Tag Archives: Short Story

Phantom, Rabeah Zafrullah

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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

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‘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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hey!’ she shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Pray.’

 

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

‘Stop thinking about her,’ he said.

‘You think she’ll be ok?’ said Ben.

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

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

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

‘What’s an outlaw?’ The Wolf groaned.

‘Someone who does bad things.’

‘Doesn’t that make you an outlaw?’

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

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

‘Sure.’

‘Wait there until I come back.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Aren’t you coming?’

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

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

‘Shut up,’ he barked at the chair.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Let’s roll, Pockets Guy.’

The End

 

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Paris The Incorrigible, Elise Robertson

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

Clang! Clang! Clang!

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

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

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

Clang! Clang! Clang!

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Turn out your pockets, Veslingr!’

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

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

Paris’ laugh rattled like rusted sleigh bells.

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

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

Paris smirked.

‘I think I’ll take my chances.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goessohn was now deer still.

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

The dragon hissed like a rattlesnake’s tail.

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

*

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

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

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

The routine was as well oiled as a printing press.

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

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

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

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

‘Have you a card?’ he drawled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

Paris hadn’t meant to enter the salon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

It was then Paris saw it.

It was rare, choice, must-have.

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

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

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

*

Bang!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Queues and Robbers, Jonathan Grew

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

‘Sir, how can I help you today?’

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

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

*

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

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

‘Heh, yeah.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Aren’t you robbing this bank?’

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Bad Faith, Christopher Grady

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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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Dasvidaniya, Claudia Frazer

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

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

*

‘Come quickly!’

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

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

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

‘I would ask that-’

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

‘We cannot let the white army get them.’

‘What shall we do?’

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

‘What is to happen to us?’

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

 

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Ring a Rosies, Lucy Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

‘Why are we running?’ Ann asked.

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Ann felt someone grab her bag.

*

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

‘She don’t look sick.’

‘Then don’t brick her.’

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

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

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

‘As you say, Boss.’

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

*

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

‘Grandma?’

‘Ann. You need to leave.’

‘I’m sorry for running away Grandma.’

Saying sorry always made things better.

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

‘What’s your name?’

‘Ann.’

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

‘And then you’ll have to Brick me?’

Boss didn’t say anything.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Another worker Boss?’

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

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

Boss held her for three days and nights.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I couldn’t save my family.’

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

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

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

*

‘Wait!’

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

‘Do you feel ill?’

He shook his head.

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

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

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

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

For a week, James slept next to her.

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

‘We save a lot of lives doing this.’

‘But we take away more.’ James responded

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

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

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

 

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Eye Opening, Crystal Gralton

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Lexie receives some money at the end of each week—usually an amount carefully calculated by her parents in regards to how much they can spare. She always places each valuable coin and note in a large, glass jar; she isn’t the type to store her money in elaborately designed boxes or even in a bank account where most people her age would logically choose to deposit their money. She needs to be able to see the money, needs to see that she is getting closer to her goal. Her family always questions why she never spends any of her pocket money and her brother often teases her with his never ending guesses of what she might be saving for. She never gives in, never gives her family the slightest hint of what she has been planning. She slides another coin through the opening and listens to the familiar clinking sound; then she watches the colourful notes squish together after she feeds them through the thin hole soon after. The truth is there is no big secret to what she is saving for—no huge elaborate plan to travel the world or book out an entire Taylor Swift concert. All she wants is to pay her way through college so that the financial burden is off her parents. She decided to hide this from them because she knew they would take it hard, always wanting to give her as much as they could—and in a way they had. Technically, the money had been given to her by them; they were paying for college, but she knew they wouldn’t see it that way. Well, the money had been for college. This suddenly changed the day she met an unlikely friend at the local park.

*

‘Lexie don’t you think it’s time for breakfast? You don’t want to be late for your class.’

