Tag Archives: Short Story

The Valley, Anna Blackie

Marcus hung on the precipice of the Valley, looking down into the only world he’d ever known. He marvelled at how insignificant it seemed from this height. Turning his focus to what lay above him, Marcus hauled himself through the crack in the sky, the tantalising scent of fresh air luring him out of his comfort zone. Finally, he lurched over the rim of the Valley, scurrying onto a thin ledge and standing shakily, desperately pushing his aching muscles, both terrified and excited by what lay before him.

*

  The air was warm and thick, despite the relentless movement in the Valley. They had long ago realised that fresh air was not easy to come by, all breeze barred by the vast mountains that surrounded the small town. Marcus clung to the tree beside him, his fingernails digging into the soft bark. The ground trembled incessantly, the vibrations growing stronger and stronger with each passing second. Marcus analysed the movement of the earth, careful to note the way the ground folded and creased as the disturbance played out. The earth continued to shudder violently, those who were unprepared sent soaring through the air. He watched as Mr Roy, the baker, flew past him, the stout man bracing himself for the inevitable impact against the Valley wall. As suddenly as they had begun the tremors ended. Marcus’s eyes were drawn to the small crack of light shining through the top of the Valley. He watched closely, waiting for change, some movement, just a flicker of light, anything…   With a deep sigh Marcus released the tree, his fingers unfurling to reveal two large handfuls of dirty bark. He gently released the debris, opening and closing his hands in an attempt to restore the blood-flow.
‘Marcus!’ Mr Roy called from behind him. Marcus turned to watch the small man make his way back up the hill, his white apron askew, and face bright red from the effort.
‘All right there, Mr Roy?’ He called back to the baker.
‘Yes, yes, this isn’t my first disturbance you know.’ Mr Roy chided as he reached him, the bakers ruddy face glistening with a layer of sweat. ‘But you know how these things are, let your guard down for five minutes and you’re soarin’ out your kitchen window!’ Marcus laughed, life in the Valley certainly did have an element of the unexpected.
‘How’s that research of yours coming?’ Mr Roy asked as the two men walked together through the Valley.
‘Oh, you know,’ he mumbled in reply, ‘No breakthroughs yet.’
‘Well you just keep on keeping on, Marcus’ Mr Roy said, his jovial tone before suddenly turning serious, ‘If anyone can crack the code of this place, it’s you.’ With that, Mr Roy gave Marcus a firm clap on the back and made his way back into his bakery.

*

  The origin of The Valley had been speculated over for as long as there had been people inhabiting the tiny enclave. The Church of the Palm spoke of a hand that reached down into the Valley and released life onto the land. The non-believers spouted stories of people falling from the sky, of fish growing legs and emerging from the Valley’s deep, stagnant lake. Children were told tales of men sprouting from the ground, like seeds growing from the soil. Marcus seemed to be the only citizen of the Valley unable to stand the ambiguity; even as a boy he remembered questioning the fables their home was built upon, the myths and folklore not enough to satisfy his thirst for the truth. Although, it wasn’t until the arrival of disc that Marcus fully began to question the Valley, becoming desperate to know what lay outside the only reality he had ever known.

Marcus followed the outer wall of the Valley home from school, his small fingers running against the smooth barrier that surrounded him. He moved with a bounce in his step, a somewhat unexpected side-effect of the spongey Valley floor. As he grew closer to home he caught the sound of voices, the walls surrounding the town making it almost impossible to have a private conversation outdoors without your dirty laundry echoing throughout the town.
‘Do we tell him?’ he heard his father ask apprehensively.
‘Of course we tell him.’ his mother replied, ‘don’t we?’ she added with uncertainty. Marcus stopped and listened to the conversation, sure that his parents were talking about him.
‘This is just the sort of thing he’d obsess over…’
‘Well, we can’t very well hide It.’ his mother declared. Curiosity burned through him, and Marcus began to sprint towards his home, the sprung-floor of the Valley bouncing his tiny body higher and farther than he could have managed alone. He rounded the corner and spotted his house.

The small cottage hugged rocky boundary of the Valley, its walls and roof anchored to the side of the cliff. Marcus followed the sound of voices to the small garden outside. His mother and father stood in the centre of the grassed area, his younger sister Jenny hugging their father’s legs, her small body not even reaching his knee. Marcus was too excited to focus on his family, his attention immediately drawn to the object. It lay in the corner of the back-yard, squishing half of the vegetable garden. The disc was huge, at least three times the size of their house. Marcus approached it slowly, as if afraid the inanimate silver object would rear up and bite him. His family stayed quiet as they watched him inch closer, sensing the fervent excitement that lay beneath his hesitation. He walked slowly around the object, amazed by the vast size, taking its metallic sheen and the massive, stern face chiselled into its surface.
‘What do you think it is?’ he asked his parents who had silent moved to stand behind him. Marcus’s mind was reeling with possibilities of the disc’s origin, each more unlikely than the last.
‘They used to tell us stories about silver discs in school. Myths of these objects falling from the sky and crushing whole houses.’ His father told him quietly, ‘I always thought they were just fairy-tales, scary stories…’
‘Where did it come from?’ Marcus asked as he crouched down to touch the object, caressing its cold, hard surface. ‘How did it get here?’
‘It arrived while you were at school,’ Jenny announced from behind Marcus, making him jump slightly as he had been so involved in the object that he’d forgotten she was there.
‘I was lying in the garden looking up at the sky,’ she gestured to the sliver of light shining through the roof of the Valley, ‘then suddenly it got really bright, and that thing,’ she gestured to the mysterious silver disc, now glistening in the dim light, ‘started to fall towards me. I jumped up and moved, it would have squished me flat if I hadn’t!’ Jenny finished her story, beaming from ear to ear. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, the moment Marcus had been waiting for. Of course it was Jenny who saw it all go down.
‘It came from the sky?’ Marcus repeated, running the words through his head, trying to make sense of the senseless.
‘That’s what I said.’ Jenny replied, clearly miffed at Marcus’s lack of appreciation of her near-death experience. Marcus plunked himself down next to disc, not willing to give his younger sister the satisfaction of appreciating her story. Despite his overwhelming jealousy, Marcus knew he had to find out the origins of the disc.

*

The disappearance of the disc was as surprising as its arrival. Each morning Marcus had ventured out into the garden to perform his daily tests. First he measured it, struggling to reach his tape measure over the diameter of an object so much larger than himself. He often dreamed about the disc growing through the night. He would run into the garden the next morning, disappointed to discover nothing had changed. After he’d taken his measurements he would sketch the object, careful to include every detail. When the disc had first arrived Marcus left gifts of food next to it morning and evening, at least until his father had found out and stopped him, unwilling to waste the food on an inanimate object that had crushed half of their vegetable garden. Unable to provoke a reaction from the disc any other way, Marcus had begun to speak to it. He would tell it his dreams as he performed his tests, then inform it of his day at school in the afternoons. Despite the disc’s obvious inanimate nature, Marcus had become quite fond of the object and the plethora of secrets he imagined it held.

Marcus had fallen behind on his testing schedule on the morning of the disc’s disappearance. He’d been unwilling to enter the conscious realm, his dreams filled with silver objects raining from the sky, the faces etched on the discs filling his ears with stories of the world beyond the Valley. When he finally awoke and made his way outside he was greeted with a sight much more spectacular than that of his dream. An enormous hand emerged through the crack in the sky. The hand was more massive than anything Marcus had ever imagined, thousands of times bigger than the disc. The light emanating from the crack in the sky caught on the hands gargantuan surface, illuminating its full scope while darkening the valley below. Each finger was alarmingly thick, the giant fingernails grubby with dirt. Marcus stole a look at his own hand and marvelled at the similarities, unable to form a coherent thought about what was unfolding before him. A thick wrist covered in dense black hair came into Marcus’s view, lowering the hand closer and closer to the disc. The fingers flexed towards the object, reaching to capture it in its grasp. Marcus scurried to the side of his garden, sketching the scene transpiring before him, a voice in his head screaming to him, telling him this is what he had been waiting for. The hand plucked up the disc, lifting it as if it was no more than a piece of paper. Marcus watched in awe as the hand rose higher. The wrist disappeared through the crack pulling the hand and disc along with it.

Speculation as to the origin of the disc and hand ran rampant throughout the Valley. The Church of the Palm experienced an influx in their patronage, the towns’ people believing that God had finally begun to take an interest in their home, the hope being that this Almighty force may be receptive to the prayers of the people. Those of religious orientation began to pray day and night, waiting for a hand big enough to destroy them to reach down and grant their wishes. Others were less optimistic, believing the hand and the disc were signs of the apocalypse, and thus began to prepare themselves accordingly. However, as the weeks past with no sign of the hand, disc or anything else out of the ordinary (despite the regular tremors, which the people of the town had long since accepted as a fact of everyday life) the people began to forget, and soon questions of the unknown were put aside and people moved on with the mundane flow of life. All, that is, except for Marcus. The appearance of the coin had sparked something within him, a deep, searing curiosity that consumed his every waking moment. For the next five years the coin, the hand and the origin of the Valley were all he thought about.

*

Marcus had worked tirelessly to prepare himself for what lay beyond his home. He had developed strong, muscular shoulders from spelunking and climbing throughout the Valley. He had also grown to match his father’s height. At 16, Marcus was already a head taller than all the citizens of the Valley and showed no signs of a decline in his growth. As he continued to grow, he found his climbing exploits became gradually easier. His length allowed his to reach further and pull himself higher along the enclosed walls of the Valley. One day he found himself further up than he had ever been before. The view was magnificent, Marcus could see the entirety of the Valley stretched out before him, his friends and family ambling along beneath him. From this vantage he could see the overhang of the crack in the sky, like a rock shelf, certainly one that Marcus could hoist himself onto. He had no idea what would be on the other side, but he was sure that it was the key to the mystery of his home.

‘Climb out?’ She repeated incredulously, ‘How do you even know there is an out? For all we know you could get to the top and fall into nothing.’ His parents sat across the table from him; his mother ringing her hands as she spoke, while his father remained stoic and silent, apparently deep in thought.
‘There has to be something more out there, Mum’ he pleaded with her, ‘the hand, the disc, they had to have come from somewhere.’
‘But Marcus-’ she started, struggling explanation to placate her sons curiosities.
‘No Mum, we both know it’s true. There has to be more than this…’
‘He needs to go,’ his father announced.
‘What! How can you support this Jeremy?’
‘If we don’t let him go now he’s just going to find a way to do it eventually anyway, right Marcus?’
‘Yes,’ Marcus answered, avoiding his parents gaze.
‘But if he goes now and we help him prepare, then, maybe, he’ll have a better chance.’ Marcus’s mother listened incredulously, unable to accept the idea of releasing her only son into the unknown.
‘I need to know what’s out there Mum,’ Marcus told her, gripping both her hands in his, ‘If I don’t figure this out it will eat me alive.’ Tears cascaded down her face as she took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded.

