poetry, politics

black marketing

he works in something

not marketing

(but marketing)

a series of acronyms which make my

head hurt

but he’s engaging

On the verge of laughing at an inappropriate

Joke

Black marketing

So when someone sticks razor blades

Into Halloween apples

It sells the season, the right mix of cute and creepy,

Market penetration

Saying it with a smile

Reddened gums and he sniffs a lot

Perpetual nasal drip

But still

Poison in painkillers

A serial killer using a particular brand

Of weapon, shaking videos

Highlighting the name

Chuckling, he says

Companies pay to keep this

Stuff out of the press

But it helps

No one stopped drinking

Coke after the death squads in

Bottling plants

Boycotts are viral too

Changing a product name

Paying someone to complain

(There’s always a verbose child

Asking a pointed question)

I ask what company he works for

Laughing, he says

I’m a consultant.

They come to me.

We exchange numbers

And as he walks through the airport,

I wonder if he’ll be a good person

To know during the apocalypse

Either as its architect

Or someone knowing when

Something truly awful

Goes viral

Bacterial

Nuclear

Mushroom clouds spilling

Radioactive retweets

Blind, mewling likes

With their parent’s faces

i feel a sudden urge

to hold someone i love

ask them to put the phone down

and look at me

like i’m in the room

 

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men, politics, short fiction

White Rabbit

 

“Men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore, the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.”

Nicollo Machiavelli, The Prince.

 

1.

 

Ibrahim walked down the street, cursing Ellen for making him clean out the frier again before he left to attend mosque with his uncle. He hated the job, but Mohammed insisted he finish out the summer before he got him an internship at the firm.

 

He didn’t want to be late. Mohammed was fastidious without being vain and he had known nothing but his faith but he did business without it being a problem.

 

Ibrahim drew comments and stares. No one wanted to feel alien in their own skin and he would slip out of the way, finding something to do in the back until their attention went elsewhere or he pretended not to have heard anything. He simpered and it hurt to do it but once he was working with his uncle, he would earn respect without being made to suffer for it.

 

He was running late.

 

It was the only thing which saved him.

 

He saw the mosque and quickened his pace before a massive hand slapped him backwards. He smelled his hair burning and his eardrops popped like balloons as he fell backwards, breaking his coccyx against the sidewalk.

 

Ibrahim lay there, mute with pain as his hair burned and his body turned inside out with pain. He had bitten his tongue and each swallow tasted of burnt copper as he struggled to breathe.

 

2.

 

Jessica drew on the cigarette, trying not to stare at the small throng of protesters who came every day. Wizened and pale, tan and hardy, they would take turns, behaving like fundamentalist ants, blazing with a narcissistic zeal which irritated her. David’s work took him all over the world, and since she had emigrated and married Blake, she kept up the correspondence, never getting a reply from him despite the anguish it created for her. She still loved David, but life demanded a compromise. Letting go had taken the desperation of an animal chewing off a limb to escape a trap but the pain stayed with her.

 

The women who came fueled her passion when she debated Blake about her work. He presented her with rational arguments, numbers on paper to show they didn’t need her to work, she could stay home with Brian, but Jessica saw it as a comfortable path to death. She loved her husband, but she couldn’t live as an appendage to him. Marriage was difficult enough, let alone one which served as a gilded cage for her.

 

The cigarette burned the back of her throat and she tossed it to the ground before she went back inside.

 

The door slammed into her, fractured her skull and the door handle punched through her left hip, propelled by the force of the explosion. She died before she hit the ground, the door stuck to her as a final, cruel insult from the universe.

 

3.

 

Terry took off the balaclava and wiped his face. He had put on a show for the video, speaking in a bombastic tone which he had borrowed from professional wrestling promotions and Alex Jones and it had tested his reserves of stamina to keep up the indignant righteousness necessary to put his point across.

 

The motel room smelled of powdered soup and stale cum, but he could use it for meetings and videos so he never gave Pete too much shit about it. He wanted to protect his family, and if it meant going out of his way a little, it was a small price to pay. Their enemies were everywhere, and he loved his family too much to put them in harm’s way.

 

He waited for the video to upload, sent messages to the others through an app which sent photo messages and deleted them after being watched. Terry knew the risks, but the technology was there to protect them, despite what people believed.

 

Terry looked at himself in the smeared full length mirror, the stubble on his cheeks and his lean, intense build gave him a renewed pride in his work. He ran on righteousness, and all the energy made him restless, had him capable of working eight hours on his construction job and then organising the rest of the guys until he collapsed into bed next to his sleeping wife. He got up, tucked the balaclava under the pillow, and left the room.

