had no recollection whatsoever of his hot tears. He puzzled over the destroyed fan, but wouldn’t admit his forgetting to Squint-smile, and so did not ask about it.

Then Squint-scowl felt the cold-burning coal grow, as it was wont to do. He blamed Squint-smile; somehow the red veins of the coal seemed to pulse in Squint-scowl’s presence, so he turned away from Squint-smile. It was something about his smile, thought Squint-scowl, something obscene and abusive. Still, the coal burned and grew without Squint-smile. One day, the coal had burned and grown until it took up Squint-scowl’s whole heart, smashing the other chambers up against the muscular walls. It had happened, but he didn’t quite know yet, or rather, understand it.

Meanwhile, Squint-smile felt a little raw as the months went on, and his calls continued to be ignored. He resolved to visit Squint-Scowl and invite the one who held it in his head to take a walk.

“Haven’t answered any of my calls.”

“Haven’t answered anyone’s calls.”

It was the middle of a long, dry winter. The weakness of the sun rinsed the city in a
kind of pallid myopia.

“Why’s that?”

“I’m leaving. Going to live somewhere out in the country.”

They went on walking and Squint-smile wanted to keep going, but Squint-scowl
pointed back the other way, down a quiet road.

“So, just like that?”

Just like that, Squint-smile felt a bright lance of cold pain in his back and he would have stumbled forward were it not for a hand on his shoulder pressing him deeper into the lancing pain, until suddenly the hand let go and he fell on the salt-scuffed sidewalk and he saw the large, glaring eyes behind the coke-bottle lenses and beneath them, a black, dry scowl that turned away and was gone from him forever.

If it wasn’t him, it would have been someone else. For Squint-scowl, somebody had to die. Someone had to stand accountable for the obscene, abusive world. Such is the way many cold-burning hearts become killing hearts, and what they find crumpled before their feet is not this or that person, but in some sense, all life. This is how others die, even as they continue to live. They cannot kill themselves, because first, they need to witness the obscene, abusive world die first.

Squint-smile tried and failed to cry out as he lay, and the coarse salt clung to his coat and he could taste it on his lips, and he got the feeling it was his kidney, and it was no good. Somebody came and something was being done, but he was already stepping offstage as his heart, like the heart of his predecessors, the hearts who named the gods of holiday and sex and comity, ebbed onto the concrete.

His first thought was that he had so very little time left to think and so much to think about, and so he tried to think of all the things he thought most important to think about, namely, all the love of his lover, and the love of his dog, and the love of his family, and the love of his friends. He tried not to think about the pain, the pain of the newly wrought mittens so soon returned to his partner, and what to do with his books, and his clothes, and the empty spaces he’d leave to everybody else to handle.

His last thought was unfinished, but it had to do with this strange feeling he had about how all of it was inevitable, and yet the gods of holiday and fucking and sky would persist and yet, some would only almost die and yet, still more gods were yet to be born and yet...

 


Steve Bergmark (@BergmarkSteven) lives and writes in Chicago. He teaches
high school English and Humanities on the south side.

The Dog People Who Built Bridges They Would One Day Tear Down

by Bryan Harvey

The river flowed between two nations—one younger and one older—but the river no longer reached the ocean, although it once did.

On either side of the river was a town. In these towns lived people of disparate clans. The people were strangers, but before that they were distant cousins and before that close cousins and before that, quite possibly, they were siblings, sons and daughters of the same mothers and fathers.

On one side of the river, the most popular pets were dogs that looked like coyotes. On the other side, the most popular pets were dogs that looked like wolves. Some people, but very few, on both sides of the river owned bright blue and green birds. But, again, this occurrence was a very rare thing indeed, for birds are prone to give flight and venture beyond the horizon lines of the many visible worlds that exist on the borders of antiquated waterways.

Sometimes these people built bridges, but sometimes they tore down the bridges. This is a story about one of those times: the building or the tearing down.

