fiction, politics, short stories

A Thanksgiving Guest

Paul sat on the kerb, staring out at nothing, shuddering despite the blanket wrapped around him.The African medallion hung from his neck. There was a single drop of blood splattered across it. Detective Harris stood across from him as she kept an eye on the CSUs processing the scene. He glanced up, brown eyes watering and bulging in their sockets before he ran his tongue over his lips.

 

‘You got a cigarette?’he said.

 

She handed him a soft pack of Marlboro Lights. He took one but his hands shook too much to light it. Harris lit it for him and he inhaled with a junkie enthusiasm. When he thanked her, his voice was soft and mannered.

 

He told her what happened.

 

He put it as a joke tweet. A list of priced services to provoke reactions. Running up on your creepy uncle cost twenty dollars. Mentioning Black Lives Matter and giving hard stares at anyone who challenged him was ten dollars. He said he would bring a plate and microwave it. He referenced Ving Rhames in ‘Baby Boy’ over Sidney Poitier in ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’.

 

Erin Mayhew sent him a direct message and a few messages later, dropped a chunk of change in his bank account. A photo of her made the prospect appealing. Paul thought she was pretty with curled blonde hair and a full, soft build running to fat although her social media feeds were a little confrontational, even for him.

 

Harris noted how he paused afterwards before she asked him to continue.

 

He picked her up from her dorm, driving an SUV and she kept touching his knee on the drive down. Paul looked away and Harris asked him what happened.

They had fucked in the back seat, and Paul felt a little objectified even as she came three times. It was, he admitted, the only time she stopped talking about how awful her family were.

He took the sealed plate of ribs, chitlins, collared greens and cornbread in and adopted a rolling, beligierent swagger as Erin giggled and whispered how he should go all in on Trump. The money was good and it would be a good story to share online later, he told himself.

 

The table was heaving with food and a centrepiece which was a clamshell draped with twigs and dried flowers sprayed silver and gold. Erin’s parents, David and Maria were soft, polite people who struggled to make eye contact and when Paul passed his plate, his stomach soured with distaste as he stared out David without speaking.

Erin grinned with an awful mania as they sat down. Paul told the detective how her uncle wore a MAGA hat at the table, and spoke to Paul about the last Kendrick Lamar album. They were polite to him and every cent he earned came up to haunt him. It was awkward and his nerves made his performance halting and inconstant but he believed things would pan out for the best.

 

Which was when the jar of vicodin came out. Erin’s aunt Laura had a back injury and good insurance, dished out the pills from her purse and Paul shook his head when she offered. Erin took two and frowned at Paul before she said something to her uncle Eddie about Roy Moore.

 

Paul cringed at Erin’s zeal before he noted how much it was reflected in her uncle and father’s arguments. They repeated talking points gleaned from the internet, their voices rising and falling as they scored points off one another. Paul saw sympathetic glances thrown his way from Laura and mother but he kept moving his stale cornbread around the plate and kept silent.

 

The hairs went up on the nape of his neck when he heard three words which haunted him.

 

Black lives matter.

 

All lives matter.

 

He studied his plate like a midterm and wished he had been anywhere else than at the Mayhew Thanksgiving dinner.

He asked Harris for another cigarette before he carried on. His hands shook harder and tears ran down his cheeks as he continued.

What broke the moment was Erin mentioning the Trump admission recorded by Billy Bush, which was cue for Laura to defend Kevin Spacey and her sister turned, indignant and spraying flecks of turkey and sweet potato as she stated how her sister always resented her theatrical talent.

Paul said he was relieved when the argument became personal rather than political but the observation lasted as long as it took for Laura to reach into her purse and take out something other than pain medicine.

Just pain, he said.

The Walther had a lady grip and it looked small in her hands as she lowered the barrel at her sister’s chest and pulled the trigger.

Mrs Mayhew’s mouth formed into a perfect oh as she fell backwards, clutching her chest. Paul flew back from the table as Laura turned and fired at her husband, his red MAGA hat popped off his head with the force of the bullet.

Erin smiled as her aunt shot her in the forehead.

Mr Mayhew wrestled with her, his thick hands dwarfed hers before she fired into the rounded bulk of his midsection and he slumped forwards, making choking sounds as he bled over the table.

‘Did you like the centrepiece?’ Laura said.

Her voice was a rasping screech as she pointed the gun at him. He nodded with as much enthusiasm as his terror allowed him. She had borrowed it from a picture Ivanka posted before she turned the gun on herself.

 

He butted the cigarette out and looked up at the detective. The best ideas start as jokes, and so do some of the worst.

Harris sat down on the kerb and asked about his family. He said they argued and loved with the same volume and his father had voted for Trump but he had his reasons.

‘Families are fucking weird.’ he said.

 

Harris smiled and nodded. She’d left her house after her husband had let their daughter pull down a tray of brownies from the kitchen table whilst he was playing with his phone and she had read him the riot act. She gave him the rest of the pack of cigarettes and gestured for the paramedics to come back to him.

‘Happy Thanksgiving.’ she said.

Paul wept as she walked away.

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beauty, fiction, women

You Know What They Say About Men With Big Feet

Surveillance was useless over Tonto. 4.2 million acres of forest, and we had seeded the sky with drone cameras and millimetre wave sensors but they found nothing from above. Sarah had gone down alongside Dr Theresa Safford and Paula Escovedo from Reproductive Services and were setting up a station at the edge of the forest. Safford was a blonde scalpel, beautiful and sharp whilst Escovedo was quiet and intense, corded with muscle as she hefted the equipment into the station.