 

He watched the news when he got home, drank a beer as he watched the footage of the emergency services and struggled to hide his delight at the success of their first major operation. Once the video went live, people would know their group’s name but not his.

 

Terry had tried to make people see what was happening. The capitulation to progressive forces had castrated his country and it made him fear for his children’s future enough to act as he did. Other people had come into his world, convinced of his fears enough to help and once he had found his tribe, it became a thing of logistics over rhetoric.

 

Jenny called him upstairs and he drained the last swallow of beer before he switched the tv off and went to bed.

 

It had been a good day.

 

4.

 

David slipped out of the hotel room. He had broken up and flushed the syringe down the toilet, wiped everything down to remove any trace of his presence with a practiced care as the body cooled on the unmade bed.

 

He got into the waiting car and sat back, closing his eyes as it drove away. The arrogance of his targets never surprised him, and this one had been boasting about his company’s work for the intelligence community. David did not inform him such behaviour had signed his death warrant

 

Bastard of the British Empire he told himself. He loathed the arrogance of San Francisco and was eager to get back to London. David denied his feelings unless it was three a.m and he thought of her.

 

Doing the right thing hurt him but it kept her safe and him a secret.

 

The safe house was across town, and he took a long hot shower, ordered take out and sat down to relax with a few hours of inane American television. He made the mistake of watching the news, and when he saw the photo of her, he convulsed with feelings he thought buried in the graveyard of his soul.

 

Three years ago, David had bare flames held to his feet, threatening to perform the same function on his genitals before the SAS team burst in. He had not wept then, but as he looked at Jessica’s face, he put his face in his hands and wept for what might have been.

 

His grief galvanised into something familiar to him.

 

Anger.

 

When it abated, he took out his phone and made a phone call.

 

Two hours later, David was on a plane to Illinois.

 

5.

 

Mike struggled to contain his excitement as Terry passed him a beer.

 

‘What’s next?’ he said.

 

Terry scratched his chin and smiled.

 

‘We can expect a push back from the authorities, so the answer is nothing for now.’ he said.

 

Mike grimaced as he shook his head.

 

‘It’s not enough, Terry. We need to get our message out.’ he said.

 

Terry grimaced at Mike’s immature enthusiasm. He could never take the long view of things. It was a warm evening and they sat on the porch, keeping the conversation neutral until Jenny put Rachel to bed and they were free to discuss things.

 

‘Do you remember Waco, Mike?’ he said.

 

Mike swallowed and nodded. He had been in awe of Terry’s pilgrimage and his righteous anger at government intrusion into people’s lives. They condoned the tide of Muslim immigration and paid lip service to the sanctity of the unborn to such a degree it had prompted a response from the men of the White Rabbit Militia to stop talking and act. Mike resented the slow pace of their work, but Terry was so certain it killed his doubts.

 

‘We’ve shown our hand. It’s now up to others whether they heed the call to action.’

 

Mike had built the bombs for both targets, being a savant with things which made him useful, if not indispensable to the others. Pete had been in the Marines until he got kicked out, Chris ran the website and social media feeds, but it was Terry who was the cool, calm centre of the group. Mike wondered if Terry’s aloofness was a test of his character, but washed his anxious, frightened thoughts down with a deep pull on the bottle of beer before he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

 

‘OK, I get it.’ he said.

 

Terry smiled and clapped Michael on the shoulder.

 

‘We can’t go into this thinking we’ll get away with it, Mike. We’ve got to accept the price of liberty and the consequences.’ Terry said.

 

Mike felt blessed by Terry’s touch but kept his face still. Instead he gave a terse nod and made a face he hoped looked like the right mix of determination and gravity.

 

‘Right on, Terry. Right on.’

 

Terry lit a cigarette and sat back in his chair.

 

‘We’ve just got started, Mike.’ he said.

 

If Terry had asked him to cut one of his testicles off, Mike would have asked him which one before doubting him. He wondered who would play him in the movie, he hoped for the guy from Stranger Things, the sheriff with the guy from CSI New York as Terry.

 

Mike had big dreams, but he was glad Terry was there to keep things calm and even. The work was getting started, but he wanted it to start there and then.

 

6.

 

David watched the video on repeat. He looked past the man on the screen, focused on the details behind him.

 

He made a note of the furniture, and the colour of the paint on the walls. David wrote the details in the blank pages of the ledger he carried everywhere. He contacted his handler, Larry, through a My Little Pony message board, where he left a message and waited for his phone to ring.