Her mother’s voice grabbed her attention at once. She picked up her faded blue backpack off of her bedroom floor and rushed out her door, nearly sending the globe sitting on her desk tumbling to the ground. Realising what she’d knocked, she stopped and turned to inspect the damage she may have caused. Lexie held her breath as she saw the globe balancing on the edge of the desk, scared that even a slight change of oxygen in the room could end in a shattered mess of bits and pieces on her floor. She had spent many nights when she was younger nagging her parents to buy her that globe; from a young age she had a keen interest in exploring the world and venturing out on as many adventures as she could. Quite often her brother would rat her out to her parents, revealing that she had spent another night awake, spinning the delicate round ball of countries, stopping it with her finger and day dreaming about an adventure in the nation it had landed on. She sighed in relief when the object finally stilled.

‘Lexie?’

‘Coming, Mum.’

Lexie headed down the staircase and into the kitchen. She immediately smelt the familiar scent of her mother’s famous zucchini surprise and sat down at the wooden table that was noticeably worn from constant use. Her mother slid a plate with a slice of zucchini quiche on it across the table. Lexie brought the plate to a halt and quickly stuffed the delicious food into her mouth. Her mother watched her with amusement and laughed.

‘You’re going to make yourself sick!’

Lexie tried to answer, but her reply came out in unrecognisable mumbles. When she finished, she left her dirty plate on the kitchen table. Guiltily, she walked towards the door, throwing a quick sorry over her shoulder as she quickly shut the door behind her. She walked at a much faster pace than usual down the concrete path that led to her college and soon noticed her friend’s recognisable long, auburn coloured hair in the distance. She decided to pick up the pace and finish the rest of her journey in a slow jog. When she finally caught up to Ashley she was so out of breath she clutched her chest in pain.

‘Hi Ash, how ar—’ Lexie’s greeting was cut short when a huge gust of wind brushed past her and knocked her assignment sheet out of her hands. She panicked and raced off after the windswept papers. Ashley followed close behind her. They both turned a corner and then another. Lexie’s lungs felt as though there was a raging fire trapped within from all the running she had endured in the last ten minutes. Soon they both came to a halt as they realised the wind had died down and was no longer carrying her papers on a never ending journey. Lexie was surprised when she noticed a figure hunched over, sitting next to where her assignment lay. He was an older man, huddled in a mass of blankets to shelter himself from the harsh chill winter always brings. Lexie hesitantly walked up to him, half fearful and half curious to know about the man she had incidentally come across. Ashley stayed behind, too uninterested to follow after her. Lexie was so lost in her own thoughts, imagining every possible scenario as to why this seemingly harmless man had to create a home on the streets, when her feet collided with his. Lexie quickly jumped back and blushed in embarrassment.

‘Sorry, I didn’t realise I was so close.’

“That’s okay. Here, I believe these are yours,” the man replied while he picked up the various sheets of paper and gave them to her with unsteady hands.

‘What’s your name?’ Lexie asked.

‘Arthur,’ he replied with a genuine smile.

She decided to ignore the annoying voice in her head pressuring her to ask Arthur all the questions that were bouncing off the walls inside her brain. It isn’t her fault that she is so curious; it’s her dream to become a journalist, it will be her job one day to find out people’s unique stories and question them for information. At least that’s what she continually tells herself when her friends decide to call a sudden intervention, pointing out her need to question and investigate even the simplest things in life.

‘It was nice meeting you,’ Lexie said with a frown forming on her forehead.

‘Is something wrong?’ Arthur asked.

‘It’s just…’ Lexie turned around and noticed Ashley rolling her eyes and motioning for her to hurry up. ‘Never mind, maybe another time’ Lexie added, smiling at Arthur and making her way back to Ashely. The pair made it back to class in silence, Lexie too consumed with her own thoughts.

Every day she had classes to attend at college. After that, she made sure to leave ten minutes earlier so she had the chance to speak to Arthur again. Each day she started to find out more about him. Piece by piece, she started to put together the puzzle of his story. She learnt that he used to work as an ambulance officer. He used to save lives every day, but the one life he was unable to save was that of his wife. His wife fell ill and there was nothing the doctors or he could do to save her. He had sat by her beside every day that she was there. That cost him his job, but he didn’t care. She had limited time left on this Earth and he was determined to spend every last moment with her. He had to sell his house to pay for all the numerous and highly expensive medical bills to keep her comfortable and pain free for as long as possible. This is how he ended up here, on the street that Lexie stumbled upon.

