love, short fiction, the transformation, women

Episode 31 – The Process of Becoming (The Transformation)

Previous episodes are here.

I can try to get away, but I’ve strapped myself in
I can try to scratch away the sound in my ears
I can see it killing away all of my bad parts
I don’t want to listen, but it’s all too clear

Nine Inch Nails, The Becoming.

1.

John stopped outside the facility. Kelly held onto his fur with enough force her fingers throbbed but when he lowered his shoulders to the ground, she slipped from his back. She trembled, eyes hot and wet with tears, disorientated and tasting something thick on her tongue.

The boy’s memories, she told herself.

She wrapped her arms around herself, revolted and frightened as John raised his muzzle to the door and barked twice. The door slid open with a hiss as the speakers crackled overhead. Kelly watched him pad inside, wreathed with ribbons of red and orange light as she saw the damage her thoughts had done.

The ribbons were receding as his body healed from the injuries she inflicted. She saw the twisting oceanic waves of his aura, their colours ranging from autumn to spring, and wondered if she was seeing John’s heart, even his soul.

Kelly wondered if she had wounded it.

‘Come in, Kelly.’ the AI said.

Its tone was flat and Kelly looked up at the speakers. A memory of confronting it, pulling on wires and feeding on information.

‘I did something to you. I’m sorry.’ she said.

A sigh came from the speakers.

John laid on the floor and put his head between his paws, growled as Kelly stepped into the facility. The door closed behind her as she watched the ribbons fade away whilst his muscles moved underneath his fur. There were wet, tearing sounds and muted cracks of motion as he breathed through his transformation. John slipped out from the fur, glistening and trembling. He stood up and stared at Kelly, his eyes dark with concern before they rolled up in his head and he fell backwards like a puppet with the strings cut.

Kelly rushed over to him. Her stomach ached as she pulled him into her arms.

She wondered if she could do something good with what lived inside her.

Kelly closed her eyes, went inside herself, a motion which felt somewhere between flight and diving, into the vast clouds of knowledge she held. A library of stolen truths, and each book opened its pages all at once, a cool wave of emotion washed over her as she searched for something she could use.

Kelly had no formal medical knowledge so what passed between thought and action was more art than science. His mind was a riot of raging neural activity, and she found the path of where her thoughts had wounded him.

Knowing what to do and understanding it were two different things, so she did something over understanding it. If it were something she had to live with, then she had time on her side.

There was a care in her investigation, a need to serve and heal him which gave her a surge of crude power. She shook with the force as she pressed her palm to his forehead and closed her eyes.

A transfer of energy between them. The memory of his weight on her in bed, the last good, warm memory they shared before she turned into a monster which fed on memories, used them to wound the people she loved. It was easier to reach into herself and find good things to help him.

Perhaps, she thought, the virus knew her a little too well. She had done it before, to wake him, and she did it again. John stiffened up, but his fingers were gentle when they touched her cheek. His eyes were wide as he stared into her eyes.

‘What have we done to each other?’ he said.

2.

The car swam like a shark down the freeway. Olivia found the smooth hiss of the air conditioning soothing as she looked through the windshield. There was an edge to her thoughts which looked at the occupants of the other cars and weighed up their value to her as meat. It was playful, without malice or real need, but she looked at the young, tattooed man with the trucker cap and faded tattoos on his forearms, and imagined his blood trickling down her throat. She smiled at him and he turned away.

She hummed with a delighted energy. Her senses made everything a playground, sweet and bitter, soft and hard, all the details of the world in perfect clarity as her thoughts swam around her head.

There was a screech of tyres and the percussive crash of metal brought her back to the moment as she looked through the windshield.

An SUV and a Mercedes Benz. The SUV had mounted the smaller car, and Olivia watched as a man got out of the driver’s seat. She watched him pull the brim of his cap down and her eyes fell to the gun in his hand. She stopped the car and undid her seatbelt.

The smart thing would have been to move on, but Olivia needed to test herself before she got to the real work. This, she decided was exercise.

The man in the cap staggered after a few steps. Olivia got out of the car, caught the blood in the air, different flavours mingled with gasoline and brake fluid.

‘You don’t have to do that.’ she said.

He stopped and wiped the blood from his chin.

‘Fuck off, lady. This asshole’s been on my case for miles.’ he said.

Olivia walked towards the man. She looked into his eyes and lifted her hands. Olivia had left the gun in the car because she didn’t need it.

‘Well, you’ve got them now, haven’t you?’

He looked towards the Prius. Olivia heard the sounds of panic from inside. She could smell the weed inside the car, the thin stink of panic and the artless scrambling for their phone. They could record it, she thought, and it decided for her.

‘Put the gun away. The police will come, I’ll Say I helped you out of the truck and we can all get to where we’re going to.’ she said.

She kept her voice soft and hid the flush of victory as the man stopped and looked at the gun in his hand.

He shook his head like he was trying to shake something out before he racked the slide on the gun and walked over to the Benz, lifted the gun and Olivia moved. The instinct snapped her forwards, and the tips of her fingers burst as her claws protruded and she had her hands out.

She dug her fingers into the meat of his neck, corded with muscle and squeezed as she tugged away ragged divots of skin and tissue. His blood was hot on her fingers and she watched it splash down his front, black in the sodium lights. She stepped back and looked at the Mercedes, saw the flashing light of his phone, held at an angle through the window.

Olivia coiled with disgust. She leapt forwards, swiped with her right hand and punched her claws through the back of his hand. Her fingers drew inwards as she pulled him through, reaching through the open window to swipe at his face. He was so young, she thought, before she stabbed her claws into his eyes and he screamed in a high pitch which only came from agony.

It was a mess, but it was quick.

She found the phone, saw it was recording, not streaming and slipped it into her pocket. The traffic was light but someone would see if they hadn’t already. She took the gun from the man’s body, opened the fuel tank on the SUV and went back to her car.

Olivia licked her fingers like a cat, murmured soothing noises of comfort to herself before she drove off. She drove past the cars with care, looked at the mess she had made and decided it was better not to mention this. A field test, a game gone wrong, it was all relative to her. Before dawn, she stopped at a motel, checked in and showered. The phone had no security, so she went in, deleted everything and reset it all to factory settings before popping out the memory card and the SIM, cut them up with nail scissors and flushed them down the toilet..

There was nothing to fear, nothing to doubt. Olivia sat up in her seat, flush with confidence as she saw the turning for the offices.

3.

A party in the kitchen. Loud, boorish noises and someone had good coke, so there was an energetic pace to the volume which reaches her as she’s sat there, trying to write.

No, it was not working.

The violence was too close to drown out or use. The Editor tried to make the scene work, but it did not come to her. She heard a bone crack and someone cries out before the boom of a shotgun made her ears ring as she shuffled forwards. She breathed in, went back to the draft and focused in on the Adam itself.

It was a seething hive of necrotic flesh and electricity, stitched together with sigils and black science. It had been a story in her world, rewritten and deployed to patrol the contested territory.

No one had considered what happened in the long term. Adam had transcended the limits of its narrative and became something else. It had turned on its authors and editors in a display of hubris she wanted to find ironic.

She used the search engine on the quantum keyboard to locate any cars outside. A coincidence in the second line of the moment told her which car had the keys in the ignition.

The Golem roared before something crashed to the ground. She wrote a terse internal narrative which held hypothetical instructions for a set of moves which would stop Adam and sent it.

She heard a hard, compact thump and a gush of fluid before a louder, more complete impact shook the ground beneath her.

The Editor turned as The Golem’s scarred, bald head rolled towards her. Adam’s hands were down by his side as he reached for the knives on his belt. He grinned at her as he stepped forwards. She blinked twice, activated the plot twist.

She started the car and drove out of the grounds. Adam took out the rear windshield with a shot but she got away and it was dawn before she stopped. She pulled over by the side of the road, fished out the lenses and realised she left the case back at the house. Her eyes burned and the tears stung as she put on her glasses and looked around her.

Her phone had been in the bedroom.

The slow trickle of dismal facts pinned her down before she took a deep breath, started up the car and carried on driving. She wanted to go home and feeling sorry for herself was third rate hackery to her mind, so she kept moving until a development came to her.

She called Editorial from a payphone.

‘This is a Corrigendum.’ she said.

‘Where are you?’ Editorial said. It was a different voice each time, and she listened to one of the male voices, gruff from cigarettes and scotch but kind and professional.

‘I drove east from the safe house. I need whatever you have around.’ she said.

Editorial sighed.

‘That was it. Politics, my dear, are the greatest enemies of our art. There’s a safe house on the coast, I can get you back to the Library. There’s no sense in staying until we establish our response.’

The Editor squeezed her eyes shut.

