love, men, short fiction, Uncategorized

Riot Love

An excerpt from the work in progress.

1.

 

Henry slipped his hands into the womb like pockets of his biker jacket, despite having gotten the shuttle bus to campus. It was thick and heavy, like armour and he drew a measure of comfort from it, like the beard he’d grown in over the last few years. He grimaced as he heard the ragged chants which hung in the air like soiled sheets.

 

There were ragged knots of people, some of them holding up hand-painted signs. They laughed and joked like wedding guests but there were those who affected hard pained expressions. Henry recalled such expressions,during the days on patrol and nights listening for the roar of mortars. He saw the lecture theatre, but noted with dismay, how it was where the majority of protestors had gathered. Barricades had been set up, and Henry turned to one side as he made his way through the crowd. People glanced at him, and as he continued through, the weight of their stares scratched at his perceptions. The whiff of unwashed flesh made his nostrils flare, layers of dried sweat, patchouli, pot and cigarette smoke all cohering into a slick bolt which was wedged into his sinuses.

 

‘Sexist. Fascist. Em. Arr. Ay. Nazi Punks Go Away.’

 

His heart sank, but he closed his eyes and powered through before anyone noticed he was walking towards, and then into the theatre. Henry’s temples pounded in time with his heartbeat, as he scratched the back of his neck before he realised he hadn’t taken a breath on his walk through the crowd.

 

When he looked back, he saw a lake of contorted faces. Phones and cameras were held up alongside the signs and placards. Everyone filmed everyone else, until it became a panopticon, a few hundred monologues playing out, with anyone attending cast as the villain.

 

A fluttering irritation beat inside his chest and as he scanned the crowd, his gaze fell on one woman. She stopped chanting and they stared at one another, as she raised her eyebrows and let her mouth fall open before a heavy set woman with a knitted cap to her right touched her arm, as though rousing her from a disturbed sleep and she turned away. Henry swallowed and watched her, struck by the artful beauty of her face as much as the hateful crowd.

 

Henry turned and walked inside.

 

2.

 

Her hair fell either side of her face in silvered wings and when she looked up from her notes, she smiled and looked at the audience. Henry had sat at the back, dismayed by the lack of people here but not surprised.

 

No one wanted to hear about how men were victims of anything, unless it was women. Even other men, Henry thought, or at least the men who were on television and writing the newspapers. He leaned forwards in his seat to diffuse the tension which was pooling in his chest and stomach.

 

As she spoke, part of his attention drifted inwards and then backwards.

 

When Henry had signed up, Simon had written to him, sent care packages and made videos for him, telling him over and over, to hang in there, to look after himself until Henry carried his voice out with him on patrol. Simon wrote about the small details of life back home, and he revelled in the warm memories which they prompted.

 

Simon told him he needed to live and come home so he could be his best man. Or, he’d joked, his maid of honour. Henry, thousands of miles away, had laughed loud enough to make some of the guys look at him and he couldn’t explain how funny and comforting he had found the joke. His service prompted an idealisation which he never felt he deserved. Simon’s gift had been to puncture it at every opportunity.

 

The first night home, Simon introduced him to Keeley and her friend, Lori. Henry took full advantage of the idealisation then, but he was sweet to Lori, who understood what he needed and left in the same spirit. That summer, Henry kept himself under control, but when the recollections grew too heavy to bear, Simon listened and let him purge without judgement. Henry knew Simon and Keeley were wrapped up in one another but their friendship bore absences without complaint. They were in the same part of the world, after all, but Henry left them to it.

 

When he was in country, Henry handled prisoners of war, jihadis who came into custody with a compliance which made him uncomfortable, they had dull, glazed eyes and slumped shoulders. Their smiles would be artificial, as though issued to them by circumstance and would be slipped on whenever they encountered Henry or one of the other soldiers.

 

One night, he saw Simon had the same expression. They had gone for a beer, and once they’d covered television and last night’s game, Simon had sighed and looked into his beer. Henry had been about to ask him, but one of the waitresses winked at him and the flattering gesture had gone to his head faster than the alcohol. By the time he looked back at Simon, the smile was back on and they changed the subject to the waitresses’ backside.

 

Henry had just finished breakfast with her when Simon’s mother rang him. He remembered being sat at the kitchen counter, a fresh cup of coffee and a soft pack of American Spirits when she gave him the news.

Henry wondered if people were disappointed that it wasn’t him who took a shotgun to his skull. Veterans with PTSD died in droves, but Simon was a deputy manager at a hardware warehouse, engaged to be married and looking forward to all of it.

 

It made no sense, everyone said. When he found the videos online, previous lectures talking about male suicide statistics and reasons, her voice slipped between his ribs and squeezed his heart like a piece of ripe fruit. Henry was not looking for answers but he listened and when she announced on her website about the talk at the university, he paid for a ticket and took a bus over.

 

Henry wanted to understand why his friend killed himself. He didn’t hate anyone, group or individual but judging by the crowd outside, he had been judged and found wanting. She was talking about the amount of deaths in the workplace and how men were the majority of victims. Henry listened to her, discomforted by the facts of his circumstances. The chair he sat in made his lower back and thighs ache but otherwise he was focused on the woman’s words.

 

The fire alarm rang out, followed by a ragged burst of cheers from the corridor.

 

A thwarted anger wrenched him from his seat. He had been open, vulnerable and it had been snatched from him. People looked around as the university staff directed everyone towards the fire exits. Henry was saddened by how few of them were there, as they drifted towards the exits whilst outside came ribald cheers of victory. The frustration and sadness lodged in his chest like a stubborn root as he followed, taking deep breaths to assuage the feelings as he prepared to face the crowd.

 

He caught the eye of a young man, with straw blonde hair hung over his face, shaved at the sides, laughing and pointing at them as they filed out.

 

‘Nazi fuckers.’ he said.

 

Henry’s hand clenched into fists, but duty had lent him a degree of control which allowed him to keep walking. He had taken the measure of the man, knowing he outweighed him by a good thirty pounds and a foot in height. Yet, as he examined the man’s face, feminine despite the golden stubble, he knew hitting him would give the man everything he wanted.

 

An enemy.

 

The wisdom was comforting, but he still struggled to walk on without reacting. The women looked angrier than the men did, and were heavier, beneath layers of clothes and the same pear shaped build. Henry wondered if there was a man’s name tattooed on them, skin or soul, it didn’t matter. Everyone was here because of an individual who had hurt them, and he fought a shame so acute it made his eyes water. He had been shot at, eaten shit from lesser men than him, but it took the disparagement of his friend’s memory which covered him in shame.

He wiped away a tear, and heard hoots of derision. Henry’s pain was recreational to them as their outrage was to him.

 

It was not a good trade.

