Aidan & Ariel

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The pair of them, born under Gemini in two different continents and yet here they were, together in a tent that was perched quite precariously on a mountainside out in the Cairngorms. The natural darkness of an evening made them sleep far earlier than they would’ve at home in their busy city lives. Ariel suffered perpetually from bouts of insomnia and the sound of the crickets humming kept her awake, even here in the stillness. She crawled out around midnight, leaving her sleeping bag in a shrunken ball, and decided upon a miniature hike up to the crags of their chosen mountain.

Only yesterday Aidan had said to her, By god you’re weird. He meant something about the way she crumbled her food into bits before she could eat it, or how she had to comb her hair 33 times each night, or how she wouldn’t stop singing that old Tim Buckley song, ‘Song to the Siren’ at all hours of the day. Ariel couldn’t help it; it was a damn fine tune and a treat to hear her voice in reverb, soaring out across the valley and shivering in the pines.

They had met at a business conference in Edinburgh only a year or so ago. Aidan worked for an old-fashioned company who made money from burning coal; Ariel for a startup who sold trendy mineral water at what Aidan considered an extortionate price. His whole brand was money to burn, while hers was clean and pure. They’d become good friends by ripping into the hypocrisies of their mutual employers while sneaking coffee breaks behind the corporate screens; after the interval for lunch, they sat next to each other and he’d scribbled funny notes on her ring-binder. When the day was over, they exchanged Outlook accounts and spent the next few months writing hundreds of urgent, enthusiastic emails to each other. They gushed about a mutual love for the wilderness, their craving for air and light and the shelter of mountains beneath sunset skies. Aidan quibbled with Ariel’s definition of the sublime. They argued about music: she was a ballad girl with a heart for folksongs and lost shanties passed down through her father’s radio; he liked fiery punk rock, the kind where the singer had to spit frequently onstage as if the words had congealed in his mouth.

Now they were here. By some miraculous alignment of mystical equations, they found themselves cooking pasta together on a cheap stove and taking long, leg-killing walks over burns and hillsides. The weather had at least been intermittently kind. Ariel and Aiden had gotten on so well, talking incessantly about their respective lives and admiring the scenery; but things had changed as of yesterday, when they visited the Wells of Dee. It was almost dark by the time they found the treasured landmark, neither of them being particularly adept with maps – in the city, you could just trust Google. All afternoon, they had traipsed for hours through boggy terrain, the land around them smelling of coldness and snow and pale sweet heather. It was summer, but they suspected that here it would always smell of snow. At the Wells, the dusk rose its lilac shroud around them as they stood before the river’s source, its outflow splashing off the mountainside in dramatic ripples of silver. There was a deep sense of mystery contained in that lake of water, an opaqueness of grey that would not give up its secret even as one broke the surface with a boot or a stick or a finger. Standing by the water, Aidan observed a change come over Ariel. She shook out her French plait, which had gathered considerable dishevelment from three days of hiking. She pulled off her socks and shoes and rolled up her oil-black leggings and waded into the pools. Come in, it’s lovely. He shook his head and just stood there, watching, an impenetrability suddenly coming between them.

In a sense, this was the zenith of her being before him. She was purely, utterly in her element. She splashed the freezing water on her face, arms flailing playfully. Later that evening, cooking her soup on the stove, he burnt the back of his hand quite badly.

She had felt for the burn in the dark of the tent. Its tender red tissue was swollen; it felt like touching the mulch of a distant planet. She unravelled her body and entered the night alone. The crags found her as if by instinct and soon she was sitting in her night slip and cardigan knit, bearing her body to the moon.

She knew that soon he would wake at the sound of a kestrel bursting from the forest, its firework snap following rumbles that shook the bristled tops of trees and spread like a spell across the mountains, like the promise of some imminent eruption. She knew that he would open his arms and there would be a gaping space where she was supposed to be. Then the igneous lump of his heart would incur its first melting. Until then, what else was there to do but study the constellations?

/ Maria Sledmere

(fff prompt: zenith)

 

Starlight Smoke

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Starlight Smoke

Six packs. He slips them neatly in his pockets, stubs a cigarette out on the concrete, orange tip entering a galaxy of gum and gravel. Stars are incongruous tonight, too much warmth in the air; there’s something about a star that suggests silvery shivers and winter. Pieces of ice, dead shards of light.

No less than ten minutes till the bus comes, but for whatever reason he lets it pass when it does, trundling by in hot dark smog.

He wanders all the way up the high street, cuts down two alleys, across the park and up to the close along near Tesco’s. Takes twice as long. Ash stains on the buttons where folk have stubbed out fags. He can feel the crinkle of their fingerprints as he pushes the buzzer for flat 6/3. There’s always a delay; he pictures her listening to music under the sheets with her legs swinging long in the air. Smell of burnt pizza and marijuana. Sweat. Such a walk up the stairs.

– Hey.

– Hey yourself.

They kiss so casual now. He’s perfected it on the stage of street corners; the quick nip before she twirls away.

The flat’s in total shadow. She hovers in the doorway like a moth, briefly attracted to the light in the hall, before ushering him in. This is the moment he’d like to melt his tongue in the heat of her throat, but they don’t do that anymore. The walls don’t bear their bodies like before. They’re fixed to the ground, a distance between them.

Some kind of lo-fi dub thrums from her room. The vibrations stir in his gut.

– Kitchen?

– Sure.

Whir of kettle steam. Dirt-rich grounds of coffee. He watches her fuss in the cupboards, looking for mugs. Pulls out Silk Cuts.

– Want one?

– I thought you were gonna quit.

