fiction, short fiction, Uncategorized

Queue

His hair was thin, laying odd where he had taken his hat off upon coming into the bank. He had dyed it at some point, trading the recognisable golden-blonde halo for a dull, tobacco brown. It was more honest, like the man had been a useful shell, something to discard when the need arose. What lived inside that man was one person in front of her.

 

There was a livid white headed pimple visible above the collar of his shirt with a circle of inflamed skin around it. He carried the packed sour musk of poor hygiene. He had tried to make an effort with his clothes but he looked fragile. He had walked around as a god in a crisp white polo shirt and shorts, the silver whistle dangling between the cleft of his pectorals as he shouted out plays from the dugout.

 

He used to smell of nautical aftershave, a clean bold smell to him that reminded her of limes and now made her mouth fill up with vomit if she ever caught a whiff of it. She could not see his hands. She remembered how they would rest on the line of her neck.

 

He looked shorter than she remembered. The years had whittled him down whilst hers had been building a body that she considered hers again.

 

She leaned out and saw the harassed teller struggle to remain polite with the elderly gentleman, his balding head shining and fragile in the afternoon light as he tried to remember his account number.

 

This was the second day of following him, but the first that she did not have to rely on guessing where he might have been. She had watched him stop at the store and pick up a copy of a magazine he kept rolled up and inside a plastic bag that he brought with him. His chest would rise from excitement and look both ways as he left the store to return home.

 

She had walked in and shoplifted three magazines, took them back under her coat to her hotel room and took them apart. She removed the staples with needle nose pliers and replaced them with wire transmitters that fed to an app on her phone. All ordered over the internet which he probably was banned from going on. Hence the need for analogue release, which was a slick, distasteful thing to consider and she spat it away.

 

Returning the magazines was more difficult than stealing them had been. She did it in five trips, losing her nerve on the third and fourth. She watched him go back to the store.

 

She watched him go to the store, return home with milk, bread and another magazine. Her phone beeped with a connection. He did not have a cellphone which was almost an atavism these days, but she could follow him.

 

She looked different too. She had become a woman which would not interest him anymore.

 

She had never picked up a baseball bat again and had switched to judo. After getting her black belt in that and competing at a state level, she had begun to study Brazilian ju-jitsu and even got into muay thai kickboxing. Her hair was still long, tucked up beneath a ball cap. Her complexion was soft, hints of peach and milky coffee. She wore a long green sweater with sleeves that hung over her hands and black leggings with unlaced boots. The clothes softened her, hid the cast of her shoulders and the raw, callused strength in her hands from all the years gripping the thick white material of the ghi. She had no intention of fighting him because it would be too quick, too awkward.

 

In the queue he turned and glanced at her, gave a distant but sickly smile then turned away.

 

It stung that he did not recognise her.

 

She kept her eyes on him, feeding her hate for him to keep her alert.

 

It became his turn to conduct business with the teller.

 

He was closing his account, which warranted one of the bank’s officers coming over to speak with him. She stood there, looking straight ahead as close as she had been since the trail. Her heart pounded in her chest and her limbs shook with the need to strike out at him.

 

Every heavy bag bore his face that she threw knees and elbows into.

 

She turned around and walked away. She was desperate for some fresh air.

 

She stood three people behind him in the post office as he filled out some forms to have his mail forwarded to him.

 

She stood outside the travel agents as he spoke to the travel agent, shook hands with her but failed to see the speed with which she reached for the hand sanitizer when he had left.

 

She did not follow him into the coffee shop. She had followed him for long enough, now it was time to hunt him.

 

2.

 

He let himself into his apartment and shut the door behind him. He stood against it and exhaled deeply as he stretched out his lower back. He switched the light on and stood the bag of groceries on the table. He reached into his coat and pulled out a pouch of rolling tobacco, made himself a cigarette and sat underneath the blinking fluorescent light, smoked it and stared out at nothing.

 

He shut his eyes and felt a vein in his temple throb with the beginnings of a headache.

 

He finished the cigarette and stubbed it out before putting the groceries away. He was too exhausted to eat; he had planned to jerk off and go to sleep. Tomorrow would be a new day for him, he told himself, one more day and he could go somewhere else, start again.

 

He unbuttoned his shirt in the doorway of his bedroom when he heard the creak of a floorboard behind him and started to turn.

 

The knee in the small of his back pushed the air from his lungs and he went to fall forward until he felt a pair of hands clamp onto his shoulders and pulled him back into the hallway. He tried to turn around, but the hands pulled him up.

