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**PRINT: A LITTLE MONEY DOWN, by Doug Milam, is No. 27 in our broadsheet series and marks our 8th anniversary. Milam's a frequent contributor and wizard of experimentally styled prose that still burns bright around the campire -- this issue comes with a new design, an excerpt from Susannah Felts' first novel, and more.

DJINN DUMMY David Gianatasio

A.J. Kirby

Kirby is a fiction writer living in Leeds in the UK. He's been published in a number of anthologies, including Fried! Fast Food, Slow Deaths by Graveside Tales and Text Bones by Skrev Press. Kirby's recently completed his first novel, The Magpie Trap, and is actively seeking a publisher.

I can still hear myself, pregnant with self-importance, saying to you: "All these women do is toss a handful of meaningless platitudes into the wind and wait for them to land on the fertile ground of the hopelessly hopeful." God; how I must have sounded like a bitter, self-important old man.

Is this what getting old does to you? Does it suck your goodness out of you and replace it with the sour fruit of unjust defeat? Maybe I'm making excuses for myself, but it hit me hard, you know, when they let me go. I had to have something, someone in my life that I could beat. And so I used to look down on you for holding on to little shoots of hope like the mediums.

Columbia College Fiction Writing Department

I thought it was sick, Margaret, the way that they preyed on people who were grieving. And in a way, I felt like I was losing you, too. The mediums took you away from me, and into a world that I did not know; could not know. That's why you'd always find me hanging around just outside the doors. That's why I didn't "just go out, then" if I "hated it so much." I wanted to hear what nonsense was infecting your brain, just like when I peek over the top of my newspaper at your soap operas and cooking shows. And then, of course, I'd be able to make your life a misery by ridiculing whatever you held dear.

The medium was sitting at our kitchen table nursing a steaming cup of tea. She looked a little perplexed; had she foreseen my arrival? I fixed her with one of my best disbelieving looks and pulled out the chair opposite her. She was a small, sweet-looking old woman with curly hair that had been dyed bright red for effect. I say "old woman," but now I come to think of it, she was probably about our age, wasn't she? We're probably of the age now where you could, if you so chose, have your hair coloured red or blue, just like the kids who hang around outside the Corn Exchange.

"You're sceptical," she said. Not asking; telling. She was braver than she looked.

"I've had a few women like you in my house, and I want to know exactly what kind of lies you've been filling my wife's head with," I said, leaning forward across the table a little aggressively, I'm afraid.

"You're scared of what she might learn," said the woman, not flinching.

"Nonsense. Alright then, let's get on with it; where's your crystal ball?"

"It doesn't work like that," said the tiny woman in a voice I could have sworn bore traces of an Irish accent. "Give me your hand."

My hand remained resolutely clamped to the side of the kitchen table. I saw that my knuckles were turning white -- such was the force of my self-righteous indignation.

She reached across the table and gently stroked at the top of my hand and then a concerned look crossed her face.

"You've lost something precious," she said. "But you will find it again, somewhere you least expect."

And there it was; the sum total of her wisdom: utter meaningless platitude. After all, everyone's lost something, haven't they, even if it's just a pet dog or a credit card? I felt like laughing in her face. I'd been proven right.

"Is that all you've got for me?" I asked, grinning like a loon. But she kept on stroking my hand, ignoring my rudeness.

"The loss has struck deeply into your heart. Nothing can grow there now."

"You're not talking about my bloody job, are you?" I asked, incredulous.

Everyone has to retire. I started to pull my hand away, but then realised that I couldn't. It was as though it had been nailed to the kitchen table, or turned to stone. I felt a flicker of doubt pass through me; just a flicker, but it was enough.

"It isn't a job that you're looking for, is it?" asked the woman with a faint smile. She knew my predicament; she knew that she had me trapped. I avoided her penetrating eyes.

"No," I managed to whimper. "It's not the job... what the hell have you done to me?"

She didn't speak, but somehow, I heard her words reverberating through my head: find what you have lost. Before it's too late.

"Too late?" I stammered.

"Why do the vegetables in your allotment not grow?" she asked.

"How did you know about that?" I said. I was growing a bit faint.

"You plant the seeds but everything withers away and dies, doesn't it? You buy carrots and onions from the supermarket sometimes on your way home and give them to your wife. You don't tell her about the barren nature of your soul."

"Leave me alone," I cried.

"I told you; don't worry. You will find it again," she said, and this time the lilting Irish accent was unmistakeable. "You'll find it where you least expect it."