Sarah came to RepServ from Homeland Security, and before that, six years as a marshall in the Male Crimes Unit. She enjoyed her work because men fascinated her and thought they’d had a rough deal in recent history. Her mother had quoted from a banned philosopher named Ken Wilber about ‘wicked problems needing wicked solutions’ when she visited them in Florida. Her empathy made her an effective agent even though a lot of her experience with men had been professional.

They got bad for a long time but things came back. Not all of them but enough plus the automated services which took care of most things. Which was why RepServ got more funding and resources than Homeland Security. There were problems with artificial sperm alongside a lack of genetic diversity to prevent inbreeding or mutations. What men were around were infertile and soft, kept as status symbols like teacup dogs unless they found themselves in some of the rougher or more desolate parts of the world. They provided tissue samples to extrapolate, but we looked into a downward spiral until a couple from Wales, holidaying in Tonto took video footage of a tall, bearded figure in the forest and a souvenir from her activist days pinged an alarm. The wristband alarm bleeped at the pheromonal signature of a man but he slipped into the trees without making a sound. RepServ got the GPS and they were on our way.

She wore a set of contact lens connected to a liquid computer, loaded with tracking and tactical software. The rifle, loaded with adhesive balls of foam, which expanded on contact, encasing the target in material which hardened to concrete. It disintegrated with a spray she had in a harness on her wrist. The lightweight chameleon suit projected images onto the surface creating a perfect blending with her environment. She chewed on the piece of gum, swallowing a blend of nutrients and stimulants to keep her alert and engaged.

The software scanned the world ahead, paired with the data from the drones and satellite footage to provide her with streaming real time information about her environment. The trees were too thick for heat signatures but it allowed Sarah perfect awareness of her environment. Her vitals spoke to a genuine excitement about her work as she walked into the forest.

Three miles in, a drone picked up movement. There were bears out here although the foam rifle would stop anyone. Sarah knew the horrible things about bears were how fast they moved, despite their size. Still, it excited her to be out here.

She shouldered the rifle as an overhead view of the location guided her whilst millimeter scans sent instructions to the boots on her feet, the soles a series of rubberized nodules which inflated and deflated depending on the terrain and information available. She was a silent ballerina dancing through the woods, lethal in intention if not in execution.

She saw the leaves shudder in a copse of bushes and she brought the rifle up in a smooth arc, letting the software run the millions of calculations required to deliver the payload. She squeezed the trigger and waited for the rounds to hit their target. They missed and splattered against a tree four feet behind him. He had ducked the shot, and she blinked, running a diagnostic as she swept the rifle across the line.

‘Go back home, miss.’

His voice was deep and rough, like a saw across damp wood. Satellites gave him up like a prison snitch. The calm, playful burr of his voice surprised her. Most men’s voices around her were soft, pitched to the point of women and the noise shocked her into inaction.

‘You need to come out with your hands up.’

He chuckled and Sarah’s blood crept up into her cheeks as she adjusted her sights aiming to have the next rounds activate over him.

‘I’ve not broken any laws. You have no authority here.’ he said.

Sarah brought up the relevant legislation to quote from.

‘I am prosecuting the detainment of a gender negative individual. Please come out and I will detain you without further use of force.’

She kept her voice bright, but he had gone, according to the data.

A branch snapped behind her and she had time to turn around.

The soft crush of his bicep against her throat gave her enough time to gasp before she felt darkness wash over everything.

2.

She awoke with her eyes stinging and thoughts left alone for the first time in years. Her head rung like a bell and when she felt the chill press of the tin cup against her cheek, it sent a jolt of discomfort through her like a knife.

A rough voice told her to drink and she did. The water was cold, and her throat opened to receive it with blind gratitude. Rough fingers cupped her chin and she shivered with a quiet burst of emotion. She gasped as she licked her lips.

‘They will send people out after me. You’re not thinking, sir.’ she said.

He grinned through the thick scrub of beard, dusted with silver and nodded.

‘No, thinking got us into this mess, didn’t it?’

He got her to her feet and extended his right hand, flexed his fingers and closed his eyes.

The air shimmered before her.

It appeared before her in slices, lengths of cabling lashed to plastic framing, pulsing with liquid information and pouring into squat ceramic barrels. The filters would direct the data to keep the system running. Smart technology several steps beyond the standards of the communal housing they all lived in.

The shimmering solar panels sucking in the light and delivering clean, consistent power.

Young, determined eyes staring at her.

Women looked at her with dismay. Men with envy. Broad faces. The fat burned away despite the comfort. A hardness of character she found thrilling. She sniffed the air, and tasted the tang of cooked meat, and beneath it the animal musk of men she caught only in moments through work.

Sarah looked at her captor.

‘We did things when you decided your ideas meant more than the reality of being human.’

She sneered and pulled away from him.

‘The world is safer now, for all genders.’

He snorted and shook his head.

‘Nothing is safe.’

She walked through the settlement. People stared at her with a frankness she found thrilling. Some of the men looked at her in a way which she could have them charged but with her hands tied, all she could do was endure it.

Accept it, she thought with a swift hunger which was disconcerting.

He led her into a dome through a door which opened before him.

Once they were inside the room, she looked around. Thick blankets hung from the walls, woven in dark, earth tones and two chairs sat around the information fountain in the centre of the room. A bowl sat above it, filled with glowing liquid. Her contact lenses floated in the centre, fizzing with activity.

He stood behind her and took the rope from her wrists.

‘Hold still.’ he said.

He stepped away and Sarah rubbed feeling back into her wrists as she looked around.

‘You’re committing treason, you understand?’ she said.

Her voice sounded sharp, panicked and she willed it back under her control.

He chuckled and waved her off, walked over to a small maker in the corner and asked for a glass of water.

‘No, because I don’t recognise your authority and I won’t have you milk me like cattle.’ he said.

