beauty, short fiction, women

Pushing Forward Back

We landed at Dulles, took the president to an armoured limousine as his wife fed him pills and lifted a bottle of water to his lips, telling him it would be okay.

The alien invasion had ended. We had received communication of a desire to open negotiations with the entity.

We had lost against something we knew so little about.

It had utilised a series of drones, intelligent enough to reproduce and evolve, and the ones we took apart showed the elegant malice of its designs. The carbon rods propelled by chemical charges launched from shuddering soft jellyfish floating above the atmosphere and destroying entire cities. Lupine creatures with armoured skin, dropped into the countryside and attacking everything they fell upon. Things which soared through our skies, emitting bursts of electromagnetic energy which blacked out entire countries. A cosmic zoo of grotesque proportions and exquisite capabilities and lost. The scale and speed of the assault made anything else a suicide note from our species.

My boss told me I was going along. I nodded, a little too quick from the caffeine I had been mainlining since we came out of the bunker in Colorado, desperate not to miss a moment of living now it was possible again.

The President was sending the vice president.

Their craft had landed in Nevada. Our analysis had been a race of reptilian beings, anatomy and intercepted communications representing a base ten mathematics. We never encountered the corpses of anything biological. If a race had reached technological singularity, the possibility of its machines becoming aggressive had factored into my calculations, but I believed we were dealing with a biological entity, its given name revealed in the final communication.

I’VE FIGURED OUT HOW IT WORKS

 

Sixteen major cities in smoking ruins beneath a rain of gelatinous napalm spat from the plastic wombs of writhing white machines which appeared and struck in perfect synchronisation without warning. It was the biblical made literal and what scared me about the technology and the tactics was the possibility of dealing with an invader who was whimsical.

The craft was covered in a reflective material which seethed with lines of sparking energy, twisting and turning in spirals and waves as a small aperture opened in the side. A ramp extended, rippling like a cat’s tongue at a saucer of milk and solidified into a single column.
Cassie Reynolds. The girl who bullied me through grade school until MIT admitted me onto it’s accelerated programme, and I left her smug ten-year-old face behind. I was looking into it now, twenty years later. She updated her social media with how happy she was, and I would unblock her to feed the irrational irritation she stoked in me after all that time. Yet I was looking at a ten-year-old Cassie Reynolds. I shuddered but the look on her face was something unusual. Dismay.

‘No, listen I know you’re seeing something awful but I can explain.’

The vice president wept and shook his head, praying as he put his hands up to hide his face and the secret service surrounded him, guns raised as Cassie skipped down the ramp.

‘There’s something in your brain which makes me look like the person you hate the most. Have you heard of apophenia?’

‘It’s where we prescribe meaning to patterns. It relates to schizophrenia. Why?’

‘Well, I have this implant which generates apophonic responses and triggers disgust responses. It’s what kept me alive when I took this mission. I’ve been working from the inside, across the planes, and I’m sorry I didn’t make it sooner, ma’am.Persuading the Council of Ricks was more difficult than I expected but I found my way into the central core.’

My stomach crawled with a desperate loathing as I planted my feet on the ground and clenched my hands into fists. I wanted to run over and claw at her pouting doll face, how she’d grin as she pulled my hair and slapped me, the ripples of mocking laughter whenever I spoke aloud. Smart children represent the purest expression of the uncanny valley effect, and it revolted girls like Cassie, much as she revolted me now.

Not Cassie’s eyes filled with tears as she came and stood in front of me.

Fucking bitch.

She held a small gel capsule in her palm.

‘This will help. I can explain it better if you’re not fighting the urge to murder me.’

‘Wasn’t the invasion of earth enough of a reason?’

She shook her head.

‘I didn’t cause this. I’ve stopped it. Just like you’ll ask me to.’

I took the capsule and swallowed it. A tight band of pain settled into my temples for a second before she wavered and I looked at a tired, scarred young woman, only twenty five.

‘I’ve never seen you before in my life. I’m a federal consultant. I wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything.’

