A few years ago, a friend of mine was searching for his soul mate via dating apps. He lamented to me the endless frustrations, primarily how he’d match with some girl, start a nice conversation, and then boom, she’d just disappear for no apparent reason. It was perplexing behavior until years later when I learned the likely truth of it.
       Dr. Jordan Peterson had a guest on his podcast who used to work for one of the largest dating apps, who confessed that to retain users, they’d employ fake profile female bots who would match with guys, start conversations, and then ghost them. This form of retention – morally questionable at best - is the same trick Facebook uses; that addictive dopamine hit you get from a ‘like’ is identical to what you feel from a ‘match’. And thus, the game is endlessly played.
       There’s so much to say about the negative consequences of everything social media that I don’t even know where to start. So for now, I won’t. Instead, I’ll take a slight detour and simply say how everything on the internet reeks of falseness. Fake bots, fake profiles, fake followers, fake news, on and on and on, and it inevitably leaves us with one question: with all the lies, what’s real?
       This, dear reader, is where Story Unlikely comes in. We’re the stone well in a desert of mirages, the island in the salty seas, the broken, fractured, imperfect reality when the sheen wears off the screen. How is it that a magazine - which publishes many works of fiction - can lay claim to authenticity? Oh, but there is much truth lurking between the lines of a good tale – fiction or non. Take the story below, for starters, which just happens to be our 2023 short story contest winner - an absolute masterclass in both writing and storytelling. And unlike the pretension that we’re all drowning in, this one’s actually real.
Danny Hankner
Danny Hankner


publishing stories by merit
Dear Story Unlikely,
       I decided to submit to your publication because of the part of the listing that said Story Unlikely was simply looking to publish great stories instead of "attempting to salt the earth with more cultural dogma couched as mediocre fiction, or writers who are jockeying for the title of Most Woke." Too many other venues out there have forgone true fiction in favor of poorly-written, undisguised screeds that get published simply because the writer says what the publisher thinks we all need to believe, and I'm tired of getting lectured to by unlikeable characters standing in for their unlikeable authors. If there's a place out there run by people who actually just care about whether a story is good or not, I want to submit my work to them, so I am. (Not to mention that in a world of submission fees, it's really refreshing to come across a place that isn't trying to drain us writers dry a few dollars at a time.)
       Sarah Cannavo (whose story The Drinkin' Contest, was recently published in the Story Unlikely Podcast.)

(Vivid / Moving / beautiful)
Awarded first place in our annual short story contest

     1974. A time of relative peace and harmony at number 7 Park Road, Exmouth. Model glue, for wing-strut and fuselage, does not yet span, web-like, across our breakfast bowls; dining chairs are sat on exclusively, not hurled; moon shaped indents, each a perfect match with the slotted grooves of the pressure cooker lid, do not yet pepper our walls, like spray from an automatic weapon. And Mrs. Green, our elderly neighbour, horn-rimmed and from another era, does not yet referee the domestic battles of the mechanic and his dark-skinned wife; she does not yet know the officers of the constabulary by name, the station number by heart.
           'June'll be here at ten. Get dressed. Comb your hair. Stay out of sight.' 
           Mum readies herself. Her accent shifts from potteries drawl to 'sophisticate' – Vera Duckworth to Margo Leadbetter in one fell swoop. Suddenly aitches appear everywhere, extravagant and breathy – so 'ello' is now 'hair-low'; while 'everyone' becomes 'hevery-one'. Because she's unsure, instinct tells her that more is better, and dialect isn't considered, because it isn't a thing. Her tutoring is tenuous and erratic; her spelling downright bizarre. She needs a Higgins. In fact, we all do – someone willing to accept a wager on our behalf, to better us. But all we have is T.V.. These days she'd be tested, diagnosed and excused: dyslexia. But in 1974, that isn't a thing either. Most of the time no one notices. But, every now and again, they do: 
           'Did you write this, boy?'
           'No Sir. It's a note from me Mum. I can't do P.E. Because I've got earache, Sir.' 
