The Scent of Smoke by Michelle Lawson

A heavy breath of smoke and things smoked wafts through the open doorway. It’s the scent of silver plumes spiraling from heavy stone roofs, the deep odor of smoked meats and the tang of clothing dried around the fireplace. It’s also the only sign of life in this shuttered village shadowed by the damply wooded Pyrenean foothills. Like other valleys, it’s seen a steady population decline from the end of the 19th century, although descendants of the original emigrants sometimes return to their ancestral homes during the summer months.

But the voices I hear aren’t always French. There’s a scattering of English incomers settled in this wilder western side of the Ariège département of France, following their dream of a new life across the Channel. The western Ariège, however, is a long way from sunny gourmet France, being a place of stubbornly rooted wildness. People talk about leaving England for the French way of life and an old-fashioned sense of community, then end up leaving their families to live amid the ghostly silence of abandoned and decaying houses. Some feel disquiet when they realise they share the landscape with a growing international community of pierced and dreadlocked incomers. What the French call the neo-ruraux, or marginaux, these seekers of an alternative way of life sometimes squat in empty barns, using adjacent battered vans as cupboards and wardrobes.

Cultural Appropriation by Thomas J. Misuraca  

Though the modern generation is more sensitive to cultural appropriation and its negative implications, one minority still finds themselves a major victim to this theft of customs and styles. Vampires.

Since the days of Bram Stoker’s classic fabrication of the undead, vampires have been portrayed only as mortals saw them, not as they truly are. Though they were unflatteringly represented, vampires were happy not to have the spotlight cast of their culture. Until the Goths came along with their blatant misappropriations.

A Question of Blood by Donna L Greenwood

It transports oxygen and nutrients to cells which are suspended in a liquid matrix. This is called plasma. It is leaking down my legs. I feel it soaking into my socks. Red blood cells contain haemoglobin, a protein with red pigment that carries oxygen. Oxygenated or not, your blood is always red. You cannot pretend the liquid dripping down your thighs is unseen.

The Cat Conveys by James Willsey

­­­­We noticed the cat—a standard tabby, dusty from dandruff or dirt—upon entry because we expected the residence to be empty. It gawked from a corner, one muddy eye fixed on us, misaligned other paralleling the wall—not unusual for a cat but it made the stare appear vacant or as though it were looking through us. It also appeared to grin, the way its mouth was set. Ava commented on how the listing made no mention of pets and our agent deftly responded that “it also doesn’t say that there are no pets.” We ignored the cat for the next hour or so, our guided tour, opening cabinets and peering in empty closets, inspecting oddball nooks not really knowing what to look for. The remodeled bathrooms and kitchen had farmhouse sinks and stainless appliances; there was a mudroom in which Ava and I glanced at each other and she absently touched her tummy; in sum, the house was just about perfect. We were already talking about making an offer before we got to the backyard, which is when the cat escaped. It slipped between the agent’s legs in a stealthy trot, nearly knocking her on her ass. “Ope,” she said.

Troutface in First Class by Robert Garnham

1.

He looks like a trout. Or at least, he has the kind of facial expression that you’d think a trout might have. If the trout were on a train, that is. Pursed lips, pale skin as if he’s not used to coming out into the light, one of those creatures of the deep. A baseball cap pulled down low, snakey hips. The first class carriage is almost empty, just myself in one of the big chairs along the side with my own table, and snakey-hip trout-face, sitting at the big four-seat table near the door, thumbing his mobile phone.

I think I fancy him.

He’s wearing a tracksuit, this prominent cheekboned lad, all bright colours, red and white reflecting back from the dark window like there’s two of him, a team mate, perhaps, in whatever sport the tracksuit advertises. He looks confused as he fumbles with his phone, and the tracksuit makes his body shapeless and crumpled. I can only guess at its proper shape and definition. Oh no, Troutface is now making a phone call.

The Liar’s Club by Andrew Johnston

The guy said that he’d been held and interrogated in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War – sure he’d been drinking, but enough to fabricate something like that? The whole reason you go to an expatriate bar on Christmas is to hear the bullshit. It’s less a matter of lies than degrees of truth, because everyone here is a storyteller, which is to say that they deal in truths that fall short of being factual. I bet he was there in Belarus on the Russian front in some capacity, maybe even a shady one. How he ended up in China after the fall was a mystery in itself.

It’s a mystery how anyone ends up here, really – in this city, in this country, in this particular tavern on this particular night. We’ve all got damage, though I might have taken a larger share. But when there’s an opportunity, you take it, even if it means leaving a piece of yourself – even if it means cadging a bit of turkey and some free drinks at a holiday party you didn’t know you were invited to. It’s normal in its own way, even if the people aren’t.

Flightless Birds by Patrick Eades

We were in the garage by Christmas. The temperature refused to drop from 35 degrees at nine in the evening, our stomachs stuffed with prawns, ham, fruit cake and beer. John was half cut and I felt on edge from the heat and stench emanating from my husband. We lay there on our bed, surrounded by old push bikes with flat tyres, a set of golf clubs from the 1970s and tools upon tools hanging from the walls. It’s pretty hard to fall asleep when there’s a two-foot bow saw in your eyeline. Peaceful dreams I think not.

‘What a year,’ John said.

What a year. Part of me wanted to pull the bow saw off its hook and saw John’s face off. Or at least his tongue. The other part of me wanted John to roll over and hold me, tell me everything would be alright. That the next year would be better, that we were still young and free, the best years yet to come.