Prose fiction

Flashing lights
by Anni Kiilavuori

You know, sometimes that moment just flashes vividly in front of my eyes, as if I was suddenly back there in that room, smelling the smoke of their cigarettes, feeling the beat of the bass in my entire body.

There we are, the four of us, an unlikely group of broken people. You, me, the man that I love and the man that you love. He puts on a vinyl record and my favorite song fills the room with sounds that I know by memory, I’ve heard them countless times on countless different occasions. But this occasion, with the four of us being together, must be my favorite. The men light up their cigarettes. The fire flashes in the dark room and I can smell how the smoke starts filling up the room together with the rasping sounds of the vinyl player. I take your hand and we start dancing.

When you dance, your dark hair seems to be dancing, too, as it floats in the air to its own beat. You like to move your skinny arms more than your feet and spin around with arms wide open. And whenever you dance, you smile. That is why I love to see you dancing. For the majority of people smiling is the most natural expression, but not for you, not after life has broken you into pieces too many times. But right now, in this room, you seem whole. You start jumping to the beat of the song and start singing or screaming, it is hard to tell the difference. I jump with you, to the same beat, and I feel whole as well. Because your smile, your dancing, and your false singing voice have the ability to collect all my broken pieces together and make them resemble the person that I once was before life shattered me, too.

You squeeze my hand and we both spin around, faster and faster. I am sweating like crazy because the summer in this city is not over yet. You are sweating, too, your hair is starting to look like it was glued to your face. But you look beautiful anyway, you always look beautiful to me, even when you cry or shout or scream. Right now, with that smile, you look more beautiful than ever.

Then I look at the man that I love and he gets up and starts dancing, too. He dances like a maniac and I start laughing, and he catches me and kisses me and laughs, too. I love the sound of his laugh even more than I love the sound of this song, because it has been a rare sound for a long time. Now he turns around and around to the beat of the song and he looks more free than I have ever seen him do before.

Your man leaves the room and comes back with two road bike lights. He sits down because he cannot dance with his broken leg, but he smiles and waves his head to the beat. Then he switches on the bike lights and they start flashing. A red light, a yellow light and the darkness start taking turns. Suddenly it feels like we are in an old disco where it was still allowed to smoke inside and they only played vinyl records with rasping sounds. I see your smiling faces in different parts of the room, and the flashing lights make you look like robots when you move your bodies. My three favorite robots. So I laugh and jump more and take more wine and feel alive.

The moment disappears from my mind as quickly as it comes. But whenever it comes back again, it feels like a light is switched on. A light that brightens up everything, my thoughts, my feelings, all the darkness that there is inside me. I hope that the same light gets switched on in you, too, and collects all your broken pieces together, at least for a while. Does it? Do you remember it like I do?

Empty Buffet
By Tatu Pajula

Coming back for seconds
   Buff E t
              Y ou see yourself upside down M
          .noops             eht       no

The grace that injects fluency in all your actions is gone. You remain still, yet all of you wants to walk backwards to your table and eat backwards.
        Foodstuffs emerging from your mouth onto the plate like lines of Fords driving from factories in the post-war baby-economic boom in some black and white picture show you saw recently but did not quite grasp in your dimly lit room above the lovers’ quarrel below the hanged man's floor below his dangling feet, you remain seated, still even though all of you once more wants to go back, back, back to your mother and father and loving siblings and kneeling tables stacked with lemonade apple pies turkey hot dogs hamburgers all your favorite foods glazed with events and times past, back from standing in front of these never-ending gala luncheons and all-you-can-eats, back from these lonely nights in front of the telly when the nosey nosey neighbor describes you and your solitary habits as something wrong with kids these days, back to the beginning back to the back to the. But alas you find yourself standing and/or sitting once more alone with company or not, not being able to go forward or backward caught eyeing empty tables and static on screens - you wish that someone would break your porcelain, shove you in the direction of a downward slope so you would catch the rolling hill with your feet and run frantically almost yelling help as your physics are no match for the increasing speed but no the line behind you forms ever longer and gasps and retunes their stance all behaving and all not saying anything.


And you: why is this damned buffet empty? I gotta catch the 576 zooming away in 'bout half an hour. Won’t none aid me in my pursuit of happiness of a full stomach and void mind. Damn this godforsaken desert and its damned citizens of gold and bones.
And why is this buffet empty and why am I here exactly? Why am I anywhere?

Your all-access pass shakes a bit and thought runs through all your past closed doors breaking and entering researching every chamber of your mind uselessly like a thief gone by accident to the wrong neighborhood of poverty not riches. What were you doing? The line behind you extends & flattens like a cat realizing its potential as a demigod, its shape a saber curving slightly left from your standpoint. You want to shake about take names and addresses, ask in riddles no in short verse no honestly, about your situation or about the situation of anyone. The plate in your hands spins into a mandala, utensils in your hands into scepters. Yet the hunger in your tummy laughs at your half-assed zenish questioning moments under the sun.

               All thinkers
                       Must first eat
Thought is just a reclining geezer between the full stomachs.

                            Was that what your
                        Parents wanted to teach you?

by Noora Raiskio

The first note is a low, growling one that demands attention. Everyone in the room turns towards the stage, and looks at me. I grin, and the second note is longer, more seductive, luring them in. Steps are being taken, glasses abandoned on the tables, and shoulders touching unknown shoulders, right there, in front of me.

Are you ready?

They cheer. We take one last breath, then let the song out into the air.

The blastwave of sound fills the space, shoots in unprotected ears, through the cochleae, all the wayin to the brains. There, deep inside, we make them forget themselves, and leave an absolute invitation which none can decline.

They have to join us.

I hold the strings, and abruptly stop the flow of notes.

Stop them.

They're mine to control, mine to play with. Sweet puppets of various ages, with different hairstyles, and band t-shirts carefully picked for the occasion. There's one guy wearing a Tool shirt, short brown hair. Another next to him, hair all over the place. Can't see the logo. Then, a couple of rows further back, a woman in black: eyes, shirt and hair. Lips something else, still dark. Brave. I wink at her, and she shouts something.

The beat is accelerating. I smell the sweat, mine and everyone's, spice the air. It's surprisingly pleasant. Proof that we're on fire. We. One entity.

The sound is creeping everywhere, and raising my body hair up. Hair is already out of control. The audience is singular: a wild sea of wooing, headbanging and singing along. Guards pick a couple of fainted people aside, and give them water. Someone starts a pit.

They flash a strobo. Flow turns into moments, pictures beaten on their retinas like tattoos on their skins. I add striking notes, break a pick, I want to burn the images eternally there.

I need them to burn with me.

When Suns Burn Out
 by Jenni Pullinen

She used to be a good person. Exceptional, even. Every morning she'd wake up one and a half minutes before her alarm went off. She was never late anywhere. She would be the one smiling at you in the middle of a crowd full of frowns.  She’d somehow manage to give money to charity, though her salary wasn’t all that impressive, and birthday presents from her were always the sweetest and most carefully thought out ones you would ever receive.

Anyone would tell you she was an angel, and the same people would say she fell from grace. But that's just a question of perspective, isn’t it?

I think she was so focused on being the light of other people's lives that she forgot that to get a good night's sleep, you need some darkness. Like other good people, she was taught to despise darkness, so she did. In the imagined battles between light and darkness you are always supposed to root for the light. Everyone forgets what can happen in the light. Everyone forgets that it's not only the night that can contain vicious predators, and the most dangerous are the ones hiding in plain sight, aren’t they?