  *

He hung on the precipice of the Valley, looking down into the only world he’d ever known. Marcus reached out to haul himself through the hole in the sky, his aching muscles screaming in protest as he heaved his long body through the crevice and out into the open air. The sky Marcus saw as he emerged from the crack was more spectacular than he could have dreamed, the light so bright he was forced to cover his eyes. The weak rays of light that had shone down into the Valley were nothing in comparison to the huge, burning ball of bright heat that hovering miraculously on the skyline, causing Marcus’s eyes to water as he peaked at it from behind his hand. Marcus’s vision began to adjust as he took in the breathtaking view before him. He had done it. Finally, gloriously, he had done it.

Eventually he tore his eyes away from the marvel before him and looked back down towards the Valley. He could now see that his home was a deep crevice, carved into the side of what appeared to be a colossal mountain. As Marcus craned his neck backwards to take in the scope of the mountain, a deafening sound ruptured through the silence, followed by a vicious rumbling underfoot. Marcus grabbed hold of the closest ridge and clung for dear life. The disturbance outside the Valley far more violent than he could have anticipated. Around him he saw a flurry of movements. The hand appeared, Marcus watched as a long arm protruded out from behind it. A desperate excitement inside him screaming that the truth was almost known. Marcus could see now that the arm was attached to the mountain. His brain exploded with millions of attempted explanations, struggling to comprehend what he was transpiring around him. Before he had time to digest this breakthrough, he felt the shuddering increase. A sound louder than anything Marcus had ever heard broke through the air around him- a barking cough amplified to the highest extend. The violent tremor of the mountain was unrelenting. Marcus’s grip faltered and he slipped down the ledge, grappling wildly in an attempt to grab hold of the cracked opening of the Valley. Before his hands could make purchase, Marcus was flung from the mountain. Sheer terror flooded through him as he felt himself freefalling away from everything he had ever know and the answers to the mystery which he had devoted his life. As he fell backwards he looked up towards the mountain, his perspective and the shock of his imminent death allowing him to take in the enormity of what stood above him, and process what he saw him with no scepticism or fear.

A huge man, the scale of which beyond anything that Marcus could have possibly imagined stood before him, draped in the mountain that Marcus now realised to be a huge overcoat. Marcus continued to fall, the air pushing past him at a phenomenal speed, but he no longer cared. It was a man, no mountain or Valley, but the biggest man Marcus had or would ever see. A sudden wave of tranquillity washed over him as his minuscule body hurdled to the ground.

 

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Robota, Alice Maher

The bots stared glassily ahead as dozens of off-duty humans milled about them.

‘The Sophisticated Models, or SMs, are self-decontaminating; I suppose that was important for OH&S back in the pleasure houses, and it’s just as useful here. We don’t care as much about the BASE models, but the SMs can clean all forty or so of them in only a few minutes, so we get that out of the way too.’ A plump woman who had introduced herself as ‘Quebec’ but never asked for Jin’s name, was showing him around the mining facility: his home for the next three-year rotation. Currently, she was leading him through the large hangar where the ‘mining tools’ were kept when not in use.

All the bots were second-hand. Even if Quebec hadn’t joked about the cost-saving prowess of the Mars Mining Initiative (MMI for short), Jin could still have guessed. It seemed like every factory and pleasure house on Earth shipped their outmoded bots up to Mars to be repurposed as a miner. The MMI must offer a price slightly higher than the scrap-merchants, but still low enough to be economical. Despite this clear desire to cut corners, Jin noticed that all of them, from the two squads of BASE Models (little more than expressionless crash-test dummies with a polycarbonate frame) to the thirty-three more human-looking SMs, were clothed. To be fair, it was an odd jumble of outfits that made the bots look shabbier than ever. All of it looked laundered and well-maintained, but was all still permanently stained Mars Red and Coal Black.
Jin side-stepped a small group of his fellow humans, who were crowding around an SM with a shirt that said “I BEAT JONA’S BURRITO CHALLENGE.” ‘Why clothe them at all if they’re just here to mine coal?’

Quebec laughed a little embarrassedly. ‘Well, initially we just clothed the SMs. They’re all anatomically correct, of course, and a lot of us workers found it…distracting, to see them working in such a state. So we got some old clothes sent out to make them decent.’

‘And the BASE models?’

‘Ah, well after covering up the other ones, it seemed proper to clothe everyone. The SMs looked too human, standing next to the BASE models with their faces and clothing, and the BASE models by comparison didn’t look human enough.” She shrugged as though embarrassed.

Earlier, Jin had been shown the main workstation, where the humans monitored the mine from the safety of the facility. A massive window overlooked the scarlet-black scar of its entrance. He had watched from on-high as the bots marched from the mine back to the facility. They had seemed creepy then, out on the Martian landscape, and they were downright unnerving up close.

At least Jin thought so. Everybody else seemed eager enough to be around them, inspecting them with more than just professional diligence. Quebec had practically dragged him down here once the shift ended, to show him ‘the best part of the tour.’ She stopped by a female SM that had drawn the largest crowd.

‘Quebec, that the new kid?’ one of the other workers asked.

Quebec nodded but didn’t make introductions. Would anyone ever care to learn his name?

‘He gonna draw lots for The Supervisor?’

‘Who?’ Jin glanced around for an authority figure.

The others laughed and Quebec gestured to the SM. ‘We call this one The Supervisor because she’s in the best shape, so we usually send her down with the transmitter.’ It was protocol that every time the bot team entered the mine, a communication device was sent with them.

The Supervisor had a delicate nose and straight black hair: like Jin, she was clearly of Japanese origin. But where his features were organic, the bot was too symmetrical, her complexion too flawless. Only the faded overalls looked like they changed over time, and this helped to soften the striking image. She (it?) was certainly beautiful, a classic pleasure model. After a moment Jin realised that was exactly why they were crowded around her.

Quebec confirmed his suspicions. ‘We draw lots to decide who goes first,’ she explained, and one man made a crude gesture.

Jin suddenly felt very young. He saw that other humans, less picky or less lucky, had activated different SMs and were leading them away to rooms beyond.

Before he could speak, Quebec reached up and felt around the nape of The Supervisor’s neck. There was a low hum like an old-fashioned computer booting up, then the bot blinked and looked around.

‘Hello everyone,’ she purred, and Jin yelped. It was common knowledge that pleasure bots could speak (unless ordered not to), but he hadn’t been prepared for how…human it sounded. He’d half expected the Morse code that had trilled over the loudspeakers earlier, when the bots were finishing their shift. Had that been The Supervisor?

The bot was staring at him, and her gaze was unselfconscious. Jin was reminded of a tiger he had seen at a museum in Osaka. Its eyes had been glass beads, its skinned pelt draped over a metal frame, but Jin had still half-expected it to spring at him. He knew he would be the first to look away now.

‘They’re just machines,’ Quebec said after a moment, also staring at him. Her human eyes were more animated, the windows to an actual soul with the actual capacity to harm him, if Quebec chose. But he still found it easier to look at her than at the bot.

Just Machines. Just machines with human faces and human voices. And even the BASE Models had human clothes. What did a bot know about Jona or his burritos? And pockets, too; bots had no use for them, but there they were, in every pair of jeans or battered coat that had once belonged to a real person.

The other workers were getting restless, and soon Jin was forgotten even by Quebec, who must have figured his first day had been informative enough. The Supervisor had also turned away from him, and was smiling demurely at the workers clamouring to ‘go first.’

Quebec found him later, after she and the others had had their fun. Jin could tell she wanted to talk about it, put the new kid’s concerns to rest before they festered. But he brushed her off, laughed, talked about anything else. Mechanical movements.

*

Jin soon learned to avoid the entire ground floor of the facility, where the storage hangar was located. Worker’s quarters were on the higher levels, near the main workstation and technical offices; but there were several old storerooms and such on the ground floor that the crew utilised during their downtime with the bots. Jin stayed up top, reading books and recording messages for his family back on Earth.

Nii-san,

So far this job has been easy enough. I mostly fetch and carry, and occasionally they make me do data entry. So far even you could do it!

I thought I would have a lot more to do with the mining itself, but no. Why try to oxygenate the mine for humans and risk blowing the whole thing up with a loose spark, when bots can do all the work? There are almost a hundred of them, and they don’t need air or even suits; so not only is it a less volatile environment for the coal, but it all works out far cheaper when none of us humans ever even leave the facility. Occasionally one of the bots will send a message over the transmitter- I’ve had to learn Morse code since arriving- but usually it’s almost boring for the people, stuck here in the facility.

Speaking of which, don’t tell Mama this, but the workers here use the bots for sex in their free time. I know that was probably their purpose once, but I still don’t think it’s right. Quebec told me not to think about it like the bots had feelings. ‘High-tech sex toys,’ she called them.

I saw them up close on my first day, and they’re way more realistic than I thought. Kenta told me he visited a pleasure house in Kabukicho once, and was with an SM. Atsuko too, she said her sister rented a male one for her graduation. They’re all beautiful of course, but they’re too real. They even have normal clothes, not just lingerie like in the catalogues. All the looks of a proper human, none of the feelings. I avoid them.

Sorry to bother you with stuff like this. Don’t tell Mama.

-Jin

*

Nii-san,

Today, I got sent down to the storage hangar with Salva, one of the engineers. I had to hold some tools and take some notes while she did her routine check-up of the motor functions of the bots. I asked her why she chose me to assist her, and she said it’s because I don’t use the bots. I don’t think she does either.

We had to strip each bot, to check it for damage. The SMs have particularly delicate outer shells. It’s still much stronger than human skin, but the crew are paranoid about any little tear on their ‘toys.’

For the SMs, Salva switched them on and asked them to strip down by themselves. That was almost worse than us doing it; like part of a routine. I just stared at my clipboard.