Lexie had also made another sad discovery. One day she visited Arthur to discuss the book she had given him. She had allowed him to keep her favourite book Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne. She hoped he would find it interesting and engaging rather than childish. She loved the book when she was younger and it is still a story she holds close to her heart today. Lexie loved to read and she was hoping that he would share this same passion.

‘Did you start reading the book I gave you?’ she asked.

‘I can’t say that I did,’ Arthur replied with a grim face.

After a few more curious questions from Lexie were answered she learnt the disheartening truth: Arthur had poor vision and was losing his eyesight at a rapid rate. Every time he tried to read the words would start to blur, creating a sea of black ink. After wracking her brain for ideas on how she can make the situation better, she ran back home later that day with an idea.

When Lexie returned home, she was greeted by her father, ‘Hey, Lexie. I have something for you.’

‘What is it, Dad?’

‘Here’s your pocket money, don’t spend it all at once,’ her father joked.

Lexie took the money that her father gave her and ran up the stairs with a purpose. She closed her door and dropped to the ground, rummaging through the items under her bed until she found the one she was looking for. She weaved the glass jar out from underneath the rest of the items and popped the lid open. She placed the coins inside and put the jar on top of her desk next to her globe and her copy of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which she had retrieved from Arthur when she realised he wouldn’t be able to read it.

*

That was how her collection started. This is what she has done every week for the past two years, placing each coin and note she gets into the shiny glass jar. She picks up the glass jar and places it into her backpack, not needing to count the money as she already knows the exact amount from constant, careful calculations. She knew exactly how long she would need to save in order to reach her desired amount. She swings her backpack around her shoulders and walks down the stairs to go talk to Arthur about the idea she has.

When Lexie arrives at Arthur’s usual spot, she is finally able to tell somebody the plans she has for the money. She explains her detailed plan to gather enough money to be able to pay for the eye operation that he desperately needs. She knows he has been through a lot over the last decade and she wants to be able to provide him with an escape. Books have always been a tool she has used to feel as though she is going on an adventure and to be transported to another time and place. She wants him to be able to read so that he has something other than the negatives to focus on while he spends his days on the streets. She also knows how important vision is and would be heartbroken if he lost his when she could have done something about it. What she didn’t count on was Arthur’s reluctance to accept her help.

‘No Lexie, you keep your money.’

‘You gave up everything to pay for your wife’s medical bills, let someone do the same for you.’

‘You still have college to pay off; I’m not worth wasting your money on.’

‘I will still be able to pay for college it just might take a little longer.’

‘Lexie, I can’t take your money.’

‘You can and you will, you need this operation.’

After a few weeks of convincing him, Arthur was finally checked into the hospital for his eye operation. While Lexie waits for his operation to finish, she places Journey to the Centre of the Earth on the table next to the bed he will be recovering in. Her mother walks up beside her and places a hand on her shoulder.

‘I thought you were saving up for an adventure,’ she says.

‘I was saving for an adventure, just not my own,’ Lexie replies.

 

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Where Light Doesn’t Exist, Alex Chambers

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Robert and Jaden were running out of ideas. It had been too long since Georgia had disappeared down the cave and black clouds were quickening overhead.

The cave was unlike any they’d seen or read about as it wasn’t made of stone but foliage. Trees sprouted up from the ground then curled and combined with leaves, bushes, and branches to make a completely solid structure, daunting the barely teenage boys standing just outside its mouth. It was lightless inside and no matter how much the two of them called, there was no echo or reply from Georgia. But the strangest of all was that the inside of the structure was significantly larger than the outside. When Robert and Jaden had dared to venture inside earlier, it became clear that they’d walked for much longer than physically possible before turning back.

Robert thought back to earlier this morning, when Georgia had pounded on his door and demanded he come see what she’d found. Jaden was dragged along when the pair chanced upon him on the way into the forest. When they had arrived, Georgia pointed down into the abyss. ‘Come on!’

‘What is it?’ Robert asked, approaching slowly. Jaden said nothing and kept his distance as Georgia grinned and began trotting into the mouth of the cave.

‘I dunno,’ she said. ‘But it goes a long way—I’m gonna see how far.’