I think she just grew tired. She was always the shoulder people would cry on, but one day she realized she wanted to be more than a shoulder. She discovered she was more than that. There was much more of her than that. But people don't want to give away something that brings them solace and joy.

I'm not a lamp, she said one day. She's lost her mind, said the people. And how nice she used to be, I've known her since she was a baby, I'd never expected this from her, cried the neighbors. But she had decided her life would be hers and hers only. She wasn't here to make the others happy, she was a person too and had every right to a happiness of her own.

And she was tired. How could she sleep when she had turned herself into a sun? Suns can't just switch themselves off whenever they want. When suns burn out, whole solar systems die.

She was so, so tired. Her whole body had grown heavy with the worries of the world, yet she still felt empty somehow. Hollow. Like the wind could just pass through her, and maybe it did. She would've traded almost anything if only some soothing darkness would come and take her. Almost anything. Or maybe, just anything. That thought was new and at first it frightened her. Eventually though, that very thought became her much-longed-for darkness, a promise of rest. A reverse lighthouse, of sorts.

That's not right, said someone, how can you think that way? You have everything anyone could hope for!

That's the point! she cried out. That's the whole point, everything is much more than I can handle.

You're lazy.

She wasn't sure who said that. Maybe it was herself. It could have been herself.

She was tired.

She used to be a good person.

The Stone Ship
by Tapani Iivanainen

I stood on a platform and looked at the sea. It was grey, with white fog lingering just above the murky surface. I held on to my binoculars so tightly my knuckles started to turn pale. I shivered at the thought of stepping over the edge and plunging into the cold depths.
”Makes you want to be home, doesn't it?” Albert said with a cough.
”Yeah,” I muttered. Albert coughed again and took a sip from his whiskey bottle.
”How long now?” I asked.
”Not long”, Albert said, lighting his pipe. ”It should emerge in a couple of minutes.” I nodded, feeling my heart beat faster every moment. We had been there for so long and still I wasn't ready. Albert smiled and kept on sucking his pipe.
”There!” he shouted, so suddenly I almost dropped the binoculars. I looked at the direction Albert was pointing his pipe. Then I saw the ship.
He hadn't lied. It was made of stone and it was enormous. The sails were made of substance which looked exactly like the fog that lingered on the surface of the water. And on the deck there was the crew, not one of them human. They just stood there, doing nothing.
”Skeletons,” I said, lowering my binoculars. ”They really are skeletons.”
”Told you,” Albert said. He smiled, revealing his yellow teeth. ”Shall we have a closer look?”
”I'm quite alright, thanks,” I said, but Albert had already started the engines. Our small motorized platform approached the stone ship and I was more scared than I had ever been in my life.

As we came closer, the skeletons turned their empty gaze towards us. It was strange, to say the least, to look into someone's eyes and seeing nothing.
”You sure this is safe?” I asked.
”Of course it's not,” he answered.
Soon we were floating directly above the ship, all of the crew looking at us from below. Only then I saw something on the deck I hadn't noticed before. It was a human child, chained to one of the masts. The child's hair was bright red, and the face was turned downwards, so I couldn't see it. I turned to Albert.
”Do you see that?”
”There's a child down there. A human.”
”Oh,” Albert said, squinting his eyes and leaning forward. ”So it seems.”
”Shouldn't we do something?”
”Now, kid,” Albert said. ”It's all fun floating over the ship and looking at the weird things inhabiting it. It's a whole other story jumping onto the deck yourself. That's the thing you should be scared of, not this sightseeing stuff.”
”But…,”I said. ”We can't just leave that kid.”
”Why not? I've left others.”
”What if you had left me?”
Albert looked at me. He sucked on his pipe, sighed and muttered: ”What do you propose?”
”I can go.”
”You sure as hell will go. I'm not putting my only working leg down there. But how are you going to get the kid out?”
”You don't mean the skeletons are going to attack me?”
”I don't know what they'll do. I only know they've been there for ages and I also know that there are people who have got on the ship and who've never been seen again.
I shivered more than ever, but I just couldn't turn back. I realized it was weird for me to act that way. I did not care.
”I guess,” Albert said. ”I could try to swoop as low as possible. But if they start to approach, I'm out. No use in both of us and my platform to… well, whatever happens to those who they capture.”
I couldn't blame Albert. Although he acted like a coward, he had good reasons to do so. And I was in no position to call anyone a coward.
”Alright,” I said. ”Pull down.”
Albert sucked on his pipe one more time and then we descended in one fast swoop.
I saw the child right in front of me. When the figure revealed its face I realized it was a girl, and maybe not quite as young as I had imagined. Just very small.
I jumped onto the deck and approached the chains. I looked around, almost certain I’d see movement around me, but all of the skeletons stood still. They looked at me and did nothing else.
As I stood there, my hands pressed against the chains, I started to think about my travels with Albert and how well everything had gone. Always a happy ending. The only thing that kept me focused was the thought that everything would turn out alright again.
As I fumbled with the chains I felt the need to say something.
”It's alright. We're gonna rescue you.”
”I need no one to rescue me”, the girl said and looked at me. I looked back and had to prevent myself from screaming.
The skeletons did not move.
I saw the girl's mouth open. It widened in a way I had never seen before and before I knew how to react it had become bigger than her face. I backed towards the flying platform but soon noticed it wasn't there. I was alone with the skeletons, who were still standing, still staring with the empty holes in their heads.
I looked around me in indescribable panic. The mouth grew even larger and soon it seemed to cover half of the deck. I ran to the gunwale and looked down, to the murky water with small fog clouds floating over it. I looked to the sky, but did not see Albert's platform anywhere. And I looked back to the ever-growing mouth of darkness and the few skeletons who stood on the remaining parts of the stone deck.
I turned towards the edge, cringed and jumped.
As I touched the surface of the water and started to plunge into the cold depths I opened my mouth and screamed.

Untitled story
by Lasse Tuominen

Each morning we queue for hours while a voice, liquid and chilled, leaks from the speakers high on the lampposts. This morning was no different. I was queuing at the woefully inadequate ration counter at the ministry before leaving work. The omnipresent voice was flowing from the speakers. At last it was my turn to order. I made my usual purchases and started packing the items into the good old bag that had served me for several years.
Whilst I was packing, the person at the counter slipped a small piece of paper into my bag. At first I did not notice the paper as I must have been checking the receipt, to make sure I had been given the proper change. It was only when I arrived at my living quarters, that I realised something out of the ordinary was in my faithful bag.
Hands quivering, I emptied the wares from my bag, leaving the unimaginable piece of paper lying at the bottom by itself. I checked my surroundings, albeit I knew I was alone. I switched on the radio and tuned it to the news frequency. Then with a clumsy-looking but extremely premeditated movement I slung my bag off the table and onto the floor. I kneeled slightly to pick up the bag and simultaneously slipped the note into my pocket. "Oh my, oh my" I exclaimed to make the operation seem more authentic and accidental.
Not until late during that evening I dared to reach into the depths of my pocket to feel out the piece of paper. After fiddling a moment with the note, I finally ventured to dig it out into the open. I marvelled at its neatly and exactly folded edges as well as the extremely fine quality of paper it was written on. I decided it was time to unveil the secrets of the mysterious note. I started unfolding the edges nervously one by one. Finally, the only task left to do was to read what was written onto the paper.

