Anthony Self

nerd glasses with tape

Once a film director, now a sex actor, Tony shaved his back to sit at ease and write stories about aliens and abuse. If you enjoy bumming in barns and hillbilly hookers high on wine and whiskey, give him a chance. If you don’t like it, report him. Please.

ink blotch

THE MUSIC MAN

entrance

Smelling sweetly with stored hay, dust motes danced wildly through the cracked rivulets of light inside the barn. Caleb took off his jacket, kneeled to the floor and laid it neatly beside him. His father took the length of leather strap down from its nail on the wall.

The warm air was also heavy with the smell of feed and animals. Caleb looked towards one of the pens, where Archimedes, their black mare was hitched, eating impassively from her bag. Caleb started to lift the white cotton shirt off his rakish thirteen-year-old body as he heard his father’s hand-pegged boots slowly make their way towards him.

‘You ready?’ his father asked.

‘Yes, Da.’

He sucked in some air and braced himself for the first lash. It wasn’t the pain that Caleb feared the most; it was the sound of the undulating slap of leather against skin that set his teeth on edge. When it came, it felt like an explosion going off on his shoulder. He didn’t cry out, or whimper. He knew that he had to take his medicine like a man, or run the risk of receiving further lashes for his cowardice.

After the fifth, it felt like an avalanche of searing heat flowing freely down his back. Trying to keep his sight and focus on Archimedes, Caleb felt that the horse could give him a specific strength, a thick hide or impenetrable armour to deflect the blows of the supple leather strap. He remembered reading a book once, about a magical horse that could fly, granting wishes to all the good children in the land and he imagined now that Archimedes spoke in human tongue and could utter words to him, instantly transforming his skin, hardening it into a metal carapace, protecting him from the blows. Another lash came down, the hardest one yet and the pain jolted through his entire body. At this one he did let out a gasp and he felt something warm running down the contours of his spine, knowing it was blood.

Archimedes couldn’t speak. Spells didn’t exist. He was foolish to think of that book, read so long ago. Fiction. It had probably been burnt now, like all the others.

There was no place for fiction in this world.

His punishment had seemed like hours, but barely a minute had passed. With head bowed, tears ran slowly down his cheeks.

When he finally raised his head, his father towered over him. He held the small rectangular object in his hands. The surface was black and sleek. When Caleb had first held it, he could see his own reflection in the black mirror.

‘Where did you get this?’ his father asked. Caleb took a moment to collect himself. He cleared his throat, for when he would speak it would be precise and clear. There would be no stammering, there would be no half sobs in his answer.

‘Found it.’

‘Where?’

Caleb bit his lip. He meekly sat upright, pain scorching his back. His father’s stern, reproachful gaze would have normally broken him by now, but the older he was becoming, the more Caleb realised that his father, like everyone else, was just a fallible human being. He was scared, just like all the rest. There was also something else written across his father’s face, something he may have missed before. It was gone in an instant, but he could have sworn he saw his father’s eyes widen with worry.

‘There was a box of them left by the entrance to the docks.’ He said, as a way of explanation.

His father said nothing for a moment. Caleb noted that his father’s grip on the small rectangular device had tightened so greatly that his knuckles were balled white. It was a half-truth, to be fair. He and Arlen were always hanging around the sealed off entrance to the docks, wondering about the land across the river and what mysteries lay outside their rural community. They knew that the merchants that provided their hamlet with tools and essential materials used secret tunnels and gaps along the fenced off walls to bring in other scarcer items, artefacts that they could barter with. Caleb had heard some of the other children call it ‘the black market’ where they would meet and sell some of the items from the lands beyond. Illegal items. Forbidden treasures.

Caleb and Arlen had pretended that they were adventurers, playing in the cordoned off lands that no one in the community ventured. That was the story he told his father, at any rate. Whereas Arlen may have felt that they had been playing in the old mines, an area that they were strictly prohibited from setting foot in, Caleb had wanted to go in there to explore. He had found a crate nestled amongst empty oil drums and carts long ago abandoned. There had been something about the crate, it seemed out of place. Like it didn’t belong. Caleb knew the feeling. They knew that the items inside the crate didn’t belong to them, but they couldn’t help themselves.

‘Were there guards?’ his father asked.

‘No, Da.’

His father nodded. He dropped the device to the barn floor and stamped on it with his boot. Caleb involuntarily winced as he heard a sickening crunch. His father repeatedly stomped on it until the treasured item was nothing more than broken shards.

His father leaned down and looked his son in the eyes. ‘Bury that. Bury it deep so no one can ever find it. The pigs still need to be fed and the cows milked. When you’re finished we’ll eat.’

Caleb wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. His father stood up, seeming to consider something. ‘But first,’ he said, ‘go get yourself cleaned up.’

Arlen was waiting for him outside the barn. He had watched Caleb’s father take Archimedes out and tie him to the wagon. Shortly afterwards they had trundled along the path of their small farmstead.

Arlen could see that Caleb had taken a good licking the moment he saw his friend wince as he walked towards him.

‘That bad?’

‘I’ve had worse,’ Caleb answered, throwing a bucket of unused slop against the barn wall.

A moment of uneasy silence descended upon them. Arlen kicked at a tuft of weed growing through the soil around the entrance. He was finding the days when he could speak his mind in front of Caleb shortening; they both were inclined towards an inquisitive nature, however, Arlen respected and usually abided by the rules of the community, he was finding that his friend was starting to drift towards an uneasy road paved with rebellious and feral intentions. It had been Caleb’s idea to search through the abandoned mines last week and he hadn’t uttered a word of resistance or caution as they had made the trek to the outskirts of the town. At first he thought the idea another whimsical flight of fancy, but as they travelled further away from the farms and familiar roads, a certain sense of foreboding came over him.

He had felt initial excitement when Caleb mentioned going to the mines, but the closer they approached the dark entrance, an acute awareness of his own intrinsic nature of following orders flooded back into him. The mines were a forbidden place, a place where boys shouldn’t play. His own father had lashed him for minor discrepancies in the past, but this was something else. There would be dire consequences if their parents found out.

Caleb narrowed his eyes as he looked at Arlen’s flushed face. ‘Don’t worry none,’ he said impassively, ‘I didn’t tell him you were with me.’

‘I wasn’t worried about that,’ Arlen replied, rather too quickly to sound like anything resembling the truth. Caleb let out a derisive snort and starting to walk towards his house. Arlen trailed behind him.

‘What happened to it?’

‘Da broke it.’

‘Truth?’

Caleb got to the steps of his porch. ‘Truth. But I’ve got a plan.’

Arlen stopped walking.

‘What do you mean?’ he asked, a faint tremor in his voice.

Caleb turned, a wicked grin playing across his face. ‘I reckon Uncle Franklin is coming tonight.’

Arlen knew the stories of Uncle Franklin. He was a merchant, forever travelling the local hamlets selling his wares. He also knew that there were rumours that he had been across the forbidden zone and travelled as far as the land beyond the sea. Arlen suddenly became aware that Caleb was studying his face, so he raised his chin and stuck out his chest.

‘What are you going to do?’ Arlen asked.

‘I reckon uncle Franklin’s been to the land across the sea,’ Caleb said, ‘I reckon he’s got a boat and that he’s going to be using it to cross over tonight. I plan on stowing aboard…’ his eyes glanced over the farmstead, waving his hand dismissively,‘…and getting out of this.’

He looked at Arlen. ‘You want in?’

Arlen nodded. His stomach was turning over and he felt that if he uttered a word he might have vomited at that moment.

Caleb smiled. ‘Good. Be here for Midnight…I’ve heard my Uncle arrive before but it’s never before the witching hour. Bring your essentials…might be that we won’t be back here for a long time…’ His lips parted into a mirthless grin, ‘…if at all.’

A mass of grizzled hair from ear to chin, Franklin scowled at his brother from across the wooden table. The Merchant had travelled for hours and had avoided detection by the hamlet’s guards. All he had wanted to do was have a cup of some warm broth and perhaps a long soak in the bath. He knew this would be a short stay.

‘Was that a stash of your iPhones?’ his brother hissed between clenched teeth.

Franklin sighed. It was inevitable that his caches would sometimes be discovered, but he was careful not to leave any fingerprints leading back to him. He assumed Caleb had found one.

‘Little brother,’ Franklin said in a hushed tone, ‘if you knew what was best for you, you’d shut up.’ He was tired now, and suddenly impatient.

‘If the guards caught him…’ Edmond trailed off, leaving the unspoken words hanging in the air. Franklin was a big man, with eyes very keen and penetrating. Each hamlet had their rules, their town criers…most had taken religion, banishing anything that was ungodly…Franklin had never wanted that kind of life. He could stay in one town for little more than a couple of days before feeling imprisoned. He’d been away for a long spell, this time. He estimated it had been about half a year. All he wanted to do was listen to the music from across the sea. He would like to see the Music Man again, just one more time.

‘You know the rules,’ Edmond continued, ‘No electronics. They can’t ever know of the world before.’

Franklin pulled his chair away from the table. ‘Rules,’ he snorted. ‘Brother, your voice is becoming thin and bitter like the rest of you.’ He stood, taking his hat from the table. ‘Say hello to Mary for me. There’s timber and metal out front.’

Edmond opened his mouth to protest, but closed it again.

As he was about to leave the room, he turned to his brother. ‘If only you could hear it, Edmond. The music. It’s really quite something.’

Two hours later, Franklin was rowing away from the harbour. Stretching inland from the sandy tongue where he had safely moored his decrepit boat, he could see the faint outlines of leaning telegraph poles, now devoid of wires. The moon was full and cast a great light for him to navigate without the aid of a lantern. At this time there were hardly any guards patrolling the docks, and he mumbled to himself as the black reef became smaller from view. Soon he lapsed into a moody and apprehensive silence. Leaving the oars to the side, he closed his eyes. It would take him a half a day of rowing to get across, but he had made this journey before. He knew the music wouldn’t be audible this far out, but he imagined it anyway, and that gave him some solace.

He lent back and listened to the sound of the water lapping against the stern of the boat. He tried to imagine the music, the rhythms and the flow of it, but it was an irrevocable truth that to simply try to emulate the divine sounds in his mind was impossible.

There was a cough from his haphazardly stowed packs.

Franklin sat up rigidly.

‘You best come out now, before I slit ya,’ he said, perturbed that his moment of succour had been cruelly interrupted. His hand slowly reached for the switchblade he kept fastened to his ankle. A good merchant always needed to be prepared. A head poked out of one his large sack bags. It was his brother’s son. His nephew. Caleb.

‘I’m sorry, Uncle Franklin.’ The boy said.

‘You’ll be a might sorry when I get ya back to your Da.’

Caleb unravelled himself from the small hiding spot he had chosen, stretching out his limbs on the diminutive craft.

‘Please, Uncle Franklin…I want to see the lands across the barren sea. I want to see all the lectric’s I’ve been hearing about.’

‘Lectrics? Whose been filling your head with nonsense, boy?’

Franklin went to grab the oars. Caleb was fast though, imposing himself in the middle of the vessel. ‘Please…I know that the guards change each hour. The docks will be too dangerous now to go back.’

Franklin scowled. The boy was clever, he’d have to give him that. Obviously took that from Mary’s side of the family. He didn’t like it, but he was right.

‘What am I going to tell your father?’ he said, after a long pause.

‘I left a note in my room. Sure, he’ll be furious an all…I’ll probably take a licking the likes I’ve never experienced before…but…’

‘But what? Spit it out boy.’

‘I just want to…know. I want to know what it’s like away from the Hamlets. That…iPhone you and Da were speaking about…’

Franklin had heard enough. He started turning one of the oars and the boat began to move.

Caleb put his hand deferentially on his knee. ‘I can’t go back there, Uncle. Not when I know that there’s…more out there. I see it in everyone’s face…they’re scared. Scared of the lectrics…scared of…I don’t know…what used to be. Like it will go the way when the big boom came. But I want to know…I need to know. Surely you had that urge, once?’

Franklin stopped and closed his eyes.

The land across the sea was no place for someone like Caleb. But he thought the same thing himself so many years ago when he started out as a merchant. The boy had tenacity that was for sure. But he also had guile, and courage. Something his father lacked.

‘Where’s that young fella you’re always hanging round?’

Caleb’s head dropped notably. ‘He was meant to come. In the end, turns out he was like all the others.’

They sat in silence for a while. Franklin finally sat back and fished in his long coat for some tobacco. He rolled himself a cigarette and lit it, the yellow spark of fire illuminating everything in an instant. Caleb turned his head, looking back to the reef.

‘They won’t be able to see us from here,’ Franklin muttered, taking a long pull from the cigarette. ‘It’s human nature, I guess,’ he said, looking listlessly out to sea, ‘every generation’s prerogative – the unashamed belief that they know better than those who came before them…’ He sighed wearily. ‘Well, you better start rowing, then.’

Caleb smiled.

‘And whilst you’re rowing, I’m going to tell you a story.’

Caleb grabbed the oars and started mechanically pumping them. ‘It’s a story about the greatest sounds you’ll ever hear…they don’t have instruments for musical pleasure in your world, see…but there’s a device called a Calliope, do you know what that is?’

Caleb shook his head.

‘It’s a musical instrument that produces sound by sending gas through large whistles…they’re very loud. Even some small calliopes are audible for miles. There is no way to vary the tone or loudness, you see. When I was a boy, we used to go to something called a circus. They’d have these machines playing all the time. Where we’re going, you’ll hear one of them. And boy, mark my words, when you do hear it, you’ll never be able to get the sound of your head. You’ll dream about it…’

Franklin spoke more about the lands across the sea, and of the Music Man. Caleb could hardly contain his excitement. He listened intently about the world outside of his own, where books weren’t burned, where people danced and sang, where the Music Man would make your feet tap along and put shivers down your spine.

And he knew then that he’d made the right decision. He knew he would never go back to the farm, slopping buckets of swill and milking the cows. He knew that his life had more meaning than just surviving.

He would meet the Music Man, and he would ask him to play a song.

black tree

Photo by Aleskei Drakos

THE HOOK

Hook

The all-beeping rendition of Los Del Rio’s ‘Macarena’ cut through the darkness like a schizoid Spanish Morse code.

John peeled his eyes open. He knew he’d have to answer it before it got to the main chorus; otherwise he’d never be able to get the damn song out of his head.

A la tuhelpa legria Macarena

Be-ba-beepbeep-ba-ba-beepbeep…

 

John’s hand shot out from underneath the quilt and fumbled about on his nightstand, probing for the phone. He managed to knock over a glass of water, a figurine of Katee Sackhoff from Battlestar Gallactica and his glasses – it was as if the phone had become sentient; taking malevolent glee as it seemed to dodge each grasp he made in the darkness.

Que tuhuelce paralla legria cosabuena

…beep-beepbeep-ba-beep-beep-ba-beepbeep…

 

His curses were muffled by the pillow as he realised with listless resignation that he would have to leave the warmth and sanctuary from underneath his duvet. He sat bolt upright and swung his arm to switch on the nightstand lamp, misjudging where it was and propelling it to the floor.

A la tuhlepha legria Macarena EEEEH, MACARENA!

ba-be-beepbeep-BEEP-BEEEEEEEEP-BA-BEEP-BEEP!

 

The light from the lamp in its current position cast dark shadows on his ceiling. He could see the phone now. It lay innocently on the bedside table.  He grabbed it.

‘What?’ John asked, gruffly.

‘John?’

John squinted at the bedside clock that was now lying on its side on the floor.

‘For fuck’s sake, Frank…it’s five in the morning. What do you want?’

‘Oh…sorry…didn’t realise it was that late,’ Frank said, without sounding apologetic at all, ‘just wanted to make sure you were still on for tomorrow?’

‘What?’

‘You. Me. The Cantina. 6pm?’

John surveyed the destruction around him. He felt like he had become a frenzied killer of inanimate objects.

‘I have work in two hours. And now I have the Macarena song in my head.’

‘Don’t be late,’ he said. There was a nervous tremble in his voice that John had never heard before. ‘Just promise me you’ll be there.’

John was about to say that a text tomorrow during the day would of sufficed, but Frank had already said bye and the phone clicked off. He put the phone back on his nightstand, and was asleep again several moments after his head hit the pillow.

***

The Cantina was a Mexican themed bar run by two polish brothers. The irony of that wasn’t lost on John, but the burritos were actually quite delicious. Even if they did have Sauerkraut instead of minced beef in them. It was bowl shaped, with the main circular bar situated in the middle of the room. It looked like a perfect rendition of the Mos Eisley cantina on the planet Tatooine. Frank was a Star Wars nerd and didn’t actually care about the food or service (which was sub-par at best) he just liked ordering some blue-dyed beer and listening to the muzak that spluttered out of the speakers. Frank had once explained the whole backstory of the dome-shaped headed aliens with large, round, black eyes that played the music from the scene of A New Hope at length to John, and he was listening to this particular piece of music when he saw Frank lumbering into the bar, dressed as Batman.

At first John thought he was drunk, witnessing Frank stumble into a nearby table, knocking some ketchup onto the floor. A few patrons looked up in mild surprise and a waitress cocked an eyebrow at the shambling Dark Knight as he nonchalantly squatted and patted around the floor to pick up the plastic bottle.

‘Frank?’ John asked.

Frank straightened up, cocking his head like an inquisitive dog hearing an ultrasonic command and started lumbering towards the sound of John’s voice. Frank felt his way to the booth and slowly lowered himself into a seating position. John noted a grimaced expression from Frank as he let the seat take his weight.

‘Umm…Frank are you…’

Batman shot a gloved finger to his lips. John realised then that he wasn’t drunk at all, but had been walking around with his eyes closed. Without saying a word, he fished out a pen from his utility belt and groped around the table for a napkin. John watched with pensive bewilderment as Frank scrawled something on it, turned it to face John and slid it towards him.

