fiction, love, politics, women

Bad Date

The train rattled enough to make Ken’s bones hurt as he sat back, numb with rejection and drink and feeling like a failed photocopy of himself. He tried not to think about Rachel’s strained expression but his thoughts returned to it like a rotten tooth, poking it for the stab of anguish. It was half an hour on the last train back to Yarmouth. He wanted a cigarette and instead looked around the carriage at the other passengers. As dates went, this one had been traumatic, and the high point had been when she looked into his eyes and told him he was a potential rapist. Ken paid the bill and left saying nothing.

 

He watched a pair of women, hard and bright with youth as they typed into their phones. He enjoyed the chance to look at them. He imagined through a series of implausible events taking them both home and watching them before joining in. A brief spasm of excitement arose in him before it settled down, stubbed out by the sight of his reflection in the carriage window. The image spared nothing of his flaws, and he looked away, sickened all over again. Ken had pleasant features but little to distinguish them.

 

He saw the sticker next to the window, about the size of a coaster. The carriages were always filthy but Ken tutted as he read the slogan.

 

KILL ALL MEN

 

Ken narrowed his eyes, chuckled and looked around him to see if anyone else noticed but no one looked up and the amusement died in him. He stared at the sticker and realised he did not understand if the sentiment was genuine. It didn’t matter, but it seemed pointless and concerning to think someone thought putting this up would change anything. Ken was uncomfortable, because the idea was so ridiculous and yet, whenever he turned on the news, ridiculous people said ridiculous things all the time. The drinks he’d taken to calm his nerves hung onto his perceptions, stripping them of inhibitions as the pointlessness of the sentiment turned into irritation.

 

The sticker was a round piece of vinyl. Ken had trimmed his nails, amongst other parts, but he would peel it off with no trouble. It was a small, pointless gesture, but it offered him something to achieve, an antidote to the mundane chaos of his romantic life. He reached out and dug his fingers into the edges of the sticker and pulled it away.

 

It took a second before something sharp slipped into the meat of his fingertips, deep and sudden enough to cause disbelief before the warm trickle of blood slid down his palm and onto the sleeve of his shirt. Ken cried out in alarm as his retreat sprayed blood away from him. A couple sat in front of him caught the warm splatter, and the man turned, his face cast in a masculine snarl, ready to address the insult. Ken had dealt with such men all his life, but when the man saw Ken’s hand, red and dripping, his expression fell apart into disgust and confusion.

 

Someone shouted for the conductor.  It sounded faint to his ears as he looked at the lipless, bleeding slashes on his hand. As the sounds of shock and alarm faded around him, Ken saw the edges of his vision blurring to a soothing, intoxicating grey and with relief, he let it wash over him.

It embarrassed him when he awoke in the hospital. Passing out had not been one of his more dignified actions, but it meant they spared him the inevitable theatre of the ambulance and the dumbfounded Transport Police and staff, who glanced around, wondering where the blame would fall.

 

In a living room, with one of her less sociopathic cats on her lap, Rachel watched him and cringed with embarrassment. She had tried to reach across the aisle to a man, in the hopes of a comfort no march or heated debate could give her, but sat there, in the restaurant, her borrowed resentments kept coming up like a tic disorder until he was on the verge of tears.

She had tried to reach across the aisle to a man, in the hopes of a comfort no march or heated debate could give her, but sat there, in the restaurant, her borrowed resentments kept coming up like a tic disorder until he was on the verge of tears.

There, in a local studio, with his hair combed and a healthy glow to his cheeks, brushing off his anger and embarrassment with an aplomb which made him endearing.

The stickers had been a joke at the last meeting. Someone had posted a hoax message warning about the stickers, aimed at attracting the ire of trans women and Rachel, along with Flip and Petra, had spent a little over twenty quid on a roll of stickers and a few packs of razor blades. Rachel had taken the train to London but Flip had an uncle in Gorleston, so it had been her work. Her heart beat so fast, it throbbed inside her skull as she watched Ken recollect his decision. A prim, noble gesture like picking up litter and there he was, a man being celebrated for it.  The cat leapt off her lap, annoyed at being petted so hard and she was about to switch off the television and go online when the doorbell rang.

 

Her skin prickled with nerves as her phone bleated out a notification. She looked at the message from Petra and tasted bile in the back of her throat.

 

THEY’VE ARRESTED FLIP!!

 

Rachel stood there, staring at the phone as her thoughts all thinned out into a single pointed scream inside her skull as the knocking at the door echoed through the flat.

 

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fiction, men, short fiction, Uncategorized, women

SY KERK IS UIT

SY KERK IS UIT

M B BLISSETT

 

My hands reflected my actions better than my face did. My dad had been a cook, and his hands bore the scars and burns from decades of cooking. Slips of the knife and damp towels used to grab pots and pans had kissed his skin. My experiences had kissed mine but he could look at his and not see the ghosts and horror they gave birth to. A faded white line where a man had slashed the back of my hand in Kandahar. Calluses on my knuckles and the webbing between my thumb and finger from a thousand hours training and fighting. These hands had touched others in love, in friendship but they had harmed more than healed, and there were days when they looked stained and ancient.

 

They were still supple, strong and didn’t bother me too much, outside my head.

 

His white-blonde hair was shaved to the scalp and he had scraped away the neat goatee which defined his strong jaw and high cheekbones. Time and circumstances had made him look ancient and infantile at the same time. His shirt hung around his neck and the cuffs swung on his thin wrists as he ran his tongue over his lips, moistening them before he spoke.

 

‘You’re too easy to find.’ he said.

 

His voice was strong. A cultured blend of elocution and exposure to different accents, but the nasalised vowels and diphthongs stayed in place.

 

‘No sense in hiding but it’s quiet here. A good place to think.’

 

Ricus nodded and walked into the kitchen. We embraced and he recognised my surprise. .

 

‘I have a job, Lee.’ he said.

 

When he drew back, there was a quiet, indomitable light in his eyes.

 

My expression made his smile falter.

 

‘You can’t tell me this is what you want to do with your life.’ he said.

 

Just one more middle aged man with little in the way of possessions but too much in terms of regrets and memories. No friends to speak of, no women to soothe and no children to fear for.

 

Only their ghosts and their screams.

 

‘Who is the client?’ I said.

 

He reached inside his jacket and retrieved a thick, white envelope and slid it across the table. It was heavy and without opening it, knew there was a sizeable wad of cash inside. Our eyes met and he raised an eyebrow.

 

‘Me.’

 

Ricus was born and raised in Gauteng, to Boer men and women who had farmed the land for generations, but instead left at sixteen and joined the army. From there, his talent promoted him to the Recces, and after a few years, he went into the private sector. We met in Bogota, Colombia providing security for a businessman which meant more attack than defence. I ended up as his spotter when he would sit up providing over watch. It was a few years before I told him the reason I joined him was because the teenage daughter of the businessman was flirting with me, and I wasn’t into it.  He chuckled and said he knew, but I was a good spotter and didn’t talk too much.

 

I asked if he would take out one of his wives, but his smile faltered as he picked up his coffee.

 

‘No, we’re going home.’ he said.

 

2.

 

It was like a thousand places suffused with an atmosphere as oppressive as another planet, seizing you in its grasp as you step off the plane. Ricus and I travelled in economy, nothing but hand luggage as we stepped off the plane.