I was dumbfounded. I had to read through the text several times until I was able to comprehend everything. I had been contacted by the enemy. First I felt disgusted, then I became angry. Angry because of the condition of our state and the perpetual war. I had to respond according to the instructions I received, even though I was afraid. Afraid of being exposed, prosecuted and punished. It was time to act.

The butterfly
Dramatic monologue by Sofia Häärä

I like flying. Spreading my wings and catching the wind. But I can’t tell anyone. I’m not able to.
They look at me and feel happy. Me with my beautiful colors and fast fluttering, graceful wings. But how do they know when I’m happy, and when I’m just flying around?
Being beautiful is not the same thing as being happy, free. For them I represent freedom. But am I free? I’m not able to be.
They say I will die soon, but I’m not really aware of it. So they say. And that’s why, for them, I’m free.
I don’t know about that. But I like flying. Spreading my wings and catching the wind.

by Petronella Patrikainen

“Viola Perdita. That’s what Mrs Hollingsworth decided to call the child she adopted. The child, who was the only survivor of a shipwreck, was found on the seaside, almost drowned, badly hurt, unable to speak, or to remember.”

“Viola Perdita. Very Shakespearean.”
Viola gave the ticket lady the tiniest smirk as she withdrew her student ID, finding herself quite unable to vocalise her regular remark on her mother’s Shakespeare-enthusiasm.
The train was full from London to Cardiff. Viola wasn’t looking at any of the people. She kept looking outside even though she wasn’t really looking at anything there either. She kept constantly making sure her sleeves were drawn well over her wrists.
She took another train from Cardiff to reach her destination. She still found the name of the village difficult to pronounce. Luckily she didn’t have to talk to anyone, since this train was almost empty, and the chatty old ladies kept away from her. Their accents were similar to Dylan’s. Viola smiled for the first time that day when listening to them.
A great humidity greeted Viola when she got off the train; it was surely going to rain. She put up her hood and left the tiny train station. She had never been there, but she had a map to guide her to the house where Dylan had grown up.
The house was made of stone that had gone grey during the years. Tonight, soft light was leaking out into the street from every window. Viola took a few cautious steps to the front door, then a breath, and then rang the doorbell.
The heavy wooden door was soon opened, all gently, by Dylan’s mother Sian.
“Viola!” Sian exclaimed all excitedly at the sight of her. “What a surprise! Welcome!”
“I’m sorry I’ve come here all unannounced like this, but…”
 “Viola?” came Dylan’s voice from inside the house. He appeared from behind his mother, and smiled the warmest smile at Viola. “You’re here! Why didn’t you call me or anything?”
“Never mind that,” Sian interrupted, taking Viola gently by the arm. “It’s all cold and clammy out there, come in, darling!”
Viola gave Sian and Dylan her second smile of the day when she stepped inside.
All of Dylan’s family were as kind as he was, even if they were a bit over-talkative. Dylan’s sister Kerry was there too, of course, but her Viola had met many times, and they’d already come to like each other. They were very similar in many ways. All of Dylan’s family were treating Viola as if she’d always been there, always been part of the family. She didn’t mind. She felt comfortable with them.
After a few hours of intensive conversation, Viola had escaped and was sitting by herself in a big armchair by the fire, curled up, thoroughly exhausted. Then, when everything had gone quiet for the first time in a couple of hours, she looked up. Dylan had come to her, and sat next to her in the other armchair. His eyes showed some confusion, but none of the judgement Viola kept expecting.
“I thought you said you wanted to be with your parents for Christmas.”
“I did say that, yeah, but I didn’t, not really. I mean, it’s okay with Mum but… I just didn’t feel comfortable there. It was so quiet. And Stephen, he couldn’t… He could barely look at me. He had nothing to say to me, which isn’t much less than usual, but…”
“I see. But I guess they just don’t know what to say. I…”
“I know,” Viola interrupted. “I understand. You… We don’t have to talk about it. I’m okay now.”
“Are you?”
“Yeah,” she said, failing to sound convincing. She was tugging at her sleeves again.
“Fair enough, then,” Dylan said, not even trying to sound convinced. “In any case, I’m glad you came after all. Really,” he continued, smiling.
“I’m glad I came too. I mean, your family… They’re so welcoming. Always so friendly.”
“You sound almost surprised.”
“No, it’s not that. It’s just… I’m surprised I should deserve to have people be so friendly to me.”
“You’re not a bad person, Viola. You made a mistake, but that’s in the past now. Right?”
“Right,” she said weakly, after a heartbeat of hesitation. She felt like crying. And then she did.

Viola slept for more than twelve hours that night, but even then she felt exhausted in the morning. It was Christmas Day, and the house was full of Dylan’s relatives. Viola tried to keep smiling, and tried to hold a conversation whenever a new relative came to present themselves to her. She at least managed to forget all about herself like this, being with Dylan’s family, who were blissfully unaware of most of what was going on in her life. Sian knew of course what had happened a few weeks back; Dylan had had to call her because he’d been so upset. They’d not told Kerry, though. She was so sensitive about these things.
A few days later, Dylan’s parents left to visit some friends for a couple of days, leaving Dylan, Kerry and Viola by themselves. They mostly stayed inside, eating and watching TV, as the weather had turned into wind and rain, and it rained every day.
The armchair by the fire was a place of comfort to Viola. She sat there whenever they were not in the living room. Dylan and Kerry would join her and they’d talk about the movies they’d watched, or food, or the weather, or Dylan and Kerry’s childhood. They didn’t talk about Viola. She didn’t say anything and Dylan wouldn’t ask. Kerry did ask things about Viola, but Dylan managed to always divert the conversation. He thought he was protecting them both.

The day before New Year’s Eve they finally decided to go outside for a bit, since it wasn’t raining anymore, it was only a bit misty. Dylan showed Viola a beautiful dell near the house, overgrown with ivy, where he and Kerry had often played as children. Beyond the dell was a big hill. Dylan asked Viola whether she was up to climbing to the top of it. She was, and so, slowly but surely, they began climbing up its steep side towards the top.
The view from the top of the hill was very much worth all the effort. They could see far beyond the valley opening before them, full of dark green forest, surrounded by hills shrouded in mist. Viola was enjoying the view but she was also getting cold because the wind was picking up.
Dylan was standing a few feet away from her, arguing about the location of some landmark with Kerry. They laughed and realised how long it was beginning to be since they were children. Dylan then looked up at Viola and noticed that she was staring at him.
“I think we should start heading back. It’s going to rain again, I think.”
Shivering from head to toe up there on the hill, the armchair was suddenly all Viola could think about, and getting warm by the fire, talking with Dylan and Kerry, and eating some more of Sian’s Welsh cakes.
“You alright?” Dylan asked her, taking her cold hand as they began heading down the hill.

“Yeah,” Viola said peacefully, smiling. “I will be.”