She hadn’t said anything more. Before Robert or Jaden could even utter a protest, she’d dashed off. When she didn’t return for a few minutes, the boys tried to follow her, but found that the seemingly straight line surrounded by impossibly close-knit trees wasn’t so simple. As they walked, the path twisted and turned even though they never once changed the direction they travelled. The further they went, the more the light was swallowed by the shadows of the cavern.

Robert, now pacing back and forth at the mouth of the cave nearly an hour later, was starting to mumble to himself. ‘It’s getting late—we need to do something. I can’t believe we couldn’t stop her,’ he groaned. He’d been running his hand through his tan hair so many times now it was no longer neat.

‘Calm down,’ Jaden growled from against a tree nearby. ‘It’s Georgia’s own damn fault. Always running off and doing stupid stuff like this. I wish you hadn’t babbled to her about how ‘interesting’ this ‘strange new phenomenon’ looked either.’

‘Okay, I got a little excited,’ he admitted. ‘But this is like something out of one of my sci-fi books! There could be a whole universe in there—’

‘Please don’t start again.’ Jaden rolled his eyes and began rubbing his forehead. ‘I’m tired. This is the fourth supernatural thing we’ve had to deal with this week.’

The isolated, English countryside town of Edgeville was far from the first place anyone would’ve guessed would be a hotspot for paranormal activity, but for the past couple of months, the town’s children had found themselves embroiled in a series of strange happenings. A decrepit mansion appeared on the outskirts of town one evening and disappeared the next. Pale, ephemeral figures stalked the town’s graveyards. Objects floated and flew across rooms. And the children had had more than enough encounters with fanged, clawed and/or winged creatures that stalked them relentlessly, but always just out of the corner of their sight.

No one over the age of eighteen knew about any of this and most of the older children tried to deny it or explain it rationally. No matter what, any time an adult was called to investigate one of the strange and dangerous incidents it would vanish. Whole haunted houses would disappear. The floating spectres would evaporate just in time for the adult to miss them.

The children of Edgeville no longer slept soundly, but that didn’t stop some of them from trying to do something about it or being intrigued.

‘Do you think it goes underground?’ Robert said. ‘That would explain why it goes for so long and why it’s so dark inside.’

When he didn’t get a response, he turned to see Jaden yawning.

‘You’re still talking science-y mumbo-jumbo,’ he said.

‘Aren’t you interested?’ Robert retorted and then he added, ‘or worried?’

‘No. You don’t sound like you’re worried either.’

Robert thought for a moment, then said, ‘Are we just getting used to this, maybe?’

‘Sick of it, more like,’ Jaden huffed. ‘I mean, how many times has Georgia leapt into some dangerous situation and come out just fine with that stupid grin all over her face? And you’re treating it like a big mystery novel that you’re trying to figure out.’

‘This is a big mystery,’ Robert said. ‘And I do want to figure it out. And if we keep investigating, maybe we’ll all figure something out.’

A distant rumble of thunder came from far above. Jaden wrinkled his nose and frowned. ‘Go get Veronica. We’re not getting anything done right now.’

Most of the town’s children tried to ignore or flat-out deny that there was anything wrong, but after the incidents had started, a small band of kids had decided they’d actively explore the terrifying events that plagued their town. Veronica, as the oldest over Jaden by a few months, had been unofficially designated their leader, which meant that when Georgia got herself into trouble, it was usually Veronica who ended up organising the rescue mission.

‘Does your phone have reception out here?’ Robert asked.

‘No.’

‘Neither does mine. Stay here then, just in case Georgia comes back out. I’ll head into town…’

‘Fine by me,’ Jaden answered, sitting down at the base of the tree.

There was another, louder bang of thunder. Robert gave a thumbs-up and hurried off out of the forest.

He first swung by his own house, creeping in through the garage door and rifling through his father’s things for anything of use. As he’d hoped, he found a rope along with a heavy-duty torch. He wasted no time making a run for Veronica’s house a few streets over. He mulled over the thought of gathering up more friends for the rescue, but a flash of lightning accompanied by a dangerously close rumble caused him to decide that he was close to running out of time.

He approached the front door, first tossing the rope and torch into the bushes, and then knocked. Robert figured it’d be best to avoid any suspicious questions. The door was opened by Veronica’s father, Curtis, who greeted Robert warmly.