The men gathered stones and set them in the mud downriver from where the women bathed the town’s children and washed their clothes. The stones piled high until they reached the heights of the bank, and then the men wove hemp ropes together and threw them across the river. The great braid floated high in the air, possibly even in the path of a blue and green bird flying beyond the lines of the visible world, but ultimately the great braid landed on the surface of the moving water and coiled and uncoiled like a snake in the current. The men pulled in the rope and tried again. After several tries, the men managed to lasso a stump protruding from the soil on the other side. Then, holding onto the thick braid of hair, they crossed.

Once on the other side, the men built another stone tower, braided more ropes, and made the bridge easier to cross. When the bridge became easier to cross, more and more people crossed. People crossed in both directions, and some people forgot upon which side of the bridge they had originated. Men and women would go to the custom houses on either side and ask to see the record books, but the books only proved that the bridge had been crossed many times by many peoples and that origin stories made about as much sense as ghost stories.

In fact, people were haunted by the invisibility of their own origin stories as the howling of their dogs that looked more like wolves and coyotes grew louder and the flights of green and blue birds decreased as the bird population within the realms of the visible worlds dwindled with each setting sun and each rising sun and the overall passage of time. In the end, however, some people began to feel frustration over the cloudiness of the past and how it had come to resemble the brown murk of the river where they cleaned their children and washed their clothes. And, with this mounting frustration, meetings were called on both sides of the river.

At these meetings, people complained about the bridge almost as much as they had once complained about the lack of a bridge. And, in this complaining, the two towns hatched two plans which were really part of a single plan. When night fell and as the dogs howled and no birds flew, people passed on the bridge like the hints of shapeless shadows. Hidden in their coats and stowed away in their bundles were all sorts of tools: shovels and picks and hammers and dynamite.

When they reached the opposite sides from where their journeys began, they winked and nodded to one another in the darkness and took out the same tools that the build-ers of the bridge had used and they began to tear it down. They removed the stones with a great deal of clamoring grunts and metal on stone. They severed the braids and even lit them on fire. The coils floated downriver like great flaming snakes—orange furies against the blackness that eventually hissed gray smoke. Then they blew up the found-ations, and those who had not woken to the sounds of metal clanging on stone awoke to the sound of artificial thunder.

 But each of the two plans had a problem, which really was the same problem. They left themselves no way of return. They were stranded. And, because history still would not share its grand secrets, they did not know if they were stranded on the right or the wrong side. This realization struck them like lightning, and they panicked because what they realized was that they knew nothing other than how to destroy the one thing they understood. And it was this reasoning that led each group to construct out of the rubble of the old bridge a new bridge. So, working from a single plan that was really two plans, each group set about building a bridge, which was really two bridges.

When those responsible for the tearing down of the first bridge and the building of the second and third bridges passed from the visible world, the same problems arose in their sons and daughters. People were bothered by crossings and unclear stories and so more bridges were destroyed.

Yet, the destruction always left the same problem: no escape from the wrong or right side of the river. And it was often as the dust and smoke settled on the moving waters that the deserted looked towards the sky, hoping to witness a blue and green bird in flight, and found themselves howling—either like wolves or like coyotes—at their loneliness reflected in the moon’s yellow eye.

Such was true of the first bridge, and such was true of the last bridge. And such was true of all the bridges in between. And somewhere in all that building and not building the river was lost.


Bryan Harvey lives and teaches in Virginia. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming
in FlashBack Fiction, Moon Park Review, Hobart, No Contact Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, The Florida Review's Aquifer, and Cold Mountain Review. He tweets at @Bryan_S_Harvey. Most of his rough drafts begin on long runs and are never finished.

Through a Glass Darkly

by Wong Wei Cong

Below the icy surface, there dwelled a race of the most peculiar creature. An indigenous tribe of small silver-furred dwarves, with overflowing beards, atrophied limbs, and ashen eyes, they lived an isolated existence. For generations, there had never been any contact outside their kind. It did not help that unlike creatures like us, from the world of the other side, they moved through solid ice the same way we move through air, and just as we are bounded by the earth beneath our feet, they could never breach the celestial boundary between ice and air – the laws of physics of their world forbade them.

