Second place: The Salt Trick by Matt Kendrick

The day of the disappearance smells of citrus air freshener. Jimmy is nine. His younger sister, Clara, who likes to be the centre of attention, throws up on the way to the theatre and they are late taking their seats. The show is a magic show. The magician pulls a bunny from a hat, transforms an onion into a chocolate egg. When he asks for a volunteer, Jimmy’s mum pushes him to his feet.

At a dinner party when Jimmy is seven, the grown-ups are being loud as if the volume dial on their voices is turned up to a hundred. Jimmy is at the table being seen and not heard. He wishes he could be neither seen nor heard playing Tetris on his Amstrad computer. The grown-ups have acquired loud gestures to accompany their loud words. Uncle Tom, who is a friend-of-the-family uncle rather than a biological uncle, topples his red wine across the white tablecloth. Jimmy’s mum reacts in a heartbeat – ‘Smother it with salt.’

He is eighteen. It is happy hour at The Headless Hippo. Everyone from his corridor in halls is crowded around a small table and they are at the point of sharing secrets and showing off. A round has been bought – shots of Jägermeister. Jimmy upends his shot glass into a plant pot because he doesn’t need alcohol to make them stare like they stare at the guy who trips on a pool cue and smashes his head against the bar.

He has to draw his face in Year 8 art. Mr Ozaki takes Jimmy’s picture on a digital camera and Jimmy divides the print-out into 1cm squares, copies each square onto his sketchpad. His nose is two squares long. His forehead is five squares wide. His port-stain birthmark that sludges up from his neck across his cheek is three squares by six squares, even though he has angled his face to make it as small as possible. At the end of the lesson, Mr Ozaki insists everyone gather around to admire the quality of his work. They press in behind him and there is a snort, a sniggering. Jimmy feels a pulsing in his throat.

The day after he disappears, what he remembers most vividly is the pinch of salt the magician threw over his left shoulder and the swaying of his pocket watch. ‘Three, two, one – you’re under.’ He was inside a game of Tetris and he was broken into shapes. His left leg was an orange L. His stomach was a yellow square. It felt unusual to be broken up in this way, but not unfamiliar. His brain fizzed like 7Up at no longer being tethered to his face.

He is back from university for the Christmas holidays. Clara has a boyfriend with a Mazda MX-5. ‘Haven’t you got a girlfriend yet?’ asks Uncle Tom who is there because their dad says no one should be alone for Christmas. He has brought Châteauneuf du Pape. Over Christmas dinner, Clara asks, ‘Do you remember when you disappeared?’ Jimmy says he doesn’t, even though he thinks about that sensation of disappearing almost every day. Clara says, ‘We’ve got it on video.’ Uncle Tom says, ‘I have to see this.’ Jimmy excuses himself to his room because he has watched the video before and he has hated it, the way the audience gawps as he trudges past, the crackle of their laughter when the magician puts him under. He has hated it, hated it, hated it, right up until the point when he is no longer there, when the place where he was standing has become a perfect void.

On his tenth birthday, he steals a drum of Saxa salt from the local shop. Later that night, he stands in front of the bathroom mirror and mixes the salt with flour and water to make a paste. He dabs it on his cheek, around the edges of his birthmark, rubs a thin veil on top. He scoops it up. He smears it on. He pats it down until the salt paste covers everything. When he is done, he swivels his neck and, for a brief moment, he is satisfied. Then he peers deeper into the mirror, right into its depths, his face closer and closer to its shiny surface, and all of a sudden, his nose looks odd and his jaw is wrong, and he can still feel the birthmark, the whole burning lake of it, buried beneath the salt. 

For perhaps the seventeenth time, he tries to replicate the disappearance. He sprays his room with citrus air freshener before positioning himself in front of the mirror and closing his eyes. He has a pinch of salt in his right hand, which he throws over his left shoulder. He says ‘Abracadabra’ imploringly beneath his breath. There is a state of drifting he remembers from the day he disappeared and he tries to conjure it, hears the magician’s voice counting down from three. It is working – he tries to convince himself it is working. He will lean forward and fall through the mirror. He will be floating. He will be in that Tetris dimension again, all the parts of him untethered as brightly coloured shapes.

 


Very poignant and full of emotional resonance. I loved the imagery and how it evoked all the senses and made me really feel for the main character.

Susmita Bhattacharya

Perhaps the real magic of this piece is in how it leaves you feeling—waiting, wishing for enchantment. The language is so rich and vivid, constantly returning to the wound of being, of appearing. And just like a prayer or a spell, it repeats itself over and over again, until you also find yourself doing it. 

jj Peña

Matt Kendrick is a writer, editor and creative writing teacher based in the East Midlands, UK. His stories have been published in Bath Flash Fiction, Cheap Pop, Craft Literary, Fictive Dream, FlashBack Fiction, Reflex Fiction, and elsewhere.

Published by Freya Morris

Author & Director of Oxford Flash Fiction Prize. West Country bumpkin who can't kill anything but characters. Loves to grow big stories and big plants. Always looking for omens and four leaf clovers.

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