Salva even chatted with some of the bots as she inspected their naked bodies. I know it’s just a personality modification that allows them to ‘chat,’ but it’s still creepy. They’re so realistic, I don’t know how people can use them in the way they do. Sending them down the mines to work, taking them away for sex…it’s like slavery. I know I sound like those radicals with the megaphones who hand out posters at Roppongi. But I don’t believe they have real feelings or anything. I don’t think they need to have feelings for it to be wrong.

After we finished inspecting them, we collected up the laundry. This happens every few weeks. The first time, I started shaking out their pockets like I do with my own clothes. Then I realised there was no need. What would a bot ever put in there, after all? So now they’ll just stand there naked until the clothes come back clean tomorrow; no need for spares. No need for decency, at least not while the humans aren’t around. No need to empty out their pockets before throwing them in the wash.

They really are just machines.

*

Jin sat at a desk in the main workstation, the rickety one that he could claim as long as nobody more important wanted it. The other workers tapped languidly at their keyboards as they calculated batching numbers. The bots had been down in the mine doing the real work for about five hours.

Just as Jin thought about going and making a coffee, all the radios in the room sparked to life with a series of beeps. The echoes were too chaotic for Jin to make out the code right away, but after a second Gordin, the head batcher, played the transmission through the loudspeakers and shouted for everyone to shut up.

_._./._/…_/./../_.

It was repeated several times, with barely a pause between the final dit and the first dah.

CAVEINCAVEINCAVEIN…

Everyone started talking at once, over the top of the beeping.

‘Who’s got the transmitter down there?’

‘Message back for more information.’

‘I think it’s The Supervisor.’

‘She won’t give more information if you don’t ask for it.’

‘Ask her how many we’ve lost.’

‘Just tell them to get out of there!’

Gordin tapped out a short message on the straight key, and the transmission shut off. ‘I’ve told them to come back to the facility at once,’ he said, and then crossed the room to stare out the window. After a moment the others followed, clambering for a glimpse

Jin had been sitting close to the window, and was in a good position to see out. It took fifteen minutes of tense anticipation, but eventually the bots began to trickle out of the mouth of the mine. Usually they marched two-by-two, with carts full of coal trundling along between them. But now they staggered out in drips and drabs, dragging limbs that bent at unnatural angles. The first few were only about as dirty as they ever were, but most were covered head to foot in coal dust. They looked like shadows moving across the red rock.

‘Must’ve been buried,’ someone said. ‘Dug themselves out.’

Gordin swore. ‘Salva, I want you to check them out once they’re all in. They look pretty banged-up.’

After a while the procession of bots dwindled down to one every few minutes. Workers began to return to their desks and deal with the expected fallout from the cave-in. Salva kept watching, and Jin, who had no job to do and no desk now that everyone was actually busy, stayed with her.

The engineer grunted. ‘Damn things. There’ll be no end to their glitching now.’

Jin was about to reply when a klaxon drowned him out. He glanced around. The workers seemed as surprised as he.

‘Something in the mine?’ Quebec asked, and Gordin shook his head.

‘No, it’s in the facility. Fire crew to storage hangar, now!’

‘The bots,’ Jin breathed, and Salva fingered her radio.

‘Supervisor, come in Super,’ she called. Now that the bots were inside the facility where there was air, they could send spoken transmissions.

For a moment there was nothing but the klaxon and human chaos. Then there was a crackling noise and the too-human voice of The Supervisor.

‘Copy, Salva,’ she spoke placidly. ‘I’m afraid I cannot speak for long. There is a situation in the hangar.’

‘I know that!’ Salva snapped, ‘That’s what I’m calling about. What’s going on down there?’

‘There is a fire.’

‘How did it start?’

Silence. Then, ‘I am not sure. There seems to be a high concentration of coal dust in the air.’ After another pause, The Supervisor said, ‘I am sorry Salva, but the fire is damaging my outer shell. Emergency protocols are compelling us to leave the facility, to prevent further damage.’

The radio clicked again, and the voice was gone.

The indicator light for the depressurisation chamber lit up green. Only Jin and Salva noticed. Most of the others had left or were leaving, desperate to contain the fire.

‘One of the bots must have sparked and caught alight,’ Salva said, more to herself than Jin. She seemed uncertain, out of her depth. ‘It doesn’t add up.’

Jin wanted to give some reassuring comment, tell her a spark probably did just catch on a piece of clothing, and would be snuffed out the second the bots went outside. But then, what had The Supervisor said?

‘The pockets.’

‘Hmm?’ Salva glanced at him. ‘What’s that?’

‘The pockets. The tunnel collapsed and buried them. They dug out. They came back covered in coal dust.’

‘That still shouldn’t have been enough to-’

Jin interrupted, ‘But the pockets. They all have human clothes, but no understanding of what humans use clothes for. They don’t ever put anything in the pockets, so they never think to empty them out.’

He could tell by Salva’s face she understood. Several dozen sparking bots had just brought in several dozen pocketfuls of flammable dust to the oxygenated hangar. By now the fire would be unstoppable, and greedy to consume any fuel it could reach.

Even as that realisation clawed its way into Jin’s too-young heart, the bots marched naked back out on the surface of Mars. Instead of making their usual beeline for the mine, they halted, gazing up at the facility. They looked horrific: still blackened, still with mangled limbs, and now the added gruesomeness of burnt synthetic hair and skin, peeling back to reveal the circuitry below. They stood inert, no thoughts in their metal head of the souls trapped within the building, fifty five million kilometres from home.

They were just machines, after all.

 

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Pass Over, Alec Mallia

I was paying to watch her die, every week.

 

I flew to the city when she was admitted and managed to get a room half an hour away in a share house. At four or five in the morning my eyes would open to the cracks in the roof, shying from the window light as if sleep was ever going to come back into the picture. Pulling the dusty cover off my razor, I’d make sure every single hair was cut to the skin. Little red welts would begin to wrap across my chin, and I’d remember why I kept the beard back home. Before walking out the door there would be three perfect circles, five scratched attempts and two games of noughts and crosses on the morning’s paper. On the way there the red needle of the speedometer nestled exactly to each road’s speed limit. When an orange light came on in front of me, I’d slam the breaks – safety first.

Eventually I got lucky and someone rammed straight up my backside. It was one of those utes that sat three tires above all the other cars on the road. Couldn’t see a scratch on its actual body but apparently I messed up his precious bull bar. He was waving his arms about and screeching this-that and the other. I did my best impersonation of a copper, talking all slow like ‘HAVE. YOU. BEEN. INJURED?’

He was having none of it, and by the time that got sorted I was at least an hour late.

 

Coming down the hill to the car park I’d circle round the first floor, finding the nicest little spot with a twenty-point reverse park job. On the colder mornings I smoked in the fire escape, eventually shuffling in the building to one of the reception desks. There was a lady there most Sundays; her name was Michelle Zhao. Grandma would always tell me that getting someone’s name, ‘and all of it,’ was the polite thing to do. Of course I was terrible with names, worse with faces, and although this never bothered me, I had begun to try with Michelle.

‘Michelle Zhao!’ I called, with a sort of coughing, shuddery-ness from the lingering accident’s adrenaline. She waved, almost crouching under her desk from her startling, but a smile nonetheless.

‘It’s good to see you Mister Davies, I’m sorry about your grandmother.’

I did the ‘gloom’ smile and nodded, ‘Didn’t think I’d be back again so soon, but here we are.’

She grabbed a nurse and eventually we found the ward, stopping outside her room. The nurse briefed me that things might not seem right with her mind, that her lungs weren’t looking ‘optimal’ either. She was staying for monitoring.

‘We’ll see how she goes’.

The nurse opened the door, and I sat down on the plastic chair across from her. Gran tilted her head a little towards me. The bed was your standard, stiffish, folding piece of work that could be found in most hospitals.

‘Close the curtains will you?’

They smelled of that musky, second-hand perfume – week old daisies shoved into a bottle of brandy. A slightly rotund man danced about on the television with his hair slicked back,

‘I’m Jonathan Brian and this is MONEYGRAB!’

 

I cleared my throat and she raised an eyebrow towards me, ‘How’re you feeling Gran?’

She looked up and down, squinting.

‘I know you.’ Her brow scrunched up behind her glasses. I leaned forward and showed my teeth.

‘I’m JONATHAN BRIAN and this is MONEYGRAB!’

She smiled a little, shifting in the bed and propping herself upright. A couple of nurses went by past the window. My foot started tapping on the floor, ‘It’s Ian, Gran…’

‘Oh of course, sit! Please!’ She smiled, nodding as I gestured to my already seated bottom.

‘What have you been up to hey?’ I reached forward before her hands squeezed the bed so hard their veins popped out.

I leaned back.

She raised an eyebrow and looked past me, leaning slightly out of the bed towards the figures moving past the door.

‘You’ve done it Ros! You’ve won a thousand dollars!’ The TV rang out, bells dinging. Bright green cartoon stacks of money flashing on the little box.

Gran coughed and smacked her lips together, ‘Did she come with you?’

‘Who?’

‘You know who.’

I shoved my hands in my jacket, ‘She’s not here. She’s not coming’

She, my mother, was dead. I know that for a fact. Saw the photos of the crash. Car was wrapped around a power pole, ‘Speed suspected in cause of incident.’

As the years go by it’s getting harder to recall what she had to do with me, let alone who she was. I remember a couple of beaches, being in the back of the car, a foggy birthday or two. Gran would slip details now and then before snatching at her cross and shaking her head. Her name was Kate. Gran said she did ‘bad things’ and that they had to ‘save’ me from her. The photos I had of her were from her last couple of high school years. I remember the sound of the fights they used to have. You could feel my grandfather’s voice in the walls. We used to have a wooden spoon in the house that was chipped where Gran smacked her with it a couple of times. After they’d sent me to bed I’d hear the intro to ‘The Bill,’ and sooner or later they’d start talking if she wasn’t home – which was often in her last years. I used to sneak down the stairs and stick my ear through the paling to try and hear things. I’d never get more than a grunt out of Grandad, but Gran had a sort of hiss when she spoke about Kate. It was never good.

She died around my eleventh birthday. By then I hadn’t seen her for two years.

The day after the funeral Gran found Grandpa in the garage with a hose from the Alfa’s tailpipe to back window, driver side. We didn’t speak of her at all after that, or at least I didn’t ask.

‘When bad things happen, we don’t stare.’

Not that I ever had the chance to bring it up — boarding schools were Gran’s tool of choice, military high schools with brief holidays. I’d spend those days away from her and that house. By the time I got to university I was already living a few hours away.

Gran’s fear of ‘her’ and ‘she’ was the first time she was on our lips since those days.