‘No, I’m not leaving. I need support down here. Adam is not stopping and it’s a narrative we can’t have loose.’ she said.

Editorial sighed and she heard the snap of a lighter.

‘A Corrigendum? OK, go to the safe house, wait for further instructions. I’m inclined to pull you out but -‘

‘No.’ she said.

She wanted to go home. The fragile life she was building where the weight of things didn’t rest on her shoulders so much and there was someone with her at night who made her feel safe. The corrigendum warranted a response but her reasons ran deep and she let them anchor her to her decision.

‘I won’t leave.’ she said.

Editorial sighed and she heard him pull on a cigarette.

‘What about the Golem?’ he said.

The Editor looked out at the street, cautious for signs of Adam’s approach.

‘He’s gone. I put in a deus ex machina but it didn’t take.’ she said.

Editorial chuckled.

‘Good girl. Get out of the street.’ he said.

He gave the address and she put the phone back in the cradle and ran to the car. She wanted to call home, but she wasn’t sure about hearing his voice, what it would do to her. The Editor missed it all the time, and the feeling kept her awake as she drove towards the coast.

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beauty, love, short fiction, women

Clouds

Ellie had missed four calls from Jenny. The afternoon had been a gauntlet of customers, each armed with their own set of complaints, which Ellie handled with a grim politeness. The efforts to maintain it drained her, and she still had the kids to deal with, let alone Jenny. She let each call drift into voicemail, but a small dagger of guilt dug into the lining of her stomach with each one.

 

The showroom door opened and the Cloud floated in, three bubbles floating atop one another, filled with sparkling liquid which flashed and exploded in patterns of light.

 

‘Hi, I’m Mrs Underwood.’ it said.

 

Ellie looked down at the laptop, took a deep breath and raised her eyes as the thing floated towards her. She had seen the first Clouds on television and the internet, but this was the first one she’d seen in person.

 

‘Yes, come on through.’ she said.

 

Oscar came out of his office. He wasn’t sure what to do with his hands. Mrs Underwood emitted a field of blue light and Oscar waved his hand through it. The air sparkled where they touched and Oscar gulped with surprise before he gestured for it to join him in the office. Ellie watched it float inside, fighting the rapture which burst like lightning inside her chest.

 

Your consciousness was a net of neural electricity. They scanned it, put it into a frame of molecular robots which left you in a body of light and chemicals, without the weight and failures of the flesh. The liquids were bacteria, providing a source of nutrients which could generate sensory fields of an exquisite variety. Immortal and insubstantial, being a Cloud was a way to cheat death. They were seldom seen because the technology had gone through the normal process of testing – from animals to ill people then athletes and the wealthy. You could generate forms of utility and beauty with the molecules in the air around you in whatever materials you could imagine.

 

So many people depended on their illnesses and burdens to define them. You couldn’t reproduce, or at least no one had figured out how to hack the matter of post human reproduction. Ellie wanted more time with the kids as her, despite the weight which never seemed to shift off her hips and stomach, and the twinges in her back when she was in the car too long.

 

She wanted to remain human, but then she would see Helen, her grandmother. Ellie would watch the pulse of her veins and the translucent, yellowing parchment skin which fell in dewlap folds around her jawline. Her hair, which had been strawberry-blonde curls had thinned and bleached out to kinky wisps on her scalp. Ellie loved her and knew she insisted on going out human but she had spoken to her about it.

 

Ellie was talking to herself about it. She checked her phone and rang Jenny back.

 

Ellie, I’m so glad you called.

 

Jenny’s phone had been incapable of holding a conversation for long. Ellie would make affirmative noise without getting all the details because Jenny would tell her again later, but now the signal was crisp and clear enough to make her wince.

 

‘It’s ok, saw you called. Are you okay?’ she said.

 

Jenny giggled.

 

‘It’s amazing. Listen, I will try something. Hold your phone away from your ear.’ Jenny said.

 

Ellie’s head throbbed with a surprising burst of tension but she pointed the phone away. She had stopped using the hologram feature on her phone because it ate into her data, but she indulged Jenny with the same patience as she did her children.

 

The air sparkled into a column of light, ribbons of colour which burst into blooms of differing textures.

 

‘God, I can’t believe it worked. I followed the signal and here I am.’ she said.

 

Ellie shivered with a horrible awe as she folded her arms across her chest.

 

‘Jenny, what have you done?’ she said.

 

Jenny giggled as she formed the bubble tanks, which floated in perfect orbit. It was a tango of jellyfish, wreathed in clouds of energy and Ellie thought it was wasted on her.

 

‘I’m a Cloud, Ellie.’ she said.

 

2.

 

Jenny floated into the passenger seat and formed a version of herself, stretching the tanks out into limbs and a torso. Ellie struggled not to cry as she sat there.

 

‘How could you be so selfish?’ she said.

 

Jenny frowned and put a field of light out towards her friend. Ellie cried out at the static snap against her skin.

 

‘It was that or kill myself?’ Jenny said.

 

Ellie brought her hands up to her face and shook her head.

 

‘You can’t hold your kids, Jenny.’ she said.

 

Jenny laughed and shook her head.

 

‘I can see every electrical impulse and molecule in the air. I’m sure I can figure out a way to hold my children when I can see them on an atomic level.’ she said.

 

Ellie looked away and gripped the steering wheel.

 

‘What about Gerry?’ she said

 

Jenny turned into a stack of bubbles and sighed.

 

‘We’ve been separated for a year. Plus, I’m dead now, so he can remarry.’ she said.

 

Ellie closed her eyes and shook her head.

 

‘I can’t believe you’ve been so irresponsible, Jenny.’

 

Jenny’s bubbles glowed red and orange.

 

‘What was I giving up?’

 

Ellie turned and looked at her, eyes narrowed against the growing tension in her head. Jenny changed colours to a mahogany river of colour and bursts of buttercup yellow which danced through each one.

 

‘I don’t have to worry about my IBS or menstrual cramps. No more checking for lumps. I don’t have to take a shit again, Ellie, tell me what I’ve lost out on.’ she said.

 

Ellie lifted her chin and pouted.

 

‘Orgasms.’ she said.

 

Jenny laughed, turned into a column of cerulean and emerald.

 

‘I can have them on demand. The chemicals and electricity in the tanks come together and I go all smooshy.’ she said.

 

Ellie sighed and sat back in the driver seat.

 

‘What about a job?’ she said.

 

She knew the answer. Jenny could generate her own personal possessions, nutrition and entertainment. Money could not compete with divinity, which was what frightened Ellie. She wiped her eyes and shook her head.

 

‘Ellie, I love you but this is the best thing for me. I have you to thank.’ she said.

 

Ellie sat up in her seat and sniffed before she asked her what she meant.

 

Jenny asked when she last saw her grandmother.

 

Ellie dialled her from the car.

 

‘Grandma?’ she said.

 

She heard the chuckle, girlish and clear in her ear. Most of their conversations had been shouted and repeated, small phrases which exhausted them both.

 

Listen, I will try something. Hold your phone away from your ear.’ her grandmother said.

 

There was a glow from the backseat as Ellie turned and looked at the cloud of sparkling light which grew, blushes of pink and gold.

 

She got out of the car and winced as she walked down the path. Henry was crying and Lucy was singing along to something on the television. She wondered where Greg was, and why he wasn’t watching them. Ellie needed to pee and wondered if he had retreated to the bathroom which would mean having to deal with the kids, get him out then have the bathroom to herself. She hoped her pelvic floor would be kind to her this evening.

 

Ellie wondered where Helen and Jenny were. The front door opened and Greg stood there, smiled at her until he saw the soft, thoughtful expression his wife wore and asked her if she was okay.

 

‘I could use a hug.’ she said.

 

He limped over, put his arms around her and she rested her cheek on his shoulder as he put his hands on her hips and let her give a sigh of muted relief.

 

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love, men, mother, short fiction, women

A Mother Has All The Weapons She Needs

His father gave a rattling, final breath. Magnus reached out and drew down his father’s eyelids with a precise brush of his fingertips. He turned and looked at his younger brother, Peter who came over and put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. Magnus hid the flinch which came to him and ran his tongue over his lips.

 

‘I do not want the crown, Peter.’ he said.

 

Peter sighed and clasped his brother in his arms and wept with joy. Magnus accepted the gesture, looking past him to where his brother’s wife stood, false tears brimming in the corners of her narrow eyes. The kingdom would survive her, he thought and Peter was well-intended if effete. A harmless king was better than a cruel one, he decided. A cold wind blew the curtains, and Magnus held back the shudder which ran through him.

 

Magnus left the castle after watching his brother take the throne, with letters to prove his identity with enough gold to buy lands and cattle. He sought to live out his days in peace/

 

His brother had other ideas.