Her eyes were red as she scratched the back of her neck. She told me what we had fought against.

They came from the future, working backwards like locusts.

For each civilisation they devoured, they became more degraded, outsourcing the majority of their activity to machines, making them more sophisticated to take on more responsibility for the invasion. By the time they had found us, it was the machines acting on their programming, as the last of the species died out.

Alien machine ghosts.

Not-Cassie told me this as I fought the urge to run screaming.

The worst part was her discovery about the aliens.

They weren’t alien at all. What we became in a million years. Humanity.

‘What year is this?’

I told her then talked about the invasion and she swallowed, turning pale with horror as she backed away.

‘Oh shit. Look, I can fix this. One more leap and I can stop them before they find the station.’

Cassie had given me Swirlies, Chinese burns of livid skin on my forearms. If we’d gone to high school together, she would have graduated to cigarette burns and streaming my live humiliation on her phone.

She ran back to the ship and took off. Someone fired a shot, but it pinged past her and she looked over her shoulder, grimacing.

‘I know, okay?’

The ramp retracted and the aperture closed behind her before the ship took off into the air like a leaf on the wind before it sucked away into space.

I looked at the vice president, on his knees and weeping with disgust.

We returned and I had the dubious pleasure of flying back with the vice president and trying to explain what had happened. I met someone who told me I had ordered her to stop this invasion and she did, but too late for the amount of devastation. The vice president had asked me what occurred during our conversation, which was when I found out we had been speaking in pig Latin. It was horrible to listen to.

The skies were clear, but the plane shook with a sudden squall of turbulence and I closed my eyes. Life had become not a blessed gift, but a forced appearance in an awful, cosmic vaudeville.

I closed my eyes and waited for more of the worst. The capsule, I guessed, comprised of more than a change of perceptions amongst its effects. Perhaps it was a fear of the future but I sat back against the seat and prayed I found the courage to look forwards past today.

Making this public was out of the question. We had been grateful for the scraps of infrastructure left to us, and the ambiguous horror of it would devastate our faltering efforts.

It needed a hero, and so I told myself a story. One large enough to build a wall between the truth and I. It wasn’t enough to mute the disgust for Not-Cassie, but I imagined the woman underneath and wished her well.

The plane stabilised and I watched the vice president lower his head in prayer. I joined him, without asking.

I prayed for her.

I prayed for my soul not being too stained with weakness before I met her again.

For the first time.

 

 

 

 

 

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Standard
fiction, women

The Oldest Story (The Wild Man, Season 2)

(Previous episodes are here)

Mirabelle had faced darkness and all its nuances but this represented a new stage in her journey. She shuddered but kept on walking down into the bowels of the earth.

The djinn, a race of elemental beings who waged a guerilla war against the Caliphate and The Crow King, the Dwarven Realm. The elf kind, carnivorous and insane, remained in the mountains, lost to the madness of their biology.

It fell to a last alliance of men and dwarves to repel the invaders, a final assertion of order against the chaotic innocence of the djinn. Asra had lost her brother, twice in the final battle against the djinn and her mother lapsed into a terrible melancholia which caused her heart to fail. Bawwabat Jinn, where the last rift was, and the djinn sent back into their own dimension.

Mirabelle wondered if she had fled from one horror towards another, but Asra walked ahead, hands on the hilt of her twin scimitars.

‘How far down are we?’ Mirabelle said.

Her voice had a muted quality to it, which provided an answer. Asra raised her hand and stopped.

‘Far enough. If you wish to know The Dust, the djinn will know.’

Mirabelle swallowed and tasted the grit of the desert sand between her teeth. She missed Eilhu but could not allow herself to drink deep of her grief. Shallow sips to see her through the day, but part of her wanted to wail and wallow in the absence. Horror, poised to tear her world apart, and all she wanted was to see her golden-haired lover again.

She put it away. Her leadership demanded courage and she would wield it to light her way through the darkest hours.

A wave of slow warmth rushed down the tunnel and made them stop.

‘Can they get out?’ Mirabelle said.