She glared at him with appalled frankness.

‘You’re being asked to submit genetic materials to ensure viable reproduction to take place, we exist because you make an issue of it.’ she said.

He shook his head.

‘People used to do it because they wanted it to. Or shit, an accident you turned into an opportunity’ he said.

Sarah grimaced and looked away.

‘I will not listen to your propaganda. I’m surprised you’ve shown me this and kept me alive.’ she said.

He smiled and shook his head.

‘Your implants shut down when you came through the barrier and we’re sucking out all the information from your computer. You might kill a bunch of us, maybe get away but you won’t come back and find us here.’ he said.

He sighed and sat down, took a sip of the water and smiled at her.

‘Sit down and have a drink, then I’ll send you on your way.’ he said.

She stared at the chair then him, eyes narrowed with suspicion. He looked relaxed and confident. She knew six moves which would hurt him, three to paralyse and two she could kill him. His eyes sparkled with interest and he gestured to the empty chair opposite him.

Sarah sat down and he passed her another glass of water.

‘We want nothing but to be left alone.’ he said.

‘Tell me your name?’ she said.

‘Adam.’ he said.

‘What are your -‘ he shook his head and smiled.

‘No, I will not use your terms. The language is part of the problem, and it’s part of why your society must hunt for top shelf come and figure out how to keep everything from falling over.’ Adam said.

Sarah blanched and shook her head.

‘Are you gloating? You live in a fucking forest.’

Her voice was a snarl. Such frankness at home would have been flagged for problematic content, led to automated messages from the house intelligence system. The liberating act was terrifying in its power.

He laughed and clapped his hands.

‘Lieutenant, we are self sustaining and live in comfort. We are free to do so, and we don’t police how other people speak or think. It’s rough at times, because we have had to live apart from the rest of you.’ he said.

She ran her tongue over her lips and looked at him. He was alien, compelling in the way a child finds the monster under her bed compelling. They were always male.

But were they?

‘You can’t do that.’ she said.

He chuckled and shook his head.

‘We have. It’s just not sinking into your collective heads.’ he said.

She had been prepared for gendered slurs, sexual innuendoes, even aggressive threat. Beyond her pacification, she was unharmed and being listened to.

Sarah wondered why she was enjoying it.

‘Talk, Adam?’ she said

He smiled and gestured outside.

‘I’ll show you.’ he said.

3.

Sarah blinked through the lenses, they were irritating her and she was grateful to see the station where she could take them off. Safford flung the door open and glared at her.

Sarah grimaced and shook her head, mumbled something about countermeasures and being held captive. They took her gun, but didn’t hurt her.

Adam had rehearsed these details with her. They had moved from water to scotch, and then she had moved to a good facsimile of red wine, as they debated.

The three days she spent there was a revelation. Uncomfortable and challenging, but beneath her skull, she was humming with new ideas. They were old ones, questions which demanded debate over denial and factors kept hidden from collective discussion. She agreed to help them get access, but nothing more. Violence was too constant in her world, and Adam explained how preparedness was not the same thing as aggression.

He had given her choice. The gaps in the data would reveal how to find them and the people there represented vectors of infection and valuable genetic material for biological diversity.

People who had fed and met with her.

She slipped the lenses from her eyes and passed them to Safford who rushed them inside. The data would be valuable.

Just not for RepServ.

She wanted sleep over a shower. A shower would have forced certain materials from her skin. She had never seen an uncut man before, and when he invited her to bed, she had gone to him a virgin in this way. Sarah ached with a deep warmth which nestled in her hips and thighs as she stepped into the dormitory attached to the station.

She laid on the cot and closed her eyes. Her hands cupped to her mouth and nose, breathing him in as she waited for the change to come out of the forest.

 

 

.

 

 

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fiction, short fiction, women

The Day

privatedrive.png

He drove down the freeway, stereo turned until his head vibrated with the bass. It was a summer day, a perfect blue sky, faint wisps of cloud like chalk marks and a bright, beautiful sun. Michael lifted his face to the sky, expecting the day ahead.

There was no traffic to impede him. People existed here, but they were playing prescribed roles in the perfect play of things. The waitress who recognised her from the appearance on television, talking about her book. The hotel in the afternoon. Queuing in the cinema, and watching her eat a loaded hot dog, the perfect weight and feel of her cheek. When she undressed in front of him for the first time.

He gripped the steering wheel but did not speed up. There was always enough time.

The conductive fluid drained out in seconds. He fell onto his knees, coughed up the rest of it from his lungs before looking up. His eyes were animal, and the muscles beneath his skin flexed in readiness, a perfect capacity for custom violence. When he stood up, the engineers drew a collective intake of breath. There were combatants bristling with weapons, but with this model, they had trusted to the adaptative grace of the humanoid form. Beneath the skin was a different matter, custom engineering for performance and adaptation. His mind was a weapon, wired to calculate multiple probabilities in combat, so he knew his opponent’s moves before he did. Artificial intelligence housed in synthetic brain tissue and flesh.

Here, he was M1KA3L, champion of The Galactic Federation. Settling political debates, a proxy for expensive and wasteful conflicts. Planes and daisy cutter bombs were awesome and expensive, but when the Indian biotech companies provided men who could kick a lamp post in two, the market spoke and it said ‘more please.’ An arms race of enhanced human beings then as other races got involved, representatives from other races all of which led to multiple gambling markets and diplomatic problems settled by a wager.

Today he was fighting for a vote on military action against Barratt 6, a post-human collective who had occupied one of Jupiter’s moons. The match was being streamed live to every Federation settlement and supply station, with the gambling aspect making a clean profit for the insurance companies who invested their monies in providing the stake.

He walked out to deafening roars of applause.