 

He wanted a beer and a cigarette, somewhere dark and cool. All which stood between him and gaining some distance from his thwarted evening was the crowd. A young police officer, about his age, told the attendees they would be escorted through the crowd.

 

An elderly man glowered beneath the brim of his baseball cap.

 

‘Why? What did we do wrong?’ the man said.

 

Henry looked straight ahead at the crowd.

 

‘It doesn’t matter.’ he said.

 

His eyes fell on the woman’s face again. She had scraped her damp hair back from her face, as she chanted with gusto, pumping her fist in the air as she chanted with the others. She looked up and stopped. Henry felt a gloved hand at the small of his back, and he walked down the steps. It was somewhere between a rock concert and a court martial, he thought, which made him smirk.

 

‘I suppose you think this is funny?’

 

He couldn’t place the voice. The woman was making her way to the barricade but the amusement was torn away as the crowd’s focus fell on the attendees. He could not make out individual voices now, the air shook with the hateful, pained roar of everyone vomitting their hatred until he was soaked in it like blood. His heart thumped in his ears, and his palms were wet as he kept walking.

 

The woman gestured to him, jabbing towards him with her index finger.

 

‘Why would you listen to a rape apologist? Because you’re a fucking rape apologist.’ she said.

 

He stopped.

 

She continued. Swearing didn’t come easy to him, but he had found a comfort in the warm vulgarity of the language used by the other marines in private. He was appalled someone would manage to turn rape into a form of punctuation and as she barked at him, eyes blazing, he smiled and shook his head.

 

‘I just wanted to listen to her talk.’ he said.

It was like screaming into a pillow for the both of them. Henry wondered if it was a war of attrition, where they would shout themselves raw and which of them gave up first. Perhaps it was therapeutic for her, but he’d been denied the chance to learn something, or at least, to understand.

 

Henry stood there and took it, letting her exhaust herself against him. The policeman was at his shoulder, telling him to go be a martyr somewhere else. The woman’s friend had lost her hat, and her tobacco brown hair was damp and flat against her scalp as she started pointing at the police officer and swore at him.

 

The officer shook his head, like a parent dealing with a disappointing child as he patted Henry on the shoulder and told him to go. Henry looked at her and smiled.

 

She smiled back.

 

The officer was moving him on, and he started to push past him when the shots rang out and the roar of the crowd broke apart, and reformed from the scattered pieces into screams.

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short fiction, social media

The Dragon’s House

 

The Dragon’s House

 

1.

 

The afternoon sun had muted into the first smears of grey twilight. The house squatted in the middle of a good stretch of land, ugly but with good bones like a palsied supermodel. It was far from the nearest town which was a rough, rusted idea of a town thanks to the downturn. They couldn’t resist a chance to be cruel in person. All their expense and planning held no more import than a playground prank but it fitted their inward cultural perceptions of brash, righteous youth. They were bright and sharp with the need to be cruel, spending a cultural inheritance of arrogance without ever feeling they had wasted a single cent. It would make for good content, they told themselves as they cavorted across the field to the house with the rental car locked up on the side of the road.

 

Chris held up the phone as Maria stuck her tongue out and gave him the finger. Her eyes glittered with excitement before her face softened into a broad smile. They were as much enamoured of themselves as they were one another, tied into a perfect knot of narcissism.

 

‘So tell everyone where we’re going today.’ Chris said.

 

Paul looked towards the house and leaned back, raised his arms and hollered to the sky.

 

‘To THE DRAGON’S LAIR, HOO HA.’ he said.

 

Chris and Maria exchanged wearied glances before Chris lowered his phone and sneered.

 

‘If you’re going to say cool things for the video, maybe tell me next time?’ he said.

 

Paul snorted and pulled his greatcoat around his bloated stomach like a security blanket, glowering above the matted spade of beard which hung from his chin. His hair flew up around his face as he glared at Maria. Maria and Chris shared another knowing look. Chris focused his phone on the house.

 

‘Say it again.’ he said.

 

Paul wheeled around and belted out the phrase again. Chin up, chest out and fists to the sky in a roar of youthful defiance. It was authentic until he finished and gave Chris a desperate, quivering look before he put his hands into his pockets.

 

‘It’ll look good to cut to.’ Paul said.

 

Chris nodded. Paul was right, but he resented how intuitive he was with the technical side of things. They were complementary in their opposition. Chris was a realist pretending to be a romantic and Paul was the opposite. It was why Chris was the face of the channel, glib and charming with the willingness to be cruel in pursuit of his desires and Paul orbited, making everything look good and begging for a moment’s screen time with mewling, wet eyes.

 

Maria had pointed out a few things about Paul, late at night, with her small breasts crushed against Chris’ forearm, listing off her observations in a rattling whisper as they made ruined hills of his sheets. She was on their channel all the time, and Paul had pointed out the dip in views, but Chris enjoyed fucking her too much to see his concerns beyond a vague envious bleating. Paul was their audience, Chris knew, but it made sense to try new things. It was Paul’s job to make them work.

 

He thought of Paul, if at all, with a contempt it had grown harder to hide when they were together. Chris wanted to be needed, but not to need. Paul, with his soft, round body and pleading, wet eyes handled the technical side of their channel. A better man would have been grateful but Chris’ anima kept him resentful of Paul long past the point of being healthy for either of them.

 

Chris was sharp with everyone he spoke to, then whipped out tactile bursts of affection and apology whilst Paul spent hours grazing through an endless amount of food whilst sulking about the wifi connections and how much the trip was eating into his data. Maria whined to Chris, flirted in front of him and even teased Paul, but his eagerness bored her. Europe had been a ramshackle affair, but the videos had done well, all of them teasing the last stop before they flew home.

 

The Dragon’s House.

 

2.

 

Ernst Winkler had started a video channel online. He would spit and enthuse about his love of heavy metal, brown hair blown out from his acromegalic face in corkscrew curls. His gap-toothed smile and childish earnestness drew him an audience. A manlet, with too much innocence to hide but too little adulthood to harness into charm. There was an amusing dissonance, in he titled himself Konig Drache, or King Dragon, referring to his German heritage. Despite the remote location and the clear disarray of his life, he made sure he paid for internet access He denied himself small pleasures, even essentials to ensure the world had access to the life he presented.

 

People asked questions. He answered everything without guile, saw it all as a glorious portal to a world of friends, people who didn’t dismiss him for his lack of personal hygiene, who saw his mood swings for their expressions of enthusiasm over anything approaching violence.

 

It was a world of people who didn’t have to live with him.

 

Ernst fell in love. His open surrender was a thing of warmth, expressed on his channel, as everything was. He composed doggerel for Julie and proposed to her in a live stream.