Gradually, and for no earthly reason I can think of, I began to feel mightily soothed. It's like she saw my loss frozen into the furrows on my brow; when she touched my hand, I felt electricity flowing through her. I don't really know how to put it, but it was as though I took some of this energy into myself, like in the allotments where the tomatoes come up much better if they've been near the peas. Or rather, it's like in my father's allotment, not my own strangled mess of weeds.

When she left, my hand was still resting palm down on the kitchen table. It was shaking with a mixture of fear and a leftover charge from the woman's touch. My long, slender fingers -- pianists' hands, you always used to say -- looked strangely alien to me. I didn't recognise those mottled liver spots, which have suddenly sprung up like spores of bacteria. I didn't recognise the mangled mess of the fingernails. Fingernails which, for some unaccountable reason, I've now taken to worrying-away at with my teeth after years of care and attention. Most of all, my ring-finger seems unreal. The skin there is still of a different hue to the rest of my hand. It is newer, pinker, where the ring used to be. I had to take the ring off, you know, because of the arthritis, and now I can't get it back on again.

I told you that I'd stored the ring safely in that little shoebox where I keep all of my photographs and manuscripts from the old days; the days when I still had hope; the days when I had other people to compete against apart from you, apart from myself. The truth is I don't know where the ring is. Maybe it's slipped through the bottom of the box and between the floorboards. Maybe it's in one of the pockets of my coat. I don't know. I swear I remember putting it on a different finger for a while, but my memory isn't what it used to be. Anyway, as I stared at my hand, I realised that this might have been what the medium was talking about. Maybe she'd spotted where my wedding band used to be, and guessed that I'd lost it. Maybe that would explain that secret power she'd held over me. Maybe that was her trick. Maybe she was simply a good observer.

Let me tell you about the allotments. I did not buy the small plot of land down by the river as I told you I had. The university bought it for me as a leaving present. Maybe they feared that I'd continue to hang around like a bad smell until they found me something else to do. I'd once told them that I was a keen gardener on some job application or other, and had had to keep up the pointless lie for over thirty years at the place. The keen gardener was actually my father. Now he had green fingers; no, maybe that's not right. Green fingers would imply that he had some of magic touch, which was as much about luck as it was anything else. What he really had was commitment; he was thoroughly prepared to put in the back-breaking hours on his knees in the mud for the meagre return of a few cabbages or garden peas. But how sweet did they taste? Honestly -- and I use the word advisedly -- they tasted like nectar. When I was a child, I cracked open the pods and ate the hard, tiny peas as though they were sweets.

I've never had to worry about any of the local layabouts stealing into my allotment and pilfering the fruits of my own labour. The soil seems to be too rocky here. No matter how many times I rake through it and fill my wheelbarrow with what looks like the remnants of some archaeological dig, I still turn up more stones, trinkets and bottles the next time I'm down there. It is unforgiving work; maybe the land has taken a dislike to me. Nothing can be bothered to grow there. Sometimes, in spring, I'll see the first shoots of the spring onions, or the flowering of the peas, and I'll think, maybe this year, but there's always something which causes them to wither and die. Sometimes it'll be an incredibly localised infestation of slugs, so I'll invest in bags and bags of the blue pellets. But it seems that they are special, nuclear-disaster-surviving slugs, and the poison has no visible effect on them. Sometimes, it'll be birds eating all of the foetal strawberries, and other times it'll be uncharacteristic torrential rain. That woman -- the medium -- had it right when she said that I sometimes call in at the supermarket and buy a few carrots or turnips and bring them home. I can't for the life of me understand why I feel the need to do this, but maybe it's got something to do with my whole problems with honesty. I don't want anyone, least of all you, thinking of me as a failure. If I could afford it, I'd have hired a gardener to take care of it for me. Can you imagine? What hobbies would I have then?

I hate the word hobby; it makes what I'm doing seem downright petty. What I'm doing is in fact a penance, or so it seems. I hate the allotment, too, with its old down-to-earth values and hard work. What was supposed to be a space for relaxation has turned into some kind of open-air prison. When we go on holiday, I have to pretend that I've got old Bert to look in there for me; otherwise you'd start to smell a rat, wouldn't you? It feels like I've got an imaginary friend that I have to keep on making up more and more ludicrous stories about.

And so, I closed our front door and stepped down the road to the allotments. It's a fair walk, you know, and it takes me the best part of an hour to get there these days. I puffed and panted my way across town, sometimes holding onto the walls to get my breath back. All the time, I was thinking, How much longer can I keep going with this lie?