They were truly creatures of the ice – forever bound within the constraints of a solid, crystalline aether that followed the meanders of a dead river. They lived and died with the ice.  After aeons of existence (or approximately three human months), at the end
of their world-cycle, the entire race vanished with the annihilation of their world by the wrath of hellfire (as the river thawed). And when the heaving, fecund winter winds blew again, they were reincarnated once more into their nascent frozen universe, cold and fresh from the mould. How they come about remained one of those imponderable questions – they had just existed, just when the wheel of time began to turn.

As one could imagine, their days were dreadfully dull and sorry, being stuck in a
vitreous prison of scattered, latticed light, an expansive space of white and emptiness.

One day, when they stood staring into the glaring heavens, carelessly stroking their beards, a dash of the richest, most sonorous red streaked across the sky. And another. And another. Florid, psychedelic hues were daubed across the firmament, as though fireworks suspended in full bloom, hanging from the empyrean like a curated master-piece. It was unlike anything they had ever seen, not for the countless generations that had come before. They gawked in petrified stupor at the scene of exquisite beauty, of ambrosial red on perennial white. A distant rumble, like a divine echo, tintinnabulated through the ice.

One of them fell to his knees in awe, and the rest followed, kneeling and craning their heads towards the sublime splendour of the heavens, which had spoken so evocatively. Looking up through the ice, it was clear and it was true, that in the most forsaken realm, there existed the divine and the beautiful.


Wong Wei Cong is an aspiring writer and an undergraduate medical student in Singapore, whose previous work has been published in Acumen, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Bridge: The Bluffton University Literary Journal.

Space Grey

by Hahye

She had a sort of fear of being a lesbian. What she thought was her aversion to pink frilly things was really a denial of her own femininity, a drive that led her to embrace all things untraditionally female in the eyes of society.

Where one thing told her to strive for the ideal, she lusted for the opposite. A wondrous compilation of never-ending contradictions. Where she was unable to see her own fallacies, she turned a blind eye to confrontation. Where I am able to run, she said,
I will be safer than any other place in the world.

Where you are able to run is never stable, but an everchanging landscape of worn out tires. Where she ran was nothing short of a one-time leap of faith. Jubilant hypocrisy is what she called it. Harping on the needs of the commoner, she turned up her nose at everyone she met under a pretense of loving gratitude. Never trusting Jesus, God, or
the Holy Spirit she ran her own way, without a thought for the race.

One day she was wary of the train in her head, the one that just would not stop running in a twist. I am a woman, she said, a little too defiantly. Why must I run from my woman-hood, she said a little louder. She walked over to the wonder on display, the mannequin in the storefront window. She gazed at the nipples spray painted in space grey. I wonder if mine look like those, was the thought in her head. I hope mine are better than those, was the next trail of words. Rabbit hole, where the vagina met her state of mind.


I watched as she looked over the fabrics on the rack. Our eyes met. Where are the
better clothes, she asked. I nodded toward my assistant, a young behemoth of a man, who showed her the way to the staircase. Down there, he said. She descended into
the flurry of color.

I wanted to understand why she had entered my store. Of course, I had been the one to open the door, but it had never occurred to me that she would actually step through. I looked to the boy and gestured. Get her a glass, I commanded. He waltzed off to the back room, where he poured a shot of vodka.

She accepted with a hesitant smile on her face, one that was lost in a world not here. I stared intensely as she turned back to the useless camera I had placed on the shelf ten years ago.

She climbed up the stairs. She would not speak. I waited. She would not speak.
She was not here. I willed her to speak. Marionette, dance. I would not see her
leave without a smile.  Smile, where we are you must smile, I urged her.

I grew increasingly angry. The women who had come before had complied with
my requests for laughter and merriment. I would not understand why she would
not smile. Hungry, I asked, and fed her treats. I saw a wan glint of light. It went as
soon as it sparked.

She turned to leave.


She was understood to be cold after the embers had died. I walked to the door
to leave as I stared through the darkened window. He stopped me with his voice.
Watch out for the virus from China. Sneering, I left.

 


Hahye is a little more than the sum total of expectations formed in Korea, North Carolina, Singapore, and the Netherlands. Currently based in the hometown of her mother, she is unmoored for the foreseeable future.