 

He tried to speak, but he would be punished with another punch or a knee. He kept trying to move into the bedroom, but she used his shirt as a rein. He probably still thought it was a man beating him up.

 

He threw his arm up to shove her away, which she took in the shoulder and returned with a crisp jab to his nose that spread it across his face in a wet crack. Agony bolted through his head, splitting his brain in two with its bright fury.

 

He covered his face in his hands and she watched blood trickling between his fingers.

 

‘Get up, Coach.’ she said.

 

He pulled his hands away, the lower half of his face dark and shining with blood. His teeth were small and dull in his mouth, and his eyes welled up with tears.

 

‘No, please. I’ve been on a program. I can’t even talk to children anymore.’ he said.

 

She shook her head and took her cap off, stepped forward into the light.

 

‘You’re talking to one right now. ‘

 

Her eyes were dry and cold.

 

‘I was just going to scare you at first. I wanted you to know what that felt like.’

 

He put his hands up in front of him and shook his head.

 

‘Please, I’m a good person, I wasn’t but I’m trying to be.’

 

She stepped forwards and stared into his eyes.

 

‘I’ve followed you, Coach, what you were doing weren’t the actions of a good man.’

 

She ran her tongue across her lips.

 

‘None of them were, not ever.’

 

Her voice regressed and she was ten years old again, looking into his eyes and knowing what the sun would like if it had a face.

 

Before it scorched something inside her, made it charred and dead.

 

It was the little girl who made her run forward.

 

The choke went in quick and deep. Between her crossed thighs, his face turned purple and swollen, his eyes turning red from where blood vessels haemorrhaged as she constricted his blood supply to his brain.

 

She kept his arm straight and held between her hands until it went slack, then stayed on until her abdomen and thighs started to cramp. She crawled off him, fighting the burn of lactic acid from the effort of keeping the choke held in.

 

The air had begun to smell damp around him and she got away.

 

She slipped out of the room, then the building and pulled her hood up then jammed her hands in her pockets.

 

The queue for the Greyhound wasn’t long, but she kept looking ahead, waiting for the wail of sirens and it was when she got on and looked out of the window that she started to cry again. She curled her knees up to her chest and hugged herself.

 

She thought of home, and for the first time, did not feel sick.

 

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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.

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love, men, mother, short fiction, women

A Mother Has All The Weapons She Needs

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

His brother had other ideas.

 

2.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Katharine raised an eyebrow and Robert continued.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Peter turned his head and grimaced at his wife.

 

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

 

Katharine smiled and kissed her husband on the cheek.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Katharine put her hand on her husband’s forearm.

 

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

 

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

 

‘See to his health.’ he said.

 

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

 

‘Your highness.’ Robert said.

 

3.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

4.

 

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

 

The last thing he heard was Ibb calling his name.

 

5.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

‘Did you come here on purpose?’

 

He tapped once.

 

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

 

Ibb needed to keep her strength up.

 

6.

 

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

 

7.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

8.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

9.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

‘He was your brother.’ she said.

 

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

 

‘Was?’ he said.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

10.

 

Katharine awoke to a small hand clamped over her mouth.

 

‘Don’t raise your voice.’

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Katharine swallowed and waited for her to continue.

 

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

 

Katharine exhaled as the woman’s hand came away.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

‘You sorry, empty coward.’ she said.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

11

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

12.

 

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

 

He lowered the rod and smiled at her.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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short fiction

White Rabbit

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“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.

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beauty, love, short fiction, women

Eight Years Rehearsal

He had left before I awoke, pausing only to kiss me on the cheek and leave me a cup of tea. It would be too cold to drink by the time I woke up, but I appreciated the gesture. My house had seen dark times, none of which he had been privy to, but his presence, tentative at first looked to a point where there were more happy memories than sad ones to look forward to.

Ben had gone to pick up a new door for Jenny’s bedroom. The old one was covered in stickers, and she wanted her privacy, to play and write stories. Ben sat with her when she read them to him and she would stand in the doorway and watch him as something shifted in her chest and she had to look away.

David had slammed my head into the wall. He had been drinking and high on something which sent his neuroses into overdrive. I was being punished for confronting him about his infidelity, on a night where our kids were with my mum. She spent the night waiting by the phone for me to call but I couldn’t face her.

I had run downstairs, dizzy and bleeding from the impact and I had run into the kitchen, reached for the drawer and looked out onto my studio. I wanted to work out there in the summer, and I realised, if I didn’t stop this, I never would. He stomped downstairs and I reached for a carving knife, tested its weight in my hand and backed against the cupboard.

