The best new short stories
from authors around the world

Over 200 professionally edited pieces of fiction

Phil Cummins

Phil Cummins is a Dublin-born writer currently living in County Kildare. A keen diarist, essayist and short story writer, themes of interest include family, sense of place, ‘otherness’, and the absurdities of modern life. His award winning short memoir has recently appeared in the Fish 2020 Anthology. His short stories have also been long-listed for the 2020 Segora Short Story Prize and short-listed for the 2020 Henshaw Press Short Story Prize. He is also a contributor to Books Ireland.
Phil Cummins

Phil Cummins

Phil Cummins is a Dublin-born writer currently living in County Kildare. A keen diarist, essayist and short story writer, themes of interest include family, sense of place, ‘otherness’, and the absurdities of modern life. His award winning short memoir has recently appeared in the Fish 2020 Anthology. His short stories have also been long-listed for the 2020 Segora Short Story Prize and short-listed for the 2020 Henshaw Press Short Story Prize. He is also a contributor to Books Ireland.
Cover photo Charlotte

Friday 17th

It was the smell that got people’s attention. Subtle at first but intensifying over time, it ruthlessly shouldered aside the usual odors of cooking, pets and marijuana. Complaining tenants called up the building superintendent, Mister Kowalski, only to hear a recorded message inform them that he’d had to return to Poland for a family bereavement. By Friday morning the smell had ripened into a putrid reek that seemed to emanate from beneath the door of 6F, Kowalski’s apartment. As the sixth-floor occupants looked on, two baby-faced officers forced their way in, reappearing moments later looking green around the gills.

One week earlier…

Friday 10th

Even before the doors closed, Myles Garvey had the Salvatore’s pizza box flipped open, the working world receding with each bite as the elevator trundled upwards. He passed much of the evening sprawled out on his couch in apartment 4D watching Netflix, washing down the remainder of his pizza with a six-pack until nature inevitably called. Hoisting himself up with a grunt, he trudged out to the bathroom. Thumbing through the magazine rack that also cleverly doubled as a toilet roll holder (one of Fiona’s many decorative touches), he flicked past old editions of Vogue and Cosmo (also his ex’s, although he secretly enjoyed reading them) until he found one of his Scientific Americans. Pants pooled around his ankles, he was soon engrossed in an article predicting the inevitability of intimacy with androids, occasionally muttering in agreement that this new technological innovation couldn’t happen soon enough. In addition to sexual frustration, his girlfriend’s departure had also seen him backslide towards the messier milieu of bachelordom, and just three months into their break-up he’d all but ceased putting the toilet seat down or even bothering to shut the bathroom door.

Five minutes later, a muted skittering noise from the hallway made him look up.

“Not again,” he whined, recalling an image of Fiona standing on a kitchen chair brandishing a saucepan and screaming about a rat under the sink.

“This is the laststraw, Myles!” she’d howled. “I’m sickof this!”

“C’mon, Fee. Don’t be so dramatic. It’s only a little mouse,” he’d chided, as his flashlight illuminated a tiny ball of fur quivering behind the laundry detergent. He’d still ended up calling in the Exterminex boys for the third time in under two years, his complaints to Kowalski about the vermin problem in the building essentially falling on deaf ears.

Filing the noise under ‘overactive imagination’, he returned to his magazine.

Until he heard it again moments later. It was closer now.

“What the hell…,” he muttered, head snapping up, the noise undeniable this time. It sounded like papery dry fingertips softly drumming against a table.

This time his thoughts turned to his neighbour in 4C. A self-styled Miss Havisham, Dolores was an elderly widow, who, on account of being morbidly obese, was slow to dispose of her trash, letting it build up and attract roaches, another pest problem that Kowalski seemed quite happy to turn a blind eye to. This necessitated periodic clear-outs and heartfelt promises to change her ways. As this last thought was going through his mind, the source of the noise went skittering past the open bathroom doorway; a dark brown tarantula roughly the size of a dinner plate.

To the casual observer it might have looked as if the toilet bowl had been equipped with a spring-loaded ejector seat, such was the velocity with which Myles shot forward, tripping over his pants in the process as he scrambled across the tiles on his knees to slam the bathroom door shut. Wedging his back firmly against the door, knees pulled up to his chest, he cowered there in a state of near shock for several minutes, shrinking into himself as if his insides were being pulled taut by an invisible drawstring. In time, however, calm returned and his breathing took on a steady in-and-out rhythm.

