Stories inspired by phobias and fears.
Needles by Connie Phlipot
Hell is… by Keith Gray
Gravity by Maria Foldeaki
by Connie Phlipot
“It will go straight through to your heart,” the wispy elderly woman in the alteration shop said.
“What? What will?” Julie asked, standing in her bare feet trying on a pair of trousers to be hemmed.
“A needle. If you step on it, it will travel up through your veins to your heart. Dead in an instant.”
“No, it has something to do with magnetism. Let me tell you a story about the small girl who tried to help her seamstress mother.”
“No, thank you. I got the point.” Julie looked around the floor. A few straight pins and snippets of thread but no needles. She put on her shoes, though, as soon as the seamstress had finished pinning up the hem.
Julie had worried at times about seamstress’ habit of putting pins in their mouths as they fitted clothing, but had never thought about needles on the floor.
“Have you ever heard this story?” she asked her friend Elizabeth over coffee that afternoon. Elizabeth twisted her mouth for a moment before answering.
“Well, yes, I guess it was something my mother, or maybe it was my grandmother, would say to get me to be careful with my sewing supplies. I didn’t really believe it, but I didn’t test it either.”
Julie stopped at the library on her way home and looked up needles and accidents in the newspaper archives. Most of the articles had to do with medical needles or drug overdoses. She tried sewing accidents. Someone in a sweat shop on Liberty Avenue had sewn through his finger while hemming denim jeans. Nothing on sewing needles lying on the floor.
When she lay down in bed, her heart was racing, her mind cluttered. She must have drunk coffee too late in the day. She opened the window to cool down the room, so she could snuggle into the down comforter to help her sleep.
Magnetism — is that at all possible? She would look it up tomorrow. Still wide awake, she got up to go to the bathroom. The gibbous waxing moon threw a shaft of light on her floor. Just before she put her foot down, she saw the glint of light on the black square of her tiled floor. She stumbled as she bent to put up the needle, bruising her knee but saving her from the minuscule dagger.
She didn’t sew. How could this needle have landed on her floor. She did have a little kit for emergency repairs, but she hadn’t used it for years. She hobbled into the spare room to see if the needle and thread packet were still in the chest of drawers. In place. A blue thread attached to the needle from her latest attempt to sew a button on her coat.
It must have come from the alteration shop — perhaps left in the cuff of her trousers. Or had it stuck to her bare feet, lying against her sweaty insole, reading to piece her skin…
And travel to her heart. She could see it, coursing through her veins like an ICBM, steered by this mysterious magnetic force. Her palms got damp, her heart pounded up into her throat. Her kneed still throbbing, Julie crawled back to her bedroom and put her slippers on. With difficulty she stood up and got a broom to sweep the floor. There might be other needles. She shook out the trousers, inspected the pockets of her jacket, emptied her purse, even searching through her coin purse. No needles.
After washing her feet, just to be sure the needles hadn’t tried to penetrate her sole, she went back to bed. Her sleep was fitful, but finally, exhausted, she slept soundly until awakened by the alarm.
On her nightstand, alongside the clock, the tiny weapon gleamed. She couldn’t have put the needles there, could she? She jumped out of bed, wincing as her knee reminded her of her injury, and put her slippers on. She searched for a piece of cloth to put the needle through. No, she would tape it to a piece of cardboard. Safe. It couldn’t escape from that tight bond.
Maybe she should throw it out in the garbage. No, that’s ridiculous. It can’t hurt. And maybe it would be useful.
Julie looked up magnetism and cardiovascular system at the library. Yes, there was some magnetic aspect of the heart, but no examples of death by sewing needle. She walked over to the alteration shop. The elderly woman wasn’t there. A young woman in a tight T-shirt and jeans was hunched over the old-fashioned, industrial size, sewing machine.
“The other woman. The older lady. Is she here? I wanted to thank her for doing such a nice job on my trousers.”
The young woman looked up from the ancient machine. “What old woman?”
“Why, the one who works here. She is thin, not very tall. .. “ Julie couldn’t remember any other details.
“Oh, that’s my great aunt. She fills in sometimes. But she got sick last night. Something with her heart we think. Odd, because she was so fit, never had any problems with her heart.”
Julie swallowed hard. “I’m sorry to hear that. Please give her my regards.”
“If she regains consciousness, I’ll do that.”
As she left the shop, Julie caught her jacket on the door frame. A button tumbled onto the sidewalk. Her injured knee smarted as she bent to pick it up. At home, she got out her sewing kit and started to pull out the needle. Her hand hovered, trembling above the thread, her heart beat fast and loud like it had during the night. She put the button in the drawer with the sewing supplies. Maybe another day she could tackle it. For the time being, she would wear another jacket.