 

David answered on the first ring.

 

‘Why aren’t you on a plane, right now?’  

 

‘Personal matter. There’s nothing in the pipeline so I’m taking time off.’ he said.

 

Larry grunted with disbelief.

 

‘You pulled one of my analysts to look up everything on a pair of bombings in Illinois, David.’

 

David said nothing.

 

‘There was a woman killed. British, according to the news. Look, the FBI are all over this. Just come home and I’ll light a fire under their arses to get it dealt with.’ Larry said.

 

David swallowed, his throat tight with regret and a cold, hard anger. Watching the videos fed something terrible in him, kept the wound open and bleeding without the mercy of unconsciousness to ease it.

 

‘I know, Larry. I’m taking leave. I’ll behave myself.’ he said.

 

Larry sighed with a longstanding weariness.

 

‘If this turns out to be another Rotherham situation, we’re both fucked.’ he said.

 

The police still found bodies, members of a child grooming gang. David accepted the damage within himself, but he used it, like a wolf uses its howl to communicate.

 

‘No, it won’t be like Rotherham.’ he said.

 

David saw an email had come through and opened it. Forensics reports, eyewitness testimony, drafts of warrants to investigate militia activity all scanned and converted to digital files. David told Larry he would be in touch and switched off the phone.

 

A viscous tension pooled in his eye sockets but he read through everything. He made notes of the names before he opened his briefcase and found the FBI badge, slipped it into the pocket of his suit jacket and stood up.  

 

He called a cab to the hospital.

 

7.

 

Ibrahim drifted in and out of a cotton soft haze of narcotics. He would emerge to see daylight then drift off, returning to find it was dark as time passed on, indifferent to his grief and trauma.

 

He awoke to see the man sat at the end of his bed.

 

‘Hello, Ibrahim.’ he said.

 

Through his one good eye, Ibrahim saw him stand up and walk over to the side of the bed. He spoke to Ibrahim in perfect Arabic, introduced himself as Special Agent Garrett and wondered if he could ask him a few questions.

 

Ibrahim’s one good eye sparkled with tears as he nodded.

 

‘I understand there will be complications from your injuries and your recollections might be unclear but anything you can give me will help me catch these people.’

 

Ibrahim noted the use of the singular and tried to focus on the man. His use of Arabic was comforting but also unnerving to him.

 

He nodded and answered the man’s questions. They confused him, details about the routines of the mosque and its proximity to other places in town, before he asked after Ibrahim’s uncle.

 

Ibrahim cleared his throat.

 

‘You’re not from the FBI, are you?’ he said.

 

The man put his hand over Ibrahim’s and put his mouth to his ear to whisper.

 

‘The Prophet never avenged for his own self, Ibrahim. Neither will you.’ he said.

 

Ibrahim wept as much as the drugs allowed him, and the man left without speaking further. Ibrahim prayed for him.

 

8.

 

Rick gave the man a pamphlet as he walked past the clinic. He stopped and looked at it like someone had spat into his hand, but he folded it before tucking it into the pocket of his suit.

 

‘I understand you were at the clinic.’ the man said.

 

Rick had been on a coffee run, but the second hand glory was too powerful to resist and his assumption of divine providence made him something of a martyr to the rest of the congregation. There was no one alive from the small group to contradict him, aside from Betty and she was in an unresponsive coma from where a brick had glanced off her temple, propelled by the force of the explosion.

 

Rick could not meet the implacable gaze and he gulped, struggling to contain himself.

 

‘Yes, sir, God’s wrath is a terrible and beautiful thing to see.’

 

The man’s face tightened and his lips drew back over his teeth. His brown eyes burned with something cold and vicious which made Rick step backwards.

 

‘What did you see?’ the man said.

 

He had heard the explosion, and as he drew closer, smelled the smoke and blood. He had stumbled over someone’s dismembered arm and saw how the clinic door had impaled the British nurse.

 

The man grimaced and stepped towards Rick.

 

‘Did she say anything?’

 

Rick tried to back away but the man’s fingers clamped around his elbow, pinching into the soft meat of his triceps and found a set of nerves which shot agony through his arm, pinned him to the spot as he looked around for someone to help.

 

Rick told him. The man walked away.

 

There were fifty pamphlets left but Rick went home, locked the door and drew the curtains, watched the 700 Club and struggled not to cry with humiliation. If God were watching, he would understand, he told himself.

 

9.