 

She rejected him in front of thousands and then revealed she was thirteen years old. Ernst ended the live stream with a click and sat there. A small, thin smile grew across his face like an ulcer.

 

No one had seen his smile and lived. Some parts of himself were private, controlled in a way which contradicted the amiable squalor he projected.  He withdrew a tattered journal from where it sat by his feet and opened it up, ticked an item off his list and set it down again.

 

Create controversy and mockery before leaking home address.

 

He recorded a response video. Ernst chose anger over pain, but he made sure he wept at intervals, having practiced in the mirror and watching the impact of his actions on his mother and sister. They had fled the house six years ago after the death of his father. He volunteered the information, planted it like a landmine in the mulch of his public image. He had visitors within a week of the news, and at first, he chased them away, waddling along, face flushed with an indignation he didn’t feel but recalled from his father as he threw things in their direction.

 

He changed his approach when people expected it. At night, he would surf the other channels, studying his reaction and tweaking it for subsequent visitors. Many of them never entered the property, and those who did, were not strangers to him. People were so keen to give up their intimate details if they thought there was attention involved. The internet was a bucket of crabs, ceaseless rivalry and activity which as time went on, became an opportunity for him to indulge himself without attracting too much attention.

Much like the three visitors he saw coming up the path. Ernst knew the distance they had travelled and watched their videos of their pilgrimage. Judging by the amount of subscribers, he was one of the few watching, and when he walked down the stairs, he stopped by the garage and picked up a wrench, thick and cold but crusted with blood and oil, pushed it through his belt at the small of his back and pushed his t-shirt over it.

 

He loved his audience.

 

3.

 

He was a foot taller than Paul but he stood with stiff shoulders as he shuffled his weight from one foot to another.  His black Scorpions t-shirt was faded to the colour of ash with the band logo reduced to an outline. His jeans were stiff with dirt and old sweat, faded white at the thighs and knees and tucked into unlaced boots which had the colour and consistency of wet cardboard. Ernst grinned beneath the kinked corona of unwashed hair which framed his face. He gave the two men a perfunctory glance, but he stared at Maria. His interest in her was familiar, yet not without a growing loathing for how unguarded it was. Behind him, they heard the grunting snuffles of the pigs in their pens, and the dissonant buzz of flies in a duet which made their fillings ache.

 

Chris said hi to break the tension.

 

‘It is lovely to see you.’ Ernst said.  

 

She caught the spicy, sour musk of his unwashed skin and wrinkled her nose with repugnance. His welcome was unwanted and courtesy made for tepid, forgettable footage which defeated the object of their visit. She spoke through gritted teeth, lips drawn back to approximate a smile and broke the connection between them as she whispered to Chris to keep filming.

 

Chris looked at the phone in his hand with disappointment before he tossed it to Paul.

 

‘Here, keep it on him.’

 

Chris raised his hand and smiled, said hi as Paul filmed the encounter.

 

‘I’m not great with people.’ Ernst said.

 

His grin raised his cheekbones until they were knuckles protruding through his sallow skin.

 

Paul and Chris exchanged a single, terse nod before they carried on.

 

‘Have you travelled far?’ Ernst said.

 

The three of them shrugged, keen to appear aloof and effortless to further enhance the perceived wealth of social currency they had over him.

 

‘You live a long way from anywhere, man.’ Chris said. His voice was a stoned drawl, approximating cool but communicating a veiled contempt.

 

‘You want to come in and see the house?’ he said.

 

They accepted and followed him inside.

 

Paul recalled the videos, all the extra rooms packed with refuse until Ernst lived in one room of the house. Yellowing stacks of newspapers and magazines littered the rooms, and each breath they took tasted of dust and excrement. Maria smelled the sour tang of spoiled food and milk as they walked past what used to be the kitchen. They followed him up the stairs, where the lights had stopped working, keeping the upstairs in a perpetual state of twilight. He turned and faced them then gestured to a mildewed rug a few feet ahead of the group.

 

‘Be careful, some boards are loose.’ he said.

 

Paul nodded as he continued filming. Chris and Maria walked ahead. Neither of them watched how Ernst moved, darting around the edges of the mildewed rug a few feet in front before they followed him.

 

There was enough time to cry out as the edges of the rug leapt up and they fell through the floor. Chris and Maria fell first. Paul slipped and fell forwards, plummeted after them but landed to the right, slamming into the ground with enough force to push the air from his lungs.

 

Paul wheezed and rolled onto his side. Maria wailed as she laid there, her right arm folded under her and her left leg bent in an impossible direction. Paul saw, from the corner of his eye, how she tried to lift her head. Her lips were red with blood and her eyes were unfocused as she looked at him.

 

‘Is Chris ok?’ she said.

 

Paul couldn’t make out the details, but there was a slow, expanding puddle of blood on the floor beneath him. He hung from the metal spears, pierced through his throat, stomach, groin and both thighs. As a final insult, one spear had pushed through the soft flesh under his chin and his head was pushed back, with his face twisted into a final expression of distended, awful shock. All the beauty had fled from him and left behind ripped, bleeding meat.Paul tried to stand up. A flare of sharp, unstable pain burst in his right hip and kept him on the floor.

 

‘Does he look ok, you stupid cunt.’ he said.

 

Maria tried to sit up, but collapsed forwards, shrieking and insensible like a fresh widow. Paul wrestled with his own bulk to get upright. Her screams stabbed him through the temples but he focused on getting himself upright, working on a blind, primal need to survive.  

 

He looked up and saw the ceiling in the hallway, wondered how far they had fallen. Paul stared at Chris’ body. The air down here was close, thick with the stink of blood and voided bowels. Paul gagged as he took a deep breath. There was little to no light down here, and so he had to find his bearings by touch. A single door was set into the wall and he turned the handle to find it locked. Maria was weeping as she dragged herself away from Chris and shouted upwards.

 

‘Please let us go.’ she said.

 

Paul tried to force the door, but it took all his effort to stay upright, let alone use his bulk to help him get out. Maria’s calls degraded into sobs of self-pity and fear, which angered Paul.

 

‘Shut the fuck up.’ he said, between gritted teeth.

 

She stopped talking and looked at him with pleading, desperate eyes.

 

He shook the door in its frame but it did not move. Paul hurt all over, but a dire need to live kept him moving, trying, acting to avoid dying. They had laughed at him, seeing him as a clumsy, ugly clown they could provoke into fits of rage for their audience’s amusement. The world needed people like Ernst to make themselves feel better, but as Paul stared around him, he realised no one had ever asked what Ernst got out of it.

 

Now, he knew..

