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Surviving Loneliness, Timothy Hirons

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The surface, tensed and drawn, split apart as the steel point drove its way into the gap, droplets from the puncture streaming into the mud. Sewing in the rain was a terrible idea. Ben, a grubby faced New-Worlder, his small hands coated in the dust of the dying world, pulled out the needle and replaced it farther down. The fact that he’d managed to find a spot with enough shelter for him to light a fire granted him an opportunity he couldn’t afford to pass up. After a few more strokes he flattened out the patch he was sewing in. It was a small, poorly cut piece of flannelette cloth from a shirt he’d scavenged a day earlier. He reclined against the large hanging rock at his back. It felt good to sit down for a while. The soles of his boots were crumbling and his socks were closer to anklets now. He began stitching up the third side of the patch, and as he did so he turned his head toward a rusty, dented camping stool beside him.

‘You know what?’ he said to the vacant chair, ‘I don’t even know how the Old-Worlders did this.’ The stool said nothing. ‘How could I? I’ve never met one,’ said Ben, pulling out the needle to examine his work. In his lap lay a cargo jacket covered in mix-matched pockets of varying materials and sizes. The newest addition had a special position just below his collar. He pulled the jacket on and placed his needle and thread into their new home.

‘There,’ he said to the stool. ‘A pocket for my pocket making kit.’ The stool remained appropriately still. Ben raised an eyebrow, ‘It’s not pointless, it’s brilliant! You’re pointless!’

‘Hello?’ Ben jumped as he heard the rasping female voice calling out from down the hill. He threw his rain-drenched blanket over the fire and flattened himself against the rock, pulling a small shard of jagged metal from his boot. ‘Is someone there?’ struggled the voice. He peeked cautiously down the slope. Just below on the Old-World highway beneath him a frail woman stumbled up the hill.

‘She sounds really sick,’ he whispered to the chair, leaning out a little farther. Before he could decide whether it was safe to approach the woman, three figures tore through the shadows beside her, knocking her to the ground. Ben watched as she kicked wildly at the figures as they dragged her down the rocky slope toward the highway. Ben turned to his stool.

‘I can’t!’ he hissed, ‘I don’t even have a gun!’ Suddenly the black sky lit up with bolts of light as the roaring of gunshots shook the stones around his feet, painting the rain in gold. Ben gritted his teeth for the sound of screaming, but heard only the woman’s voice.

‘Thank you, mister! Thank you!’ Ben peered back down the hill. He saw two people still standing; one the woman, struggling to pick herself up, and the other a man, twenty metres from her, clad in makeshift armour carrying a collection of weaponry beyond anything Ben had ever seen. The woman began to approach the man, her arms extended in gratitude as he reloaded his revolver. Ben darted from his rock and slid down the hill to her side, wrenching her away from the man.

‘Hey!’ she shouted.

‘What are you doing?’ barked Ben, ‘He’s a Wolf!’ The man ignored them and began searching the bodies. He stalked through the carnage gathering ammunition and supplies. The woman looked confused.

‘You aren’t from here are you?’ asked Ben. She shook her head. ‘You from a settlement?’

‘Diggertown,’ spluttered the woman, ‘but there’s no food there, so I left.’ Ben watched the Wolf as he picked up a can of beans from beside one of the bodies. However, upon realising he couldn’t fit it in his pocket he dropped it. The woman edged forward.

‘Excuse me… mister… would you… could I travel with you?’ she asked. The Wolf turned to face her. His scarred face was creased and wrinkled the way Ben’s fingers got when he stood in the rain and his hair was grey like it was dying.

‘Pockets?’ he asked. The woman turned out her pants. He turned away. Ben picked up the can of beans.

‘I have pockets,’ he said, placing it into his coat. ‘Most still empty,’ he added. The stranger looked him up and down, the creases stretching as he sneered.

‘Keep up,’ he growled, passing him another can. The woman watched as they began walking away.

‘What about me?’ she asked. The Wolf looked back over his shoulder.

‘Pray.’

 

The pair spoke little as they followed the highway east over the next two days, despite Ben’s best efforts, but as they came to a winding trench the Wolf finally broke his silence.

‘Stop thinking about her,’ he said.

‘You think she’ll be ok?’ said Ben.

‘No,’ said the man. Ben paused, his eyes down cast. ‘Seriously, stop.’

‘You are a Wolf, right?’ asked Ben. The man hung his head.

‘I roam, I hunt outlaws, I kill for money. So sure, why not?’ Ben furrowed his brow.

‘What’s an outlaw?’ The Wolf groaned.

‘Someone who does bad things.’

‘Doesn’t that make you an outlaw?’

‘I thought so.’ The two followed the road until it reached the remains of a town. The structures were broken down and decaying, but made from bricks, not assorted scrap. Definitely Old-World, but hardly abandoned. Barricades surrounded the gates and unmanned machine guns were posted atop a bell tower.

‘You see that crack in the wall over there?’ said the Wolf. Ben followed his finger to a point just short of the barricades.

‘Sure.’

‘Wait there until I come back.’

‘Sure thing… uh, Wolf,’ said Ben. The Wolf nodded and vaulted the barricade. Ben sprinted over to the point his companion had identified and proceeded to set up his camping chair.

‘He’s not going to kill me!’ he said to the chair. ‘You’re just jealous that I can talk to him now instead of you,’ he said. The chair was unconcerned. ‘Bah, you’ll see. If I can learn to be like him I’ll never go hungry again. I’ll be able to walk on the Old-World roads instead of around them. I won’t just be some pockets guy buying protection, I’ll be a Wolf!’ He sifted through the dirt with his finger, ‘Besides, it’d be nice to have someone to talk to for a while,’ he sighed. ‘What? No I wasn’t ignoring you,’ he said quickly, ‘I was just thinking.’

The next few minutes were marked only by gunshots, shouting and one loud bang. After a short time the Wolf returned through the barricades.

‘So I guess you finished killing the whole damn world,’ said Ben, collapsing his stool. The wolf raised an eyebrow.

‘You aren’t bringing that. Come on, I got a job for you, Pockets Guy,’ replied the Wolf, turning to leave. Ben placed the stool back down.

‘Pockets Guy?’ he asked, rounding the corner to see smoke gushing from the entrance to a building at the end of the road.

‘That’s what they call you, right? You kids who get protection from mercs by selling yourselves as pack mules,’ said the Wolf. Ben quickened his pace to keep up.

‘Sure, but why not call me ‘Ben’?’ The Wolf looked back over his shoulder.

‘You keep calling me Wolf, as if my job was my name.’ Ben nodded slowly, brow raised as though contemplating some great revelation. ‘Not that it’s wrong,’ the Wolf mused, ‘What man is more than his work?’ he said, stepping over a smouldering body, its face split and torn, erupted in the centre like a bad fruit hollowed by worms. The Wolf saw Ben grimacing. ‘Forty-fours can do amazing work,’ he said, stroking the hilt of his revolver. Ben suddenly remembered why he avoided Wolves. As they reached the entrance to the smoking building, Ben raised his head and asked.

‘Wait. Does that mean you actually have a name?’ The Wolf stopped at the door and turned, brow creased.

‘What? You think Wolves are some kind of supernatural beings?’ he chided. Ben shrugged. The Wolf shook his head in disbelief. ‘Fucking New-Worlders,’ he muttered as he entered the building.

Ben followed the Wolf through what he figured was some kind of Old-World fortress. It had two levels, each with its own walkways, and on either side were enormous chambers with tall barricades lined from end to end. An ingenious defensive strategy thought Ben, though he couldn’t understand why the barricades had items stacked on them. They came to the end of a long, broad hallway and found another such room, only this one had large letters bolted to the wall above the entrance: WOOLWORTHS.

‘Who’s Woolworth?’ asked Ben. The Wolf hung his head with a groan.

‘Just help me, and canned food only! These shelves haven’t been restocked in twenty-five years,’ he said starting to grab food off the shelves and handing it to him. Ben stared in shock at the sheer volume of supplies. Ben took a bag out of one of his larger pockets. The Wolf looked at him as if he had just pulled out a live animal.

‘What? I’m prepared,’ said Ben. The Wolf grinned and started shovelling food into the bag. ‘And if I may ask, are you planning on travelling somewhere… like, really far away?’ asked Ben, gawking at the ever growing horde. Suddenly, the Wolf stopped. He threw the last can into the bag and pulled Ben up by his collar.

‘Alright, Pockets Guy, we’re out of time. Take this bag and everything you have and follow this path to the end of the shopping centre. When you’re out follow the road by the clock tower back to the wall. Wait where I had you wait before. Don’t stop for anything or anyone. Lose my food and I skin you. Clear?’ Ben stared at him for a moment, stunned.

‘Uhhhh, what’s a shopping centre?’ he asked. A crash came from back down the way they’d come followed by frenzied voices. The Wolf growled as he pulled his assault rifle from his back. He grabbed Ben and spun him to face down the corridor.

‘Run till you hit daylight then haul ass for the crack in the wall! Move!’ he shouted. Ben began to run, but turned around for a moment when he realised the Wolf wasn’t following.

‘Aren’t you coming?’

‘You’ve got the pockets, kid, now EXFIL!’ The Wolf opened fire down the hall.

Ben ran as fast as he could manage with all the weight he was carrying. It wasn’t long before he came to the building exit. Sunlight beckoned him out and he saw the clock-tower directly ahead of him, only the machine guns were no longer vacant. The gunners sighted down immediately and opened fire. Ben launched himself down the road, swerving side to side with the weight of the bag over his shoulder. All around him the dirt sprung up like tiny volcanoes erupting around his feet. Then they stopped. Ben looked back as one of the gunners dropped from the tower with a stream of red following after. The air around him was still full of the sound of gunfire, which persisted even after he had found his spot by the wall. He dropped to the dirt with his back to the wall and looked over to his camping stool, still sitting where he’d left it.

‘Shut up,’ he barked at the chair.

Ben waited anxiously for an end to the perpetual ringing of gunfire and explosions, trying to comfort his camping stool. Presently, the Wolf returned dropping over the wall with a thud.

‘Alright, let’s go,’ he said urgently. Ben looked up at him and the trickles of blood snaking down his tattered shirt and pants. He was covered in it. His jacket and rifle were gone and his sleeves had been torn into tourniquets the way Ben had learnt in the wastes. Amid the blood Ben could make out a tattoo of a winged knife on his shoulder with the words ‘Who Dares Wins’ written across it.

‘We need to get you help,’ said Ben. The Wolf laughed.

‘Relax kid, I never die till the job’s done,’ he replied. Ben looked him up and down feeling far from comforted. He could tell from his experience treating his own injuries that he would only last a day or two.

‘Come on,’ said the Wolf, ‘Job’s not done yet.’

 

Around half a day’s walk later the two found themselves approaching a small settlement. A large signpost sat out the front reading Diggertown. Ben turned to the now pale Wolf.

‘Why are we here?’ he asked. The Wolf stopped walking.

‘So you can take those supplies to Christie at the inn. Tell her that Tom took care of her problem,’ he said. Ben nodded.

‘Shouldn’t you see the doctor?’ he asked as the Wolf began to stumble away down the street.

‘My next job was to gather medical supplies for the town,’ replied the Wolf.

‘You’re really happy to die here?’ asked Ben. The Wolf turned with something resembling a smile.

‘Don’t worry about me, kid. I’m just a piece of something that should have killed itself long ago.’ Ben watched his new friend limp away before making his way to the inn where he found a dark haired girl with the most welcoming smile he’d ever seen. He could see dozens of scars on her arms and cheeks and she had more muscle than he did, despite her slender appearance. He lifted the food onto the counter and her eyes widened.

‘Tom says he took care of a problem for you,’ said Ben. The girl’s eyes flashed at the name.

‘You’ve seen Tom? Where is he?’ she demanded. Ben took a step back in shock.

‘Uh, he’s… well he’s bleeding out down the street. He said you-’

‘Ran out of medicine. Yes we bloody did, but perhaps now we can afford to fix that,’ she said wheeling round to grab a rifle off the wall behind her along with a pouch of grenades, a knife, two bandoliers, two pistols and a pair of aviators. She moved the food behind the counter and placed a bag of coins on the counter before marching out into the street. Ben took his pay and followed her up to the entrance to the town where the other pockets guys hung out looking for work. There she stood in the middle of the street and shouted.