But she forgot her the moment the words left her lips. We talked about Melbourne for a while and my ‘big job’ coming up before I left. I made sure to use vague enough terms to make sure she was both proud and uninterested.

Things complicated, and I moved back to the old house. My room had been stripped to a bed and empty drawers. Down the hall Gran had turned Kate’s old room into a kind of study. There was just a leather chair and half-filled bookcase left. On the second Sunday night I sat in the chair and stared at the shelves. Any kind of book was stacked right next to its opposite.

EncyclopediaBritannica– 45 Volumes, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, a strong display of Tolstoy and a few other Russians. Beneath that an array of war books ranging from Gallipoli to the Battle of Long Tan. Just above the olive-drab spine of Gallipoli was a corner of a page or piece of paper. It stuck out between the back and the jacket. An envelope, shoved into the ‘about the author’ page. The front of it simply read ‘Sorry’. It was unsealed, and the letter slipped out of it.

‘I am sorry for what I did just now, Ian, Janet.’ Handwritten in jittery blue pen. After that line a few words had been struck through a handful of times until they were scratchy blobs.

‘…but I’m more sorry for what we did to you, Kate.’

Another bird’s nest of tangled rewrites.

‘I don’t expect anyone’s forgiveness or sympathy.’

There was nothing else. I left the letter on the chair and closed the door.

Before the fourth Sunday I was sitting on the edge of my bed. It had poured all day. The night was missing the rolling moans of buses, the splintering leaves and animal noises. It was all black after the window, and there was no sound to tell me otherwise. White shone up from the desk, and my phone crunched in vibration on to the floor. I scrambled to pick it up, answering the call but saying nothing as I pulled it to my ear.

‘Hello? Mr Davies?’

I scratched my nose and brushed my hair to one side, ‘Hello, who is this?’

‘Mr Davies there has been an incident with your grandmother,’ the earpiece crackled.

‘What sort of incident?’

She had suffered some sort of stroke going to toilet, banged herself up pretty badly. The accelerator stayed pressed on the orange lights.

Michelle was working that night and she grabbed the doctor for me. ‘Mental trauma’ and ‘risk of comatose’ filtered through amongst muffled words. There was the slightest smell of orange on his breath. ‘Not much time.’

We arrived at her room in the ward and the doctor pointed, ‘She can hold conversation, but I would be careful not to give her stress or upset her’.

The letter was dangling on the edges of my sight.

I watched her little glazed eyes staring straight through to the wall, juddering sometimes towards the odd nurse that’d pass her by. When they brought her food they’d follow the trays to her lap. It took a few tries for the nurse to feed her but eventually she managed to pull through it. Her eyes rolled back into position — staring into nothing. I waited another minute before walking in. She was glued to a spot that was a few inches right of the television. Her face stayed the same regardless of what flickered across the screen. I sat next to her, and she didn’t move a bit. There was an aerobics class on the television.

‘Gran?’

‘Gran?’

‘I found the letter.’

Her eyelids twitched and she looked away. I pulled the chair closer.

‘The,’ she spoke, ‘letter?’

She blew air, trying to heave into a full-body eye roll.

‘Gramps said that you both did something to Mu- Kate.’

She stayed silent, and I watched the reflections in the window before she spoke again, ‘I don’t want to hear this now Ian.’

I pulled the chair beside her and shook my head, ‘Did you ever ask her to stay? Did you ever ask what she needed?’  I bit my lip, and for some reason chuckled.

‘She left you.’ Her hands gripped the bed, ‘Left us.’

She looked at me for a second before snapping back to the other side of the bed.

‘You never tried to be better for her?’

Her lips were shut.

‘I need you to be honest with me Gran,’ I said to the back of her head.

Nothing. Could barely see her breathing, but I could hear the whistle and hack of her inhale/exhale routine. She might have said something under the coughing and spluttering but I didn’t hear it. I pulled at her shoulder and turned her around towards me. Her eyes would never meet mine.

That last Sunday night I drove through a red light on the way home. I parked in the garage and locked the old roller. In the house I made sure that every switch was off, every cord pulled, every curtain shut and every door closed. My effects were splayed out on the guest bed, and they fit decently back into my bag. The alarm was off, the door unlocked.

I started walking east.

 

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Lansdowne, David Nolan

In hindsight, it was a strange way to live. At the time, everything was a little bit odd to me out there so I didn’t think anything of it. My grandparents never made an issue of it, so I figured that’s just the way it was.

I was staying with my grandparents in a small town by the name of Chesterfield. I spent much of my school holidays out there. The first time I went I had no idea what to expect; I hadn’t seen my grandparents in years. Fortunately, they both knew what to expect with me and had plenty of books for me to read with them and talk about.

Chesterfield was essentially there to cater for the surrounding farms. There was a schoolhouse for the local kids, a single-person police station and my grandparents’ corner shop, with about fifty houses spread out over the rest of the town. There were more tractors and 4WDs than any other kind of vehicle, with most people using a horse or bicycle to get around when they had to.

The townspeople and the surrounding district would get their supplies from my grandparents’ corner shop. Each person would have a particular product that they’d need for their crops, horse or dirt bike and my grandparents would remember each and every one. It was while helping out in their shop that I met Hank.

The first time Hank came into the store, I wasn’t sure what to make of him. He pushed in his rusted trolley (with only three working wheels) and asked for ‘the usual, thanks, champ.’

As a nine-year old who had no idea who he was, my eyes went wide hoping that one of my grandparents would come back out front before he asked again. Thankfully, my grandfather unknowingly fulfilled my wish by coming out and getting Hank what he needed. When my grandfather introduced us, Hank noted that I looked just like my grandfather. I must have reacted noticeably as they both laughed.

My grandfather loaded up Hank’s trolley, but Hank didn’t take it with him. Instead, after paying with cash he got out of a freshly opened envelope, he left his loaded trolley in the shop and wandered back out. I wasn’t sure what to make of Hank or the pile of cans he left behind in his trolley.

When I woke up the next morning, the trolley had gone. After my grandmother confirmed that Hank had taken it home that morning, I asked her about him. She explained that he was ‘just a silly old man. He never really got used to normal life after the war. Shame, because he has quite the head on his shoulders.’ This confused me at the time, although it made perfect sense after I got to know him.

I asked my grandmother why he left his trolley behind. She explained, ‘He lives in Lansdowne, down the road. He wheels his trolley up when he gets his pension, buys the food he needs, then spends the rest at the pub and wheels it back in the morning.’

I’d never been to Lansdowne. No one had apart from Hank, since the mine fire forced the town to evacuate. Chesterfield was, in a way, built as Lansdowne’s replacement. Hank was the only person who moved back to Lansdowne when the town was declared safe and he remained its only citizen.

It wasn’t until a year after my first encounter with Hank that I finally did make the walk down the road to Lansdowne. Hank had had to have surgery on his knees and wasn’t able to make his weekly trip up to Chesterfield. My grandparents sent me with a trolley and mobile phone to take Hank’s supplies out to him.

An hour and a half of walking down the highway with nothing around but flat fields dotted with the occasional flame tree and I arrived in Lansdowne. It had never been a large town, only having around 100 residents when it was evacuated, and only half of them had lived in what could actually be called “the town”. The centre of Lansdowne was made up of two dozen houses, what used to be the shop/post office/police station and a ‘schoolhouse’ that only looked like a regular house if not for the ‘School’ sign out the front.

Looking around Lansdowne, I realised I had no idea which house was Hank’s. Some of the buildings had large chalk X’s on their front door. I was wondering what they were for when I heard a door open. I looked down the street toward the noise and watched Hank hobble out onto the veranda of one of the houses and wave me over. That saved me knocking on every door.

As I approached his house, Hank hopped down the stairs with a crutch under his right arm. I could see the bandages from his operation wrapped around his knee. He gave me a broad smile and picked up a couple of cans out of the trolley, reading the labels in satisfaction.
‘You deserve a drink after that long walk,’ Hank said to me as he nodded towards his house. Together we lifted the trolley up the stairs and through the front door. He told me to sit in a chair just inside the door while he wheeled the trolley into a different room, carefully avoiding putting any weight on the bandaged leg.

The room I was in seemed to be the main living space, with three old sofa seats and a tea table in the middle, all arranged to focus on the fireplace in the corner. The wallpaper was faded; it might have been bright blue once but now was a grey almost ashen colour. I began to suspect it actually was ash when I sniffed the air.

The room was filled with two things: empty food cans and books. The empty cans were mostly in piles in the corners and out of the way. The books, however, were all over the place. The tea table had at least thirty on it; the other chairs were in a similar state. The chair I walked to was the least covered: it only had ten books on it.

I picked up some of the books and read the covers. It was a broad mix of subjects and genres: Frankenstein, For Whom The Bell Tolls and Diary of Samuel Pepys. I’d read none of them before and hadn’t heard of many of them. They were all older copies, their spines held together by single threads in some cases. They smelt old too; many different hands had turned their pages.

‘You a reader there, champ?’ The voice made me jump. Luckily I didn’t drop any of the books but put them down gently before I turned to answer that I was indeed a keen reader.

Hank smiled. He hobbled over to the table and set down a glass full of lemonade for me. He sat down in one of the other chairs with a sigh of relief, carefully avoiding sitting on any of the books.

As he scratched his bandage, he told me, ‘I’ve talked to your grandparents about you. They told me about your love of reading. I wanted to introduce you to my collection.’ He gestured to the piles scattered about the room.

I picked up the glass of lemonade and took a sip. Hank gestured for me to sit, which I did although only on the edge of the chair as I still hadn’t moved any books off it. ‘It’s an impressive collection,’ I said, unsure of myself.

‘Is this what you do all day?’ I realised the almost-rudeness of the question only after I said it.

Fortunately, Hank saw the question as intended. He answered, ‘For the most part. I have always been an avid reader, and now that I live here alone, I indulge my lifelong hobby and read all my favourites and the classics I never got to.’

By this time, I had learnt that asking personal questions could be considered inconsiderate, but I was also too curious to not ask questions when I had one I wanted to ask. So I asked Hank, ‘Why do you live here alone?’

Hank smiled grimly and sighed ever so slightly. ‘Because of some mistakes I made that I couldn’t fix.’ He leant forward with his elbows resting on his knees and he rubbed his unshaven face. I was worried that I had hurt him by asking but he seemed to make peace with the story as he began, ‘When I came back from the war, I had experienced some things.’ He spoke slowly and carefully chose each word, being very aware that I was still a kid. ‘These things stuck with me, they call it post-traumatic stress disorder now, but back then the closest thing they had was shellshock or battle fatigue.’