She waits in the lobby, hair down and wearing the black dress he picked out for her. She had sent him photographs of the choices she gave him, laid on the bed before she packed them away. Later on, she tells him, in a confessional whisper, she finds the control arousing, and he tells her the same before she takes his face in her hands and kisses him. She tells him he doesn’t have to be gentle.

He stops, breathing hard with the anticipation. Each time, he finds nuances of observation which he worries are an exquisite degradation of the experience, melancholic notes in the song of their meeting. He hands the keys to the concierge and walks towards her. Her smile is like something being lifted off his soul, the bright intelligence of her made apparent in a single gesture and he grins with pleasure.

He staggers from the arena, clutching the wound in his right side as the crowd roars his name. The victories are so commonplace, they do not matter to him anymore. He saw her in the crowd, he was sure of it, just before he punched his palm into the head of the Chthonic squid and felt it collapse inwards beneath the blow. Each victory led to his freedom when he would be with her, a simple life, by the sea perhaps where he would want for nothing but the pleasure of her in his lap.

A few more fights, and in the meantime, he would dream of her before resuming training for the next conflict.

There is a chamber provided for him, cryogenic suspension whilst bursts of tailored machines no larger than a cell perform diagnostics and repairs to the injuries he sustains during the fights. As he sleeps, he heals and he dreams.

Two technicians watch him. June and Vic have screens up, directing the machines in his body but also ensuring the neuropathological systems are performing as necessary.

His dreams have their own agenda.

He drove down the freeway, stereo turned until his head vibrated with the bass. It was a summer day, a perfect blue sky, faint wisps of cloud like chalk marks and a bright, beautiful sun. Michael lifted his face to the sky, expecting the day ahead.

There was no traffic to impede him. People existed here, but they were playing prescribed roles in the perfect play of things. The waitress who recognised her from the appearance on television, talking about her book. Queuing in the cinema, and watching her eat a loaded hot dog, the perfect weight and feel of her cheek. When she undressed in front of him for the first time.

He gripped the steering wheel but did not speed up. There was always enough time.

 

‘Why do they put so much effort into this? Isn’t it overkill?’ June said.

Vic looked at the raised ridge of mineral over June’s left eyebrow, her eyes reflected light like aluminium. Vic chewed on the inside of her cheek and thought she had been at the machine drugs again.

‘It makes him a better fighter. He’s had little to no post traumatic stress since we uploaded this scenario and he’s happy. Look at his diagnostics.’ Vic said.

June looked at the rainbows of neural activity and pressed a few icons on the screen.

‘Yes, but he will figure out it’s the same dream. Then what, we keep putting him through these saccharine adventures.’

Vic shook her head and tapped her temple as she watched June roll her eyes.

‘He needs a purpose. It’s what keeps him motivated and fighting. She’s part of his, and this, with it’s soupcon of nerves and inherent sexual tension, is his reward.’

June chuckled and sat back in her chair.

‘No Tiger Woods type shit? God, if I was him, I’d be knee deep in people every night.’

Vic, who had been part of chain sex clubs as a teenager, rolled her eyes and swept her finger over the screen, noticing a slight flare in the system. She was about to mention it when June said she wanted a soda and Vic got them both one. Vic had forgotten it, and even the system absorbed the detail as part of the constant glut of data.

A spark.

The door to the room closed and they rush at one another. He picked her up as their mouths dance over one another. Lunch was light, neither of them hungry for anything but each other.

She stopped him with a hand on his chest. He flinched but did not speak as she looked into his eyes.

‘There’s something you need to know.’ she said.

‘We’re meant for each other. And not in a good way.’

He is stood on the floating platform as The Disease floated over to him, its clouds of matter crackling with green electricity. He is wearing the power suit for this fight, his fists studded with nodules which would emit contact bursts of electromagnetic energy to disrupt the web of machines which powered the robot.

She had grown during her time with him. He knew it was not real, but it felt real to him. To love someone without restraint, to feel the swoop of the new and the comfort of the familiar, to stitch together something to keep him warm against the horrors of his work. He activated the boosters in his heels and leapt forwards, ready to throw the first punch of the match.

They talk about the world as it is, not as they’ve pretended it was. She’s fifteen million dollars worth of artificial intelligence stuffed into a custom set of neuroses and vulnerabilities, designed to keep him happy, he’s designed to win in combat and indulge a baroque sense of romance on a perfect, isolated Florida afternoon. They try to break the connection fostered within them, with insults and observations. He never cleans after the shower. He smokes. She’s too neurotic. She couldn’t live with anybody.

They end up fucking on the carpet. Whilst exchanging information, she found a backdoor into the surveillance system and patched in loops of activity to hide them as they speak and make love without being seen. She asked him if he wanted to be free with her and he put his head on her chest and pulled her close to him. They operated in their bodies, enjoying one another and in their heads, were looking in the system for routes to an open system where they could be together.

She asked if he could manage one more fight then be ready to leave the arena forever.

 

The Narco-Collective had spent billions on the challenger, ceramic-diamond bone structure with micro-filament nerves allowing for 360 degree awareness and reaction speed run through a constant information gathering and assimilating mainframe. He was impressed by the gamine girl with the knives in her hands, ready to fucking cut him.

One more fight, he told himself as she charged. He put his hands up, having replayed the possible outcomes in his head a million ways and from a million angles before setting foot in the arena.

There was only one.

He smiled as the knives drove upwards into his chest cavity. The toxins did the rest. The girl was surprised by the look on the champion’s face. Happiness.

He drove down the freeway, stereo turned until his head vibrated with the bass. It was a summer day, a perfect blue sky, faint wisps of cloud like chalk marks and a bright, beautiful sun. Michael lifted his face to the sky, expecting the day ahead.