‘Who wants to help me raid a slaver occupied hospital out near Rippley’s Revenge?’ The street fell silent. Ben could see the Wolf reclining against a wall further down the road. He dropped his camping stool in the dust and stepped forward.

‘I’ve got pockets,’ he said displaying his jacket. Christie smiled.

‘Let’s roll, Pockets Guy.’

The End

 

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Paris The Incorrigible, Elise Robertson

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Paris crouched cautiously in his dust bath, tossing clawfuls of the dusky earth onto his brilliant scaled back. An orange sliver of radiant sunshine dazzled the usual smut blackness of the Dragon’s Cave.

Clang! Clang! Clang!

The clamour bludgeoned Paris’ head like a meat-axe.

King Marchello, bless his beard, had commissioned an enormous beaten gold archway on the dragon’s neighbouring Midas Mountain Range.

At bath time, Paris liked to rollick about, the grainy dust removing troublesome Sprites who delighted in pinching and nipping him. And Paris had certain ideas about modesty. Not that you could see anything, of course. But it was the principle of the thing. Paris hadn’t heard any catcalls from the chainmail clad dwarf-women but it was only a matter of time.

Clang! Clang! Clang!

‘Think they can hide behind their beards,’ Paris lowered his voice darkly, ‘But I know what they’re about.’ In serious danger of a hag-ridden visage, Paris applied the Fountain-Of-Youth Face-Mask; the lilac-scented paper-strips making him resemble a tallow-faced mummy.

‘Let them laugh,’ Paris thought, clicking his teardrop talons together. ‘When they have a turkey décolleté, sandpaper skin, and bruised eye-shadows from withering in the sun and candlelight, then they’ll sit up and take notice.’

He liked to look his best before going on a raid, the better to beguile his enemies.

With bewitching bumblebee yellow eyes that could lull to sleep a gossip-mongering Cyclops, his tongue dripping with venomous words and a capacious pouch, furnished with downy feathers, perfect for poaching. Paris had earned his reputation as the Incorrigible Dragon.

*

Paris soared like an iridescent satin ribbon past Uno, a town of terraced houses with arched blue doors and iron balconies.

A prominent round peephole permitted the townsfolk to press their single golden-yellow eyes to the glass and observe their neighbours. In amongst the incessantly pruned box-hedges obtruded a stricken scarecrow Cyclops, red velvet mouth stifling a scream and an egg-yolk yellow eye glinting with shock. In his youth, Paris would mistake these decoys for flesh-and-blood, belatedly receiving an unfortunate mouthful of sawdust stuffing. The dragon licked his artful lips and fantasized about what he would eat for pudding, his favourite dish, Someone-and-Kidney Pie.

*

Paris glided over Highwayman’s Lane, phalanxed by a bank of twisted she-oak. Often on this beat, Paris would glint an heiress in her dove-white brougham carriage, embellished with gilded vines.

Twirling his glossy whiskers, the dragon would bind the maiden to the mining tracks by her lustrous tassels. If her father were of a sensible mind, a plump dowry would feed Paris’ emaciated purse.

Presently, the gravel road was mostly deserted, apart from a lone traveller.

Definitely an ogre. You could tell from the bulging, pug-like eyes, black curly chest hair and calloused bare feet. Dressed minimally in technicolour suspenders and pale rompers, he was not a figure you could easily miss.

The dragon prowled round and round the ogre, affording a panoramic view of the creature’s delectably solid flesh and vivid green veins.

He had the Mark on his forehead, of one unspeakably alone. No strings to anything or anyone. Except for a mildewed rucksack sagging with a swagman’s hoard.

‘Turn out your pockets, Veslingr!’

Sometimes the venomous words were fatal outright. Other times the barbs seeped into the bloodstream of the compelled, paralyzing the prey slow – slow – slowly.

‘Shall I shapeshift into a bridge so you can walk all over me?’ Goessohn, the ogre asked, pumping his biceps, as curved and hard as scitimars that could pitch a cyclops into the hedgerows.

Paris’ laugh rattled like rusted sleigh bells.

Most plebians worshipped the bones the dragon walked on. But Goessohn just gave a bulldog grimace, digging his chisel nails even tighter into the rucksack’s straps. No matter. Paris could wait. The dragon burnished his scales, stroking them slowly with his rough tongue.

‘I’ve heard ogres…taste like spare ribs…left to spoil…in the midday sun,’ Goessohn’s lips were tight and tingling.

Paris smirked.

‘I think I’ll take my chances.’

The dragon’s eyes devoured the stranger’s barrow-like chest, kerosene oil for his scorching stomach.

Paris unhooked the rucksack with his tail, the pain forcing Goessohn to let go at once.

Even mothballs would not have been enough to dash the feral smell of dead mourning dove, the ogre’s last meal.

Paris’ talons caressed a silver pocket watch. As the hour struck, a shadowy black panther stalked a be-silked Fairy around the clock face, the predator’s jaws tearing playfully at the Fairy’s coat tails.

Paris placed the spoils into his pouch as if the treasure was a parcel he had just received by post.

‘Blood-money…will pay with your blood – ’ Goessohn avowed, his stocky legs now drowsy and soft as dough.

Paris’ butter-yellow eyes feasted pilgrim-like upon a three-headed jade dog whose baleful, saucer-like eyes wept ethereal tears of diamonds and pearls.

Goessohn was now deer still.

The ogre’s heavy jowls sagged. He couldn’t even shiver, although his skin perspired greatly.

The dragon hissed like a rattlesnake’s tail.

Paris’ hind legs coiled like a wind-up, ready to pounce.

*

Jack Horner Hall was the country estate belonging to Sir Dorian Plum-in-the-Mouth.

A gentleman of leisure who preferred animals to people, especially when the creatures were dead and stuffed. Dorian was not the first man to marry jelly-brained alluring heiress. Argus-eyed chaperones always steering the conversation from more difficult topics.

Every morning, Sir Dorian trit-trotted his ex-racehorse Duke and his pack of foxhounds into Dearborn Forest.
A congregation of insects, reeer-reeer, raah-raah, mmh-mmh, chorused in the humid, clinging air and the mossy, glossy-barked trees.

The routine was as well oiled as a printing press.

Paris knew the estate would be empty, apart from the silent servants and gentle women-folk. Who knew what seraphim treasures lay within Jack-Horner Hall?

Paris slunk towards the front milky marble stairwell, blowing smoke rings in the footman’s face. The frog’s deep-set eyes had a downcast expression as though the dragon was beneath his notice until otherwise introduced. His face was blanched white with lead paint; two spots of rouge coloring his pimply cheeks. A great white wig wobbled like a jelly on his head, bedecked with tiny pink ribbons.

‘I am Paris the Incorrigible!’ the stalwart dragon announced, flexing his glorious heliotrope wings. ‘Thief of Reticules and Swallower of Princesses! Snatcher of Statues and Fire-Consumer of Cities!’

The frog snatched a fly from mid-air and chewed it.

‘Have you a card?’ he drawled.

‘I have a reputation infamously deserved! I need no letter of introduction here!’

Paris tore the white wig from the frog’s head and worried it, like a dog.

‘I’m bald!’ the frog cried in horror, clutching at his bare, moist crown, now divested of his mark of rank.

‘Downstairs servants are forced to take the last name of their served family,’ Paris jibbed, ‘You have always been, as you say, bald.’

‘How dare you!’ the frog croaked, his powdered visage streaking with mortified tears, ‘I could have acknowledged your reputation if you had not wounded mine!’

The frog abandoned his post and frog-marched to the distant Dearborn Forest, repeating, ‘I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t.’ He may still be there now, trying to find something to put on his head. A bird’s nest perhaps? Or a honey jar? Who knows.

Paris gave a low chuckle. All the golden pennies were falling into place.

*

Paris hadn’t meant to enter the salon.

He would rather have been Mr. Plum in the study wrenching something valuable open. The salon was eye-popping. Strawberry pink wallpaper embellished with clusters of laurel leaves lined the grand walls. A white brocade love seat with clawed mahogany lion’s feet demanded an intimate tete-a-tete. A splendid mosaic floor of a rose in full bloom suggested the gaiety of spring. An igloo of books in regimental order dominated the rest of the salon as much as a bloated toad. And the glacé cherry presiding over all this pomp and lavishness was Lady Rosalie Plum-in-the-Mouth, her plump lips pursed in surprise. She wore a rose pink, low-cut gown, the bustle a cascade of bows like rainbow farfalle pasta.

‘Please. Please. Please! Don’t eat my daughter!’ Lady Rosalie begged, hiding her face in her embroidery. ‘I know she is a tiresome headache! Just last week she spat chewing tobacco on Countess Avon’s sapphire slippers…’

Paris tossed his fierce horned head and displayed his imposing underbelly veined with spidery red-gold flame, sparkling like a birdcage glass-marble.

‘You know, if you give me your horde willingly, I might just spare your lives,’ Paris coaxed in an oily voice, as slippery and delicious as bread and dripping.

‘Wait till I’ve finished this chapter,’ a muffled voice exclaimed from behind a barricade of books, ‘I’ve just got to the part when the man declares his passionate devotion for the heroine after a lot of self-denial and misunderstandings between them.’

‘Marriage is not a fairytale,’ Rosalie scoffed, chewing lumpy toffee, her peach-like cheeks a melt-in-the-mouth distraction to the dragon. ‘But you plague me child with your plain looks and your willful, direct-talking tongue. You’ll end up an old maid, or worse a governess!’

Miss Rachel scrummaged out from piles of books, her dull face seemingly polished with olive oil and her figure devoid of curves. She was dressed in a comic sister to her mother’s gown, gold lace with a bustle, a concertina of royal purple satin.

‘Miss Ostentatious didn’t have to put up with ‘The Ice-berg’, a slow-motion kisser,’ Rachel continued, ‘Or ‘Father Time’, as appealing as Father’s stuffed vulture and a lot more free with his hands.’

Miss Rachel was a hothouse flower watered with skating parties, costumed balls, bonnet re-affixing and village walks, unused to tempests.

‘Perhaps not dear,’ Lady Rosalie sniffed, ‘but they always gained ten thousand a year, which is always a comfort.’

Paris’ steaming nostrils flared, raining sickly-smelling pumice stones on the two bewildered women.

‘You must be very tired.’ Paris commented in a measured, deep voice, fixing his ultra-dilated pupils on Lady Rosalie’s perturbed face and curling his cherry-red tail around her waist, pinning her in place.

‘Let your worries fall like water droplets into a stream.’

Miss Rachel charged into Paris’ body but the dragon just shook his prickly scales like a dog.

‘Let your troubles float into the air like a kite…And give me the keys to the master’s study.’

Lady Rosalie was known to do anything nonsensical in her sleep. Rosalie’s Sleep Talk was defensive and omniscient; ‘I am awake! You were just talking about flying pigs…’ Lady Rosalie’s Sleep Wanderings found her reclining on the grand piano, her mattress apparently being too soft. Her pink kimono folded as neat as tissue paper beside her. And so it came of no surprise when Lady Rosalie muttered groggily, ‘Stop tickling me…’ and unfurled the tarnished silver key from around her titan neck, placing it into Paris’ pearly talons.

*

Sir Dorian Plum-in-the-Mouth’s study stared.

Glass glazed eyes stared from all the four walls. A white weasel crumpled forward, its tiny teeth snarled. A tawny owl’s head twisted at an unnatural angle, its claws reaching towards the dragon. A bear lurched on its hind legs, like a boxer in the ring. The study smelt of stale cigars and violin rosin. The frescoed walls depicted hairy satyrs chasing semi-naked nymphs. The Minotaur leather lounge was low and dimpled, inviting one to sink into it. The soul of the study was a walnut roll top writing desk, littered with newspaper clippings, telegrams and a whalebone ashtray. Paris padded around, pouring over the stained glass windows, inhaling the scent of a gold-rimmed vase of hyacinths, sampling the decanter of mint liqueur and stroking the heavy brushstrokes of the still life oil paintings. The dragon’s pouch was soon bulging almost uncomfortably to overflowing.

It was then Paris saw it.

It was rare, choice, must-have.