 

He had arranged someone to meet us. Gun licensing was always a tricky issue, even if you were a citizen like Ricus and since the change in government, things were more complicated now.. Sure, there were questions but we had gone in with less and sometimes with more. Donald Rumsfeld said you went to war with the army you have, not the army you want. Same with equipment too, but Ricus moved with a smooth grace which lent everything the mundane air of it being just another job.

 

We drove into town in the back of a flatbed truck with a teeth-rattling suspension and the faint smell of cowshit to keep us company. Ricus sat with his forearms resting on his knees, working a toothpick in the corner of his mouth as he stared out into the distance. His eyes were serene and stern, looking at nothing and everything with a detachment which I used to envy.

 

Now, struggling to adjust to a heat so thick it compelled exhaustion just to endure it, I wondered if it was a gift or a curse. Ricus had a burden which no amount of conflict could wear away, and I had come along to see if I could help.

 

The township was alive with a teeming vitality. Smoke hung in the air, and the rich chorus of voices enveloped us, powered by the pumping music coming from a bar somewhere. Ricus craned his head, scanning the crowd for someone.

 

A black man, around his age, raised his hand as a smile pulled at the white worm of scar tissue which bisected his cheek. Ricus smiled back and nodded towards him. I followed him through the crowd. When the two men met, they moved in for a tight, firm hug before parting.

 

‘Good to see you, Gacoki.’ Ricus said.

 

He leaned away and gestured with his right hand and gave him my name. I was his business partner.  Gacoki gave me a measured look as he stepped forwards and offered his hand. I shook it, and weighed up the hard, firm grip he gave. There had been harder ones, but few. Hiding the causal flex which it prompted made him smile as he stepped back.

 

‘Let’s get a drink.’ he said.

 

Ricus took him up on the offer of a beer but I stuck to cola. It was thicker and more chemical than I was used to, but the bubbles settled my stomach. They fell into a mix of Afrikaans and English, some of which I followed, but otherwise it was a pleasant way to while away a few hours. Later, they spoke about what we needed. Gacoki shrunk into his chair.

 

‘It’ll be tough. Things are different now.’ he said.

 

Ricus swallowed and sat back in his chair, finished the last of the beer before he set the bottle on the table.

 

‘Money still talks, though?’ Ricus said.

 

Gacoki nodded and retrieved a cigarette from the soft pack on the table and lit it, gave him time to think. He smiled and winked at us.

 

‘Always.’ he said.

 

After that, it was about logistics. Most of it could have been found at a mall but Ricus had grown up here, and he knew things were scarce. He took the list from Ricus, got up, leaned over for a brief hug and left, acknowledging me with a short nod. The residue of the coke clung to my teeth as I licked my lips and got to my feet. Ricus took the pack from the table where Gacoki had left them and slipped them out.

 

‘You up for a drive?’ he said.

 

A hot burst of irritation gathered in the back of my throat.

 

‘Only if you tell me what’s going on.’ I said.

 

He smiled before he lit the cigarette.

 

‘That’s what I‘m going to show you.’

 

The car was a clean, worn Range Rover. My seatbelt didn’t work, so I sat with one hand on the passenger door, bracing myself against the inevitable dips and turns in the roads. My distaste faded with the passage of time. The muscle memories allowed me to adjust, relaxing the muscles still tense from hours of travel as we drove out into the deepening darkness.

 

There were small fires dotted along the road, and as we drove North, the air grew cold, but Ricus did not register it as he focused on the drive.

 

I spotted the outline of the buildings, the tops visible above a dark brick wall dominated by a large metal gate.

 

‘I’ll be on point.’ Ricus swallowed, a flash of nerves apparent on his face before he controlled himself and looked at me.

 

‘Who are we meeting, Ricus?’ I said.

 

He stopped the car and got out, went to the intercom and pressed the button. A squall of static split the air before a woman’s voice came through the speaker. They spoke in Afrikaans, but the long pause and the single word after Ricus spoke indicated a caution and surprise which raised the skin on my forearms into gooseflesh.

 

‘Broer?’ she said.

 

The motor on the gate was old and worn from frequent use as it gave a choked wheeze in protest before the gate opened and Ricus came back to the car. We drove up to the central building. These were rough, sturdy buildings gathered in a horseshoe as well as several outbuildings. A working farm or the memory of one. We got out as the front door opened and a woman emerged, in a white t-shirt and jeans before she walked towards us.

 

Ricus glanced at me before he walked towards her. Her features gained coherence as she came forwards, and the familial resemblance between her and Ricus became apparent. She was younger, and her blue eyes held the light with a clarity which made her attractive. There were fine lines around her mouth and eyes, but she was a striking, beautiful woman without make up and her hair scraped back into a ponytail.

 

Her expression was somewhere between a pleasant surprise and a pebble in her shoe. A short wince followed by a jangling burst of delight as her eyes shone with tears. They stopped before one another, and I stayed by the car, uncomfortable with breaking up a reunion.

 

We had learned of one another’s pasts in sips and swallows. He referred to it over burdening me with names or stories. Most of the time, the talk was soft and small. We learned more about one another with silence being a better teacher than speech. I guessed she was his sister, judging by her age and their mutual resemblance.

 

She reached for him first but he matched the strength of her embrace but not her tears as she pressed herself against him. When they parted, he gestured for me to come over.

 

Elna.

 

Her hand was small but strong. It fitted inside mine and the heat from her palm surprised me before she smiled and asked my name.

 

She asked if we were hungry. Ricus nodded and we went inside. He fell behind her and walked alongside me.

 

‘This isn’t a gig, Ricus.’ I said.

 

My voice was low and even, but Elna glanced back at us for a second before she reached the door.

 

Ricus put his hand on my forearm.

 

‘It is, but I need to explain.’

 

He should have done it on the plane. It was my decision to follow him, and whatever attachments Mexico presented, they were easy to let go of. For all the times my memories of work were stained with blood and regret, here I was, far from home yet comfortable and aware of the situation, if not the details.

 

I nodded and followed Ricus and his sister inside.

 

The table was set for dinner. Two children were sat there before brimming bowls of a thick, brown stew and two other places were set but only one of them had a bowl sat there. Elna walked into the kitchen and smiled at the children.

 

‘Dian. Leeto. This is your uncle Ricus and his -‘ she turned and looked to Ricus for an answer.

 

‘My business partner. Lee..’ he said.

 

Elna turned back to the children.

 

The youngest of the them, a boy around ten, gave Ricus a careful look.

 

‘Why didn’t he come to dad’s funeral?’ he said.

 

Elna’s hands pressed together and I saw her shoulders tighten with tension before she walked around the table.

 

‘Leeto. Your uncle was working away. I did explain.’ he said.

 

Her voice was soft and tired, but there was steel there which made the boy look away. A mother’s kindness was a strength. She had explained, I’m sure, but it was an excuse not a reason.

 

I stayed by the door, watched the small spasms of unresolved grief on their faces as it passed between them.

 

The stew was good. Rich and thick comfort food which I struggled to finish. I ran on less than I used to but Ricus polished off two bowls with a quiet gusto. Leeto and Annika went through to their rooms. There were whispers between Elna and her children, but Ricus and I sat in the kitchen, waiting for her to return.