About Connie Phlipot
Connie is a retired U.S. diplomat, who has recently completed a novel based on her grandparents emigration from what is now Belarus. She is now working on a novel or linked short stories focused on her fascination with Central and Eastern Europe.
by Keith Gray
Hell is not full of mischievous, boil-in-the-bag demons wanting to poke you with pitchforks. Neither is it a corporate boardroom with CEO Lucifer wearing Hugo Boss and spitballing ideas for new Halloween merchandising with his shareholders. Too easy. Too cliché. If there’s a god who created cancer and invented leprosy, a god who sat back and watched genocide, a god who had the idea for skinny, little fish that can swim up inside a penis and use hooks to cling on, then rest assured this god’s imagined Hell is going to be a genuine, 100% nightmare.
Hell is a cinema. A big cinema – maybe even 2 or 3 thousand seater. And me, the condemned sinner, I get a front row seat, bang up there only inches away from the massive IMAX 3D Dolby Surround Sound super screen. The rest of the audience are my friends and family; kids I went to kindergarten with and hardly remember anymore; High School teachers; work colleagues I liked, work colleagues I didn’t; Facebook Friends I never met in real-life; the barman at my favourite pub. In other words, everyone I’ve ever known. All of them. Everyone. And they’re all sitting comfortably waiting to watch the movie of my life.
My mother is especially looking forward to it. She’s proud of me and my achievements. She’s sitting right next to me and gives my hand a reassuring squeeze – smiles at me. My Uncle Jack who was always the first to get drunk at family weddings slaps me on the shoulder from his seat behind mine and shouts, ‘This is gonna be fun!’ I can’t see them but I know my wife and children are here somewhere too.
All of the seats are plush, but on the arm of my chair is a big, red, ominous button. The words ‘Emergency Descent’ are written in bold letters next to it. It makes me nervous. I don’t know what it means. I’m worried I might bump it with my elbow.
The lights go down. The curtains draw aside. The music crescendos. My name is HUGE on the screen. A message scrolls Star Wars-style in front of everyone’s eyes:
“This is your life. Every single second of it in real-time. If you watch it all the way through to the end you may enter Heaven and enjoy an afterlife of peaceful harmony. If you decide you don’t want to watch any more you can press the red button on the arm of your chair. The film will stop immediately, and you will rot in Hell for eternity. The movie lasts as long as your life. You are the protagonist. The people around you are the cast. This movie is executively produced by God (or maybe the Devil). But ultimately directed by You.”
And the screen flickers and brightens and I see myself as a baby. I’m sooo cute. No, honest, I am. A bonnie baby boy. I was blonde. My mother is glowing and happy up there on the screen, and she’s still smiling sitting next to me in the cinema too. But I look at the big red button on the arm of my chair. ‘Emergency Descent’. What’s worse? Watching my life in minute, intricate, intimate detail? Or eternity in Hell?’
So, obviously, the first thing I feel is embarrassment. All these people watch me poo. It’s not so bad when I’m a pooing baby, but they get to watch me grow and poo too. It makes me shudder. How much pooing does one person do? So much that it soon becomes mundane and boring and the audience stop giggling. But as I get older, up on that screen, embarrassment turns to humiliation because everyone I’ve ever known get to watch me drop my pants for another reason. My first sexual awakenings, my awkward sexual fumblings. My first kiss looks sweet. My first shag is awful. And the girl I lost my virginity to, Emma Fletcher, well she’s next to Uncle Jack in the row behind me. He’s laughing so hard his false teeth pop out.
It’s not just sex with other people we get to watch, it’s sex with myself. As a teenage boy the only thing I seemed to do more than poo was wank. We all watch me wank. I’m trying not to think about how my children must be feeling. My mother doesn’t want to hold my hand anymore. I look at the big red button. I can stop this. But maybe Hell is worse.
As we all sit and watch this long, slow, plotless movie I tell myself I can handle the humiliation. But how about the guilt?
I stole money from my mother’s purse when I was 8. She sits next to me in the cinema and watches me as I sneak into her bedroom, open her purse and take out the £20 note, up there on the big screen. Then she listens to me lie about it when she confronts me and says she has no money for her own lunch that day. But it’s not the first lie I tell and definitely not the last. I never realised how many lies. Was my youth all shitting, wanking and lying?
No: there’s worse. I watch the cowardly me too. I’m 10 years-old and I don’t stick up for my friend David when a bully steals his new trainers. I’m too scared and run away when the bully grabs him. At the age of 11 I do nothing except watch as a gang of older boys corner a stray dog and throw rocks and broken bottles at it. The dog yelps and howls as bad as David did, but I do nothing.
And I reckon my own children watching this must be thinking I’m a hypocrite. All of the stuff I’ve told them that they should be… Well, I’m obviously not any of it.