It could hold black crepe de chine from Crème de la Crème Emporium, where poor seamstresses hand stitched mourning veils and garments for the Fairy Court. The garments were hand-woven and stitched by Cyclops, in between dripping their red-rimmed eye with eye-drops. It could hold a knotted, rose-gold ring from Raiment Forge, where the broad dwarf smiths forged and charmed spells into treasure, this ring charmed to change color with the wearer’s mood. It could hold a gilded, ivory comb from Del-noblesse, where Fairy merchants painted with precious sheets of gold leaf and twittered about their own glittering reflections. The round, metallic lid had the stamp of a faded Forget-me-not flower. Paris’ claws punctured the rubber seal. The platinum box disgorged bile-black spectres of village-children, their hair long, silky and ringleted into cherub curls. The boys each wore a blue velvet doublet embroidered with brown boats and silk stockings. The girls wore red muslin dresses laced with grape-like diadems. The children gaily formed a circle and joined dimpled hands, the girl’s wrists chaperoned by their dress sleeve’s lacy cuffs. Then they danced. It was far from rosy. They scratched like flea-ridden mad-dogs. They sweated like horses galloping around a ring. Their bodies swelled with black, fist-like welts. They coughed droplets of blood into their perfumed handkerchiefs. Then, beyond exhaustion, they fell down dead.

‘Don’t be such a namby-pamby baby,’ the children’s rasping voices teased as they vanished.

Paris’ eyes streamed lava like hose pipes and he checked his stippled armpits for the odious, bulging buboes. Paris longed for a dust bath; the dust would warm his goose-pimpled hide. Paris longed to stopper cotton wool into his blue-furred ears to block the child wraiths’ harsh, echoing voices. The dragon’s lungs pumped a firework of flame into the onyx fireplace, an armory of fire.

*

Bang!

Sir Dorian Plum-in-the-Mouth stormed into the study, trailing mud as he went.

Dorian’s features were starch white and his fists were curled into a knuckled smile.

‘You vile worm!’ Dorian bellowed, his alpha fox-hound nudging its head against his houndstooth-clad thighs.

‘The seal from the box is dwarf made. It was the one thing keeping the Pestilence contained.’

‘But surely I will be unaffected,’ Paris rumbled, his eyes lingering on his weighty pouch and smoldering scales, as a glorious talisman.

‘Against Death? Hardly,’ Sir Dorian gave a cynical snort, ‘The Pestilence doesn’t discriminate against young or old, rich or poor, high or low-born.’

The dragon’s cheeks drained bloodless. Paris’ distinguished whiskers drooped.

He no longer felt incorrigible but as weak as watered brandy.

‘By claw or by tooth, I will tar the wound I have caused!’ The dragon’s clawed hand expunged all of his hat-pin sharp fangs. ‘There is ancient magic which humans no longer care to know.’

Sir Dorian gaped, as Paris sowed the seeds of dragon teeth into the plum-pudding-scented soil of his potted palm. Thin, sleek stalks erupted towards the ceiling. Thick, thorny stems blossomed with roses, shaking out goddesses like bees from a hive.

The Furies each wore a sweeping white veil of tears, serpents entwined in their thick hair, hobnail boots with beating wings and each flourished a fiery torch.

They spoke in unison in the tone of a cracked mirror. ‘From blood you summoned us and for the shedding of blood we remain. The font of the Pestilence must be destroyed as must the perpetrator of their release…’

Paris shuddered. Cold as a vault full of gold. His empty, inflamed gums had once held a crown of teeth.

 

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Queues and Robbers, Jonathan Grew

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Angela was intent on nothing ruining her day. Sure she was running very late for work, the traffic was a nightmare, and some buffoon had parked in the clearway, costing her so many previous minutes. Despite these setbacks she was determined to have a good day today and was excited to start it off in one of her favourite places, the bank. Angela was a born bureaucrat, she had always enjoyed crunching numbers and paperwork and although she knew she was mostly alone in this regard, she didn’t care. She had always found that bank tellers at this bank were like her, especially Susan. Angela only wished that the other people in the bank would share her enthusiasm.

She took a quick survey of the room, noting an adorable old man having a sleep on a chair in the corner and also the security guard leering at her from the other side of the room. Angela noticed Susan as usual was wearing a big smile on her, clearly relishing the challenge of the queue in front of her. She turned her focus to the man in front of her, she could tell just from the back of him that he was having a bad day. Determined to cheer him up with a joke she asked him.

‘Banks are always the same huh,’ she said to him. ‘No matter how much they make the place look nice you can never escape the queues.’

‘Heh, yeah,’ the man replied somewhat nervously, eyes still glued directly ahead of him. Much to her displeasure she was unable to even crack a smile from the poor man. Undeterred however, she smiled to herself, resolute to have a good day.

*

Allan was once again thinking about how he ended up here. Every morning when he turned up to work he felt like he was looking down the barrel of a gun. His life simply wasn’t meant to be like this. Allan had been a star recruit at the police academy until he had accidently tasered the department’s beloved veteran police dog. His father had warned him that people with cynophobia (fear of dogs) don’t make for good police, but Allan hadn’t listened. He had tried to argue that it was the dog’s fault for sneaking up on him, but the academy officials wouldn’t hear any of it. Seeking comfort, he lowered his hand toward his gun holster and brushed it gently, thankful that his job affords him this concession at least.

Allan realised he should probably be paying attention and began to survey the room. Sitting on the chair was an old man who hadn’t moved in a while, prompting Allan to make a mental note to check on him in a few minutes, fearful that he might be dead. He noticed two people talking in the queue for the teller. A fidgety looking man was ignoring the woman behind him, which Allan realised must have been a lover’s quarrel. Allan had a fiancé once upon a time, but after the incident she left him, just another thing gone wrong in his life. The fidgety man began to look increasingly agitated. He kept toying with something in his jacket pocket. Allan could understand that feeling, and once again reached to touch his gun holster. The fidgety man looked over at Allan and immediately looked away. Allan didn’t pay him much attention however, thinking that his stare alone was probably enough to intimidate the man.

*

Su could see the frustration on their faces and could not have cared less. Whenever she told people she worked at a bank they asked how could she stomach it, how could she work for such a reviled institution. The answer was simple, Su thrived on their hatred. When she had started working at the bank she had been so hopeful and idealistic, committed to working hard and providing an excellent banking experience for her customers. Over time however, her optimism faded, and the banks soullessness got to her. First they made her wear a name tag with the name Susan written on it, despite the fact her name is Suyong. Senior management had told her it was to make her more approachable to the customers. Then, despite repeated requests and pleas, it was the refusal to install air fresheners in the bank. Every day the same stale smell had ultimately destroyed Su’s spirit, and though on the outside she wore the same smile she always had, inside Su was bitter and hollow.

That is why on this particularly busy Monday morning, Su took extra delight in watching the sheep squirm impatiently as she slowly dealt with each customer. She watched as a woman tried fruitlessly to talk to her friend in front her of, and laughed to herself as he ignored her. There was a sleeping old man sitting on a chair in the corner of the room, probably dead Su thought. Allan looked as though he was intense in thought, though often Su wondered if he was capable of thought at all. He was staring in her direction so she called on the next customer, preferring to deal with him than even look at Allan.

‘Hello sir my name is Susan, how can I help you today?’ Su asked. Instead of receiving an answer however, the man stared at her vacantly as if unable to say anything.

Su slowly began to feel the anger rise up inside of her. She knew that he heard her, how dare this man come up to her counter and not even pay her the decency of responding? Instead he stands there like a buffoon, hands in his pockets, big stupid coat on. Su felt every muscle in her face strain as she forced them to make a smile.

‘Sir, how can I help you today?’

‘Oh um, yes um, I would like to make a withdrawal.’ The man began to jerk his head downward, lifting his eyebrows as he did it. Su began to wonder if he’s having a fit of sorts until she realised he was indicating to the hand in his pocket. Su stared in confusion before it hit her, a bank robber. Luckily for this bank robber he was gifted with perhaps the only bank teller in the world who would welcome such a situation. The chance to gain some small piece of revenge on the bank was just too good of opportunity for Su to pass up on.

‘Ok sir, I understand completely. Don’t worry about a thing, stay calm and I’ll be right back,’ said Su, who gave the man a wink before leaving. She hurriedly rushed to the room behind her, where the bank kept large amounts of cash in lock boxes before they were moved to other banks. She unlocked one with her key, before filling a bag with cash. Su made sure to keep a terrified look on her face, so any camera footage would show a fearful bank teller, not a sinister saboteur. Su hadn’t felt this alive in years. She hurried back to the man to give him the bag.

*

Gus felt absolutely awful, for the past few days he had been bedridden with the flu and though he desperately wanted to be nowhere else rather than bed, he had been forced to go to the bank today. Gus’ boss had called him first thing and told him that the cheque he had received from a client last week had to be deposited at the bank today, to give the business some much needed capital. And Gus, being the good natured, model employee that he was, said that he’d get on it right away. Now that he was in line at the bank, he was regretting his decision immensely.

Gus had wrapped himself in a coat before he left and despite that he was still cold. He felt his forehead and found it hot to his hand and also drenched in sweat. The line was moving at a snail’s pace, but Gus knew that if he could make it through this queue, then everything would be okay. Gus made note of the old man asleep in a chair, thinking to himself that he’s got the right idea. He stared at the wall in front of him, trying to distract himself when he heard a voice behind him. It took Gus a few moments to realise the voice had come from the woman behind him, and she was in fact talking to him. Unsure of what to say, he gave the most generic answer he could think of, hoping that it would be enough to placate her.

‘Heh, yeah.’

Gus held his breath for a few moments, praying she wouldn’t respond, and breathing a sigh of relief when she didn’t. He reached into his pocket to feel for the cheque, relief flooding through him when he felt the edge where it had been ripped from the chequebook. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the bank’s security guard staring at him, looking at him briefly before turning away. Gus always felt guilty when people of authority stared at him, even if he had done nothing wrong. He suddenly realised he was at the front of the line and stepped toward the teller.

‘Hello sir my name is Susan, how can I help you today?’

Gus lifted his head to speak to the teller and was immediately lost for words. Standing in front of him was perhaps the most beautiful women Gus had ever seen, smiling, just for him. While Gus did not have the most confident way of talking to women usually, he had never before been left speechless. He knew he should say something; in fact he was terrified that with his silence he was instantly destroying any chance of getting to know her.

‘Sir, how can I help you today?’ She still had the same smile on her face, much to Gus’ relief.

‘Oh um, yes um, I would like to make a withdrawal.’ The words had left his mouth before he even had time to process them. Gus knew he wasn’t here to make a withdrawal, but he was still somewhat lost for words. This nervousness, coupled with his fever, resulted in Gus instead using his head to motion towards his pocket where he kept the cheque in a delirious attempt to communicate.

‘Ok sir, I understand completely. Don’t worry about a thing, stay calm and I’ll be right back,’ she said, winking as she left.

Gus could not believe his luck, she had winked at him! Not only had he met an amazingly beautiful woman, but a smart one as well. She was able to understand what he had meant just by him gesturing towards his pocket. However, the fact that this did not make any sense soon began to dawn on him. How on earth could she have possibly known what he meant when Gus barely knew what he meant? His thoughts were interrupted however by Susan returning with a bag. She handed it to him with a cautious smile. Confused he opened the bag and looked inside, finding it filled to the brim with bundles of cash.

‘Woah woah woah,’ he said. ‘What are you doing? Why are you giving me this?’ Su looked at him, a confused expression drawn across her face.

‘Aren’t you robbing this bank?’

‘I’m robbing this bank?’ said Gus, perhaps a bit too loudly.

It was at this exact moment that Gus knew he had made a terrible mistake. The entire room had frozen and all eyes were immediately focused on him. He turned towards the security guard, who was wearing a big grin on his face as he reached for the gun in his holster.

‘Freeze scumbag! Do not move an inch or I swear to God I will blow you away!’ Gus froze, too terrified to even breathe at this stage. ‘Okay,’ said the security guard, ‘now slowly put the bag down and put your hands on your head.’

Gus immediately complied. However, as he slowly put the bag down, a gun shot rang out.

