by Steven John                 

Karl slouches close to horizontal in the armchair he calls ‘his’. His combat trousers and sweater are rancid with cigarette smoke and stained with food. He hasn’t shaved and the hair on the back of his head is cushioned flat and damp. The red light thermostat on the electric heater clicks stale warmth into the room. He changes TV channels with the remote, one after the other, watching each one for a few seconds before pipping onto the next. A plate with crumbs and a smearing of ketchup balances on the arm of the chair. He’s made cheese on toast for lunch five days running.

Karl looks at his phone. In thirty minutes his son will come in from school. Only then will the central heating come on in the clap cold house. There’s time for a cigarette and a drink before his son gets home. Karl rises from the chair. His spine and knees ache with inaction. In the kitchen he goes to the fridge and takes a bottle. Special offer if you buy six. He doesn’t any longer care whether it’s red or white wine, or where in the world it’s made, as long as it’s on special. Karl can smell the wine through the bottle. He turns the screw cap. The crack of the seal causes him to close his eyes. He drinks down half a glass. The liquid down his throat and the tremor down his spine cascade simultaneously.

Karl stands outside the front door with the wineglass and smokes a cigarette. The alcohol and nicotine will soften his focus before his wife comes in from work, the questions she doesn’t ask, the news he hasn’t got.

He pours a second glass as his son comes through the door.

‘Had a good day?’ Karl asks. ‘Any excitements?’

The boy takes chocolate biscuits from the tin, goes to the television and loads a video game. Karl follows with the bottle. Soldiers hunting zombies, shooting ever-changing weapons that cascade on the screen like fruits on a one-armed bandit. Cherry, lime, apple, blood, death, respawn. Repeat.

Karl pours a glass when he hears his wife’s car on the drive. The silence as she walks up the path, the eyes-closed dread of the door opening, handbag slung, rip of junk mail, high-heeled steps on the tiles as she approaches the room. His wife opens the door into the room and doesn’t look at him. She looks at her son shrouded in headphones. She says hello to her son who chooses not to hear. She waits for his reply she knows won’t come. Karl looks at her and smiles the smile he allocates for this same time each day.

‘Had a good day?’ Karl asks. ‘Any excitements?’

His wife walks out and closes the door without answering, then reopens the door.

‘Becca will be here soon. She said she’ll drop in for coffee,’ she says.

Karl hates visitors. They ask questions he doesn’t want to answer, can’t answer. Hiding upstairs doesn’t work. His wife shouts for him so he has to come downstairs and say, ‘Sorry, I was upstairs.’

He could drive to the shops but can’t think of anything they need. He has bottles and cigarettes enough. Perhaps his wife won’t bring Becca into the room.

His wife brings Becca into the room. She’s wearing a short skirt with a split up the back. Bare legs. His eyes follow her from the waist down. He offers wine.

‘Too early for me,’ Becca laughs.

Karl pours her share into his glass. One man down.

‘INCOMING. MAN DOWN. MAN DOWN!’ The soldiers repeat the same words, run into the same traps, kill the same zombies.

The women are talking over the video game.

‘I’m surrounded by the living dead,’ his wife says.

Karl’s ears change channel back to the game. The pictures aren’t registering. His eyes stare at a point beyond the television screen.

‘INCOMING. MAN DOWN!’ Karl shouts, and mouths the rattling noise of a machine-gun.

Karl’s son turns the game off, walks to the armchair and takes the empty bottle tucked down by his father’s thigh. He puts the bottle on the floor and wedges himself where the bottle had been. He puts his arm through his father’s arm. Tears fall on the boy’s cheek.

Karl notices his son sitting beside him. His son hasn’t sat like this with him for a long time. He looks at his wife. She’s weeping too. He looks at Becca.

‘Why are they crying?’ he asks her.

Becca rises from the couch. ‘I’d better be off.’

Karl follows the reflection of her split skirt in the blank TV screen.

Steven John’s writing has appeared in Burningword, Bending Genres, Spelk, Fictive Dream, EllipsisZine, Ghost Parachute and Best Microfiction 2019. He’s won Bath Ad Hoc Fiction a record seven times and has been nominated for BIFFY 2019. He lives in The Cotswolds, England. Steven is Fiction & Special Features Editor at New Flash Fiction Review. Learn more at:

Twitter @StevenJohnWrite