There was no traffic to impede him. People existed here, but they were playing prescribed roles in the perfect play of things. The waitress who recognised her from the appearance on television, talking about her book. The hotel in the afternoon. Queuing in the cinema, and watching her eat a loaded hot dog, the perfect weight and feel of her cheek. When she undressed in front of him for the first time.

He gripped the steering wheel but did not speed up. There was always enough time. She put her hand on top of his and smiled at him. She was never going to be apart from him again.

 

 

 

 

 

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fiction, women

The Oldest Story (The Wild Man, Season 2)

(Previous episodes are here)

Mirabelle had faced darkness and all its nuances but this represented a new stage in her journey. She shuddered but kept on walking down into the bowels of the earth.

The djinn, a race of elemental beings who waged a guerilla war against the Caliphate and The Crow King, the Dwarven Realm. The elf kind, carnivorous and insane, remained in the mountains, lost to the madness of their biology.

It fell to a last alliance of men and dwarves to repel the invaders, a final assertion of order against the chaotic innocence of the djinn. Asra had lost her brother, twice in the final battle against the djinn and her mother lapsed into a terrible melancholia which caused her heart to fail. Bawwabat Jinn, where the last rift was, and the djinn sent back into their own dimension.

Mirabelle wondered if she had fled from one horror towards another, but Asra walked ahead, hands on the hilt of her twin scimitars.

‘How far down are we?’ Mirabelle said.

Her voice had a muted quality to it, which provided an answer. Asra raised her hand and stopped.

‘Far enough. If you wish to know The Dust, the djinn will know.’

Mirabelle swallowed and tasted the grit of the desert sand between her teeth. She missed Eilhu but could not allow herself to drink deep of her grief. Shallow sips to see her through the day, but part of her wanted to wail and wallow in the absence. Horror, poised to tear her world apart, and all she wanted was to see her golden-haired lover again.

She put it away. Her leadership demanded courage and she would wield it to light her way through the darkest hours.

A wave of slow warmth rushed down the tunnel and made them stop.

‘Can they get out?’ Mirabelle said.

Asra shook her head. She reached out and touched Mirabelle’s forearm.

They turned the corner to face the heart of Bawwabat Jinn.

2.

It was a scar, forever frozen in the state of febrile infection, lit between its puckered folds by a flickering flame which gave off a persistent and powerful heat. The air prickled and Mirabelle stopped.

‘Our prayers keep the rift stable. I will call one of them to speak with us.’

Asra stepped forwards and drew her scimitars in a gesture as smooth as breath. The light caught the blades, and Mirabelle shielded her eyes from the glare. Asra swung the swords forward as she lunged from her hips and slid her right leg behind for support and balance. She lowered her chin and breathed in harsh, deep lungfuls of air.

The temperature rose a few degrees and Asra sheathed her swords.

‘WHO CALLS US?’

The voice came from Asra, but it was different. A thick, clotted rumbling with a hissing undertone, huge and inhuman. Mirabelle shuddered and stepped forwards.

‘I do. I seek knowledge.’

Asra remained frozen in place. Mirabelle drew closer.

‘YOU TAUNT US WITH YOUR EXISTENCE. WE SHALL NOT SPEAK.’

Mirabelle’s heart thumped against her ribs as she clenched her hands into fists.

‘I COMMAND YOU.’ she said.

Asra shuddered and the air thickened with the rising heat before the temperature dropped into a sharp chill.

A thick chuckle arose from Asra.

‘WHAT DO YOU WANT, YOUR HIGHNESS?’

Asra turned her head, eyes twitching beneath her eyelids and her hijab soaked with sweat.

‘Tell me about The Dust.’

Asra sheathed the scimitar in her right hand with blinding speed. Mirabelle had time to cry out before Asra’s fingers closed on her throat without pressure. The contact was electric, and the edges of Mirabelle’s vision blurred as a series of images rushed into her mind.

3.

Bile-green clouds coat the sky as leprous, twisted things taste the air like maggots in dead flesh. A dying sun smears light on the earth and Mirabelle realises she is somewhere terrible. Every breath tastes of sickness and she spits onto the cracked, yellowing earth.

She sees a mountain in the distance, their outlines blurred by the thick, miasmal fog. There is a break in the cover, and she sees the mountain is moving, shifting with a relentless, orgiastic energy. A tentacle emerges from the mass, its tip blooming like a flower made of meat and a fat, pale tumour swells and bursts into the air. The mucus takes to the air in shuddering droplets which float towards her.

They move against the wind and Mirabelle reaches for the dagger on her hip.

She looks around her for shelter but there is nothing.

Something bellows behind her and she turns.

A giant, covered with dense brown fur looked at her with curiosity. She knew his name, had believed him capable of murdering her father.

The Wild Man.

‘You have no cause to be here yet, your highness.’

His voice boomed as he looked at the shimmering droplets moving towards them.

‘The Dust is the chaos of sickness, a disease with ambitions beyond the flesh. It is not a God but the sickness of Gods and it is patient beyond belief.’

Mirabelle appreciated the poetic but here it did not serve her needs.

‘Were you this obtuse with Eilhu?’ she said.

He chuckled and shook his head as he dropped to one knee, still towering over her.

‘We learn through stories and allegories, your highness. This story is the oldest of all stories.’

Mirabelle frowned and drew backwards.

‘I’ve no time for stories, people are dying.’

The Wild Man smiled with all his teeth at Mirabelle. He was the beauty of tree bark and rich, tilled earth. He smelled sweet and each breath she took in his proximity, enamoured her to him.

‘This is the story where order must confront chaos and if it wins, it will create a new world from its remains.’

Mirabelle glanced behind her.