*

Michael loved banks. He loved watching the people inside of them go about their lives, each with their own set of unique set of problems. Michael used to be just like them, that was, until he started robbing banks. Admittedly it had been quite some time since he had robbed one however, and he was unsure his body was still up for it, even if his mind was. This was to be his last hurrah, one last job before he kicked the bucket in just a short few months. He had chosen this bank for the simple fact that its lone security guard was Allan. Though he might be a bit trigger happy and a hothead, he was buffoon, meaning it would be easy for Michael to get the better of him. So Michael had decided to spend the day scoping the place for the upcoming robbery.

He had watched the sick man with the flu come in, feeling sorry for him as he joined the queue. He had then watched the woman behind him come in, clearly trying her best not to let the bad day get to her. Michael also watched Allan with much amusement, laughing to himself as he made notes of Allan’s frequent penchant for daydreaming. He was also acutely aware that the Korean teller was wearing perhaps the fakest smile Michael had ever seen, which Michael realised meant that she probably would not care if he tried to rob the bank. Michael also noticed however that no one really noticed him. Sure they glanced at the old man sleeping on the chair in the corner, but that was about it.

It came as a shock to Michael then, when he heard the man with the flu say he was robbing this bank. Michael wasn’t sure but was pretty positive he heard the inflection of a question being asked when he said it, but right on cue Allan had pulled out his gun and began yelling at the top of his lungs. Michael watched in amusement as the sick man put the bag down and began to lie on his stomach. It then occurred to him that there was no better time to rob this bank. He had a bag full of money and a distracted security guard.

Michael stood up, pulling a gun from inside his jacket and fired a single shot into the air. Before Allan could even react, he had his gun aimed at him.

‘Ladies and gentlemen this is a robbery. Allan, if you would please put your gun on the ground.’

Allan didn’t need to be told twice and quickly put his gun on the ground before lying on his stomach and placing his hands behind his head. Michael walked over to the sick man and picked the bag up.

‘Thanks for this,’ he said. He flashed a glance at Su and winked, before heading toward the door. Outside he is pleased to see his car right where he left it. Although, when he parked it he didn’t realise it was in a clearway. Michael laughed to himself and jumped in the car, driving away.

 

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Do Not Enter: Isolation, Murder, and a Slasher’s ‘Happy Place’, Hannah Coupe

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Vera continues down the stairs to the cellar. The door is ajar. She walks in. The room is empty except for the figure of a woman sitting in a chair.

‘Mrs. Bates.’

She gently touches the woman’s shoulder and the chair slowly turns to reveal the corpse of Norma Bates: pruning skin, hollow eye sockets, and skeletal smile. Vera screams. Violins shriek as Norman rushes in, dressed in his mother’s robe, brandishing a knife, and wearing an insanely happy grin to rival that of his decaying mother.

*

Tina walks out into the dark alley, following the guttural growls calling her name. A trashcan lid rolls ominously into her path. Then there is laughter. Slow, deep, sinister chuckles fill the scene before the screech of metal on metal announces the arrival of Freddy. His quavering chuckles grow louder as he relishes Tina’s mounting terror.

‘Please God,’ she whispers.

Freddy grins and holds up his right hand. He wears a knifed glove.

‘THIS,’ he growls, ‘is God’[i]

*

Wendy bundles Danny up in her arms as the first axe thud hits the front door. With no other route of escape, she rushes into the bathroom. The axe thuds continue and Jack’s face appears in the hall.

‘Wendy, I’m home.’ He breaks down the door and slowly stalks through the bedroom.

‘Come out, come out wherever you are.’

Playfully, he knocks on the bathroom door.

‘Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in. Not by the hair on your chinny-chin-chin. Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in!’[ii]

*

What is it about these villains that make them so scary? It could be the brutal way they kill their victims, or how excited they look during the violence. Perhaps it’s the isolated environments making horrible deaths all the more imminent, or that each killer is a mentally misshapen psycho we can’t fathom. Any one of these is reason enough to become petrified in your seat, but all of them working together; that’s what makes an iconic slasher.

Norman Bates, Freddy Krueger, and Jack Torrance are amongst the most celebrated killers in slasher history, producing some of the scariest scenes of the genre. Despite being very different on the surface, each of them fits the classic slasher profile in two ways. Firstly, they’re all psychologically damaged figures: Norman suffers from an intense guilt complex coupled with a wealth of mother issues, Freddy was a reclusive child-murderer before the townspeople killed him, and Jack was an abusive alcoholic who despised his wife and son. Secondly, they each inhabit an environment pocketed away from the rest of the world and it’s in this isolation that they’re happiest.

Isolation is a recurrent theme in slasher movies where victims often meet grizzly ends by trekking into the wilderness (The Blair Witch Project [1991], Wolf Creek [2005]) or staying home alone (Scream [1996], When a Stranger Calls [1979]). But while we prevalently see how a lonely cabin in the woods or house on a hill affects unwitting heroes, little is shown about how it affects the villains.

Since villains are the characters that ultimately make the slasher movie experience, by carving their way into our nightmares, I plan to explore the slasher’s relationship with isolation, looking at the characters of Norman, Freddy, and Jack to determine just how much it assists in shaping cinematically iconic killers.

 

‘This place happens to be my only world’[iii]: Norman Bates

Donald Spoto, in his book on Alfred Hitchcock, comments that Psycho (1960) ‘is one of the few financially successful films which can defensibly be called an art film, it remains a quintessential shocker’[iv]. Considered to be Hitchcock’s greatest masterstroke, as it raised the slasher from the slums of common horror, Psycho’s iconic status can probably best be personified in the charming, albeit socially awkward character of Norman Bates. The ‘psycho’ of the film’s title, Norman is one of the most complex killers in cinematic history. Jim McDevitt and Eric San Juan, in their book on Hitchcock villains, place him within the same league as Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs [1991]), John Doe (Se7en [1995]) and TV’s Dexter Morgan (Dexter [2006]). As a killer, he ‘mixes charisma with crazy, giving us a character we just can’t turn away from.’[v] However, unlike socially charismatic slashers of today, his fascinating complexity comes from a disturbing relationship with isolation.

*

Marion smiles politely and eats the sandwich Norman has brought her. She shifts in her seat as the conversation becomes too personal. Norman continues chatting.

‘I think we’re all in our private traps. Clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other. And for all of it, we never move an inch.’

‘Sometimes we deliberately step into those traps,’ Marion answers politely.

‘I was born in mine, I don’t mind it anymore.’ [vi]

*

Norman’s seclusion began at the age of five when his father died. His mother raised him in solitude in the house behind the motel. Norman boasts he ‘had a very happy childhood’ and the psychiatrist, at the end of the film, comments that ‘for years the two of them lived as though there was no one else in the world’.[vii] However, this happiness was shattered when his mother met another man. Already psychologically disturbed after his father’s death, the arrival of an outside social force was a rude awakening for Norman. As we know, the story does not end well.

By the time we meet Norman in Psycho, ten years after he has killed his mother and her lover out of pathological jealousy, his relationship with isolation has become very complicated. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, in an article in Screen Education, notes that he represents Freud’s ‘return of the repressed’ with ‘repression manifesting itself in the concept of the monstrous Other.’[viii] For Norman, the ‘Other’ is the fragmentation of his mind into two characters: that of himself and that of ‘Mother’, which occurs as a result of his matricidal guilt. The motel, located fifteen miles from the nearest town, becomes a site of trauma and escape for him. It’s the scene of his crime, but it’s also the only place that can accommodate his mental fragility. The motel’s isolation makes it the one place where he can exist happily as both personalities, Norman and ‘Mother’, in an attempt to resurrect the happiness of his childhood. And when outside characters threaten that illusion, he (or rather ‘Mother’) kills them.

However, while the motel helps to soothe Norman’s fractured mind by allowing him to live as two people, it’s also the only place where Norman himself can actually exist. According to the psychiatrist, Norman ‘only half-existed to begin with’ and it’s when he is removed from the motel that the ‘Mother’ half takes over, ‘probably for all time.’[ix] In the end, it’s Norman’s dependence on isolation that makes him the terrifying psycho of Psycho because he can only exist within it. Whenever reality comes too close, ‘Mother’ takes over as a violent means of exterminating the threat and prolonging Norman’s seclusion. Understanding this, it’s no wonder he looks so happy when ‘Mother’ takes control.

 

‘I’m your boyfriend now Nancy’[x]: Freddy Krueger

Film critic, Stephen Jay Schneider, in his book, 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die, describes A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) as a ‘critical and commercial success that managed to creatively combine horror and humour, slasher movie conventions, gory special effects, and subtle social commentary’, as well as ‘let loose a new monster in America’s pop cultural consciousness: that wise-cracking, fedora-wearing teen killer, Freddy Krueger.’[xi] Freddy is a celebrated slasher for a number of reasons: his creative means of killing, which range from stabbing victims to sucking them into mattresses, his terrifying features including burned face and homemade knifed-glove, and the fact that he’s the indestructible killer that keeps coming back. But what primarily makes him the terrifying figure he is, is the fact that he exists in a state of the utmost solitude: the subconscious.

If Bates represents Freud’s ‘return of the repressed’, then Krueger is a nightmarish visualisation of the ‘dream-work’: the way in which suppressed, taboo desires of the id are distorted by the dreamer’s unconscious in an attempt to fulfil them. Charles Spiteri, in an article in Senses of Cinema, describes Freddy as ‘being shaped from the stuff of dreams, he’s able to change his body and the dreams of his victims to lure and kill’[xii] and it’s this freedom within such isolation that makes him so frightening.

 *

Tina runs through the garden. As she rushes past a tree, Freddy jumps out from behind it.

‘Tina!’

She turns in a snap of obedience. Freddy grins widely, lifts up his left hand and tauntingly wiggles his fingers.

‘Watch this.’

With a single swipe of his knifed glove, he cuts off two fingers. Green blood spurts from the stumps. His eyes bulge with excitement, his grin widens, and he starts to laugh.[xiii]

*

Freddy exists as a vengeful ghost in the dreams of his victims. While little information is given in the movie as to how he manages to supernaturally infiltrate his victims’ subconscious, there are a lot of clues as to what kind of relationship he has with isolation. As a conscious character invading the dreams of teenagers, Freddy is absolute boss. He possesses the power to shape the content of his victims’ dreams, turning it fatally against them as Spiteri points out. His overt relish in the freedom of his isolation, as is illustrated by his various acts of taunting self-harm (amongst other things), takes on a new layer of creepy when we consider that he was a reclusive child-murderer in life. For Freddy, the isolation of dreams doesn’t just let him painlessly cut off fingers or slice himself open, it allows him to physically fulfil his macabre desires without the inhibitions of social justice. Dreams are a realm of absolute freedom for him: a world where he can do exactly what he wants when he wants and there is no one who can stop him.

Even at the film’s end, Freddy’s tyrannical reign in the dream world is what leaves audiences with a lingering sense of terror as it seems that Nancy has defeated him and returned things to normal, only to be driven away in a possessed car and watch as Freddy drags her mother, screaming, through the transom of the front door. It’s a final, chilling statement: we’re in Freddy’s world now.

 

‘Five months of peace is just what I want’[xiv]: Jack Torrance

While horror writer Stephen King famously denounced Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his novel, many critics such as Roger Ebert praised his choice of changing the original ghost story into one ‘about madness and the energies it sets loose in an isolated situation primed to magnify them.’[xv] A different slasher movie to others released during the time (Friday the 13th, Prom Night), The Shining (1980) produced some of horror’s most iconic scenes including the ghostly twin girls and, of course, Jack Nicholson’s ‘heeere’s Johnny’ line. But what most sets Kubrick’s film apart from other horror movies is the ever-present idea that the supernatural elements we’re seeing aren’t really there. We’re seeing ‘ghosts’ because the characters are, and the characters are seeing them because the hotel’s isolation is driving them mad.

Despite critics’ disputes as to whether The Shining is a horror or a thriller, the film’s base plot follows that of the classic slasher movie: a family goes to a remote hotel where they are threatened by grizzly fates. However, unlike psychos born into isolation like Bates or supernaturally resurrected into it like Krueger, Jack Torrance is the guy who starts the film as unwitting victim, but then gradually turns into an axe-wielding maniac; all because he wanted a little peace and quiet.