 

Mike soldered the wires with care, humming to himself as he worked on the last electronic components of the device, the guts of an old cell phone re-purposed to allow them to activate the explosion via bluetooth. The rest of the device was plastic and ceramic around a core of C4 explosive, studded with nails and razor blades. It fit inside a Blue’s Clues lunchbox, and there were six boxes of similar dimensions in the packing crate below his feet.

 

His workshop was in the garage. It had been a labour of love, built to indulge his hobby of amateur electronics before he met Terry and figured out a new use for the space and equipment. For a bomb maker, Mike was proud he had all his fingers and limbs, but the information was available, even from the jihadists who posted details and schematics amongst upper case rants on the depravity of the American people. There was an irony to it which escaped Mike, but ideology left so little room for nuance.

 

The tube light flickered overhead and went out. Mike swore under his breath and set the iron down on the bench, switched it off with a brush of his thumb. He pushed his stool back, thinking about where the spares were.

 

He did not have time to scream before the cloth clamped around his nose and mouth, the high chemical stink insinuating into his head as he passed out from the force. Someone caught him as he fell into a deep, implacable blackness.

 

Mike awoke with the worst headache and strapped to the recliner in the living room with bungee cords. Someone had turned his Xbox and tv on, so the introduction music on Battlefield One shook the air. Mrs Foster was his only neighbour and she had gone to her grandson in Columbus for a long weekend.

 

‘Good evening Mike.’

 

He could not place the accent through the impenetrable barrier of the headache. He narrowed his eyes and looked around his living room.

 

‘What is this?’ he said.

 

A low chuckle caressed the back of his neck and he shuddered.

 

‘You will tell me the names of the other militia members and where they meet.’ he said.

 

Mike grunted and struggled against the cords.

 

The man walked around to face him. He was tan, with short dark hair and spectacles, wearing a black t-shirt and jeans. He held a stained white towel in one hand and a litre bottle of water in the other.

 

‘Fuck you.’ Mike said.

 

His anger was genuine, but the fear grew more intense with each second.

 

The man laughed and Mike recognised the accent. British.

 

‘Now, Mike, I admire your bravado but I had a look in your garage and you’re better off telling me what I want to know.’ he said.

 

Mike’s laughter died in his throat as the man walked towards him.

 

‘I won’t tell you anything.’ Mike said.

 

It was the most courageous he had been, and no one was around to witness it. The thought weakened him but not as much as what the towel and bottle were for. The man lifted the towel up and raised his eyebrows.

 

‘This isn’t for refreshment, Mike. No, this is your sad little group’s biggest fear come to life.’ he said.

 

Mike squeezed out tears and grimaced as he shook his head over and over. The swelling strings of the soundtrack sounded mocking and grated his ears.

 

The man sat on the couch and put the towel and bottle on the coffee table where Mike could see it.

 

‘I only make the stuff. We’re fighting a war, man. We’re dying out.’ Mike said.

 

They were Terry’s words, not his and the man smiled as he sat back on the couch.

 

‘Who’s dying out? White men? Now there, you and I have common ground. I’m doing the work you and your friends dream of, but it’s more complicated than that.’ he said.

 

His tone was generous, without the coiled sense of threat Mike had absorbed from movies and television. He looked around him.

 

‘Do you read comics, Mike?’ he said.

 

Mike nodded in furious agreement. The man smirked and looked at Mike.

 

‘I’ve always been a nerd for them. Not so much the superheroes, but I grew up with 2000 A.D. We never went into superheroes so much, but comics, shit I’ve got tons of them in storage. Have you ever read Preacher?’ he said.

 

Mike hadn’t. He wished he had. He lowered his chin and shook his head.

 

‘There’s one of my favourite lines where Jesse, he’s got the Word of God, and he ends up a sheriff of this place called Salvation after getting chucked out a plane, and there are these Klan types and he walks up to one and tears his hood off.’

 

The man was smiling as he mimicked the action. Mike’s stomach clenched with fear and confusion.

 

‘He says something which struck me as profound for a comic book. Why are the biggest champions of the race the worst examples of it?’ he said.

 

Mike recoiled at the insult and struggled against the bonds without hope.

 

The man chuckled and sat back against the couch.

 

‘You’re buying into a narrative. The same one used to keep everyone down. Being a victim means you avoid having to take responsibility. If you’re black or disabled, gay or white, then it’s not your fault if you fail at anything, is it?’

 

Mike had no answer for him. The righteousness of his cause was real to him, and the man’s mockery stung more than the chemicals used to knock him out.

 

‘You’re weak, all of you. Bombing mosques and a women’s health clinic, that’s weak shit.’ he said.

 

Mike wept, but it garnered no reaction from the man at all. He sighed and waited for him to stop crying.