John peered at the spidery, unintelligible words on the napkin. Letters clashed into one another and half of what had been scribbled down flounced off the thin sheet. ‘Frank,’ John said finally, ‘I can’t make a word of this out.’

‘You try writing with your eyes closed!’ he hissed, before realising he had spoken and clamped his hands to his mouth.

A waitress appeared at the table, shooting cautious and perplexed glances at the caped crusader sitting in front of her. When John looked up, her demeanor instantly changed from unsettled to irritatingly perky.

‘What can I get you guys?’ she said, smiling at Frank and John in the way you might smile at a freak-show animal that had been released from its cage, not sure if it would claw you to death or defecate over the floor. Behind those eyes John could tell that she wasn’t being paid enough to deal with this.

‘I’ll have a pint of lager, please.’ John said, in his most ‘this is a perfectly natural scenario’ voice.

Frank suddenly leaned forward and bent his head down, cupping his hand to his ear.

‘And…your friend?’ The waitress said, with a frozen smile.

‘Uhhhhhhh….’ Frank sighed, nodding at no one in particular. He stood up suddenly, pulling the utility belt off his waist, with a single sharp snap of leather. His black costumed trousers slid down to his ankles, exposing some rather dirty looking boxers for the whole bar to see.

‘I’M BATMAN.’ He shrieked.

There was a moment of silence as every head in the Cantina turned and gazed at the half dressed crime fighter.

‘He’ll have a pint too.’ John said.

The waitress quickly left with their order. Frank sighed.

‘Fuck it,’ he said, opening his eyes. He took in his surroundings with his hands on his hips, as if he were surveying a crime scene.

‘You want to sit down?’ John asked.

Frank nodded, but craned his arm round and wrenched something out from the back of his boxers. It was a brown, rusty looking hook – the kind that latched doors closed, with a curved tip that made it look like a question mark, or, seeing as Frank was dressed up as Batman, like the apex of The Riddler’s cane.

John didn’t want to know how he had secured it to his backside. Frank fingered the napkin and shrugged his shoulders.

‘I thought it was pretty clear what I was writing,’ he said, as if this was an explanation.

‘Frank. What the hell is going on?’

‘I’m on a game show,’ Frank said, furtively glancing around him, ‘I have to complete requests that are sent to me for cash prizes. Each time I complete a request, the prize money goes up. So far I’m up to £7,000.’

‘What?’

‘The first task was to steal this costume from a party shop. Since then I’ve had to French kiss a granny at the bus stop, eat a whole jar of mustard and try to organise an illegal cockfight.’

John looked at his friend with a mix of sympathy and pity. Mostly pity.

‘With actual cocks. Not the bird variety.’

John looked down at the hook on the table.

‘You don’t want to know about that,’ Frank muttered, physically recoiling from the sight of it. ‘It’s been…up there for a few hours now.’ He shifted his weight on the chair. ‘They’ve given me contact lenses that act as micro cameras, so they can always see where I am. The audience can get a first person perspective of the whole thing. Viewers text or call in their requests and the best ones get presented to me as tasks.’

John felt a minute, burning sensation starting to creep up from the base of his spine.

‘Frank…why did you call me here?’

Frank sighed again. He tapped a finger to his ear and nodded as if he had just received instructions.

‘It’s double or quits, buddy.’ He said. ‘Every Batman needs a Robin.’

‘What’s the next task?’ John asked, a tremble in his voice.

Frank slid the hook towards John.

‘They want you to lick it.’

‘Lick it?’

‘Lick it.’

‘No way. I know where that’s been.’

Frank rolled his eyes. ‘You’ll get £3,000.’

John looked down at the hook on the table and tried to block out the very real and very smelly tuft of hair wrapped round the tip.

‘I’ll get £3,000 just for licking it?’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘What’s the name of this show?’

‘It’s a YouTube channel. Prank’d or something like that.’

‘That’s all I have to do?’

‘That’s all you have to do.’

John shifted uncomfortably in his chair. A cascade of thoughts barraged through his mind. £3,000 would help a lot. He wouldn’t have to worry about rent for the next month. He could even take a holiday. But this would be seen live on YouTube. What if his friends saw this? What if his family saw this? One little lick. One small, upward slide of the tongue. Damn Frank for putting him in this situation!

He picked up the hook.

If he closed his eyes and did it quickly, he wouldn’t even notice, maybe. He would just hold his breath. Everyone had a price, right? In this day and age, anyone would do probably almost anything for a few seconds of fame…but that wasn’t him…he didn’t want to be remembered for this type of thing. God damn, in about a week no one would care anymore. Unless it went viral. Then everyone would know. £3,000 though…No, he couldn’t so this. He wouldn’t do this. He had principles.

‘I lose it all if you don’t…’ Frank said.

‘That’s your problem, mate.’ John said, lowering the peg to the table.

‘I’ll give you £6,000 if you do it!’ Frank cried.

With a fluid motion, John brought his mouth forward and licked the peg. He felt hairs bristle against his mouth, but he blocked it out. He tasted a metallic sharpness, a few flecks of what he hoped was rust followed closely by a unpleasant globular of…something. He slammed the hook down and promptly retched.

Frank clapped him on the back. ‘That’s my boy!’ he cried.

The waitress brought over two pints and left them on the table. As she turned to go, Frank mumbled something to himself as he pressed his hand to his ear.

‘Sorry?’ she asked.

‘Uhhhh…how would you like to make yourself some extra money?’ Frank said, with a sheepish grin on his face.

John grabbed the beer and drank almost the entirety of it in one gulp. The waitress looked at Frank with confusion, but at the mention of money there was a different expression on her face now. A ‘go on, I’m listening…’ look.

Frank glanced down at the hook on the table.

‘Have you ever seen ‘The Exorcist?’

John felt any respect or dignity for himself leave his body in that instant. Everyone has a price, right?

black tree

Photo by Tomek Dzido

THE HOUSE ON THE HILL

house

‘…Can you believe that?’ Amy said.

Calvin was silent. He’d drifted off into his own little world again and hadn’t been paying attention. There were only two options available to him now; he could release a non-committal grunt to whatever Amy had been prattling on about, in the hope that the sound that produced from his throat would be misconstrued as either an affirmation or a rebuff of her banal soliloquy…or he could come clean and tell her he hadn’t been listening for the last ten minutes. He weighed up the consequences of both options in a microsecond – they’d been dating for the past two years and Calvin had mastered the art of feigned indifference. It took immense skill to keep up the charade. There had been a time, for example, when he’d zoned out as Amy gabbed on about the latest shenanigans of Big Brother and she’d caught him out. She’d threatened to squash his testicles under her heels like overripe tomatoes. She prided herself of being a feminist in that regard. Calvin looked down from his seated position on the bus and pretended not to notice her heels.

‘Uh-huh.’ He said.

‘I mean, what a bitchy thing to say, right?’ Amy continued, oblivious that Calvin had crossed his legs. As she resumed her warbling diatribe, Calvin glanced to his right and noted that the bus had just shot past their stop.

Amy also noticed.

‘Didn’t you ring the bell?’ she said, icily. Calvin was about to point out that she was the one sitting directly in front of the red button, but remained silent. She jabbed it with her index finger with all the subtlety of a demented woodpecker hammering its beak into a tree and shouted, ‘Driver, you missed our stop. DRIVER!’

If the driver heard, he wasn’t responding.

Amy continued stabbing the button with her finger, the chorus of ding-ding-ding-ding-ding reverberating inside Calvin’s skull. He felt like he was in a pinball machine being played by someone who suffered from Parkinson’s disease and had jackhammers for arms.

‘DRIVER. I’M RAISING MY VOICE NOW, DRIVER.’

‘It’s alright,’ Calvin said, ‘we’ll just get off at the next one.’

He cringed inwardly as her back stiffened. He felt his testicles recoil and shrink in horror. She turned to him then and smiled with all the affection of a rabid dog.

‘That’s not the point, Calvin. The point is that he’s not listening to me. The point is that the male driver thinks I’m inferior because I’m a woman.’

Calvin stared at her. There were simply too many stressed words in her sentence for him to comprehend. She shot up like a bottle rocket and marched down the gangway to the driver’s Perspex protected box. Probably best place for him, Calvin thought.

A moment later she stormed back to where Calvin sat and loomed over him in an extremely menacing way. Her face was bright vermillion and he noted the veins in her neck were pulsating angrily.

‘Well?’ Calvin asked meekly.

‘He didn’t even fucking look at me.’ She folded her arms. ‘What are you going to do about it?’

Calvin nodded, as if this would somehow appease her. Maybe, he thought, if I simply say nothing at all we’ll get to the next stop and be off this bus so I won’t have to do anything. That would be just dandy.

That particular thought process was rendered moot however, when the bus whistled past the next stop. People started to mutter in the rows behind them and an old fellow barked towards the driver. He waved a cane quite passionately in the air to accompany his expletives.

‘You see?’ Amy said, a slither of spittle leaping from her mouth onto Calvin’s cheek, ‘He’s gone crazy. Out of his fucking tree.’

Calvin didn’t dare wipe the spit from his cheek. He hated confrontation. He would happily sit on the bus until it reached the end of the line, even though he would be seventy-five miles away from home, just to simply avoid confrontation. He wondered if his testicles had shrunk to microscopic proportions now.

‘What do you want me to do?’ Calvin whined.

‘I want you,’ Amy said, leaning in to him very slowly, ‘to Man. The. Fuck. Up.’

Calvin sighed. He stood up and made his way down the gangway, stopping in front of the reinforced glass, as he tried to make eye contact with the driver. He had on a hat, a pair of sunglasses, and wore fingerless gloves. From this angle, Calvin reckoned the guy was in his fifties – but had the type of stocky build that meant he could probably still take him in a game of football, even though he was half his age. Calvin used the tried and tested formula of English etiquette.

He began coughing.

The driver ignored him. He coughed again, louder this time. Still no reaction.

Calvin lent forward, and coughed quite loudly into the circular grill cut into the window. This still failed to elicit a response. Conscience of the fact that he sounded like he was in the final stages of acute cholera, he adopted a new tactic.

‘Excuse me,’ he said; very formally, ‘I believe you’ve missed the last two stops.’

The driver’s body remained frozen in position, but his head twisted towards Calvin, Exorcist-style and he smiled.

‘We’re going to the house on the hill.’ He said.

Calvin nodded, as if this made perfect sense. He glanced at Amy who was standing by the side doors, tapping her foot quite dramatically. Other people were also starting to gesticulate with their arms and other appendages.

‘Right,’ Calvin said, ‘that’s all well and good, with the house and everything…but we’re actually going to Iceland for some two-for-one offers and the shop was two stops back.’

The driver swivelled his head back and focused on the road once more. When they flashed past the third stop, other passenger’s tut-tuttings were starting to grow into full- blown curses.

The old man that had barked something from before trotted up beside Calvin and jabbed his cane at the strengthened glass.

‘Listen ‘ere, ya little shitburger – you bloody stop this bus now, y’hear?’

The driver rotated his head (again, in an eerily likeness of a possessed Linda Blair) and smiled. This infuriated the old man further and he rapped his cane against the plastic partition. The driver spun the steering wheel, lurching the bus violently to one side. Calvin grabbed one of the rails but the old man wasn’t as dexterous and as the momentum of the swerve forced him to stumble towards the door, the driver flicked a button, triggering them to open. The old fellow’s terrified eyes met Calvin’s just before he flew out into sweet, sweet freedom. The saccharine moment for the old man lasted for about half a second however, before he went headfirst into a car’s windscreen appearing from the opposite direction.

Calvin turned and looked at the driver. His hat had fallen from his head, and there was a small creature striding atop his cranium. The sight of the thing froze Calvin to the spot, in a primal, terrifying way that only accompanies an encounter with something completely extra-terrestrial. It looked like a monkey; it was furry with monkey-like eyes, face and a tail. It also had legs, lots of legs and was as big as a shoe. The tail looked like it was embedded into the driver’s skull. Sure enough, when Calvin closely examined the back of the driver’s neck, he saw a thin streak of blood. The monkey thing glanced at him and emitted a high-pitched wail. The driver mumbled something like an apology, clumsily padding his hand around the seat to find his hat. He finally fished it out and obscured the alien monkey by clamping it back over his head.

‘We’re going to the house on the hill.’ The driver said.

‘Ooooookay.’ Calvin turned and made his way back to Amy.

‘What the hell is going on?’ she asked, with a look of terror.

‘A monkey is driving,’ Calvin said.

‘I know a monkey is driving! He’s just killed that old bloke!’

Calvin decided not to get into the mechanics of what he’d just witnessed. ‘We need to get off this bus. Now.’ He looked at the side doors and flipped the covered plate of the emergency lock mechanism. Punching the circular button, he could hear screeching from the driver’s area as the doors slid open.

‘We’ve got to jump,’ he said.

Amy clutched his arm. He looked at her – she looked pale and her face was streaked with mascara as tears cascaded down her cheeks.

For a brief moment, he felt his testicles swell. If this were an action movie, he would be the hero, rescuing his girlfriend from an evil monkey alien race trying to take over the world’s bus drivers. He knew that none of this made any sense, but for the briefest of moments, damn it, he felt like a man.

He pushed Amy off the bus.

She shrieked something as she tumbled into the road. It may have been something like; ‘are you crazy, you fucking retard,’ but the sound of the wind drowned her out.

On the count of three, he also jumped.

black tree

Photo by Tomek Dzido

HARRY GOES TO HELL

oven

Apparently there’s a polish proverb that states ‘When a man hurries, the devil smiles.’ I know this to be false. The Devil, or Horatio Longbottom, as he prefers to be called, is a patient individual. For a fallen angel that has spent eternity as the Commander-In-Chief of Hell, he’s mastered the art of placidity. He has anger containment problems from time to time, but so would you if hysterical, babbling minions roamed the Underworld, each one vying for authority or respect in the bowels of Hell. We have the same on Earth, of course, but we call them General Managers.

It’s not as bad as I thought, all things considered. They have an excellent amphitheatre, their bratwurst is simply exquisite, and on the weekends they round up the destitute for bowling tournaments. One team named themselves ‘The Legion of Doom’ and made T-shirts. 100% baby Seal. I never knew Hitler was such a dab hand with a needle and thread.

Sure, they have doom fortresses, gnashing skulls, spiky portcullises, pits of despair and all the death traps you could imagine, but Hell really is just like any office job – once you get into the routine of things, it becomes a tad mind numbing.

I’m Harry, by the way. If you hadn’t already guessed, I’m dead. I’m going to tell you my story of how I ended up here – not as a precautionary tale, but simply to whittle away the hours before the ‘spit-roast of death’ scheduled at 3.45pm begins.

I suppose alarm bells should have rung when I stepped onto the train at Shepherd’s Bush station and realised there wasn’t a soul onboard. It was 8.15am. Rush hour. There should have been at least sixty sad wretches in suits and hope-drained faces shoved up against the doors. It should have been crammed so far beyond its carriage size that even the most agoraphobic sardine would have pleaded for freedom just so it could jump back into its tin for some extra leg room. Or fin room.

I had a vague recollection of an incident outside the station. A cyclist nearly collided with a bus. I remembered the cyclist waving his fist frantically in the air, calling the bus driver a ‘crack addled, son of a motherless donkey whore,’ and I assumed this had something to do with the lack of people on the train. I sat down and stretched my legs in the grandest of V shapes with a self-righteous, unapologetic, impertinent gesture of crotch waving. It felt nice.

The second alarm bell should have been pounding my cranium like a sledgehammer, howling like a four-minute warning klaxon heralding the apocalypse, when a dwarf with an enormous erection got onto the train at the next station.

His trousers were bulging as if he were smuggling an elephant’s trunk into the country. It looked like he’d shoplifted a large didgeridoo and had stuffed it down his trousers to avoid a blow from Rolph Harris. My eyes glanced from his prominent swelling and I was horrified to discover that he was leering at me.

I had made a cardinal sin of the tube and locked eyes with someone. Big mistake. The social etiquette of a situation like this was to look anywhere but in front of you. Everyone knew that. I looked at the advertising poster above his seat to avert my attention.

A model wearing an itsy bitsy teeny-weeny yellow dot bikini gazed outward at me, with full pouting lips and childbearing hips. Bold capitals next to her smouldering body asked me whether I was beachwear ready. Subconsciously I sucked in my paunch. I looked at her body again, scrutinising the curvature of those hips, whilst at the same time condemning whatever marketing agency had decided to put this advertisement on the tube. I could make out beads of sweat dripping down her bronzed, Amazonian body. I looked away, afraid that I too would feel a flutter in my crotch and give the dwarf ogling me the wrong idea.

What the dwarf said next took me by surprise.

‘How does it feel to be dead, Harry?’

I raised my eyebrows in a ‘are you talking to me’ kind of way and looked around for assistance so that the mad dwarf wouldn’t hurt, or worse yet, sexually assault me.

‘It’s okay Harry,’ he said, his voice surprisingly low and mellifluous. ‘I’m Oswald. I’ll be your guide to the Underworld.’ He rose from his seat and extended his hand. In my confusion and typical sense of British stoicism, I hastily and absentmindedly jabbed my own hand forward and accidently brushed his throbbing sex truncheon. He failed to react so I stammered something about how nice it was to meet him as my face turned bright scarlet.

‘We’ll be getting off at the next stop,’ he said, matter-of-factly.

‘Umm…hang on a second…how do you know my name?’

‘Oh…well, when you died, your soul kind of found its way to us.’

‘Yeeeeaah,’ I said, ‘about that…uh…what exactly…are you talking about?’