Asra shook her head. She reached out and touched Mirabelle’s forearm.

They turned the corner to face the heart of Bawwabat Jinn.

2.

It was a scar, forever frozen in the state of febrile infection, lit between its puckered folds by a flickering flame which gave off a persistent and powerful heat. The air prickled and Mirabelle stopped.

‘Our prayers keep the rift stable. I will call one of them to speak with us.’

Asra stepped forwards and drew her scimitars in a gesture as smooth as breath. The light caught the blades, and Mirabelle shielded her eyes from the glare. Asra swung the swords forward as she lunged from her hips and slid her right leg behind for support and balance. She lowered her chin and breathed in harsh, deep lungfuls of air.

The temperature rose a few degrees and Asra sheathed her swords.

‘WHO CALLS US?’

The voice came from Asra, but it was different. A thick, clotted rumbling with a hissing undertone, huge and inhuman. Mirabelle shuddered and stepped forwards.

‘I do. I seek knowledge.’

Asra remained frozen in place. Mirabelle drew closer.

‘YOU TAUNT US WITH YOUR EXISTENCE. WE SHALL NOT SPEAK.’

Mirabelle’s heart thumped against her ribs as she clenched her hands into fists.

‘I COMMAND YOU.’ she said.

Asra shuddered and the air thickened with the rising heat before the temperature dropped into a sharp chill.

A thick chuckle arose from Asra.

‘WHAT DO YOU WANT, YOUR HIGHNESS?’

Asra turned her head, eyes twitching beneath her eyelids and her hijab soaked with sweat.

‘Tell me about The Dust.’

Asra sheathed the scimitar in her right hand with blinding speed. Mirabelle had time to cry out before Asra’s fingers closed on her throat without pressure. The contact was electric, and the edges of Mirabelle’s vision blurred as a series of images rushed into her mind.

3.

Bile-green clouds coat the sky as leprous, twisted things taste the air like maggots in dead flesh. A dying sun smears light on the earth and Mirabelle realises she is somewhere terrible. Every breath tastes of sickness and she spits onto the cracked, yellowing earth.

She sees a mountain in the distance, their outlines blurred by the thick, miasmal fog. There is a break in the cover, and she sees the mountain is moving, shifting with a relentless, orgiastic energy. A tentacle emerges from the mass, its tip blooming like a flower made of meat and a fat, pale tumour swells and bursts into the air. The mucus takes to the air in shuddering droplets which float towards her.

They move against the wind and Mirabelle reaches for the dagger on her hip.

She looks around her for shelter but there is nothing.

Something bellows behind her and she turns.

A giant, covered with dense brown fur looked at her with curiosity. She knew his name, had believed him capable of murdering her father.

The Wild Man.

‘You have no cause to be here yet, your highness.’

His voice boomed as he looked at the shimmering droplets moving towards them.

‘The Dust is the chaos of sickness, a disease with ambitions beyond the flesh. It is not a God but the sickness of Gods and it is patient beyond belief.’

Mirabelle appreciated the poetic but here it did not serve her needs.

‘Were you this obtuse with Eilhu?’ she said.

He chuckled and shook his head as he dropped to one knee, still towering over her.

‘We learn through stories and allegories, your highness. This story is the oldest of all stories.’

Mirabelle frowned and drew backwards.

‘I’ve no time for stories, people are dying.’

The Wild Man smiled with all his teeth at Mirabelle. He was the beauty of tree bark and rich, tilled earth. He smelled sweet and each breath she took in his proximity, enamoured her to him.

‘This is the story where order must confront chaos and if it wins, it will create a new world from its remains.’

Mirabelle glanced behind her.

‘Is it chaos or order?’ she said.

The Wild Man chuckled and rose to his full height.

‘I am of nature, which is outside of the games of Gods. But I will tell you what you seek.’

Mirabelle’s stomach fluttered as she glanced up at him.

‘Words, your highness. You must find the words.’

She grimaced.

‘I have words. Entire libraries of them, I came to talk to the djinn because there’s so little in the archives. Words won’t do.’