 

Ernst was in no hurry as he walked down the stairs. It pleased him he didn’t need the wrench tucked into his belt at the back. His favourite tools were in the kitchen. They had been his father’s tools, and he kept them polished and sharp, no matter how often he used them. He stripped off then tied on a leather and chain-mail apron, slipped on the leather gloves and flexed his fingers. Despite the filth, he knew where everything was, and he kept the important things clean and in good repair. It was a lesson which passed from father to son, but Ernst used his skills for entertainment over employment. His father’s intuition about his son seethed inside him until he walked out to the pigs with a shotgun and prescribed himself a cure for his paternal disappointment.

 

He retrieved the key from where it hung around his thick neck and sung to himself.

 

He walked to the door.

 

‘Would you like to come out?’ he said.

 

‘If you stand back, I can unlock the door. You could save your friend.’ he said.

 

He sang his words over speaking. He could not contain his excitement for too long, like a child at a birthday party where everything was perfect.

 

He slipped the key in the lock before the door rattled in its hinges again. Ernst laughed and knocked on the door with the handle of the butcher knife.

 

‘No, no, no. You need to stand back.’ he said.

 

The resigned silence seeped through the walls.  Ernst expected a final, desperate push to escape the situation which was why the butcher knife stayed in his hand.

 

This would be fun.

 

‘Excellent.’ he said.

 

He unlocked the door and walked into the room.

 

Ernst held the knife in a good firm grip and held it upwards as he kept eye contact with the scared boy in front of him. He was fast for his size and the boy did not have time to scream before Ernst let him run onto the blade.  

 

Blood ran down the boy’s chin as he coughed and gasped, spraying Ernst’s face. Ernst put his weight behind the blade and bent at the knees driving it up deep into the boy’s chest cavity. With a firm twist, he turned the blade and watched the light die in the boy’s eyes before he gave a final, pathetic shudder and collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. Ernst stared into his eyes, disappointed that the boy had died so soon.  Ernst pushed him away and left the knife buried underneath his sternum. He made fists with his hands as he walked towards the girl. She was crippled, but there was still fear and hope present in her eyes.

 

He had reinforced the gloves with pockets of powdered lead at the knuckles and plates of Kevlar over the fingers. Maria dragged herself backwards as he walked towards her.

Ernst panted with delight as he threw himself down on her.  He felt her collarbone snap beneath his fists. She gurgled with a galvanic shudder as he put his knees either side of her chest to straddle her.

 

His enormous thighs pinned her arms to her sides and he enjoyed how close her face was to his distended, sour crotch.

 

‘Please don’t kill me.’ she said.

 

He tilted his head to one side and smiled.

 

‘Then how will I have any fun?’ he said.

 

Ernst slapped her across the cheek, almost playful but the lead and the Kevlar smacked against her cheek and knocked out a tooth. She turned her head to one side and spat the incisor away. Maria burst into tears and Ernst realised she would be boring. He balled his hand into a fist and clubbed her left eye socket until it cracked before he eased his thick, gloved fingers around the eye and squeezed it like a grape, smearing the tissue between his fingers before he wiped it on the front of his apron. Maria’s bladder let go, but Ernst ignored the acrid stink of piss as he punched her face into pieces.

 

It took six careful blows to bring out the aesthetic he craved. Bone splinters and raw, exposed flesh.  He adjusted his position, kicking her knees apart with haste as he heaved the apron over her stomach. His excitement hurried his release and he shuddered like a salted slug between her twitching thighs. As one appetite ebbed away, another returned to replace it like waves on a beach

 

The best cuts of meat would go in the massive chest freezer. The rest would go to the pigs, he decided as he dragged the girl by her heels.  He used their phones, open like an unlocked house and removed all trace of his involvement with a suite of software tools he had built or appropriated over the years.

 

It was after midnight before he sat down at his computer when it pinged with a new subscriber alert. He grinned and breathed in the faint stink of blood and meat, then breathed it out like fire.

 

 

 

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creative writing, short fiction

Extracts From A Taxonomy of Clowns

 

…There are schools of thought which maintain the excessive use of cosmetics fulfills a role similar to war paint but Houston and Dennis maintain the regular palate of aposematic colours is an evolutionary adaptation.

 

A primal intuition of threat is the lips are drawn back and teeth parted, in preparation to bite. Smiles are not performed in isolation, which is how they communicate friendliness and warmth. Clowns smile like politicians. It never reaches their eyes or it engulfs them whole.

 

Hobo Clowns are the most dangerous because they are always hungry.

 

Vampire Clowns have found social acceptance in the Quebecois burlesque community. Trudeau knows this presents issues but cannot speak out against them, for fear of being accused of discrimination.

 

Florida Man is a regional evolution of the Hobo clown, based on the climate and food sources. Although undeveloped amygdalas are common in the clown clade, Florida Man has increased aggression responses and a digestive system adopted to pork rinds, malt liquor and flamingo meat. Their genitals have adapted to reptilian partners.

 

It is said we should remember clowns are people. But what if they’re not?

 

Clowns have evolved deliberate triggers to unsettle their prey. The exaggerated features and parodic gait trigger the uncanny valley effect in their prey. Previous generations have capitalised on this to establish mating schedules profligate in their numbers.

 

Clowns lay eggs most often at Easter as it falls within their ovulatory cycle. The falling prevalence of traditional hunts has led to incidents of breeding pairs entering grocery retail stores to plant their offspring.

 

We find prophecies of chaos in the ordinary. In our neurological drive to create narrative, there are life forms which exploit this to their advantage. It used to be us, but now there are other things out there.

 

The legislation around animal welfare in circuses has led to unintended consequences for the clown population.

I’ve been researching #clowngate and #corydonrights and the attendant popularity of advocacy for the species. Someone appears to have leaked my address online as I’ve been receiving anonymous phone calls. No words, just the honk of a bicycle horn followed by some faint giggling.

 

Homo Corydon represents a clear and present threat to the species. My latest findings will vindicate my position and ensure my opponents, academic and scientific will have pie on their face.

 

Ugh, editorial notes are such a chore. Still, one last look over and then it’s a proofreading.

 

Officers were called to 1433 Ingleside Drive by neighbours who reported an audible nuisance. They heard Calliope music from the property at unreasonable volumes. Patrolman Jeffers knocked at the door and found it unlocked. They entered the property. There had been a struggle, with signs of protracted vandalism throughout the property.

Jeffers found the occupant in his study and took pains to secure the scene for the gathering of evidence.

Patrolman Jeffers has been placed on administrative leave, with pay whilst he undergoes medical treatment.

The medical examiner’s report remains sealed. No further information is available.

 

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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
short fiction, women

21%

1.

London, England.

The phone drew him from a deep, drugged sleep. He laid there, grimacing against the film of nicotine on his teeth as he reached for it on the bedside table.

 

‘Where’s my fucking article?’