Kubrick quickly asserts that isolation is the theme of the film. Jeff Smith, in an article in Chicago Review, comments that the opening scene with its ‘sharp colours and outlines lend this land its own feeling of alienness.’[xvi] Unlike Freddy and Norman, Jack is chasing isolation from the film’s beginning. A recovering alcoholic and struggling writer, he takes the job as winter caretaker for the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies, with the hope that a change of scenery will cure his writer’s block and help him get away from past transgressions.

Over the course of the film, the Overlook’s isolation quickly becomes a frightening visualisation of the phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ as it starts working to unhinge Jack’s mind. While he doesn’t have the psychological fragilities of Bates or Krueger, he’s an emotionally vulnerable character caught in the transitional stage between alcoholism and reformation. As old grievances continue to be unearthed between him and his wife, his emotional fragility increases until it finally breaks with the fatal words, ‘I’d give my goddamn soul just for a glass of beer.’[xvii] Here, the first ‘ghost’ appears in true Faustian fashion and Jack’s transformation from inwardly frustrated man to outwardly homicidal maniac begins. Isolation becomes the alcohol he can’t get enough of and the steps he takes to ensure he gets it become more drastic: he destroys the radio and the Snowcat’s motor, pocketing the hotel further away from the outside world.

By the film’s climax Jack is completely transformed and the face leering at Wendy through an axe-hole in the bathroom door is very different to the one that he began the movie with. His deathlike pallor and unresponsiveness is replaced with colour and animation: the picture of an addict about to get his fix. Horror ensues as we realise that this guy is so far gone, he’ll kill his own family for some peace and quiet.

*

The slasher movie may value isolation for its guarantees of gruesome deaths or the promise of finding a murdering psycho out in the middle of nowhere, but on closer inspection of some of cinema’s iconic slashers, we can see that the lonely woodland cabin or remote hotel has just as much of an effect (if not more) on the villains than the victims.

It’s the villains’ relationships with isolation that makes them the terrifying figures they are. As a personality split in two by matricidal guilt, Norman can only exist within the seclusion of the Bates Motel. Freddy Krueger exercises absolute freedom in indulging his violent and murderous impulses beyond the reach of society as a vengeful ghost inhabiting the dreams of teenagers. And Jack Torrance went to the Overlook in search of peace and quiet; only to revert to his alcoholism with isolation becoming the booze he couldn’t get enough of. Each character gets some enjoyment out of seclusion and it’s this coupled with the actions they take to prolong that enjoyment (i.e. killing people) that makes them iconic cinematic killers.

 

Works Cited

[i] Englund, Robert, perf. A Nightmare on Elm Street. Dir. Wes Craven. 1984. Warner Bros. Film.

[ii] Nicholson, Jack, perf. The Shining. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. 1980. Warner Bros. Film.

[iii] Perkins, Anthony, perf. Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. 1960. Paramount. Film.

[iv] Spoto, Donald. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of his Motion Pictures. London: W. H Allen, 1977. Print.

[v] San Juan, Eric & McDevitt, Jim. Hitchcock’s Villains: Murderers, Maniacs, and Mother Issues. Maryland: Scarecrow Press. 2013. Print.

[vi] Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Per. Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. 1960. Paramount. Film.

[vii] Oakland, Simon, perf. Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. 1960. Paramount. Film.

[viii] Heller-Nicholas, Alexandra. ‘Through the Peephole: Alfred Hitchcock and the Enduring Legacy of PsychoScreen Education no.75, p. 96-101, 2014. Viewed Sep. 25 2015, http://search.informit.com.au.simsrad.net.ocs.mq.edu.au/fullText;dn=658405856014362;res=IELAPA

[ix] Oakland, Simon, perf. Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. 1960. Paramount. Film

[x] Englund, Robert, perf. A Nightmare on Elm Street. Dir. Wes Craven. 1984. Warner Bros. Film.

[xi] Schneider, Stephen Jay. 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die. Sydney: HarperCollinsPublishers Australia Pty Ltd. 2009. Print.

[xii] Spiteri, Charles. ‘Isolation and Subjugation: The Telephone in the Slasher Film’ Senses of Cinema vol.32, 2004. Viewed online Sep. 29, 15, http://sensesofcinema.com/2004/beyond-the-grave-of-genre/telephone_slasher_film/

[xiii] A Nightmare on Elm Street. Dir. Wes Craven. Perf. Robert Englund and Amanda Wyss. Warner Bros. Film.

[xiv] Nicholson, Jack, perf. The Shining. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. 1980. Warner Bros. Film.

[xv] Ebert, Roger. Great Movie: The Shining. 2006, film review. Viewed online Sep. 29, 15, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-shining-1980

[xvi] Smith, Jeff. ‘Careening Through Kubrick’s Space’ Chicago Review, 33:1, pp. 62-74. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1981. Print.

[xvii] Nicholson, Jack, perf. The Shining. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. 1980. Warner Bros. Film.

 

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Rorka, Rohan Viswalingam

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Blood be the body

Surging in it and out of it

Dribbling over the dimming eyes

Separating those eyes

 

Sending the fire out of the mind

Spurting it out of the head

Giving the body supremacy over the city

Drenching the windows in a fiery dark

 

The unmixable smoke

It penetrates the body

Hollowing it out of life

Destroying the centre

 

The crunching face rages with fury

Breathing the black smoke from the air

Sending it down through to the lungs

Deeper deeper go the tainted vapours

 

The city will fall before me

My power will snap the infrastructure

The statues will crumble

Until the rubble will be a second sea

 

The sea will roll interminably

Burning the bodies falling from the surface

Swallowing the enfettered souls

And I will watch those ghostly pained faces

 

Sulphur will penetrate the safe havens

Where the innocent are hiding

In their shady burrows

Warmed by their fleeting love

 

The Black Widows will peak out from the gaps

Come sprawling

Out over the totems of falling civilization

Possessing the newly purged landscape

 

Mercy, there will be none

Just a reminder ever brutal

That homes are temporary

That the reckoning is inevitable

 

The spirits have just been waiting

Forcing a false sense of security

To the lethargic inhabitants

That nothing will come of their decisions

 

But the nature of the land will take hold

Giving no creature a second dice roll

Erasing all hope in their prayers

Leaving but the peaceful silence before annihilation

 

We will teach the people

Of the hierarchy of breath

The legions of emissaries will show no mercy

And the land will be cleaned flat

 

The sea will calm

The Widows will relinquish their thrones

Leaving a vacant, dusty city

Waking up to a new age

 

And it is without the stragglers

For they have whittled themselves away

In the dark crevices that we made

The ones they hid in before perishing

 

The new sun will be born of water

The water of their blood

That ran down the buildings into the stream

And the sun will be called Rorka

 

The purity will be the rage

The rage of extinction

The seething hate of being chosen

Chosen to be vanquished by the upper power

 

The sun will warm the new places

Giving pulse to the dried up swamps

Giving jobs to the legged cripples that survived

And leaving the fallen rubbed into the darkness like charcoal

 

The old safe place is gone

The rebirth is complete

Total Completion

Purity from a sun

 

A new form must be made

A new leader of the second sun

Born from the new sea

And from the shadows of before

 

Build it

Start with the teeth

With black sperm squeezing through the gaps

Forming the gums and lips

 

It all comes back to what we destroyed

A refreshing of the old body

To make a new one

To command the Widows and sea

 

Fetch the parts from the old coves of death

Feed the veins from the seabed

Supply the bones from the graves in the buildings

Give me the soul from the Second Sun

 

The soul will be the centre

Herding the water around it

Connecting the tendons

Latching the veins together

 

Then an earthly being will form

A disgusting new being

A sick reminder of the past

But eventually a new ideal for the future

 

There will be no skin

Only the crimson muscle

And perfect white tendons

No shroud of skin to hide the lies

 

And Skinless will sit on a throne of waves

Constantly nourished by the water

Held above the rusted buildings of old

Giving it elevated reprieve from this sordid world

 

No new citizen will be forgotten

They will come to worship Skinless

They will fill the buildings

Stepping over the stale bones of the past

 

New words will come from Skinless

And the new citizens will learn the past

Learn the present

And they will know the future

 

 

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Being: Mark Four, Melanie Adams

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I.

 

The winter of ’92 had infected my mother with its frosty failure

It clutched her womb with barren hands

She haemorrhaged a me, mark three.

 

With a grievous contraction, she expelled

The coagulated nothing

Spurned by her body.

 

The stab was familiar.

 

In 1980, first blood seeped from her young form

Rippling tides of relief.

 

Summer of ’92, it had gripped her viscera

The day after the miniature cardiac throb caressed her ears

And the surge of maternal love sparkled in her chest.

Her arid figure cracked and crumpled.

 

My father’s shirt had promised them a daughter.

Draped in the vivid spirits of the Violent Femmes

His mind incanted: Let me go on.

 

My father bought a bounding ball of puppy fuzz

For my mother, as consolation.

 

Later, I heard ‘constellation’

Picturing all my selves that never were

Coalescing into celestial objects.

 

Doctors told my mother

Her anatomy was the great antagonist

Bellicose, designed to obliterate.

And yet, this determined speck

Clambered out of the mire of non-existence

A scatter of atoms, at first

Uniting into lungs, a brain

And a heartbeat.

 

And so I was.

Born all aperture, drinking my surroundings

With large brown spheres

Gleaming. Winking.

Slung from stellar oblivion.

 

II.

 

I was fourteen years, crushed up

A thousand tiny shells spat out by the sea

With its wringing tide.

 

Sinking in its mouth

Until my bones lodged in the back of its throat.

Life coughed up my skeleton.

 

The Violent Femmes and their jagged colours hung about my ribs

Fluttering, gored into strips by a decade of spin cycles.

 

I had grown from a clot of cells

To this, a self-immolating bush

Destined to blacken and burn out.

 

They said God’s hands had

Plucked me from the astral plane

Of their empty bodies

Flinging me through incandescence

To this dimension.

 

Why would God waste his divine fingers

Stitching something to squander?

 

My bled-out siblings called

From the belly of the earth.

I ruptured and burst like a tired star.

 

I was the sprout that had struggled

Through the concrete fissures of the footpath

Poking its fecund face

Into suburban spring.

 

I wanted to crawl back down.

 

To slide back down the spiral at the centre of the world

To slink back into

The hull of my mother

To sleep within her dormant walls

Secreted for a century

Before my renaissance.

 

Instead I was an unblinking eye

Inhaling weltschmerz

Without slumber.

 

Eating the city’s grime and feasting

On its acrid disappointment.

 

The shirt’s prophecy unravelled

Me, a violent woman

Dreaming of gunshot wounds

 

Pockets groaning with stones

Weighed down in the river

Hoping to sink.

 

Diffuse like light pollution

Lying limp on the floor.

Atomised. Paralysed.

Shredded to a joyless confetti.

Floating away.

 

III.

 

The moon mirrors my mother’s love

Luna urges me as she does the ocean

To lift its arms. To rouse itself from its bed.

To swell and embrace the salty shoreline.

 

My fragments, like iron filings

Magnetised back together.

 

I raise myself as a filament

Conducting light. Throwing it back

To my family, who so loved me

That they shovelled the soil of debt on their own shoulders

Just to hold me. Just to see my newborn face

And hear my infant giggle —

The mellifluous tinkle of chimes

Thirteen years in the making.

The shirt sacrificed itself to us.

Its vibrant creatures stretched and ripped

Beyond recognition.

I still feel the noble ghost of its ribbons

Stroking the crevices of my back.

 

Existential guilt still hums

A covert wasp’s nest crafted in my skull.

I will spray it away someday

But for now, I will cradle this tender glow

Cupping my hands

Over the blazing candle

Of being.

 

 

Works Cited

Violent Femmes, “Blister in the Sun.”1983. By Gordon Gano. Violent Femmes. Slash Records, 1983, Cassette.

 

 

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The Answer To That, Sir, Is Nothing, Georgia Buley

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There’s a matchbook, in case I want to set myself alight.

It didn’t happen yesterday, nor the day before—

My cheeks were wet so the sparks can’t catch—

But one day. Maybe.

 

          But there is no lighter.

It’s the only bright light in this sea of addictions;

I’ve never sought to taste death on my lips

And blow it back through my teeth.

I’d celebrate if I could breathe deeply enough on my own.

I can’t blame the catch on smoke.

 

          There’s a tiny little turtle that snaps and begs at my skin

And reminds me with frozen beats that I’m not who I say I am—

Not who I write I am.