 

‘You’re a talented boy, Mike. You should be proud of your craft, despite being a massive cunt.’ he said.

 

‘It didn’t throw me. I’ve got a nose for these things, and when I found the groups you were into on Facebook, one phone call to Cambridge Analytica and I had your name and address.’ he said.

 

Mike shuddered and wept again. He did not see the blow coming until it turned his face, a stinging rebuke which blasted his self pity away.

 

‘Please, don’t kill me.’ he said.

 

The man stood up and ran his tongue over his lips.

 

‘The nurse at the clinic, the one who got impaled on the door. I knew her.’ he said.

 

‘I met the boy who will never walk again.’ he said.

 

His voice had roughened and Mike wondered if it was a trick of the light at the dampness in the man’s eyes before he picked up the towel and bottle.

 

‘But the nurse, Mike, I fucking loved her to the bone and I let her go because I thought this was more important.’ he said.

 

He unscrewed the lid on the bottle and tossed it to the carpet as he walked behind the recliner.

 

‘A man, Mike, has to have a purpose, even if it costs him to follow it.’ he said.

 

His voice cracked with emotion, which frightened Mike more than when he was glib and relaxed.

 

Mike twisted as the man put the towel over his face and held it in place with his left hand.

 

‘You’ll understand it when I’m done.’ he said.

 

Mike’s lungs heaved as he struggled for air beneath the careful deluge of water through the towel. His panicked breaths drew on every fibre of his being but he broke without too much effort.

 

It did not take much of the bottle before Mike was shrieking out names and addresses. The man made Mike repeat them without attempting to write them down.

 

‘I’m sorry I had to do it, Mike. I’ll make this quick.’ he said.

 

Mike wondered what he meant before the palm came up and hit him square in the centre of his face, driving the nasal bone into his brain.

 

David took a few things with him after he had wiped down where he had sat and left evidence which would throw things off enough to finish the rest of it.

 

10.

 

Chris rang Terry whilst he was on his lunch. Terry said nothing until his babbling had smoothed out into a choked sob.

 

‘Mike didn’t touch drugs, this has to be something else.’ he said

 

Terry told him to get the others and meet at the motel tonight. He ended the call and went back to the site, looking at the house he was building and wondering if he would see it completed. A cold sense of resolve washed over him as he slipped his phone back into his pocket.

 

‘It’s good work.’

 

Terry turned and looked at the man who stood next to him. He wore a dark pinstripe suit and smiled at Terry with a familiarity which tested his taciturn expression.

 

‘Thanks, I should get back to it. Can’t get the help these days.’ he said.

 

Beaners or niggers?’ the man said.

 

Terry scowled as he walked away.

 

‘I find having the courage of your convictions shows the measure of a man, Terry.’ he said.

 

Terry froze as his heart thumped. He swallowed and tasted copper as he stood up straight and turned around with care.

 

‘Do I know you, mister?’ he said.

 

The man shook his head.

 

‘No, you don’t. I bumped into Jenny when she dropped Rachel at daycare, beautiful family you’ve got there, Terry.’ he said.

 

Terry snorted through his nose and stood there, calculating the distance it would take to get close to the man and whether he could take him down. He had left the gun in the car, unloaded as the law demanded, but he itched to have it with him.

 

‘Mister, you seem like a smart man, if you’ve got something to say, say it.’ he said.

 

The man shook his head.

 

‘No, this is me fucking with you for sport. I don’t say things, I act.’ he said.

 

He turned and walked away without looking back. Terry’s hands shook as he reached for his phone and called Pete.

 

11.

 

Pete had set his rifle up from the back of the flatbed truck, hidden underneath a tarp with the scope trained on the window of the room they used. It was a.22 long rifle with a weaver scope and he had parked 150 yards away, just at the point where the round went from supersonic to subsonic. He adjusted for the drop at the distance but after popping sand niggers in the desert, Pete liked to think he was defending his homeland enough to factor in the physics.

 

Whoever the limey fuck was, he would not fuck with The White Rabbit and live. Pete knew the feds were circling, but they had time to get clear. Running was an option but Terry wanted this guy taken down. A last scalp before they all packed up and went out to Montana where there were people who could hide them until things blew over.

 

Plus, Pete thought, being white helped.

 

He chewed on the piece of jerky until it softened to the consistency of gum and sipped the bottle of water as he watched Chris and Terry enter the room.

 

Nice and smooth, he thought. They would lure the guy in, get him by the window and Pete would shoot him. The suppressor would reduce the sound to little more than a cough and it would be over.