Because the movie shows me telling horrible-hurtful jokes about the black kids in my class, horrible-hurtful jokes about the gay kids in my class, horrible-hurtful jokes about the kid in the wheelchair. Back then I reckoned it was OK to do that because everybody was telling those kind of jokes. But sitting in the front row, with my own children in the audience, I see how very not OK it is and my guilt rises like the mercury in a thermometer, and my face is hot, and my back is sweaty against the cinema seat.
Everybody I’ve ever known is seeing those parts of me I’d always tried to keep hidden from them.
I’m desperate to point out the nice, genuine, good stuff I’ve done too. There is a lot of that in my life, there really is. We watch me being helpful, friendly, kind. But was it enough? Have I been helpful, friendly and kind enough in my life to outweigh how often I could be cruel, cowardly and dishonest?
I look at the big red button. But I don’t want to go to Hell.
But now my mind is racing ahead. This is just me as a kid and I know what happens next. I know how this story goes. I’m thinking of what’s to come in later years. Those things I did when I thought I wouldn’t get caught. The things I got up to behind my wife’s back. The bigger lies I told my so-called friends. The two-faces I often wore. And what started out at the beginning of the movie as embarrassment, then humiliation, and that grew into guilt in the 2nd act, is all too quickly becoming shame. There are things I did as an adult that I always knew I should never do, but did anyway. Because I’d thought I could hide them. But soon everyone will watch them.
I can’t concentrate. I can’t sit still. The once comfortable seat feels so very, very hot and my head is burning with thoughts of what I know is going to be shown. I’m remembering the hateful thing I did when I was 17. I’m remembering selfishness when I was 22, intolerance when I was 35, deceitfulness when I was 40. I remember people whom I could have helped, but didn’t. I remember people whom I told I loved, but didn’t. If I turn around I know I’ll see them sitting in the rows behind me. I am on fire with shame.
My mother is weeping next to me. Uncle Jack sure as shit isn’t laughing anymore. I look at the big red button.
Would you press the button?
Me? I press the button. I hit the button, I punch the button, I lean my whole Goddamned weight on the button.
But the button is a fake. It doesn’t work. There’s no descent into Hell. And at long last I finally come to understand, I am already here.
By Maria Foldeaki
Mountain climbing is all about gravity in its pure, physical sense. It must be overcome to get to the desired peak or high pass. In my first trip to the Pyrenees I got a lot more of it than I bargained for. All because of a lousy internet-connection in the scenic Hungarian city of Pecs. To do the GR-11 long-distance hike, I should’ve reserved beds in a number of huts, individually. Circa10 minutes connection time for each. But it never lasted that long. The reservations didn’t go through.
Then I found the “High trail around the Lost Mountain” link. The peak was lost, supposedly, in the clouds. The website came as a blessing. So it seemed. I could reserve the one-week circuit with just one click. Didn’t think twice. Clicked. I didn’t realize that the trail was far beyond my abilities. It wasn’t an organized hike, just self-guided. The agency reserved the huts, provided the map and a T-shirt with the relevant logo, and off we went, on our own. About 8 of us.
I made the first section with 2 Spaniards. Received more support than I needed. Or maybe not. They had ropes when we had to climb up against a waterfall coming down, obeying gravity. They continued all the way to Lost Mountain, and I stopped at the scenic Sarradets hut, already in France. It was snowing heavily, belying August, and hiding the famous waterfall. I sat in the hut’s café with a British grandma. She lived in France, thus escaped another type of gravity, so to speak. She ignored politics in both countries. The advantage of living abroad.
A new group arrived, bringing me a message from Joe, one of the Spaniards. It was short and concise: “Don’t continue alone!” Supposedly, the ability of turning back is the greatest asset in mountaineering. But in this case it wasn’t an option. It would’ve involved the waterfall, and climbing up was already bad enough, coming down would’ve been worse.
The British grandma intervened, and a Japanese group allowed me to join them for the following day. The snow was still falling heavily. It was about -10 C. I was wearing everything I had. I wasn’t prepared for Arctic temperatures in August.
We had to cross a snowfield, one by one, assisted by the guides. Except for them, the Japanese people only spoke Japanese. But I wanted to know the name of the woman standing next to me. I was sure we will die there. Of hypothermia. Or avalanche. Whatever. Didn’t hope for an escape. Wanted to know with whom I’m going into the freezing death. Thus I pointed to myself and said “Maria”. She understood and answered “Nakamura”, and gave me a candy from her pocket. Then it was our turn, we crossed the snowfield, surprisingly still alive, and continued. And by the time we reached the hut below the Lost Mountain, even the sun was shining.
But I made a decision. Until then, I was fighting gravity, now I’m going to obey it and descend to the village. At farewell, Nakamura gave me a hug and some more candy.
At the bus station down, I met 2 Australians, who did the same. And a Chinese man with bruises all over his face. He pointed to his nose and said “Lost Mountain.” “But you lived to tell the tale,” said the Australian woman. And that summed up my experience as well.