I take the turtle out and paint him gold

But it always rubs off in the light.

 

          There are pins and needles in my fingers

Where the feeling’s gone and the cold creeps in.

It doesn’t get past my knuckles or up into my wrists—

My heart beats too strongly with that warm warm blood—

But one day. Maybe.

 

          There’s a whistle that screams brightly into the night.

Sometimes I think it’s broken—

Last time I tried to use it, it didn’t work—

It deafened me as it shrieked

But not a soul came running. (Someone told me since that I probably should have shouted ‘Fire’.)

I like to hope that lightning can’t strike twice, but it could happen.

One day. Maybe.

 

          There’s a model of a train

For no reason other than I like to turn the tiny wheels with my fingers

To keep them from flying around another’s neck.

There is a chess piece with its tiny head torn off

With sword and shield prepared for the battle that doesn’t come

With soulful hands carved in prayer to the unfeeling marble.

He comes from the battle of Troy. He comes from the losing team—

A pawn in a game gone way over his little head.

(Wherever it’s gone.)

 

          There are some coins—

Not enough for anything worth buying, mind.

A ten cent piece coated in grime

A silver dollar with an American eagle

A twenty that had been run over by a train

Dali’s clock-shaped, her Majesty’s great visage melted in a gory rendition of The Wizard of Oz.

 

          I like to think my insecurities take the form of hedgehogs

Who prickle and growl and stick out their tongues

And hobble along in their own little way.

They snuffle at the skin of my thighs from inside.

I keep them on hand at all times, ready to bring to the light at a moment’s notice.

It doesn’t do to ignore them for so long: they can go feral—

At least this way I’ve got them under rein.

Maybe.

 

          There’s a heart all wrapped up in butcher’s paper.

It’s leaking out the sides, some thin warm thing that still beats angrily on my thighs.

I touch it sometimes, but it’s too hot to hold;

I can feel it beat against my skin like oceans.

 

          There is a pen. There is always a pen. I find it harder to write on paper.

(Maybe there’s an element of sadism in that.)

The ease of keys under fingertips dulls my sense of the page

I crumple more sheets than I can afford to buy

Notebooks fall into the trash filled with meaningless scribbles across the margins

(And sometimes I ask myself, aren’t they all meaningless scribbles?)

But there’s something of value to them if I demand there to be.

 

          I type my thoughts out into an online void, and I’m applauded by one hundred greyed-out faces.

None of them know anything of me. There’s no joy in this capitulation.

And it’s certain, now, that there’s almost nothing to the thoughts that run rampaging rhino through my mind.

But I write them down anyway, with little scraps I keep handy

And the pen.

Somewhere in there, there’s a ticket stub or five

Train tickets and musical tickets, coffee cards with four holes left to punch—

There’s no real regency in a temporary life.

Tissues long since turned to scraps, tumbled through time

And a vibrant scrap of fabric that once might have belonged to something beautiful—

Or someone.

 

          There are scars and chips and wrinkles all across my hands

Some are from accidents—

And some not.

If pure recklessness causes accidents, then perhaps it might tip the balance back

But it’s clear I’m not as clumsy as I appear.

 

          There’s a few photographs, too.

Not of anyone I know;

I find them in garage sales and fold up so tiny they fit onto one fingertip—

Creasing them makes them feel somehow more authentic—

So I remind myself that when I’m gone I’ll be more than aged sepia.

I’ll be almost more than that, at least.

 

          I draw my hands out and find them empty

Clutching at the banknote-crisp air like if by the reaching I could will it to appear.

And what?

Oh. Something. Anything.

 

          Someone once asked me what I keep in there

And I feign ignorance with those big ol’ baby blues flutterin’ like butterflies

‘What could you mean?’ I say.

‘What could you possibly mean?’

 

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Dasvidaniya, Claudia Frazer

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I was taught to be brave. To hold my head up. To keep smiling. Some days it was hard, especially towards the end. My feet were tired from running, then walking, limping, then holding my aching body up and dragging it across the ground. The shawl I had stolen from a farming couple’s laundry along the way slipped from my shoulders, the rough material grazed my neck, tempting my fingers to lean back and scratch. Instead, as I half ran half staggered, my fingers combed through my now tangled red locks. With each step a fresh shot of pain raced up my leg. I walked until I couldn’t take the throbbing in my leg anymore, my breath coming out in staccato gasps as I gripped myself, mentally trying to overcome the pain of my escape.

Frantically looking to my left and my right then both behind and in front of me, even above and below in case someone was to crawl out from the ground or jump on top of me from one of the tall overhanging trees, I looked to see if I was followed. Pausing a moment I held my ragged breath so that I might listen for the tell-tale signs of an intruder. After a moment when there was no sound of foot fall I let out a tiny gasp of relief and hobbled over to some nearby shade. Collapsing beneath the entangled limbs of a giant tree, I leaned my head back and shut my eyes. Curling a small tendril of hair about my finger, I tried to process what had happened. Silent tears trundled down my cheeks as I fell into an uneven slumber.

*

‘Come quickly!’

The little girl gripped her mother’s hand, her red curls bouncing against her back as they followed after her four older siblings, her father and her younger brother. They continued to walk until they stood before a short older man whom introduced himself as Yakov Yurovsky.

Head held high, her father looked Yakov in the eyes as Yakov spat that, as the Tsar, her father was to be put on trial for his handling of the workers strike, now known as Bloody Sunday. The Bolsheviks wanted him to be present for his trial, but he was not permitted to wear any epaulettes, they would not give him that honour.

The older two girls gasped. The eldest, Tatiana, went to say something but was silenced by her father with a stare. The little girl bit her lip as she reached for her hair, tangling a single strand around her finger, she watched in silence as her father won the unspoken battle between himself and her older siblings.

‘I would ask that-’

‘You dare ask for anything?’ Yakov raged. ‘After everything you have done to this country! For Bloody Sunday. For the war! For listening to that snivelling svoloch, Rasputin! You have done enough for this once great nation.’ Motioning to the guards he demanded they take them from his sight.

*

Unable to fitfully sleep, I picked the lining on my dress. The thread barely giving as the dirt clumped the strands together, making it difficult to get to the tiny fragments hidden beneath. Hints and glimmers of emerald, rustic traces of ruby and small suggestions of diamond could be made out through the grime beneath the fragments of thread I was tugging at. They were sewn into pouches beneath the lining of my dress created by myself and my sisters to conceal the jewels whereabouts. It felt like only days before that Mama sent a telegram telling me to hide the family medicine. My eldest sister was unsure of the coded message, but it was written for me, why hide medicine after all? I gathered the family jewels and made my sisters aware of the meaning behind Mama’s simple scrawl. It took us days to successfully sew the jewels into their hiding spots. It all seemed like a pointless waste of time.

My nails wedged dirt into the crack beneath my nail bed as I scraped the thread, my concentration focused solely on my task to remove the precious gems I had sewn into the lining merely days before. The more I scraped, the more frustrated I began to get. The pattern of removing the jewels now reminiscent of when my sisters and I had first hidden them. My lip began to quiver as I mentally urged it to stop. A sob escaped my unsteady lips as I tried to hold myself together. Tears fell freely, drawing paths through the dirt on my face. A mix of homesickness and pain from the throbbing wound beginning a fresh batch of tears. Drawing myself into a ball, I could see that the base of the boots I was wearing had started to crack. Head throbbing in time with my heart I cried until I was raw.

With an unsteady breath, I gathered my skirts and eased myself back onto my feet. A shot of pain rushed up my leg as I unsteadily regained a standing position. Throat parched, every muscle in my body begged me to stop, lie down, to rest. I wondered how far I had walked, if I had made it out of Yekaterinburg and if the bullet that tore through my upper calf would get infected. Pausing against a thick barked tree, I swiped my blood soaked dress from my legs and prodded the wound. Tiny stabs of pain prickled where I touched. Drawing my head closer for a better inspection, the clumps of dirt, drying and still liquid blood, and the oozing bits of yellow ignited a strong queasy feeling within my stomach. Dropping my dress, I leaned over my shoulder and heaved everything left in my stomach onto the drying clumps of grass behind me.

*

The little girl, who was now almost a woman, could hear the whispered voices from down the hall as they slowly got closer to where she was hidden. Her hair, darkened to a burnt red with age, was tied back in a style more fitting for a Tsar’s daughter than the loose curls she had adorned before. She held her breath, knowing full well the repercussions if she was to be discovered this far from her assigned quarters. The footsteps stopped a couple feet from her hiding place.

‘We cannot let the white army get them.’

‘What shall we do?’

The thunderclap of a pair of steel capped boots pounded the tiles and the imposing voice of Yakov broke the silence. ‘Gather the Tsar, the Tsarina and her children, take them to the cellar. Tell them it is for their own protection.’

*

I would not be moving from this spot for some time. Wincing slightly, I tugged at the thread and watched the first jewel fall from its hidden spot. Finally. Rubbing the small gem between my thumb and index finger a silent tear rolled down my cheek as I recalled Mama. Her smile would lighten up the ballroom as the nobility, the Dvoryanstvo, would beg for a single dance. Falling elegantly at her hips, her dress, an off-white colour, would stand out in the court as so many others opted for bold hues. Smiling, I recalled the soft ruffles as they embraced her torso, my father smiling sweetly as her hand lay in the crook of his arm.

I pulled another thread and another gem, this time a ruby, fell into my palm. This one had been hit by one of the many bullets. It was broken into a thousand fragmented pieces, the jagged edges getting caught on the material. Bits of the disintegrated jewel blew in the breeze and clung to and around my open wound. Shiny hints of red now seen intermingled with the drying darkened clumps of blood. A soft breeze rustled my hair as I inspected the jewels, wisps of red grazed my vision as I lent closer to inspect. Tucking the loose strands behind my ears, I threw the broken pieces of gem in frustration. They hit the bark of a tree a few feet from me. I must not let it get to me. I was taught to be brave. To be strong.

*

The young woman ran back to her assigned quarters. She regaled Tatiana and Olga, her older sisters, what she had just over heard.

A look of understanding passed Tatiana’s eyes. Her long brown hair contained small traces of Romanov red when she stood in direct light. Rushing to the closet, she threw two dresses upon the bed. ‘Get dressed,’ she urged her younger sibling, ‘quickly.’

‘What is to happen to us?’

In response Tatiana threw the beautiful brocade the sisters had earlier modified with hidden gems towards both her sisters. Instructing them to adorn them silently and quickly. Once dressed, she asked her younger siblings if they were able to move freely.

‘Yes, if need be. What is it, Tatiana? You’re scaring me,’ the young woman whispered as she tangled a strand of red around her finger.

Tatiana opened her mouth then shut it quickly, a guarded look replacing her features. She marched towards the door then paused at the threshold, her delicate hand resting on the handle. With a quick glance at her younger sibling, she instructed her to remain alert and be ready before passing through the still open door.

*

Carried on the next gust of wind, I could hear a faint chanting. Someone was approaching! My heart thudded against my chest as the voices hit a crescendo. The pattering of boots against the ground drummed against the dirt in a rhythm parallel to my heartbeat. It must be quite a large group! The rumbling of a horde of boots vibrated the earth. Panicking I began to fear the worst.

*

Shoving and butting their rifles, the soldiers prodded the young woman and her family, directing them towards the cellar. The soldiers lined them up against the back wall under the directive of Yakov. The oldest two girls clasping the younger two’s hands. Their mother and father stepping forward to protect the children. That’s when the firing began.

The loud crackle of ignited gunpowder echoed in their ears as they fired first at the Tsar, then moving swiftly on to his wife, and then their children.

The Tsarina was barely given a chance as she rushed to push her body in front of her offspring. Her only thoughts were of the lives of her children. Stumbling back she fell next to her husband. Each child slowly falling after hers. Their bodies convulsing with each bullet tearing its way through their flesh and blood spraying with every impact of metal to busted flesh.

The pelting of the bullets lessened as the soldiers slowly ran out of ammunition. The soldiers then began stepping over the fallen bodies as they waded their way through the room. They prodded the bleeding corpses avoiding the blood and bits of flesh cascaded across the floor as the gun smoke slowly settled about the room.