           'So you have 'e.e.r.a.k.e'? And you can't do 'j.i.m'? .'..is that what you're telling me, boy?'
           'Don't know, sir.' 
           'Don't know? You're a liar, Leese. It's got idiot written all over it – and you're an idiot, aren't you boy? An I.D.I.O.T.'
           Mum shows June Rook into the living room. The air is newly scented with Mr. Sheen, Lemon Fresh. They sit either side of the fireplace. June notices the polished brass artillery shells standing on the hearth, artfully arranged, ascending in size, like flue pipes on a cathedral organ. 
           'Oh, they're nice. Val. Are they new? Eddie'd go crazy for a set of those.'
           The Rooks live just down the road. Eddie's a Royal Marine. Each morning he leaves for work on parade, his heal-beat and cadence are steady, his shoulders square, balanced for a left-foot lead. 
           June sells Avon door-to-door. She's meticulously dressed and manicured and strides along our street with swagger and confidence befitting the spouse of a military man. But beneath the powders and blushers, the lipstick, the Dot Perkins pant-suit, 'she's ever so plain'. 
           The Rooks are 'family friends', unlike Mary Mears at number 11, who Mum calls
'an acquaintance'. The rules of their engagements are different, secret. Mary pops in uninvited through our back door, often in her nightgown, slippered, hair a single, lank ponytail. She sings her two-note entrance down the barrel of a lit Players No.6: 'yoo-hoo – anybody ho-home?' Together they sit sipping Holsten Pils through slow afternoons, their glasses clinking in salacious agreement: 'the broad-backed bin-man', 'the suave insurance salesman':
           'It's his suit, you know, Mary – he's so refined.'          
           June Rook opens her leather samples case and lays an array of tubes and miniature bottles onto the coffee-table, explaining their potential benefits given Mum's 'unique style' and particular 'skin colour', which June evaluates as both 'oily' and 'exotic'. I sit quietly at the dining-room table studying my Action Man, wondering how he got his scar and whether I'd be allowed to get a crew cut one day. 
           After thirty minutes, both ladies stand. June straightens her blouse, then relieves Mum of most of the housekeeping.
           'Pay the balance when we see you and Jerry on Saturday, all right? And don't forget, Val, it's a Spanish theme – but anything Mexican will do.' 
           June leaves. I follow Mum up to her bedroom. She places the perfume and the receipt at the back and bottom of her side of the wardrobe, under the family photo album. 
           'He won't look there,' she says.
           It's Saturday afternoon. Mum's getting ready for the party. I'm lying on her bed taunting Sookie, her miniature, long-haired dachshund.
           'Will you bring us something back from the party, Mum?' 
            She calls them 'Accessories' – hats or masks or wigs usually – bits of costume people don't want, or are too drunk to remember. 
           'If you're good.' 
           She drops her white, towelled robe and stands naked, studying herself in the three-facing mirrors of her dressing table. I see how dusky her skin is – darker than mine, darker even than my sisters. 'Exotic', June Rook called it. It's partly because she's 'a sun worshipper'. But mostly, she says, it's her dad's fault.
           'My father - your grandfather - Taj Mohamed, he was an American Red Indian. Not a bloody Paki.'
           This is a word we've heard before. It's what other kids sometimes call us. Our teachers don't seem to mind, so we don't mind either. But Mum does. She says she'd kill anyone she heard say it, which is why we don't tell her anymore. My brother's lucky – he's mousy, blue-eyed, so Mum calls him 'the milkman's'. I think about our milkman, Brian, and his milk-float rattling along our road at six in the morning, and I wonder what he has to do with my brother.  
           'He was a chief, your grandfather.'
           'Like in the films?'
           'Exactly like in the films.' 
           'But what was a Red Indian doing in Stoke, Mum?' 
           'He was in Stoke because he'd heard there were no cowboys. And when there are no cowboys about, you don't get shot in the back.' 
           'Why aren't there any Red Indians in Exmouth then, Mum?'
           'Because it's posh. Now shut up about it.'