The suit man
by Laura Aspelin

I was walking through the endless crowd, under the colorful streamers and trying to find my way out. Why did I choose to walk through Little Italy? I wasn’t sure, but it was a bad choice. People were everywhere, taking pictures, buying oysters and lobsters. I hate Mediterranean food, especially the smell, but I had to get through, I had to.
“Excuse me, excuse me” I said and tried to zigzag in the crowd, but people were only able to concentrate on the streamers, colorful lights and Italian men yelling “Buy my stuff, it’s the best!” I couldn’t help thinking that I might not make it in time. He was so sick and he needed this food bag.
It wasn’t easy to walk through the crowd with one hand holding the heavy food bag and the other hand packed in an arm sling. Suddenly someone noticed me, someone who wasn’t blinded by Little Italy’s attractions. “Hey! Hey you, make some room!” he yelled to the crowd, using his authority and his loud, soft base voice. I looked at him and he looked at me with caring, helpful eyes. The crowd started moving and making a little passage just for me. I was so confused. This guy was one of those rich people, who never cared about people like us. He was a suit man.
I walked through the passage and the suit man came after me saying: “Can I help you?” But I just replied “Thank you!” and continued on my way as fast as I could. What I didn’t know was that the suit man was following me.
“One more turning”, I thought. I was afraid of what was coming behind the turning. The corner was there. I stopped. I breathed deeply and tried to let go of the worst case scenario in my head. Then I made the turn.
There he was, my little brother lying on the ground. Tears welled up in my eyes as I looked at that little, suffering creature on the cold ground, not moving anywhere. I approached him step by step and I tried to say something. “Bro, I brought you some food.” No reaction, just a still, small body. I approached a little closer. Then I saw him clearly. His eyes were closed. His skin looked so pale, almost like he was no longer alive, and eventually, I saw that he wasn’t moving at all.
I knelt down on the ground with desperate thoughts. The food bag dropped out of my hand and spread around the street. The pain inside me was terrible. I felt anger towards the whole world and especially towards the city we were living in. It was supposed to be the city of dreams, but it wasn’t. It was a city of broken dreams, unfairness and now dead little brothers.
“Wait!” a soft, base voice said behind me, passed me and went straight to my brother’s body and touched his throat. “What are you doing? Get off my brother!” I screamed, but he just took his phone, and called someone. “I need an ambulance at 12th street 42. A little boy is struggling for his life and he needs hospital care immediately.” Then the suit man started bringing my brother back to life and I just looked at him astounded. I didn’t know what was happening, but it looked like this man was about save my brother’s life. Then I fainted.
I woke up in a light, clean room. “Ah good you are awake! Would you like to go see your brother?” a middle-aged woman said to me with a friendly voice. “My brother, but he, what? He was dead. I saw it.” “Yes he was in a very critical condition, but luckily the ambulance got there just in time. Your brother is recovering now”, the woman said with a friendly voice, “Come now I show you where he is.”
We went to another light, clean room where my little brother was lying on a bed, sleeping. “You should let him sleep, he is still very weak”, the woman said and left me alone in the room. I just looked at my brother and the tears came into my eyes once again. Suddenly I remembered the suit man calling the ambulance, and I realized that I had to thank him. I went to the hallway. “Excuse me ma’am, but where is the man who helped my brother?” The woman just looked at me with a strange look. “I’m sorry my dear, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “But there was a suit man who called the ambulance, and helped us! You must at least know his name” I insisted. “I don’t know anything about any man. I’m so sorry. You have been in shock. I suggest you go back to your brother’s room and try to take it easy.” The woman replied.

I went back to my brother’s room with confused thoughts. Then I saw the flowers on the table and a letter beside them. It said “ To Jimmy and Jerry.” I opened the letter. There was a huge check made out to me and Jerry. The signature was written by hand with somehow familiar handwriting. I looked at my brother Jerry. He had got some color into his cheeks. The sun was shining outside and for the first time in a long while, I felt hope.

A promise
by Elina Pikkarainen

I had bought an enormous bouquet of roses, as red as a cheap woman’s lipstick. The flowers were lying on the passenger’s seat, on top of a huge box of chocolates. Not a very expensive one, but what can you do, when it’s early on Sunday morning and only the gas stations are open.
My head was still pounding with the worst headache I had had in ages, but the guilt of the things I had done this morning – despite all the promises I had made to myself not to do anything like that ever again – was even worse to bear than the physical pain. I kept looking out of the car window, even when, honestly speaking, I should have not been driving in my condition in the first place. But I just couldn’t get any peace before we had made things clear between us.
I drove through the big and pompous gates and parked my car on the driveway. It had started to snow again; I could hardly see the footprints I had left in the snow only a few hours earlier. It somehow boosted my self-confidence – like all my doings could be wiped away just as easily, with the newborn snow to conceal it all – so I did not bother to even knock on the door, which would probably have been a more polite thing to do, considering the stormy atmosphere that I had left there.
I opened the door with my own key. The hall was completely silent, but as usual, I could hear her moving in the kitchen. Her dog was nowhere to be seen, which was new; usually it was waiting for me in the hall, waving its tiny little tail in excitement, then pushing its little head closer to get a proper hug.
The muffed sounds in the kitchen stopped when I cleared my throat. Only a second later the girl was there, leaning on the kitchen door, watching me with a look that was impossible for me to decode. She said nothing; she just crossed her arms, with her face still completely lacking any kind of emotion.
Before I could think of anything to say, I heard the tiny footsteps behind her. The dog came from the kitchen, but when it saw me, it backed again behind the girl. At first, I felt irritated – wasn’t that the reason why the argument had started in the first place, when I had showed my disapproval of her disgusting habit of letting the dirty and hairy creature into the room where the food was being cooked! Before saying anything, I had to swallow the wave of anger that had risen inside of me again.
But then again, why had I come in the first place if not to apologize for my earlier doings? I cleared my throat again and this time – at least I think so – the regret was there, not only visible on my expression but also in my voice.
“Sorry.” That was all I could say. She did not change her position, but I could sense that her face had softened its expression a bit.
“That will never happen again.” That was the only thing that could heal it all. “I never meant to hurt,” I said, still looking at her deep brown eyes with a gaze that I hoped was convincing enough. She just shrugged a bit, this time seemingly less hesitant to forgive me than before.
That encouraged me to get closer to her. I tried to explain, with my English tangling in my throat, how I had just gotten jealous out of nowhere, when I had seen her and my cousin, a known lady's man, laughing at the breakfast table, then getting completely silent when I came. Just an angry burst of jealousy and a stupid act that I had committed, a silly thought that sometimes happens to occur out of the anxiety of losing my loved one to someone other. And the drinks, the first ones in years, had not helped with that. I cursed Joel silently into the deepest pit of hell for offering me those – he should have known better.
“That will never happen again,” I finished my explanation with repeating my previous words, but even the dog still looked a bit mad at me. The girl had washed it clean from blood and bandaged the wounds on its tiny paw.
I got down on my knees to pet the dog. “Sorry, pal,” I said to the puppy, talking to it like it was a child. “Never meant to kick you like that in my anger. Mommy and Daddy just had a little disagreement, and you happened to be on the way. Friends again, huh?”
The dog licked my palm, accepting my offer of a white flag, but when I got up, the girl still looked a bit hesitant.
“That was the first time something like that has ever happened. I have never lost my temper violently like that before.” The lie suddenly slipped past my lips. I felt guilty for saying something like that for only a second, because this time she finally seemed to believe me. She nodded, looking somehow relieved.
“Thank you,” she finally answered to my words after a long pause of silence. “I was worrying…” she took a few seconds to find the right words to say. “I feared for, well… You know, how they say things like ‘the men always get violent when they are drunk’. I’ve been listening to too many of my mother’s warnings about marriages gone wrong.” She laughed and a tiny smile appeared on her face. She looked young and beautiful again; the worries had weighed down her eyebrows in a way that made her look years and years older. She was so young, I suddenly remembered again. My new and innocent little wife.
Only a tiny bit of the guilty feeling was left inside of me. What about my past? Those times had passed, wasn’t it my duty as a husband to make her feel safe all the time? Why should I worry her about something that happened so many years ago, back then, when I was still a different man than I was right now? After all, I was not going to touch any alcoholic beverage ever again, and this time my decision would last. And anyway, it was not the right time nor the place for that conversation, so it was easy for me to laugh with her.
“No, my sweet darling.” Now I dared to kiss her smooth cheek, and then I laid my big palm on her tiny stomach. It was still flat; if I hadn’t known, I would never have guessed that she was already expecting, after only a month of marriage.
“I will never hurt any of you ever again. I promise.”