‘What can I do for you, Robert?’ he asked. ‘It’s looking to be a heck of a storm. Not really the right time to be off playing in the streets, eh?’

‘No sir,’ Robert answered. ‘I was actually wondering if Veronica was around. I had a, uh, spur of the moment idea. It was looking to be a good night for a movie so I wanted to see if Veronica and some other friends wanted to come over. Is she in?’

‘What a great way to spend a Saturday night! She’s home—I’ll go and get her. Just remember not to put on anything too scary. You know how she hates all those violent horror movies.’

Curtis called his daughter and departed the room. Robert managed to hold the smile on his face until Curtis left before grimacing. Veronica came treading down the stairs and frowned when she saw Robert’s expression.

‘Let me guess,’ she said. ‘Georgia?’

Robert nodded. ‘She’s in trouble.’

‘What did she annoy this time?’

‘It’s a little more complex than that bat thing she upset last week. It might be better to see for yourself. It’s in the forest.’

‘I’ll go get my coat and some good shoes,’ she sighed. She hopped back up the stairs and returned a moment later wearing a pair of pink gumboots and a baby-blue raincoat. Veronica was a year older than Robert, but nearly a foot shorter. She wasn’t as smart as Robert and she definitely wasn’t as brave or strong as Georgia, but she had a shine in her blue eyes and a posture that was tall and confident. Robert could tell by looking—even if Veronica couldn’t see it herself—that she was definitely most suited to be in charge.

‘I’ll try to explain what’s happening on the way,’ he said as they departed. He stopped a moment to retrieve his rope and torch from the garden before they jogged towards the forest. A drizzle of rain had begun to shower the pair as they fought through the trees and bushes towards their destination.

‘It’s over there,’ Robert pointed past some trees and over a hill. ‘I left Jaden there, in case Georgia came back.’

In between breaths and crashes of thunder, Robert tried to describe what the cave was to Veronica.

‘So it’s like a cave, but it’s bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside,’ she panted. ‘But it’s made of trees?’

‘Exactly!’ Robert said. ‘Think of what could be inside there. I mean, there could be anything really—’

‘Is that it?’ Veronica interrupted.

The rain had intensified, but there was no mistaking the gnarled shape of the cave a few metres away. As they hastened towards it, a flash of lightning illuminated the area. In the half-light, the cave looked more twisted and unnatural; the branches of the trees sharper and darker, but something else had caught their attention in that brief moment of sudden light.

‘Robert,’ she breathed. ‘Was that…?’

‘Yeah, I saw it too.’

Something had jolted like a startled spider into the cave, too fast for either of them to make out what it could be.

‘A deer?’ Veronica suggested.

‘Too big and too quick,’ Robert shuddered. ‘And…I think it was black. And scaly.’

‘I really hope you’re wrong. Could it have been—?’

She stopped and they flicked their heads towards each other. Robert switched on the torch and they hurried down the hill towards the cave. He swept the light over the area, scanning for any sign of Jaden. They both began to call his name, hoping he’d just fallen asleep under the tree, but it soon became clear he wasn’t answering.

‘He probably just went home, right?’ Veronica said. Her voice was quivering.

‘I told him to wait here, though,’ Robert said. ‘And I know he’s lazy, but he wouldn’t go home without Georgia.’

They both turned and looked down the looming maw of the cave. Even now, armed with the torch, Robert couldn’t see anything other than the walls of trees on either side of the path deep into the darkness. It seemed to stretch on forever.

‘Give me the torch,’ Veronica said, holding her hand out. ‘And one end of the rope.’

‘But—’

‘One of us has to stay out here,’ she explained. ‘And you’re right—Jaden wouldn’t have gone home without Georgia. If they did go home, we’d have seen them on the way here. So they’re in there.’

‘I want—’

‘I know,’ she continued. ‘I know you want to see what’s in there. That’s why I’m going in; you might get lost or distracted.’

Robert huffed, but complied. ‘If you see anything dangerous…’

‘I’m not leaving without them either,’ she said. Without another word, she faced the cave, torch in one hand and rope in the other, and began to tread cautiously into the abyss. A ways in, she started to run, calling Jaden and Georgia’s names.