 

Her voice was rough with tiredness. The smooth, professional voice which slipped around the newsroom was asleep, and here he was talking not only to his editor, but an impatient and upset woman who had his career in her palm.

 

‘It died last night. He didn’t turn up.’ he said.

 

Saying it aloud made him feel worse. His idealism had imagined something more dramatic, coaxing black truths until he had everything he needed to get the article out there with his byline. It was a fragile dream, but a good one and he missed it as he listened to his editor preparing to tear him a new orifice.

 

‘You’re fucking joking’ she said.  

 

He sighed. A tension pooled at the base of his skull as he sat up and reached for his cigarettes. In the five star chilled darkness of the suite, he lit up and considered how to answer.

 

‘What can I say? Black edge stuff scares the shit out of these people.’ he said.

 

The trade of stock and any assessments made to its potential fell into two areas. Grey edge came from assessments of public information and informed recommendations about a company’s health or the potential of its new project.

 

Black edge was insider trading. Employees or executives willing to leak information about issues which could affect the price of stock or the launch of a new product.

 

Albert H. Wiggin shorted 4,000 stocks of his own company, Chase National Bank. He ended up making money during the Great Depression and even inspired an act to prevent further abuses.

 

Ivan Boesky was a great success as an arbitrageur in the nineteen eighties able to spot and capitalise on changes in stock prices between different markets. The secret of his success was friends in the major financial institutions who traded information for money.  

 

Martha Stewart became famous for baking cookies. She became infamous for selling shares in a pharmaceutical company a day before the stock price dropped to ten dollars a share.

 

His career came from translating matters of risk and probability into articles people understood. He showed them how, in the finance sector, crime paid.

 

‘I went to bat for you and this is how you repay me.’ she said.  

 

He smoked, thinking of something he could say to salvage this conversation and his career.

 

‘I’ve got other people I can talk to.’ he said.  

 

She sighed as she exercised the familiarity which had bonded them together through a change of ownership and regular threats of legal action.

 

‘Please don’t say who I think you’re going to.’  

 

He closed his eyes. There was a desperation in his voice, but he sucked on his cigarette and held the smoke until it burned his lungs before he exhaled.

 

‘She’s never let me down before.’ he said.  

 

The moment’s pause had focused him. If she wanted the article, he would need to see Erin.

 

‘She’s as mad as a bottle of fucking chips.’  

 

‘Yes, but she’s never wrong’

 

Silence. He heard her editor thinking. Debating whether the board would have the balls to give them more time. Putting the pieces together was rare these days. Both endured advertorials and recycled press releases passing as news in return for the chance to do their jobs.

 

Fuck it, go see her. Get her to invoice me direct though. No more Krugerrands, ok?

 

He got off the bed, and stood up, stretching with a soft sigh of relief as he stretched out his lower back.

 

Time to see her, he thought. His stomach bubbled with an excited unease, and when he swallowed, he tasted stale smoke and acid. Writing about money, and the things it made people do had grown more lurid as the stakes grew. He wrote about risk, which was the mother’s milk of capitalism. The problems and the stories came from the same place: the measures taken to minimise it.

 

 

Amalia, New Mexico.

 

‘Seems like every time you read about a remote desert compound made of discarded wood and old tires, the people inside are always up to no good.’

Suzette looked through binoculars as she spoke. Her voice was harsh from too much time spent in silence.

 

Ellison had the headphones held to one ear as she glanced at her partner.

 

‘Have you seen Malik?’ she said.

 

Suzette shook her head.

 

Ellison took off the headphones and sat back in the chair.

 

‘Did we get the nod on the drone?’ Ellison said.

 

She shook her head before she lifted the binoculars.

 

‘Please tell me TSO are going in with the warrant?’

 

Suzette smiled as the desert air shimmered with activity.

 

‘Judging by the number of vehicles, it’s the Sheriff’s Response Team.’ she said.

 

Ellison got up and threw on the body armour. Suzette reached behind her and did the same. There wasn’t much room in the van, but they managed. Ellison checked her side arm and held it at her waist in a loose, practiced grip before she picked up the rifle and slapped in the magazine.

 

A column of armoured SUVs charged towards the compound. Ellison and Suzette were out of the van, moving towards them with guns raised. Their blood roared in their ears as the fist of law enforcement swung down, ready to crush everything beneath it.

 

3.

 

‘That is the ugliest fucking thing I’ve seen in my life.’

 

Usherwood cackled and raised his glass. Gordon shook his head, dismayed at the glee his friend took in his revulsion.

 

‘It’s a fucking investment, Gordon.’ Underwood said.

 

Gordon looked at the tank where it sat in the centre of the living room, watching the young women sit there, reading.

 

‘It’s a perspex tank with hookers sitting in it.’ he said.

 

Usherwood smiled.

 

‘Yes, but it’s one designed by Hunt Buccellato. In five years, it will be worth twice what I paid for it.’ he said.

 

Usherwood raised the tumbler of vodka to his thin lips and took a sip. His eyes were bright and full of challenge. Gordon was the first to look away. He looked back at Usherwood with a conciliatory smile.

 

‘At least tell me you feed the hookers.’ he said.

 

Usherwood chuckled and nodded.

 

‘They’re on retainer, so I can call them. He even designed an app, of which I am the only subscriber.’ he said.

 

Gordon sighed and finished his drink. He set the glass down and let his nerves show on his face, all the humour faded like cursive exposed to long periods of sunlight.

 

‘Are we still good with Redicin?’  he said.

 

Usherwood came in and put his hand on his friend’s shoulder.

 

‘Once the news breaks, we’ll go in hard and fast, buddy.’ he said.

 

Gordon was afraid to ask how Usherwood knew this. SEC had come after the firm three times after the last five years, making cases which juries found difficult to comprehend, let alone pass judgement on. Insider trading was dull to prosecute and difficult to prove. Gordon breathed out a sigh of relief and winked at his friend.

 

‘Good, a drop like that, people will ask how it happened.’ Gordon said.

 

Usherwood gave him a flat, reptilian stare.

 

‘No, they won’t.’ he said.

 

They stared at one another before one woman inside the tank sneezed and they stared at her with polite disdain.

 

‘I hope you’re not sick.’ Usherwood said.

 

4.

 

The door opened and he caught the rich, comforting smell of fresh baking. His mouth watered as he stepped inside and slipped his shoes off. She frowned and shook her head.

 

‘No phones, remember?’

 

He held it out to her. It went into the left pocket of the beige, oversized cardigan and out came a small black wand which she waved over him. It made a thin hum which bit into his sinuses but nothing shrieked. She smiled and slipped it back into her pocket.

 

‘Just checking.’ she said.

 

She shuffled into the kitchen and he followed her.