 

2.

 

Peter gnawed on a turkey leg as he looked across his council of advisors. Katharine sat to his left, looked to her father and smiled at him, which was his cue to speak. Robert cleared his throat and looked at Peter.

 

‘Your highness, we should discuss the matter of your brother.’ he said.

 

Robert was a good father, and he listened to his daughter. He spoke her words with practiced care as Peter looked at him with a cautious glint in his eyes.

 

‘Magnus lives in the forest somewhere reading philosophy to pigs. He’s no threat.’ he said.

 

Katharine raised an eyebrow and Robert continued.

 

‘Aye, your highness, but even in his exile, he has his champions.’ he said.

 

Peter picked up a goblet and washed the meat down with a mouthful of sour wine as he shrugged his shoulders.

 

‘He’s no interest in the throne. He swore a vow before my father was cold.’ he said.

 

Robert looked to his daughter for guidance. She slipped her hand on his forearm and leaned into his space, gave a smile like a knife being dragged across a windpipe.

 

‘My father has your interests at heart, your highness. The people speak of Magnus with fondness.’ she said.

 

Peter turned his head and grimaced at his wife.

 

‘He doesn’t have to breathe their shit in as I do.’ he said.

 

Katharine smiled and kissed her husband on the cheek.

 

‘No, and his legend grows with each year which passes. Some say you forced him from the throne.’

 

He guffawed and a spray of saliva, flecked with shreds of meat flew from his mouth as Robert sat back in his chair.

 

‘He begged me to take it. Magnus knew what awaited him, and he gave it instead. Clever bastard.’ he said.

 

Katharine glanced at her husband with a quiet, pinched frustration which he ignored with a turn of his head. Robert cleared his throat.

 

‘Your highness, perhaps you could ask his intentions. I have men at your disposal.’ he said.

 

Katharine put her hand on her husband’s forearm.

 

‘You will not rest until you know, my king.’ she said.

 

Her voice was a gentle command as she leaned forwards and pressed against his upper arm. She caught his scent and grimaced.

 

‘See to his health.’ he said.

 

Robert had sent out his men before sunset. A map had been drawn for them, and were acting upon the orders of her queen herself who had addressed them in the stables, wrapped in a black coat with a goblet of wine in her hands.

 

‘Your highness.’ Robert said.

 

3.

 

Magnus walked in from the dark with an armful of logs. Ibb stirred the pot with a wooden spoon as she blew a lock of hair out of her eyes. He smiled and set them down by the fire, before he came and put his arms around her, splayed his fingers over the round curve of her stomach.

 

‘You can’t keep your hands off my belly, Magnus. Should I be jealous?’ she said.

 

Her smile was impish and wild. Magnus rubbed his bearded cheek against her face and chuckled. She turned and kissed him on the cheek before she pushed him away and continued to stir the stew she was cooking. He sat down and poured himself a cup of beer as he watched her prepare their meal.

 

Magnus could afford servants but Ibb refused his money, but had asked for his attention and strength. A simple trade of services and goods which grew into something deeper. It had taken him by surprise, how she had shown no deference to him until beyond his understanding, she had taken him into her bed, and then, by her own admission, her heart.  She questioned why this did not shock him and instead, he pulled her close and pressed his face into her neck and inhaled her skin.

 

It was his answer, a good one, she told herself.

 

Magnus heard the clatter of hooves and got to his feet, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand as Ibb turned around. Her left hand went to her stomach and Magnus smiled at her.

 

‘Finish the cooking, I’ll see who this is.’ he said.

 

.She thought about Magnus and a warm burst of feeling overwhelmed her as she stirred the stew, thinking about feeding her man.

 

4.

 

Magnus looked at the four men on horseback and narrowed his eyes. He saw one man reach for something on his hip and he darted backwards, opened his mouth to warn Ibb. The stone, plucked from the quarry outside Garden’s Hill, slammed into Magnus’s forehead and cracked his skull. He fell away with a shudder, eyes rolled back in his head as blood gushed from his nostrils as he collapsed inside the doorway.

 

The last thing he heard was Ibb calling his name.

 

5.

 

One man drew his sword, a short, pitted piece of pig iron with years of use scarred into its surface as he looked at Ibb and sneered. Ibb stood there, legs apart as she glared at the soldier with cold, hard eyes before picking up the hatchet which sat by the fireplace. He laughed, a short mocking bark which betrayed a measure of caution as he called to the others.

 

She stepped forwards, flung the hatchet overhand and it thumped into his forehead with a dull, damp slap. Ibb took the sword from his hands and shoved him aside. She did not look at Magnus on the way past. She gripped the sword and turned it over in her hands as she charged out of the door. Her stomach ached, but she felt detached from herself as she stabbed the first man in the throat, tugging the blade to the right and bringing his windpipe with it in a moist knot of cartilage and blood. She stabbed upwards on the second blow, punching the sword through the other man’s jaw and then kicking him in the crotch as he fell down with the sword embedded in his jaw.

 

Ibb wrapped one arm around her stomach as she squatted to one side and rested her hand on the hilt of the sword.

 

‘If I pull the blade, you’ll bleed out. Tap once for yes, twice for no. Understand?’ she said.

 

His eyes bulged in their sockets and Ibb tapped the hilt with her index finger, which made him whimper. He tapped once and she sighed as she got to her feet. Ibb knew she was close to having this baby, and she considered how Magnus was not there to share it with her. Her eyes misted over with tears.

 

‘Did you come here on purpose?’

 

He tapped once.

 

She learned what he knew. When she was done, she twisted the blade and pulled it free as the soldier bled to death at her feet. Night had fallen and she looked at the surrounding bodies, including Magnus slumped in the doorway. A shadow had fallen across his broken face, which she took to be a small mercy from the gods as she staggered back into the house.

 

Ibb needed to keep her strength up.

 

6.

 

She sold the cattle for a good price, took the money and disappeared. Magnus had fallen ill, she told people, too quick to be saved. Ibb told people it was something which ran in his family. She was going north, back to her people to have the baby there. People wished her well, but exchanged relieved looks when she was gone. She was a good woman, but something about her frightened them and her departure was cause for relief in the village.

 

7.

 

Robert wiped his forehead with a handkerchief as he watched the hounds leap through the grass. He took up a horn and gestured to a servant who walked up and poured wine into it before stepping backwards with a bow. He took a long draught and wiped his lips with his fingers before he looked through the trees.

 

Robert wanted to kill something beautiful. He imagined it was his daughter, which was something he kept to himself, but as she grew more demanding, his imagination warped and grew fat on his resentment. He picked up the reins and ushered his horse forwards.

 

Something stabbed into his neck and he winced. He brought his hand up as he struggled to swallow. Robert gasped as he stared into the woods, saw someone detach themselves from a copse of bushes as his limbs spasmed out of control. Robert’s tongue swelled up and slipped to the back of his throat as he fell out of the saddle. He died on his back, looking up at the sky and wondering what had happened.

 

8.

Katharine wept as they carried her father’s coffin into the depths of the family tomb. She had needed his counsel, not for herself but for Peter. He had become insensible with drink and even ignored her complete refusal to allow him to return to the marital bed since Ethelred had been born. She still needed a poultice between her thighs each night and his distaste for the realities of women had him fleeing to his whores. Her blessing followed him.

 

They had been so close to victory. She had replaced the commanders and the courtiers with those loyal to her plans. An expansion of territory which would see the kingdom grow into a new era of prosperity. Peter had been useful but soon his madness would outweigh his use as an excuse for her authority. She wept with frustration, not grief but few would ask what brought a woman to tears, let alone a queen.

 

She returned to her chambers, Peter had gone to his whores and she stood before Ethelred’s basket, watched him and summoned the feeling of love she was supposed to experience. He was so wizened and soft, like a plucked chicken or a piglet and she wondered what it would be like to slip a knife into his stomach. It had cost her to bear him, and for what?

 

A son was a legacy, she told herself. His utility to her was affection, so she decided not to harm him. Instead, she reached out and pinched the inside of his thigh between her nails before she picked him up and soothed his febrile, hot cries of alarm and pain. Katharine wished her husband was so easy to control.

 

9.

 

He laid on the cushions as she crawled across the bed towards him. He gestured for her to take off her veil but she shook her head.

 

‘I am not worthy to be looked upon, your highness.’ she said.

Peter narrowed his eyes. It was not Petal serving him tonight, and he was sure it was her turn to provide him with his small measure of comfort. Funerals made him drink, and drinking made him want to fuck someone. He knew his erection was inconstant and unreliable so he ushered her over with a sigh.

 

He felt the blade slide between his ribs and gasped with surprise. Her breath was warm and sweet against his cheek.

 

‘He was your brother.’ she said.