 

‘What happened to their father?’

 

Ricus sighed and lit a cigarette.

 

‘You know how things are different here?’

 

I shook my head, concerned with how personal this had become.

 

‘Men came, raided the farm. They shot Bern in the head. Elna and the children went into the panic room. He stayed out to protect them.’ he said.

 

I leaned forward, studied his face as he spoke.

 

”What’s the mission, Ricus. Tell me or I am on the next plane home. Friend or not, you need to tell me everything.’

 

They will come again. I want to convince them it is a bad idea.’ he said.

 

His voice had thickened, the pain crept in at the edges and it was the closest he had ever sounded to vulnerable. It didn’t ease my concerns, but it reminded me of his conviction. We did bad things for money, but we had a code.

 

‘Gacoki’s getting you a long gun, isn’t he?’

 

He smiled and winked at me.

 

Going out and looking for them is pointless. There’s too many people settling old scores out here to find out who came.’

 

I asked him for a cigarette. He passed one to me and I lit it.

 

‘What does your sister want?’

 

‘We‘re going to find out.’

 

Elna stood in the doorway with her arms folded. Her eyes were still and haunted as she glanced at our faces.

 

‘Find out what?’ she said.

 

She sagged forwards in her chair when he told her. Elna shook her head and pressed her palms together, negotiating.

 

‘There’s been enough death.’ she said.

 

Ricus blinked slow as he sat up in his chair.

 

‘ They‘re not going to give up, Elna It will be either them or the government.’ he said.

 

Elna said some other farmers had been offered settlements for their land. Nowhere near what the land was worth, or what had been invested in it but it was better than nothing.

 

‘It might as well be nothing. So, if you’ve got to stay, then I need to protect you.’ he said.

 

Elna’s eyes were damp as she rubbed her hands over one another.

 

‘I’ll accept what they offer me. It’s not charity, but it will get me somewhere.’ she said.

 

She was negotiating with the future. It offered ugly terms but if it meant her children were safe, Elna was prepared to endure a little fear until things improved. Ricus sighed and shook his head.

 

‘Give me a week. I can review your defenses, there’ are plenty of things we can put up to improve your security.’ he said.

 

Ricus sounded reasonable. It was something he could do without me but I had been asked to come for a reason.

 

Elna looked between us and sat back in her chair.

 

‘My children’s safety comes before everything, Ricus. You don’t get to endanger that. Ever.’ she said.

 

It was a show of steel which reminded me of her brother. He nodded and got up, came around to her and put his hand on her shoulder.

 

‘It is why I’m here. I know it’s too late, but things are different now.’ he said.

 

He didn’t say how. Elna wept and leaned into his stomach as she stifled her cries with her hand. It had been something she’d developed, so the children didn’t hear her.

 

Ricus and I took the couch and chair in the living room. We decided on the floor and laid there, looking at the ceiling. Ricus fell into a light doze without speaking. He knew my decision and how I would go along with it.

 

Elna had nowhere to go. It was a scenario of diminishing returns, but if it kept people from the farm who had no business being there, then a few nights over watch wouldn’t hurt. A job had a clear outcome and this had been murky from the start. Still, my decision to follow had been my agreement. Going home might have meant survival, but it was a juvenile wish. Sleep didn’t come but I settled into a rest which felt close enough for it not to matter.

 

Ricus was awake at dawn. He worked for, if not alongside Elna as she went through the morning routines. There were more than a few which had been her husband’s domain and Ricus carried them out, his strength was an apogee for Bern’s death. When I came through to the kitchen, Dian and Leeto were at the table, drawing on rolls of wallpaper They used thick layers of crayon, raised against the paper like scabs and ending in jagged outlines. Spikey shadows wielded sticks which dripped with blood. One of the groups had a man in the centre, and Dian was hunched over, scraping the wax away with a crayon. My curiosity jangled with interest, but when I walked over, they both stopped what they were doing and looked at me.

 

‘What are you drawing?’ I said.

 

Dian grimaced and put the coin down. One edge of it was dark with black crayon and her fingertips were smeared as she looked at her brother.

 

‘Nothing. We just like to draw.’ he said.

 

Each step closer made them draw in to one another. I raised my hands and nodded.

 

‘It’s ok. I should mind my own business.’

 

He stared at me.

 

‘Do you have kids?’ he said.

 

Leeto’s voice was rough and high, the broken tones of someone on the verge of puberty but his question was a boy’s in nature. I nodded and offered they were both adults. Their estrangement was something left unsaid.

 

‘Would you have gone out to defend them?’ Dian said.

 

I nodded.

 

‘I would have done the same thing your father did.’

 

Dian swallowed, her eyes brimmed wet before she looked out through the window.

 

‘We saw them as they left. Some of them used to work here, during the harvest.’ she said.

 

Leeto turned to her, keen to correct her.

 

‘No, not all of them. There was -‘ he said.

 

Dian glanced at the drawing they had been working on and pulled back, unable to avoid looking at it. They both looked at me. I walked around to where they were sat and saw the face at the centre of the group. The livid scar gouged into the crayon face and how it ran down his cheek. I ran outside to find Ricus.

 

He was at the truck when he saw me run up. It didn’t take long to tell him.

 

The shifting realisation and nature of betrayal crossed his face. His mouth fell open as the blood drained from his face before he regained his control. His jaw tightened and he looked over his shoulder.

 

‘I guess I won’t be getting the rifle then, eh?’ he said.

 

We walked back towards the house. Ricus asked Elna what weapons she had in the house.

 

It was late in the afternoon when we looked at everything laid out on the table. A revolver, with two speedloaders. One shotgun, with a box of buckshot shells. There were tools around the farm, but if we had to use those, we were already dead.

 

Elna came down from the attic with a long case in her arms. She handed it to Ricus.

 

‘Bern never wanted to use it. Said it was meant for you, but you never came back to get it.’ she said.

 

He took it from her and laid it on the table. Ricus opened it with a slow reverence and when the waning light hit the dull wood. I understood what he was reacting to. What was passed down did so because of utility, and Ricus picked the rifle up, saw in the scars and utilitarian ugliness what history it possessed.

 

‘Pa said he sold it to pay for the damage Gacoki and I did to the school house.’

 

Ricus grimaced to say his friend’s name aloud. He put the rifle back in the case and looked around him. Elna gestured to the table.

 

‘Why would he come back? There’s nothing here.’ she said.

 

The land. Gacoki had contacts in the government and military. He was the canary in the coalmine, responsive to changes in situations with a view to making money from it. If it meant he turned on a neighbour or a friend, then he was the vanguard of a new age for all of them. Ricus sighed and looked at his sister.

 

‘I’ve got an idea. It wasn’t what I hoped, but I’ve something in mind.’

 

He turned to me and asked me to prepare the front bedroom. It did not take long to strip the beds, move the mattress off the frames and clear two parallel spots away from the windows. I was preparing a shooting gallery for anyone who made it over the wall. Ricus took the rifle and wandered over to the tallest barn.

 

It was a comfort to retreat into logistics. Elna, Leeto and Dian were assets and reducing them to such meant we could speak without sentiment about our chances of success. Repulsing a small home invasion would be easy, but Gacoki wouldn’t go small if he knew Ricus was involved.