“Jesus, did that just happen?”

~

Myles opened the bathroom door and timidly poked his head out, peering along the hallway in the direction the thing had been moving. Moments later, his hand was nervously reaching around the bedroom doorframe in search of the light switch.

“You can do this, Myles,” he whispered.

Whipping his hand back as the room flooded with light, his eyes darted left and right scanning for any sudden movements. Armed with a broom and flashlight, he spent the next half hour poking the broom handle into every nook and cranny of the bedroom, regularly scanning the floor around his feet lest the beast make a run at him.

He returned to the living room thinking that perhaps it had doubled back, but a thorough search revealed nothing. Having assured himself that the couch was a spider-free zone, he sat down and tucked his stockinged feet under him. He briefly entertained the notion that perhaps he’d imagined the whole thing before dismissing the idea in favour of a more practical solution to his problem. In time, his protracted adrenaline shock ebbed and nervous exhaustion washed over him, his eyes soon fluttering beneath closed lids as eight-legged horrors pursued him down the long corridors of his mind. At one point, he was standing on a chair trembling uncontrollably as Fiona taunted him with a gruesome tarantula stepping between her two open palms: “But it’s only an itsy-bitsy spider, Myles,” she purred.

Saturday 11th

Myles was unprepared for the assault on his senses as he entered Petropolis the following morning. His nose wrinkled at the gamey fug of animal chow and pet poop, whilst the collective din of barking, squawking and chirping grated against his frayed nerves. He plodded wearily around the store until he found what he was looking for. The sign on the last tank read:

Charlotte’s Feeding Time – Sat 10:30am

Please DON’TTouch The Glass

A group of wide-eyed children looked on as a tattooed store assistant removed the lid. All eyes were focused on a white billow of webbing gumming up a corner of the tank like candy floss as a wriggling white mouse was lowered in on the end of a long forceps. Moments later, a hairy limb slowly extended from beneath the web like a demonic finger as the kids began whispering excitedly. Their whispers turned to squeals of delight as a horrific blue-green spider darted out from beneath the web to pounce. Myles gaped at the creature’s speed and savagery, reckoning it to be about the size of his hand. This sent a shudder up his spine as he recalled the considerably larger fresh hell running around his apartment. He continued watching in sickened fascination as Charlotte dragged the now limp mouse back under her web.

“A Greenbottle Blue,” said a nasally voice. “Vicious things. From Venezuela.”

Myles turned to face a short bright-eyed man of around 30 with a pleated ginger goatee to match the dusting of ginger fuzz on his scalp. A barbed wire tattoo wound up the side of his neck to curl around his right ear. His name tag identified him as ‘Eric’.

“Is that so?” said Myles.

“Yeah. Damn clever too. They can rear up on their hind legs to make themselves look bigger, stun predators in the eyes by shooting hairs at ‘em, even curl up and play dead.”

“Wow,” said Myles, returning his gaze to Charlotte’s tank.

“She’ll eat just about anything,” Eric continued admiringly, eager to demonstrate his knowledge. “Roaches, crickets, mealworms. Even lizards and mice. There’ll be nothing but a bag of fur left after she’s done suckin’ that little fella dry,” he chuckled. “You interested in buying one? I can give you a good deal.”

“Actually, I’m trying to catch one running around loose in my apartment,” said Myles. 

“Is it yours?”

“No,” he replied, “and before you ask, I have no idea how it got in there.”

“What size?” asked Eric.

“Big.”

“How big?”

“Big! Charlotte wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“All right!” Eric said admiringly, his eyes widening as his nicotine-stained fingers stroked his goatee. “Sounds tropical, a bird-eater maybe. They’re real popular as pets.”

“So how did it end up in myapartment?” asked Myles, bewildered at people’s notions of what constituted a pet.

“Sometimes owners leave the tank lid off by mistake and they escape. They can get around older apartment buildings through garbage chutes and air ducts. They prefer dark places. The owner’s supposed to put up a public warning sign when one goes missing.”

“How do I find it?” Myles asked.

“Have you tried turning off all the lights for a while and then turning ’em back on again?” said Eric. “She’s way more likely to come out in the dark.”

Myles shook his head, noting how his intruder had suddenly acquired a gender.