Oswald sighed. I must have been looking at him in the same manner a zoo punter might watch a coked up orang-utan perform a wild jig in a pit enclosure; indomitably inquisitive but at the same time ready to dash out of the way in case any faeces should be flung. He considered what to say for a moment, but then deferentially took my arm and guided me to the window of the carriage.

‘What do you see?’ he said.

‘Nothing,’ I replied. ‘We’re in a tunnel.’

‘Look again.’

I looked out at the dark tunnel walls as they whirled past with the juddering motion of the train. Nothing happened at first. I felt unnerved and uncomfortable as I humoured this madman’s request. I focused my eyes. I began to feel like I was looking at one of those magic eye pictures with shapes and forms conjoining together. It was like watching a Zoetrope flicker images on the tunnel wall right in front of me. The screeching of the train built to a crescendo in my head, and then, with a simmering clarity, the shapes resembled something I recognised. I saw my crumpled body on the road outside the train station.

The train jolted and with a finger-like snap it all came back to me. Running across the road to catch the train. The cyclist nearly hurtling into me. Sidestepping to avoid going ass over tit on his handlebars. The insult he threw about the son of a motherless donkey whore was directed at me, not the bus driver. And that’s where I slipped, thinking I’d reached the curb as the bus ploughed straight into me.

A bus had killed me.

How embarrassing.

My legs turned to spaghetti. My stomach flinched, as if cattle prodded. I felt the colour of my skin turn the same shade as my toilet bowel – porcelain white with the odd streak of brown and green.

‘Don’t worry’ Oswald said, ‘you’ll get used to it in time.’

I nodded, as if somehow this all made sense.

The train juddered to a halt. Oswald fell into me and for the second time I inadvertently touched his thrumming love pump. Still nothing, as he hopped off with a Cheshire cat like grin and beckoned me to follow.

Notting Hill Gate looked significantly different. For example, I couldn’t remember a gargantuan black cloud floating ominously in the sky, spiralling and swirling frantically above the only man-made tower within eyeshot, which was located high upon a steep ridge. There was also a faint aroma of sulphur in the air.

‘This is hell, I take it?’

Oswald clapped me on the back. ‘You’re one of the quick ones, aren’t ya?’ he said, in a manner that I perceived as slightly condescending. He gave an exaggerated wink and waddled off towards the large obsidian tower. Definitely condescending. I sighed and hurried after him.

‘Listen, I guess you must get this all the time, but I think there’s been a mistake.’

Oswald laughed. ‘You’re right. I do get that all the time.’ He stuck his hand down his trousers and rearranged his tackle.

‘I’ve got a question for you,’ I said.

‘Is it about my penis?’

‘Well…it’s kind of hard to miss.’

He smirked. ‘The Boss is always playing pranks around here. He’s given me an erection that will last for seven weeks. The first couple of days were okay, but it’s really starting to chaff now.’

I opened my mouth to reply, but there was nothing I could say that would be intelligible. We continued along as the ground started to slope uphill, towards the tower. I noticed several monstrous creatures flying high in the air but Oswald didn’t pay any attention to them, so I didn’t ask any questions. About an hour into our hike the climb up the slope turned into a gruelling slog for which I wasn’t prepared. Surprisingly though, Oswald didn’t seem to be having any difficulty, even with his diminutive frame. I, on the other hand, was wheezing and spluttering like an old age pensioner that had smoked seventy cigarettes a day, for the last seventy years, with the disadvantage of only having one pathetic, shrivelled lung. And that particular respiratory organ was a reluctant sonofabitch to provide any oxygen to my bloodstream.    

I was therefore relieved when Oswald stopped. Something had caught his attention in the distance up ahead. I was surprised at how far we had risen from our initial starting point. I could see a man running towards us. He was flailing his arms in the air, trying to catch our attention.

‘Hi!’ he exclaimed, his voice loud and high pitched. ‘I’m Brian.’

I opened my mouth to say hello, but retched instead.

‘New recruit, huh?’ he said. ‘Well you’re the servant of Evil now, you know that?’

Brian had wild, twitchy eyes. ‘Yeah,’ he continued, ‘you’re an insolent little maggot. Think you can be saved? Don’t answer that, it’s a rhetorical question. You can’t. You affront the LORD with your mere presence here – you are now the poisonous dribble of the death serpent!’ He cackled wildly and without warning threw himself off the crest of the mountain. As he plummeted to the ground he said something that sounded like, ‘Save me some ham in case I come baaaaaack,’ but I couldn’t be sure.

‘What…the fuck?’ I panted.

Oswald looked over the edge to see Brian’s body thrash around, hitting the side of the rocky hill many times in the process, before cartwheeling wildly again into the air and finally coming to a bone crunching stop on the solid granite far below.

‘Some people have trouble accepting that they can’t die once they’re dead.’ Oswald whispered in a pensive manner, before toddling up the hill again.

Finally we came to a spiky portcullis that slid up upon our arrival like extendable fangs. We marched forward into a courtyard and I couldn’t help but be impressed. The tower stood in front of us like a luminous monolith. A man sat behind a desk with a glum expression on his face. He was adorned with post apocalyptic-type armour. As we approached the desk, he jerked, sending his spiked helmet sliding down his forehead.

‘Name?’ he barked.

‘Harry.’

He rearranged his slanting helmet. ‘Cause of death?’

‘Motor accident.’ I replied. He jotted something down on a piece of paper. His helmet slid forward again, but he caught it with his other hand. ‘A grisly, mutilated kind of accident,’ I added.

‘Okay,’ he muttered to no one in particular. ‘Empty your pockets and proceed to wardrobe.’

I looked over at Oswald, who sashayed his hips to and fro and nodded in affirmation. I emptied my pockets. At my time of death I was carrying nothing more than my wallet, my house keys, and a Kinder Egg. Oswald limped over and picked up the chocolate egg.

‘What’s this, then?’ he asked, rolling the egg in his hands.

‘It’s three surprises in one.’

He brought it up to his ear and rattled it.

‘What’s inside?’ he asked, warily.

‘That’s one of the surprises.’

He narrowed his eyes upon the apex of the egg. ‘What are the other surprises, then?’

‘Well, it’s dark chocolate on the outside and white chocolate on the inside.’

Oswald looked at me confused. ‘But surely that’s just two surprises, then. Chocolate is chocolate.’

I shrugged my shoulders. ‘I didn’t make it.’

He considered this for a moment, then tossed the egg to me. ‘You better save that for the Boss. He likes gifts from the upper World. Might get you a better job down here, too.’

The man at the desk despondently waved us in and the great marble doors opened. I would soon meet the Devil.

A few minutes later I was led into a small room and my pre-death clothes were unceremoniously shredded. I was provided with a snazzy black robe, elegantly lined with golden thread and adorned with two gleaming columns of golden buttons. Oswald proffered a high collared black jacket with a fitted waist and built-in half cloak to fit over the robe. I’d never been one for the finer things in life, but as I ran my fingers over the fabric I found myself mumbling that you couldn’t find this type of stitching in Primark.

Oswald led me through countless hallways until we came to several spiral steps. I padded behind him in my jet-black slippers, marvelling at the paintings that decorated the walls. I don’t know why Hell garnered such a bad reputation; my experience thus far had been quite delightful.

The steps led further and further down and I lost count at three thousand and thirteen. Soon enough we came to a vast chamber filled with stone columns. There were many lit torches on the walls. Ahead was a large mahogany table, carved with ghoulish skulls. Sitting behind it was a wiry looking man with sunken eyes and thinning hair, which had been carefully combed over. He seemed to be writing in a leather-bound tome. I noted that he was wearing what appeared to be pink pyjamas. There was an ethereal vibe to this chamber so it seemed wise to speak only when spoken to.

‘Oswald, my dear boy!’ the man in the pyjamas exclaimed. ‘You brought a guest.’

Oswald stopped suddenly, semi-turned, extending his arm at me. ‘Morning bus accident,’ he said. I had been too late to stop and for the third time brushed Oswald’s raging sex piston.

The man interlaced his fingers. His eyes were clear, blue and angelic. He stared at me in silence for a moment.

‘Harry.’ He finally announced. ‘Welcome to my home.’

With surprising agility he jumped to his feet and strode around the desk. He didn’t avert his gaze from me. I felt like a Chihuahua in a rundown pet shop, ogled by a gurning old hag with a sinister intent of stroking me to death. As he drew close he offered his hand; even in the dim light it looked jaundiced, his clenched fingers like a chicken foot.

‘I’m Horatio Longbottom,’ he chirped. I took the chicken foot/hand and shook it.

‘You’re the devil?’ I asked, incredulously. I was expecting red horns or hooves, or at the least ass-less chaps. He clicked his tongue and ran his free hand through his wispy hair.

‘I’ve had so many names over the centuries,’ he began, ‘and in the end I feel that a name with a humorous surname seems to…comfort the souls here.’ He was still staring at me with those blue, azure eyes and didn’t blink. He never blinked.

‘I believe you have something for me?’ I could see Oswald in my peripheral vision miming for me to remove something from my pocket. Or at least I thought he was. There was a distinct possibility he was massaging his enflamed white snake. I remembered the Kinder egg, and fished it out of a pocket inside my robe.

Horatio’s eyes lit up like the city of Pompeii after the volcano had belched out melting hot magma. He snatched it from my grasp in the manner of a child coveting a double chocolate chip cookie.

‘Ooooooooh,’ he cooed and rolled it around in his hands, bringing it up close for inspection. We stood silent for a few minutes, until he looked up at me with a fanatical grin.

‘It certainly looks nice,’ he said, ‘but what is it?’

‘It’s a Kinder egg.’

‘Kin-dah. Surely the Egg of Kings. You do surprise me, Harry. Your records say you barely accomplished anything of merit within your life, but here you present to me a gift fit for angels.’ He tapped it with one of his nails and began to peel off the wrapper.

‘Umm. Right. It’s three surprises in one. Apparently.’

He pursed his lips and let out a small squeal of pleasure.

‘And what…are…the three surprises,’ he said, starting to pant. I was unnerved by his heightened pleasure.

‘Well, it’s chocolate on the outside…’ I began, but upon hearing the word ‘chocolate’ he deftly lobbed the egg into his mouth. There was a faint crunch as he bit into the small shell of whatever toy would now never see the light of day.

‘I didn’t expect it to be crunchy,’ he said, after swallowing the entire egg. ‘Or to taste like plastic.’

I shrugged my shoulders. ‘Listen,’ I said finally, ‘I was telling Oswald that I think there’s been a mistake.’

‘A mistake?’

‘Yes. I haven’t killed anyone. I’ve never performed any sexual acts with an animal. I don’t think I should be in hell.’

Horatio put his arm round my shoulder and lead me down the chamber. He waved dismissively at Oswald who promptly turned and took his leave.

‘I’m afraid,’ he began, ‘what you’ve been led to believe about Heaven and Hell in the Upper World isn’t exactly what the reality is. Intelligence for these type of things is a complex instinct which hasn’t fully yet matured. I think mankind may be able to solve it in the next hundred years or so, with any luck. I don’t know, just blame it on the God Hypothesis.’

‘The…what?’

‘The God Hypothesis!’ Horatio bellowed, slapping his hands together. ‘It basically means,’ he continued, ‘that mankind has an unparalleled understanding of absolutely everything whilst knowing virtually nothing. That is His gift to you.’ He cackled loudly and the walls reverberated to his laughter. I assumed he had practised for a long time to achieve the correct pitch for this effect – maybe even the best part of a few years in villainy school to master that laugh.

‘Ignorance?’

Horatio roared again. ‘Ignorance…yes. Or maybe there’s simply no room up there,’ he said, pointing to the high stone ceiling. ‘Maybe you farted in a lift once, which had dire consequences for the next person who entered it. Maybe you you’ve done nothing with your life and someone, somewhere, knew you never would. Or maybe,’ he said, leaning into my ear, ‘maybe this is the only afterlife anyone will ever know.’

We had moved from the large chamber into a narrow tunnel, and without warning, he slapped me hard across the face.

‘If you want to try and understand,’ he said didactically, ‘imagine Hell as the David Lynch and Salvador Dali lovechild of surrealism. Just think of that lovechild as having seven arms, an elongated beak for a nose who answered ‘flip-flop mackerel’ to everything you asked.’ He ushered me through an archway. We were standing in a small cell-like room.  There was a large hole in the floor. At the far end of the chamber was another doorway leading into another room, but I couldn’t see what lay beyond the entrance as it was currently engulfed with flames that seemed to be flourishing viciously.

‘Call it an initiation,’ he said, staring at me with those cold blue eyes. ‘You can choose to jump into the hole of uncertainty, or walk through the flames of burning-toastiness.’

‘Why?’ I asked.

Horatio shrugged. ‘Funsies, I guess.’

There was an audible click from behind us. I turned to see Brian reattaching his jaw back into its socket.

‘I shall swallow the tears of sin!’ Brian hollered, once his mouth was able to move again. Horatio groaned.

‘Brian,’ Horatio said facetiously, ‘I thought you left to find salvation…or something.’

‘The pale horse has been saddled’ Brian said, brushing past me, ‘and I have put my holy foot in its stirrup.’ I noticed several bones protruding from stumps that used to be his legs. ‘You,’ he said, waggling his finger at Horatio, ‘you…foul beast. You…licker of nipples…you shall not deter me from my true calling. For the LORD calls me unto his light.’

Horatio sighed. ‘He does, does he? And what does he ask of you, Brian?’

Brian flapped his arms in the air, as if wasps were attacking him. I thought it all a little too dramatic, but Brian didn’t seem shaken from his convictions.  ‘He asks me to dance on your baubles! That’s right! The LORD has asked me to smite you with righteous vengeance and rid this den of heresy. The pale horse whinnies with each passing moment I remain in this wretched abomination.’ And with that he walked through the entranceway and into the flames.

‘If I come back this time save me some haAAAAAAAIIIIIIEEEEE!’ He screamed as the flames consumed his body.

Horatio shook his head. ‘I wouldn’t mind so much, but I think he actually gets off on this type of thing.’

I exhaled. ‘So I guess I’m stuck here, then.’

‘’Fraid so, old sport.’

I looked down at the hole of uncertainty.

‘What’s down there?’

‘I’m uncertain,’ Horatio said. ‘Cake, maybe.’

I nodded. Taking a few steps forward, I closed my eyes. It was true what he had said earlier; I hadn’t accomplished much with my time on Earth. I’d left school with nine GCSE’s and three A-Levels, thinking that they would mean something. They didn’t. University came and went in a drunken haze and then I’d taken up a nine to five job in a processing factory. I’d fallen in and out of love twice. I’d spent five months travelling the world only to come back to London feeling jaded and lonely. I’d thought about purchasing a house but realised I didn’t have the means to do so. I played far too many video games, watched far too many films, and read far too many books. I never escaped the monotony of my own existence. Maybe it had taken death for me to realise that, in the end, it didn’t really matter. None of it did.

I stepped off and into the void.

Horatio was right. There was cake at the bottom.

black tree

JINGLE ALL THE WAY

Christmas-Jingle-Bells-HD-Wallpaper-on-The-Christmas-Tree

The cashier inattentively swiped the various items across the reader. When she had finished, she flashed a mirthless smile and solemnly mumbled that the amount totalled £34.50.

Maureen noted as she handed over her debit card that the cashier had a melancholic look about her, with dull grey eyes. She wondered if she looked hard enough, would it be possible to view her own reflection in those dark eyes? And if so, would she like what she saw?

The cashier imperceptibly sighed inward and slid the card reader towards Maureen instead of taking the plastic.

“You got contactless, yeah?”

Maureen shook her head. Pretended not to notice the visual transformation from disdain to outright loathing on the cashier’s face. As she inserted her debit card into the reader, she wondered if the cashier’s countenance would likely fall into a scowl if it was not singularly held up by the invisible strings of retail etiquette. An awkward moment of silence ensued as she punched in her PIN code, followed by another agonising pause for the receipt to be printed out. When the machine instructed that she could remove her card, Maureen wished the cashier a Merry Christmas. The cashier did not reciprocate the sentiment.

Maureen exited the book-shop and made her way with unsteady feet to the pavilion area in the middle of the shopping complex. The pain in her lower back was beginning to twinge again, and the load from the shopping bags was indiscernibly growing heavier with each step. She sat down on one of the benches and let out an exaggerated sigh. It was cold, and she vigorously rubbed her hands together, noticing the dark pink welts on her palms where the bag handles had left their mark.

The pavilion area was open topped, and the approaching twilight casted a dim cobalt tint around the square as if the colour saturation had been chilled out of it.

She took a moment to absorb this section of the shopping centre. Fairy lights had been draped along the higher balconies, and in the distance a choir could be faintly heard singing ‘Silent Night.’ A group of girls were weaving in and out of each other’s paths, hollering at one another in the kind of high-pitched way that indicated to Maureen that they were not yet teenagers. They still had an air of naivety to them. One of the girls in the group still had the kind of puppy fat around her jowls that Maureen knew would soon tighten; in a couple of years she would have womanly curves instead of a pudgy muffin-top.

She likened herself to the girl when she was at her age; hanging copper rivulets, porcelain skin and an inviting smile that everyone wanted to talk to – but when she looked at herself in the mirror these days, she noticed that her hair had no volume, the skin on her cheeks and under the chin sagged, with thin lips and mouth perpetually frozen in a frown.

A small herd of boys started to cross their path, hushing the girls into whispered titters and sure enough Maureen noted their veiled nonchalance disintegrate as soon as the boys were out of earshot. She wondered for a moment how old Jack was. She chided herself for not knowing instantly. A mother should always know these things. He was seventeen. Of course he was, he’d just passed his driving test.