 

The White Rabbit understood the first rule of guerilla warfare:

 

Make your weaknesses your strengths. They were a small, tight cell and able to react with speed but Pete had liked Mike, and so laid there, he vowed to avenge his brother. Running sucked, but it meant they could come back, harder and stronger when this fucker was in the ground.

 

He looked through the sight and waited to make his shot.

 

12.

 

Terry and Chris went through the motions of setting up a video, both touching the holstered pistols on their hips for unconscious reassurance as they waited for something to fall upon them.

 

‘He’s a limey?’ Chris said.

 

Terry grunted and nodded as he reached for the balaclava from underneath the pillow.

 

‘Shut up and film me. We need to make this look real.’ he said.

 

Chris nodded as Terry rolled the balaclava down over his head. He caught a whiff of something acrid and sharp before he tried to pull it off as he bellowed with horror. Chris dropped the camera with shock at the sight of Terry’s face.

 

Red and pink sizzling blisters covered his face. He held his hands to his face and bolted past Chris to the door as he scratched for the door handle. Chris ran to him, turned him around and caught the stink of corroding flesh before he vomited down himself with shock at his friend’s ruined face.

 

13.

 

Pete frowned as he reached for his phone but he stopped when he felt the weight shift in the back of the truck before a hammer blow landed on the base of his skull. He tried to roll onto his side but a foot stamped between his shoulder blades and forced the breath from his lungs, cracking ribs and tearing the tip of his scapulae off as he struggled to improve his position.

 

The man loomed above him.

 

‘I’m a man who likes to work with his hands.’ he said.

 

Pete felt his life slip away in a series of judicious blows as the man beat him to death with his own rifle.

 

14.

 

Chris dragged Terry outside, looking around as he watched Pete’s pick up rocking on its wheels as two men struggled in the back. He drew his gun and fired blind as Terry mewled with agony, limp with the insult as the skin melted off his face. Chris felt something wet and gelid fall onto his shoulder and when he turned, Terry’s cheek had fallen off. He screamed and pushed him away as he cried out in horror.

 

The figure stepped down from the truck and disappeared from view.

 

Chris looked at the gun and met Terry’s eyes as they melted down his face like defrosted ice cream. Terry clutched at his shoulder and rasped out a single word.

 

‘Please.’ he said

 

Chris looked at his friend and raised the gun as he heard the faint cry of sirens in the distance. He squeezed the trigger as he gave his friend the gift of mercy.

 

15.

 

Blake stood by the grave, numb and struggling to keep upright as he looked at the headstone. Life had paused at the worst moment, and he veered between bleak disconnection and anger at how the world had gone on without him.

 

The news featured the arrest of the militia member who had turned on the others and been shot by police at a local motel used as a base of operations. Blake had watched the tearful wife of the leader and felt nothing but a grinding contempt as she denied all knowledge of the enterprise. He came to see Jessica’s grave every day even as the sympathy of others around him depleted by the raw gravitational pull of his pain.

 

It was a warm afternoon when he saw the man walk over to him.

 

‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ he said.

 

A British accent drew Blake from his inward focus as he looked up. The man was unshaven, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses as he looked at the headstone.

 

‘Did you know her?’ Blake said.

 

The man nodded without taking his attention from the headstone.

 

‘Yes, she was a good girl.’ he said.

 

His voice was slow and rough with fatigue as he took off the sunglasses and offered his hand to him. Blake was taken aback by the pain in the man’s eyes but he took his hand with whatever grace was available to him.

 

David looked at Blake, forced down the tumultuous blend of emotions, envy and kinship for the mutual loss alongside the need to control his emotions. It was a beautiful day but David felt like he was underneath a long, cold shadow wherever he went. The fact he wasn’t alone offered no comfort and an explanation of his association with Jessica would make things worse. He looked into Blake’s eyes with a cold frankness.

 

‘I killed them and I made it hurt, Blake. It doesn’t bring her back but you’ve got to start somewhere, haven’t you?’ he said.

 

Blake furrowed his forehead as David let go of his hand and put his sunglasses on. He smiled at Blake and walked away.

 

David’s phone rang and he answered it. Larry had a car waiting for him and asked if he was coming back to work. David remembered the late nights with Jessica, back when this life was an idea and he had a choice to make about his future and the warmth of her skin, the overbite when she smiled and the way she rolled her cigarettes.

 

David sighed and looked at the Lincoln which idled at the kerb. He didn’t have to tell Larry he was back at work.

 

He had never left.