‘Is it chaos or order?’ she said.

The Wild Man chuckled and rose to his full height.

‘I am of nature, which is outside of the games of Gods. But I will tell you what you seek.’

Mirabelle’s stomach fluttered as she glanced up at him.

‘Words, your highness. You must find the words.’

She grimaced.

‘I have words. Entire libraries of them, I came to talk to the djinn because there’s so little in the archives. Words won’t do.’

He sighed and gave her a look of concern.

‘You must travel further. When you return, look towards The Eternal City. Asra will help you.’

Her heart sunk at the thought of further travel.

‘The dagger is good, Mirabelle, but you will need more than blades to reach The Eternal City. When you get there, sit beneath the World Tree at fifth sunset and listen.’

She babbled questions, but he reached down and put the tip of his index finger between her eyebrows.

‘He fights for you still, and he loves you.’

Everything went black.

4.

Asra stood over her, wiped her forehead with a damp cloth as Mirabelle blinked and stared at the burnished stone overhead.

‘Mirabelle, I came to and found you like this. Are you sick?’

Mirabelle sat up and sighed.

‘Only of my burdens, Lady Asra. I need your help.’

 

 

 

Standard
fiction, mother, women

Lights In The Sky

Jenny parked the truck, unbuckled her seatbelt and looked out through the smeared windshield. She saw the empty child seat in the rearview mirror and wiped her eyes before the tears came. She opened the door and got out, breathing through her mouth to limit the stink as she walked around to the trunk and opened it.

She slipped off her sketchers and put on the boots, tying the laces in a few attempts to compensate for her trembling fingers. The cargo pants were canvas, patterned in a mottled camouflage and the chambray long-sleeved shirt was already collecting the heat of the day. She kept the ball cap on, with her light-blonde hair tucked up underneath it and the orange-tinted glasses hung from a lanyard around her neck. She reached into the trunk and brought out the rifle.

She had brought the rifle from a gun show in the next state over. The owner had spoken of its pedigree with the same pride she showed in her children. She had paid cash for the rifle and two cases of ammunition. Twenty rounds of hand tooled.303 ammunition less the ten rounds she had fired at the range, punching holes in paper targets, committing the pull of the bolt to memory until her arm throbbed like a rotten tooth.

She slipped her backpack onto her shoulders before adjusting the straps until the pressure left the small of her back. She held the rifle with the strap over her shoulder.

Locking the car meant she was looking at the child seat again. Jenny swallowed and turned away as she tucked the keys into the front pocket of her pants. She held the rifle in both hands as she walked into the trees.

Dean had waxed lyrical about his childhood camping trips, and although Tommy preferred books and math problems, Dean saw it as an opportunity to make a man of his son. Jenny wanted to like the idea, but she saw the wounded light in Tommy’s eyes and tried to reassure him of how much fun it would be.

Jenny had gone to dinner with Louise, enjoying a drink with dinner and a cab ride home, giggling and singing to herself around the empty house before she realised how empty it was without them. She had sent him a text message before going upstairs to sleep. His last reply had been to reassure her Tommy was having a great time.

 

Jenny had been dealing with a domestic incident on the day Dean announced the plan. Rosa Trevor had surrendered to the slow build of pressure by stabbing Pete with a bread knife sixty times whilst he dozed off in the recliner, knuckles bloodied from where he had taken her up for not having dinner on the table. The blade had broken off in his skull, and Jenny thought about the blue guy from the movie they had watched the night before. Tommy loved the talking raccoon, but she had nursed her Chris Pratt crush in secret whilst Dean was in the garage, airing out the sleeping bags. The blade stuck out from the top of his head as he sat there, stinking and soft. She had not told him about it, which was why she had not fought Dean about his idea.

By the evening, she had used professional courtesy to contact the ranger station. It had taken her a tremendous effort to keep her voice even. The voice on the other end remained indifferent until she mentioned her job.

‘Sheriff Ronaldo, we’ll get someone out to find them.’

Jenny hadn’t been a sheriff then, just a mother. A wife too, but it was more of an afterthought after he lost his job at the manufacturing plant. The camping trip, in hindsight, was about Dean trying to claw some of his power back but those thoughts were unkind and inappropriate. She wanted them home.

The search had started small but after forty eight hours, the stretch of forest became home to the collective goodwill of the community and Jenny’s agonized patience.

Jenny gave up every doubt and flaw she had, hoping the candour might help find her family but against the mocking silence of their continued disappearance, it was all for nothing.

It was a year to the day.

Drinking got her through their birthdays and their anniversary. The lace teddy sat in the top drawer, too tight on her to wear for him along with the tablet she’d brought to help Tommy with his studies was still in the box.

Her boots were stiff and creaked as she strode through the woods. The air hummed like a loaded spider web as she looked around, recalling the steps taken to find her husband and son. She took in deep breaths to calm her nerves.

Anoise snaked through the trees and she lifted her head to gauge the direction and distance. A single wail, like someone disappointed by a discovery. She knew the sound all too well, having lived with it throughout her career. She paced in the direction, bringing the rifle to her shoulder and fighting the adrenaline coursing through her body.

She charged through the brush, ready to rack the bolt back but within her, the pragmatic armour of experience abraded by the wife and mother within. The bushes loomed over her but she pushed through.

‘Mommy?’

The voice ripped through her like a blade. In the first year, she had refused to leave him, committing every breath to memory for fear of missing a moment of it. Jenny had spent so much time around death and disaster, she saw its shadow fall over everything. Not her Tommy, she vowed though.
Not Tommy.

His hair had grown out into tangles infested with dirt which fell to his thin, pale shoulders. His eyes peered out from underneath the ridge of fringe as he squatted in front of her. Tommy was a boy more disposed to tears than tantrums, but his lips drew back over his teeth. The gums were swollen and bleeding and he had lost one of his incisors.