“Then again she might be an arboreal species,” Eric mused.

“A what?” Myles asked, eyebrows raised.

“A tree climber,” said Eric, making a crawly gesture up his left forearm.

Myles shivered. His entire search had been directed towards the floor.

“Of course, you could try the old baking flour trick,” said Eric.

“Flour?” said Myles. “You want me to bake it a cake?”

“Not for cooking. For sprinkling. You sprinkle flour across the open doorways in your apartment and wait. If she starts moving around at night, she’ll leave a trail of white footprints along the floor and you can find her that way.”

“But what if she doesn’t come out?” said Myles.

Eric grinned from ear-to-ear.

Sunday 12th

Myles emerged from his bedroom on Sunday morning, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep. Having searched every inch of 4D the night before, he’d strategically deployed powdery lines of flour across the open doorways of his apartment, as per Eric’s instructions. He’d also placed a newly purchased white feeder mouse into a large bowl located in the center of a floury circle on the living room floor.

Armed with a badminton racquet, he went to check for signs of nocturnal activity, his breath catching as he discovered a trail of tiny paw prints scurrying away from the empty bowl over the dark wooden floorboards like a fine wisp of smoke. They terminated five feet later, merging with a much larger set of prints that seemed to bolt from the nearby kitchenette to the underside of the couch.

“There you are,” he whispered, eyes narrowing as he dropped stealthily to his hands and knees. Crawling forward, he began probing beneath the couch with the racquet as his eyes adjusted to the murk. Without warning, she charged forward through a forest of dirty socks and dust bunnies, rearing up on her hind legs just inches from his face. Silhouetted against the beige-coloured couch, measuring at least a foot across, she resembled a badly riled demon.

“AAARRGGHH!!”

His head whipped backwards reflexively as if yanked by an invisible leash, causing him to stumble backwards onto his ass and drop the racquet. As he sat back up, rubbing at his stinging eyes, she advanced on him. He pushed her away with his heel and snatched up the racquet to swipe repeatedly at her, howling in revulsion as he struck the floor several times before finally delivering a backhand that sent her whizzing across the living room like some ghastly shuttlecock. She thumped against the wall with a sound like a bag of dry twigs and slid to the floor, instantly curling up.

Heart pounding in his ears, Myles stared at the tangle of twitching legs for nearly a minute, oblivious to the expletive-laden voice of his neighbour hammering against the other side of his living room wall. Rousing himself to action, he used a barbecue tongs to deposit the inert creature into a large padded Manilla envelope, quickly sealing it with the handy string and washer mechanism on the outside flap that allowed for regular opening and resealing. Using the same tongs, he deposited the rapidly stiffening mouse from beneath the couch into the garbage chute, dropping the tongs in after it. They clattered their way down to the basement, leaving their barbecue days far behind.

~

An hour later, the doorbell rang as Myles stepped from the shower. It continued to ring impatiently as he pulled on his dressing gown.

“I’m coming. Take it easy.”

Opening the door, he silently cursed himself for not putting the chain on first as Darlene Vadner barged past him, her stilettos snapping haughtily against the floorboards. In her early 60s, the resident of 6A tried hard to look three decades younger despite jowls that were slackening southwards and grey roots that peeped out through her vivid burgundy hair. A wraith-like woman with viscid makeup, Darlene had long spindly legs that looked like leopard skin-wrapped pipe cleaners, and she favored figure-hugging tops on a figure way too scrawny to be considered huggable. Her thin arms ended in bony hands with long fingers sporting two-inch false nails that changed colour as often as her mood. Something about her appearance always seemed to send shivers up his spine. Turning to face him, he saw she was holding a dog, who Myles instantly recognized as Alfred, the building superintendent’s Jack Russell.

“Would you like to guess who I just got off the phone with, MisterGarvey?” she snapped, her thin mouth curling downward into an inverted pink sickle.

Myles shrugged.

“Your very pissed off neighbor in 4E. He says, and I quote, he’s ‘sick and fucking tired of the racket in 4D all weekend’, unquote. Not good!”

Before he could respond, she took a deep pull on her vape, venting menthol-flavored steam from between lurid pink lips. This action produced a distinctive breathy hiss that had earned her an unflattering nickname amongst the other tenants, one uncannily similar to her own name. As she blew the minty plume into his face, he closed his eyes as a camp image of Darth Vader in drag jumped into his mind. A lifelong smoker who had survived a major coronary five years earlier, he’d once overheard Darlene preaching to another tenant about how the vape had helped her kick the 60-a-day habit that had nearly killed her and left her with a permanently weak heart. Myles preferred to believe she never had one to begin with.