Intelligence, Kindness – All Bought or Sold
by Aija Niittymäki

She goes out to buy some Intelligence.

The fair is the same as always: salespeople in their stalls, howling out things such as “Kindness here! Need a little bit o’ Kindness, folks? Buy now for five shillings!” and the buyers flock to their respective qualities like ants around their prey.

It’s the busiest time for the fair: it’s almost the season of Departure for many young adventurers, and they often go for last-minute shopping for that extra bit of Intelligence and Wit, not to mention Survival and Strength.

She doesn’t have to glance at her Statistics to know she’s still far from being able to leave. Her Intelligence stats are alright; she actually needs just one more upgrade and she’ll be able to enter the Fourth Level in the city library. Her Intelligence is at 14.56, if only because she really wants to reach that 15 for the access to the books of real knowledge rather than the watered down propaganda the books at the Third Level consist of.

She finds the Intelligence stall quickly, smiles at the familiar salesperson while digging up the wallet from the pouch she has with her all the time. You never know when you’ll find something worth picking up, after all.

“You’re really going for it, huh,” Ardi hums as he measures enough Intelligence for her to make it to 15. He’s been doing this since spring five years ago, from the time she first sneaked out to buy Intelligence and Dexterity. “I’m still stuck at my 10.5, and you’re already way ahead.”

“It’s because you’ve got no ambition, R,” she jokes, winking at him as she slides bills onto the desk. He rolls his eyes as he measures the 5.46 of Intelligence that she needs.

“I guess I’m a homelier soul than you,” he says as he finishes pouring powder into a small box. The powder is dull gray in color, and tastes like shit, but beggars can’t be choosers. She has little hope the taste would have turned better along the way. So far, it hasn’t. “There you go, missy — a few grams of Intelligence just for you.”

“Thanks,” she grins as she puts the box into her pouch with the wallet. When Ardi’s starting to push some of the money back, she shakes her head. “Keep the change, okay? ”

“If your Stats had Kindness on it, you’d have maxed it out by now,” Ardi laughs shortly, looking sheepish as he puts the money into the metal case for profits. “Take care, Ri-Ri.”

She waves a hand before stepping out of the way of other customers, a victorious grin dancing in her eyes and on her lips. Her card feels warm inside the zipped pocket of her sweatpants. She can’t wait to reach the 15 point mark.

But first, she has to check out if there’s something else she can get with her limited allowance. There’s no Dexterity — of course not, it’s a rare resource — but there are several stalls for stats like Speed, Strength and even Kindness. It’s not one of the stats she can boost, but as Ardi said, it’s something she’s had within her for a long time.

Her stats include: Intelligence, soon to be at 15.00; Dexterity, at 7.65; Self-Management at 5.77; Accuracy at 4.53; Loyalty at 3.65; Passion at 2.56. Out of those, Passion and Loyalty are hardest to find — they have been at the fairs only once in her time and even then the amount had been ridiculously small.

She can’t find any Passion or Loyalty this time either, which is annoying because there are other rare resources, such as Creativity and Music. Tough luck this time too, she thinks as she fiddles with her pocketed card and starts to head off towards home.

At least she’ll be able to get to the Level Four with her Intelligence. That’s something she’s been craving to do for ages, ever since she started to fill up her stats with her mom’s gentle yet firm supervision. Don’t do it too fast, sweetheart, mother had said. People have lost their minds grinding up their stats. Their heads and hearts could not handle the changes.

As much as she appreciates her mother’s wisdom, she’s not patient enough to not feel like she’s been held back for too long. 

Untitled story
by Inkeri Hyvönen

We are gathered here today to lay to rest Mr. Peter Milligan, beloved husband and father for all eternity…

The service had been lovely. Very tasteful, none of that flailing and ugly weeping at the coffin. Mrs. Milligan had taken the news exceedingly well, though there was an element of practice to her grieving. Then again, Edith was herself already twice emerged, the second time after a tragic incident involving a pickup truck and slippery roads, so nobody could really blame her for being a bit used to it all. to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to steam.

The pastor finished the sermon and fell into an expectant silence. The congregation followed his lead and, when the moments ticked by and nothing happened, began to fidget. Someone coughed. Mrs. Milligan surreptitiously checked her watch.

Finally a distant whistle sounded from the other side of the valley and there were relieved smiles all around. Obviously, they seemed to say. What were we thinking? While the others began gathering their belongings and moving towards the railway station, Edith pulled the pastor aside to thank him for the beautiful service. Getting around wasn't easy for someone at his age but Peter would, she knew, have appreciated the familiar face. Speaking of which, they both looked up as the whistle approached, it was well past time for them to join the others at the station.

Billows of steam rolled over the tracks as a heavy steam train pulled up to the station. The crowd milled about, trying to find their places on the small platform. A few of the younger people fiddled with the funeral wreaths they'd forgotten to leave behind, a tad embarrassed for their faux pas.

A plink of metal as the engine began to cool down. The carriage door opened and they saw a figure within conversing quietly with someone just off to the side. Thank you. No, it's no trouble, these things happen. Then he turned and carefully climbed down the steps. From between the clouds of steam emerged a young man, barely past his twenties.

“Sorry, love, traffic was hell,” Peter Milligan said and stepped down to embrace his wife.

“Well, you had us all a bit worried,” she replied. They remained locked in an embrace for a moment until Peter looked past her shoulder. A look of recognition slowly spread over his face as he saw the pastor.

“Ah, Reverend! Good to see you again.” He moved to take the pastor's hand in both of his with an enthusiastic shake. “Hope everything went well with the, uh...”

“Oh, yes. I'd say everything went as planned. You would've been pleased, I think.” He motioned back towards the village church. “The gravesite is ready, if you want to go and...”

“Yes! Edith, should we...?”

“Yes, of course.” She let a hand rest on Peter's arm while she turned to address the onlookers. “And thank you all for your attendance, it was most thoughtful. We'd be happy to see you at the house tomorrow for the wake.”

The train sounded a parting whistle and began gearing up for departure. The crowd dispersed one by one until the couple were the only ones left. Peter raised his eyebrows at Edith. “Well?” He spread his hands. “How do I look?”

“Even better than the last time.”

“Flatterer,” he said. “Well, let's go.”

Arm in arm they strolled down the path leading back to the graveyard. Peter's easygoing look gained a bit of a frown when he caught sight of the twin arcs of black stone.

“Huh. What happened to the granite headstone?” he asked.

“We decided to switch to a matching set in the end,” Edith said. “Has more of a... finished air, I think.”

They stood in silence for a moment. Peter knew he'd have to say something eventually, but this bit never got much easier. So when Edith pulled away from him and handed him a white lily, he took the flower and a deep breath and stepped up to the grave.