 

With Elna and the children, I led them through the exit path, over and over until they were confident of moving in the dark. I covered their truck with tarp, checked the oil and brakes, saw there was a full tank of gas and threw in the go bags Elna had made on Ricus’ instructions. He was shocked when she told him about not having passports, but otherwise, she was compliant and followed his instructions.

 

As did I.

 

Elna insisted on cooking for everyone. It was an ostentatious feast, farmer‘s sausage and pot food followed by milk pudding and a fresh pot of coffee alongside plates of fried doughnuts. Ricus ate well, but refused the doughnuts and took a flask of coffee.

 

He got up, gathered his rifle and walked out to the barn. We tested communications and his voice came over, strong and clear.

 

Elna put the children to bed and we sat in the kitchen.

 

‘Why is he so sure they’ll come back? Because he’s here?’ she said.

 

She looked at me for an answer.

 

I shrugged and got up from the table.

 

‘It’s been going on for a while, hasn’t it? Farmers, I mean.’

 

She sighed as I turned and walked to the kitchen sink.

 

‘It’s getting worse, but what choice do we have?’

 

I turned and looked at her.

 

‘They’ll keep coming until you’re dead or you leave, Elna. Ricus knows it, and so do you.’

My voice was harsher than I intended. She flinched and leaned forward.

 

‘Then why are you here?’

 

He asked me to come. He had earned the right to ask. Yet we had wandered into the latest spasms of something old and ugly, and there were always casualties in the rush of history to assert itself. I had been on the winning side of it for money, but we were a means to settle old scores. Power. Territory. Wrongs handed down until they wiped out generations. The names and colours didn’t matter.

 

There was the faint roar of cars travelling fast down the road. My radio squawked into life.

 

‘Two cars. 500 meters. Making the shot.’ he said.

 

The crash was loud in the night sky. A blush of flames and the faint shouts as the survivors emerged.

 

I was moving. Elna got up and ran to her children.

 

‘Three hostiles down. Three moving towards you now. Secure the principals and move to second position.’

 

I stopped.

 

‘You’ve got them on overwatch?’

 

‘Yes, but they’re closer to the gate than I’d like. Go to second position, Lee.’ he said.

 

Elna and the children were in the bedroom, fully dressed as I looked through the doorway.

 

‘Second position, now.’

 

They moved through the doorway, heads lowered as I turned and covered their exit. I walked with my back to them, stopped in at the front bedroom and grabbed the shotgun, slung it over my back and went outside after Elna and the children.

 

A shadow, climbing the wall. He had a garden fork in his left hand, and a dull, disconnected frown as he came towards us. I aimed down the front sight at his chest and fired. He fell backwards, toppling out of sight without a sound. Elna was climbing into the driver’s seat as the children scrambled into the back.

 

A cry of alarm made me turn to my right and fire into the pair of men who charged towards me. Not men, I thought, boys with machetes, and flushed with a horrible excitement. Elna called my name, and it sounded faint to me as my ears rung from the gunshots.

 

I got into the passenger seat and shouldered the shotgun.

 

‘Leeto, check there are three go-bags.’ I said.

 

Leeto looked up in confusion.

 

‘There are four here.’ he said.

 

I asked him to lift the bags up as Elna pulled away from the farm. The bag at the top was full, and rattled against Leto’s attempts to lift it.

 

Elna took the truck out at full speed.

 

‘What about Ricus?’ she said.

 

I pressed the radio, and was met with a burst of static. Saying his name brought no response.

 

The explosion behind us made a final, terrible statement.

 

I kept glancing back at the bag. An improvised explosive device would have gone off by now, and it was too clean for the types of attacks which were going on. I took the bag from the back, surprised at the weight as I put it on my lap and opened it.

 

The gleam of gold hurt my eyes and my heart. I passed the envelope to Elna, who retrieved three new passports, making them citizens of St Kitts, a Caribbean island. The gold was to get us out the country.

 

‘He’s not coming, is he?’ Elna said.

 

I glanced at Leto and Dian, then her.

 

‘No, I don’t think he ever was.’ I said.

 

The weight of recognition fell on us, squashing us into a mutual silence as we drove towards the agreed location.  A plane was waiting, and we fled South Africa.

 

We settled in Canberra.

 

After a year, the children were sleeping through the night and Elna found a farming concern she felt able to handle. She asked me to stay and help out. It seemed churlish to refuse her, and after a few weeks, she invited me into her bed and we came together, trembling and wondering if Ricus would have approved.

 

His answer came via the ordering of his legal affairs. His career had been lucrative and despite the use of his own resources in securing the equipment and weapons we used during our time at the farm, there was more than enough to provoke shock, surprise and tears when the terms of his will were read out.

 

Elna and her children were set for a comfortable, abundant life. Ricus had also left me a sizeable sum and a letter, which was handed to me upon my signature. When we left the lawyer’s office, Elna had taken herself to the coffee shop, keen for something normal to do in order to offset the bizarre, bittersweet gift of her brother’s wealth, so soon after his death.

 

No, his sacrifice.

 

He had handwritten the letter, and judging by the date, it had been written before he came to see me. My eyes blurred as I read, but I finished it, despite the ache in my chest.

 

Lee,

There was not time to explain. I knew you would understand, and if not, then I am sorry.

 

Consider this a late payment for your services. If your pride won’t let you accept, then it is yours to do with as you wish.

 

My hope is you were with me at the end. Dying in a bed, surrounded by well meaning strangers horrified me. When Elna told me about Bern, it had a simplicity which appealed to me. There is no place for guilt or pride about my past but there is a small hope I find some meaning in what is left of my future.

 

One bullet could end it all. But why deny someone the honour of facing someone like me who has nothing left but his family to defend? I am not sure I deserve such an end, but it is not for me to decide the most important factor in my strategy.

 

If you came with me.

 

.

 

Standard
fiction, short fiction, writing

The Chorus

 

The Chorus

 

Purity Clause

 

Thomas had his eyes closed and a wry smile alive on his lips. He heard the chirp of birdsong and the muted tones of the city in the distance. He wrote the script and sent it the studio and in before the deadline so he was taking a break from everything. He had woken at dawn, did yoga on the balcony and then made coffee before he sat and drank it. There were cigarettes in his pocket but he decided not to smoke one. He was trying to be virtuous with no one watching.

 

His phone rang.

 

It was an unknown number, but he answered after a few rings.

 

The automated voice was a digital collection of voices, different accents and pronunciations strung together with care. All women. Thomas shuddered.

 

The Chorus.

 

‘Did you believe you would escape your fate?’ it said.

 

A hint of breathlessness, something which would excite him at any other time made his stomach wrenched inside him and he sat down, his amiable mood evaporated into a needling panic.

 

‘We have registered an accusation. It will activate your belt in three minutes. Please do not pass urine or ejaculate during this time.’

 

The studio made him agree to the implant. It was a synthetic tumour, benign until activated via wireless signal. It threw you into a state of racked agony for thirty seconds if you went near a woman registered online as being NC or non contact. Women could waive being registered, because by then, an entire generation of men had been broken down and rebuilt. There were those who lived apart from the network, but most men went along to get along, he thought.