 

She picked up a blue surgical towel from a folded pile on the kitchen counter and opened the oven. Erin sighed with delight as she pulled out the tray of fat, golden cookies and set it on a wire tray.  She put the towel down and pointed at the stovetop kettle. He frowned at her.

 

‘Do you always bake?’ he said.

 

She busied herself with finding cups and he got the milk from the fridge when she asked.

 

‘Insomnia is a harsh mistress.’ she said.

 

She put the mug on the table in front of him as he retrieved a notepad from his jacket and a black biro. He tapped the nib against the paper.

 

‘So, the guy you mentioned didn’t turn up.’ he said.

 

Erin got up from the table and put a few of the cookies onto the plate before she brought them back to the table.

 

‘I’m not surprised, love.’ she said.

 

He wrapped his hands around his mug of tea and blew across the surface as he looked at her. She told him to take a cookie whilst they were warm. He picked up one as she spoke.

 

‘You won’t get anyone to talk. It’s not how it works anymore.’ she said.

 

The cookie broke across his tongue, flooding his mouth with sweetness as he chewed until he could speak without spraying her with flecks of biscuit.

 

‘Someone always talks. Half of Wall Street hates him and the other half wants to know how he picks his trades. I’ve got some of it, but there’s more going on.’ he said.

 

She raised an eyebrow as she nibbled on a cookie.

 

‘Is there?’ she said.

 

He sighed and sat back in the chair. A sudden, debilitating wave of despair washed over him and he rubbed the tiredness from his eyes.

 

‘Erin. Please.’ he said.

 

She pushed her spectacles up the bridge of her nose as she gave a thin smile.

 

‘He’s got access to the Redicin report, or he doesn’t need it.’ she said.

 

He frowned as he picked up his cup of tea.

 

‘He’s putting one hundred billion dollars of his firm’s money. Usherwood knows something will happen.’ he said.

 

Erin picked up another cookie.

 

‘Your concern should be whether you can prove any of this.’ she said.

 

It was the reason he was here at three in the morning. She knew it but took pleasure in hearing him say it aloud.

 

‘Erin. Please.’ he said.

 

Her mouth turned down at the corners as she broke a cookie in half and dipped it into her tea before popping it into her mouth.

 

‘If he doesn’t have an inside source, then he will look at personal factors and how they can help improve his position.’ she said.

 

Personal factors. The implications confused him. Erin studied his expression with concern.

 

‘Thomas Sowell said something which stayed with me for a long time. If the CEO of a corporation experiences a personal tragedy, it will translate into a loss of profits. Someone worked it out to a percentage.’

 

He was confused as he sipped his tea. It was a flamboyant, somewhat juvenile statement and it unnerved him to hear Erin talk in such a way.

 

‘So, Usherwood knows something will happen to the CEO of Redicin?’ he said.

 

Erin folded her hands on the table.

 

‘I don’t know for certain. What I remember, is the death of a CEO’s child knocks 21% off the stock price.’ she said.

 

He gasped in disgust and shook his head.

 

‘That’s fucking nuts, Erin. Why would you say something like that?’ he said.

 

Erin remained amiable and calm as she picked up another cookie.

 

‘Because the death of a CEO has a positive impact on stock prices. 6.8%. Which I am.’ she said.

 

He caught the implied warning and blurted out an apology.

 

‘So, what’s the story here? It’s not the one I thought I was fucking writing.’ he said.

 

Erin put a hand out and rested it atop his.

 

‘It never is.’ she said.

 

5.

 

Eight children were wrapped in Health Department blankets as the sheriffs team led them to waiting paramedics. They ranged from eighteen months to fifteen years old. There were ten but one of them had gone with Lucas in the van.

 

The other one was buried in the desert. His mother had given him to Malik when he promised that he’d take the child to a theme park and then onto a specialist clinic where his cancer would be treated.

Ellison wanted to interrogate Malik. He welcomed the sheriffs with an AR-15 on full auto and much like the warrant, was executed. She walked over to the paramedic who was dealing with the oldest child. He looked up at her with concern, eyes glazed over with exhaustion and malnutrition. His head had been shaved to stubble, and there were crescents of bruised, dark tissue underneath his eyes. He had grabbed a pistol from the small armoury but had dropped it when they trained their guns on him. The boy had wept from relief as the other children emerged from hiding.

 

They had slept on pallets covered with blankets and ate rice once a day. Her sister-in-law would have paid a fortune to come here if they had named it Namaste or Karma, she thought as she knelt down in front of the boy.

 

No, he’s not been a boy for a while now, she thought.  

 

‘We know about the guns now. But we don’t know what they were for.’ she said.

 

He shivered despite the heat.  

 

‘He was the right age. Lucas came back with a present for him. A new phone. It wasn’t fair, you know.’ he said.

 

The wounded tone in his voice pinched her in the sides. Despite everything, he was still a child.

 

‘No, what were Malik and Lucas training you to do?’ Ellison said.

 

He turned away and swallowed. Ellison saw the shine of fresh tears before Suzette shouted her name. She got up and walked back to her partner but the boy said something. She stopped and asked him to repeat it.

 

‘They were teaching us to shoot.’

 

6.

 

He walked into the dining hall, looked at the menu with its myriad of options. His mouth flooded as he looked at the food, presented in sections denoting which was gluten-free, vegan, macrobiotic, paleo or vegetarian. He had been allowed a burger on the way here, and the grease coated his teeth as it sat like a stone in the pit of his stomach. His phone hummed and he took it from the pocket of the blazer. It irritated where it touched him and the phone was too large for his hand but he looked at the screen, and the small red dot pulsing in the centre.

 

She was sat with a group of people, all of them laughing at something he said. Her blonde hair caught the sun, made it a halo which made his heart thump against his ribs and his stomach flutter with a terrible elation. He reached into the satchel and felt the hard, cold metal slide into his hand.

 

His hand stayed inside the bag as the weight of his decision paralysed him. He closed his eyes against the building pressure in his chest before he roared and pulled the gun out. The front sight bisected the halo of blonde hair, he saw the girl’s smile fall away.

 

7.

 

By the time he got back to the hotel, the news was waiting for him. Events had overtaken everything, and he sat there, drowning his sorrows with the mini bar. He believed he was inured to the worst things people did for money and yet there he was, unmanned by something he thought came from ranting, reddened men on the internet.

 

His phone rang.

 

‘Look, I had no fucking idea -‘

 

Erin sighed with distaste.

 

‘I know, but you need to keep an eye on what happens now.’

 

He gestured to the television before realising she wasn’t in the room with him. He slumped forward and closed his eyes.

 

‘A school shooting. The poor bastard’s daughter was the first one killed, Erin.’ he said.

 

Of course she was. The others were window dressing and he made sure to save one for himself. It has the appearance of randomness but it is perfect.’ she said.