           I'm in the lounge. I hear Dad's van pull up outside. Mum is next to me, finishing her nails. The Generation Game is on. I can't stand Bruce, so I go to the kitchen as the back door opens and the smell of diesel oil and dog waft in. Dad's Alsatian, Laddie, stands on the mat, panting. I pet the dog and Dad pecks me on the head, which means he's in a good mood. 
           Everything happens around moods in our house. It's how we kids communicate the situation, so we don't get ambushed, so we can be prepared.
           Dad goes to the fridge, cuts himself a chunk of cheddar. 
           'Where's your mother?' 
           'Doing her nails.'
           'Julian and Adele?'
           'You bin good?' 
           'No big ideas?'
           He hates my big ideas. He brings it up when I've been bad. But I think big ideas don't have anything to do with being bad. When me and Robbie Hockin stole kites from Pengelly's, then flew them in the park until the cops arrived - that was bad. When we poked a hosepipe under the prostitute's door up Damby Terrace, then turned it on - that was bad, too. But Miss Anderson says having big ideas can be a good thing. And it doesn't matter if you start out in life in a place you don't like, with not very much, because with a big idea, you can end up somewhere else, with something more, all without nicking anything, or flooding anyone's house out. She says you become inspirational if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, which me and David Harrison tried after football practice, and it's not easy. But Dad reckons it's dreaming. He says going to work early, getting your hands dirty, then coming home when it's dark, is what real work's all about. He says if I listen to that lot, I'll end up a dreamer, and if that ever happens, I'll never be a mechanic as long as I've got a hole in my arse. 
           Julian, my older brother by three years, isn't mithered by big ideas. And he loves
engines, so Dad approves. He says one day he'll come into the family business, because
'he's a natural', and I wonder if being a natural has anything to do with his arse. But Dad also says he's useless – 'as thick as two short planks', and that gets me wondering about bits of wood and being thick. But if my brother is a bit slow, if he doesn't know his letters or his numbers like he should, I think it's because Mum forgot to send him to school for a whole year. Nobody seems to remember that. 
           'I tried peanut butter,' I tell Dad.
           'Oh yeah. How was it?'
           'Good. I liked it. Can we get more?'
           'No we bloody can't,' Mum shouts from the other room. 'I gave him some this morning and he turned his nose up. Waste of bloody money.'
           'I didn't,' I tell Dad, and I feel my bottom lip begin to wobble. 
           'Don't be such a mard-arse.'
           'But she put it on a spoon without telling me what it was – I wasn't ready. You need to know what you're going to be tasting, so you can get ready to like it, don't you Dad?'
           I hate it when Mum turns against me, especially after the pain we went through to become blood brothers. She got the idea after watching The Life and Times of Grisly Adams, when Grisly gets his Bowie knife out and swears a blood oath with his Cherokee friend, Nakoma, who Mum said she'd have married if she'd had the chance, because a man smelling of smoky fires and horse shit is better than a man who stinks up the kitchen with diesel. But we didn't have a Bowie knife handy, so Mum got a needle from her sewing kit, and when the blood came, we pressed our fingers together until some of her blood went into my veins, and some of my blood went into hers. And that's how we became blood brothers.    
           Dad looks at me like he's trying to work out whether peanut butter is another one of my big ideas. He kicks his boots off, unhooks each shoulder from his overalls, lets them drop to the mat and begins his ritual on-the-spot march, until they peel off inside out. He hangs them on a nail in the porch, where they won't stink up the place. 
           Sookie trots into the kitchen with her head held high. But when she sees Laddie, she forgets who she is, and begins nipping playfully at the underside of his muzzle. Dad flicks her off with his socked foot; but too hard, so she skids over the tiles, paws in all directions, like a fallen skater. I don't think Dad likes Sookie. He says Mum pays her too much attention. 
           'Get a bloody move on, Jerry – we gonna be late.' 
           Mum comes in blowing her nails, fingers fanned out like a starfish. Dad grabs her around the waist and goes in for a kiss. 