There was a bronze effigy that sat in the middle of the square of a father, son and mother sitting on a bench. They seemed to be smiling, but Maureen couldn’t be so sure now, the weather having eroded much of the features away. She tried to remember the last time that Arthur had taken her anywhere, to be treated to a night out on the town or to go a fancy restaurant, but the memory was muddied in her mind. A good couple of years at least, she thought wearily.

If someone were to say to her a long time ago that Arthur would be the man she would marry, that they would be together for thirty two years, that they would plan to have a child and when that child finally came along they would have another, only for the plan to be dashed when Maureen experienced a miscarriage, that their breakfasts and dinners would slowly devolve into long, drawn out silences, because not talking about certain things was better than speaking at all, that they would start to sleep in separate beds, and that their son would only on occasion grunt at them as conversation, then Maureen would have laughed, and would have told you to stop being so clichéd and ridiculous.

But, thirty-two years later, Maureen would have likely slapped the younger version of herself and told her that life had a funny way of embellishing the clichéd and ridiculous.

She tried to bat away those thoughts from her head. Wouldn’t help with the Christmas shopping. Peering into the plethora of bags nestled between her feet; she mentally ticked off present to person ratio. Books for Jack, as he loved reading. Check. M&S shopping gift card for her sister, Pauline. Check. Bottle of whiskey for Arthur. Check. Her face slightly contorted as her eyes darted over the sandy coloured liquid in the bottle. She hated him when he was drunk. Hated the way he looked at her with those accusing eyes when he’d reached a certain level. Stuffed toy for her niece, Clarice. Check. Some make-up and chocolate for later as a kind of ‘hey, everyone hates shopping at Christmas but you did it anyway’ reward. Check.

She was forgetting something. She knew she was. A small stabbing pain shot through her lower back. She shifted in her position, crossing her legs to shift the discomfort and noting her thighs rubbing together as she did.

“I know that look, dear.” Said a voice from beside her.

Startled from her shopping list catatonia, she was surprised to see two elderly women sitting on the bench next to her. She hadn’t even realised that they had sat down.

“You got the right old willies, didn’t you?” The other one said, and they both started cackling. Maureen gave a sheepish grin, and was about to gather her belongings when she felt a hand reverently clasp her arm.

“Sit down for a little longer, dear. You look like you could use it.”

Maureen was about to protest, was about to say something along the lines of wanting to get the last of her shopping completed and go home, but then she realised that she didn’t actually want to leave. To meet a son that barely acknowledged her existence. To a husband that felt repulsed by the sight of her. She closed her mouth, nodded at the elderly couple, and sat back down again.

She felt an ethereal-like calm take control of her body and for the first time in a long while she found herself smiling. The two elderly women were talking amongst themselves now, and Maureen noticed that the one furthest away from her had produced a scrapbook of some description.

“What was this young lad’s name again, Dot?” She was pointing at a picture that Maureen couldn’t see.

The woman closest to her, Dot, strummed her fingers against her wrinkly chin. “Hard to say, love.” She peered over at the picture that her friend was referring to. A wide grin came over her face, and as it did Maureen felt a surge of power and invigoration pulse through her body. Dot leaned into her friend and playfully shoulder-bumped her. “We did have fun that day though, didn’t we?”

They both started cackling again. Maureen felt prickles of electricity run down her neck. It was as if just being in the mere presence of these two elderly women was somehow lifting her spirits. She noticed that the thrumming pain in her lower back had now receded entirely.

Dot’s friend squealed with delight as her finger jabbed at another photo. “Remember this one? It was Christmas three years ago.”

Dot leaned over, examining the photo. “Like it was yesterday, petal. Oh he was so handsome in his Santa suit.”

“He was, wasn’t he?”

“He was a real hit with the ladies that year.”

They both chuckled again. Dot checked her watch.

“Come on, we’ll be late for the bus.”

And with that, they slowly stood up and waddled away. Maureen smiled as her eyes wandered from where they had left, back to the statue in the middle of the plaza, and then at a photo on the bench next to her. Intrigued, Maureen thought it had slipped out of the scrapbook. Perhaps she could catch up to them give it back, she thought, as she turned the photo over.

A man tied to a chair. He’s dressed in a Santa suit, with his face bloody and swollen. His eyes bulging and afraid. Although the image isn’t the clearest, Maureen instantly knows that the clumped mess of pink and red underneath the man’s chair has come from his stomach. Dot’s friend is standing next to him, all razorblade smiles, as she’s holding something up above the man’s head.

Maureen remembered with clarity what she had previously forgotten. She slipped the photo into her pocket, with renewed energy flowing through her.

It wouldn’t take long to find the nearest hardware store. Maureen pictured Arthur, probably asleep on the sofa now. Yes, she thought to herself. A nice hardware store. It was going to be a lovely Christmas.

 black tree

A DAY AT THE OFFICE

keyboard_and_mouse

To: albert.finkle@labtechINC

From: mike.thompson@labtechINC

Date: Tuesday 18 November 2014 09:30am

Subject: Presentation

Hi Al,

Just wanted to check that you were all set for the meeting at 10.00am? I know I’ve been nagging since last week about it but I can’t stress the importance of this presentation to our sponsors and execs. Your designs for the new propulsion system are amazing! They’re not just going to blow everyone away; they’re going to revolutionize the way people think about quantum physics! Seriously, this is going to be a major game changer. I’ve got people calling every minute. I’m talking book deals, TV shows…the works! Now I know you don’t like speaking in front of large groups, so let me know if you need a hand with anything, okay? Maybe we can grab a coffee beforehand?

Kind regards,

Mike

To: mike.thompson@labtechINC

From: albert.finkle@labtechINC

Date: Tuesday 18 November 2014 09:36am

Subject: Re: Presentation

Hey Mikey boy,

Why do people say that? Grab a coffee? Why would I grab a hot drink? I was expressively told as a child that I was never to grab anything. Except maybe Julie’s legs from HR! Haha – I kid, I kid…but seriously, have you seen those gams? Anyway, why can’t we leisurely take our time and sip a coffee? Unlike my designs for the sustainable fuel consumption for the new propulsion system, coffee seems to be the unequivocal source of ingestion around here. By the way, have you heard Todd’s impression of an American gangster saying ‘Kuarwfee?’ Hi-larr-ious.

Much love,

Albert

To: albert.finkle@labtechINC

From: mike.thompson@labtechINC

Date: Tuesday 18 November 2014 09:38am

Subject: Re: Re: Presentation

Ok, we can do that – but you’re sure you’re okay, Albert? Everything ready?

Kind regards,

Mike

To: mike.thompson@labtechINC

From: albert.finkle@labtechINC

Date: Tuesday 18 November 2014 09:40am

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Presentation

I’m peachy, mike. Like un-muddied water. Like a clear azure sky. Just finishing some witty ice-breakers for the start of the demo. A few words to loosen everyone up, if you will. Did you hear about the one about the guy who walks into a bar with the eleven inch pianist in his pocket?

With even greater love,

Albert

To: albert.finkle@labtechINC

From: mike.thompson@labtechINC

Date: Tuesday 18 November 2014 09:45am

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Presentation

Umm, don’t worry about those, Al – I’ll be starting the presentation. I’ll see you down at the boardroom in ten minutes then, yes?

To: albert.finkle@labtechINC

From: mike.thompson@labtechINC

Date: Tuesday 18 November 2014 11:45am

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Presentation

Al, I think we need to talk about what just happened…

To: mike.thompson@labtechINC

From: albert.finkle@labtechINC

Date: Tuesday 18 November 2014 11:46am

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Presentation

I know, right??? NAILED IT.

With unequivocal love,

Albert

To: albert.finkle@labtechINC

From: mike.thompson@labtechINC

Date: Tuesday 18 November 2014 11:45am

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Presentation

Jesus, Al – I’ve had several complaints from staff members. Some of our female colleagues felt that what you were wearing was…inappropriate for the occasion at hand. What am I going to tell the executives? This presentation was televised, for Christ’s sake!

To: mike.thompson@labtechINC

From: albert.finkle@labtechINC

Date: Tuesday 18 November 2014 11:49am

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Presentation

I don’t see what the problem is, Mikey boy. I think the demo went ruddy well. Ruddy well indeed. I do admit that putting the video clip at the beginning of the presentation of a cat attempting to jump from a ledge and falling on its face, accompanied with the flashing titles: ‘If only I haz motion propulsion’ was a little juvenile, but it’s more for the kids then anything else. They love their memes, Mike. You can’t argue with the kids. Or touch them inappropriately, for that matter. You can go to jail for that. We just have to roll with the times. What’s the problem? Who’s complaining? Not Julie, I hope?

To: albert.finkle@labtechINC

From: mike.thompson@labtechINC

Date: Tuesday 18 November 2014 11:45am

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Presentation

This is going to be a PR nightmare…Al, I know that you tech types have your…’eccentricities’, but this is 2014 – you cant wear a shirt with half naked women plastered across it! It’s ostracizing and degrading! What were you thinking??? No, Julie hasn’t complained.

To: mike.thompson@labtechINC

From: albert.finkle@labtechINC

Date: Tuesday 18 November 2014 11:49am

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Presentation

Phew, that’s a relief. I think I’m going to ask her out. What with the awesome demo going so well and everything. On a bit of a high, if I do say so myself. Half-naked women? Mike, that’s She-Ra, Wonder Woman, She-Hulk and Batgirl on my shirt. Wonder Woman is an Amazonian Goddess. We’re talking Olympus type Toga party up in here. What do you expect her to wear? A hoody and some cargo pants? You crack me up!

To: albert.finkle@labtechINC

From: mike.thompson@labtechINC

Date: Tuesday 18 November 2014 1:35pm

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:  Presentation

Okay, Albert – I’ve managed to quell some of the complaints internally, but as the presentation was televised there’s been a backlash on twitter and Facebook. We’re going to need to you make a public apology.

To: albert.finkle@labtechINC

From: mike.thompson@labtechINC

Date: Tuesday 18 November 2014 2:15pm

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Presentation

Al, are you there? We’re going to need a response within the hour, please.

To: mike.thompson@labtechINC

From: albert.finkle@labtechINC

Date: Tuesday 18 November 2014 3:38pm

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Presentation

Hey Mike, sorry for the late reply. Got chatting with Todd and Julie about the demo. Kuarwfee. That Todd…such a character! Funny you should mention it, I was speaking with Julie (you know, the one from HR) and she didn’t seem to have a problem with the shirt. She wants to get one with Batman, Thor and Aquaman – but then we got into an argument because as everyone knows Aquaman is the lamest superhero of all time. I mean, how can he control whales? They’re not even mammals! Crazy.

To: albert.finkle@labtechINC

From: mike.thompson@labtechINC

Date: Tuesday 18 November 2014 2:15pm

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Presentation

I don’t think you’re grasping the severity of the situation here, Albert. A lot of people were offended by your shirt. I know what you’ve achieved here is monumental; revolutionary even, but we still have to think of the integrity of the company and what we represent to the masses. This could really damage what we’ve tried to achieved here today…

To: mike.thompson@labtechINC

From: albert.finkle@labtechINC

Date: Tuesday 18 November 2014 2:15pm

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Presentation

If you’re reading this, Doc Brown was unable to make lightning strike the clock tower, and I’m stuck in 1985. I won’t be able to respond to emails or voicemail until 9ish on Thursday, November 20th, or until email is invented — whatever comes first. Just kidding, I’m out of the office because I’m super awesome and just invented a new propulsion system that will save thousands of dollars for NASA or whatever company uses it. Julie – Aquaman is lame. The Flash is more your style. Or speed. Haha, see what I did there? Want to go for a drink sometime?

 

Kind regards,

 

Albert. 

To: albert.finkle@labtechINC

From: mike.thompson@labtechINC

Date: Tuesday 18 November 2014 2:16pm

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Presentation

Well…fuck.

black tree

THE EYE TEST

IMG_2416

Sarah blinked awkwardly, a solitary tear rolling down her cheek. The man in the white coat smiled and switched on the light.

“I highly doubt you have glaucoma, but it’s always good to check.” He took a clipboard from atop a nearby pedestal and started making notes with a pen.

Sarah nonchalantly raised her head from the tonometer and wiped the eye that had just taken a puff of air. Whilst the optician was busy formulating his notes, she slipped her glasses back on and mentally noted the first several letters from the eye chart.

E, F, P, T, O, Z, P, E, D.

She recited this back to herself. In the scheme of things she knew that she was only cheating herself by lying about what letters she could clearly see on the chart, and felt only slightly guilty about lying to the optician when the time came to take the test, but she would hate it more if he discovered that she was virtually blind. Sarah knew that this notion was ridiculous. He was her optician, it was his job to ascertain the level of her blindness…but she found him rather handsome, and who knew – maybe with a bit of flirting there was a miniscule chance that he wasn’t married and didn’t have a girlfriend. Halving the miniscule chance into two micro-miniscule chances, there was also the hope that they could get something to eat, have a few drinks and then…

The optician cleared his throat and smiled again. Sarah stirred from her fantasy and smiled back.

“I’m just going to examine the retina at the back of your eye now. I’ll be shining a light into your eye so you may see a shadow afterwards in your vision, but this will soon fade, so don’t worry.” He dropped the clipboard back upon the pedestal and switched the light off. Sarah held her breath as he inched close to her and produced a small black object from his coat. She wasn’t used to people being in her personal space. She could smell his aftershave and wondered if she should say something, maybe light hearted to break the uncomfortable silence. She quickly thought about what she had for lunch. She couldn’t seem to remember having any garlic in the Panini earlier…

“You know,” she whispered, “I bought some glow-in-the-dark contact lenses recently. That way, when I close my eyes I can still see in the dark.”

The optician clicked the apparatus off. She couldn’t gauge his reaction, as there was now a large purple blob pulsating and hovering in her field of vision. He wheeled back to his clipboard and with the hitch of his thumb turned the lights on again.  If he had found the quip amusing, he wasn’t showing it.

“I just have to find your prescription, and then I’ll be right back,” he said, getting up from the chair. She smiled and chided herself inwardly for saying something so child-like. After the door closed behind him Sarah let out a tortured sigh.

E, F, P, T, O, Z, P, E, D.

            She closed her eyes and repeated the letters again aloud in a rhythmic mantra, as if by hearing them audibly they would soothe the social inadequacy she felt at that moment. When she opened them again two things became apparent to her: firstly the floating purple blob was gone from her vision, and second that an eyeball was staring at her from the wall.

At first she thought the eyeball was a small crude drawing pinned to the wooden panelling, or that a child had placed a googly eye sticker next to the wall chart. She likened to think that the optician was good with children, and perhaps even handed out lollipops to them after an eye exam. When she saw the eyeball blink however, she knew that it was real and someone was watching her from behind the walls.

She didn’t freak out, which surprised her. After a moment it seemed like everything around the eye came vividly into focus. The imperceptible flickering fluorescent light of the wall chart; the scuffmarks of shoes on the skirting board; the fraying edges of leather of the chair in front of her. She also realised a few peculiarities about the office itself; the timber-panelled walls seemed peculiar in a modern optician’s, but with all the branding of glasses (Buy one pair of glasses and get another pair half price!) scientific marketing and other paraphernalia. The hole in the wall was about three inches in diameter each way, and scrutinising it closely, Sarah was surprised that she hadn’t noticed it earlier.

She stood up, curious now. She took a few tentative steps forward and before she could come any closer the eye blinked again.

She stopped.

“Hello?”

The eye kept staring at her. She suddenly felt unnerved; the initial decision of standing up and speaking to the eye shrivelling within itself and now her internal monologue was screaming at her to leave the room, to leave this place, immediately. She conducted a half-turn when a single germ of a thought crept into her mind, manacling itself firmly like a vice. Some deep rooted foreboding thought that kept her still. The eye was locked on her like some kind of military style missile weapon. She was the target, painted in its sight. She felt that if she left this room, she would die.

The door opened. The Optician was half muttering to himself with his head down looking at his clipboard when some kind of ethereal notion made him look up to see Sarah’s confused and frightened expression.

There was a thin, rasping sound that came from behind the walls. The voice was hoarse, as if the owner was chewing on a dozen marbles.

“Effffp Toz-Ped.”

The optician lowered the clipboard. His eyes darted from Sarah to the hole in the wall.

“Please tell me you heard that.” Sarah squeaked.

The optician quickly closed the door behind him. He dropped the clipboard on the pedestal and stood silent for a moment. He ran a hand through his hair.

“You’ve met Horace, I see.” he said, as a way of explanation.

Sarah blinked several times in rapid succession. “Horace?”

“HOOOOORACE!” Shrieked the voice from behind the wall. Sarah jumped, looking at the solitary eye. It blinked again, and then vanished. There was a dark chasm now in its place, and Sarah didn’t know whether this was better or not. The optician shook his head, leant forward and put his hands on Sarah’s shoulders.

“Just remember, do whatever Horace asks. It’s best not to upset him.”

Sarah stood numb. Her mouth opened to ask a question but in her peripheral vision she could see something coming out of the hole.

A dirty, thick finger poked out, wagging in earnest.

“Ssssuckyssssuckyssssuckyssssucky,” Horace hissed. The optician bowed his head.

“Can we do this later, Horace?” he asked, with a notable tremble in his voice.

There was a high-pitched scream from behind the wall. Sarah likened it to a wounded animal. After the shriek abruptly ended, there was a moment of sobbing. Sarah tried to move, but the optician held her firmly in place. The sobbing was incessant, but after a moment Sarah noticed a change – the sobbing had turned into laughter.

“Blackee?” Horace manically bawled.

At this word, she felt the optician’s grip tighten on her shoulders. He looked up her now, and she could see that tears were streaming down his face.