 

Peter turned his head and saw she had kept the veil in place.

 

‘Was?’ he said.

 

She drew back and twisted the blade, opening the wound further as she tugged it free and stuck the blade into the side of his throat underneath the windpipe.

 

‘As girls, they told us the best time to best a man was when his sword was sheathed but his dagger was out.’ she said.

 

Peter clutched at his throat, blood spurting through his fingers as his mouth hung open, tongue protruding as he gave rattling, sodden cries through his ruined throat.

 

She stood up and opened the window, tossed out the length of knotted rope she had left in the chamber and tied one end to the bed which Peter bled onto. Ibb turned and looked at him.

 

‘He never told me about you. I found out, was ready to walk away for the lie but he told me you had honoured his wishes and he was just a man again.’ she said.

 

Ibb tore the veil from her face and glared at the pallid corpse on the bed.

 

‘Now, your highness, you will honour mine.’ she said.

 

She climbed out, quiet as a whisper and was on her way to the palace before the guards came in and the whorehouse erupted into a vicious tornado of panic.

 

10.

 

Katharine awoke to a small hand clamped over her mouth.

 

‘Don’t raise your voice.’

 

Katharine swivelled her eyes in the darkness. She feared for her son, but the voice, low and female, chuckled.

 

‘I’ve no desire to hurt the child. It’s your job, isn’t it?’ she said.

 

Katharine pushed against the hand but she took a hard blow to the temple which made her collapse back against the furs. She thought about biting her but a blade came to rest against the side of her throat. She froze in place, wondering if she could fight her way free.

 

‘I see you’ve got poultices on. Hard birth, was it?’ she said.

 

Katharine nodded as much as the blade would allow. The woman sighed.

 

‘My boy came out like shelling peas. He was a pleasure I would’ve shared with Magnus.’ she said.

 

‘He was supposed to be there with me. The first man I’d wanted a child with, and you had him taken from me.’ she said.

 

Katharine swallowed and waited for her to continue.

 

‘My son didn’t last a night. You took them from me, your highness. You‘re going to tell me why.’ she said.

 

Katharine exhaled as the woman’s hand came away.

 

‘Your brother was a threat to the king’ she said.

 

Katharine could not make out the details of the woman’s face, but she caught the shape of a grimace as she shook her head.

 

‘No, he was a threat to you. Magnus was a good man, he took care of me, and he had no interest in ruling over anyone but himself.’ she said.

 

Her fingers bit into Katharine’s jaw and the pain compelled her into stillness.

 

‘Your man was weak, so you played at being the man you needed. A weak, broken version of one, like your father was. Did you try to win my Magnus?’ she said.

 

Katharine’s heart raced in her chest as her stomach cramped with discomfort. She twisted away but the woman’s fingers squeezed her into holding still.

 

‘You sorry, empty coward.’ she said.

 

Katharine stared at the woman, her eyes adjusted to the gloom. There were soldiers outside, but they were too far to reach her.

 

‘I did what I thought was right.’ she said.

 

Katharine’s last thought was to deny the woman her suffering. She had learned how to deal with pain when she carried her son and with Peter dead, she would be a figurehead, nothing more. The woman stood back, sheathed her knife and raised her hands.

 

‘And where has it gotten you?’ she said.

 

Katharine tried to sit up but the woman’s hands were quick, and two sharp punches sent her into a pitching, total blackness studded with flashes of acute agony.

 

11

 

The last command she gave was to find her son. Diplomatic efforts were made to her neighbours but without her husband, and beset by rumours of her plans to wage war on them, made them unsympathetic to her grief. Kings died like flies. Mirabelle had sent a note of condolence but said a determined mother had all the weapons she needed to achieve her aims which Katherine took as a covert rejection and a mocking note.

 

She moved to the North Tower, attended to by a few servants as she sat each day, blank and mute, as the council of advisors took over the kingdom in her name. Ethelred would have been nine years old, and she walked over to the balcony and looked down at the courtyard. Its distance looked inviting and when she stood on the ledge, the wind buffeted her and she let it take her over.

 

There was a moment’s relief before the earth broke her in two. Her mind had been taken from her nine years ago and it was returned to her as her bones shattered and organs burst inside her.

 

12.

 

Ibb walked over to the bank of the river. She watched him bait the hook with a lump of raw beef, his tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth as he stared at it, fingers moving with a glacial care. She watched him in an appreciative silence.

 

He lowered the rod and smiled at her.

 

‘I will catch us a Heaper, you’ll see.’ he said.

 

Ibb grinned and walked over, ruffled his dark hair and kissed him on the crown of his head.

;You will, my son, you will.’ she said.

 

He stood up, cast the hook into the water and watched it with a grim determination. Nine years old, and he could hunt and dress a deer, wield a knife and walk in silence. Ibb was a good teacher, but she missed having a man to guide him into manhood. She feared becoming like his mother, seeing him for what he could do for her over guiding him into maturity. Such fears made her eyes water, but they passed and as the afternoon sun hung high overhead, Ibb watched her son provide for them both with so much love in her heart she thought it might burst.

 

Standard
love, short fiction

A Whole Step Down From The Side

Paul took over on bass with my band, The Spooky Electric, after Lenny, our original bass player developed ALS and retired before the worst of it kicked in and killed him.

 

El recommended him said they had played together a few years ago, jazz and hip hop but El shared old files and we saw the guy could play. It came down to the simple matter of we liked El, and if El vouched for someone, it was worth a go. He had been the most recent member of the band, stepping in when Lewis got religion and went out to the desert.

 

Paul shook hands with everyone, set up with his own bass, tuned down a whole step, and with his own rig. Jenny peeked over and raised an eyebrow.

 

‘You’ve got Lenny’s set up?’ she said.

 

He scratched his beard and gave a short nod.

 

Jenny switched on the Moog. She smiled with curiosity, her glasses perched on the end of her nose as she ran her fingers over the keys.

 

El counted us in and we jammed through Sense Of Place before it became clear to everyone Paul was a natural fit for the band. Jenny never took her eyes off him. He had a telepathic connection with El which was tighter than anything Lenny could manage, even before the ALS kicked in.

 

I had questioned carrying on but there were people depending on us. We had good years, and Paul was coming out on tour to support a greatest hits compilation which took us out of our contract with Empire Records and covered Lenny’s medical bills until he died.

 

‘What do you think?’ Jenny said.

 

I took my guitar off and passed it to my tech. I looked past her and saw Paul stood with El, comparing notes and pantomiming variations they could work on.

 

I was thinking about calling time on the whole thing. My songs sounded like cover versions or parodies of earlier work, and I was faking the joy I took for granted.

 

Yet it was still my band, at heart, and Paul fitted in too well to make me comfortable with him. He was in, but I would watch him.

 

‘He’ll do for now.’ I said.

 

Jenny and I had split up five years ago. It was all amicable, but I still hoped nostalgia would bring her back and it was a test of my capacity for romance I kept my priapic reputation up as a matter of habit and reputation over any real need. The curious glances between her and Paul stung me but I couldn’t justify it to the rest of the band if we had gone with anyone else.

 

Hindsight has such awful clarity to it.

 

2.

 

He stood to El’s right, and he looked at Jenny as he played. She doesn’t miss a note but there was a focus to her playing which ramps everyone up. It’s a balancing act, between meeting commercial considerations and wanting to develop as artists. Jenny played more blues and jazz, and she would hide herself away to write songs for herself. I had one roady keep an eye on Paul but he was smart, hung out with El and the technical crew but I was sure he was sneaking time with her.

 

The paranoia fed on me, made hollow reeds of my bones as I pushed myself onstage, each night, throwing myself into the adoration of strangers rather than tell the people I loved how frightened I was, how I wanted to stop being the performer but I wasn’t sure I could live without it.

 

Paul worked with me when I played solos, pedalling notes to make my runs down the fretboard sound more dynamic and less technical. He turned down solos, preferring to make the more established members shine onstage. He picked out a fretless bass guitar when Jenny played new material, performing with a nuance and ease which makes me grind my teeth with envy.  I wanted him to be a cunt. I learned he was married, but divorced now and one morning, we’re sat having breakfast together when I talked about my marriage. Jenny has slept in, but El and Paul were there.

 

‘Were you married, Paul?’

 

He looked up from his heaped plate of breakfast meat and nodded before he returned to his food. El narrowed his eyes before Paul poured himself a coffee and looked at me.

 

‘What split you guys up?’ I said.

 

Paul lowered his glasses down the bridge of his nose.

 

‘A lack of self awareness. How About You?’ he said.

 

My temples throbbed with indignation but El had given me a hardened stare whilst Paul carried on eating. I looked at the greasy meat on the plate, appetite gone and I got up from the table without thinking.