           'Get off – you bloody reek of garage, you do.'
           He lets her go, winks at me, then goes upstairs to change. When we hear his
footsteps on the landing, Mum opens the back door quietly and begins going through the pockets of his overalls. She finds his wallet, takes out a five pound note, tucks it under the sleeve of her dress. 
           'For fish and chips,' she whispers.
           Dad doesn't do 'dress-up'. But to keep the peace he lets Mum wrap one of her black silk scarves around the waste of his grey trousers. He finds a white shirt, a pin-tie, and slicks his shoulder-length hair with a dollop of Brylcreem. Mum's wearing a long purple gown, which frills out at the bottom. She says she's a beauty: 'Liz Taylor with Cleopatra eyes'. Her hair is up, tight, like a dancers. 
           'That's what we're going as,' Mum announces: 'Spanish dancers.' 
           'I feel like Speedy-Gon-flippin-zales, Dad says, and then starts skipping around the room shouting beep beep, ariba, ándale, like the mouse on the telly.
           But then he darkens.
           'All they're interested in is bragging. Who has holidays abroad, then comes back and brags about it?'
           'They're not bloody bragging, Jerry. They just go places. It's what real families do.'
           'You liked Cornwall.' 
           Dad stabs his finger in the air, accenting each word.
           'Stuck in a piggin' caravan with three kids on a poxy camp-site? – I tell you Jerry - that's not going places.'
           Family holidays were always the same. The five of us trapped inside our old Mercedes Benz; an ancient five-birth caravan tethered to its toe-bar. The moment we juddered out from the curb my mother's forehead would furrow, like fate lines on a clenched fist. My father, blind-sided, unequipped to deal with such wilful descent, would soon follow suit; and before we'd crossed the county line, where the narrow lanes and ancient hedgerows of Devon gave way to the narrow lanes and ancient hedgerows of Cornwall, the weather inside our car would become isobar rich and full of menace.
           I wake on Sunday morning and see there's a guitar propped against the foot of my bed, and I think: accessories! My brother's still sleeping, and the room is dark, but there's movement on the landing. 
           Dad calls out: 
           'Leaving in five. You kids want to come, get up now.' 
           Julian is out of bed and dressed and stomping down stairs. I stay where I am. But I'm in two minds: stay home with my new guitar, or go with dad, because Sunday morning up at the garage is 'wash-day'. It's the time when me and my brother get to drive dad's trucks, from the parking bay to the wash bay and then back. It's one of the things my friends envy me for, because the only lorries they get anywhere near are toys. But then I remember what Dad said, about not coming into the family business, so going to the garage to perfect my driving skills seems like a waste of time. 
           I look over at my new guitar and make my decision.
           I was awake last night when they got back from June and Eddie Rook's party. Something got smashed, so it'll be a tricky day. They haven't fought in ages, not since the summer when we found out another one of Dad's dirty secrets. It's what Mum likes to do when they argue, tell us something about Dad's past, so we'll be on her side – 'through thick and thin', she says.
           It started when I was on my way out of the school gates at a quarter to four. It was Thursday. Art day. All around, paint smudged kids waved pictures of brown dinosaurs and big yellow suns at their mothers, who stood on the pavement, licked tissues at the ready.
           'Charlie – you wanker!'
           I turn, and Robbie Hockin is standing behind me, grinning. Just then my sister emerges from the crowd. She's laughing. She begins to skip around me repeating the same line in her annoying sing-song voice. 
           'I know something that you don’t'. I Know something that you don't.'
           She comes up close, stands on tiptoe, her hands cupped to my ear, and tells me. But I don't believe her. I turn back to Robbie, but he's vanished. Then I spot Mum, which is a surprise, because usually we take ourselves home. She's standing apart from the other mums on the opposite side of the road, smoking. Her Twiggy hat is pulled low; the saucer sized buttons on her raincoat are fastened tight to her throat. 
           I wait for the lollipop lady, then wander over.
           'Where we going?'
           'Why are you here, then?'
           'Just come on, will ya.'