He came in swinging, his lips pulled back over his teeth, electrified with rage and pain and I pushed the knife forwards, low and upwards The impact jolted through my arm as he gasped and reached up to where the knife had sunk in. He bled onto the knife, and I cried out in rage as I pushed it into him as I wept. Everything went white, and when I came to, slumped against the cupboard, he laid on the kitchen floor, with the knife jutting from his stomach. His head had rolled onto side, and his eyes were empty, lips slackened like he’d heard the punch line to a terrible joke.

I got up and went through to the hallway. I knew where I could put him, and how to keep it safe. I had planned on getting him somewhere, but I saw it as more of an art project, a thought exercise. My head throbbed and I cleaned up as much as I could in the bathroom before I hacked into the wall.

I had to make a trip out to the supermarket and a few garages, grabbing air fresheners from each one. I had a hat on, a cap with the brim worn low to hide my face. I had one assistant help me with the lime and plaster.

I used David’s credit card to do it. I destroyed it on the way out, snapped it and threw it between two different bins. The bags were heavy, but I thought of my daughter made me strong enough to drive back and heave his body up the stairs put him into the cavity, fill it with lime and air fresheners then plaster him up. I drew the sigil into the wall with the knife and stood back, charging it with my hate and my fear.

The most difficult part was the most delicate, drawing the sigil into the wall, the same words used to awake the golem, or in this case, command it to remain still and inert.

Much of magic is the actual doing of things. You drew the cards; you chanted the rituals and drew the sigil to enact your will onto the universe.

sigil (6)

I told my mum he had walked out. I wept on the phone, but I told my mum I wanted to be alone. I also had to keep the heating and the hairdryer on to get the plaster dried. It was my greatest creation and it kept David in there where he couldn’t hurt me ever again. He had a record with the police so they weren’t too keen to look into him.

Seven years and I never brought a man home. I stayed at theirs, but I needed my space.

None of them persisted, but I still missed the mornings where I woke up alone. I had to wait seven years before I could declare him dead. His parents were both dead, and he had been an only child. I made a lot of sculptures, most of it in clay, little in plaster because I had produced nothing with as much urgency as replacing a section of wall to look utilitarian and benign.

I met Ben at a gallery show of my work. He took me out for coffee. It was very polite, and he made me feel safe. There was something girlish and silly about this. I had a dead man in the walls of my house and yet the first night he came; we cooked dinner and watched films together. I trembled as I walked to him where he laid on my bed.

He made me feel beautiful and he was gentle until I needed him not to be. Afterwards, he held me as I cried and didn’t ask why. He had been wounded in the past too, with his own baggage but it made him gentle rather than bitter. It never crossed my mind to tell him because he was a good man but I would burden him, test him with my darkness and I wasn’t sure I could do that to anyone.

Yet he had gone out that morning to pick up a new bedroom door.

Jenny was at my mum’s. I got out of bed, walked through the hallway and tapped the plaster. My punishment had been watching Jenny grow up without her dad. I hadn’t pushed Ben to interact with her; it had just come to him and she showed an interest in him, through the medium of the things she liked to do. He was a man who knew how to play, and it felt like a poor deal. I decided Jenny was better off with her mother than her father because David had forced that choice upon me.

I had spent eight years rehearsing for a better life. Ben, I hoped, would be part of it and he had not disappointed me. If that changed, if my instincts betrayed me, I knew there was room for him in the walls.

I got up and stood in the hallway, listening for the sound of David’s whimpering and was pleased to hear only the thump of blood in my veins. Jenny would be home soon, with all the noise and activity she brought to everything, but in the meantime, I heard the rattle of the key in the lock and smiled to myself as I heard my name called.

 

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grief, love, short fiction, Uncategorized, women

Customer Complaint

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Ivor walked out of the mall, putting more weight on his cane as he adjusted his cap to alleviate the thin layer of perspiration. The canvas shopping bag was gripped in his left hand, swollen knuckles turned pale from the pressure of his grip. It swung with the weight of its contents as he looked up at the restaurant.

 

He ran his yellowing tongue over his cracked lips and said a name. The association raised the hairs on the back of his neck, gave him a boost which alleviated the pains which came from the simple act of motion, deepening as the years went on.

 

People milled around him as he made slow progress.

 

They had come for their anniversary. Katya, their eldest had warned against it, said the food was made like play-dough, preformed and packaged. She chided her mother, telling her she could make a better meal at home. Bettina’s eyes had narrowed, a flush of blood rising in her soft cheeks as she folded her arms.