Robert watched her get smaller and smaller, the rope in his hand unwinding rapidly as the light from Veronica’s torch steadily vanished from view. He was alone in the closing darkness. The sky howled and rain began to pelt him furiously. He stepped into the mouth of the cave, hoping its branches would at least keep him dry as he waited. The rope in his hand continued to unravel.

*

The walls of the cave had begun to change. Veronica could see the branches and foliage of the trees melting together to form some new substance that was a dull brown. It looked like it’d be sticky to touch, but she didn’t dare test this thought. A smell like decomposing fruit had begun to gradually rise in potency and it took all of Veronica’s willpower to avoid turning back. What was worse was that the light from her torch was steadily becoming useless. The blackness of the cave seemed so immense that her light couldn’t pierce it. The ray seemed increasingly insignificant as she ventured deeper. Her heart was thundering like the storm she had left so far behind

‘Jaden!’ she called. ‘Georgia!’

She stopped running for a moment to catch her breath and listen for a response. She thought she heard footsteps somewhere ahead, but otherwise the cave was silent.

‘Please, please, please be Jaden and Georgia.’ she muttered.

Veronica increased her pace and began calling again. The ground beneath her boots was growing warmer and softer. She dreaded the thought of aiming her torch downwards to see what was happening to it; instead she focused the light on the void before her. As she jogged along, the light occasionally illuminated the walls and Veronica noted that they were stretching further apart. Something was dripping from them without a sound. There was no way she was still in the forest.

When she called her friends again, she gasped at a sound not too far ahead. She thought it’d been a groan. She sprinted into the darkness, clutching her torch and rope and almost tripped over the slouched figure of Jaden.

‘Jaden!’ she cried. The torchlight flew over his features, telling Veronica all she needed to know: he was hurt. Blood was dripping from his nose and mouth. She shrieked, dropped the torch, and began to shake Jaden by the shoulders. Soon enough, she heard a voice from the darkness.

‘What time is it…?’

Veronica stopped and picked her torch back up to direct it to the space beside Jaden. It was Georgia, lying face-down on the ground. When she sat up, Veronica became aware that she was also injured: she had a crimson gash across her forehead.

‘Georgia?’

She blinked and shook her head, realisation setting in. ‘Oh, ‘sup, Veronica? How’d you get down here?’

‘Never mind that,’ Veronica said. ‘Help me get Jaden up—we’ve gotta go.’ She moved to shake his shoulder again, but Georgia motioned for her to step back. Without any further prompting, she began slapping Jaden repeatedly until a series of moans came from his throat.

‘Quit it, quit it!’ he snapped, jumping to his feet. ‘I’m up!’

‘Then we’re leaving,’ Veronica said, standing. ‘You can tell me what happened when we get out of here.’

‘Okay, but question,’ Georgia said, dragging herself to her feet. ‘How’d you get past that thing?’

‘Thing?’

‘Yeah, the thing with lots of legs and eyes.’

Veronica didn’t move. Jaden turned to her and could just make out her horrified expression in the torchlight. ‘You didn’t see it, did you?’

She slowly shook her head.

‘Well ya might soon,’ Georgia said, looking past her friends. Veronica held her breath and could faintly make out a scuttling sound in the direction Georgia was facing.

‘Stay close and don’t look back,’ Veronica instructed. No more words were said as the three tore back through the cave along the path of the rope.

*

It was well and truly storming now, with rain slamming down like the world was ending. The cave offered little safety from it to Robert who was now drenched. However, not once had his gaze left the direction of the darkness where he now watched his three friends charging towards him. Jaden and Georgia’s faces were covered in blood. Veronica looked like she was about to cry. They arrived and stopped in front of Robert, whose expression was a mixture of concern and joy.

For a while no one said anything, and the cacophony in the skies above was all they could hear. Then Robert jerked his thumb back behind him, towards town. ‘I’ve uh,’ he said. ‘Got some Disney movies at my place. And a heater. You guys want to come over? Tell me all about it?’

Georgia made some sort of discontent sound and Jaden shoved her.

‘Sounds great, Robert,’ Veronica sighed. ‘Let’s get out of here.’

 

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