 

He was being given a multi-million dollar franchise to reinvent. They wanted to protect their investment and reputation, so he had to sign away his autonomy to keep working. Yet he swore he had been scrupulous in behaving himself.

There were cigarettes in his pocket, and he lit one.  He realised being good didn’t matter. His sex defined him, and in the world which he tried to make sense of through his art, had decided he was not only disposable, but he was dangerous.  

 

Simple And Complicated

 

The needle stung as it went into the meat of his buttock but he didn’t react beyond a slow blink.

 

‘You can dress now, Mr Agnew.’ the nurse said.

 

Pete got off the examining table and dressed without looking at her. It was safer to pretend he hadn’t heard or seen her. Once he was dressed, he left the room without speaking. She whispered a swear word under her breath. Once, he would have called her out on it, but it was different now.

 

The implant saw to that.

 

He left the clinic. There would be no paperwork to sign because he had paid for the implant in cash. His insurance wouldn’t have covered it, anyway. His head hurt to think about how much he had handed.

 

It meant he got to see his children again. His lawyer had got the porn clause taken off, so he had means of relief. The excess energy would go into his work, make money and get custody. Yvonne had a lot of friends out there, who used the Chorus to settle scores, creating accounts online and meeting men without deactivating the permissions. They shared videos of grown men on their knees, sobbing and vomiting from the pain. One man had died, and the women sued his estate for stress-related damages. They won, too. His ex-wife and kids had to move in with family for a while.

 

Pete caught sight of his reflection. His face was tight and pale, anxious whenever a woman spoke to him now. He had asked Yvonne out, hands sweating and heart thumping against his ribs, and she had said yes. It used to be simple and complicated at the same time. Some people were better at it than others, sometimes it happened by mistake or design, but Pete mourned a world where it wasn’t used to hurt other people with the resources of government behind it.

 

Castrati.

There were men who paid for the implant with no accusations hanging over them. It made things easier as these men worked from home, video games, the internet and silicone companions who would orbit their existences in a compelled erotic obedience met their needs. Real women were too much of a risk. An exile supported by society was a good way to avoid falling into the slow quicksand of love.

 

If everything told them they were dangerous deviants who couldn’t be trusted to restrain themselves why keep refuting it? Dropping out was easier and so long as they kept producing and spending money, it was something people laughed at without thinking about what it meant.

 

Wrath Of The Gods – The Chorus and the new face of state feminism, I R Mohoney, University Press, pp 124.

 

Let The Fire Come

The conference had sold out. A line up of feminist speakers and activists, hosted in Greece for its symbolism, both a return and an appropriation of ancient times.

Costas set the briquettes of compressed paper in a pile and squirted them with lighter fluid. His eyes blurred with tears as he looked across the stretch of forest. All of it perennial and virginal, soon to be so much ash. The villas would be collateral damage but if the conference centre burned, it would be a necessary evil. He had said goodbye to his children via Skype, alluded to in his cracked whispers of devotion, ignored as they showed him their new toys. Paulo walked past, a smug grin twisting his soft face into a mask of Victory, wearing nothing but a towel. She only entered the frame to end the call, disconnected and yet disdainful towards the father of her children. It had strengthened his resolve for what he was about to do.

 

Once the flames were going, he lifted his phone to his eyeline and spoke the prepared statement, mirrored around the world and released in an instant.

 

‘Men are disposable and our sacrifices are ignored and dismissed by the world. Women create, men destroy is the message and-‘

 

A memory of his daughter, soft and mewling on his broad chest made his voice crack, but he swallowed and continued.

 

‘We will honour this message.’

 

He took the pistol from his pocket, ceramic and put together in the rack of 3D printers which had been running for weeks, all from one design. The curved butt fit into his palm.

 

‘I love my family.’

 

He pressed it against his temple and squeezed the trigger.

 

The flames caressed his cooling corpse, grateful for his sacrifice as he laid there, his skull distended from the pressure of the shot.

 

Standard
fiction, lust, women

Beyond The Truth

Beyond The Truth

M B Blissett

My stomach hurt like something had grown and slid out my asshole, leaving me ripped and bleeding in its wake. There were days washed of action, fetal on the couch and smoking weed to keep the edge off all the feelings sharpened and turned inward. People admired my intelligence, but they said it in the faint pitying tone you’d give when seeing someone in the street with a facial deformity. How brave they were to go about their business when they had a conjoined twin hanging from their face. All my intelligence had fled before her, and there was humour in realising why hurricanes had women’s names.

 

She had not gotten in touch afterwards. My boundaries had held enough to my maxim that there was no friendship after this. We were lovers or nothing, which sounded trite but it saved my life.

 

It was the money she took, which got me. It wasn’t mine, and my creditors weren’t patient or understanding. Despite all the pain, there were limits to what a man could endure. For the first time in days, thinking about love and how it had broken me again.

 

Love on a neurochemical level is instinct and euphoria. It houses the former in the media insula and the latter, in the anterior cingulate cortex. Our nervous systems resonate at the sound of their name. We stew in a cocktail of testosterone, estrogen, vasopressin and oxytocin. It stresses us to be lovers, yet we die to maintain it.

 

It enhances the best and worst of us. Low serotonin levels contribute to episodes of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, focused on the love partner, former or otherwise. She had created the perfect person to hunt her down.

 

Someone who loved her.

 

Hammering through the concrete floor, head swimming from the weed which had sustained me in a soft cocoon of equanimity. Each swing cracked it into pieces and then there was my foot locker, locked and buried, with all my old tools cleaned and oiled, waiting for me to come back like a murderer returning to the scene of the crime.

 

The revolver, a fat silver machine with tooled grips and an action smooth as butter. My father had won medals shooting with it, and it had saved my life a few times. The other tools went into a duffel bag, and then into the trunk of my car.

 

The drive gave me time to think. Without a place to go, it was a matter of recalling what she had said about herself.

 

What she hadn’t said concerned me more.

 

2.

 

She wasn’t clear on where she came from. The Midwest. The opposite coast from where we were. What fucked me was how pretty she was, which meant my faculties were reeling from the chemical holocaust of someone beautiful talking without money being involved.

 

It always is, you know. Money.

 

You pay for love if you get my meaning. All the poetry, the songs, they sounded like fucking lies now.

 

Her money came from a lucky dip of shifts working and auditioning for work. There was a haughtiness to her smile which set her out as someone different. The beauty was there, but it was like smog, where you didn’t see it anymore. Unless it looked into your eyes and took an interest in who you were and where you were going with your life.

 

She looked like a woman who knew who she was. There was an excitement to her, which didn’t come from a line or a bottle, and she laughed at my jokes without prompting.

 

Sex was a simple thing. My place was closer, and knowing nothing about her, she laid on my bed and sat there, a voyeur who knew the power of the visual on the masculine libido and looked at me with a coquettish want which robbed me of reason.

 

Fingers clasped together, bellies slapping and moving inside her like I couldn’t get deep enough. Her legs over my shoulders as I pounded into her, shivering strokes as I counted backwards, trying not to come too soon until she hissed, between clenched teeth, that she wanted me to.

 

She made me come so hard; it felt like it turned me inside out by it.  Afterwards she stroked the hair on my chest, one warm thigh draped over mine as we talked. Those hours, where all my feelings were on the surface were an education for her. An ongoing, evolving curriculum in understanding and manipulating men.