 

Standard
politics, short fiction

A Moral Adoption

 

 

The route took you all over. You look at your reflection, mesmerised by the glittering nerves of activism in your eyes, stinking of lighter fluid and spray paint. It sits in your brain like temple incense.

 

You used white spray paint. It contrasted against the rich, dark wood they used. All the history of your enemies enshrined in materials which should have been your people’s by right.

 

You look around you, all the crumpled, exhausted people going about their lives. All their mundane concerns about the money they’re not making and the sex they’re not having.

 

You’ve been busy tonight, and they will continue to lose themselves in duties and distractions whilst you will go onto start the great conversation about power and its place of residence.

 

Its chosen people.

 

Not everyone will understand but in time, your actions will force dialogue and action.

 

As you walk out of the subway, a flash of alabaster cheekbone and a flip of a limp tangerine fringe makes your heart ache. He smiles at you with the arrogance of someone who collected broken hearts like lint in their coat pockets. This melancholic observation sinks fish hooks into your stomach and tugs hard enough to make you lean forward.

 

The dull rattle of the empty cans in your backpack is a musical cue. You stand up, push your shoulders back and raise your head.

 

One perfect, lubricated fuck would complicate things.

 

You recall a firm, callused hand on the small of your back. He smelled of liniment and cough drops. His breath was so sweet it bought tears to your eyes. There was an awful gravity to it if you could describe it. You do not. There are better battles, better ideas and they are your ideas and battles now.

 

He turns away and your nerves prickle with the reward of your denial.

 

Your building is quiet.

The Leins are asleep. Alex has gone to Vermont to visit her ex. The walk to your apartment has a dark, quiet quality to it which feels like fate.

 

Once you are inside, you empty everything into a garbage bag.

 

The spray paints.

The charcoal briquettes soaked in paraffin

Waterproof matches

Claw hammer

Roll of tape.

 

Your gloves go in last of all. Whilst you take the bag to the disposal, your phone rings.

 

‘Hi Justin.’

 

A twist of disdain starts in the back of your throat.

 

‘I don’t go by that name anymore, Rebecca.’

 

You tell her name like it is a splinter you’re trying to extract from the roof of your mouth.

 

‘David said. It’s Saul now, isn’t it?’

 

You correct her.

 

Saul Avishai Ali.

 

A name is a statement. A performance which requires immersion to be convincing. You must, as a prophet of your ideas, be complete in thought and deed.

 

You wrote out variations of different names until you found one which looked pleasing in print.

 

She sighs and you hear the polite weariness in her voice. Tolerance is a playful practice in the abstract but you relieved Rebecca   of trying to understand you.

 

These poisonous lessons were plentiful during the five years you lived with them.

 

‘Well, Saul, I hadn’t heard from you. I don’t want you to disappear.’

 

You bare your teeth, fight the urge to spit about your erasure.

 

Instead you toss the bag down the chute and go back to your apartment.

 

‘I won’t.’

 

‘Good, good. Are you still taking your medication?’

 

Your knowledge and purpose have eliminated the need for medication. Without shaking hands and sleep paralysis, there is a jangling, bold purpose to you which means the medicine slows you down. There is a shining, harsh purity to your world which needs nothing to mute its chorus of truth and primal, tribal wisdom.

 

There is liberation in knowing your enemies.

 

You tell her you are fine but go. It satisfies her but you tell her someone is at the door so she can end the conversation without straying from the clipped script you both read from when you speak.

 

It is important she believes people gravitate to you. You are the bright sun in someone’s sky, when you struggle with accepting love from people. It feels rehearsed and spoiled at the same time.

 

The callused hand, smelling of liniment, it burned out something inside you.

 

Your purpose is a way to assuage your loss.

 

Life has been a rehearsal for having a secret identity. Someone without a name but with actions to carry out.

 

When you lived with David and Rebecca, there was always the promise, vague and inconstant, of arranging something formal. Legal.

 

The novelty of you sounded like the seconds on a clock, growing louder as the time slipped away.

 

David found you somewhere to live.

 

A few blocks away, but it might as well have been the moon.

 

It was whilst in exile, you had time to process the personal through the filter of the political.

 

Rebecca does not know she spoke to a man who struck a blow against his enemies.

 

You heat a bowl of sprouts and rice noodles. Online, the photos appear faster than the television news can cover them.

 

No one mentions the fires.

 

Your handiwork is incidental. What matters is the reaction to it. There are statements from the synagogue officials and the actress who organised the event. Her flamboyant ugliness and arrogance offend you, and you put your opinions out there.

 

They label you many things and some of them are true, but like so many things, context matters. The opinions bloom like fireworks as your synapses sing with recognition and affirmation.