“Well, old man,” he began. He stopped and ran a finger over the engraved words, some cuts fresher than the others.

Peter Sean Milligan
1923 – 1944
1944 – 2008
2008 –

“Thanks. I mean, really, thank you. Hope you had a good life.” He turned to look at Edith over his shoulder. “Did I?”

She tilted her head slightly, then smiled. “I'd say so.” She reached out a hand to him. “Come on, let's go find out who you are this time.”

A portrait of insanity
 by Henna Larsson

They took away my pride, they took away my joy. They took my clothes, my jewels and my curls. But they cannot take my words.
There is no such thing as justice in the world. This I learned as soon as I arrived here. Your body is not yours, you’ll eat and sleep and shit when they tell you. And you’ll lie down silent and obedient if they want you to. But mine is a pointless point of view. A half-witted view.
Release your wife to our care. Protect your family from her wickedness. Don’t taint them with her sin.
In the gaslight I hear a carriage pass below my window. I lie bleeding and beaten in my filthy bed. A soft yellow light shimmers through the bars in the window, trailing the dirty wallpaper in my cell.
Somewhere a woman is wailing as footsteps go down the hall. God don’t let it be me tonight.  I bite my lip so hard it bleeds. The steps pause by my door and I shut my eyes. Surely this is Hell for I am not alive. Or Hell has frozen over and all the devils walk amongst us.
The steps continue past my door and I hear the heavy cell door next to mine creak. The inmate screams and cries. I bury my nails in the sheets. Tomorrow it could be me. Would it even matter?
The madness I have achieved wasn’t granted to me at birth. They tell me it’s my feminine nature. They tell me it’s my small feeble brain, unable to process the simplest idea. I am manic, demented.
I was once down in the cellar. Very few return. The ones that don’t end up under the scalpel of our educated keepers. After, the carriage comes and off to the pits you go.
Beware if they take you. The cellar reeks. Horrible grinding of metal fills the halls. They’ll tie you to the table. The Doctor must be obeyed. Oh yes, or else it is no anesthesia for you.
Pull up your skirt. Best that you, in your unfortunate condition, do not procreate.
It hurts.
The gaslight flickers. Footsteps pass by my door again. The whole ward is silent except for my neighbor’s quiet whimpering. I am lying still.

God willing, maybe one day I’ll be the one rotting in the dark.

The Message
by Nea Lehtinen

It’s an umbrella. What am I going to do with an umbrella? I’m not going to Scotland, for heaven’s sake. I’m going to Spain. I’ve heard it’s warm and dry this time of the year. Shorts weather, not umbrella weather.
“Why is there an umbrella next to my suitcase?” I ask.
“Some guy came over and told me it was yours, and he thought you’d want it back in case of a rainy day. I thought I’d leave it somewhere you’d find it even if I forgot to tell you. Never took you for the kind to like leopard skin print, though.”
I hear the question in Stella’s voice, but she doesn’t ask outright. It means I don’t have to give her an answer, either. And now I know what the umbrella is. She doesn’t, and she definitely shouldn’t. If I was a bit confused with it, what would she think when I’m taking the unknown umbrella with me on my trip?
It’s not just an umbrella. It’s an invitation and an order rolled into one. Come to me, it whispers. It’s something for just me to understand, with the words Stella delivered me. A guy told her it was mine. An umbrella with a hideous leopard skin print. Oh James, I could kill you for this joke.
“Yeah, leopard skin print is not my thing, but there were no options.”
Stella looks at me from the bedroom doorway. She looks like she’s waiting for an explanation, but she is not getting one. I only answer questions she utters aloud. With silent questions I play dumb. Sometimes I wonder if she knows I’m evading her.
I can’t put the umbrella in my suitcase while she stands there. She mustn’t find out that my destination has changed. I’m not going to Spain, not anymore. Damn it, James. Why would you do this to me, after all this time? I had found peace here, with Stella, with my work.
“Love, why don’t you go make us some tea.” I smile and wonder if she sees right through it. If she sees how my nightmares just returned to me, if she sees that it might take me longer than four days to come back. I wonder if she realizes that I might not return at all. I can never tell how much she knows, how well she can read me. It unnerves me, but it also means that she does not ask questions. This is the easier way. She nods and leaves, and I can’t read her thoughts.

James, brother from another mother, how I hate to love you. After all these years you send me one obscure message and I come to you, running like a dog to its master.

Polar Opposites
by Markus Silvennoinen

For a brief moment the birds are singing and the air is filled with hope and excitement. It is the time when you have forgotten about the meaning of the word duty, and the only thing to worry about is the weather forecast.

You thought you'd never see it again but there it is - the overwhelming beauty is all around. The glimmering waters are inviting you to their embracing blue arms. The rays of sun are turning your skin to
a less whiter shade of pale and warmth is not only felt in the surface but it radiates through your whole existence. As you watch the joyful children playing in the sand you can feel like one yourself.

In such a beautiful world it is hard to believe that anything bad could ever happen. You know that this kind of bliss can't last forever but deep down you hope that this time it just might.


The sounds of laughter have quietened down long ago as the silence has taken over. If you listen carefully you can hear a faint sound of weeping in the north wind.

Now the only birds you can see are the ones who couldn't make it out. Lying forever still on the grey, cold asphalt they are the emblem of lost hope. No light, no warmth, no life.

Death reigns here. His subjects walk the streets all clothed in black and grey. The emotionless faces are held down as if the people wouldn't have the courage to look up and see the world in all its horror.

The billboards' neon lights are the only source of illumination. Maybe if you just
try to pursue some more property you could be able to save yourself from the darkness that is eating you up from inside.

In dark corners, tales are told about a paradise lost but only the youngest of children are naive enough to believe they are true. Don't give up, one day we shall see the beauty once again. Oh, how I wish it wasn't just a story we keep on telling so that the youngsters wouldn't lose their hope all too early.

The Sin Inside Her
 by Anneli Kuokkanen

Part 2, Beth

Beth Bodley?”
Beth felt her mouth run dry when she heard her name. She raised her eyes from the magazine that she had been pretending to read – she actually really had tried, the article of a program for abused women seemed quite interesting, but her mind was wandering elsewhere, and it was impossible to focus on anything other than what she was about to do.
Yes.”She put a smile on her face, and got up while nervously straightening her skirt. She forced herself to meet her psychologist's eyes.

Oh God, this was just perfect. Perfect. The psychologist was this really cute, tall, skinny girl with big, chocolate brown eyes and amazingly thick brown hair, which was now pulled up in a ponytail. Beth knew she was cute herself: she had platinum blonde hair and pretty blue eyes, long eyelashes and delicate body type. But she could also see that, unlike her, this psychologist of hers was a beauty. Grudgingly, Beth noticed that she even had bigger boobs. Oh bloody hell, what did that matter, seriously?

Annabelle Rajala,” the psychologist introduced herself and shook her hand. Well, first of all, what was wrong with her name? It sounded like gibberish. Maybe she had just made it up? Maybe it was some safety thing so her crazy customers couldn't find her when she wasn't at work. Actually, that sounded quite smart. Beth followed Annabelle back to her office, which looked very pleasant, and sat down in a comfortable armchair when Annabelle offered her a seat.