I thought to myself that this must have been what my grandmother was referring to when she told me about Hank. I wondered how much she knew of Hank’s life story.

Hank continued, ‘I found myself trying to deal with my condition while also trying to get into the workforce. There were a lot of former soldiers trying to find work back then. I was lucky; I found a job working in a steel mill. Hard work, it was, but simple enough. It was not long after that I met my wife, Sally.’

I noticed Hank got a little smile in the corner of his mouth as he remembered meeting Sally. I could also see the tears in his eyes, reminding me that something must have happened for him to end up alone in Lansdowne. I wanted to stop him from crying so I butted in, ‘Was she pretty?’

That made Hank laugh softly and smile. ‘Yes she was: blonde hair, bright eyes, and the sort of smile that made everyone around her want to smile too. She was also quick-witted and knowledgeable.’ Hank sighed again. ‘She really was just about the perfect girl.’

There was a long pause as Hank tried to gather himself and I thought about the idea of the ‘perfect girl’ and whether I’d ever get to be that to someone. I wasn’t all that fond of myself at that stage so the idea of someone else being so attached to me seemed unbelievable. Hank rubbed his mouth again. ‘Here is something very important for you to learn now: you treat your people right. You hear me?’

I was kind of thrown by the way he suddenly got worked up, but I understood the sentiment so I nodded quickly.

Hank nodded back at me. ‘See, that was my problem. Well, one of them. I just didn’t know how to treat my people right. You have to be honest with yourself, first. From what I hear though, you know how to do that.’

I felt myself shrink back into my chair. I wished my family wouldn’t share my secrets with other people. They keep calling me brave; I’m just trying to feel comfortable and live. I remember that being a consistent theme in my thoughts back then.

Hank tried to put me at ease. ‘Yeah, your grandparents told me about you. Don’t worry. We’re different, we need to support one another.’ He breathed in deeply as he looked around, and it seemed more like he was surveying his domain than just the room. ‘I’ve found something resembling a place of my own; I’m sure you will too. Hopefully it’s a lot more populated and welcoming than my little corner of the world. I think that would suit you more.’

I rubbed my hands in the nervous way I did when I didn’t know what to say or do next. Hank was still staring into space with a sad smile on his face. Wanting to stop the silence, I asked him, ‘So is this your whole collection?’

‘No, not by a long shot,’ Hank answered with a slight laugh. He pulled himself up onto his crutch again. ‘These are just the ones I’m up to right now. I keep a few hundred in whatever house I’m living in and keep the rest in the other houses.’

‘The other houses? All of them?’ It didn’t seem real for someone to do such a thing.

Hank nodded. He moved over to an opening next to the front door and went through. I followed him and came into a stuffy room filled with even more books, although this one was more ordered, with the books arranged on bookshelves.

Hank stood at one of them and started looking through the shelves. ‘I have the other houses arranged like this. Except for the ones I’ve already lived in. Those are filled with empty cans. Don’t go in any of the buildings marked with an X.

I nodded, only half listening to what he was saying because I was too caught up in seeing what books were there. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Gilgamesh and The Once and Future King are the ones that I remember noticing, mostly because those are the titles that stuck out at me at the time.

I heard Hank pull some books off the shelf as he said, ‘Here we are. These should suit you nicely.’ He moved over to me and handed me four large books. I looked at the top book and saw The Hobbit was its title and there was a drawing of a dragon snaked across the bottom. Flicking through the pile, I saw the other three books were The Lord of the Rings.

‘Those there are what started my love of reading about, oh, 50 years ago,’ Hank told me. ‘I think you’ll enjoy them.’

I looked up at Hank and thanked him profusely. He just waved it off and walked me out to the kitchen. I helped him unload his cans and put the books he had given me in the trolley. Hank walked me out to the street and saw me off. The trip back to Chesterfield was much easier than the trip out to Lansdowne; with my new books to look forward to, I was also much quicker.

Over the next ten years, Hank and I continued and developed our friendship. Whenever I went up to Chesterfield to visit my grandparents, I would also make the walk out to Lansdowne to see how Hank was getting along. We would talk about books and my life back home. He would provide great advice on just any about topic I asked him about. He even supported me through my transition, even as I lost some friends who wouldn’t deal with it. It was partly thanks to him that I worked up the courage to start the process. Once I started university, I couldn’t make the trip out as often as I’d have liked as I had study, work and a romance to maintain at home. But, no matter if it had been a year or more between visits, we could still talk freely.

Hank died last month. I made the trip out to Chesterfield to visit his grave with my boyfriend. I didn’t realise how sad I was until I saw the words written on his headstone. He didn’t leave me without saying goodbye though, his collection of books was left to me along with a parting message: ‘Audrey, you’ve been a friend. You treated me right. Thank you. You’ll live a good life as a good person. I’m sorry I never got to meet your man. You are his perfect girl now.’

Walking back to the car, I had to lean heavily on my boyfriend as my knees refused to hold me up properly. As he drove, I stared out the window in the direction of Lansdowne and thought of Hank, my friend, and his little corner of the world.

 

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Phantom, Rabeah Zafrullah

08/09/15

CARNEGIE POLICE DEPARTMENT

PART 2 OF AUDIO RECORDED INTERVIEW

 

ADAMS: Am I a suspect?

POLICE: The body was found in your apartment, Mr. Adams. We need to know why.

ADAMS: So I am a suspect. [laughs] People keep telling me that the police are getting duller, but shit man, I didn’t believe them ‘til now. Your parents must be so proud.

POLICE: Mr. Adams, I’m going to ask you to remain civil and answer the question.

ADAMS: Right. No, of course! Please continue, I’d hate to stand in the way of justice.

POLICE: Can you explain why Eric Compton was at your residence on the night of the fifth?

ADAMS: Never heard of him.

POLICE: Can you explain why your phone records show that you called him twenty-six times on the day he was strangled? Choked to death in your very room?

ADAMS: What can I say? I’m clingy.

POLICE: So you do know Eric Compton?

ADAMS: Eric Compton the drug dealer? I’ve never heard of him. I’m a model citizen.

POLICE: Mr. Adams, the more you cooperate, the faster you can leave.

ADAMS: I can leave when I want. No handcuffs, see?

POLICE: Alright. Let’s go back to the beginning, Mr. Adams. Can you tell us how you lost your arms?

 

They say war changes you, and I have to agree. There’s just something about getting your arms blown to hell and having surgery in a bloody tent that makes you see things differently. Really changes your perspective – although that might just be because I’m practically blind in my left eye and can’t see for shit. And then there’s the damn morphine. Now that changes you. They like playing God with it, giving it and taking it away. They wean you off it like as if you won’t remember how good it feels to not be in constant agony. You get prescribed other shit, but God, nothing does it. So you bet your ass I was buying it wherever I could find it. I wasn’t an addict or anything, I could live without the drugs. I just didn’t see why I should. But it was getting harder to get the good stuff, even after I pawned off my medal for cash. The monthly allowances barely staved off my hunger, and the pain wasn’t getting any better. They call it phantom pain. You think your wrist itches and you go to scratch it, but then you realise that you don’t have a wrist anymore or anything to scratch it with. But God, the itch doesn’t give a shit about whether it’s supposed to exist or not. It just keeps on existing, starting off small – you could almost ignore it. Then it just grows and grows until it’s a clenched uncontrollable mass of scorching muscle that twists in on itself. It drives you crazy. Panadol just doesn’t kick it.

I’m going to be honest, before I was in the army, I was a bit of a thief. Shocker right? Me – the morally upstanding citizen with the medal of ‘bravery’ in one non-existent hand and a hypodermic needle in the other. It was mostly petty though, nothing too serious, but you start to miss that extra cash. I was good with my hands, could get a wallet from a man while he was still walking. It was easy living. You can’t really do that with a prosthetic. Can’t really do shit with a prosthetic except drop things. I could have gone my whole life living on that money alone, maybe get a crap job somewhere if I had to. I don’t know why I joined the army. I guess I thought I needed direction in my life. Instead I got a bloody IED. I still have the scars from the shrapnel. It’s been six years, and they don’t look like they’ll fade any time soon. Arms don’t show any sign of re-growing either, but you can always hope.

Listen, before I get to the bit about my arms, my real arms, you should know that I didn’t kill anyone. Not even in the army. Call me a thieving druggie, sure, but I’m no murderer. I’m practically a pacifist. Sure, Eric was my dealer and he was a piece of shit, but he’s the one who got the drugs in me. I wouldn’t kill him. I wouldn’t kill anyone, I swear.

*

‘Just one prosthetic arm? You couldn’t afford two?’

‘The army didn’t think I needed another.’

‘I see. Mr. Adams, you were taken in for petty theft before you joined. Have you attempted any other such crimes since then? Theft? Drugs? Murder?’

‘Of course not. I’m armless.’

‘Where did you get the money to purchase drugs from? Did you have someone steal it for you? Or did you owe Eric Compton a lot of money? Is that why you killed him?’

I didn’t kill Eric.’ ‘Then who was it?’

*

I think it was quite early on. I remember Eric had come in to shoot me up and he had brought a friend with him, a guy called Boxer who looked 85% steroids, 14% beard and 1% brain – and that was being generous. Arms like he had stuck balloons under his skin. I think he had come along to have a laugh at the poor tin soldier, but I was too far gone to give a crap about them. Anyway, that was the first time I noticed it. I was in this beautifully tempered bliss, no pain, no nothing. I’d started thinking I’d got my arms back and I was lifting them up and marvelling at the creases and joints. They looked so real I was convinced they’d grown right back. Drugs will do that to you. Stay in school kids.

Boxer and Eric were leaving, either trying to get out before the cleaner came or because they were bored of watching me look like I was about to drop off. Even disability loses its charm sometimes. Boxer had been amusing himself by throwing shit at me all day and yelling ‘think fast’ or ‘catch’, and then just as he was leaving, he tossed the keys right at me – straight for my face. Out of pure instinct I put my hands up, and of course that shouldn’t have made a damn difference, but it did. I swear the keys hit my hands instead of my face and I felt them hit my hands as well. It wasn’t a phantom feeling, God no. It was real.