It was cold out, despite it being spring, and I could see my breath in front of my face as I opened the gate with a long, creaking sigh of resignation. As soon as I entered the allotment, though, I could see that there was something different about the place. Underneath the knotted briar bush and by the clump of weeds in the corner -- the corner where I hardly ever venture -- was something green. I seemed to remember planting cabbages in that corner, a couple of years ago, but nothing ever showed, and it's become overgrown since then.

Moving as quickly as my old legs would carry me, I pressed forward into the allotment. There was a funny feeling in my stomach; I now know that the feeling wasn't my dinner repeating on me, but was in fact the first fluttering of hope. I knelt down in the soil and teased my fingers underneath the weeds, touching...a lettuce. It was a small, weak looking thing, but it was unmistakably a lettuce. And I'd grown it. Suddenly fearful that if I left it in the ground overnight, the slugs would get to it, I ripped it up out of the ground and stuck it into a plastic bag.

Walking home, I felt almost young. Excitement pumped through me and I swear that if anyone had seen me, they would have said that I had a spring in my step. You, of course, marched me straight back out of the kitchen and out of the back door when you saw that I'd tramped allotment mud across the hall carpet.

"How many times do I need to remind you to take your shoes off?" you said, not expecting a reply.

"Don't worry; I come bearing food," I grinned, tugging my old boot off and banging it against the wall to get rid of the mud which had clogged up the treads.

"A bit weedy-looking that lettuce, isn't it?" you said, with a look of contempt on your face. But nothing would shake me out of my good mood. I even offered to wash it for you.

"Not likely," you said. "Just put the kettle on, if you don't mind."

I clicked on the kettle and leaned against the kitchen cabinet wearing a wide grin. I watched your back as it hunched over the sink. I watched you tear off the outer leaves of the lettuce, washing away the covering grey dust with the cold tap, massaging it into domesticity. Without looking up, you ripped into the heart of the lettuce, still vigorously washing the leaves. You were always so fastidious.

And then you stopped.

"Uuuurrrggghhh, there's something hard in here -- it could be a snail shell or something."

You stopped washing the lettuce and indicated that I should take over. So, I rolled my sleeves up to my elbows and thrust my old hands into the sink. Who cares about the arthritis; I've grown this lettuce myself! My fingers touched that cold, hard thing that you'd found, hidden between the leaves. With a foolhardy smile, I pulled the thing out and saw it sparkle in the sunlight that streamed through the kitchen window. It was a ring. Quickly, I tried to shove the ring into my pocket before you could register that it was actually my lost wedding ring.

But you saw it, too, didn't you? I found it quite difficult to read the expression that crossed your face. There was a flash of anger there, certainly; some thinly-veiled bitterness at my carelessness. There was something else there too, something that I'd not seen in you for years. I regret to say I was too busy worrying about what lie I was going to have to plant next to really register the meaning of the expression; I knew that your questions would soon come thick and fast and that I had no idea how I was going to explain away the lost ring or why I'd not even told you it had been missing.

"I'm glad you've found what you were looking for," you said, quietly, not even looking at me.

And then I realised that you were crying; your shoulders were shaking. You were crying those awful, silent tears of somebody who's suffered greatly. You didn't expect comfort, weren't wailing your agony from the rooftops, you were simply crying. I wondered how many times you'd cried before and I hadn't noticed.

"I'm sorry," I breathed, the word feeling as unfamiliar in my mouth as the ring did in my hand.

You raised your eyes and looked at me. I took in the deep worry-lines in your forehead, the way your nostrils flare when you want to say something. I'd forgotten that, or never even looked recently. When you started to get those tell-tale creases by your mouth or crow's-feet by your eyes, I stopped looking. You became the unwanted reminder that time was chugging forward relentlessly, that dreams were futile. And I'm sorry that I made that connection; I'm sorry that I made you into an old woman.

"Why do we never talk anymore? Why do you never tell me things?" you said.

"I don't know," I said.

You smiled an old-woman smile and shook your head. And suddenly I knew, beyond all doubt what that look which had washed over you when you first saw the ring had been. It was hope, wasn't it? Maybe you hoped that there was something magical about the soil in the allotment this year, an added ingredient that would make everything grow just that little bit better.

I longed to kiss you then, to sweep you up and make you grow again. But how do people ever get past the briars and brambles of their lies? We start by sprinkling the small seeds of truth:

"I don't want to be old," I said. "I've been lying to myself for too long now. I just wanted you to know."