 

El grabbed me after a show. He was uncomfortable as he asked me if I had a problem with Paul. I waved him off, but I derived a shallow enjoyment from knowing I still held power over things. The tragedy is I’d lost the ability to wield it with any skill.

 

When Leon called to tell me Paul’s left the tour, I poured myself a scotch and lit a cigarette, and it all tasted the same as Leon asked if I want to sue for breach of contract. I looked at my reflection and say why the fuck not?

 

Why the fuck not?

 

Jenny stormed into my dressing room, whilst I was getting a massage. She was in tears, and she told me how fucking twisted I’d become. Her beautiful face was twisted with anger and grief as she pointed at me, and I laughed at her, despite the increasing pressure in my head.

 

El told me in person he was leaving. Paul and El shared the same manager, and they were floating a constructive dismissal charge. We had a whole leg of the tour cancelled, and I told Leon to find musicians who could play the songs. The accounts showed we were bleeding money everywhere, but I stopped caring about it.

 

Jenny left the tour and spoke to me through lawyers. I went out to the beach house and switched my phone off as I poured myself a drink and went out to watch the waves.

 

Leon had a whole band waiting for me and I didn’t want to finish the tour. He quit and told me he’d see me in court. I poured out another scotch and sat in the living room, watched the shadows grow thick and full like mould in a cheap apartment.

 

Something twisted in the back of my head, filling me with heat and thunder as I threw up down myself and felt the glass fall from my hand.  A blockage in my basilar artery which wasn’t enough to kill me.

 

I was found alive but there was enough damage to see me classified as pseudocomatose. I can move my eyes, but a stroke wiped away all the connections to everything else.

 

I’m trapped in here. My silence was my sentence, and I watched Jenny debut her band, with Paul and El as her rhythm section on a live feed.

 

They were married a year later. My children were involved and I had Leon scroll through the photographs, apologising for having accepted. He had changed his mind about leaving when he did the accounts on my back catalogue value when I died. The stroke wiped away my control of my body and I watched everyone I knew move on without me.

 

Jenny came to see me and ranted at my immobile face until she collapsed into hoarse sobs and was led away by Leon.

 

Paul came over. He knew I disliked him and why, but he bore me no ill will over it. I glared at him until he lapsed into a mournful silence and stood up.

 

He looked at me, the hate and frustration alive in me was so powerful I wanted it to reach inside his chest and burst his heart but instead he smiled at me without malice and walked out of the room.

 

The next video auto played. It was the eighties, we came back with the double album, four hit singles and Lenny starting to drink more to keep his hands steady. I look at Jenny’s eyes and will my heart to grow cold. The attention makes it burn all the more, but I bear it without complaint.

 

I have no other choice

 

Standard
beauty, love, short fiction, women

a walk from the past

To anyone watching, he appeared pleasant and self-contained, groomed and polite as he took books out, or as was more often the case, sat down with a book or a stack of graphic novels and read through them with a focused enthusiasm. He smiled if anyone made eye contact and indulged in balloons of conversation which flew away.

 

Liz handed over the dvd and smiled as she watched him take a book over to a chair in the corner and sit down. He leaned forward and looked up, caught her eye and grinned before he returned his attention to the book.

 

She watched him before Ellie came and asked her if she wanted a cup of tea. Liz nodded without looking at Ellie, who chuckled which made Liz turn around, embarrassed and ashamed.

 

‘Sorry, I was miles away.’ she said.

 

Ellie chuckled and went away to make tea. Liz looked down at the book open on the desk. Wuthering Heights, for the eighth time, and a book which reached inside her chest and squeezed each time she read it. When she looked up, she cried out with alarm as he handed over his library card.

 

Liz watched him ask to check on the status of a reservation before she realised he was asking her to do it, and she hurried herself with a tight-lipped embarrassment before she passed the card back and told him it had not arrived. He thanked her and walked away as Liz stared after him. Ellie came back with two mugs of tea and Liz sat there, awash with the fear she had looked ridiculous with the man.

 

His details were still on the computer and she opened another tab rather than delete the information. Ellie talked about her plans for the weekend, Liz had dinner with her parents on Sunday but nothing otherwise.. She seldom voiced how much pleasure she took in it but Liz had developed a sense of what was appropriate with others over the years, a lack of ostentation was a useful trait to survive, if not to live.

 

She had books.

 

Ellie went out to deal with the influx of returned books and Liz waited until she was on the other side of the desk before she clicked on the man’s information.

 

Joseph.

 

He didn’t look like a Joseph, she thought. He didn’t live far from here and she wondered what his house looked like. The information gave a telephone number and an email address, but nothing about his circumstances or what he did for a living.

 

Such a thing required copying his name into another tab and letting the internet do the rest.

There wasn’t much. No social media accounts and even an image search came up empty. She looked at the reservation.

 

Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulations.

 

Postmodernism gave her a headache, the ghost of too many university boys eager to fill her skull with words before she gave up on dating. Still, he moved with a quiet boldness which didn’t lend itself to the twitching unease of the small town intellectual. She liked his hands and his beard, how he stopped and spoke to people. Liz wondered what it would be like to have his attention for a time, but it crashed into her own wall of insecurities and she closed down both tabs in a hurried rush of guilt. She was curious about him, but it was fragile in the face of her experiences to date.

 

Liz was small, delicate in manner and wardrobe enough to pass for younger but her manner betrayed her. She had a small circle of friends, fellow survivors of the social wars being fought over so little and even a few of those had been absorbed into relationships, either with other people, cats or in Katharine’s case, academia. Liz had a small, quiet life, enlightened by spasms of acute loneliness. After a gilded adolescence, and experiences in further education which prepared her for a gradual lowering of expectations, Liz felt diminished by the years, those she carried already and their allies in the distance.

 

She left the library, letting her hair cover her face as she hurried home. Liz was tired, but made herself walk into the supermarket, dazzled by the overhead lights and the shrink-wrapped line up of choices. Liz picked out a tray of chicken breasts and laid them down in the basket when she looked up.

 

Joseph had picked out a tray of steaks and put it in his basket when he looked around and saw her. His smile widened and he took a step towards her.

 

‘We should stop meeting like this, people will talk.’ he said.

 

Liz fought the rush of blood to her cheeks as she turned away. She liked how he was with people, but when he turned his attention towards her, it made her twist with discomfort.

 

She looked back and saw him stood there, with the basket dangling from his fingers as he looked at her with a cautious interest.

 

‘I’ve seen you at the library.’ he said.

 

Liz smiled at the acknowledgement but struggled to keep herself even and nonchalant.

 

‘Me too.’ she said.

 

He smiled, raising an eyebrow as he moved towards her.

 

‘What you’ve seen yourself at the library?’ he said.

 

She frowned, not getting the joke until he shook his head and changed the subject of conversation.

 

Liz had worked at the library for three years. She enjoyed the work, but worried telling Joseph about it would somehow diminish her in his eyes. The logic of his regular visits eluded her as her choir of anxieties sang from the same hymn sheet.

 

‘You don’t recognise me, do you?’ he said.

 

Liz stared at him with surprise. There had been something, amongst the warm timbre of his voice and the easy manner he carried, but she paid it no more attention than she had anything else about him.

 

He looked around him before he leaned into her space.

 

‘I said you had a bum man should get on their knees and worship. We were in rehearsal for From Land And Sea, Helen Taylor was there.’

 

The mention of Helen tore at Liz, since she emigrated, Liz had entered a broken correspondence but it had been her turn to email. She looked and saw the twinkle had remained, masked by the beard and the polished armour of confidence.

 

‘Joe Mason.’ she said.

 

Different surname, she told remembered, but hadn’t his mum remarried? Liz’ mum would know, but the thought of explaining it made her feel faint, so she gave in to her surprise and stared at him as he nodded.

 

‘You look good.’ he said.

 

His voice lowered the burr reached into Liz’ stomach and caressed a slow, liquid heat into being. The sensation made her feel girlish and strong and she straightened up a little in the face.

 

‘No, but you’re kind to say so, Joe.’ she said.

 

She coughed and took him in. He was thicker across the chest and shoulders and he had shaved his head, which contrasted well with the beard.

 

‘You do too.’ she said.

 

They laughed through the awkwardness in the polite, unspoken way people did. Ghosts of roads not taken put their arms around Liz, whispered at what she had missed out on, but Joe had never taken his shot either. He had been quiet and polite, but that one comment aroused her interest and he had seen the look in her eyes across the stage and never followed up on it. She had burned for him to ask her out, but his attentiveness and concern grew pathological and she had resigned from the vigil when Bradley asked her out to the school disco.

 

She blinked away tears and Joe smiled as he peered into her basket.

 

‘Want to get something to eat, Liz?’ he said.