 

Her enthusiasm made him nauseous, but she had been right about something happening.

 

‘So, he gets what he wants and all it took was a few dead kids.’ he said.

 

‘A small price to pay for the money Usherwood will make on the trades.’

 

He laid down on the bed and stared at the ceiling.

 

‘The bastard will get away with it too, won’t he?’ he said.

 

Erin smacked her lips.

 

‘No. He won’t.’

 

He sat up and stared at the television.

 

Of course he will. We sound insane, otherwise. You mention crisis actors and we might as well make tinfoil hats.’ he said.

 

‘Write your story. I’ll let you know what happens.’ she said.

 

Erin disconnected the call and he sat there, staring at the phone before it rang again. His editor was calling and he stared, unable to think of what he should tell her.

 

8.

 

Usherwood walked around the circumference of the tank, chewing on the cuticle of his thumb. Despite the savage rush of victory, his mind was working overtime, poking holes in the operation to see where he was vulnerable. The women had left, but were available with a press of his thumb against the screen but he wanted to be alone for this moment.

 

It had started as a joke.

 

He called an event shielded meeting with a security contractor who had slipped him his card at a function last May. Event shielding meant no phones or digital devices, nothing committed to paper and it was all hypothetical. A temporary salon where terrible and grand ideas could be discussed without fear or recrimination.

 

Redicin was no longer an issue.

 

His phone rang and he looked at the screen. The contractor was calling, from the encrypted line established for the operation.

 

‘Hello.’ he said.

 

The sound of someone choking crept into his ear before it softened into a final gargle. He looked at the phone and then put it on the coffee table. He wiped his fingers on the thigh of his trousers as he backed away.

 

Something hard punched into the base of his spine and his legs went out from under him. Usherwood struggled to breathe as a tight band of constriction wound itself around his chest. A woman looked down at him. She looked familiar but he could not place her.

 

She was outside of the tank, he realised. He tried to laugh but his throat was closing as numbness flooded his limbs. The blade in her hand dripped with his blood as she watched him like a scientist studying a dangerous, but fascinating subject.

 

‘Don’t worry. We’ll clear up after you, Mr Usherwood. We always do.’ Paula said.

 

He laid there as she walked away. She took out the phone from where it sat on her hip.

 

‘It’s done. How far do I need to be clear if we’re sending Splinter?’ she said.

 

She whistled under her breath as she left the house.

 

The explosion shook everything for miles. What no one would figure out was that it was a foot long carbon rod which did the deed. It was, mounted on an orbital platform above North America. A kinetic orbital strike, turned into a celestial spear by the heat of re-entry before it struck the target. The surrounding forest was flattened for miles but she was clear of the blast radius. It was clean and perfect in its destruction, and it would eliminate Usherwood and his house without leaving a trace.

 

She drove without stopping. Before she boarded the plane, she made one last call.

 

Yes, there would be cookies. She had baked a batch a few hours ago, but Erin promised there would be more waiting for her.

 

9.

 

Erin sat and smoked a cigarette as she checked the balance of the receiving accounts before transferring it into five digital currencies before transferring money to Paula. She empathised with the Sisyphean struggle to bring order to things but there was another phrase which came to mind. It wasn’t from Thomas Sowell, but Kurt Vonnegut and it came to her lips.

 

“There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil. The triumph of anything is a matter of organization. If there are such things as angels, I hope that they are organized along the lines of the Mafia.”

 

Erin lived in a universe of risk and probability, one which did not allow for angels to exist, let alone organise. As she got out another block of butter, she struggled with the failure to prevent the deaths, but at least justice had been served.

 

There was another batch of cookies in the oven as she said a small prayer for the children.

 

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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.

 

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men, short fiction, writing

Cycle

hei_2276p_copy_by_heikogerlicher-dceapx5.jpg

1.

The call went up, snaking through the branches of the forest, a robust echoing which was shrill with alarm.

 

Men ran. Some of them sprinted with the deft grace of youth, others lumbered like ancient boulders pushed down a hill. There were further shouts of confusion and clarification, and the teeming heat of the afternoon made them all red-faced and irritable.

 

They found them in the clearing, one hunched over the body of the other. There were fresh tears and old blood, enough to make the soles of their boots stick to the grass.

 

2.

LOCAL AUTHOR MAKES GOOD

 

By Temperance Rubin.

 

You’ve seen him promoting his latest book, Rituals of Evening, but Joseph Peters has never forgotten his roots so he’s appearing at Great Hills Library on Wednesday afternoon for a special reading followed by a Q and A.

 

Come, say hello to a hometown alumnus, and see if any of you aspiring types can pick up a few hints!

 

The event starts at 6pm sharp.

 

3.

 

A tan suited him, Edward thought. Joseph stepped out of the car with the same pained, studious expression he had worn since adolescence. Edward remembered playing catch with him in the yard and the memory made something shift in his chest. He corrected his posture, straightening his back and pushing his shoulders back. Joseph’s grey eyes swam with memories as he looked at his father but he blinked twice and smiled as he reached out and shook his father’s hand.

 

Edward gripped with a little too much force, but Joseph had written his pages for the day and he dropped his hand away to flex the discomfort from his fingers.

 

‘Long drive?’ Edward said.

 

Joseph shook his head and adjusted the strap on his backpack without meeting his father’s gaze.

 

‘I got in last night and took a room at the place by the airport.’ he said.

 

Edward swallowed the rejection and gave a small nod.

 

‘Smart move. You hungry?’ he said.

 

Joseph smiled and nodded.

 

‘As soon as I smelled the barbecue.’ he said.

 

The ruins of limp salad leaves, bones chewed white and small puddles of barbecue sat on plates between them. Edward poured out the bottle into a glass, whilst Joseph sipped his vanilla coke. His father’s recollection of his adolescent tastes was impressive, even down to the racks of ribs and venison steaks which they’d demolished between them.

 

Edward apologised as he unbuckled his belt to ease the pressure of his full stomach and sat back in the chair with a sigh of relief. Joseph sat up, straight and took small, frequent sips from the frosted glass of coke.

 

‘How’s the tour going?’ Edward said.

 

Joseph set his glass down and reached into his jacket for his cigarettes. He wanted a hit off his vape pen, but he had imagined his father’s reaction so it stayed there, offering relief from the gnawing anxiety which capered around his insides.

 

‘Good, thank you. I’ve done some TV too, even Kimmel.’ he said.

 

Edward snorted with derision and picked up his glass.

 

‘Late night television is trash. Hope it helps you.’ he said.

 

Joseph picked up his glass again and looked around the deck.

 

‘Did you redecorate?’ he said.

 

Edward didn’t look up as he drank but he gave a thumbs up and nodded around a mouthful of ale. He wiped his mouth and considered his son.