For a moment, I thought my arms had actually grown back and I was whole again. That was probably the happiest moment in my entire life. It didn’t last. I tried touching my face, but it didn’t work. Later on, I told myself it was the drugs and the keys had really hit my face. I started to believe that was true, but then it happened again and I hadn’t even taken a chewy vitamin. I was at the checkout and the lady was giving me my change when a coin dropped, and instead of going for it with my prosthetic, I went for it with a hand that didn’t even exist. Except I actually caught the damn coin, and it bloody well hovered in mid-air for a couple of seconds. Doesn’t sound like much, but it felt like forever. I checked the cashier’s face to see if she was as shocked as me, but people don’t like to look at you when you don’t have arms, like amputation can be ocularly transmitted or something. But I really had caught the coin and I had actually used my arms – the ones that didn’t even exist. Holy shit, right?

Well, I was psyched. I was convinced that my arms were slowly going to become more and more physical until everyone would be amazed at how I actually regrew my arms. It was the power of love, I’d tell them. I even tried telling my therapist, but she went on about PTSD and hallucinations. Couldn’t prove I was right could I? I had no control over when my arms would work and when they wouldn’t, but they would work sometimes, usually when I wasn’t thinking about it – instinct you know? Impulses and stuff. That’s when I could catch things from the air. I used to pretend that I could see my arms back when they first got blown off and my imagination was never really up to scratch, but now I could actually see them, every single wrinkle and hair. It was mostly through my half blind eye, so they looked kind of fuzzy and vague, but sometimes they’d clear up – those were usually the times when I could use them as well. Sometimes I’d forget I didn’t have my prosthetic on and I’d be using my real arms to do things instead. Of course, the moment I’d realise, it would all fall apart. But it was happening more often and I was getting better at it, not very quickly, but I really was. Soon I could use it consciously. I practised as much as I could, only when there wasn’t anyone around, but the whole thing was exhausting. Lifting a paper was like lifting at the gym when a pretty girl was watching how many weights you put on. Hell, I was getting pretty ripped. It was a damn shame that no one could check out my mad biceps.

Here’s the thing though, my arms were great when I was controlling them, but when I wasn’t, the pain was ten times worse. I’d be staring at my arms and they’d be blurring in and out of focus, mottled red things with the veins squirming like worms and the fingers blackened with oozing gashes, bits of metal shrapnel sticking out everywhere. I’d be screaming like a mad man and I was convinced that somehow my left eye was showing me what my arms looked like before they were cut off by the doctors. My arms started working normally more often, which was great, but I couldn’t stand the God damn pain anymore. Eric and Boxer were over a lot more often. Sometimes Boxer came alone and then afterwards Eric would show up bruised like a bad apple. I didn’t ask questions.

I only had so much money though, and Eric and Boxer were burning through all my emergency savings. I was barely eating once a day, and I still couldn’t really afford groceries after I got my shots and the more shots I got, the less they worked. I needed money badly and I had no way of getting more. And then I had a stroke of sheer brilliance. You remember how I said I was a great pickpocket? Never got caught in my life and I had bet that I’d have an even better record with my hidden arms. What kind of cop was going to arrest a man for stealing when he doesn’t have any hands to steal with? I figured it out on the train one day. This lady’s phone started ringing from inside her bag. So she opens the giant thing, fishes the damn phone out then starts yammering away at it without closing her purse, so it’s just wide open and I can see her wallet right at the top. And I thought, if I can pick up all those other things with my hands, what’s stopping me from picking people’s pockets? It was genius, and even though I wasn’t nearly as good as I was with my old arms, this job had its own perks. Sometimes, you’d get people who noticed what was going on you know, felt something moving in their pockets, and they’d turn around to glare – but I was a freaking disabled man, and they weren’t about to stare at me for more than a second. They’d actually feel bad for suspecting me! It was better than being invisible. It was like I was the Pope. No one thought I was capable of crime. Sometimes I’d take to wearing my camo and I bought a little veteran’s badge type of thing. God, the way they’d blush when they saw me like that. I was a freaking saint, and they were criminals for suspecting me. I started to regret selling off my medal. People would have shit their pants.

The money was rolling in, and you can bet that I got the morphine as quick as Eric could give it. On the days that he couldn’t commit, the pain was incredible. It was almost like it increased according to how much I used my arms. My fingers would be twitching like an electrocuted chicken, and I’d be feeling my heart throb in my arms instead of my chest. Boxer was showing up more often and sometimes he’d watch me screaming for five minutes before he did anything. He liked watching people suffer.

*

‘So you’re saying Boxer killed Eric.’

‘I’m saying I didn’t kill Eric.’

The officer scribbled something down, and I took a deep breath. It had been three days since my last dose and I could feel myself losing control, and this idiot with his questions wasn’t helping.

‘So what happened the night of the murder?’

*

I had started promising Eric ridiculous amounts of money for the morphine, but something was up with his suppliers. I had been in control for the last three days, the longest I’d ever gone, and I knew I couldn’t keep it up much longer. When the pain came, it was all-consuming.

I was on the floor when he got to me, damn insane with how bad it was. My arms were on fire, they just wouldn’t stop clenching and unclenching, making jazz hands at the ceiling then ready for a fist fight. Anyone could see that I needed some damn help, but Eric, bless his soul, just stood there and laughed for a moment. Not an all-out laugh, more like an audible acknowledgement of something funny. And me on the ground, with my hands playing an invisible game of peek-a-boo, faster now that he had laughed, like my arms were glad there was an audience.

*

‘Was Boxer there that night?’

He was looking up at me expectantly now, but I couldn’t afford to lose focus by talking. I couldn’t let my arms take over again. I was breathing faster now, practically hyperventilating. What if I couldn’t stop it?

*

Eric was smiling down at me. If I could have moved my hands I would have punched him. But then again, he also took the time to inject things into my ass, so he couldn’t be that bad. A part of me wondered if Boxer was with him, ready to make me wait five minutes. Eric knelt down and leaned over me, and suddenly my arms stilled, falling to my sides.

*

The officer was leaning over me now, concerned, and my arms were becoming mutilated before my eyes, twitching and clenching. They were turning red now, red and blue and black and now here was the metal, growing out of the dappled skin like pea plants. I couldn’t control them anymore. God, they were shaking. I couldn’t stop it. The pain was snaking up, and my hands were curling in for a clench – shit! Was that blood in my nails? I knocked over a glass of water, and the officer’s eyes widened.

‘Did you do that?’

‘No! No, it wasn’t me!’

They were going spastic now, and the pain, oh God, the pain. And then, with one last clench, they stilled and settled on the table. Oh God, not again. Not again, please no. The officer was too close and he reached for his radio but my arm got to him first, grabbing on to his, I couldn’t control it, I swear, and then, while he was looking at me with those God damn wide eyes, just like Eric’s, my other arm reached inside his chest. It wasn’t me. I couldn’t control it. But God, I could feel my hand squeezing. One hand clutching his heart and the other twisting my face to look at his, look at those eyes that went wide then blank like Eric’s.

 

When the others rushed in, it was too late. The cop was on the floor, leaking blood like a faulty tap. They were looking at me, but I was looking at my hands. Still red and black, still uncontrollable but no longer clenching. Instead they were drumming on the table. Impatient almost.

 

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We all fall down, Catrin Shaw

‘He tried to eat his family.’

‘Did not.’

‘Did too. When the porters came to collect the bodies, his parents had bite marks on their arms and legs. His father even had a chunk of flesh missing from his thigh.’

‘You’re lying.’

‘Am not. It does that to you. Turns you mad.’ He leant forward over the counter, his lip curling upwards.

Maggie gripped her little sister’s hand and attempted to steer her towards the door, but Anabel was adamant.

‘No it doesn’t. I’ll bet you haven’t even seen an infected person.’ Anabel pouted, cocking her chin upwards.

‘Have too seen one,’ he called out after the sisters as they left the bakery.

Maggie tucked the loaf of bread under her arm. The baker’s son had dug it out of the waste barrel for them and the bread was heavy, the crust burnt and blackened, but it was the only food they had managed to find.

On Saturday mornings the town square was usually filled with market stalls, the air warm and woody with the smell of roasted chestnuts. The shop fronts would hum as people pushed past one another, silver coins clutched in outstretched fists as merchants bottled ounces of milk, counted out apples and weighed slabs of meat. But today, most of the shops had been boarded up and the stalls abandoned, the meat just left out on hooks to rot, swarms of maggots tunnelling their way through the browning flesh.

The rest of town wasn’t much different. Doors had been sealed shut and marked with crosses, the gloopy paint drying to the colour of blackened blood. On one door, someone had scrawled something above the cross. Maggie looked up at the writing as they walked past: ‘Lord have mercy upon us,’ the letters bleeding tears of red that had dripped and hardened on the wood.
Around the corner, Maggie and Anabel passed someone huddled in the shadows, their body encased in a pile of blankets, a single square of cloth tied over their mouth. Anabel stopped, staring down at the hunched over body.

‘Don’t look.’ Maggie wrapped her arm around her sister’s shoulders and led her down the adjoining laneway.

‘They don’t really eat people, do they?’ Anabel asked. Her earlier confidence had disappeared, reminding Maggie of just how young her sister really was.

‘He was just trying to scare you, making up silly stories like he always does.’

Anabel scrunched up her face, trying to hold back tears. ‘But what if I get sick and-’

Maggie stopped and knelt down in front of Anabel, her hands gripping onto her sister’s arms just above her elbows.

‘Stop this,’ Maggie said, her voice cracking. ‘You’re going to be fine, you hear me?’

Anabel nodded, a thin trail of snot bubbling from her nose.

Maggie sighed and grabbed the small knife that she always kept in her pinafore. At the next house they passed, Maggie hoisted herself over the front gate while Anabel watched wide-eyed from the laneway. Maggie ducked across the front garden, rummaging through the undergrowth until she spotted half a dozen carnations growing beneath the boxwood. Their stems had drooped but the flowers were still intact, the white petals threaded with pink. Maggie gathered the flowers in her fist, slicing them off just below the blossoms with her knife. She then pulled the ribbon from her hair and knotted the frayed satin around the flowers, holding them together in a bunch.

‘Maggie?’

Maggie emerged from behind the bushes and clambered back over the gate, her pinafore freckled with splotches of dirt.

‘Here.’ Maggie bent down and tucked the carnations into the front pocket of her sister’s dress.

Anabel frowned and reached into her pocket, her fingers closing around the bunch of flowers. ‘What are these for?’

‘Make sure you keep them with you,’ Maggie said as they continued walking. ‘I remember mother saying how the smell of flowers can help ward off the sickness. It’ll keep you safe.’