 

She was scruffy and tired, embarrassed not to recognise him but Liz brushed her hair from her eyes and told him she was starving.

 

He was reading the Baudrillard as research for a book he was writing.

 

Liz stopped and looked at him with surprise.

 

‘You can’t just drop it into conversation and not elaborate.’ she said.

 

He wrote comic books under a different name, published in America and he had put out original series alongside the short runs on superhero titles. He looked at the pewter Captain America badge on the lapel of her coat and told her the name he wrote under.

 

To her relief, it was work she remembered and enjoyed.

 

Liz admitted she had looked at his information and he chortled as he drew closer to her.

 

‘So we both have our secrets don’t we? I’ll keep yours and you’ll keep mine.’ he said.

 

She looked down, felt the blood rising in her cheeks. Liz had not played the coquette before but he made it simple to work out how to do it without looking foolish.

 

‘Deal.’ she said.

 

They went into the pub, found a booth at the back out of the way and he said the steak was good here. She had been looking at the menu, unsure of what to order and she leapt at the chance to delegate the decision to him. Steak sounded great, she said and he smiled at her as the waitress came and took their order.

 

Liz couldn’t talk about Tom at first. She talked around him, but Joe looked at her, asked questions which opened her up to fill in the gaps since high school.

 

‘I was married. It didn’t work out.’ she said.

 

A universe hung between those words.

 

He sat forwards and picked up his beer.

 

‘I’m sorry, Liz. I never went down that road.’ he said.

 

Her hands shook as she wrapped them around the glass and lifted her chin.

 

‘We’re not smart when it comes to love, are we?’ she said.

 

He looked down and smiled then reached his hand across the table. She looked at the thick fingers, the dark hairs on the backs of his hands and the thick wrists before she put her hand atop his. The contact was galvanising and he looked into her eyes with a quiet, gentle acceptance which gave speed to her thoughts.

 

She breathed out and got up from the table, excusing herself with a soft whisper as she went to the bathroom and sat in a cubicle. Liz wanted to take him home, but the flat was a mess and her grooming routine had descended into washing and finding a gentle comfort in toying with the hair as she laid in bed reading.  She decided not to announce the fact but telling herself meant she could commit to it without feeling bad about it.

 

Their food arrived and the conversation grew light as they enjoyed the food. They shared memories of music and film, books and television to paper over the gaps in their mutual experiences. Liz checked her phone for the time and saw it was close to nine o’clock. The time had flown by, and although she should have been sensible, there was a spring to her perceptions which made being around him a good, if impulsive decision.

 

He turned around outside the restaurant and kissed her. She whimpered as his hands came up to touch her cheek and she placed her hands on his shoulders, then his neck before she pushed him backwards, exhaling with surprise as she stared at him.

 

‘You can’t come to mine tonight.’ she said.

 

He chuckled and shook his head.

 

‘You’re assuming I wanted to.’ he said.

 

The prickling of anxiety fled at the smile he gave and she kissed him again.

She led him to the river, and they walked, with her arm looped around his, looking for a relative measure of privacy.

 

Liz heard the caws of contempt from the boys sat on the bench. She tightened her grip on Joe’s arm without meaning to, and he lifted his chin and smiled at them.

 

‘Evening.’ he said.

 

They looked away and smiled. Liz saw one of them wink at Joe and she blushed as they walked past. She stopped him when they turned the corner and she kissed him again. He accepted the gift of her appetite without concern before they found a bench and she straddled him.

 

It started to rain and she drew him close. His hands closed on her backside and she drew back.

 

‘Joe, do you still feel the same way about my bum?’ she said.

 

He smiled in the dark and squeezed her underneath his fingers as he pulled her down towards him.

 

The rain did not wash the past away, but it cleared a path for them both as they reunited, familiar strangers rewriting history as the new day watched from the shadows, eager to begin.

 

Standard
short fiction

Episode 30 – Force of Arms (The Transformation)

Previous episodes are here.

1.

A surge of electricity had fried everything, cameras and alarms before someone had bust through the door, the locks wrenched like taffy and the cabinets torn open.

 

A pair of combat revolvers.Four boxes of ammunition.

 

Pump action shotguns. A bandolier. Eighteen shells.

 

They had taken the good knives. The fixed blade models and sheaths.

 

What scared the police and Frank, the owner, was what were these people going to do. Frank was glad the cameras were out because he wasn’t sure he could look at whoever it was and be able to sleep again.

 

2.

 

The Editor took off her spectacles and rubbed her eyes. She was drunk with exhaustion, sat in the neat, back bedroom of the Golem’s house. There were multiple forces at work here, two pairs in proximity whilst another moved towards them.

 

There were bodies around all of them. She saw the information as glowing flecks of red coal scattered like ashes next to the soft flames of their presence. She saw the light of the monsters and the people burned by contact with them. The Golem had arranged for men to connect direct surveillance of the sites, and with a phone call, had police reports available of the pertinent events.

 

The slaughter in the woods.

 

A robbery which ended in an assault by something described as a gigantic wolf or bear.

 

Families brutalised in their homes. Strangulation or blunt force trauma, conducted over a short, vicious space of time.

 

The Editor had asked for a moment and the Golem had one of his men take her to the room. She had heard his footsteps echo down the hall and laid down on the bed.

 

The bedroom smelled of fresh polish and citrus, old oak furniture polished until it shone. She sighed as she laid down.

 

A sleeper agent in another realm, sent into a place which had appalled and enthralled her. The Editor had taken ill, forced to contemplate whether it was the world killing her, or a rejection of the woman she had been before this. She met someone strong with her, did not sit and suffocate her, stayed over but accepted the jagged rhythms of her work and the need for space. She missed him, hating the lies but knowing the cost of candour with him. In bed, at night, she’d sleep with her head on his shoulder, tucked into his arm after they read together.

 

She ached to tell him about all the additional Hemingway work she knew. The poetry of Hypatia, a female version of Lovecraft which was taught in schools. He was happy with his world, and when he stayed over, watching her laugh and dance, she believed she could be too.

 

They would kill him if they knew about him. It led her to wonder about the life she wanted, and where.

These thoughts followed her into a thin doze before there was the clatter of alarmed activity and she was on her feet, reaching for her spectacles and opening the door.

 

3.

 

Olivia practiced the flex of transformation in the mirror, Amaro’s touch had opened her to an intimacy of flesh which lent itself to a new art.

 

Cosmetics. She had tightened the flesh along her jawline and given her lips a sensual flushness. Her hair was thicker and longer, and she knew it would lead to hunger pangs but she wanted the experience.  

 

Her work was her priority, she told herself. These abilities were signing bonuses and when she watched Amaro enter the room, she smiled at him in the mirror.

 

‘Are you ready?’ he said.

 

She stood up and smoothed down the front of her cream blouse. The glasses were tucked into the front pocket as she turned and smiled.

 

‘I will head out now and be at their offices by morning.’ she said.

 

He smiled and walked towards her with open arms.

 

‘You’re following the money?’ he said.

 

She nodded and slipped her arms around his lean waist. Amaro was centuries old but his flesh was warm and lean as he held her.

 

‘My good girl. Do me proud.’

 

He moved back and looked to the door as she went through. An unpleasant splash of dismissal hit her on the cheek as she went out to the waiting car. She reminded herself such spasms of feeling were unwise here, despite the gifts of her new existence.

 

They were monsters.

 

4.

 

Kelly stroked the fur along his muzzle. His eyes were closed, but he was breathing in deep, even bursts as his chest rose and fell.

 

‘I need you to wake up, John.’ she said.

 

She shook him, wondering what she had done here, a single thought forged into a single command, fired from her head like an insult she couldn’t take back. There was a phrase when you coined the perfect comeback after being insulted, in French, l’esprit de l’escalier and it had felt like delivering one of those before the event.

 

Kelly fought the panic as she heard screams from the house behind her. They had found the boy.

 

Kelly focused on reading John. She saw the sluggish flow of neurons, the pneumatic pump of his circulatory system and analysed it as an engineering problem. Her fingers knotted in his fur and she pushed a command into him, felt the power of the word flow down into him as it bloomed inside him. A perfect, qlippothic thought which was a phrase she never thought of before, but it fitted as she plucked it from the massive storm of knowledge within herself. Kelly had used it to hurt people, but within her was the capacity to help. To heal.

 

He opened his eyes and sniffed the air.

 

Kelly put her hands to her face as she watched him get to his paws by degrees.

 

He pushed his muzzle against her belly, gave a soft butt into her stomach before he turned and padded away into the shadows of the garden. She walked with him, trembling with anticipation at his reaction when he became a man again.