           She grabs us by the wrist, and we march home. Our favourite tea's waiting and we have a good time until later, when Dad gets in from work. Then there's trouble. We kids sit on the stairs, our safe place when they fight. I finger through the yellow pages, which I often do at times like these, looking for a number, someone to call. But I don't touch the phone. I daren't. So I say:
           'Shall I go get Mrs. Green?' 
           'What then?' 
           'Just shut up.'
           My sister begins to sob, but my brother's calm. He's older, and he says he doesn't give a shit about things like this. But then there's a crashing sound, and I can feel him stiffen. 
           'Get in here. Get in here now.'
           We trot into the kitchen, Von-Trap like, and line up. Dad's hands are raised, and his hair's a mess, like he's just got out of bed. Under his breath, I hear him tell Mum to stop. She pulls away, tells him to shut his gob. But even though he does shut his gob, even though he does lowers his hands, she tells us anyway.    
           'Your father's got other kids. By another woman.'
           I crack the curtains open, pick up my new guitar and take it over to the window for a closer look. 
           At school, kids are learning to play guitars like this. Mad Miss Rawlins stands out front barking out numbers while chopping the air with her right hand – one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four – while they strum kumbaya or Michael Row the Boat Ashore over and over again. The rest of us sit, cross-legged, and sing. But when something sounds wrong, something only Miss Rawlins can hear, she moves among us, holding the lobe of her ear and turning her head like a radar. Her look is sour, but her fingers are quick and her eyes miss nothing. She twists the silver key of one guitar and then nods to no one in particular. I do the same now, but I'm not sure what to listen for. I realise I'll need help, but I can't stand Miss Rawlins, and there are no books in our house, apart from a 1971 edition of The Guinness Book of Records and a set of three Blue Peter annuals. I've seen instruments in there somewhere, but I'm not a fan of books, even those with pictures. 
           I turn the guitar over and there's a bumper sticker on the back that says 'I Love Spain'. I peel it off. Underneath, the wood is split, and I wonder if it'll still work. Then I see one of the strings has snapped, the two ends bob like loose springs. I remember Pengelly's in town sells musical stuff, but I'll need money. I think about Dad's wallet and how Mum helped herself. I could ask him. Only I know what he'll say.
           Mum's in her dressing gown in the kitchen. She's staring out the window and I wonder what she's looking at. I go over, but there's nothing out there. Just our back yard. The Sunday roast is in the oven. I can hear the meat crackle and I hope it's not pork. On the table there are pieces of a small, broken Toby jug. I recognise it as one of a set of six she keeps on our sideboard. Sookie is at her feet, her muzzle resting on the knuckle of a large lamb bone. It's midday. Most of the morning I've been practising in my bedroom with the door shut. But with all the key-turning, I've broken another string, and I'm beginning to realise I don't have radar ears. 
           'I can't play, Mum. It's me strings.'
           'You can't play, Charles, because you haven't got what it takes.'
           'I have. You've heard me.' 
           She sips her wine, says nothing. Her head wobbles on her neck. 
           I try again. 
           'But you have to learn first. You don't just pick one up and go straight on the telly.'
           Together, on Thursday nights, we watch Top of the Pops. Dad is usually still at work. If it's a good band and I know the song, I'll sing. I've told her many times I want a guitar. I tell her now it's what I want to do when I grow up: be musical. 
           'So can we get some new strings then, Mum?' 
           'No. We can't. Not when your father sees what you've done to that bloody thing.'
           The accident happened the next day. Monday evening. 
           I'm standing in the fish and chip shop on the Exeter Road, and I've just been served. I'm alone except for Sookie, who's sitting on the floor in front of me. But she's not happy, because she doesn't want to be here, because Mum's not here. I have her lead in one hand and a five pound note in the other. The lady behind the counter hands me a bag of fish and chips and a pot of coleslaw. I go to hand her the note, but I can't hold the money and the bag and the lead all at the same time, so when I open my hand, it's the wrong hand, and I watch the end of the lead fall to the floor. I look down at Sookie, and she looks back up at me, and I can see in her eyes she understands what's just happened. And then, right at that moment, the door to the shop opens and some bloke comes in wanting his fish and chips and without warning Sookie dashes through his legs, and in a flash she's on the street, running, her ears pinned back like a hare at full pelt. I call after her, but she won't stop. So I begin to run. But I trip, and I fall, and now there's battered cod and chips and coleslaw all over the pavement. I can hear the engine of a car somewhere, but I see only Sookie as she leaps off the curb. 