 

‘Your father never takes me out. It has movie star pictures on the walls and impersonators.’

 

Ivor overheard from his position on the recliner, reading the scarred, leather bound book with his spectacles perched on the end of his nose, muttering words in a language thought lost to time and decided to make the reservation after all.

 

They played music at an ear splitting volume, served with a desperate theatrical quality which made his blood pressure go up and the food was late and cold.

 

She had cooed and pointed at the pictures and the staff, dressed as movie stars or characters. Ivor remembered their server had been the drunken pirate and how Bettina had mistaken his sloppy stoned attitude for attention to detail. Ivor sipped his cola and fought the rising indignation like a dose of indigestion, smiled at his Bettina and took her hand.

 

The server, Jay, had smoked a blunt on his break and it got him through his shifts in a warm, bubbling haze of intoxication. Sure, he missed details but most people wanted to eat or stop their kids from ruining the entire evening and he was convinced of his charms with people.

 

Sure, he missed details.

 

Bettina’s allergy.

 

Ivor told people his last memory of her was lifting the dripping burger, giggling as something warm broke across his chest with pleasure. All these years and he never loved her more.

 

He lied to people.

 

His last memory was watching her seize up with anaphylactic shock. Clawing at her throat as her eyes bulged in their sockets, disbelieving and watching how her brilliant, magical Ivor could not save her. When he lurched towards the idiot server, barking curses in a language which made people ill to hear aloud, it became an awful cartoon.

 

The lawyer explained it. They were a franchise with money and an army of lawyers. One stoned server doth not make a summer, he had quipped and regretted it for the rest of his life.

 

It was two weeks.

 

An embolism in the pool of the motel he had been living in since his divorce. Ivor had dropped a pebble into a bowl of water on a night his grief whipped his soul into action.

 

Jay, the stoned pirate threw himself into traffic after giving his deposition to the franchise legal team with something of a smile on his face. Ivor twisted the bandana he had snatched from the idiot when he had rushed at him.

 

It was not enough.

 

The items he needed were available in the mall, although his disdain for the commercial was mistaken for the simple awkwardness of an elderly man but he muttered something about standards as he left.

 

The restaurant had not closed. It bulged on the corner of the main street, and he felt offended by its existence. It was not open for business at this time of day though, which suited him and soothed the small voice, a perfect impersonation of his Bettina which asked him why he had gone back to practicing again.

 

Because you were my reason not to, he told her.

 

He stopped on the kerb opposite and set the bag down, reaching inside for the snowglobe and the hammer as he shifted his cane from one hand to another, gritting his teeth against the pains in his hips and knees.

 

‘FYN CUN PRXA DUHA GHUT WYM AS LOW’

 

His voice was low and rich, bristling with operatic power. It made people stop, turning towards the source with a bizarre curiosity, like they had seen something take wing from the ground.

 

The hammer took out the globe and Ivor watched the air twist and shimmer above the building before he raised his hand and scattered the spray of blood, water, glitter and glass onto the road. It had been a warm, sluggish day but people stared at the building, now encased in ice. Its garish, plastic logo was now lost behind thick opaque ice, razored chandeliers hanging from everywhere and all of it making people lose their minds with shock and disbelief.

 

Ivor felt the first twinge of pressure in the base of his spine, how it sent a million love letters imploring him to give up and as the pavement rushed up to meet him, he felt his Bettina’s breath at his cheek and smiled for the first time in months.

 

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beauty, fiction, love, women

An Echo Of Laughter

1.

Miller had a kerchief to his noise, stood in the doorway to the study, hiding his morbid fascination with the amount of blood a human body can produce. Without an attachment, the humours of the body held academic interest and the dry language of medicine, much like justice removed sentiment from the equation. His work as an officer of the law was an amusing diversion from wasting his family’s money.

Such emotions were for the grieving. Foster Honeycutt had been a legend to the people of Texas, and the circumstances of his death were as redolent with theatre as the magazines, which bolstered his legend.

The culprit had the decency to remain on the scene. A withered Native who had served the family for twenty years with an impeccable record of service. He had not spoken since walking into the parlour, hands dripping with blood and the bone handled blade tucked into the waistband of his uniform.

Shock and good breeding had them call Miller rather than string him from a tree in the yard. Foster sagged in his chair, his face and throat reduced to wet, red ruin whilst his shirt hung from him in bloodied rags where the servant had sliced him to pieces.

The soles of his feet and scalp were a wet pile in the corner of the study.

