As I washed my dry, cracked hands in rapidly heating water, I suffered
stabbing pains and my skin expanded, gathering in folds around my
knuckles. I refused to moisturise, so my hands became parched—but no
matter, I felt a sadistic pleasure in the suffering. I let my skin
bleed, wiping blood over towels, across my jeans, against doors, and
then, because the stains enraged you, (and I’m afraid of you) I would
plunge my palms deep into my pockets.
Late at night, I prised open a beer with my fingernail and watched the
game. The alcohol played insidiously with my mind and propelled me to
make a decision. I packed my bags, noticing how the fabric of the
crumpled cotton shirts gently caressed my fingertips. There was nowhere
to go (and yet fury still urged me forward). I slammed the front door
behind me, wanting the noise to shudder through the flat, into your
bones. I faced the opposition of the night with its restless breeze and
tall sticky weeds flourishing after a storm. Mugshots of missing pets
peered at me from lamp posts, questioning me until I was full of doubt.
There was a time when I gently cupped your cheek and you would purr.
There was a time when I massaged the knots in your back and you sighed
with shameless ecstasy. But moments like that were short lived. Usually,
if I were to draw a finger along your arm, you’d grab me by my wrist,
complaining my hands were rough like bark.
Before the incessant need to wash, wash, wash—having to thrust and
knead my hands in water, causing crisp skin to ooze spots of blood that
swirled down the drain with coils of hair —I felt I could truly please
We would walk together through expensive neighbourhoods where trees shut
out the sun, and we immersed ourselves in aggressive dreams about better
In the kitchen, I was a master at manipulating shapes and smells, dicing
vegetables, battering fish, panfrying chicken thighs—feeding you
banquets with my hands. But as we festered indoors, my recipes got old,
I became tired of trying to impress and I was reluctant to risk my
fingers under the razor-sharp kitchen knife. It didn’t take long before
you’d stare at my creations, pick through the burnt remnants and then
sweep the food into the bin, uneaten.
As my skin split every time I balled my hands into fists, all I could
think of was taking my frustration out on you. Then I recalled the one
time I physically harmed you—slapped you across the cheek—and how
you never looked at me in the same way again.
I got in my car, placed my hands on the wheel and drove. Shadows loomed
large as I parked in a bleak, empty one-way street, so I flicked my
lights on full beam to keep me company. Foxes darted through front
yards—eyes glowing like marbles in the sun, unaware they were being
examined. I tried to sleep in my car that night but I just tossed and
turned and waited for you to text me. I had made a mistake. I prodded on
my phone with my thumbs and sent the message, “I’ve used your
moisturiser, I can change.” It was time to go home.
But how do you go back after you’ve raised your hand in violence, even
if it was only once? How can I seek forgiveness if I’m not sure I won’t
repeat my mistake again? Some stains won’t wash.
When I get home, I will run my hand through your hair (praying it won’t
get tangled and flecked with blood) and ask you what it is you really
want, and you’ll say, “You need to paint that wall” or “Maybe if you
looked me in the eyes for once, you’d know,” and even if I don’t love
you anymore, I still need to feel your softness against my skin.
Shooting and Killing
Orchestral strings reverberated through Gustave’s telephone and into his
furious mind. The music was stirring and reminded him of cinematic
breakups. He could imagine this music playing as his ex-wife wielded a
knife at him before packing her designer bags and disappearing into the
night. This was a year ago and Gustave still hadn’t met anyone new and
now he was making another one of his phone calls.
The music ceased, there was a tantalising silence then a woman with a
clipped professional tone came on the line, “British Army, public
relations, I’m Julie how can I help?”
Gustave took a deep breath and then unleashed a salvo of ferocious
remarks. He then dabbed a handkerchief across his perspiring forehead
and attempted to make his point in a more eloquent fashion.
“Do you think, Julie, it is appropriate, Julie, to promote murder on
your radio adverts, Julie?”
“I don’t know the exact ads you are referring to, sir, but I can assure
you that we would never promote killing.”