 

She had hurt him and been hurt in turn. Kelly followed him, felt the chill of night bite into her skin as they moved back to the grounds. She had climbed the wall with ease before, but now, exhausted and aching, it looked impassable. John barked and lowered his massive shoulders to the ground as she looked at him.

 

Kelly got it as she climbed onto his back, the raw power of his form pulsing through his bones and muscles with each breath as she dug her fingers into his fur. He stood up, bore her weight without effort as he turned away from the wall to gain some ground. She gripped onto him and closed her eyes as he charged the wall, moving from a trot to a sprint which ended when he pushed off his back legs and leapt into the air. John was the only solid thing beneath her as they left the ground and she fought the dizzying nausea of being airborne before they landed on the ground.

 

Kelly opened her eyes but kept her fingers dug into his fur as he ran towards the facility.

 

5.

 

Adam racked a round into the shotgun as he walked out of the shadows, his hair hung in his face as blue sparks of electricity flashed between his gritted teeth. His skin had become translucent and yellow, visible patterns of veins and musculature in motion with each step he took towards his target.

 

He looked at the house and smiled at the chance to act according to his purpose. A line from the one of the books he had used to educate himself, back when he was at war with his creator.

 

“Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.”

 

Adam climbed the wall with ease as he sent his consciousness into the electrical grid of the property, overloading it with the force of his will. He shut down the lights and power. There were two of them here, and they had force of arms to protect them.

 

He lifted the shotgun to his shoulder and watched the movement through the windows.

 

‘Come out and face me.’ he said.

 

His voice was a sonorous, booming thing which shook the glass in their frames.

 

The metallic rasp of weapons being loaded came to him and he smiled as he walked across the lawn.

 

A door swung open and the muzzle flash drew his attention as the round whipped past his head. He squeezed the trigger and the shotgun boomed as he walked. He heard the thump of a body hitting the floor and he pumped another round without thinking.

 

Another volley of rounds came through the dark, one took the meat of his right cheek in a spray of blood and skin whilst one buried itself in his shoulder but he fired and heard someone cry out. He shouldered the shotgun and drew the revolvers, brushed his thumbs over the hammers, having tooled them for a lighter action.

 

Webs of light danced across his ruined cheek, knitted the flesh together with an ugly economy as he saw a shape through the gloom and fired at it.

 

The bullet to his forehead stopped him, like holding a sneeze and a sick throb of pain went through him as black blood squirted from his nose. He lifted both revolvers and fired, watched the man’s head burst apart before he moved into the house.

 

Adam brushed the hair from his face as he watched the men point their weapons down the hall at him. He snarled at him, awash with hate and pain, all of it harnessed to his will.

 

‘Bring them to me.’ he said.

 

They fired at him, enough to bring him to his knees but he got up and fired both guns as he walked.

 

A spike of sensation charged through him, as they shot the flesh from his bones but his shots never missed, even when a bullet took out his jaw and it hung from his face before a corona of electricity glued it back on and two men were dead before he smiled again. He slipped the revolvers back into the shoulders and brought up the shotgun, cutting a path with the force of his violence.

 

There was a flickering light past the men, visible through the air, thick with smoke and bullets as he kept firing.

 

A fire, waiting to burn him.

 

6.

 

She slipped the contact lens in, calm despite the roar of gunfire and the screams of dying men. The Editor brought up a quantum keyboard and started to write a better version of events than this was turning out to be.

 

He had found them instead, and she focused on crafting the right opening line as the Golem walked out of the room, smoke rising from his skin as he told her to get working. She could work to a deadline, she thought.

 

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men, short fiction

Dispositio

Nathan and Felicity sat there, papers arranged with a surgical care and wearing identical expressions of smug, glacial triumph. Henry walked into the meeting and swore under his breath at the sight of them.

 

Felicity was the Director of Preventative Measures Against Gendered Violence, she was broad with wide, flat features. Her cats eye spectacles perched on the bridge of her nose. She had an athlete’s build. Henry smiled at her as he strode in and enjoyed the polite scowl of contempt she gave.

 

For one of his books, Henry had researched chess to better flesh out his protagonist, and there was a phrase which came to his mind as he looked between the pair of them.

 

Zugzwang. Where you were in a disadvantageous position but had to move. He patted his phone in his pocket and turned his attention to Nathan.

 

Nathan had a face like a malnourished child He had his legs crossed tight enough to make Henry’s balls ache in sympathy..He inspired a whiff of contempt at how he could not hide his cold glee at being able to bring Henry down. His small head and red bow tie made Henry wonder if he could reach over and wrap his hand around it. He wouldn’t squeeze, but he would hold the manlet in his hand to show him how offended he was in his flamboyant dishonour. Henry would not have characterised Nathan as a eunuch because it implied he had balls in the first place, and there was a nauseous ambiguity to him. Nathan aspired to be nice, and nice men were dangerous, Henry thought.

 

Felicity was in it for the money. Her job was to project her own pain and inadequacies onto the university and took a large paycheck home each month. Henry respected the allure of money, it had brought him here. An award of a contract and a completion bonus at the end of it. Henry saw the furtiveness when she thought no one was looking. She had occupied an ideological niche and saw a way to make money out of white guilt but she carried a wilful diagnosis of impostor syndrome.

 

Most activism in identity politics,chose the wrong targets. He wondered who had hurt these people, fathers, he guessed but he was here as an apogee and it had all started out with the best intentions.

He came to teach writing here, fancying being an Englishman in America and keen to educate young people on the power of story. Henry lacked a formal education beyond having the discipline to write through injury or insult and keep taking all the rejection on the chin. There was an element of ego in it for him and when he sat with the applications for the course, he had visions of inspiring bold, feral writers to tell good, engaging stories. He sat with the stack of applications and a notebook to write his thoughts.

 

Lauren was expanding the bandwidth of what it meant to be a woman. She wrote a piece about growing a beard but it was not the possible transgressive act which dismayed Henry. There was no story, just a diary entry. An unpublished draft of a blog post.

 

She put more detail into her biography. The list of preferred pronouns, the word salad of their sexual identity which amused Henry until he realised it was not part of the story. Her writing meandered, nothing moved and it did not even have the tang of nihilism to mitigate it. Competence of technique but no story at the centre which bored Henry rigid.

 

Jennifer wrote about dating her father’s colleague but it was so self-serving and boring, Henry struggled to finish it and even the end escaped him. She left for college and he went back to his wife. They didn’t even fuck, just held hands and she cried. Henry wanted to believe a better story was in there.

There was one who was angrier than the others.

 

David did not surprise him. He was thin, with sharp, ascetic features and a genuine humility. He had changed over from business studies and talked about having to work two jobs to cover tuition for the rest of the year. Henry recognised the hunger in the writing, but winced at the clumsy leaps in narrative, the obsessive need to describe everything. David wrote about a woman, who he did not name but he knew well. Something had passed between them and then broke them apart. An old boyfriend, and David wrote about his feelings for them. An act of violence and the day before it happened, captured in spare, detailed language. Walking through the corridors with an assault rifle, looking to save his girl from a bitter, loveless marriage but facing armed resistance on the way. It was a power fantasy, but so was everything Henry wrote, so he was kinder to the work because it showed genuine promise.

 

‘Good afternoon.’ Henry said.

 

Nathan gestured to the chair and Henry sat down, put his shoulders back and stuck his chest out. He held Nathan’s eye until he looked away. Felicity turned the first page.

 

‘Mr Ellis. We are investigating a complaint of gendered violence and trans phobia from a student.’ she said.

 

Henry gave her a pointed look and smiled.

 

‘Who?’ he said.

 

Valerie frowned and looked towards Nathan.

 

‘That’s confidential.’ Nathan said

 

Henry chuckled which made the pair of them sit back in their chairs.

 

‘How many students have complained?’ Henry said.

 

Nathan pouted and looked at the papers in front of him.

 

‘One or over one student has registered a complaint -‘

 

‘Which is it? One or over one. Do I possess Schrodinger’s Student, Nathan?’ he said.

 

Valerie sighed.

 

‘This isn’t helping, Henry -‘ she said.

 

‘Mr Ellis, thank you. Let’s keep this formal as much as possible.’ he said.

 

Valerie nodded and looked down to read from the statement.

 

‘In a recent round of feedback, did you describe a student’s submitted essay as childish?’

 

Henry chuckled and shook his head.

 

‘No, I said the story was childish. I am trying to teach writing here, and I’ve sought to be constructive but nothing makes them look up from their phones.’ he said.

 

Nathan simpered and looked down at his paperwork.

 

‘Did you refuse to use a student’s preferred pronouns in class?’

 

Henry sighed and put his hands together.

 

‘It became difficult to remember them once we got to the fifteen mark. Nathan.’ he said.

 

Nathan’s face was still. Henry looked for a reaction but Nathan lifted his chin. Henry observed how the second and third chins were drooping with age.