 

‘Yes, Char gets it into her head to redecorate the house and there goes a week of my life.’ he said.

 

Joseph’s jaw tightened as he swallowed and looked away.

 

Edward finished the last of the beer and got up, holding his belt buckle as he shuffled into the house. Joseph stared down the length of the garden and squeezed the glass until his fingers turned white.

 

There was a woman’s voice from inside the house. Joseph’s hand dove to his stomach as an emetic spasm clawed at his intestines. He hoped the carbonation settled his stomach before she came through and said hello.

 

4.

 

Edward sat up in bed, a pillow placed to support him as he turned the pages of his son’s book. Charlene came in from the bathroom and glanced over her shoulder.

 

‘Is he okay?’ she said.

 

Her voice was breathy and girlish, and after all these years, it never failed to stir him. She had packed on some weight around her hips and had the beginnings of a tummy beneath the silk ivory night gown. Edward’s eyes coveted but Charlene grimaced with concern. He smiled as he removed his reading spectacles and closed the book, then tapped the cover.

 

‘Judging by this, I should have burned his library card.’ he said.

 

His voice was genial as she climbed into bed. She glanced down at the book on his lap with the expression she did when Titbits brought a dead mouse into the kitchen.

 

‘I can’t read those sorts of books.’ she said.

 

Edward grunted and shook his head.

 

‘They’re just made-up words.’ he said.

 

Charlene did not relax until he put the book on the bedside table and rested his spectacles on top. He slipped an arm around the back of his wife’s neck and pulled her close.

 

‘He was a difficult young man, and it was a lot to ask a woman, but we’ve done the best we can.’ he said.

 

Charlene suppressed a shiver and clung to Edward’s solid, greying chest. The light went out with a dull click and she listened to her husband’s breathing deepen into sleep. Joseph had kept his distance since she came back, and the acrid tang of memories stained her lips and tongue. She had brushed her teeth twice and used mouthwash but the tang stayed with every swallow. Appalling goblin thoughts stirred and pressed against the amniotic sac of time and repression but she clung to him until she felt the medication kick in and dropped away into sleep.  

 

5.

 

He sat with his knees apart, holding his book to his eyes as he read aloud. Charlene watched his lips moving, how his eyes widened as he spoke with a confidence she had not seen before. Edward was rigid with concentration but his hand rested over hers as they sat there, watching his son read from his latest book.

 

She knew this section off by heart. Edward favoured hardbacks but Charlene, thanks to her younger sister, had an electronic reader and so had downloaded Joseph’s book on the day of release and read it straight away.

 

‘She came as I sat by the lake, toes pruning in the water as I sat there.

 

Trying to hide the erection she inspired whenever she drew close.

 

‘Your pa says supper’s ready.’ she said.

 

Her voice was a honeyed drawl which crept beneath my skin. The prohibition lent a terrible, insatiable clarity to my perception of her and she grinned as she knelt down in front of me.

 

‘I’ll be right there.’ I said.

 

I tried to make my voice as low as possible, promote whatever shoots of tender manhood were poking through the mud of adolescence. She was a strong burst of sunlight, a nurturing shower and yet all of it forbidden on every level.

 

It did not stop me wanting.’

 

Charlene’s heart pounded in her chest but she held herself still. Her mind was racing, knowing there were another twelve pages before anything happened.

 

The applause drowned her out as she emitted a small, careful whimper of anguish. Edward shook his head and applauded, but his eyes were soft with confusion.  

 

6.

 

Joseph accepted the safety lecture with a detached grace and wore the orange vest without comment. Edward, dressed in the worn, clean camouflage which had been his woodland uniform forever handed his son the rifle. Joseph took it and held it close to his chest.

 

It was a beautiful morning when they walked into the forest. Edward was on point, and Joseph had availed himself of the vape enough to put him into a state of herbal equanimity.

 

‘What did you think of the book?’ Joseph said.

 

Edward put a finger to his lips and narrowed his eyes before he pointed through to the trees where a young buck stood, nose to the ground as it chewed at a clump of grass. He gestured for his son to raise his rifle. Joseph blinked and aimed down the sight. His finger rested on the trigger guard.

 

The buck raised its head and ran. Edward lowered his rifle and shot an accusing look at his son. Joseph shrugged his shoulders as he took his eye from the scope.

 

‘Come on, I didn’t say a word.’ he said.

 

Edward snorted and walked into the woods. Joseph matched his pace, so they were abreast of one another.

 

‘I acknowledge your talent with words, son, I’ll say that. You know I don’t truck with monster books, but I’m glad you’re doing well with it.’

 

Joseph sighed against the hot lump of upset which dropped into his stomach from above.

 

‘I’ve had enough reviews to know when someone’s not read it, Dad, you don’t have to bullshit me.’ he said.

 

Edward stopped and stared at his son.

 

‘I don’t read those sorts of books.’ he said.

 

His voice whistled like a stove top kettle and it hurt Joseph’s ears. Joseph stepped back, discomforted and struggling with the urge to articulate something massive.

 

‘You mean mine?’ Joseph said.

 

Edward’s eyes widened as he sweated beneath his camouflage.

 

‘Why are you so sensitive about this?’ he said.

 

Joseph’s eyes flooded with tears as he cradled the rifle. He was a boy again, a skinned soul lifted for his father’s acknowledgement.

 

‘Because I thought you would be smart enough to get it, Dad.’ he said.

Edward slung his rifle over his shoulder and adjusted the brim of his cap as he looked down at his boots.

 

‘I’ve never gotten you, Joe. Christ knows I tried and so did Char.’ he said.

 

Joseph’s face was taut and bloodless as he stared at Edward. His grip on the rifle was loose and he staggered backwards, shaking his head.

 

‘You didn’t know, did you?’ Joseph said.

 

Edward’s face crumpled with confusion.

 

‘About the book?’ he said.

 

Joseph watched his father struggle with the conversation. A decent man dumbfounded by something which his son couldn’t explain. Edward reached his hand out and touched his son on the shoulder.

 

‘I may not understand you, but you’re my son, and if I’ve hurt you then you need to know I never meant to.’ he said.

 

It was a speech for Edward, and he was red in the face when he finished but Joseph, a man too acquainted with lies not to see them in others, believed his father. Joseph shouldered the rifle and lowered his chin to his chest and sobbed. Between the sobs, he forced out seven words.

 

‘Not you, Dad, you didn’t hurt me.’ he said.

 

7.

 

Charlene was so relieved Joseph had gone, it was an easy thing for Edward to persuade her to accompany him on a hunt.

 

It was easier to let her wander ahead, between the trees. As his finger closed over the trigger, he thought of his boy and asked his forgiveness again.

 

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