– Six more. Packs that is. Jason bought them in duty-free, seemed a shame to waste.

– I wish you wouldn’t in here. The landlady…

He lights it anyway, then lights another one on the glow of the first. Passes it to her. Electric twitch as they brush fingertips. She takes the longer drag.

– Damn.

– It’s been some day.

– I’ll say.

He watches her float by the cooker. There’s a 27% chance she’ll cook rice and chilli if he sits tight long enough. The smoke swirls up in wispish clouds from her mouth as she fingers a bottle of wine in lieu of the forgotten coffee. In ten minutes, the lipstick will dry with a reddish stain and the soft skin will peel and crackle, plastic. She’s prettier that way, a bit of a bee-sting. Later, her hair will drape over the sheets, tobacco scent gleamed with grease. In the morning, by the window, she’ll comb out the aroma. The nicotine mist comes off her as he reads her aura. Under her nails, skin flakes and fridge crystals. Suddenly, he wants to kiss her.

Steam from the kettle. Shuffling of slippers; the flatmate practicing speeches next door.

– Can’t keep her grounded, that one.

– I’ll say.

Her mouth breathes out greyish vapours when she talks. Soon, he’s feeling his hand in her hair, its sticky rivulets. His vision slipping out of focus. Somehow she’s with him on the chair and the candlelight flickers. Tiny particles spill like glitter against the window. There’s a sign on the wine saying ‘Recipe for Lust’. Together, entwined like this, they can only combust.

/ Maria Sledmere

(FFF prompts: galaxy, cigarette)

 

Hats

I like Shrove Tuesday.

My husband’s making the pancakes – Joe does that now. Has been for about five years; since the day I saw that wonderful cross on the test.

“You sit out there and you relax!” he had smiled. I liked that he was proud of me. It was hard to see any of the work my body had done back then, strange not having a bump. I didn’t even get sick. Joe lets me sit out on the porch, because he knows how much I like seeing the sun in winter. I like to see warmth and feel cold. All the beauty, none of the heat.

I learned to knit on that day too. I made a hat for the baby – first thing I ever knitted! Joe was even more proud.

“Blimey, you’ve finished!” he had cried, “Well done darling, I’ll put it away safe”. I felt like a proper mum. Didn’t even know what that was then, but I guessed it had something to do with protecting the baby from the cold.

If I twist my head round enough I can see him through the glass doors. He’s frowning, but I think that’s just him concentrating on the pancakes: they can be quite fiddly. That first Shrove Tuesday he was far too pleased with me to stop smiling for anything.

I turn back to my knitting. I knit a hat on this day every year. Each year it gets just a bit bigger, and my knitting is always much improved from the last time. Joe keeps them all in the desk in his study. He takes them out sometimes and looks at them, all four of them. I spy him crying into them sometimes, all salty tears mingling with the fibres. He’s just so proud of me, and I cry too behind the door. It’s because we did such a good job.

I hear the hiss of cold water on the hot pan, which means the pancakes are done. We’ll all eat together.

Joe brings out the pancakes and smiles at me. He goes back into the kitchen, then comes and sits with me. He hands me a plate, then takes his, and halves the pancakes between us. He notices my knitting.

“You’ve finished,” he smiles sadly, takes the hat from my hands and kisses my forehead. I blush with pride.

“Well done darling. I’ll put it away safe”.

Louie Houston
What were your prompts?: Knitting, Sun, Pancakes

Pancakes

The gentle bubbling hiss as the smooth, satin batter slipped into the pan was a satisfying sound. I scattered some blueberries on top as the bottom began to cook and turn golden brown and spongey…these weren’t those thin pancakes like we used to flip onto the ceiling as kids on shrove Tuesday, the kind you have with lemon and sugar or jam and cream. These are fat, juicy, sexy American-style pancakes, the kind you stack with butter and smother in syrup.

He doesn’t need to know that I spent all of Thursday night practising how to make them without them being burnt on the outside and raw eggy goo on the inside. This morning at least they’re turning out perfectly and I’ve already got a sizeable stack building up on a plate beside the cooker. I’m hoping the smell and the soft sounds of the radio and the sizzle of batter will wake him, and he’ll come through, in his boxers, hair tousled, rubbing sleep from his eyes, and plonk himself down at the kitchen table, watching my backside peep at him from beneath his crumpled white shirt as I cook him the best breakfast of his life.

As it is though, I hear no sounds of movement as I’m spooning butter and syrup, and if I wait any longer they’ll get cold. I put the tray on the plate along with a coffee and a glass of fresh, squeezed orange juice, and suppress a smile as I sneak into the bedroom.

My face falls a little as I find him, wide awake, on his phone texting away.

‘Honey, I’ve made breakfast.’ I say tentatively. He glances up at me for a brief moment, barely registering my presence.

‘Oh, sweet. Yeah just put it on the side, I’m having a conversation.’

Rachel Norris
What were your prompts?: Pancakes, Sun

To a Father

 A river flows lazily through a spring meadow. The flowers flaunt a palette of vibrant colours. I walk at the rivers side, following the current. I’m not alone, a man walks with me. A dog plods along further away, plunging in and out of the fluttering water. The man tells a joke and we laugh together. I play with the dog, I fall, accidentally, into the river. I founder, I can’t breathe. The man shouts, I try to hear. He pulls me out, he holds me in his arms.

A lake is frozen over, snow falls slowly to the ground. It builds a shroud of white and blankness. A woman shouts, I refuse to hear. She comes to me, she stands beside me. We gaze out at the lake together, a thousand unspoken words exchanged. I cry in her arms.

by Scott Dallas
What were your prompts?: Snow, clandestine, Armour