Now Annabelle was sitting in front of her, with this little notebook in her hand. She told Beth that their session would last 50 minutes, and after that they could see if Beth wanted to continue the meetings. She asked if it was okay with Beth if she wrote some things down – just to refresh her memory later on. Beth nodded. Annabelle looked kind and  empathetic. Her smile was so reassuring it felt like she knew how nervous Beth was. Beth felt a frog in her throat. This had been a bad idea. She shouldn't have come. But now she was already sitting here and she really didn't have a choice but to sit tight for the next... Beth glanced at the clock on the wall: 49 minutes. She could do this.

So, would you tell me what made you come here?”
Annabelle looked truly interested. It seemed as if her every movement announced: I'm listening. She smiled encouragingly and leaned a bit forward, looking at Beth and waiting for her to gather her thoughts. And she was trying. What could she make up this quickly? Why hadn't she thought about this a bit earlier?
I had a miscarriage.” She blurted out the truth before she had a chance to think it through. Well, this was going great. Talking about her real problems to Annabelle was pretty much the last thing she wanted to do. But somehow saying that aloud still felt good.
That must have been tough.”
Yeah, it was. I really wanted that baby. I had already been buying these cute little baby clothes. I know it was stupid. I mean, I was just a bit over a month pregnant. Miscarriages at that stage happen all the time, you just take fright or get upset and it might be all over. It was way too early to start preparing for the baby. But I was so excited, we would have been such a cute little family. I mean, we hadn't exactly planned it, and I know my parents hadn't been too thrilled 'cause I'm so young and yadda yadda, but I was really happy. I loved the idea of becoming a mum.”
It sounds like you really did. What did your spouse think about becoming a father?”
Hmm, I guess my boyfriend wasn't that happy about it... He was okay though, said he'd support me if I wanted to keep it. But I think he was hoping I'd get rid of it. I wasn't going to, but... ,”Beth made a little sad sneer.
So you two wanted a bit different things?”
Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I know he wants a family at some point, just a lot later. Maybe I'm a little impatient. But... Hmm. It really doesn't matter now.”
Could you tell me what makes you think that?”
Well, we broke up. After the baby thing. Or actually during it. But yeah, anyway.”
So you lost two important people at the same time? Your boyfriend and your baby?”
Beth nodded. She felt how the tears were pushing their way to her eyes. She wasn't going to fucking cry. Annabelle was just looking at her with that empathetic look on her face. She pushed the tissues on the table closer to Beth, like saying: crying is allowed.
You said earlier that a miscarriage only takes getting upset over something. Would you like to tell me about that?”
Now Beth was shaking her head. She couldn't. She wouldn't. Not here. Not to her.
I can't.”She could hardly whisper.
Annabelle nodded.
That's absolutely fine. We can come back to that some other time, if you're up for it. So for know, I would like to learn a bit more about your life.”

Forty minutes later Beth heard the same BOOM she had heard an hour earlier. The heavy clinic door had just closed behind her. For some unknown reason she had agreed to meet Annabelle again. She had to admit, she felt kind of relieved after she had finally been able to talk to someone. It was ridiculous and she knew it. But Annabelle had felt so warm and caring, not at all like she had imagined. Maybe this could be a good thing.

by Sofia Tiira

Each morning we queue for hours while a voice, liquid and chilled, leaks from the speakers high on the lampposts. The cold air creeps to the very bones of each of us and the hardness of the grey embraces us like iron. My legs, pillars of salt and dust and ice, force me to move on in the rhythm of the endless silence.

Through the doors and it hits us. The air, like mud, heavy and dirty to carry in our lungs. It’s always dim here, like a morning in mid-December when the Sun hides its face from the kiss of winter. On and on and on. To the very back, crawling deep like vermin in their holes.

My body aches out its resistance when I pick up my hard and heavy weapon to fight for another day of survival in here. Arms crying out for mercy, back starving for rest, we get on and do what has been cast as our duty.

Every day starts like this. Silent. Agonized.

But when the speakers call the hounds home, it ends. First come the whispers, uncertain and fumbling through the dirty darkness, clutching through the filth for response. Then they grow, feeding on the hoarseness of voices and itching throats, they are reborn into songs. And oh, how the echo embraces them, catching and releasing every note, grasping them and setting them free.

Their songs are not of this place. They are faint memories of the touch of wind on a damp skin or the soft lullaby of the ocean. They are no more real than dreams and even more frail and fading.

I don’t know many songs and can only rarely find the tireless hope in me that it takes to release the beauty of singing into a place like this. So I feed myself on the voices of the others, keep alive the melody in my mind. There it grows like a bird, a sign of life flapping its wings in the most absolute of darknesses. I cherish it and nurture it with what little power my mind has left.

When they wheel around nourishment, the usual kind that tastes like resentment and cinder, and our bodies finally crash down leaving us to scatter in the dirt, I see him looking at me. The scar that wraps itself around his neck is like a fiery snake. He is ashes and dust and ruin but I know he still burns, and he can see the toxin that pumps through my veins and makes me ache within.

I hold his gaze for a blink of an eternity but then turn my eyes away from the blaze. It’s dangerous to talk of venoms and infernos here, the way his glare does. So I rest my tired weight against the muck of the ground and stare up into the nothingness that imprisons us all here.

Quiet now little scorpion. We mustn’t stir up another storm.

The Rook and the Pawn 
by Meri Rajamäki

12 March 1998. New York City, USA.

Neon signs and city lights ward away the night. Huge billboards stand like doomsday messages, signifying the end of an era. The old man looks around and takes another drag from his cigarette.
I wrap my coat tighter around myself, shivering as we continue down the streets.

“Pretty cold out here,” I offer.


The conversation dies there. I pull my gloves out of my pocket as we walk in utter silence. After a while, the old man stops in his tracks and turns to look at me as if he’s suddenly remembered something.

“Cold, you say?” he utters. “Want to go to my place? We can have a little game there if you like, for old time’s sake.”

I smile wanly. The man in front of me is none other than Ryan M. Shirley, a four-time world chess master, a genius, and someone I have the vanity to call a mentor of sorts. There’s no way I could ever defeat him in a game of chess, not even when he’s old and withered and when his words can’t always quite keep up with his thoughts.

I nod, and we continue a couple of blocks further to his downtown apartment.

The old man fixes me a cup of coffee when we arrive. I protest that I could brew it myself, but he insists. I smile as he hands me the cup. He knows I’m a night-owl, just like he used to be.

The chessboard sits on the living room table. A classic chess scenario is laid out on the board. One glance at it tells me the required moves to achieve checkmate, but that’s only because I’ve seen this particular scenario so many times in textbooks and real life recreations alike.

The old man gestures for me to choose my seat. I choose the couch, which means I get to play the white pieces. He sits on the armchair nearest to where he was already standing, opposite to me. It’s like he already knew I was going to choose white.

It’s always like this with the old man. His memory and his intuition are still sharper than I could ever hope mine to be. Even as I move the pawn to E4, my hands slightly tremble and I can feel that the match is over before it has even truly begun.

The old man takes an increasingly long time to play his moves. I don’t know if it’s the age playing tricks on him, or if it’s just another way for him to gain a psychological edge. Either way, somehow it ends up putting even more pressure on me.

The old man doesn’t even glance at me. He keeps his eyes intently focused on the board the whole time. When he plays chess, it’s like nothing else in the world even exists for him. The way he plays is truly mesmerizing, and I feel humbled in comparison.

After the old man moves his rook, he finally lifts his eyes to me. “Checkmate.”