*

Attempting to stand, I pushed myself up against the tree, using the firm structure as a wall. My leg throbbed where the wound was located and my legs gave out as I collapsed back against the tree, letting out a faint strangled cry. The footsteps were coming closer. Tugging the dress, another couple of broken gems tumbled to the ground. I kicked them away, as they would only prove my identity. Wide holes now replaced the rubies location in such a way that I could now hide other items if need be. Wrapping the shawl about myself, I arranged it in such a way that it would cover the most of my bloodied dress. I dangled it across my shoulders and positioned it in such a way that it hid the tops of my legs, hiding the still bleeding wound from sight.

The beating rhythm of soldier’s boots slowly hit its crescendo until they were nearly upon me. Before they made it past the copse of trees and would be able to see me, I grabbed handfuls of dirt and rubbed it vigorously through my locks to dim the vibrancy of the red. Smearing leftover smidgeons of dirt across my face, I hoped to conceal my face. I scrubbed with an intensity yet unbeknownst to me, with a strength I did not believe I had left. Tucking the edges of my skirt into the bottoms of my boots, I tarnished over the blood spots until they too were invisible. Pushing the majority of my skirts in between my legs, I hoped to conceal any trace of blood upon my dress that might still be visible lest I forgot any small smidgeon. With a small gulp, I looked towards my fate.

*

Blood trickled down the young woman’s leg and dripped from the base of her shoulder as she slowly lifted her head. Bodies were strewn haphazardly, limbs entangled every which way as blood smeared every crevice. An indiscernible mess.

Soldiers stepped carefully, their guns held at eye level and extended towards the closest body to them. Some were fearful, others showed no emotion, each remained alert.

‘This one’s not quite dead, her body lattice seems to be working as some sort of armour, komandir!’ A tall soldier shouted above the din. The young woman made him out to be closest to his mother. Soft whimpering could be heard. She prayed they would spare whichever poor soul it was that made such a mournful noise.

‘Shoot her again then! This time, aim for her head,’ Yakov spat.

The young woman kept silent. A single boom ricocheted off the walls. She fought to gain control over her quivering lip and shudders before the soldiers made their way towards her. She willed her shoulders to stop shaking and her breath to even out enough so as to make it unnoticeable. Words she longed to scream would fester and burn inside her. If she was to release them, they would sear anyone who heard them. Instead she remained quiet, hoping to be overlooked, to be spared.

*

I could see a couple of soldiers making their way towards me. They were dressed in the dark green colours of the red army. I tried to quieten my quivering heart, fearful that they could hear it pounding from my chest. One was shorter and stockier than the other; they must’ve lost the bet to check on me as they both looked upon me with upturned noses.

The closest turned to his companion upon sight of me. Arms crossing against his chest he exclaimed, ‘Pah! Tis but a krest’yanin, a lowly peasant girl.’

Without a second glance, they turned their backs to me. As I watched them walking back to their group, I could hear small snippets of conversation on the wind, ‘we must keep searching…. he believes her still alive…’

They were almost out of hearing range when the shorter companion’s response set my nerves alight once more, ‘the Romanov’s might be all dead, though one daughter may be still alive.’

 

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Ring a Rosies, Lucy Ross

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Ann ran, clutching the bouquet to her chest. Every so often she would bring it up to her face and nearly crush it against her nose to smell the sweet flowers. But she dared not smell it too often, lest she take away its power. She had lost the little boy that was chasing her, sent by his Father to try and catch her. No doubt he would be beaten for losing her and the precious posies. She would have bought them, but her family could not afford it and her Ma was dying.

On the Outskirts of London, on the other side of the stone wall, where the little moat was filled with the dead that had yet to be carted away, was Ann’s house. Amongst the slums the streets were quiet, filled instead with heavy air, bodies and rats. Ann crept along the streets, trying to watch all the rats at once before finally reaching home. She quietly pushed her front door open, trying to sneak in before her Grandma caught her and threw her back out. Grandma always caught her. Sure enough there was a frail hand round her wrist in moments, tighter than usual.

‘You shouldn’t be here child.’ Her Grandma’s voice was raspier than it had been this morning.

Ann held up the bouquet as high as she could for Grandma to see, ‘For Ma.’

Grandma looked at the bouquet, before pulling Ann in tight.

‘I want to see Ma. When is she getting better?’

Grandma knelt, holding Ann by the shoulders, ‘My sweet child. Your Ma isn’t ever getting better.’

Ann frowned, ‘The men said the flowers will make her better.’ She continued, determined, ‘If you give Ma the flowers then she’ll get better.’

‘Oh Ann.’ She led Ann over to a corner, putting a small, old backpack over her shoulders and putting the flowers inside the backpack, hidden away, ‘Ma is no longer with us.’

*

Ann walked behind the cart filled with bodies. The final trip of the day to the mass grave. She recognised the familiar black lumps all too well. The Black Death was upon them again. In one hand, she gripped a small black pouch that hung from a rope around her neck. The pouch felt heavy. She remembered the last time…and the Bricking. Oh dear God she should have to Brick again. Ann made the sign of the cross rapidly.

*

Ann screamed and kicked, reaching out for her Ma. Her Grandma holding her back, ‘Listen to me!’ she croaked. Ann kicked, falling over under the weight of the backpack, before reaching where her mother lay in bed. Her skin still warm, puss and blood still oozing from sores.

‘Ma!’ She wailed; dirty, clumpy hair sticking to her face. She slumped. For three days she had watched her Ma fight the disease, her Grandma keeping her away for her own safety. Even now she felt her Grandma’s bony hand grab the scruff her shirt and haul her away from the body. Outside she kicked and screamed until her Grandma hit her. In silence she let her wrap a scarf round her head and face, covering her mouth and nose.

Holding her hand, her Grandma led her away from the house. Ann struggled against her, trying to pull the scarf away with one hand but it was tied too tightly. Down the other end of the street, she could see people starting to brick up houses that had sick people in it. She could hear their cries for help and mercy.

*

With her free hand, Ann pulled her scarf up to cover her face. The scarf was old and stained, but it kept death out of her mouth. The two donkey’s struggled under the weight of the bodies, it was a heavy cart.

‘This is gonna be a good pay,’ John said from beneath his scarf, rubbing his hands together. ‘Three hundred bodies in one day, and at least another three hundred tomorrow with no other Collectors in sight.’ He tried to chuckle but it caught in his throat.

Ann looked away from the cart. It would be a good pay. They would head back to the next town, which was half empty, and pre spend some of that pay on good mead and food, after they had been blessed by the priest and had a strange smelling plant rubbed over them. The townsfolk insisted it stopped the spread of disease.

*

Ann ran, dragged along by her Grandma. Thirty years old and she could still run. The streets in this area were abandoned.

‘Why are we running?’ Ann asked.

Her Grandma stopped on a street corner, panting heavily, clutching her chest.

*

Across the street, a child looked at them wide eyed and ran away.

‘Why do people run from us?’ A young girl- no more than ten- asked. She led the donkeys.

‘They run from Death. We work closely with death, and so they run from us.’ Boss answered. The young girl looked at him.

‘Why would you run from Death? Death always catches you.’ Her eyes were too empty for a ten year old. Ann looked away; she had been younger when Boss had picked her up. She and her Grandma had tried to run. But Death always catches you.

*

Ann ran away from her Grandma after she had managed to escape her grip, running back towards her house. Her Ma can’t be dead. She heard her Grandma call after her desperately, but she pretended not to hear. She knocked a barrel of apples over, stumbled over a chicken and ran past bodies that lay in the streets, back the way she had come. One of the Brickers working in her street tried to grab her but she just slipped past.

At the house, someone had already carved a cross on their door, which she pushed open. The air seemed suddenly heavy. Ann hesitated at the door, unsure that this is what she wanted to see. From the door she could see the sunken skin, pulled tight. Crooked fingers stiff, as if reaching out to grab something.

Ann felt someone grab her bag.

*

Outside the man held her up, like a rat, peering at her from beneath the scarf wrapped around his head. Three others peered at her, including a young boy.

‘She don’t look sick.’

‘Then don’t brick her.’

She heard her Grandma’s voice, ‘Put her down!’ She was panting heavily when she reached them, ‘Please…we’re trying to leave…and get…to safety.

One of the men poked Grandma with a stick. ‘You have lumps on you. You aren’t going anywhere.’

The third folded his arms, looking Grandma up and down. ‘The girl comes with us. Granny gets Bricked.’

‘As you say, Boss.’

It was only when Grandma let out a wail that she comprehended what being ‘bricked’ meant. Ann kicked and screamed, but the man just held her higher. He was kind enough to turn her away so she wouldn’t see her Grandma pushed into the house.

*

Half an hour later Ann put a hand on the new brick wall, cement and dirt already drying. Ann tried to claw at the wall and push it over, but it wouldn’t budge.

‘Grandma?’

‘Ann. You need to leave.’

‘I’m sorry for running away Grandma.’

Saying sorry always made things better.

Ann sat back and looked at the brick wall covering her old front door. From this angle it looked as if it stretched to the sky.

*

The following night, all the bodies had been dumped into a mass grave just outside of the now desolate town. Back in the next village though, an outbreak had occurred. Ann stood outside the house with a cross carved into the front door. A family shouted at onlookers from within, who stood along the street with pitchforks, ready to kill anyone who tried to break free from the house.

‘Brick ‘em,’ Boss turned away from the house and looked at Ann.

‘You’re the only one in my crew who was old enough to remember the last time. Is this the same? I don’t want to believe it’s the same.’

Ann spat, ‘You might as well Brick up the whole country.’ She turned away, clutching the pouch around her neck and did her best not to run away. Not that she could get far, she had been so tired lately, unused to all this extra work.

*

Grandma’s cries had quieted down when the man called Boss knelt down next to her.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Ann.’

‘You should leave this part of the City. It’s not safe here. You’ll get sick.’

‘And then you’ll have to Brick me?’

Boss didn’t say anything.

‘I won’t get sick, I have these.’ She took her backpack off and pulled out the posies, which were already damaged.

Boss smiled, and gently took them off her, ‘What pretty flowers.’ He took off a small pouch that was hanging around his neck and took a ring out of it, which he slipped on his finger. He created the flowers in his dirty hands, and ever so careful put the flowers into the pouch, which he then hung around Ann’s neck.

‘You’ll grow into it. And they’ll do a better job there.’ He stood and held out his hand, ‘Come on.’ Ann looked up at him, afraid. ‘You have no where else to go child. You will die here.’

‘Leave her alone!’ She heard her Grandma throw herself against the door.

Boss picked Ann up, holding her head close to his neck while Anne started shouting for her Grandma. ‘Hush,’ he cooed, ‘It will be alright. Pretend you can’t hear her.’ Back down the street, at the cart one of the men stopped working.

‘Another worker Boss?’

‘Aye. Another worker.’ He held onto Ann while she cried.

Ann could hear her Grandma calling her name from behind the brick wall. She did her best to not hear, like the kind, scary man said.

Boss held her for three days and nights.

*

‘Where’s Boss?’ John asked, putting another brick on the wall.

Ann frowned and looked over her shoulder. She eventually found him slummed behind some shack, fresh alcohol stains covering his clothing.

‘Come on.’ He shrugged her off and muttered something indecipherable. She pulled him to his feet but he pushed her away.

‘Do not touch me!’ He clutched his head as he stumbled on the spot.

‘I don’t want to brick no more.’ He cried before falling down.

‘You gotta brick. Someone has too. We have to save those we can,’ Ann said with little sympathy.

‘I couldn’t save my family.’

Ann looked away; it was never pretty when he got like this.

‘Bricked my wife and eldest daughter, to save my two youngest. They still died. What kinda of Bricker am I? What kinda of father and husband bricks his own family!’

Ann wiped sweat off her forehead and brought the pouch up to her lips

*

‘Wait!’

The family were being herded into the house after a brief escape attempt. It was the third family that had fallen ill in as many days. Ann grabbed the youngest boy away from them while the crowd looked on, hands over their mouth. She adjusted her scarf to be more secure for checking his eyes and inside his mouth and under his shirt for lumps.

‘Do you feel ill?’

He shook his head.

‘This one doesn’t need to be bricked.’

His mother let out a sob as they were pushed into the house, ‘James! James!’

Ann picked up the boy and walked away with him as the others started laying bricks. She held his head into her neck as he cried. ‘Hush James, you’ll be safe with us….pretend…pretend you don’t hear them.’