 

That evening, Maggie and Anabel split the bread between them on the floor of their bedroom. Beneath the burnt crust, the innards of the loaf were tough with grit, but Maggie didn’t care. She demolished her portion while Anabel picked and prodded at hers, pulling off tiny pillows of bread and letting them dissolve on her tongue.

A rat scurried across the windowsill, its whiskers twitching as its nose darted backwards and forwards, sniffing at the air. Anabel smiled and pulled off a chunk of her bread, crossing the room and holding it out in her hand. The rat sniffed at the bread timidly before grabbing it in its claws. Anabel giggled as she watched the rat eat, its front teeth gnawing away hungrily at the crust.

The sound of retching echoed through the house and Anabel froze, her breath hitching in her throat as the rat hurried outside through a gap in the windowpane. Maggie got up off the floor and walked out into the kitchen. She pressed her ear against the adjacent door and listened. Through the cracks in the wood, she could hear a rattling cough, the wheezes thick and tacky with phlegm.

‘Should we give her some?’

Maggie turned around to see Anabel standing behind her in the kitchen. Her hand was outstretched, the remainder of the bread sitting on her palm.

Maggie shook her head. ‘She’s fine. Come on.’

‘But she hasn’t eaten all day.’ Anabel moved closer to the door, her hand reaching out towards the doorknob.

‘I said she’s fine, ok.’ Maggie smacked Anabel’s hand away and grabbed her by the shoulders, forcing her sister back inside the bedroom. She slammed the door behind them and Anabel ran to her bed, her back to Maggie as she buried her face in her pillow.

Maggie sighed, leaning her head against the wall as she watched Anabel’s shoulders shake and tremble.

‘Anabel-’ Maggie began but she couldn’t think of anything to say. After a minute of silence, she opened her mouth to speak again, but decided there wasn’t anything she wanted to say anyway.

 

Anabel’s muffled crying eventually stopped, her sobs levelling out into deep even breaths as she fell asleep. Maggie lay awake on the other side of the room, her eyes fixated on the ceiling. Their mother was getting worse. Every so often, she would heave and splutter from her bedroom and Maggie would glance at Anabel, praying that the sound wouldn’t wake her.

Maggie lifted her head and peered down at the foot of her bed where a small leather suitcase lay half packed, an assortment of clothes spilling over the edges and out onto the floor. Maggie didn’t know how the sickness spread but she knew that it spread fast and once you got it, you didn’t have long left. Within the week, half of the town was sick while the other half were too scared to leave their homes, and not just because of the sickness. At night, Maggie had watched from her bedroom window as gangs of men moved through the streets of the town. Mainly peasants from outside the town walls, they rioted and plundered as they pleased, breaking open cells in the local gaols and setting fire to the homes of the town officials. Maggie knew the streets weren’t safe at night, but she could no longer be sure that they would be safe inside either.

Maggie got up and stripped the moth-eaten blanket off her bed, bundling it up and tossing it on top of the pile of clothes. She then grabbed a handful of candles from the table by her bed, along with a fire striker, and slipped them into the suitcase before clasping it shut. Maggie felt her chest tighten as she glanced over to Anabel’s bed. She was still fast asleep, a string of drool running from her mouth, glistening and bubbling down her chin.

‘Anabel.’ Maggie shook her sister to wake her.

Anabel rolled over and blinked, her eyes heavy with sleep. ‘What is it?’

‘Come on, get up.’ Maggie pulled back the covers and Anabel sat up, squinting as she looked out the window.

‘What are you doing? It’s still dark out.’

‘We have to leave.’ Maggie grabbed Anabel’s hand, helping her up off the bed. Maggie handed her sister a cardigan before bending down to slip her feet into her boots.

‘Why? What’s happening?’

Maggie steered Anabel outside of their bedroom, stopping briefly in the kitchen to check they had everything they would need.

‘Maggie? Where are we going?’

‘We should have left yesterday,’ Maggie said as she fumbled with her bag. ‘It was stupid of us to stay, we can’t risk staying in the same building as someone who’s infected when we don’t know how it’s spread.’

‘But Maggie, that’s Mama.’

‘She’s dying Anabel, how can you not see that? And if we stay, we might die too. And I’ll be damned if I let that happen.’

Anabel stared at Maggie blankly for a moment before shaking her head as she took a step back towards the bedroom. ‘We can’t leave Mama, Maggie.’

Maggie turned away from her sister, pushing her nails deep into the flesh of her palms. Without warning, she slammed her fist against the wall of the kitchen. Anabel flinched as one of the wood panels cracked, the pots and pans from above the grate knocking against one another from the force.

‘Fine,’ Maggie spat, flexing the fingers on her now aching hand as she took her coat off the hook by the door. ‘Stay with her if you want. I’m going.’

Maggie swung the front door open. As she stepped outside, she stopped herself and looked back into the kitchen to see Anabel still standing there by the grate.

‘You coming or not?’ Maggie sighed, her voice softening.

Anabel nodded tentatively and with a glance at her mother’s bedroom door she followed her sister outside. Just as Maggie began to pull the door shut, Anabel turned back around.

‘Hold on,’ Anabel said as she disappeared back inside the house.

‘Anabel, come back. We don’t have time.’ Maggie spun around to look down the street, her eyes scanning the shadows for any sign of movement.

Anabel re-emerged a few minutes later, her cheeks wet with tears.

‘What was that for?’

Anabel stared at her feet, her arms folded protectively across her chest.

Not wanting to loiter on the street any longer, Maggie decided not to press for an answer. She brushed her hand across Anabel’s cheeks, her thumb catching the last of her sister’s tears as she locked the front door and slipped the key into her pinafore. The sisters hurried down the street, ducking down the narrow laneway that bordered their house. As they walked, Anabel slid her hand into the now empty pocket of her dress, her fingers toying with a single flower petal that had fallen from the posy.

 

Maggie made sure to stick to the shadows as she and Anabel wound their way through the labyrinth of cobblestone alleyways. Once they reached the town square, they stayed away from the open centre, instead moving from stall to stall, careful to keep themselves hidden. As they passed the stonemasons tent, Maggie thought she heard the distinct sound of metal on metal, followed by the patter of footsteps. She glanced back over her shoulder, glimpsing what looked like a shadow disappearing behind the alehouse. Maggie grabbed her little sister’s hand and, linking their fingers together, they slipped away behind a nearby house, following the path that ran between the buildings. As they neared the end of the next street, Maggie heard the footsteps again, the sound closely followed by the echo of muffled voices.

‘In here.’ Maggie ducked across the street towards the church. The door at the back of the building hung limp on its hinges and she pulled it open easily, hurrying Anabel inside before securing the door with a table that she pushed across from the nave.

The church had been pillaged, just like the rest of the town. Everything of value had been taken, the altar stripped bare of its ornaments and the stained glass windows splintered with jagged edges where they had been smashed in.

Maggie rested her hand on Anabel’s shoulder as they walked down the aisle and towards the door by the altar. Upon reaching the door, Maggie removed the knife from her pinafore, carefully slotting the blade into the gap by the lock and prying the door open.

‘Come on.’ Maggie bent down, letting her sister climb up onto her back. With Anabel’s arms wrapped securely around her neck, Maggie climbed up the narrow staircase towards the loft.

Just like the nave, the loft had also been raided, the room bare but for two white clerical robes that hung limply from hooks behind the door. Letting Anabel down, Maggie flicked open the clasp on her suitcase, rummaging through the tangle of clothes before pulling out her blanket and handing it to her sister.

‘Try and get some more sleep. We’ll be safe here for the rest of the night.’

Anabel nodded as she took the blanket from her sister.

‘You understand now, don’t you,’ Maggie said as she bunched a selection of clothes into a makeshift pillow for herself. ‘You understand why we had to leave?’

Anabel’s brow furrowed as she nodded. ‘I think so.’

Maggie gave her sister a small smile. She couldn’t expect her to understand everything, she could barely comprehend it all herself. But as long as Anabel knew she was trying, that was all Maggie needed her sister to know.

While Anabel burrowed herself beneath the blanket, Maggie lit a candle, pooling the hot wax on the ground and standing the candle upright, the fabric of the clerical robes casting ghost-like shadows across the walls in the newfound pool of light. She sat down next to Anabel, brushing a strand of strawberry blonde hair off her sister’s face as she drew the blanket up to beneath Anabel’s chin.

As Maggie lay down, she rolled over onto her side, wrapping her arms around her legs and drawing them to her chest. She closed her eyes but instead of black she saw her mother, lying alone in her bed, her skin masked with puss-filled boils. Her eyes had sunk, the bloodshot whites barely visible beneath the swollen lids. As she blinked, a drop of blood oozed through the slit, dripping through her lashes before pooling in the hollow beneath her eye. Maggie could hear her voice as she called out for her daughters through the empty house, her voice growing weaker and weaker with each cry.

‘I’m sorry,’ Maggie murmured against her skin as she felt her arm grow wet with tears. ‘I didn’t know what to do.’

 

As their mother took her final breath, the smoke began to filter through the floorboards of the loft. The rioters had lit the fire in the nave, tossing scraps of alcohol-soaked cloth through the empty windows of the church. The pews caught alight as the flames travelled down the carpeted floor, adding fuel to the already growing fire. Within minutes the flames were licking at the walls, the rafters collapsing as the fire hollowed through the wood, engulfing the church in a single blaze. As the sun rose and the fire died to glowing embers, the girls’ bodies were barely visible, buried beneath a blanket of smouldering rubble. They were still lying next to one another, Anabel’s arm linked through Maggie’s, entwined even in death.

 

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Surviving Loneliness, Timothy Hirons

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

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

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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Bad Faith, Christopher Grady

I dreamed I was rolling an immense boulder up a hill. I awoke before I saw how the dream would end. The earth makes another rotation, the sun rises, the sun sets, the waves crash again and again. I had to go to work.

I did some push-ups and sit-ups to curb a cubicle body. I showered and dressed. For a moment in the dark I watched my girlfriend, Sarah, sleep. We had met a few times at parties. We had the same three conversations every time we met, one of which was how we had the same two conversations every time we met. Now we didn’t speak at all.