“Well, let me quote your advert word for word. Here we go, ‘Your
weekends are fine but they can never match firing armour piercing rounds
from a machine gun out of a wildcat helicopter.’ Now what do you have to
say? Is this really acceptable?”
“Sir, I have to say, there is no mention of death, there is just
“Well, who the hell are you shooting at?! What do you think will happen
when those bullets leave the gun? Don’t play dumb with me, Julie. Are
“War is a reality sir, and off the record, I don’t think there’s any
sense in denying it.”
After a silence he said, “You might be right, Julie, and it’s nothing
personal. To be honest, there are loads of adverts doing my head in
these days—constantly charging through my mind.”
“Sir, if that’s all…?”
“Tell me, Julie,” he said, jamming a finger in his ear and wiggling it
about, “what advert really gets you?”
“I like the one with the little rabbits who eat all the pizza.”
“No, no,” seethed Gustave. “See, this is exactly the type of trash I’m
talking about—meaningless, trivial, invasive. Pick another ad.”
“What … ?”
“I want you to choose the correct advert.”
“Sir, you’re getting unnecessarily upset and I think it’s best we end
“No wait, please, pick another advert and then I’ll tell you about one
that changed my life, can you do that? Can we make a deal?”
“Ok sir, but I really must free the line.”
“Of course, your time is precious, my time is precious, I know, I know.
“Well, if you want me to mention an ad that really annoyed me, I guess
it’s the burger ones that sponsor the football. I mean, when I think
about it, they make me really mad—all those impressionable kids who
idolise sports stars and yet they’re made to believe junk food can make
you fit and healthy.”
“I agree entirely, Julie, it’s outrageous. And yet these campaigns are
all-pervasive. I don’t think there’s any hope for our society. Let me
tell you about one that truly affected me.”
“Ok, but just so you know, this phone call is being recorded.”
“I understand,” Gustave said, holding in his diaphragm tight like a
snare drum. “I want the authorities to hear, anyway. I haven’t told this
to anyone outside of my family, Julie. Maybe I feel there is something
special about you or it’s just one of those nights but here goes: I was
in an advert once. An ad for purified spring water. I was just a child,
roughly seven or eight and my whole family acted in the TV spots that
were shown day and night. Clean, clear water—everything pure. Well of
course, the product was a con. The company was peddling tap water. The
ad campaign was quickly ditched and our family became a laughing stock.
I was bullied mercilessly at school. My parents, who were actors, were
almost blacklisted. That ad ruined my life and well, that’s it, I
“That’s terrible, sir. No one deserves that kind of treatment. I hope
you know we at the British Army would never act in such a callous
manner. I really feel we’re like a family here and I hope our discussion
has quelled any concerns you might have.”
Gustave relaxed his stomach and gave an aching sigh, “You’re all the
same aren’t you, Julie? You know someone famous once said, ‘If you’re in
advertising—kill yourself.’ That’s how I feel about you and your
criminal empire, Julie. Because you manipulate and exploit—you and
those like you are utterly reprehensible …”
Julie hung up but Gustave kept his ear to the phone as it blared its
dull, monotonous ringtone.
He thought about those closest to him and how they weren’t close to him
anymore—his friends who’d emigrated to all corners of the world, his
little girl living with his ex-wife whom he could only see occasionally
and how as the months passed, he’d felt like an imposter in her life.
And then there were his late parents who always tried to protect him
from the harsh realities of the world but couldn’t hide the damage
they’d suffered from the moment their careers had been ruined. And now
they were gone, too.
“Anyway, Julie, I’m Gustave. And I’m sorry,” he said, laying the phone
receiver on the side table (the dial tone still ringing) and talking to
the room as if he was connected to something greater, “I certainly
didn’t mean to imply you approve of mass murder. You’re not an animal, I
know that really. I guess I get lonely Julie and the world’s a dangerous
Tim Frank’s short stories have been published over sixty times in journals including Able Muse, Bourbon Penn, Intrinsick, Menacing Hedge, Literally Stories, Eunoia Review, Maudlin House and The Fiction Pool. Tim Frank is the associate fiction editor for Able Muse Literary Journal.