“Remember what I said, okay?” he said, before releasing his grasp on her and moving toward the hole in the wall. He removed his coat and gingerly motioned his head forward to the hole. The optician opened his mouth slowly and enclosed it around the dirty, stumpy finger. The noise that came from behind the wall was now filled with giddiness. Sarah looked away as she saw the contours of the optician’s cheeks rise and fall as the finger probed around inside. There were strange, suckling noises and then she heard the optician gag.

“Very good, Horace,” the optician croaked. He put his coat back on.  When Sarah looked at the hole, the eye was back, looking at her.

“lickylickylickylicky,” he snarled.

The optician sighed again. Resignedly, he motioned for Sarah.

“He wants you to lick his eye.” He said, flatly.

It was at this point that Sarah screamed. She fled from the room. The optician turned to the wall. He leant up against it, a metallic and filthy taste in his mouth. He quietly knocked his head against it.

“Blackee…blackee…black…” Horace whispered.

********

The waitress brought the plate of beans, hash browns, sausages and coffee to the handsome man in the booth in front of the window. He acknowledged her with a smile, and she wondered if he was married or had a girlfriend. He always came to this café in the morning, and although they never really spoke apart from morning pleasantries, she wondered if he came in here for other reasons than breakfast. She noticed he was reading a newspaper, and was scrutinising an article in particular.

“I heard about that,” the waitress said, gesturing towards the picture in the paper. “Terrible.”

The man nodded his head.

“Poor woman. Found wandering the streets in hysterics. Funny thing though,” she carefully lowered the plate on the table, “when the police came to interview her she’d gone completely blind and deaf. Pretty weird, if you ask me.”

The man gravely shook his head.

“Can I get you anything else?” she said, flashing her best smile at the handsome man. He said no, and returned to his paper. The waitress went about her morning chores, and forgot about the conversation an hour later.

black tree

THE WEDDING

church bell

‘Are you ready?’

Michael inhaled deeply. He measured himself in the mirror. His cravat was slightly offset. He adjusted it, exhaled and nodded. He felt a deferential pat on his shoulder. He turned and smiled at Thomas, his best man.

‘You know,’ Thomas said, ‘This is a tad morbid, even for you.’

Michael waved his hand dismissively and reached over for his jacket, slung over the hotel room chair.

‘I just want to enjoy the honeymoon. It would be playing on my mind if I didn’t sort it out today anyway. And also,’ he said, flashing a Cheshire-cat like grin, ‘It kills two birds with one stone. Have you got it?’

Thomas looked around the room and gave a small ‘ah’ when he located a golden coloured envelope on the dressing table. He slid it into Michael’s pocket, also with the wire.

‘Right then, let’s get you married.’

Down the hallway, they entered the lift and stood patiently whilst some muzak played through the tinny compartment. Thomas ignored the way Michael was playing with his hands as the lift descended – just nerves. He’d always been solid, and would see this through. The lift doors opened and Thomas marched forward into the reception area. The car was waiting for them, and it was a scenic fifteen-minute drive to the church. Thomas was getting slightly agitated at the way Michael kept on patting his jacket pocket, to remind himself that the wire and envelope were still there, but once again he just put it down to nerves. As the car pulled up outside the church, he wondered how Claudia was getting on with her end of things.

Michael noted that some guests were already arriving for the ceremony. A few people waved and cheered at him as he got out of the car. He waved back, looked at Thomas and nodded. Instead of going straight to the main entrance, he turned heel and made his way to the back of the church. Making sure no one was in sight, he fished the golden envelope out of his pocket and tore it open. He knew the details, but he wanted to make sure. He always made sure.

There was a picture, name and relevant details. He blew out a long, held in breath and stuffed the envelope back into his pocket. He moved to a small alcove where a rustic looking door with grated iron handle awaited him. It was open, as planned.

The room was small, with white washed walls. There was a small pew to the right and a coat stand in the corner. A man was sitting on the pew. Michael breathed a sigh of relief; he was on time.

The man, upon seeing Michael enter the room, stood to greet him. He was overweight, with brown leathery skin and a thick black beard. He was dressed in white, with the three top buttons undone to reveal a chest thick with wiry hair.

‘Michael, my friend,’ he said, with a slight South American accent, ‘glad to see you again, my dear, dear boy.’ He opened his arms and hugged Michael.

Michael exchanged pleasantries with the man and closed the door.

‘Did anyone see you enter?’ Michael asked, curiously.

The man shook his head. ‘No…I did as you ask. Why all the secrecy, Michael? Why all the…what do you call it? “Cloak and Dagger” games?’

Michael smirked, ‘Come now, Klaus – you know our business arrangements need to be held in private.’

The man smiled, rubbed his beard and nodded resignedly. ‘Yes, yes, of course. Could this not wait until after you are married though?’ He let out a hearty chuckle. Michael wondered how thick the walls were in the small room. Would the guests now entering the church hear them? He wondered.

‘Unfortunately this could not wait,’ Michael quickly whispered, taking Klaus by the arm. ‘It’s very important that you receive this information from my company today. Otherwise it ruins the plans.’

Klaus looked confused. Michael slowly lowered himself onto the pew. He motioned for Klaus to sit with him. Once he had lowered himself down, Michael wrapped his arm round the older man’s shoulders.

‘It’s very important that I give you this message,’ he iterated, ‘because we have been business associates for quite some years now.’ Klaus looked at the man about to be married with a sense of unease now.

‘Michael, what is all this about?’

With a sudden precision that only men like Michael could master with years of experience, the cheese wire in his pocket was out and round Klaus’ neck. Klaus gasped in horror, but was too slow to raise his hands up and prevent the wire enfolding around tightly like a vice. He kicked out in shock at first, but Michael was used to this and wrestled him down to the cool marble flooring.

‘You’ve been greedy, Klaus,’ Michael hissed as he tightened his grip. ‘We’ve been friends for years but you know the company can’t tolerate thieves.’ Klaus was gasping for air now, his face a bright beetroot colour.

They started thrashing on the floor. Michael could hear bells ringing from the church tower and knew he only had a few minutes. Claudia would be at the church doors soon, and he had no intention of keeping his bride waiting. A few twists and the job was done. Klaus’ lifeless body lay crumped on the floor. Michael checked himself down. A fleck of blood had stained his collar. He grimaced and tried rubbing it, but it just smeared into the white shirt. He cursed and put the cheese wire in his pocket with the creased envelope details.

Claudia was looking beautiful, as Michael knew she would. She sashayed down the aisle with a grace and exquisiteness that he would try to memorise for years to come, but would only be able to witness only once. As they met at the alter, he noted her eyes darting to his collar where Klaus’ blood was smeared slightly.

The ceremony went flawlessly, and they left the church with an abundance of rice being thrown on their heads, cheers, and clapping.

Thomas escorted them to their car, which was strewn with ribbons and spray paint. As he closed the door, he gave a minute nod to Thomas to convey that the job had been completed, and Thomas smiled and clapped him on the shoulder.

‘You’re getting sloppy,’ Claudia purred, as the photographers enclosed around the car windows. She stroked his collar.

‘Couldn’t be helped, darling,’ Michael responded, smiling as the cameras began flashing. ‘And besides,’ he continued, ‘dare I enquire to Klaus’ wife?’

She turned then, and kissed him passionately on the lips. All the cameras clicked and whirred, as this magical moment would be captured forever more.

‘Why, poison is far more subtle,’ she said calmly, ‘and before we get to the airport we’ll need to dispose of her body that’s currently in the boot.’

Michael smiled again. ‘I love you, darling.’

‘I love you too.’

The car engine roared to life and they drove away.

black tree

THE HEAVEN OF CANNIBALS

Pothole

The giant cockroach on top of the transit van rocked back and forth with each bump in the road.

Charlie murmured something under his breath. It wasn’t a pleasant murmur. It was a sweltering hot day in July, and the AC in the van hadn’t been working for the last couple of weeks. The office had hadn’t done a damn thing about it. He chided himself for trusting other people. For putting his faith in his employers. He exhaled languorously, straining to keep his blood from boiling. The sun was already working unwaveringly at that. He hit a pothole in the road and winced at the metallic screech of the spring slinky attached to the van roof. That fucking cockroach.

His walkie crackled to life. He slammed his large palm down onto the passenger seat, where it sat harmlessly, the inanimate object ignorant of the slap it had just received.

“Whaddya want, Steve?” he barked.

“Got another job for you,” the voice on the other end said, impassively. Charlie’s grip on the steering wheel tightened.

“The office said this was the last round.”

There was a faint chuckle from Steve. “Sorry, hombre. Got a rat infestation report. Sweet old lady. Said she’d pay extra if we could see her before the close of play today.”

Now it was Charlie’s turn to chuckle. But there was no mirth to it. “Lemme guess, I’m the nearest in the area.”

“And Bingo was his name-oh.”

“Gimme the fucking address.” He said, dashing the radio back onto the passenger seat. He was half-listening to Steve’s chatter as he drove along the long road.

He slammed the door of the van shut. He shook his head as the bold words ‘BUG-B-GONE’ formulated together as the doors sealed shut. As he approached the rear of the van he stuck his middle finger up at the polystyrene cockroach attached to the top. He retrieved some traps, a few smoke canisters and some plastic containers.

The house was off the beaten track. As Charlie made his way to the front door he realised that he hadn’t passed another house down this trail for the last mile or so.  He approached the house and knocked on the door several times. Waiting for the client, he took the moment to take in the surroundings. He wondered if Lilly would ever want to live in the sticks…probably not; she was a city girl at heart and loved her nights out with the girls.

He corrected himself. She loved going out fucking other men.

“Are you here about my rat problem, young man?”

Charlie hadn’t even heard the door open. He turned and faced the woman at the door. She must have been about seventy; for some bizarre reason the only thought that came to his mind at that moment was of a leprechaun in a saggy sweatshirt. She looked gaunt, as if she hadn’t eaten in days. Her face was powered with too much milky white make up. Whatever happened to baby Jane? He shook the thought from his head.

“Yeah, sure,” Charlie said, stepping through the door. The old broad slowly lurched down the corridor and pointed to a room with a crooked finger.

“I’ll get you some tea. Please make yourself at home.”

Charlie went into the dimly lit living room and put his bag containing all kinds of chemicals and pesticides on the carpeted floor. It would be a quick job, he thought. Lay a couple of traps and he’d be home in the next hour. There were several bookcases full of dusty covered magazines; papers and leather bound nondescript books. Several couches and a coffee table. There didn’t appear to be too much ventilation in the house. Charlie wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.

“Waffles?” a voice whispered behind him.

Charlie spun round to see a small child standing in the doorway. He must have been about six or seven. His face was caked in dirt, the clothes he wore were raggedy and his hair unkempt. He was looking at Charlie with a curious registration.

“Uh…hey, kid.” Charlie muttered.

“Waffles?” the child repeated, with a touch of excitement.

Charlie shook his head. “Sorry…no waffles here champ.”

The child seemed to absorb this information with resigned sadness. Without warning, he sprinted towards Charlie with a feral grace and crashed into his leg. Quickly wrapping his arms around his leg, he tilted his head and sunk his teeth into his kneecap. Charlie uttered a small bark of surprise and pushed the child off.

“Warren!”

In the commotion, Charlie hadn’t noticed the old lady enter the room. With a deftness that belied her age, a simple step forward and pirouette resulted in her resting the cup of tea on the coffee table and simultaneously putting herself between Charlie and the Waffle kid. Her hand shot out like a piston and cracked the boy hard across the cheek. Like a wounded animal, the boy started whimpering and bolted for the door.

“No waffles today, Warren!” she exclaimed, hobbling back to where she had placed the teacup. Charlie was a little bemused by the whole situation, and was starting to wish he had turned the goddamned roach mobile back home when Steve had called in the first instance.

She handed him the cup. “Hasn’t been himself since his folks passed on,” she said, as a way of apology. “I’ve tried to do right by him, but I think the cheese has slipped off his cracker.” She let out a heavy sigh. Charlie sipped the tea. It was scolding hot.

“About the rats,” Charlie began, changing the subject, “do you have a cellar to this place, or do you think they’re coming from outside?”

The woman looked perplexed for a moment, and then nodded. “We have a cellar. Fred mostly works there.”

Charlie took another sip of the tea. He wasn’t in the mood to enquire who Fred was, or what his work consisted of. He just wanted to set up a few traps and go home. Probably to another argument with Lilly.

“Right then,” he said, lowering the cup, “I think I should get started there.”

The woman waved her arms at him in a dismissive manner. “Drink your tea first. The fucking rats can wait.” She sat herself down. A small plume of dust motes escaped from the couch. Charlie suddenly began to feel itchy. He’d seen some pretty horrific houses in his time – mostly from elderly clients that had no family and couldn’t properly look after themselves. He’d been doing this far too many years for sympathy to start kicking in now, but all the same he did feel half a second of pity for the poor woman sitting in front of him. He imagined the Waffle kid rolling around in his own faeces, giggling like a lunatic as he squelched his turds between his fingers.

He took another sip of the tea and sat down himself. An awkward few moments passed in silence. Without wanting to waste any more time, Charlie gulped the rest of the tea down and rested the cup on the coffee table. He slapped his knees in a ‘right, work to be done,’ kind of way and stood up.

The room started to spin. Rush of blood to the head, he thought. A black line streaked across his vision like a lightning bolt. Dark dots appeared in front of him and he knew he was about to pass out. The goddamned heat. The fucking broken AC. He managed to mumble something about a cockroach before his bulky frame collapsed. The elderly woman sitting opposite watched the dust motes escape from the floor where his body smacked hard against it.

“Waffles?”

Charlie opened his eyes. For a confused moment he thought he was blind, but then after a few moments his eyes adjusted to the darkness.

The child was looming above him. He realised he was lying on the floor, and attempted to sit up. The walls were panelled, with a roaring fireplace at one end. There was an immense pole placed horizontally across the fireplace.

He was strapped down. From the distinct rustling sound, he knew he was lying on tarpaulin.

“What the…”

“Waffles!” the child screamed. Charlie was aware of a dull throbbing pain in his legs. Although strapped down, he managed to raise his head to look at the source of the problem. He realised that he no longer had any ankles.

“Where are my feet?” He whispered.

Another form in the darkness became apparent. An elderly man dressed in white peered at him from behind a surgical mask.

“Ah! You’re awake.” He said jovially. “Warren has been waiting for so long! He really does like to watch when I cut the meat.”

Charlie felt a shiver run through his whole body.

“Where are my feet?” He asked again, this time his voice shaking with shock.

The man in the surgical mask lifted a cutting tool in front for Charlie to see. “We start with the feet. Warren likes the toes for some inexplicable reason. We’re trying to teach him to savour the best parts, like the brain and heart. But I feel as his surrogate parents we’re failing him.” He moved out of his peripheral vision. Charlie heard a button click in the darkness. To his side, he noticed the large pole above the fireplace start to move. He then realised it wasn’t a pole at all. The motorised spit suspended above the fireplace whirred into life. It screeched as it began to turn, and for the last moments of his life the only thing that Charlie could think about was the same noise the giant metallic slinky made as his van went over potholes.

black tree

A NIGHT AT THE MOVIES

popcorn

The queue for the popcorn was making Travis feel nauseous. His temple oozed sweat. An elderly couple in front of them were taking their time to decide what type of sweets they wanted. The cashier was smiling and nodding to their inane ambivalence, but Travis noted the indiscernible tapping of the cashier’s fingers on the counter, the clenched jawline concealed underneath the smile. And then there was the Manager, lurking at the ticket kiosk with his shark-like eyes surveying all.

A stabbing pain coursed through his left arm. At first he thought he was going into spasms, but was relieved to find that Kelly had just tightened her grip around him.

“Hun, you’re going to squeeze me to death before we see the film,” he said.

Kelley looked up at him. Those saturated blue-green eyes of hers looked longingly at him. Once those eyes had held a particular sparkle; wide and convivial. Now there was a yellow-tinted jaundice look emanating from them. She was about to say something, but instead started coughing violently. Travis pulled her head towards his chest, to muffle the sounds. He glanced across to the ticket kiosk and the manager had already locked on to the source of the noise. He was staring at Kelley with undetermined countenance, as if he was making up his mind about something. Travis likened the look to someone deciding whether to pull the legs off an ant. When Kelley’s shoulders finally stopped shuddering, she pulled away and rubbed her hand harshly across her lips. She pulled a skull and crossbones bandanna from her back pocket and blew her nose with a decisive blast. Travis noted the red blotches on the bandanna and the palm of her hand.

The elderly couple had finally decided on a packet of Minstrels and waddled off to the ticket kiosk. The cashier beckoned Travis and Kelley forward with an adept wave of the hand.

“Large sweet popcorn and a coke, please.” Travis said. The cashier jerked her thumb towards the large billboard poster behind the soda machine. “You want to go extra-large for a pound fifty more?” she said automatically, as if she’d uttered the line a thousand times that evening. Travis shook his head. He vibrated with fever, barbed wire flossing his stomach. He’d be surprised if he kept the regular variety down. The cashier went about her business, and he felt Kelley tugging at his shoulder.

“I want to leave,” she whispered into his ear. He nodded again. He wished it could be that simple. He wanted nothing more than to grab Kelley and run for the nearest exit, but he knew what that meant. He knew the consequences of those actions. Instead, he pecked her on the cheek and slipped a small cylindrical container into her hand.

“Take it,” he softly said, caressing her cheek. The previous week he’d had a tube replace the white blood cells in his body, and had taken the appropriate antibiotics. The paramedics had assured him that he had inhaled very little fallout, but yesterday he felt like marbles were lodged in his throat and he couldn’t keep anything down. Kelley was worse, and he knew that they didn’t have much time. Kelley slipped the container into her pocket.

“You’re too good to me,” she sighed.

Overhead, a crackling noise interrupted the muzak currently reverberating throughout the lobby area from the speakers attached to the wall. “Attention,” proclaimed a deep voice, “The next film will start in approximately five minutes. Please be seated immediately once tickets have been purchased. Business as Usual.”