I kissed her on the forehead then kissed the baby on his. He was an accident. When Sarah told me she was pregnant I wanted her to have an abortion. I didn’t have the nerve to bring it up. Why pluck this child out of nonexistence only so it will fear the same nonexistence hurtling towards it. I could frighten it with religion like I was. Feed that down its throat foie gras style, like my father did. When I was little my father woke us in the middle of the night saying the end is now. He made us get in the car and drove into the middle of nowhere awaiting Christ’s glorious return. On the way home Mum hummed “Coming Round the Mountain” and Dad demanded her to shut up. After that Dad broke down and Mum took over. She sent me to a Montessori school so I could work out what I was into. My parents were very different people.

It was still dark when I reversed out the driveway. I remember driving past people waiting at bus stops or in cars in congestion when I was at university. People on their way to work before the day had awoken. I knew I never wanted to be that person. I became that person. I never wanted to be an inmate of this sandstone university then that job with its lack of prospects and rungless ladder. I became that person. I started at the law firm out of uni as a paralegal, thinking it was a good deal, delaying desires, hopes and aspirations because the money was good. I was closer to ten than I was to forty, then. Now I’ve been of legal drinking age longer than I haven’t.

The traffic was frozen. A woman in the car next to me did her make up in her rear-view mirror. Sometimes I wished a plague would thin out the herd like wildfire freeing up these lanes a little.

I had the radio on. The news told me how someone was mugged at filthy syringe point, how the Lolitas of someone of coin or cloth had grown up and come out against them, how a wife beat her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, how a man armed with a sandwich and a coke was shot down while a helpless rich man’s child was exonerated for affluenza. And then, on top of that, my tooth hurt, number two-seven or two-eight (Dad was a dentist).

Work was a lot of the same. I repeated what I had to repeat. I tongued my tooth and sometimes I had to photocopy something. This was never good; there was always someone else there. I waited and the person in front of me sneezed.

He looked at me. ‘You didn’t say bless you,’ he said.

I walked away.

Then came lunch. I spoke two languages while being surrounded by others who struggled with one. A young guy sat next to me. Out of all the spare seats he chose that one.

‘Hey, man,’ he said, ‘when they say jelly wrestling do they mean KY or Aeroplane?’

I didn’t work in a law firm. I was immersed and playing the role of someone working in a law firm.

The day ended. It was dark and when I looked up I couldn’t see the stars. I sat in traffic and the news was just as bad. I pleaded for that plague.

Later, I looked across the table to my girlfriend, a glass of wine in front of both of us. She pretended not to notice that I would finish the bottle and I pretended not to notice the cigarette smoke clinging to her clothes. Our relationship was built on pretending. I could see the glow of primetime TV where confectionery rotted the teeth of amorous lovers, but they’ve already done all their smiling. Sarah spoke to her mother on the phone. Her grandfather could predict the weather with his knees and her grandmother was dying of cancer with liver rot and alcoholic dementia to boot. She’d tell stories of her past, that she had danced the Charleston to the troops when in fact with calloused fingers she had sewed pockets in trousers in perpetuity.

The earth makes another rotation, the sun rises, the sun sets, the waves crash again and again. And there will come that dream.

*

A few weeks later there was a work cocktail party at an upmarket bar close to the office. We celebrated a case we had won. I had very little to do with it. I didn’t look forward to it. Everyone talked shop, if not they talked about money and what they’d bought or were going to buy. That’s how they searched for their happiness, like King Solomon, nouveaux riche. I’m sure they all had sore elbows from patting themselves on the back.

I drifted away and sat at the bar. I talked to this girl. She would have been mid to late twenties, I think. I asked about her accent. She told me her name was Charlotte Dumonde and came from Belgium, a little town called Ecaussinnes. I asked her where that was.

C’est près de Soignies et La Louvière,‘ she said.

I shrugged my shoulders. She told me it was about an hour from the French border. She told me she had worked in a chapellerie in Lyon and had travelled down to and through Madagascar. She told me she would do it all again soon.

We laughed and her lipstick stained her drink’s skinny straw which, while she made a point, she pretended to smoke real elegant and Holly Golighty-like, tapping away imaginary ash. The moment reminded me of when I first met Sarah. It sparkled like jewellery and champagne. The drinks caused a blossoming glow to radiate in my chest like a sacred heart. We were the kind of drunk where every idea was a good idea, all of which couldn’t be done too soon. Later, I backed her up against a wall and kissed her and put my hand down the front of her jeans. She was doing everything I had wanted to do but never did. For years I rationalised my stagnant existence and arrested development, my fundamental dissatisfaction. I looked for right in what I knew was ultimately wrong. I looked for something where I knew there was nothing. That’s why we find faces in clouds, a man on the moon and the Mother Mary in toast.

Charlotte went off to the bathroom. I went back to the bar. She didn’t return and I couldn’t find her.

*

The baby cried. I ignored it like it was someone else’s. I looked at Sarah across the table. I thought I’d feel something. I thought there’d be a cocktail of guilt and the desire that caused it. What put my head in a whirlwind was the complete lack of guilt I felt.

Over the coming days and weeks I thought of Charlotte. She’d left a lesion on my brain. No, that sounds contaminating where what she left was enriching and mesmerising, like a murmuring of starlings creating geometries. I kept going back to that bar in hope of finding her. I didn’t. I packed a bag and left it in my car. I stared at it in traffic every morning and evening. The news was always bad. That plague never came. I didn’t want any of this. I wanted out of Maggie’s Farm. I’d rather ask forgiveness than permission. I’d rather regret action than non-action. I was ready to be happy.

One morning, I left. I wrote a note of no more than ten words. Love was not one of them.

*

I flew to Lyon via air conditioned Dubai. I looked out the window at the incomprehensible desert receding into city.

It was raining in Lyon. Pluie Prudence road signs advised. Straight away I looked for her. I found the hat store she had told me she had worked at. The English lady who owned the store told me Charlotte had visited a week or so ago. She told me Charlotte frequented a café not too far away.

I went to Le Lion, on the corner of Quai Saint-Antoine and Rue de la Monnaie, and asked monsieur, who stood behind the counter next to hanging salamis, if he’d seen her. He said he had. He said she came in every day. I did the same. I’d sit by the window sipping a coffee in the morning and a beer in the afternoon, looking up at the basilica on the hill which overlooked the entire city. Every morning and afternoon I asked monsieur about Charlotte. He always said I missed her until one day he said he hadn’t seen her at all. I went back to the hat shop. I was told Charlotte had left for Madagascar. I was told the name of a place Charlotte had mentioned. I took the first flight I could.

*

If the Garden of Eden was the beginning of the earth, Madagascar was the end. I took a train destined for Charlotte. The carriage I rode was painted and by the door was written: 1ère Classe. The second class carriages weren’t painted at all. I shared that carriage with a couple. They were white, bovine tourists, fat fucks in jeans and joggers. I turned and ignored them.

At one of the stops were merchants and markets and hungry children. There was a bouquet of black begging hands, bare chested girls with glockenspiel ribcages or bulbous bellied boys. I felt like a cunt because earlier I got annoyed by the heat and that my clean, bottled water wasn’t cold enough.

*

I ended up at a colonial mansion. One of those buildings the French left behind with the language. This was the place I’d been told about. There were only two others staying there and they spoke English. Christian was a teacher from Cameroon with African accented French and Ganesh was a paediatric surgeon from Malaysia of Sri Lankan blood.

I was told they’d seen Charlotte a week or so ago. She had said she was going away for a bit but was coming back. They told me I should stay there until she returned. She had left some possessions so they knew she would. I liked this idea.

We all sat out on the white veranda overlooking green hills. A soft rain fell. Ganesh told me he had left his two daughters and wife at home to work with Médecins Sans Frontières. He asked if I had a wife or kids. I said I didn’t.

*

I did nothing all day while Christian and Ganesh worked. I drank gin and tonics to ward off malaria and listened to the BBC World Service on a crackling radio. Something had gone down in Liberia, or maybe Libya. I don’t remember.

Sometimes I took walks down to the markets where in wicker baskets lay cathedrals of cumin, cayenne and turmeric. Chilli peppers towered taller than the squatting children peeling pistachios beside them. All I could smell was fish and sweat. Car horns honked and vendors hawked, there was a pounding of a goat-skinned drum and a street preacher with tattered black bible in hand warned of hell and sweated like a soul singer.

Most of the time I stayed at the mansion, sitting out on the balcony drinking those gin and tonics or local beers surrounded by the stray cats and dogs who seemed to reside there. Cats roamed with their tails held high showing off their assholes. Next to me a dog whimpered in its sleep. One million stars burned like a furnace and I imagined somewhere someone was awaking unwillingly for work.

*

I knew Charlotte wouldn’t return. I left post-it notes on my vanity mirror. I wrote: you piece of shit, you worthless fuck, et cetera. I changed them every week. They quickly held no effect over me, they became as normal as brushing my teeth. Ha-ha, self-loathing, the black truffle of brain diseases.

*

One afternoon Ganesh returned with wilted posture. He slumped in a chair on the veranda and demanded a beer. Clouds gathered and the sky turned a gun-metal grey. A storm would soon strike. He lost a six year old in surgery. He blamed himself and cursed the static air around him. I thought of my son.

*

I don’t know how, but Christian and Ganesh found out I had a girlfriend and son and had left them. They felt they had scalpelled open my chest, my true self spilling out.

‘Shame on you. You’ve seen the children here beg and plead,’ Christian said. ‘You know the motherless and fatherless ones and the restavecs.’ Restavecs were children staying with relatives who took advantage of them. Restavecs were common day Cosettes.

Christian and Ganesh didn’t want me around. I told them I wasn’t leaving. They ignored me. I’m sure a few more bad surgeries or a mother dying in childbirth would make them forget all about my sins.

*

A few weeks later Christian broke his silence and said he’d heard word about Charlotte. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. He said she was only an hour away by train and that he’d take me. The train left in the evening and he said he’d go straight there after work and we’d meet at the station. I packed all my things. Ganesh wouldn’t shake my hand. He asked me what my girlfriend and son’s names were. I lied about both. I knew he saw right through me.

At the station I couldn’t find Christian. I boarded and walked down the crowded carriages. He wasn’t there. I knew he had no intention of getting the train.

I was in unpainted 2ième Classe. The train rocked and swayed and everyone stared. Maybe because I was the only white person, maybe because they too could see my chest bared open revealing everything like an old lady dropping her prescriptions showing the world all that infects her. I understood the pounded gavel, the disdain and hatred held by Christian and Ganesh and everyone cramped inside that train for its fourteen hour crawl.

Some part of me still believed the train would lead me to Charlotte. It didn’t. There came that dream.

 

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