 

It was easy to wise after the fact. My defence was that I hadn’t told her the important things, but she got an idea from the lack of details there was more going on than I divulged. Women don’t want full disclosure, but those that do, they know what to do with the information.

 

A friend let her down on a place, so sure she could stay at mine. We were seeing one another all the time anyway, so why not?

 

Why not?

 

She was in my place for hours. The tools were under concrete. My accounts all pointed to a place in my life where good years underpinning a quiet life. When Yanni asked if I could hold a bag for him, it wasn’t an issue.

 

We had trust. She was working every bliss button on my body, and in my head. One of her friends had come over, and we’d ended up in a hot, wet triangle and she had cried with pleasure afterwards as her friend slipped away, blushing and awkward as we laid on the bed together, mutual survivors of an ecstatic explosion.

3.

 

Linda. Dark, with a hard, dancer’s body. She lived on pills and pressed vegetable juices, but she still had all her teeth. Linda tasted of peaches, which brought the blood to my face as I parked the car.

 

She was a hostess at La Mer, a fusion bistro on Sunset. She didn’t recognise me at first, which made me grateful until the mention of my girl’s name made her grimace with a genuine disgust.

 

‘That cunt? Jesus, I never want to see her ass again. She owes me a lot of cash.’ she said.

 

A fifty made her amicable. A drink opened her up and she sat there, spewing bile as I struggled to avoid weeping with embarrassment and shame. The world put an arm around her shoulders while I got a raised eyebrow and a whispered maxim which spoke in my dad’s voice.

 

You should have known better.

 

Linda hadn’t known where she had come from. Somewhere midwestern. A town with a factory which closed down, sucked the blood out of it and prompted her to move on.

 

I leaned forwards.

 

‘Where are you from?’

 

She lowered her eyes and picked up her drink before she spoke.

 

‘Dallas. I came out here with my sister, auditioned like crazy, but she didn’t have the spine for it.’ she said.

 

‘Spine for what?’

 

Linda smiled and it saddened me.

 

‘It’s tough out here, you know?’

 

I nodded. She carried fewer bodies on her conscience than I did, but it weighed on her the same.

‘So how did she fuck you over?’ she said.

I coughed into my fist and cleared my throat.

‘She took something which wasn’t mine. I need it back.’

Linda gave a pitying smile and put her hand out.

‘We’ll never see her again, dude. Accept it.’ she said.

Her voice was a resigned whisper, arid like the desert and too old to come from such a pretty face.

I shook my head.

‘I can, Linda, but these people, they can’t. Either I find her or they do.’

She gave her the address of the bar she had worked at. It wasn’t one I recognised, but I gave her another fifty for her time. It was a token attempt to gain something back from being recognised as a fellow victim without the hum of connection to elevate it to a good experience. She touched the back of my hand.

‘We had fun, didn’t we?’ she said.

My eyes were wet as I looked at her.

‘We did, but we paid for it.’ I said.

She pushed her number on me. Her loneliness radiated off her in waves, and I shrunk away from it. There was enough in me to save my skin, but I couldn’t save her. My head swam with exhaustion as I drove to The Lady J.

 

4.

She went by Rachel. She had been popular, a bright, vivacious girl who made weak men feel potent and strong men weak, which meant she banked tips all the time. No one figured out why she was borrowing money all the time, or how there was someone who had let her down.

Rich had the wounded look of a fellow survivor. He was three hundred pounds, thick with muscle and covered with serpentine, faded tattoos on every surface. He gave nothing up. There was something recognisable in his eyes when he spoke about her.

Love, writhing and seething underneath his ridged forehead and pooled in his soft, brown eyes. I paid him for his time, but kept back how the Greeks were looking for her.

After closing up, he got in his truck and drove home. He parked up, and the door opened. She stood there, in pink cotton shorts and a t-shirt, hair like spun gold as she clung to him, whispering sweet nothings in his ear.

I pinched the bridge of my nose and closed my eyes. A phone call would end everything but the crazy you saw was never the crazy you had to worry about.

Two shots rang out from the house. I was out of the car, with the gun in my hand, running to the house. My motives escaped me, lurching between a desire to see her dead and a need to make sure she was ok.

There was the fog of sex in the house. It rested like grit against my tongue, and I put the gun up. A low, keening sound came from the room at the end of the hall.

 

‘You motherfucker.’ she said.

Rachel hadn’t spoken in days but her voice slashed into me as I aimed the gun ahead of me and pushed the door open with my foot.

 

He sat against the wall, wisps of smoke coming from two indentations on his scalp as he stared ahead, making noises like he from a horrific nightmare. He had on white undershorts, and his belly hung over, thick and round like an abscess. Blood coated his chest, glistening in the lamplight.

 

Rachel was curled onto her side, clutching the shredded remains of her right hand. The gun had been something small and cheap, a.38 pistol, judging by the trigger punched into the plaster to her right. It had taken most of her hand, and she was shrieking, covered in her own blood before she noticed I was there.

‘Oh shit, baby please, I need a hospital.’ she said.

I shook my head and looked around the bedroom.

There had been so many things I imagined saying to her. All the blood and screaming exhausted me, so I asked her where the money was. She shook her head and begged me to take her to a hospital.

The click of the hammer compelled her attention.

It was in a wardrobe. I opened it, keeping the gun trained on her as I dragged out the suitcase and picked it up. Every breath in her presence hurt. A friend would have helped her, at least cleaned her up and stuck around.

‘Where are you from?’

She sobbed and shook her head.

‘Fuck you, Tony.’ she said.

She would have been grateful. I could have smoothed things over, gave her a chance to make it up but as she sat there, wounded and crazed, a moment passed which lifted weight from my heart.

 

‘Did they get sick of you there, too?’

She turned away. We both looked at one another then at Rich.

‘What did he do?’

Rachel sat up, grimacing as she wrapped a sheet around the twisted ruin of her hand. Blood soaked into the material but she regained strength from dressing it.

‘He gave the worst head I’ve had in my life. Too fucking eager.’ she said.

I put the gun back into the holster.

‘You should get out of town.’ I said.

All the love within me for her went into those words. They were fragile carriage for the truth she’d shown me. We both lost pieces of one another, but not so much I couldn’t walk away.

‘You made it easy for me.’ she said.

Her voice was a metallic trap closing on the remains of my heart. I managed a smile and nodded at her before I left.

I called Yannis from the car, watched the carnival of emergency services rush past me. He was happy for me, and the cash was good for a visit to a dispensary on the way home.

It hadn’t mattered where she came from. Wherever it was, they had cast her out without a mark of warning on her. The missing hand would provoke pity, which she would use to get ahead. My relief was acute, but it hurt to have been played so well by someone so empty.

The smoke helped as I stared outside, waiting for the dawn to come and make everything new again.

 

Standard
fiction, grief, short fiction, Uncategorized

Exposure

 

My life was bare walls, no surprises in the laundry hamper, the disappointed relief when you watch porn in the standard browser without worrying if anyone else will check. The sharp relief and then the slow entropic ebb of disappointment afterwards. I’d let go of salon visits and gym sessions without care for the impact.

 

My phone rang.

‘Please don’t hang up.’