 

‘Please answer the question’ Nathan said.

 

Henry sat back in the chair.

 

If they’re terrified of feedback then they are in for a terrible shock, aren’t they?’ he said.

 

Felicity sighed and turned a page over.

 

‘Please answer the question, Mr Ellis.’ she said.

 

‘I did not refuse.’ Henry said.

 

Nathan wrote something down and looked up at Henry.

 

‘Your methods of giving feedback are problematic’ he said.

 

Henry drew his lips back over his teeth.

 

‘So, is that an official position of the university, Nathan?’ he said.

 

Nathan adjusted his bow tie and Henry returned his attention to Felicity.

 

‘So, Schrodinger’s Student has complained. I think it’s an excuse because I’m honest with them about the areas of development they need to work on.’ he said.

 

‘We’re here to protect the students. ‘Felicity said.

 

Henry breathed in, taken aback and incredulous as she gave a slow blink.

 

‘From whom? They’re in a university. I’m here to teach them and I shouldn’t have to work so hard to do it. I’m trying to disabuse myself of the idea it can’t be taught, but some of these students are the worst blend of narcissism and puritanism.’ he said.

 

Nathan saw Henry’s passion as panic and he leaned forward as he made notes.

 

‘Well, when Human Resources receives a complaint or complaints, we investigate it.’ Nathan said.  

 

‘They’re children, and you won’t let them grow up. If they have issues with how I teach, they’re welcome to discuss it with me.’

 

Henry noticed how the corners of Felicity’s mouth flickered upwards. It was not a pleasant sight, seeing the pleasure she took in the dull sport of this meeting.

 

‘Do you feel you’re being accused, Mr Ellis?’ she said.

 

He pressed his palms together.

 

‘ It’s ridiculous and unwarranted.’ he said.

 

‘But you can understand why some of your students feel threatened by you?’ Nathan said.

 

His enjoyment was clear, the flamboyant dishonour there in his smug smile and looking down his nose at Henry.

 

‘No. I’m clear my comments challenge but it’s guide them to produce stories of quality and appeal.’ he said.

 

Felicity shook her head.

 

‘Mr Ellis, some of your students are suffering from neurodivergence and their gender identities are threatened by your approach.’ she said.

 

Henry’s temples throbbed as he sat back in the chair.

 

”You’ve used words but I’m not sure they meant anything.’ he said.

 

He wanted to point out it was almost a pangram, but he decided against it. He glanced around at the airless, antiseptic office. It saddened him how at ease Nathan and Felicity were, fragile and domineering without the cheer of outrage to warm them.

 

‘Is this a formal meeting?’ Henry said.

 

Nathan and Felicity glanced at one another. Henry got to his feet.

 

‘You two keep looking at one another like you’re in a play and you keep forgetting the lines.’ he said.

 

Felicity furrowed her forehead and looked down at the paper in front of her.

 

‘Mr Ellis, this is not a formal hearing.’ she said.

 

Nathan took a sealed envelope from the pile of papers and held it out for Henry. Henry’s chest ached for a moment at the frustration and disbelief of what was happening.

 

Henry looked at it but did not take it. Nathan held it out for him for a painful, awkward moment before he set the envelope on the table and pushed it across to him.

 

‘Opening it means I am acknowledging it. Which I am not. So tell me what’s in there.’ Henry said.

 

Nathan smiled, showing baby teeth behind thin, bloodless lips before he composed his expression into a false paternalism.

 

‘Your behaviour has breached section 3 of our gendered violence and conduct policy. Pending an investigation, the dean of faculty has agreed to suspend you until we’ve carried out further interviews.’ he said.

 

Henry fought the urge to reach out and grab Nathan’s head in his hand and grip it. His affected effeteness offended to Henry on a personal, visceral level. He felt his body throb with a focused burst of aggression but he took in a deep breath and got to his feet.

 

‘What policy?.’ he said.

 

Felicity leaned forward.

 

‘It was introduced at the most recent racial and gendered violence awareness workshop.’ she said.

 

Henry narrowed his eyes and studied her.

 

‘The voluntary one?’ he said.

 

Felicity nodded and leaned forward, confident in capturing Henry in his own words.

 

‘It was mandatory for HR and pastoral staff, but everyone was invited.’ she said.

 

Henry craved a cigarette, but he used the urge, felt for the hole in the story here with the same brute discipline and insight he had fed on when no one was reading his work and he was learning from failure more than success.

 

‘So, it was voluntary. I learned it in the Royal Navy, never volunteer for anything.’ he said.

 

Felicity sat up in the chair and regarded Henry with a neat disdain.

 

‘These workshops allow us to know the signs of racial and gendered violence.’ she said.

 

Henry didn’t want to sneer but Felicity irritated him. He never knew how to argue with American women. Men, he could prepare himself to escalate into violence with. Women were capable of being vicious actors but they could never agree to the weapons used in the duel. He drew the blunt club of his obstinance and swung it at them both.

 

‘And introduce policies I’m being suspended on.’ he said.

 

Henry had, back when he had day jobs and sidelines designed to distract him from taking on the fear of writing anything, he had been a trade union representative. The irony had not been lost how he defended members from bullying and harassment, and here he was, decades later, being accused of it.

 

It made him sad how the world had changed, and he rubbed his closed eyes with his fingertips.

 

‘I’ll expect to be paid and have access to witness statements before any further meetings.’ he said.

 

He could have raised many things in his defence but he saved it. He thought about David, had sent the first story to his agent in a gesture of genuine enthusiasm. A man did things to help others, through helping himself. It hurt him because he took pride in being a mentor to those willing to accept it and he was accused of it being abusive.

 

The shots rang out from the hallway. All three of them flinched. Nathan yelped and got up from the chair and moved towards the back of the office.

 

Henry stood up and went towards the door. He swallowed, heart thumping in his chest as he reached for the door.

 

‘Henry, please.’ Felicity said.

 

Henry closed his eyes and opened the door outwards. He took a deep breath and walked forwards.

 

‘I’m coming out. Please don’t shoot.’ he said.

 

He waited for the shot.

 

There was a broken sob, and it hurt him to hear it.

 

He opened his eyes and turned around.

 

David had the assault rifle held to his shoulder. His eyes welled up with tears as he looked past the front sight and smiled at Henry. He wore a black long sleeved t shirt, grey camoflague pants tucked into boots with a perfect crease down the front. Henry admired the precision, until he saw the people laid on the ground behind him.

 

‘Mr Ellis.’ he said.

 

Henry’s mouth went dry like autumn leaves and his next breath was a chill in his lungs.

 

‘What’s with the gun?’ he said.

 

He floated above himself, watched him stand there as David lowered the rifle. He shuddered and shut his eyes as he shook his head.

 

‘I wrote all those words for her and she’s fucking engaged.’ he said.

 

Henry fought tears as he nodded.

 

‘I’ve been there, David. Writing about it helps, the good and the bad.’ he said.

 

David sucked in a deep breath.

 

Henry tried not to look at the slumped body in the hallway behind David.

 

There were screams echoing from everywhere.

 

Henry walked towards him and opened his arms. David shuffled towards him and Henry realised how the first story, his best if he was honest, was a plan.

 

‘It will be all right David.’ he said.

 

David shook his head as he slipped the rifle off his shoulders. Tears streamed down his face and he stared into Henry’s eyes with an intensity which hurt to look at. Henry imagined it would hurt less than a bullet so he kept his eyes with David as he put the rifle on the ground.

 

David shook his head and grimaced.

 

‘No, I won’t. But you’ll be okay, Mr Ellis.’

 

Henry smiled as his eyes grew damp and he swallowed.

 

‘Call me Henry.’ he said.

 

David grinned and reached to the small of his back as he lifted his chin. There was a terrible, blank joy to his face as he lifted the small pistol and pressed it to the side of his head.

 

‘Goodbye, Henry.’

 

He squeezed the trigger. It turned him liquid and he poured onto the floor.

 

Henry went over to him and knelt beside him.

 

He stayed there until the police arrived. Nathan and Felicity went on six months safety leave and the accusations went away. He signed completes for anyone who requested it but there were less than he expected.

 

Those who stayed, listened, but he missed David in the classes even when he learned about how he shot the girl he talked about, and her fiance. They had shared one class together but never spoke beyond a few words. He wrote to David’s family, but they never replied. People took his submission of David’s story as a publicity stunt because checking the dates would not be as good a story. It was an irony David would have appreciated, had he lived.

 

It was during the Christmas break on a flight back to England for Christmas with his family, he wrote about David in a small black notebook. He was tired enough to let himself feel the grief and the first few lines, written in the sealed warmth of a ride home through the blur of tears.

 

 

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