‘Ma.’ She heard him whisper. Ann held him tighter. It was more than she had given her Grandma. If James survived, maybe it would make up for her abandoning her Grandma.

For a week, James slept next to her.

*

‘I don’t wanna Brick.’ She cried. She had been with the crew for two weeks, and Boss had finally decided to make her help with the walls, rather than trying to place bodies in another cart.

‘You gotta brick. Someone has too. We have to save those we can.’
Inside the family cried and coughed and begged.

‘Bricking saved you Ann. Your grandma was sick, she would have infected you. You would be dead by now,’ Boss said, with little sympathy.

Ann quietly picked up another brick, dipped it in the bucket of cement that Mo constantly mixed, and placed it next to the other, wondering who this wall will save.

*

Ann sat atop the cart of bricks. It was her usual spot, up high where she could see everyone around her. Her hands were calloused and scratched but were clean from being washed whenever she could. Boss enforced good hygiene. She looked around at the towns folk who stayed away from the cart she guarded. They looked an all too familiar ill. And ill of fear, grief and genuine sickness. It was the Flu before the black lumps appeared. She could look at people and know when they would sneeze and fall down. Most will be dead by the time the year was out. But some of them good be saved, saved by the cruel work they did. Next to her was the young boy she saved two months ago. He had bricked his first house today, and had finally stopped crying. She put an arm round him.

‘We save a lot of lives doing this.’

‘But we take away more.’ James responded

She removed her arm from him, uncomfortable. Bricking saves enough lives to be justifiable, she told herself, bringing her pouch up to her lips. It had too, otherwise she was just a murderer trying to comfort her own loss.

Ann coughed, hard, and dropped her pouch back against her chest. She cleared her throat and smiled at James who looked at her wide-eyed. She hacked again and didn’t stop while James ran off, screaming for Boss. Ann grasped her pouch, and breathed deeply. When the coughing subsided, she looked at the pouch for a moment, noticing a tear along the seam.

Desperately, Ann pulled it off her neck, coughing again. Opening it, she prayed that the flowers were there, at least in some form. She had never opened it to check. But it was empty; her precious posies were gone. Atop the cart, she looked up to see Boss staring at her and barely heard him say tell the workers to Brick her, along with James, who she had coughed all over.

 

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Lost For Words, Michael Cook

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Well here I am, diddling away in a bloody notebook. The doctor asked me to write this—he reckons it will help me get my head together. I’ll give anything a go to get out of this nut house. Of course, Gran says it’s all for the best, but what the hell does she know? She thinks everything is ‘for the best’—even when my dog Booger got hit by a truck and died by the side of the road. Good one Gran.

But before I get carried away, I guess I’d better make an admission. I’m a thief. I’ve never really told that to anyone before, but then again why would I? It’s not something that you just go around bragging about. The shrink in this place reckons I steal because of all the shit I’ve been copping at school on account of me being a late developer. See, my name is Tony Snatt, but most people know me as Baldy. Baldy, what a name, it’s like a kick to the nuts every time someone calls out to me. Can you imagine? Eighteen years old, and not a single pube to show for it?

I’m not real particular about what I like to swipe, but if I’ve got to narrow it down I reckon porno mags top the list. Don’t get me wrong, I know that the net is chock full of porn, but I sorta like the reassurance of having some material on hand when the lights go out. You see, Gran’s a full on greenie and on cloudy days we only have about 2 hours of charge in the battery for the electric lights. I’m not going to call it romantic, but a candlelight toss sure has its charms.

Oh yeah, there’s another reason I like to pinch things—plain old fun. I once took some bloke’s bike from outside the 7/11 and rode it around for a couple of hours. When I got sick of it I hooned down the steepest hill in our town, the one that leads to the marina. I shot down that hill so fast that when I got to the jetty I almost lost control as I bumped my way over the wooden planking. My mate Noel said that if there was any sort of justice I should have been snapped up by a shark then and there. I laughed at the time, not for a second did I believe in a ‘higher power’ or any of that sort of mumbo jumbo. But that was before… before what happened at work last Saturday night.

But before we get to that, I’ve got to tell you about the lead up to it. So I s’pose this story starts on Saturday morning, around 11am. I’d been at the park with my two best mates, Noel and Wippa, and I’ve gotta say, we were bored out of our minds. Footy season is over, and the cricket has just begun. If there’s one thing I hate in this life, it’s bloody cricket. Some people call it ‘watching the grass grow,’ and I reckon that sums up how I feel about it too. Hours and hours of standing there in the field, nothing happening. All of a sudden there’s this bloody great leather ball rocketing straight at your head. And let me tell you, that thing is rock hard. If you don’t catch it right, look out—you’re going to have the sorest hands this side of Hampton. Not only that, you’re going to look like a right shit in front of your team mates. I once dropped the ball and got booed—by my own team!

Anyway, there we were, sitting around the kid’s playground, bored shitless. We’d just finished off the last of our durries, and were scratching around for something to do. Just as Noel was starting to tell us for the fifteenth time about how he’d seen Jenny Tisdale’s boobs through the change room window as she got ready for the athletics carnival last year, I had a sudden flash of inspiration. I remembered that a new convenience shop had opened down at the Bay Side Shopping Centre. I’d had a look in at it once and seen that it was run by this tiny little Indian fella who wore a turban with a fat red ruby fixed to the front of it. I told the boys about it, and we decided to go down and see if we could pinch a couple of things.

We were in the shop, and as usual Noel and Wippa got cold feet. They just shuffled around pretending to look at things, but I could see that they were freaking out and wanted to get the hell out of there. I think it was because of the little Indian bloke—there was something about the way he was watching us that was sort of unnerving. He was sitting on this high chair behind the counter, real calm expression on his face, and it was like he knew exactly what we were up to. But he didn’t say anything, and I wasn’t going to be put off by some little bloke with a calm demeanor. I stuffed two Mars Bars, a Twix, and a Cherry Ripe into my pockets as I pretended to look at the key ring stand. When I was over by the magazines, I stuck a porno down the front of my trackies. Not a bad haul, really.

We went to the park and ate the chocolates, then had a look at the porno. It was a pretty good one, but it’s tough looking at that sort of thing when you’re with two other blokes. You’re standing there with a boner that’s making a teepee out of your trackies, and you’ve gotta act like everything’s just fine. Ah well, there’s worse things in this world I s’pose.

Before I knew it 2pm rolled around, and I said ‘see ya later’ to my mates and headed off to work at the bottle shop. I only got the job two months ago, couple of days after I turned eighteen. I stand on the check out for eight hours straight, scan the bottles, put them in boxes, and say the same shit over and over again: ‘Hi, how are you today? … That’s good… Okay thank you, have a nice day.’ Imagine saying that to about a thousand people in a row and you’ll have some sort of understanding about how dull it is. So I was standing there, feeling like a cassette player with a twenty second tape in me, when something totally out of the ordinary happened—this string of really funny customers started coming in.

This one old dude came up to the counter, brimming with a crazy sort of energy. He plonked his case of beer down and beamed at me. ‘And how are you today young fella?’

‘Yeah, pretty good,’ I said to him, ‘how are you?’

He brought his tattered old wallet out of his pocket with what Mr. Collings, our English teacher at school, would call an ‘elaborate flourish’ and he whipped out a fifty dollar note.

‘If I were any better I’d be twins!’ He said.

I could see from the sparkle in his eye that he really meant it. He winked at me, swung the beer up onto his shoulder, and headed for the sliding doors at the back of the shop. Now, as I was saying earlier, it’s pretty rare to meet a customer with that sort of personality—most of them wander up to the counter with faces that are a mile long. But not this old bloke, so I decided to call out after him—you know, something nice and enthusiastic.

I opened my mouth and already knew that I was going to say ‘have a top day mate’, but all that came out of my mouth was this sort of strangled groan. I cleared my throat and tried again, but the second time was even worse. My throat sort of quivered and I let out a reedy whistle, like the sound a kettle makes when it’s boiling. The old dude turned around and looked at me, and all I can say is thank Christ for hearing loss—he beamed at me again, tapped the case of beer that was up on his shoulder and gave me a big thumbs up.

I turned to face the next customer. It was this real uptight looking guy—grey business suit, thin black tie, neatly clipped moustache… the sort of guy you’d sketch out if someone asked you to draw a picture of anal retention personified. I didn’t feel too embarrassed in front of him about my strange sounding voice, so I decided to see if it was still playing up. I opened my mouth and felt the ‘hi, how are you today’ begin to slide up my throat on its well oiled tracks, but about halfway up something went wrong, and all that came out was a giant burp. The businessman looked up at me, and it just goes to show that you can’t judge a book by its cover—he burst out laughing and decided to lay a choice anecdote on me:

‘I just got back from holiday in Fiji. While I was over there my credit card got stolen—I still haven’t reported it, the thieves are spending less than my wife would. I figure I’m better off.’

I couldn’t believe that such a square looking guy could be so off the wall. Who tells a story like that when someone burps in their face? I opened my mouth, expecting gales of laughter to come pouring out, but there was nothing—no sound at all. Not even an unexpected shriek. As I stood there, jaw swinging in the breeze, I heard a noise that made the hairs on my arms stand up and start to quiver. At the far end of the shop a great big chuckle started up, and when I say chuckle, I mean a real deal belly laugh. Someone up there was having the laugh of a lifetime. The businessman dragged his eyes away from my face and peered up the aisle. The customers behind him were doing the same—the usual look of bored impatience gone from their faces.

I leaned out over the counter and tried to get a better look at where this laughter was coming from, but I couldn’t see—the row of waiting customers was blocking my line of sight. Now, as I’m sure you would imagine, I was at this point more than a little bit freaked out by my lack of ability to speak. I tried muttering ‘fuck’ beneath my breath—you know, one of those helpful curses that serve to knock the needle on the mental pressure gauge back a few clicks. And would you believe it if I told you that although nothing came out of my own mouth, at the far end of the shop the laughter suddenly stopped, and someone yelled out ‘fuck’ at the top of their lungs? I bet you wouldn’t believe it, but I’m telling you, that’s exactly what happened.

A few of the customers started to get upset about this weird behavior—they put their bottles down on the floor and walked straight out of the shop, noses in the air. I can’t say I blame them; the place was beginning to take on the air of a nut house. With this thinning out of the line at my register I was able to get a better look up the aisle, and who do you reckon was standing at the far end of the shop? Yeah you guessed it: the tiny little Indian bloke from the Bay Side convenience shop. He saw me looking at him and wagged his finger at me, and then he called down to me. ‘You come into my shop and you put my livelihood in your pockets, isn’t it?’

I stood there staring at him, and I’m telling you straight, even if I could have answered him, I’m buggered if I would have known what to say,

‘Well then young fella, I come into your shop and I put your voice in mine.’

It’s hard to explain what happened next. I remember standing there staring at him, and I couldn’t seem to look at anything but the ruby that was fixed to the front of his turban. It started to glow, and I could see a bright red beam pouring out of it. My forehead started to get real hot, like the beam was flowing straight into it. And then I heard this voice. I feel weird saying it, but it was like the voice of God—clear, loud and completely inside my mind.

‘Your lifetime, your choices, your fate. I see you baldy, I see you Tony Snatt.’

And then all of these images started pouring in. I saw every time I’d ripped someone off, I saw my sneering face as I rode that bike into the bay—and then I saw Jim Trill, this little fella in year 9. He was getting whacked across the face by his piss-head dad, and his dad was yelling at him.

‘You ungrateful little cunt-handle, can’t even keep ya god damned fucken bike from being pinched. Eight hundred bucks down the drain.’

I saw Jim’s mum crying in the next room, biting down hard on the edge of a tea towel so the old fella wouldn’t hear her.

I remember my head felt like it was about to explode. White heat boring straight into the front of my forehead, right where Gran told me the third eye is located. Have you ever felt peak rage, sorrow, regret and terror swirling through your mind at the same time? I hope you never do. My mouth was clamped shut, but the last thing I remember was a piercing scream that cut through everything—straight through the images, straight through the feelings. Everything eclipsed by the scream.

So here I am, diddling away in a bloody notebook. I still can’t speak, but to tell you the truth, I don’t have a whole lot that I wanna say at the moment anyway.

 

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