The rook and the pawn. He’s trapped me with these same pieces countless times before. It’s a finishing move that I can never seem to escape, and yet he tells me I show great promise. For my part, I’m not sure I truly have any skill at all. 

The old man releases a deep sigh and retrieves a bottle from the fridge. He pours himself one glass, then holds up the bottle at me, questioningly. I shake my head no. He chugs his glass down in one go. He turns to me and gestures at the board.

“Don’t let it get you down, boy. I’m nothing special.” He stares off into the distance for a while, thinking. "You know, chess is nothing special. These days, computers can play as well as anyone. There’s no longer anything to do for men like me.”

Men like him? Professional chess players? Or men who inspire other people? Men who dedicate their whole lives to something they love? There is always, always a need for men like that. I want to say all of this to him, but I don’t.

We sit in silence for a while. I look at my wristwatch, noticing it’s getting pretty late even by my standards. I get up from my seat, taking a look at the old man as he stares at the paintings on the walls, twirling an empty glass in his hands, looking even older than usual.

“Well, I’m going,” I say. “It was good to see you again, Mister Shirley.”

He doesn’t answer. I stand around for a while, my hat in my hand, waiting for him to say something.

“I’m thinking of flying off to Europe,” he finally says, as if talking to himself.

“That’s a fine idea,” I reply. I don’t think for a second he’s actually going to leave America.

I bid my mentor farewell and step out the door. Chess is the furthest thing from my mind as I walk back home along the restless streets.

Of course, he didn’t have any obligations whatsoever towards me. He was never my old man. Still, it hurt to read of his passing from a newspaper. Chess grandmaster Ryan Shirley, passed away in London at the age of 84. Just a small column on the inner pages of New York Post.

It’s funny. The old man always told me to do something sensible with my life instead of playing chess all the time. Even so, I always believed it was my calling to become a pro chess player - follow in his footsteps or something like that. And yet, here I am. I haven’t even touched a single chess piece since that last game of ours.

I get up from behind my desk and reach up ontothe top of my wardrobe to lift out the old chessboard I have been storing there. I go to the stairs to call up my stepsister Jacqueline, 11 years of age and with a sharp mind. I think she’ll be up for an old-fashioned game of mental challenge. 

“Come on up, Jax!” I call out. “I have something interesting to show you.” 

I decide to tell her everything I know about chess, from start to finish, secure in the knowledge that some day her talents will certainly surpass mine. And – if only as a homage - I’ll be sure to teach her the old man’s finishing gambit with the rook and the pawn.


by Iko Jurkka

Once there was Oida, a poet to his village. Oida was young and handsome, greatly liked and loved among his friends. He could always make them laugh and, in both happiness and accident, joy and misery, move their souls. He had a wild and free nature, somewhat unorthodox and tactless at times. He had a phenomenal memory and could recite famous quotes quite liberally, to his friends' astonishment and irritation at times. But he was loved nonetheless. However, Oida himself, though he appreciated his friends greatly, was not in love. Although he had often caught the attention of some beautiful woman, Oida had not tried to seduce them, even though he could have done so. Oida was well liked and loved, but he was alone.
Then Oida met Cassandra and fell in love with her. He loved Cassandra more than anything else in the world and Cassandra loved him too. Cassandra was beautiful, more beautiful than any other woman in Oida’s eyes. She was wise as well, wise as Athena herself, and she pleased Oida greatly. But Cassandra was also sad, so sad, that even with all his talent and craft Oida could not make her happy when the mood overtook her, not even with his most beautiful poems. Cassandra was thankful for the consolation and loved Oida. But she remained sad nonetheless and when Cassandra was sad, Oida was sad as well.
Oida could not bear to see his beloved in such sadness and felt dissatisfied with himself. That night, he journeyed to Delphi to pray at the temple of Apollo, for Apollo is the patron to the poets. And in his prayer, Oida spoke thus: “Sacred Apollo, the patron of all poets. I am Oida, the poet. I know you and thank you for all the gifts you have bestowed upon me. But I love, more than anything else, my Cassandra, who is so sad, and ask of you the following. Give me the most beautiful language, which a poet might possess, filled with words, with which I can console her melancholic heart. Give me this and I will give you anything you would desire of me. Give me this, so that I might see her happy”.
And upon reciting his prayer, Apollo appeared out of thin air, shining and magnificent before him. Apollo, the son of Zeus and Leto, the brother of Artemis, the virgin huntress; the god of civilization, law and teaching, as also of music, poetry and prophecy; the mighty god, to whom the silver bow belongs; the exemplary god, who sings his paean with innocent, terrible joy when mortals wage war like insects; Apollo, the creator and the destroyer.
And as Oida beheld the god, he was stunned by his excellence. Never before had he seen something so astounding and powerful. Apollo stepped forward and Oida retreated slightly. But he allowed Apollo to approach him and the god placed his hands around Oida’s head and gently rubbed his face and hair with his fingers. Then the god smiled beautifully, as if moved by some great affection, and spoke to Oida: “Oida, the poet. I have heard your prayer and feel compassion toward your plight. And because I feel compassion, I shall give you the most beautiful language and the most beautiful words, so that you can console your beloved Cassandra. And so that I may give you a beautiful language, I shall give you a beautiful soul.”
Having proclaimed thus, Apollo changed. His smile evaporated, his expression grew severe in a manner unseen by any mortal man and his eyes were filled with sacred rage. And Apollo lifted Oida by his head high into the air. Apollo then begun to push his thumbs into Oida’s eyes, slowly, but inevitably. And Apollo kept on pushing, slowly, but inevitably, until Oida’s eyes burst and the god’s thumbs penetrated deep into his eye sockets. And how Oida screamed with pain, his screams filling the empty temple hall. He kicked and struggled, but the god was strong, as gods are. Blood gushed from Oida’s eye sockets, running down his body to his legs, from where it dripped down to the temple floor, forming a small puddle.
Then the god’s thumbs became like fire and smoke begun to rise from Oida’s eyes, his screams of pain intensifying. The flesh around his eyes was scorched and blood vessels were burned shut, stanching the bleeding. The foul stench of burned flesh saturated the clean temple air, as Apollo pulled his thumbs out of Oida’s eyes. Having released him, with Oida still screaming and twitching on the temple floor like a mad animal, Apollo declared thus:
“Yes, you are a poet. And now you have a beautiful soul and the most beautiful language and the most beautiful words to express that language. But all beauty is born from pain. This is the law of the gods ever since the time immemorial, when Uranus sprouted from the loins of his mother, Gaia the All-Mother, in that pain of birth from which all else has since grown. Everything that lives and breathes and struggles and hopes is a reflection of that first primeval pain and contradiction and everything that wishes to live and must still live will have to do so through the crucible of pain. Every moment is devoured by the one that follows it, every birth is made possible by the destruction of countless other beings and will signal the coming destruction of countless more. In this world creation and destruction, living and killing, joy and pain are all one. And the world is beautiful. This is what all gods know above all else. And for this reason, I have taken your eyes.”
Now Oida had a beautiful language and beautiful words, which he sang to Cassandra quietly. And how beautiful were those words. More beautiful than any painful nostalgia; more beautiful than any comforting lover; more beautiful than any finite life; more beautiful than the world itself. And Cassandra wept while listening to those words, not out of sorrow, but joy. And her face, no matter how sad she was, was always visited by a smile. And when Cassandra smiled, she was beautiful; beautiful as the world; more beautiful than those words which made her smile and thus made her beautiful. But Oida could not see her.

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