 

You cruise until three a.m. The conversation tapers off and despite a last round of statements, there is nothing left to say.

 

It is whilst you are asleep they release the surveillance footage.

 

Sleep has a fullness like you’ve been fucked well and held afterwards. This idea which has possessed you, it is old and has the craft of lovers and prophets. Its kiss of purpose on your forehead has married you to action and it croons lullabies enough to keep memories at bay long enough to allow you some peace.

 

They knock on the door with enough force to make the door rattle in its frame.

 

You stand up, zip up the hooded sweatshirt you wore last night. Fire engine red.

 

You hope they captured your good side as you go to answer the door.

 

Standard
politics, short fiction, women

Beatrice, On Departure

Beatrice sat in the departure lounge. She had allowed herself a soy latte, decaf after she had her vitamin drip. She looked up from her phone, appalled and excited to see if anyone recognised her.

No one did. She sent her location and a photograph of her latte to her platforms. These neurotic pronouncements were what she was doing instead of writing the second season. She thought about going into the writer’s room and tasted metals on her tongue. Beatrice was playing ring-a-rose with people who would stab her in the kidneys if they thought it granted them time with HBO and she was flying out with a vague idea on how to proceed with season two.

 

Both her parents had moved onto second marriages, but held onto inherited monies and well-paid work in the art world. They were patrons and Beatrice, despite her anxious flamboyance, was subject to their patronage. She aimed for the kindness of her audience by apologising for it.

 

Social media was the perfect drug for her. Otherwise she was teetotal, vegan and drug-free. She wasn’t sure if Lexapro counted. Everyone she knew was on something. Her anxiety was symbiotic and it had allowed her enough success to not have to ask her parents for money as often as she used to. Beatrice resented having to ask at all because they used to know. She watched a pair of men walk up to the counter, both in suits.

 

They were close enough to listen. Beatrice’s fingers hovered over the screen, ready to record it for posterity. She wouldn’t risk video but a recollection would be interesting. Perhaps, she thought, I could hashtag it with something. There were, she thought, a father and son. She tweeted about how great it was to see fathers and sons out together but she worried about seen as misogynist so she deleted it.

 

‘I know I’m over thinking it.’ the younger man said.

 

The older man scratched his beard.

 

‘You are.’ he said.

 

Beatrice rolled her eyes. The paucity of their talk offended her.

 

She had been sharing a lot of trans support stuff of late. It went over well with people who wanted something to be angry about. 

 

Oh god they’re talking about trans women!

 

The reaction was immediate. More likes than comments, and people shared it. A drop of intention into the ocean of the internet, and people drank deep. She looked up, saw both men were looking at her. The older man’s eyes were dark with concern.

 

She used some of their conversation, to give it some colour. It was important to seed your story with detail. Beatrice tricked herself into her best writing, and here she was, exposed to the internet.

 

Beatrice took three or four photos. People were posting about observations about the men, and soon the internet knew who they were.

 

The older man reached into his jacket and took out his phone. He read the screen, scowled and stood up. He looked at Beatrice.

 

‘Excuse me, are you tweeting about us right now?’ he said.

 

Beatrice swallowed and looked away.

 

‘No, and why would you shout at someone like that? I have anxiety.’ she said.

 

Her fingers were dancing across the screen.

 

‘You’re doing it now, aren’t you?’ he said.

 

The younger man looked at his phone and then turned his head to stare at her.

 

‘She’s sent photos. What is wrong with you?’ he said.

 

Beatrice’s heart beat hard against her ribs. She put the phone back in her handbag. Taking video would have made things worse, but it would have been great to see those angry men berating her.

 

No one would ask what prompted it. It would come later, but by then, people would talk about it. She gritted her teeth and stood up. Her legs wobbled and she pulled her bag close to her chest.

 

They called her flight and she walked away.

 

She sat down, stared at the screen, saw the notifications piling up before an email came through.

 

‘Studio is pissed! If you’re not on your way, call me. If you are, stay off the internet, I AM SERIOUS’

 

Her head swam with a delicious dizziness. She was falling without moving. The sensible, professional thing to do was to mute the notifications, wait for it to die down and reassure the studio it was performance art.

 

Beatrice yearned to be a disappointment. She opened her app and composed a message about the assault she’d experienced.

 

Standard
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.

Standard
fiction, love, politics, women

Bad Date

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

 

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

 

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

 

KILL ALL MEN

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

THEY’VE ARRESTED FLIP!!

 

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

 

Standard
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.

 

.

 

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