The servant had repeated a single phrase instead of a motive or answering questions. Most murders were whiskey, women or wealth and it was intriguing to have an honest to goodness mystery on his hands.

He went through to the parlour and looked at the old man. His blunt, cheap haircut and the sour apple decay in his features. His eyes were soft and dark, swallowing the light in the parlour.

‘Her name was Laughs At Cattle. I am Never Runs From Battle, both of the Comanche people. I kept my promise’

He smiled with a child’s joy, disturbing when framed by the rigours of old age and hard work.

2.

He polished the silverware and looked out the window onto the amber sunset. His head still rang from the volume of the dream and the vows he made. What haunted him was how good it had all felt, a wild childhood and the woman who watched over them as their mothers worked and fathers hunted.

 

When Foster retold his anecdotes about his youth, he alluded to his actions with a wink and a sly smile. In his cups, the tales grew bolder and darker and when he told his friends about the Indian squaw, how she had fought against them, and even struck him, pointing to a silvered scar on his cheek for emphasis, he had excused himself with a cramping stomach and a mouth full of bitter, thick saliva.

 

She had come to him in the night. Her sockets were full of golden light and her feet were soft as a child’s belly. Her hair smelled of honey and mesquite, and her breath, warm upon his wizened cheek.

 

He shed tears as he slept, hands clenched into hot, tight fists and crying for the years wasted in servitude.

Dressing in the darkness, he forgot his aches and his grief and it was as a young brave he slipped through the hall down to Foster’s study. His knife was a comfort, and he sipped from the cool, dark waters of his revenge.

3.

Roper took off his hat and exhaled, running his hard, browned fingers through the damp grey hair on his head. He looked over the faces of the children over his spectacles, which had permanent right of residence on the peeling bridge of his nose.

They stood to attention behind their wooden desks. The boys had their hair in oiled plaits but Roper made a note to get scissors working on the infraction straight away. He would make them useful, loyal citizens of the country to come.

He held the gaze of one boy, soft down on his cheeks and eyes, which watered at every slight, real or implied. He looked down at his register and saw his name was one of those boastful titles, which made him aghast at the noble savages before him.

He would be a Peter or a John. Such warring names spoke to the arrogance of a prairie nigger, and Roper took pride in producing servants capable of obedience and attention to detail.

‘What you will be when you leave here is a matter of deep concern.’

He paced the front of the classroom, setting his hat on the desk in front of him.

‘The age of the savage is over. Civilisation has won out and you, my children will know a place in such an age. I will teach you.’

His eyes met with the boy. Despite the timid whisper of his personality, Roper saw a will within him tough as rawhide. The savages taught their children to hunt and fight from infancy. He had lost Ms Western to a girl who had leapt upon her, sinking her teeth into the young teacher’s cheek and scratching her forehead when she tried to take a hide dolly from her.

‘You must leave your pasts and any promises behind you. They are whispers of a dead age; children and you must close your ears to them.’

The boy stared back, a line in his forehead grooved deep into the tan skin like a knife wound formed before he took a deep breath and turned away from Roper’s gaze.

Roper did not see the boy’s fists beneath the desk, remembering the press of lips against them and the promise he had made.

Laughs At Cattle listened to the children rolling in the dirt, their shrill voices bright with primitive excitement. She leaned forward and cocked her head, told Hungry Vulture to stop taunting his brother or he would lose another tooth.

She loved the children. When she stared in their direction, her empty sockets did not scare them. She kept her feet wrapped in strips of hide but had to wash the blood and pus from them each day.

Laughs At Cattle felt pity like spit on her cheek with as much disgust.

Never Runs From Battle was a timid child given a brave name to inspire courage and he took Laugh’s hand, asked her what was wrong.

‘I’m remembering another time, Never Runs From Battle.’ she said

Her voice was soft, tarred by a rusted growl from the damage done to her throat.

‘When someone made you sad?’ he said.

Laughs shook her head. Sadness was a useful weight to bear, a flavour of pain, which she could swallow down, and function. This was a different sensation.

Never gripped her hand and took in a deep breath.

‘When I am a brave, no one will make you sad, Laughs At Cattle.’

She took his fragile hand in both of hers and kissed his hand. He giggled and flinched which took the sting from her memories.

‘I will hold you to that.’

She told him about the Texans and the horrible pleasure they took in her torture. Blinded her, slit her throat and the soles of her feet after taking her until she bled onto the dirt. She cared for the children instead of anything useful.

The truth of his words waited.

 

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