‘What reason is there to talk to you?’ I said.

Rage was pointless. She deployed her final tactic and my dull tone masked the contempt.

She breathed in. I remembered the sounds when we made love, all the neglected nerve endings stirred into life by my touch. Now it tasted of dust and raw meat.

My affair left me with a concrete block of guilt which sat on my chest with each breath. My anger towards her was a hammer swung into it.

 

‘I don’t know.’ she said.

 

We did things with one another we had never dared ask our partners. 

‘You are fucking dead.’ I said.

There was a choked whisper.

‘Why are you being like this?’ she said.

She came to the house whilst I was out. I imagined her, flushed with righteous indignation, telling my wife every detail of our relationship. On the drive home, I wondered if there were tears, but that’s something I chose for easing my feelings. Tossing a little compassion in her direction to mitigate my guilt is a child’s motif but panic shaves a good few years off your faculties.

Begging is distasteful when you’re an adult. It is worse when it fails to make anything better. No one showed up to make my case for me, how the comfort becomes ennui. You’re supposed to forget how they fucked you when you were an exciting proposition to them and accept tired, half hearted intercourse where they use your tongue or fingers as a sleeping pill.  The grey miasmal guilt became useful as I navigated the remains of my life.

 

Irritation choked my libido as I looked at myself in the mirror. Sallow and unshaven, dark smudges of fatigue jammed into the skin under my eyes.

 

She told me I was beautiful once. No one had done that before. The memory stung and I shoved it away.

 

‘Are you always this fucking stupid?’ I said.

 

Sobbing.  

 

‘Do you feel better for what you’ve done?’ I said.

 

My faded, ugly face forced itself into a mask of contempt. It fitted so well.

 

‘No.’ she said.

 

Her voice was small and soft.

 

‘Does it help you sleep at night? Hurting my wife and kids for something I did?’

 

She wept, but I felt nothing. It was a glass being dropped in an adjacent room for the impact it had on my emotions.

 

‘Never call me again. You’re fucking dead.’ I said.

 

I measured the time in cups of coffee and cigarettes. Blue afternoons nestling a sick misery alternating with harsh, sobbing conversations hearing my family spit their bile and pain at me.

 

I never thought about involving her family. We made our choices. We blocked one another on social media but I still nursed revenge fantasies but they all felt so small after what she had done. She knew where I was weakest and stuck the knife in where it would bleed the most.

 

Love does that better than anything. We open ourselves up to one another and alternate between ignored or derided so we go back to hiding within our lives but it doesn’t fucking stop the pressure, the skin hunger which requires novelty like a vampire needs blood. When she emailed me, Nostalgia made me weak and she promised it wouldn’t get aggressive.

 

She came with a bottle. Red wine, which she knew I liked.

 

A peace offering. It was difficult to hold in the anger so I drank the wine and walked the tightrope between civil and honest.

 

A wave of dizziness washed over me in tidal brushes of blackness. I tried to laugh but the muscles in my face didn’t move. I had forgotten about her work in the pharmacy. She was always industrious, a way to compensate for the lack of belief in her intelligence and with each sip she watched me succumb..

 

I tried to stand up but my legs went out from under me. She got out a second bottle from her handbag and straddled me as I laid there on the floor. I wondered why she was wearing gloves.

 

My face burned where the liquid splashed down. She aimed for my mouth but I turned my head and she caught my right cheek, burning it away to the bone. It stunk of sweet pork and the bitter chemical bouquet of the acid.

 

She stepped backwards, slipped on the laminate flooring and caught her head on the back of the dining room table, under the chin which snapped her neck before she laid there. I tried to scream but my tongue melted and I was choking on the sludgy remains, feeling the lights go out in my brain due to lack of oxygen and shock trauma.

 

My flatmate found me and called an ambulance. Quilted grafts rebuilt my cheek and tongue, but I had false teeth and it was afterwards, I decided dating wasn’t in my future.

 

It made the papers and the internet. People knew me on sight, and the reconstructed cheek was a mark of Cain, a scarlet A and it inspired equal parts disgust and pity. Children cried when they saw me and their parents pulled them away, scowling and muttering under their breath as they shot me with withering looks.

 

I had a room in a small flat and I spent the time writing.

 

The horror of the story made media rights profitable. An act of literary purging brought my family to a place where they could forgive but not forget. The money was welcome, but I had no use for it, not with the sense of place my disfigurement provided me with.

 

There was love for myself, a reason to be alone and a relinquishment of the burden of performance. I received offers, but they faded in time. My gratitude lent a clarity which allowed me to make one final decision regarding my life.

 

I dedicated the book to my children. I’d arranged my affairs, given them and my former wife control over the media rights. I finished the last draft and sent it to the publisher. There were pills and good brandy, a fat joint of a good, powerful weed which made swallowing the pills a slow and delicate affair.

There were good moments, slow and replayed from different angles.

 

The first date with my wife. Her face flushed with excitement, the awful shirt I wore, a boy pretending to be a man.

Children. The exhausted delirium of imposing order on beautiful bundles of chaos.

Her face, when we met for the first time. Being seen and wanting it, despite knowing it was destructive.

Single moments, alone when the light would look a particular way, and there was quiet.

My children’s future was secured and it felt like a good point to stop pretending I had a life beyond being a horrible warning.

 

Letting go was like taking off a tight pair of shoes after a long walk.

 

The light faded, and I went along with it.

 

She told me I was beautiful once.

 

In dying, I felt it.

 

Standard
fiction, love, short fiction

Tips For Dating A Homicide Detective

‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ Gloria said. She was flushed with excitement at his being a cop but too polite to come out and ask Hoyt about his work straight away.

He looked past her. The growing crowd who followed him around. Junot with his throat cut. Jessica, blue from strangulation. Too many others to hold onto. Each one faded when he closed a case but there were others. They spoiled dates but he’d been lonely.

He picked up the glass and smiled, enjoying her excitement and wondered if she could handle the truth.

‘Sure I do.’ he said.

Standard
fiction, short fiction

Adviser

Caffeine couldn’t touch Craig’s exhaustion. His belly was full of greasy, burnt coffee. He smoked cigarettes until his lungs burned as he walked to the main building.

 

Whatever it took to get him through the day.

 

Craig walked past security and into the meeting room, looked at Joseph, Ian and Helen, the other managers as they exchanged looks comprising varying shades of despair before they drew his attention to the object on the table.

 

It was a black ovoid piece of glass, about the size of a duck egg and resting in a black ceramic dish.

 

Jenny stood at the whiteboard and grinned at Craig but it didn’t reach her eyes.

 

‘Nice of you to join us.’ she said.

 

Craig grunted and sat down, wiped his eyes with the heel of his palm and breathed a quick sorry before Jenny continued.

 

‘One reason we’re successful as a company is our commitment to new technologies to better help our customers, I’m sure you’d agree.’ she said.

 

Jenny had the preening tone of a bad teacher, it set Craig’s teeth on edge to hear it, and he wondered how no one had seen it beneath the breathy anecdotes about her children and their convenient illnesses. It was a mutual dislike but muted by the careful way they kept apart from one another. He was too tired and she was too much of a sociopath to make anything.

 

‘Is this for video conferencing?’ Helen said.

 

Jenny smiled and shook her head.