           ‘Listen to me,’ I shout, 'WHY WON'T YOU LISTEN TO ME!?'
           I hear Dad's socked feet on the stairs. I'm in bed. It's teatime on Tuesday, the day after the accident. But now I'm not sure it was an accident, because I dropped the lead, because I wasn't thinking, and I know that's what Dad is going to say. 
           Last night he slept at the garage, and I'm glad about that, because it's given me more time to think. Julian heard him tell Mum that you don't send an eight year old to the fish and chip shop and expect bad things not to happen. So now I keep running over it in my head, to be clear when I tell him, because you don't just go out and kill Mum's dog without Dad feeling the need to take his belt off. But when I do think about it, all I can see is Sookie in the gutter, her coat wet like a baby otter's – only it's not water on her fur. I keep asking the man with the car if she's all right. But I know the answer. Because it's obvious. 
           Dad opens the door and walks around my brother's empty bed to where I'm
lying. I can't look him in the eye, so I concentrate on my hands. And then he does
something I don't expect. He sits on the bed and puts his hand on my forehead and strokes my hair back, and he tells me it's okay, that it wasn't my fault. And I'm so shocked, I do what I said I wouldn't do, and I begin to snivel; and after a while of him stroking my hair and me snivelling, he says: 
           'I've got something for you.' 
           He reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out a square packet that's flat and covered in cellophane, and for the first time I look up, and I see how tired he is. I take the square packet and I turn it over, and written on the front it says: 'guitar strings'. 
About the author:
          Charles Hara writes about messy, complicated lives – real lives. The Strings, a coming-of-age story, is a momentary fragment taken from his own life, a childhood memory peopled by ordinary folk, in an ordinary town, at an ordinary time. But, he says, memories are incomplete, often deeply subjective, splintered, shaped as much by the passage of time as they are by the lived experiences they purport to recall. 'There's not just one truth, but many variations, each with its own cunning agenda. Finding the right one, the one that resonates most, perhaps even moves – well, that's the tricky part'. Charles's stories have appeared in Memoirist and  Story Unlikely. He lives in rural Stroud, Gloucestershire, England, with his partner Jude and three-year-old daughter Myla Mae.

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Literary Spotlight
Sarah Morrison is an emerging artist breaking into fantasy book cover and card game illustration. A recent winner of the Writers and Illustrators of the Future contest, Sarah has been creating art since she was a child, and fuses her creative talents with decades of illustration experience. Working with oil paints, Sarah creates expressive magical-realism portraits that both inspire and capture the imagination. Sarah hopes that her illustrations will help spark writers everywhere to write that next great story.
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The Excrement List
Disobey our submission guidelines, 
and find yourself amiss.
Disobey the guidelines,
wind up on the list.
(It's like when restaurants used to post bounced checks on the wall, but for the digital age)
As a publisher, we have rules that writers must abide by if they want to get published. Some of these aren't that big of a deal, but others, like ‘if you submit to our contest, don't submit this story anywhere else until the reading period is over,' or ‘don’t mark our emails as spam', are a major no-no.  Offenders get put on our ~dun dun dun~ Excrement List, aka lifetime ban on getting published. We keep this list to show people that - for once - we're not joking. Don't be like the perps below - you're much too savvy for that:
Gillian W, Cat T, Adam M, Olasupo L, Mick S, Leslie C, Patricia W, Tim V, Andrew F, Sam P, Aaron H, N. Kurts, Paula W, Marcy K, Mark301078, carnap72, N. Phillips,  A Bergsma, Sharon S.
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