The cashier returned with the large popcorn and coke. She tapped a few buttons on the register and was halfway explaining how much they owed before she stopped mid-sentence, turned and threw up vehemently on the floor.

There were a few exasperated groans and tut-tuttings from behind them. Travis turned and was surprised to see the queue leading out into the street. He also saw the government men in their haz-mat suits surveying the crowd from outside.

“Ohmurgod,” the cashier retched, wiping her chin with her hand. She stared at the floor for a second, now spattered with clotted vomit, all shades of red, green and brown. She blinked rapidly for a few seconds before turning back to Travis. “Would you like 3-D glasses with your purchase?”

****

The bold, immense red letters on the white screen read ‘BUSINESS AS USUAL’. The darkened viewing room was packed.  Travis had found two unoccupied seats towards the back of the room, and had instructed Kelley to take some of the meds he’d slipped her earlier whist they were concealed by the darkness. She promptly did so, and he could almost feel her body relax as the pills did their work. He wondered if she’d remember any of the film at all.

The manager had eyed them up suspiciously when he had purchased the tickets. Travis had simply smiled and carried Kelley towards the screening door. There were many people wheezing and coughing in the gloomy theatre. Travis wondered how many people simply sitting in this room had radiation sickness. Probably most of them. There was an audible click as the doors to the theatre shut.

The red lettering faded out and a news-cast informed them of the on-going war. Footage of troops running amongst dilapidated buildings, jolted editing of death and violence mixed with grinning politicians kissing babies and making speeches. Travis glanced to his right. The elderly couple in front of them at the condiment bar were nestled together, watching the reel. He noticed the man’s hand reverently cupping his wife’s. He also noted his hand was covered with painful, blotchy looking sores.

He turned to Kelley. She seemed to be calmer. He put his arm around her, and she fell into him. The war reel finally finished, leaving a white screen. The red letters appeared again. BUSINESS AS USUAL.

Sitting near the back, Travis was one of the first people to hear hissing. He looked at the projector window, wondering when the film was about to begin. The marbles in his throat seemed to grow in size, as he found breathing now to be quite difficult.

Someone down at the front started shouting something about starting the film. A moment later, his eyes started to feel heavy. A wave of panic suddenly hit Travis. Vents throughout the theatre suddenly seemed to close up. People were noticing this too. A few more shouts echoed throughout the blackened room.  Travis turned to his right. The elderly couple seemed to be swallowing something. An instant later their heads both drooped forward simultaneously, as if they were falling asleep together.

Travis shook Kelley. She was serenely staring at the white screen, unaware of anything around her. People were starting to rise from their seats now, panting and gasping for air. Children were wailing.

“Kelley?” Travis croaked. She turned slowly, looking at him with half-open eyes. He struggled to stand up. The air was filled with panic and despair. The first dozen or so people on their feet clawed pathetically at the doors – banging and shouting to be let out. A young boy tried to leap over the seats towards the exit, staggered and fell into the aisle. A man in a suit trampled over him, crushing his skull in the process. Kelley muttered something under her breath and slumped back into her seat. Travis looked down at her. Her eyes were glazed over, her mouth hung open with some dark drool tricking down to her chin. He realised with a sickening dread that she was dead.

Travis fell back into his seat. The people scrambling about in front, howling and sobbing to be let out became black shadows as his own eyes started to close. He gasped for one final lungful of air before the darkness consumed him.

A minute later they were all dead.

In the foyer a buzzing noise interrupted the muzak playing. “Attention,” proclaimed a deep voice, “The next film will start in approximately five minutes. Please be seated immediately once tickets have been purchased. Business as Usual.”

The manager at the ticket kiosk sighed. Checked his watch. Another shift logged. The majority of his staff was sick now, and he knew he wouldn’t have many people left to take away the bodies once the gas had dissipated from each viewing theatre room. He wiped his brow with the back of his hand. The paramedic had said he’d only received a small dose of radiation poisoning. Nothing to be concerned about. Captain Phillips had promised a complete evaluation once they had reached their target of seven hundred and fifty screenings. Keep them calm and sound proof the rooms, he had said. Remember, its business as usual once we’re done.

ink blotch

SUNRISE OVER CAPPADOCIA

Blood_stain_of_the_civet

There was a pop. Something crimson coloured and soggy flew out of the back of George’s head, and he crumpled onto the ceramic tiling of the balcony. Felix stood dumbfounded. His terror was glue…he couldn’t move an inch. He released his grip on the railing and shook his head as his stunned retinas recovered from what they had just witnessed. The job had meant to be straightforward and simple. Travel to Turkey, find George and retrieve what was stolen. Discovering George’s hideout had been fairly simple; George was five four and when he moved he had the prissy speed seemingly exclusive to all short, plump men. He was also an Irish man and as white as the porcelain bowl in the toilet. He stood out like a sore thumb, and showing his picture to locals had given him the location. His legs were beginning to feel less rubbery. He glanced at the pistol lying in the forming pool of blood. George’s eyes were wide open and he stared heavenward. Felix followed his gaze. A bloated, black shape swept across the scorched sky. Some kind of monolithic bird. A vulture, perhaps. He looked back at George and for a moment thought that his lips had curled into a smile. His senses were returning. First things first, he thought. Witnesses. He checked over the balcony; it was early evening and there may have been people below…kids, even. Lady luck seemed to be in his favour, as the bottlenecked alley way below was empty. His shark-like eyes darted across to the building adjacent to George’s villa. There were a few windows open, but if anyone on the other side had heard the explosion of the gun they weren’t seemingly bothered by it. Felix moved with purpose. He went into George’s bedroom and made a swift, calculated grab for the duvet. He found another couple of quilts inside the wardrobe. Wrapping the body was fairly simple; it was the amount of blood on the tiles of the balcony that concerned him. Disposing of the body wouldn’t be too much of a chore; it wouldn’t have been his first time. What troubled him however, were George’s prevalent tendencies to make friends wherever he went. Gift of the gab, his boss had said. Who knew who would be coming to the villa for dinner this evening? And then there was the ring. The item that Felix had been tasked with retrieving. An hour later, he had mopped the area clean. The sun was beginning to go down and Turkey was starting to lose its novelty. He checked the common hiding places – searched for loose panels in the flooring and sideboards, ransacked the jewellery boxes, pots and pans, unearthed all the flora and fauna dotted around and rechecked every nook and cranny. It was dark outside before Felix admitted defeat. Why had he done it? He’d been on jobs before where he’d threatened people; he’d even been on some jobs where he had to resort to violence, but in the end they always gave what they owed. Willingly or unwillingly. Officious little cunt. Baffled, Felix went back to the balcony. He absentmindedly sat on the garden chair that George had been perched on before he pulled the pistol out. Before he had stood up and slid the nozzle between his lips. Felix had an abrupt sensation of shame. Thinking about it now, George had just been sitting there. He hadn’t attempted to fight him, or even seemed startled to see him when he crept through the balcony doors. He just simply sat there. He looked at the building opposite George’s villa. Lights were on in the windows now. But there was something else that caught his attention. Someone else. A dark silhouette stood immobile opposite Felix. At first he thought it was a mannequin, or some sort of human shaped coat stand. But as he squinted harder, he could make out imperceptible movements from the person inside one of the rooms in the building opposite. Felix knew that the person was watching him. The question was, how long had he been watching? In the daylight, he could have been standing there the whole time and Felix wouldn’t have been any the wiser. He could have seen George shoot himself and observed him clear up the mess. If that had been the case though, why hadn’t he called the police? He should have fled then. He should have picked himself up and left the villa. But he was unable to. It was like anchors had dropped and dug into the earth, every sinew of his body rooted to the spot. Moreover, the dark silhouette was strangely hypnotic. If the person hadn’t called the police, then maybe there was a message here…maybe the person wanted to communicate something. Maybe, if he stayed here long enough, he could work out what the person wanted. In a few hours the sun would be rising. Felix sank back into the chair, into the same position he had found George. He briefly wondered how long George had been sitting there when he had arrived at the villa, but he swiped the thought away like a bothersome fly. He needed to know. He’d stay here forever if that’s what it took.

ink blotch

A FORGOTTEN COLOUR

old_man__s_hands_by_calin86-d4ng4zj

The man in the fedora hat sat listlessly at the bar. The tumbler of single malt whiskey he had purchased an hour ago sat ingenuously on a beer mat in front of him.

The man in the fedora hat had no particular striking features; his nose was of a normal size and length, his chin was not weak or exceptionally strong. His face was not scarred nor had any distinguishable qualities to it. Judging by the lines on his face, if a passerby was to hazard a guess they would probably mark him down as being in his mid to late thirties, or at a push, maybe even forty. He was clean shaven and if a woman happened to walk past the bar to order a drink they would not be repulsed by his presence, but at the same time they would not be attracted to his character. He was simply a non-entity.

To his left, a group of raucous teenagers were animatedly discussing their plans for the weekend. It transpired to the man in the fedora hat that they were planning to travel to Dorset or Cornwall, to camp. He did not turn his head to face the youngsters, but could make them out in his peripheral vision. One of the spotty adolescents, clearly tipsy, was stating that he had a four man tent and they could all sleep in that, if they wanted to. He had, the man in the fedora hat thought, mentioned it innocently enough at first, hoping to plant the seed of the idea in their mind. Their conversation had changed subject several times within ten minutes, such was the tenacity of a young mind blinded by simple virtues, but the spotty teenager with the greased back hair that reminded the man of a younger, uglier version of James Dean, remarked about the tent again, this time more vocally. The two girls at the table were nervously giggling – they were mouthing that yes, this would be fine, but the man in the fedora hat could see that they were being amenable in order to change the subject to something else. The greasy teenager wouldn’t let it lie, and within several minutes of his request to share a tent going unacknowledged, he continued to go into great detail about the booze and drugs he could acquire from his older brother to sweeten the deal. The man in the fedora hat noticed an imperceptible change in the girl’s body language when the older brother was mentioned. He saw out of the corner of his eye one of them mouth ‘Is he coming?’ The spotty faux James Dean hesitated to answer; knowing subconsciously that if he answered ‘no’, then the entire weekend could be ruined. If he answered ‘yes’, however, then he knew that he wouldn’t stand a chance with the two girls, faltering in the shadow of his older, more attractive brother. The man in the fedora hat wondered if his brother looked even more like James Dean.

‘I never meant to do it,’ slurred the man sitting next to him, on his right.

The man in the Fedora hat did not turn his head to engage his fellow patron. It caused him pain to move now.

‘Little fucker was just there, y’know?’

The man in the fedora hat wrapped his hand around the tumbler, as if to raise it to his mouth, but instead fingered the glass with the tips of his fingers. His arms ached.

‘Working all day…to come home and see your walls covered in paint…’ the man continued, clearly speaking to no individual in particular, ‘was just meant to spank the little sonofabitch. Arm’s aren’t meant to twist that way…’

The man in the fedora hat wondered indifferently who he would pick tonight.

His own question was answered when a tall man in a leather jacket knocked into him at the bar from behind. An elbow collided with his hand draped around his whiskey, sending the tumbler spinning. The liquid dribbed down the bar edge.

‘Whoops,’ an insincere voice from behind.

The man in the fedora hat sighed. He shook his hand once, causing great pain. Slowly, he turned on his barstool and faced a taller, uglier faux James Dean. This was the older brother the girls at the table on his left had been enquiring about. The man in the fedora hat stared at him. Searching. Estimating.

The older brother sniggered. ‘Asshole, what’s your problem?’

The man in the fedora hat did not answer.

‘You a fag or something?’ the boy said, producing a few jeers from his friends now gathered around to witness the commotion. The man in the fedora hat could sense that the girls on the table had stopped chirping about the weekend in Cornwall or Devon. Now eyes were on him. The older brother inched closer.

‘I don’t like you staring at me, you hear me old man?’

The man who had been previously slurring to himself was now quiet.

‘How about,’ the man in the fedora hat whispered, ‘we settle this with a thumb war?’

The older brother took a moment to absorb this information. Once the words he heard passed into his brain and were deciphered as English, he shook his head, incredulous.

‘You what?’

The man in the hat slowly, painfully, reached into this jacket pocket and produced a rumpled fifty pound note.

‘I bet you,’ the man said, wincing at each word spoken, ‘this fifty pounds…that you can’t beat me at a thumb war.’

He placed the note on the wet bar. The older brother looked at his friends, bewildered at first, until his cocksure attitude returned.

‘You’re fucking crazy, old timer, but fine.’ He turned to his friends who looked on in equal bafflement and exclaimed smugly, ‘drinks on me tonight lads, alright?’

They sat at the bar, the crowd intensified since his drink had been spilt. At first the older brother was unsure what trick this was, but when the man in the fedora hat deferentially offered his palm outward, the young thug simply shook his head and clamped his fist into a ball and stuck out his thumb.

Snaking his fingers round the young man’s, the man in the fedora hat grimaced in anguish as a spasm of pain travelled down his spine. Before they began, the older, uglier version of James Dean thought he heard the older man whisper ‘Alabaster white,’ but shrugged it off as a crazy old fool wanting to part with his money. The man in the fedora hat pushed his thumb down to the point between his rival’s thumb and index finger, and within three seconds and without much effort, the young man had won. The greasy older brother stood victorious, snatching the fifty pound note from the bar before the man in the fedora hat could protest. He screamed something jubilant to his friends and began ordering the next round of drinks. Once he received them, he hadn’t even noticed the old man had slipped off the bar stool and exited the pub.

One of the girls from the table, Sandra, slipped away from Grant prattling on about tents, and came up behind Peter, his brother. He was down for the weekend from University. She tapped Peter on the shoulder, wanting to find out what was going on with the old man at the bar, but it was really just an excuse to talk to Peter.

‘What was all that about?’ she said, in her most flirtatious tone.

When Peter turned to face her, she screamed. Peter’s jet black hair had turned completely white, his skin grey and blotchy. His eyes were jaundice yellow. He tried to mouth something but only a guttural sound spat at her. He collapsed to the floor.

The man in the fedora hat walked down the road. The aching feeling in his muscles now a dull throb, and his appetite returned. He smiled, glad to feel no pain.

*

*

THE CABIN

Jorstad - Ste Cranston

Photo by Ste Cranston

*

“So I guess now that you’re sober you’ll be leaving?”

The comment indicated passive belligerence; her raised eyebrow and slight inflection at the end of the sentence confirming it, but Robert knew the real meaning bubbling below the surface – it was a test, pure a simple. A test to deduce whether she should invest any further time with this dalliance. She was smart, sure, but he sensed she had been hurt before, perhaps badly. He actually lauded the comment – there was no point in wasting any time unless there was something to invest in, and he had the feeling that she had perhaps once too often tried to cash in a couple of cheques that had bounced.

“There used to be an RAF base near here, so you should stick to the roads. There’s landmines about.” She said coolly.

The previous evening’s gallant and teasing remarks over wine and shots had now evaporated; in his just-now awakened state he couldn’t quite remember if he had approached her first or she had approached him, but as morning was being seen through bloodshot eyes and rumpled hair, everything seemed a little more real, a little less whimsical.

She was standing clothed by the window, caressing a cup of coffee in her interlaced fingers. He realised that he hadn’t noticed her leave the bed. He winced as he straightened himself up, now quite conscious of the fact that he was completely naked and she wasn’t. A single droplet of water splattered onto his shoulder and he looked up to see a damp patch in the wooden ceiling. She followed his eyes.

“The roof leaks. I told you last night.”

“I remember.” He said.

They were in a cabin, a few miles away from the nearest town. When they had left the pub, there had been no comment made about whether he was coming back to her place or his; they just wanted to get some more drinks and got inside the cab. She’d been giving directions to the driver, he remembered going on the motorway and then shortly all kinds of city life eroded behind them as they passed through dirt trails. He liked the place.

“I was hoping we could get some breakfast.” He said, rubbing his temples.

She let out a small, cute splutter. “You mean lunch?”

He fumbled around the sheets and found his watch tucked haphazardly between his socks and pants. It was gone past midday. He let out a brief whistle, and rubbed his eyes.

“You want some coffee?”

“I don’t drink hot liquids, but thanks.”

She eyeballed him suspiciously for a moment.

“I hear that’s weird. I get it a lot.”

“If this is the part where I’m meant to say that weird is good, I think you’ve got the wrong girl.”

The corner of his mouth curled into a mirthful grin, “Oh?” She was trying to push him away, to give him a reason to flee. He wasn’t biting.

An orange tabby cat meowed impatiently at the door of the room. The girl turned her gaze from him and mentioned that she should get him something to eat. Once she had disappeared from the room, Robert found his clothes and started to dress himself. His jacket had been thrown on the floor and he checked his breast pocket to find a small transparent baggy with a red powered substance inside. When she returned to the room, she watched him in silence as he gingerly poured the contents of the baggy into an openly rolled cigarette.

“What’s that?” she asked, curiosity getting the better of her.

“It’s from Mars,” he said, matter-of-factly.

“Mars?” she blinked.

He looked up and saw the scepticism in her face. He realised that he was enamoured by her deep, brown eyes.

“Let’s just say I know a guy, who knows a girl, who is related to a guy, who knows another guy that works for NASA. Apparently the powder found in some of the rocks on Mars has a few hallucinogenic effects associated with LSD, mixed with the highs of marijuana. But very safe. You want to try some?”

He finished rolling the cigarette and offered it to her.

“Mars?” she asked again.

He propped himself into a sitting position on the bed, and produced a lighter from his pocket. As he lit the cigarette, a thin mauve-like trail of smoke snaked up around his head and dissipated into the air. She sat down next to him and took the cigarette.

“What’s the cat’s name?” he asked.