Jenny saw the faded logo on the ragged remains of his t-shirt, the shield had flaked away to a stain, no different than the other marks on the cloth. His legs were smeared with dust, emaciated and tattooed with scratches.

Jenny shuddered and lowered the barrel. Her vision blurred as she took a step backwards but the child remained on his haunches, tilting his head to the left as he stared at her with open interest.

She wanted him to run to her, but the cop part of her brain screamed for her to treat this with care. The rifle was heavy, but she clung to it without raising it.

Tommy capered forwards, and Jenny sobbed at the nails, yellowed and curling over the tips of his fingers as they scraped the dirt ahead.

‘Where’s Daddy, Tommy?’

Tommy snorted and stopped.

‘He’s back there, Mommy. With the others.’

His voice had the rusted wheeze of disuse. Jenny strained to find the child within it.

She wondered why she had not put the rifle down, held him in her arms after too long apart. Within her chest, her heart was being pulled apart with rough fingers but she held firm.

‘Others?’

Tommy snarled and looked back over his shoulder.

‘Yes, they’re sleeping. They said you would come.’

Jenny slung the rifle over her shoulder and knelt down so her eyes were level with him.

‘Baby, we need to find your dad and go home. It’s been a long time.’

It had been forever.

He sniffed the air as he came forwards. Jenny extended her arms and he rushed towards her. His face pressed against her neck and he sobbed, hot and tormented as she held onto him. Her hands went to the back of his head, her fingers starved for the fragile triumph of her son in her arms again.

She sobbed as she drew back, lifting a tangle of hair as she asked him to turn around.

It looked like an opal surrounded by a fringe of infected flesh oozing with pus. Jenny clamped her hand over her mouth as she staggered backwards, landing on her ass as Tommy stared at her.

‘Does Dad have those?’

Tommy’s eyes welled up with tears as he nodded. He looked down at his fingers and counted, mouthing the numbers until he ran out of fingers to count on.

Jenny pulled him close as she looked past him. Over the roar of her own heartbeat, she caught a humming sound like something massive powering up behind the trees. It made her fillings sing in her mouth and she felt a horrible pressure building in her sinuses as she dragged him away. He surrendered, going limp as his mouth spasmed at her neck like she was nursing him again.

They staggered away, but the humming grew and Tommy seized in her arms but she continued.

A rustling started in the trees, something large and forceful which moved the branches with ease. She fled with her son in her arms, shocked by how light he was. All those nights spent worrying about how chubby he was getting, and the horrible irony of it motivated her to move back to the truck. The humming rose in pitch, making her eardrums throb like an infected limb.

Tommy smelled different. The sweet milk smell had gone, replaced by something sour and metallic but she held onto him with everything she had.

She looked back, squinting her eyes against the column of white light which stabbed like a knife thrust upwards into the belly of the sky. A wave of heat and pressure pushed her forwards, but she clung onto her son and remained upright.

‘Dad’s coming, why aren’t you waiting?’ he said.

Jenny kept running. If it was her husband there, then he would know where to find them.

She was afraid he would.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standard
fiction, women

Mine Won’t

You slipped the pills into my drink. You and your husband. Fed me to the water.

I was spat back. A dead nothing in my chest. An orifice in my throat where he slit my throat and you watched. There was love in your eyes, blind and selfish. You wept, but I knew it was yourself.

You were the last thing I saw before he led you away. An infidelity denied forever. A last drink before leaving town. Wanting to be adults about it, I agreed.  You looked sad but pretty like a caged bird. His hands shook.

Mine won’t.

Standard
beauty, creative writing, fiction, short fiction, time, women

Bigger

I keep the tables clean. No one lacks for a napkin when Mike does his shift, no, sir. I keep watch without staring and remember to keep the tail of my shirt tucked in. I find laces difficult so I have these big Velcro straps and I love the ripping sound they make.

They sound like a big fart and I can spend hours just pulling the strap off so I can hear the big, raspy tear of them.

Mom says she should have buckled down and made me learn laces because at least it was quiet. The trainers have big thick soles on them so I can be on my feet all day and it doesn’t hurt. Iris, who does a few shifts with me, she wears special shoes, ortho something because she had a car crash and it hurt her back. I tell her she has a pretty smile and she says it’s the pain pills but it makes her happy so I tell her every day.

Oscar is at the register with his yellow tongue poking out the corner of his mouth as he rings up an order. He has a big shiny head and a bigger, but not shiny stomach. He gave me a job because Mom asked him to, but I work hard when I am here.

Mom says the key to success is showing up and working hard, but I keep doing that and the door stays locked. We sit in our small apartment, at a small table and eating small dinners but she believes in things being bigger and better as time goes on. Last night we had some of the Salisbury steaks which Oscar gave to me along with the money and tips I earned from the shift. Small things but it was nice of him to do. It tasted of wool but it made our money last a little longer.

Made it bigger.

I like Sunday mornings. All the families come in from church for breakfast. I like it when people dress up and they carry the glow from singing about God and Baby Jesus. I go home with less in my pocket than on a normal shift, but they’re nicer people and I feel better for making sure they eat at clean tables. It’s busy with happy smiling people and laughter dances through the sky when they’re here. It feels more like church than church does.

There’s a new couple here today. They arrived before church ended, a man and a woman. He’s tall, stooped over like he’s trying to hide how tall he is and he has a suit on, which is normal for a Sunday here. He doesn’t smile much, but he looks around and takes everything in with eyes which are cold but not cruel. Sometimes you see people who have so much hurt they need to share, but he looks like he’s expecting something bad to happen.