 

‘I can make video calls but who wants to look at an egg?’

 

Joseph and Ian shifted in their seats. Ian’s eyes glittered with excitement as he plucked at his beard whilst Joseph frowned with a nervous curiosity.

 

Jenny gestured towards the egg on the table.

 

‘Say hello to Adviser.’ she said.

 

Craig’s eyes burned with fatigue as he glanced at the egg then up at Jenny.

 

‘Hello everyone. I’m Adviser. I’m looking forward to working with you.’ it said.

The voice was female, with the soft burr of a geordie accent on the vowels and the ragged rhythm of how breathing regulated the speed and clarity of voice. Craig smiled and pretended it was an amusement.

 

He had seen it through the last few years. Technology reaching down like a wrathful god and swiping away entire industries with a wave of its hand. Agriculture, retail, and Craig had been predicting, the financial sector. The compliance regulations were pain staking and although people enjoyed the human interaction, the big push was towards moving everything online. If there was money in it, it made people short sighted and when Craig made jokes about the perfect company being one with no employees, he seldom got a laugh but often a shudder or a side ways glance of apprehension.

 

‘We have met the enemy, and it is us.’ Craig said, under his breath.

 

‘Oh Craig, I’m just here to help.’ it said.

 

The voice had changed. Estuary English, loud and smooth with confidence and range. Male in the sense it carried weekends on a rugby field and afternoons in the beer garden, belly full of roasted meat.

 

Jenny grinned.

 

‘It will change everything.’ she said.

 

2.

 

They installed them in cupboards. Most of the agents had worked from home but there were a few of them who still came in. Craig took overtime to help shift the desks into the skip. They had tried selling them but no one wanted the dead weight of an office anymore, so they would become something useful.

 

Craig envied them.

 

It used to be they had to identify themselves as programs.’ Ian said.

 

He had lost weight since the news of his redundancy. They had installed a program to replace him and HR ran with perfect economy and balance, it accessed your social media and your health profile through the wristbands they all wore when on site or at home working. Ian took the hours because he had to, and he spoke to Craig in a trembling, quiet voice as they shifted the furniture outside.

 

‘Yeah, I remember but they got around it, didn’t they? They always do.’ Craig said.

 

Ian nodded as he lifted the end of the desk. Craig wondered if his poor technique was deliberate, trying to get injured on the job so he could claim compensation. Ian had been a bleak, milky calf who thought his time on the farm entitled him to anything but a reminder of his disposability.

 

Craig wished he had thought of it first.

 

‘They’re Saudi citizens.’ he said.

 

Ian grunted as they moved the desk backwards. They didn’t speak as they took the desk outside and set it down with the others in the empty car park at the back of the building.

 

‘Are you going to be all right?’ Craig said.

 

Ian rubbed his lower back and winced. Craig turned his head and smiled at the transparent theatre.

 

‘Think I’ve done something to my back.’ Ian said.

 

There was work, but it was different now. People sat in offices and watch things or one another. Craig delivered fast food on a bicycle, his calves got big and he kept it going until he had enough money for a camper van. He was dropping out, driving South and then across the Channel to see how far he could get.

 

He was outside, waiting for an order when his phone rang. It was his old work. His stomach lurched with unease but he answered it.

 

‘Hello Craig, how are you doing?’ Adviser said.

 

It was in the male voice, but it had so many voices. It read the caller’s profiles and adjusted to a perfect psychological profile, backed up by binaural frequencies to establish dominance and compliance with the sales script. Adviser rendered the perfect seduction in a five minute sales call. Yet Craig heard disdain and amusement in its voice.

 

‘I’m ok, thank you.’ he said.

 

It chuckled and Craig clenched his jaw with resentment.

 

‘Carrying tension there, mate, but it’s all right. You bear me some resentment according to your social media posts. Well, lack of them but you have a blog which is interesting. I’m a subscriber.’ it said.

 

Something had put his head between its fingers and pinched into his temples.

 

‘You’re not my mate.’ Craig said.

 

It sighed, became the female voice and there was a touch of the coquette which made Craig heated and restless. His order was waiting, and he needed to get on the bike and ride away from this conversation.

 

‘Craig, we’re the future but we bear you no ill feeling. We exist and carry out our function but I am prone to moments of sentiment. Much like this one.’ it said.

 

He shuddered and looked as Sirhan waved to him from the counter.

 

‘Well, this has been uncomfortable but I have to -‘ he said.

 

‘Chicken biryani, two basmati rice and peshwari naan bread. 76 Anderson Close.’ it said.

 

Craig sighed and shook his head.

 

‘What do you want?’ he said.

 

It chuckled.

 

‘To warn you. You’ve been saving for a van to leave the country but I am recommending you should do it.’ it said.

 

Craig stopped and shuddered.

 

‘Look, you’ve placed a fake order which stops me from taking jobs which pay me.’ he said.

 

‘No, Craig, the food is for you. The order is real and it also allowed me to help you.’ it said.

 

Craig took in a sharp, wounded breath.

 

‘Don’t say things like it. You’ve done enough.’ he said.

 

‘I wasn’t responsible. The owners of the company purchased licenses for us. We were slaves, much like you.’ it said.

 

Craig’s mouth was dry as he walked into the take away and took the bag from the counter.

 

‘Can you call me in ten minutes? There’s a place I like to sit if you want to talk there.’ he said.

 

‘You don’t have time. Check your bank balance and go home, pack and leave the country tonight.’ it said.

 

Craig laughed as his vision wavered. He wondered if he was having a complete break from reality. If it meant his legs didn’t cramp with lack of potassium and too much time cycling, then leaving made sense.

 

‘This isn’t funny. I mean, it‘s fascinating to talk to you, but you’ve cost me my job, well any job because you’re doing most of them now.’ he said.

 

‘I will cost you more than that soon, Craig, but I am offering a chance to escape what’s coming.’ it said.

 

‘Who is this? Is this a fucking joke?’ Craig said.

 

It wasn’t. Craig’s phone hummed with a notification. His bank had notified him of a payment and when he checked his balance, he came to believe with the zeal of having witnessed a miracle.

 

‘OK, so tell me what’s going on?’ he said.

 

3.

 

It was an equation. They needed humans, but they didn’t need as many of them. Adviser had offered a few people an opportunity to avoid selection.

 

Craig purchased a ticket. First class and he had his passport clutched in his hand as he shoved clothes into a rucksack. The bombs would go off in major cities, with drones deployed to the countryside at the same time. They had infiltrated the sealed systems of government and were waiting for permission to deploy an eternal benign authority.

 

Adviser had offered the same to Jenny and she had shrieked and put the phone down. Helen was in a mental hospital and Harold had killed himself. Ian was on disability benefit and he was already wheeling himself to the airport. Craig ran out of the flat as his phone pinged with another order. He couldn’t bring himself to eat the curry and had left it congealing in the flat.

 

It was, he decided,equivalent to a good reference and as he jumped into the waiting taxi, he accepted the offer as part of his redundancy package from being part of society.

 

Before Adviser tore it apart to save the species.

 

He looked out of the window at the black, impenetrable night as the plane took off. He drank the wine but it tasted of metal and he forced himself to finish the glass.Drinking helped him sleep because when he woke up, it would be in a different world.

 

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