“Jonesy.” She said, inhaling deeply. “I told you that last night when he bit you on the leg.”

He smiled at the Alien reference, remembering the creature attacking him and lay back in the bed. “Oh Yeah.”

“He sometimes brings in dead pigeons from outside – like a present I guess.”

He nodded and looked at the damp spot in the ceiling.

“I really like this place,” he said, absently.

“I’m not going to be able to develop special powers after having smoked this, am I?” she said, almost disappointed.

“What special power would you like?”

“Most people say flight…I think I’d prefer to have text sense.”

He turned his head, as a warm sensation was starting to coarse through his body. “Text sense?”

“Yeah, you know – like when you’re in the middle of texting someone and they suddenly stop answering; imagine having the power to know whether they just ignored you or haven’t read your message yet. That would be my power.”

He started to laugh. It turned into a maniacal cackle, and soon she joined in with him.

A couple of hours later they had discussed everything from politics to what their favourite films were, what inspired them and what they wanted to do in the future. The light was starting to fade outside. Robert sighed heavily.

“I guess I should make a move.”

“Let me call you a cab.”

“I think I’d prefer to walk.”

She let out another diminutive chortle. “It’s about two miles to town.”

He shrugged his shoulders.

As they were walking down the creaky stairs, Robert noticed Jonesy stalking through the cat-flap. He had a dead pigeon clasped firmly in his jaws. Robert stopped on the stairs, and was about to say something when the cat dropped the pigeon on the floor and cocked his head to the side, quizzically.

The cat whined mournfully, fell onto its side and then with a wet, tearing sound exploded like a meat piñata.

Robert was rocked back with the blast. He fell onto his back and slid down to the bottom of the stairs. His ears were ringing, but he could numbly tell that the girl was screaming behind him. He never realised that the cabin had burgundy carpet before. No…that wasn’t right. There was no carpet. Just the chunky remains of Jonesy. Damn cat must have eaten a landmine. His stomach felt warm and he nonchalantly dabbed his chest with his hand. His hand came up bloody and wet.

The girl launched past him, turned and kneeled down beside his limp body. He started to utter something but instead coughed up something phlegmy and bulbous. He didn’t really want to see what was dribbling out from his mouth.

The ringing was still deafening in his ears, but he figured that she was mouthing something along the lines of calling for help. Or willing to whelp. His body was starting to spasm in shock. As she moved out of his blurring focus, he fumbled in his pocket for something. His wet, bloody hand curled round a hard, metallic ring. He pulled it out and put it on the appropriate finger. Jess would understand…she had forgiven him before…surely they would be able to laugh about this someday?

Darkness swept over him.

*

*

COLIN

Shop dummy head

*

“So it won’t hurt anymore, then?”

The man sitting behind the desk in the sharp suit flashed a rehearsed smile, leaned forward and rested his elbows on the polished mahogany wood, interlacing his fingers together in one fluid motion.

Considering the question for a moment, he brought his newly arranged tepee hand mould to his lips. His grin broadened and he simply uttered, “Not at all, Mr. Fischer. You won’t feel pain any longer.”

Arthur Fischer sat uncomfortably in front of the salesman and mahogany desk, one hand clutching his fedora hat. His other hand hung limply in his lap.  Maude, who had been nodding to the salesman’s pitch for the last twenty minutes, letting out occasional monosyllabic affirmations when he paused for breath, now wrapped her arm round his. Arthur mustered the strength in his decrepit hand to stroke her palm.

“Is there a return policy?” Maude said, “In case…in case it doesn’t work?”

“Of course, Mrs. Fischer! We let you have the model for seven days, and if you’re not completely satisfied, we can conduct a whole re-insertion.”

Arthur and Maude both said ‘oh’ at the same time.

“Instead of talking about it though,” the salesman said, “how about we take a gander at the models and you can see if something…fits?” He made a gesture, rising from the desk. Maude helped Arthur up, and together they shuffled out of the large office whilst the Salesman chatted about deluxe models and discounted rates.

The long hallway was starting to annoy Arthur. His prescription shoes were click-clacking on the marbled floor and the large stone columns were starting to make him feel dizzy. The walls were dark, with no apparent wallpaper or pictures attached to them. Maude must have noticed his faintness, as he felt her take his weight on the useless side of his body. He hated feeling redundant. Inept. Like a child. Mostly he despised that Maude’s role in their relationship was starting to become that of a Nurse.  At seventy four, his mind was still buzzing and alive – he loved the stimulating conversations they had – sipping wine together in their favourite restaurant, talking endlessly for hours on trivial subjects, laughing and teasing one another. But in the last few years, he was becoming depressed and melancholy – his failing, useless body was beginning to take its toll.

The Salesman suddenly stopped and turned to face them. He waved his hand dismissively in front of him, and a panel in the wall slid open.

“Our first models…George and Kate.”

Arthur looked to his side, where the panel had opened. In place of the wall there was a glass window, where a tall, athletic mannequin stood propped on display.   It took Arthur a moment to realise that it wasn’t in fact a mannequin. The model was wearing beach shorts, there was hair on his broad chest and he was tanned. Chiselled chin with deep brown eyes. Arthur had once had piercing blue eyes. Azure, Maude had said on their first date. My man with the Azure eyes.  Next to the model sat a brunette woman, in a one-piece bikini.

“We’re doing a special with these two – half price.”

Maude pursed her lips. It was a sight Arthur has seen countless times before. She was always better at haggling. Before she could ask about prices however, the man in the suit had already anticipated her question.

“Fifteen thousand.”

Arthur and Maude both said ‘oh’ at the same time again. The Salesman sensed that this was above their price range, and with another shake of his hand, the panel slid back.

“I think I might know what you’re looking for,” he said. Without breaking a stride, he turned on his heels and they shuffled down the corridor again. A moment later, another panel slid from the wall revealing another glass window. Behind this one, a model dressed in a tuxedo stood defiantly in front of them. He had jet black hair, an aquiline nose, deep set eyes. Piercing blue eyes. Just like his own, when he was younger.

“Five thousand.” The Salesman said, the Cheshire cat-like grin unwavering.

Arthur snapped himself awake from his daydreaming.

“There’s only one model.” Arthur said, matter-of-factly.

“This is our Colin Model,” The Salesman continued, “He was top of the line a few years ago, but the previous owner got into an unfortunate boating accident and he’s now missing a toe.”

“Which toe?” Maude asked; a look of worry on her face.

The Salesman dismissed the slight chink of his sales pitch with another frivolous wave of his hand. “Just the pinkie toe.”

“Five thousand is all we have.” Arthur said, as a spasm of pain jolted down his side. For the first time, a look of disdain flashed across the Salesman’s face. It lasted about a quarter of a second, but Arthur noted it.

“This is our cheapest model,” the man in the suit said. There was a brief moment of silence, and then the Salesman was back to his cheery self. “I tell you what, how about I leave you guys to discuss this amongst yourselves for a moment? I have another client that I need to speak with briefly.” He patted Maude on the shoulder and then hurriedly walked down the dark corridor, disappearing behind a velvet curtain.

“Arthur,” Maude whispered, “You have to buy Colin.”

“No. We said we’d do this together. We said…”

Maude cut him off abruptly. “You need it.”

Arthur was about to argue, when she raised a solitary finger to silence him. “You’ll be able to work again. Perhaps in a few years we’ll have enough for another model.”

“But that could be years!” Arthur said, incredulously.

“I can wait.” Her eyes flashed with a renewed energy, “it might be nice to have a toy boy around the house, after all.”

Arthur smiled.

When the Salesman returned, he found Maude rifling through her purse.

“I have twenties and tens, will that be okay?”

The Man with jet black hair rolled off the young girl, breathless and exasperated. He could feel himself sobering up. The young girl let out a satisfied sigh, turned slowly and started rubbing his chest.

“I have to go,” he said in the darkness, finally.

The girl’s hand stopped circling his chest.

“You’re married, aren’t you? I noticed the ring on your finger at the bar.”

Although she couldn’t see it, the man with the jet black hair and piercing blue eyes was quietly crying.

“I was…once.”

“Oh. Divorced?”

“No…she died.”

The young girl sighed, but this time there was an undertone of vexation to it. She lit a cigarette in the darkness, a small ember circle brightening whenever she inhaled.

“Will I see you again, Arthur?”

“I told you not to call me that.” In the darkness, the man with the jet black hair and aquiline nose looked up at the ceiling. “My name is Colin.”

*

*

BRING ME MY SHOTGUN

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*

Maybe I should have put the suit on at the time. Perhaps, for some inconceivable notion, if I’d actually believed the voice in my head, things would have been different. Doesn’t matter now though.

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

It’s been two years. The kids are at Patricia’s now; for the past week they’ve probably been running around the house, trying to wrap tinsel around Bruno. Damn dog. Tried to call earlier in the day, but when I heard their voices in the background when she picked up I couldn’t bring myself to speak and quickly jammed at the END button on the phone. Two years.

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there

Even with the bourbon, the memories still linger in the recesses of the mind, pulling up dark and twisted images with each passing minute. I howled at the oven a little over half an hour ago. It started out as trivial conversation…the usual pleasantries, but things escalated quickly, as they tend to do around this time of year. Ended up kicking the glass out.

‘How was your day?’

‘Not bad, made you a cheese on toast earlier, didn’t I? Highlight of the day. How was yours?’

‘Okay, I guess. I haven’t killed myself yet.’

‘Well, that’s good Nick, old sport. Jolly good stuff. Fancy putting something in me with a little more relish, next time?’

‘Maybe. Not hungry at the moment.’

‘But what about the kids, Nick? You haven’t forgotten the kids, have you?’

‘Shuddup about the damn kids. They’ll all get whatever they want.’

‘No they won’t. You know they won’t. Not this year – not even the year after. Or the year after that!’

‘You’re an inanimate fucking object. Go away.’

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads

There’s mistletoe hanging from one of the ceiling tiles. Don’t know when it was put there. I wonder if Patricia has fucked someone in the last six months? I gulp down the contents of my bourbon and pour myself another. Two years. It was late – I remember that. One of those chilly evenings. It had been snowing the week earlier. You could see your breath when you exhaled outside. Patricia was angry that I’d had a few too many with the guys from work and hadn’t helped wrapped any presents for the in-laws. They were down to see the kids tomorrow. Wouldn’t look good if I was hung over. Not with the whole Janice incident still fresh in their minds. I didn’t say anything – just shrugged and kept quiet. A mask of feigned nonchalance. It had taken many years to perfect that particular look, in order not to reveal the true shame. The true guilt. She’d grown accustomed to it, though. Saw right through it. A guy who’s been shamed too many times can come up with that look in an instant; you can’t teach that kind of stuff.  I think she was about to slap me before we heard it – a dull THUD on the roof.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter

Shrieking. Won’t forget the look on her face easily. For some reason my focus was on the fairy lights that had been laboriously coiled round the drainpipe. The kids and I did that at the beginning of November; they always liked to decorate the house early. I’d said it would ruin the magic of the month, but it seemed to make them happy. A wisp of smoke from the shotgun rose from the barrel into my line of sight and the fairy lights became a blur.

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tinny reindeer

What was left of the body lied motionless on the lawn. Face had been completely torn off. Couldn’t tell where the colour of the suit began and where the blood ended. Hadn’t I given the nut job fair warning? What was he doing crawling on the tiles anyway? Looking up, there was a damn sleigh on the roof. Sixteen animal eyes looking forlornly at me. Patricia screaming…kids were probably awake. Way out here, we never have to worry about neighbours. I think the shock subsided for a moment, and I knelt down to examine the body.

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread

A sudden wave of nirvana hit me when I touched the corpse, of wondrous things I’d only been able to express as a child. A voice in my head soothingly told me to put on the suit and that everything would be okay once I changed. I laid the shotgun down and I was undressing the guy when Patricia starts hitting me with her fists clumped into tiny balls. It jolts me from what I’m doing and I question my sanity – maybe this is what psychopaths do? Dress up in their victim’s clothing? Patricia went to see the kids; I took the body out far enough from the house and buried him. When I got back the sleigh had disappeared. Two years later and everything’s changed.  Maybe I should have put the suit on at the time. Perhaps, for some inconceivable notion, if I’d actually believed the voice at the time, things would have been different. Doesn’t matter know though. I think it’s time to talk to the toaster about it.

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”

*

*

SEND HER AWAY

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*

Sarah pressed the spoon hard onto the aspirin tablets, crushing them into a fine powder. Scooping them off the dressing table with a cupped hand, she slid the powder into a glass and added the whiskey before moving over to the bed. She tested the resilience, making sure not to wake Greg.

Holed up in a dive that presented from the outset the look of a hotel. No other guests, not even a television set in the shabby room. There wasn’t even a lobby. Just a desk, a chair and a man downstairs, his T-shirt rolled up to his belly, his stomach spilling out. The kind of guy that didn’t smile if someone came into the area, his piggy eyes tapered to the entrance door.

Sarah looked around the crumby room and sighed inwardly. Had it really come to this? The wallpaper looked stained and there were edges peeling off from the corners here and there, revealing some older wall paper behind it.

Greg grumbled something in his sleep, and she picked herself up from the bed. She glanced at his pale, waxy complexion. Walking over to the single window in the room, she looked out into the city night. Dark room to a light street, you saw everything. Dark street to a light room, you saw nothing and everything looked right back at you. Sarah pulled the shit stained curtains closed, and glanced over at the only new appliance in the room; the Telephone, sitting on the swollen bedside table, the white cable snaking from phone port into a hole in the skirting board.

She went back to the bed and loomed over Greg’s body, studying the craggy lines on his face. He was sweating heavily, probably fever. There were no other guests and some of the rooms she passed didn’t have doors. She speculated about the bed in her room, and what would happen to it after they were done. Would the guy downstairs burn it, to remove any evidence that they were ever there? Probably. Blaine was sharp like that and didn’t like to leave any loose ends.

She blew out smoke into his face. Poor, infantile Greg. She’d known from the beginning that he’d been sweet on her, but then again most men were.

Silence. Two hours had passed since Sarah had crushed the tablets and it had been about ten minutes since she last checked her watch. There was an occasional car that rolled past in the streets outside, but the unobtrusive sounds of the building was starting to unsettle her. The adrenaline had worn off now, but the paranoia and general feeling of disconcertion began to creep up on her and get under her skin. She involuntarily scratched her arm.

“Sarah?”

She leaned over the bed. Greg looked at her through groggy eyes. He smacked his lips. Dry and numb. “Where…where are we?”

“Safe,” she said flatly. “Waiting for Blaine to call. You shouldn’t move. You need to stay in bed.” There was a command and assurance in her voice. Greg’s eyes rolled in his head. Probably didn’t notice that he was half dead already. He tried to straighten himself up, but his mouth contorted into a permanent wince and he uttered a groan of pain.

Sarah bent down at the foot of the bed and took the glass of whiskey. She shoved it in his face.

He opened his mouth and she poured the contents into his mouth. He spluttered, coughed and flinched as another wave of pain slammed into him. When the glass was empty, Sarah put it on the bedside table and sighed nonchalantly. Remaining in a seated position on the bed, she took the duvet cover and with a deft sweeping gesture revealed the rest of his body.

From the inward angle of his feet it was obvious that both legs were broken. The flesh around his right ankle had ballooned into a furious swelling. The injury to the left leg seemed to be below the knee. It was blackened and swollen. Blood from an open wound had seeped into the duvet.

Greg lowered his head back onto the pillow.

“I think I could try and put the right ankle back into position.” She said coolly. “I don’t know how long it will be until you get some help.”

Greg turned his head towards her, a solitary tear rolling down his cheek. “You’re saying I could lose it.”

“It’s your leg.”

“Do it then. But bring me the whiskey first.”

Half an hour later, he was unconscious.

The phone began to ring. Sarah almost vaulted over Greg’s body.

“Hello Sarah.”

Sarah gripped the receiver hard. She tried to maintain her breathing, making sure that the next words that left her mouth were controlled, that her tone was confident. “Hi Blaine. How are you?”

Silence. Sarah had a vivid image of Blaine in her mind, sitting on his terraced balcony in his penthouse suite, overlooking London. Watching the blinking lights of buildings in the distance, gazing out at the world he was trying to conquer. Looking down on his minions, with a copper taste of distaste and contempt in his mouth. For a moment Sarah thought that the line had gone dead, and she panicked that he may have thought she’d hung up on him.

“We’re at the hotel,” she said nervously, breaking the silence. The trembling in her voice must have been apparent, because she could almost see him smiling now.

“Ah. That’s good.”

The heckles of her neck did stand on end now, the feeling of uncertainty and paranoia crashing down on her. He’d known she would have been in the room for hours, he’d known she would be feeling like this now.

“I know it’s not the Savoy, but after the…little incident today, one can’t be too careful.”

She bit down hard on her bottom lip. He’d already heard about it.

“There was nothing I could do,” she said, chiding herself for sounding like a lost child.

“Perhaps not,” the voice down the line crackled. Sarah stiffened at this involuntarily. Her eyes were wide, trying to ascertain some kind of semblance where this conversation was going.

“Greg’s with me,” she said, glancing over at the bed. “He’s in a bad way,” she continued, realising she was starting to talk fast.

“That’s a shame.” Blaine said, with no emotion in his voice.

“What do you want me to do?” she said, her voice quavering. Once the words had left her mouth, a numb feeling of self-loathing washed over her, and she realised that within a couple of minutes speaking, she had been psychologically and emotionally beaten.

“I will tell you these instructions,” the voice dispassionately replied, “and you will follow them explicitly. If you fail this task, there will be consequences.”

Half an hour later Sarah was packing her bag, not once looking over at Greg.

“Where are you going?”

She ignored him. She checked her pockets and started towards the door.