“Jesus, look at the state of this place,” she said, staring around his apartment. As she said this, the dog began to bark. “What’s the matter, Alfie?” she crooned. “You need to go stretch your little legs? Down you go, boy. Just be careful you don’t pick up anything contagious in this dump.”

Alfred immediately set about nosing his way through the assorted pizza boxes scattered around the living room floor, sniffing out morsels of uneaten crust and pepperoni. Darlene also began snooping around, stepping over empty beer cans and the occasional smelly sock, taking in the teetering pile of unwashed dishes stacked up in the sink, routinely muttering ‘Not good!’ in between sucks on her vape.

“What the hell is this?” she asked, pointing at the suspicious looking trails of flour on the floor.

“I was just about to sweep…,” he began, but she’d already turned her back on him to enter the bedroom. “Hey, that’s private. You have no right to just barge in there.”

She re-emerged seconds later with a look of revulsion on her face.

“Sweet Christ! No wonder she walked out on you, Garvey. Jesus, some men are pigs. Not good!”

“It’s not thatbad. I’ve just been busy at work this week,” Myles said.

“Oh, spare me. Mister Kowalski is gonna hear all about this when he gets back. He especially asked me to keep a close eye on the building for him when he’s away. Tenants like you, we don’t need.”

Reaching down to pick up Alfred, she gave Myles one last disapproving look and turned to leave. “Let’s go back to Daddy’s apartment, Alfie,” she crooned again, nuzzling the dog’s nose with her own as she turned to leave. After she left, Myles stomped into the bedroom to get dressed.

“Nosey old bitch,” he fumed. “MisterKowalski. Who do you think you’re kidding? You think we don’t all know you polish his lightsabre for him.”

He spent the remainder of Sunday cleaning up. He couldn’t bear the notion that her words might have contained just the tiniest grain of truth. At some point, his gaze fell upon the manila envelope on the table and an idea began to form in his mind, one involving a welcome home present for the building superintendent.

Monday 13th

On Monday morning, Darlene Vadner used her spare key to enter 6F. “Morning, Alfie,” she chirped, closing the door behind her. “You ready for breakfast, boy?” Taking a pull on her vape, she playfully dangled a large Manilla envelope in front of the dog. “Hey! Look what I got. Daddy’s mail. Will we take a quick look?”

Half an hour earlier, dressed in freshly laundered surgical scrubs and backpack, Myles left for his job at the Medical Examiner’s Office. On the way out, he picked up the bulging manila envelope, being careful to hold it by the corner, and carried it down to the lobby of his apartment building. He opened the brass letterbox marked 6F/Kowalski and slid the envelope inside, glad to be rid of it. Walking out into the warm May morning, he told himself next weekend would be different.

Friday 17th(cont.)

A body bag strapped to a gurney emerged from 6F by lunchtime, bound for the city morgue. This was followed by a much smaller bag held outwards at arm’s length by the assistant medical examiner, the poor young man’s face a mixture of horrified anguish and guilt. The occupant of the larger bag was a stick-thin middle-aged woman missing two fingers from her right hand, most of her left ear, and a portion of flesh from her right calf, post-mortem wounds inflicted by the occupant of the smaller bag; a Jack Russell terrier. The poor dog had almost certainly expired from dehydration. The woman, a victim of chance (and as fate would have it, a weak heart), was found lying in a supine position, her mouth forming a shocked pinkish O against the dark green hue of her face. Clutched in her left hand was an open padded manila envelope, the contents of which remain undiscovered…

END

©Phil Cummins

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

You might also like

Mr Duck

The duck followed me home. Not a dog. Not a cat. A duck. I heard him before I saw him,

 
Read More

Bitch

After midnight again. Christian Blake locked the big glass door behind him and glanced up at the night sky. Stars

 
Read More
Readers

Love a good story?
Free short stories of all genres

Rate & review professionally edited quality writing

Browse by genre or author

Writers

Showcase your writing and increase your readership. Get your short stories out there!

Browse stories
Send us stories

Want to become an author?

If we like your story, we'll publish it.
Recent