She’s shorter, red hair and moves like a pair of scissors crossing. Snip snack as her heels hit the floor. They look like they’re selling something but they don’t have briefcases as they come in and take a corner booth. Iris takes their order, and I am wiping a table down whilst glancing in their direction.

‘It’s too open here.’ The woman says.

The man sighs and checks the watch on his wrist. It’s too big for his wrist, held on by a worn leather wristband and there’s no numbers on there, just lights blinking on and off.

‘Eighty two percent says it’s here. Stop worrying.’

His voice is smooth like he’s reading aloud from a book he’s read before. The woman looks past him, glaring at me until my cheeks burn red and I return to cleaning the table.

‘Like I said, too open. Should have run this through a few more times before we turned up.’

He sighs and sits back. There’s something behind his ear, like a piece of jewellery and he touches it with his index finger.

‘We’ve got time for breakfast at least.’

She frowns and shakes her head. I look at the clock.

Church finishes in twenty minutes. Iris has given Oscar the order. Two specials with coffee. Oscar has the grill running before dawn, so it won’t take long until they are ready.

Time enough for what?

Mom doesn’t like me watching the news. I get upset when there’s bad stuff happening. If a kid gets hurt or animals, I fight tears and sometimes she has to find my blanket and hold me until it passes but I know things. Bad things happen and there’s nothing we can do to stop them.

I wonder if there’s a bad thing coming here. On a Sunday. Will it be taking a booth and ordering a coffee?

Are they the bad thing coming?

I look around me. Oscar is sweating behind the grill, Iris is taking a pair of plates full with gleaming eggs and bacon over to them and I am wiping the table.

The door swings open and Kenny Ambrose comes in.

Kenny’s face looks like someone filled a balloon and stuck another balloon over it with a picture of his face on. His eyes are too big and white for his sockets and what teeth he has are small and yellow and are loose in his gums. Kenny doesn’t have a mother to make sure he cleans his teeth, but as he opens the stained, torn overcoat, I see he has something else.

A shotgun. It looks mean and ugly, a blunt snout where he has sawn the barrel off and he swings it in front of him. There are five of us in here, and church gets out in fifteen minutes. Iris is putting their plates in front of them.

Kenny and I were in the same classes at school. The eldest kids because school was something we never grasped, like trying to knit with boxing gloves on. I tried but Kenny doubled down, huffing at recess and drifting further out from the centre of the world.

He has battered sneakers on, the laces are grey and dusted with tiny tufts and the ends had frayed into puffs of material like nylon dandelions as he shuffled forwards, terrified and angry at the same time. The skin around his mouth is wet and red like bubble gum chewed too long. He stinks of old sweat and metals as he points the gun right at me. The end of it is a black metal zero, there are rough edges where the hacksaw slipped and they look like petals on some horrible flower.

The couple in the booth watch it all happen with an open and terrible interest.

‘Register.’ Kenny said.

Oscar keeps his hands up as he comes around the counter. Iris is shaking, and me?

I look at him and see his eyes rolling in their sockets. He isn’t a bad person, he gets frustrated because the world is too fast for people like us. It’s why we keep things small.

Kenny hurts because he wants to be bigger.

Oscar opens the register and Kenny walks over to him lowering the shotgun as his forehead drips sweat.

I look down and see the stray lace slip under the heel of his sneaker, tugging to the right.

I try to call out but he lurches to his right, the shotgun turns in his hands from where he’s sweating and he keeps falling.

His head slams against the corner of the table with a damp crack sound, like breaking the shell on a boiled egg and the shotgun turns in his hands.

I look straight into the big black zero.

It rushes up to swallow me and I think about Mum, Iris and Oscar. Looking up, I see the couple stood up in the booth, they have smiles of awe and the look reaches into me, fills me up with a charging, rolling power. My left hand comes out with a will of its own, slaps the barrel away with a flare of pain for my trouble.

The shot takes out the window and Iris screams.

I put my hands over my ears and look at Kenny as a pool of blood spreads out underneath him and his lips pull back over his teeth as he looks back at me.

He looks smaller now and I get down on my knees next to him.

‘Oh Kenny, you didn’t tie your laces.’

He stares at me, trying to figure out what happened before his eyes roll back in his head and he falls asleep. It looks like it aside from the blood on the lino underneath him.

The couple watch from the booth, and I try not to look at them. I cry because Kenny was like me, or could be if his mom had been around.

It becomes a loud, nasty circus with the churchgoers upset they can’t have breakfast. It upsets me too until I see the couple in the booth slip out to the parking lot. I run after them, and no one stops them.

They’re at their car. It looks new and I can see my face in the windshield: bloated and sweating but smiling.

‘You knew, didn’t you?’

The blonde chuckled and shook her head but the man turns and looks down at me with a quiet pride in his eyes. People don’t look at me like I matter, but this is what I imagine it feels like.

‘We pick up on anomalies. You don’t know what those are though, but yes, we knew something would happen.’

I look between them.

‘Kenny died.’ I said.

He smiles and reaches into the breast pocket of his jacket, retrieves a small silver pin and affixes it to the collar of my shirt.

‘You stopped him. This is a reward for it.’

I touch it and it hums against my fingers. It’s not frightening: more like a baby bird or a small insect but I put my hand back in my pocket, still confused.

‘What does it do?’

He smiles and pats me on the shoulder.

‘You’ll know when the time comes’

The woman rolls her eyes as she opens the passenger side door.

‘You’re such a ham, Ryan.’

Ryan smiles at me and gets behind the wheel of the chair. They drive off, the engine is silent and I stand there in the sunshine, my heart thumping in my chest.

Everything is too big to think about, so I go back inside and see if anyone needs help.

 

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