“Jesus, Sarah…you can’t leave me here.” He twisted his body round in the bed, until he could flail an arm off the mattress to reach her. Without much effort, she battered the arm away as if it was a troublesome fly, opened the door and was gone.

“You can’t leave me!” he shrieked, the unendurable pain sweeping through his legs. He called after her for over twenty minutes, before clasping his head in his hands and crying.

*

*

STUCK IN TRAFFIC

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*

Unlike the two million, eight hundred and sixty three thousand participants behind him, Spencer stood a real chance of winning the race now.

He didn’t know how long he’d been in the tunnel but it felt like days. He wiggled forward, spurred on by the notion that he was alive and nearing his destination – his goal. At the beginning, when there had nearly been three million of them, he cowered behind a deluge of bigger and infinitely more powerful racers; each one boasting they would be the first to the finishing line and divulging what they would eventually become.

The beginning. It seemed so long ago now and Spencer was exhausted, but he persevered; it was going to be one of his traits when he finished, he knew that. Smart.Calculated.

In the dark tunnel, Spencer remembered how it all started. There had been a sudden searing light and he’d felt like a thousand suns had scorched him whole. He and the others shot out of the cannon like missiles. It spoke only once, and he and the other three million had been the answer. He figured they lost about a million racers right then. Many had overshot the tunnel – their trajectory all wrong. Others missed the mark and fell into space; likely embedded and left to die in the thick corrosive atmosphere beyond. He didn’t know the exact science of it, but he was sure that if they ended up anywhere outside the passageway mere minute remained before they withered and died. He was one of the lucky ones. He had made it in with little resistance, behind the bigger racers; the ones that would probably be athletes or runners if they won.

Another couple of thousand died instantly once they entered the tunnel. The walls were as toxic as the world outside; lined with corrosive acids and danger. They were all streamlined in one direction, bounced from wall to wall. Spencer had shut out the screams and cries of pain; focused on the path ahead; trying to avoid being crushed under the force of the other eager candidates.

Cunning. He knew his diminutive frame would be working against him in the race so he lurked behind the bigger contenders. They were the ones that took the brunt of the harsh environment around him, and as he had predicted, the ones that dropped like flies and fell away into the abyss.

“Hi,” a voice chirped.

Spencer had been so lost in his thoughts he failed to notice the other racer beside him, wriggling forward with aplomb.

“Hi yourself.” He said flatly. No time to converse. There was only the goal. Obsessive.

“I’m Jenny. I’m going to be a teacher when I win.” She said with demure pragmatism.

“That’s nice.”

“I hear that when the winner crosses the threshold, a type of enzyme is released and all the other racers die.” Her stoic, rational nature was irritating Spencer.

“Really?” InsinceritySarcasm. Not great attributes.

“That’s what I hear.”

“I better push on, then.” He wriggled faster, inching ahead of Jenny. Shortly, the tunnel opened into a cavernous open area. He didn’t fall as anticipated, but floated ahead as if underwater. There were hundreds of racers ahead, and Spencer felt crestfallen.Susceptible to rejection.

“The current will take us forward while they struggle on,” purred Jenny. “They’ll lose all their energy and won’t be able to make the final push.”

Spencer wondered if she was lying, some sort of game plan perhaps, but soon realised she wasn’t wading forward. She was right; they were being pulled along perfectly in the direction they wanted to go.

“Save your energy.” She said.

“Why are you helping me?”

“Like I said, I want to be a teacher. I’ve just given my first lesson.” She darted ahead and he felt a stab of emasculation. All this time he’d been valiantly thrusting ahead but only now realised how exhausted he was. Feigned nonchalance.

He drifted slightly, letting other racers pass him by and soon enough he caught up with Jenny.

“Do you know the story of the frog and the scorpion?” he asked coolly. Charmer.

Jenny shook her head.

“One day, a scorpion comes across a frog at a lake. The scorpion asks the frog to carry him across the water. ‘But you’ll sting me as soon as I let you climb onto my back,’ the frog cries.                               ‘What good would that do me?’ the scorpion retorts, ‘you’ll drown and we’ll both die.’ Assured by that logic, the frog agrees to carry the scorpion on his back across the river.”

Jenny hadn’t said anything, so Spencer knew he had her attention. He paused for dramatic effect. They carried on floating in the traffic with the other racers and Spencer looked around at the other racers flailing about in the current.

Jenny snapped his attention back. “What happened then?”

“Halfway across the steam, the scorpion digs its stinger deep into the frog’s back. As the Frog becomes paralysed and starts to sink into the cold water, he gasps one final word: ‘Why?’ Just before the scorpion shares the frog’s fate, he says, “It’s my nature.”

Letting that sink in, Spencer used his trajectory and rammed Jenny to the side. She crashed into another racer and the current did the rest, sending her spinning out of control. He didn’t wait to hear her scream as she sunk into the chasm below. He carried on. Obsessive.

Soon enough, there it was – the endgame. He could feel the pulse of the orb reverberating against the passing walls. There were others, trying to break through the shell, but he knew he would win. He was smart. He was cold. It was hisnature. Machiavelli.

*

*

LOVING RAPUNZEL

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*

Thursday 13th February 8.30pm

Rapunzel came into my life about seven years ago. I was doing mandatory voluntary work at the shelter – (ha-ha) I just read that back to myself. Mandatory voluntary work. Bit of an oxymoron if ever I’d heard one. Anyhow, one night I’d decided to have a few beers with some work colleagues and thought it would be okay to drive home. When the police pulled me over as soon as I rolled down the driver’s side window the cop had to step back from the door otherwise I would have puked all over his shoes. So it was either thirty days in jail or three hundred hours community service. I picked the latter. That and the prospect of getting shivved in the back at Wormwood Scrubs didn’t really appeal. She was serene, and stoic. She had these big brown eyes that just hypnotised me straight away. She had been put in the shelter because of domestic abuse; some hard-nosed bastard had kicked the living shit out of her and left her in a street to die. But when we met, and I looked into those eyes something just clicked. We both had our own demons, mine was drinking – hers was falling in love with the wrong people. After I finished the programme I kept finding excuses to go back to the shelter just to see her. I looked after her during my stint at the shelter…no one else gave a rats’ ass. Broken goods, they said. She wasn’t particularly attractive – most people would describe her as plain, I guess. She would also lash out at people. If someone looked at her the wrong way she would fight them tooth and nail. But there was something about her…something I could see that no one else could…There was an incident at the shelter, I can’t quite remember now but someone got verbal with her and she lashed out. Three strikes, they said. She was out. Done for. So I said I’d take care of her. We were soon living together. So for about seven years now we’ve been sleeping together every night (and some lazy afternoons). It’s been a good seven years. But something’s not right now, I know that. You can tell, with these things. I thought I’d write down my thoughts – it’s either that or I start drinking again. Damn, My hand is starting to cramp, so I’ll get back to this later.

*

Friday 14th February 07.40am

Rapunzel is on some kind of hunger strike. I haven’t seen her eat anything in the last couple of days. I knew something was wrong. She’s become listless – when I ask her what’s the matter she doesn’t respond to me. She’s never been cold with me. Never. She’s gaunt too. I think I can see her ribs starting to poke through her body. I told her to eat something, but she doesn’t listen. She just seems to sleep a lot. I don’t know what to do.

11.00pm

As we laid in bed tonight night I started massaging her tiny frame – and I nearly started crying when I heard her raggedy breath. I think something is very wrong. But I have to go to work tomorrow. I just thought I’d write this as I went for a piss.

*

Sunday 16th February 09.00am

I’ve been given meds to treat her but she doesn’t want them. It’s like she’s giving up. I had to literally spoon-feed her yesterday because when I asked her ‘when was the last time you ate?’ she just looked at me like I was some kind of alien.

04.30pm

She’s started whining in her sleep. I’m not sure she’s aware she’s even doing it. Bottle of Whiskey hidden away in the kitchen cabinet three years ago seems tempting right about now.

10.00

Fucking people dont want to kmow – jest fuking looking nodding and smilling hesds like those car bobble head things. Can’t rememmber what you call them. Haha – car bobbity bob. Bop bop. Rapunzel has shalow breathing. Nearly time.

*

Monday 17th February 10.30am

Not going into work today. I held Rapunzel and kissed her and whispered into her ear the sweetest things I could think of. I thanked her for saving me all those years ago and that I was a lucky sonofabitch for meeting her. I said I was sorry I couldn’t do anything to help her. I said I was sorry I drank last night. She looked wiped out but it was almost like she smiled at me. I knew it was time to let her go.

1.20pm

The Vet has just left. When he administered the overdose of sleeping medication I just simply stroked Rapunzel and held onto her until I felt her body go limp. And then it was all over. Seven years. My darling Rapunzel.  My sweet, sweet loving Rapunzel with the big brown eyes. My constant companion.

*

*

THE LAST TWO PEOPLE LEFT ON THE BUS

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*

His memory is a little hazy now but he recollects a tattooed arm lazily resting out of the driver’s side window of a red Ford Mondeo. He remembers that the car is red because at this time in his life he is twelve years old and his favourite colour is red. At a later point in his existence he will be diagnosed by his family doctor with a mild form of Asperger’s, but this will come as a relief to him and will start making sense of some of the things that he thinks about and will also help clarify why he has a moderate fascination with car colours. But for now, he is twelve, standing at the mouth of an alley way, carrying two heavy suitcases, staring intently at the arm dangling out of the car window.

At the end of the tattooed arm, a cigarette dangles from the owner’s fingertips. There is a deft tap of one of the fingers on the cigarette and ash falls to the asphalt. Edward stares at this for a moment longer, trying to decipher the faded tattoo drawings on the arm, and sets down the suitcases.

“Come and say hello to Danny.” A voice from behind chirps.

Edward does not want to say hello to Danny. He wants to be as far away from the red Ford Mondeo as he possibly can be. The woman briskly walks by him, her arm slightly grazing his. He feels tears bubbling up in his eyes, but he forces them back. I’m not a child, he tells himself. I will not cry in front of him. Or her.

The woman goes to the car window and bends slightly. Their conversation is muffled, but he can make out some words referencing the man in the house behind Edward.  At the mention of the man’s name, Edward turns and looks at the window from across the road. He sees the curtain twitch but he doesn’t offer a wave or any sign that he’s seen the curtain flutter. He just looks at the window numbly.

The tattooed arm from the car window reaches for her face and caresses it gently. She lingers there for a second, taking in the large calloused hand, letting it glide across her cheeks and down to her neck. Edward darts his eyes away, and a moment later the woman is in front of him.

“Don’t you want to meet Danny?”

“No.”

The woman seems to take a moment to absorb this response.

“You haven’t eaten all day. We should get you something to eat.”

Edward stares back at the car.

“You can put these in the car,” Edward finally says, eyeing the suitcases.

The woman nods, and proceeds to do just that.

Edward stares out of the bus window, watching the buildings rush by. He pretends that an imaginary man is running at the same speed as the bus, leaping from one building to another. When he sees a telephone line, he pretends that the imaginary man zip-lines across to the next building. He’s been playing this game for about ten minutes.

A yellow car whizzes by. Edward mentally records this.

“You’ve hardly eaten anything.” The woman says in a matter-of-fact way.

Edward looks down at his McDonald’s chips. They are soggy and limp. He hates soggy chips. He prefers Burger King chips but they didn’t go to Burger King. They went to McDonalds. The red carton with the yellow golden arc sits firmly in his hand. His hands are probably greasy now, but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about anything. He feels nothing. He can tell that the woman has been searching for something to say for the last couple of minutes, but the situation is already awkward and stifled with meaningless sentiment. Edward repeats the five lines in his head over and over. It was half an hour ago, in McDonalds, that she broke the news to him. He knew it was coming, but something inside him wanted to shut it out, pretend like it had never happened. His response had been that of a child’s. He knew it, but couldn’t think of anything else to say.

I’m not coming back home.

Another yellow car. Followed by a blue and red car. If the next three cars are also yellow, blue and red in the same succession, he’ll take it as a sign from God and start head-butting the window until his skull cracks open like an egg. The next car is green.

But when are you coming back?

He looks up at the woman sitting next to him, this woman who used to be his mother – too many thoughts racing through his mind, like the imaginary man on the rooftops – going at the same speed as the bus. What was going to happen to him now? Did she not love him anymore? What would he tell his friends at school? Why, of all the places, had she told him in a McDonalds?

Danny and I are moving to Ireland. You can come to visit once we’ve settled.

Never. He would never meet the man with the tattooed arm. Never. It was starting to rain now, and the imaginary man who was running and leaping above his head dissolved as Edward began to imagine the drumming of the rain was actually machine gun fire sent down from the heavens.

It is not long before the bus stops and the woman who used to be his mother takes his hand and they leave the bus. He hasn’t realised that they were the last ones on the bus, and it’s not until he’s seventeen that he realises that although it was dark that night when the woman told him she would be leaving their family forever, she had been wearing her large dark sunglasses when he started eating his cheeseburger.

A Black car roars past the bus as they walk around the corner.

*

*

NEEDLE IN THE STAFF TOILET

musclce-confusion-workouts

*

Michael aimed his piss against the side of the porcelain bowl; worried that the man in the cubicle next door would hear the infantile-like sploshing noise emitting from his own compartment. He was apprehensive about urinating in the middle of the basin. A man’s toilet noise says a lot about the man, he thought to himself.

To his knowledge, this was the only workplace where no small-talk in the toilets was allowed. He wasn’t sure if this was a mandated rule, or a macabre unspoken code amongst his colleagues, but for whatever reason, no man spoke once they had entered the staff washroom. At first Michael had thought this odd; he’d tried to speak with one of the team representatives once whilst he was washing his hands, but each question he asked was met with a polite smile. His co-worker quickly gave a final nod and without saying a word shuffled out the door awkwardly.

The only sounds in the small, dimly lit lavatory were the occasional click-clacking of phones, noses being blown on tissues, grunts of pushing faeces out of bodies and the arbitrary sigh of relief following once ejection had been accomplished. There was less grunting on Beef Chilli Tuesday however; usually Michael would hear a quick ‘Oh fuck’ followed by sloppy smattering noises on the porcelain. So it was inevitable to listen to another man urinating, really – what with being able to do little else. Michael had noticed that some made noises whilst pissing – some whistled tunes, some ‘dum-de-dum-de-dummed’ whilst others sighed inwardly for long periods of time, probably contemplating where it had all gone wrong in their lives. Some even spoke to themselves, muttering incoherently under their breath.

Michael would often listen to the sound of someone pissing and try to guess the girth of their penis. Some sounded like they were simply standing over the toilet with a jug of water, tipping it all in one into the dark hole, others had tentative spurts, dribbling a bit, followed by a few seconds of short bursts, then back to dribbling. Michael thought that maybe staff members were actually communicating in the toilets via urine Morse code. One day, Michael had the curious realisation that if he was listening to the sound of urination in the cubicles next to him, then surely the people on the other side of the compartment were also listening to him…that’s when he decided to start aim for the side of the bowl.

Finishing off, he gave four solid shakes and was about to pull his zipper up when something happened.

Michael had been stung before on a holiday to Italy. Whilst he’d been lazily sleeping on a hammock, a wasp had mindlessly landed on his foot and nestled in between the strap of his flip-flop and his third toe. When Michael stirred awake and moved his feet, he’d crushed the wasp between his digits and had received a barbed response for his ignorant execution of the insect. Three hours later his foot had swelled into a bloated, red sausage.

This is what flashed momentarily in Michael’s mind when he felt the same biting pain emanating from his ankle. He glanced down to see the source of this sudden sting. He was initially shocked to see a hand by his feet, outstretched from the gap from the adjacent cubicle, cradling a hypodermic needle. As his brain sent the necessary signals to his eyes, Michael opened his mouth and produced a banshee-like shriek; he noticed that the owner of the hand was pressing down on the plunger of the needle, sending something shooting into his bloodstream. The liquid inside the cylinder was black.

As the silence of the toilet was broken by Michael’s cry, the hand shot back through the gap, almost as if it was startled. Michael screamed more when his brain realised that the needle was hanging limply from his ankle. He spun round, clasping at the lock on the door. Suddenly an icy chill coursed from his leg up to his back. The dim lights of the toilet stall seemed to shimmer into a brilliant white light and he experienced a plethora of emotions within five seconds; rage, shame, clarity, jealously and joy. His attempt to open the stall was fruitless, as his body slumped to the floor and darkness enveloped him.

When Michael awoke he quickly realised he wasn’t in the staff toilets. Industrial pipes, corrugated iron and metal sheets surrounded him. He then realised that he was bound in an upright position, with various chains wrapped round him and welded to the walls to prevent movement. His lips had been surgically fastened around the mouth of a tube pipe. He tried to move his mouth, but felt searing pain with any minute movement.

With watering eyes, he followed the tendril-like pipe that his mouth had been fastened to as it curved in a U-shape up into the ceiling. He uttered a small whimper as a motor started up from somewhere behind him. Some of the pipes around the room jettisoned steam and he felt minute vibrations in his mouth as he realised something was coming down the pipe. Coming down the pipe and into his mouth.

The liquid gushed into the back of his throat and he gagged instantly. There were malleable items in the liquid too, but he blocked that from his mind.  Yellow rivulets of liquid started to trickle from the tiny gaps of where his mouth was fastened to the pipe to his chin; and shortly the pressure of whatever atrocious liquids pumping down from the pipe into Michael’s mouth were too much for his mouth to handle. With puffed cheeks, piss and shit were bursting from every perceivable like a broken pressure cooker – he couldn’t scream, but instead articulated a deep, animalistic grunting noise.

Upstairs in the staff toilet, Peter was apprehensive about urinating in the middle of the basin. A man’s toilet noise says a lot about the man, he thought to himself.

*

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