He sighed and gave her a look of concern.

‘You must travel further. When you return, look towards The Eternal City. Asra will help you.’

Her heart sunk at the thought of further travel.

‘The dagger is good, Mirabelle, but you will need more than blades to reach The Eternal City. When you get there, sit beneath the World Tree at fifth sunset and listen.’

She babbled questions, but he reached down and put the tip of his index finger between her eyebrows.

‘He fights for you still, and he loves you.’

Everything went black.

4.

Asra stood over her, wiped her forehead with a damp cloth as Mirabelle blinked and stared at the burnished stone overhead.

‘Mirabelle, I came to and found you like this. Are you sick?’

Mirabelle sat up and sighed.

‘Only of my burdens, Lady Asra. I need your help.’

 

 

 

Standard
short fiction, Uncategorized

Director’s Cut

His eyes were heavy lidded, the patches of beard, flecked with silver and his hair was a clotted lump atop his head. The single bulb overhead draped his face in unflattering shadows.

‘I’m sorry. I’m a repulsive human being.’

He lifted the gun to his head and cocked the hammer on the revolver.

The impact shoved him away.

He didn’t get up.

They cancelled the premiere of his film as a mark of respect.

 

2.

I don’t get out to the States much as I’d like. I’ve got friends there, but I’d spent a few days in bed with a woman. She had a whole other life to return to, so I found myself in Hollywood, California.

I was interested in what was going on. The wizard had not come out from behind the curtain and invited you to watch him masturbate. The horrible static of fear and anxiety isn’t pleasant, but it’s useful for a magician. I dealt with people who wanted magic or protection from it. There were people who dealt with Satan and tried to back out when the drugs wore off. Those people paid me to help them get out.

Mitch sent me a photo via an app through which you sent images and text for timed periods. He was frowning and holding up a black dvd case.

Want to see something cool?

I sent back a dollar sign and he replied with a thumbs up.

He sent me his address, but I knew it before. I play well with others but I like to know about them if things change. The tree which hung over his rear wall was a doddle to climb. His neighbours were senile with therapy and medication but I still took care to remain unseen.

He was flushed with drink as he answered the door.

‘You can’t watch this.’

I lit a cigarette and raised an eyebrow.

‘Fuck you, pay me.’

He shook his head, jowls flapping despite the trimmed beard.

‘It’s haunted.’

I pushed past him, snatched the case from his hand and strode through to the den.

‘How much have you watched?’

Five minutes. Too short to fear anything other than being disturbed by it.

Hollywood is a myth which keeps mutating. It provided meat for things which shouldn’t eat.

I told him to wait outside.

I shut the door and fished out a stick of chalk, drew a ward on the door to keep anything getting in or out and set up the dvd player.

He was too drunk and frightened to wonder why I knew the layout of his house.

I pressed play and sat down.

There was a swell of strings and a tracking shot of the Manhattan skyline in black and white. Pure award bait.

I took a deep drag on the cigarette and narrowed my eyes. I focused my attention between my eyebrows, visualizing an eye opening.

‘Hello.’

He sounded pensive and frightened. It used to be part of his act but he meant it now.

It was in the timbre of his voice, close like a secret.

‘For what it’s worth, I always liked your stuff.’

He sighed and thanked me. The film cut away to an establishing shot of the back of his head.

‘I thought this was heaven at first.’

He turned and looked into the camera.

‘It isn’t?’ I said.

From the right, the actress in the last superhero movie everyone went to, rushed in with a baseball bat and swung it in a smooth arc, connecting with the back of his head in a wet crack as he fell forwards. She leapt, full lips pulled back over perfect teeth in a snarl as she brought the bat down on his back over and over until the film faded to black.

After watching a fourth Oscar winner decapitate him, I moved to pause it. His severed head blinked at me as his tongue protruded between his lips.

‘It keeps happening and it gets worse every time. These aren’t even the women, you know?’

My mouth tasted of copper as an actress came up and stabbed his prostrate body with a carving knife.

You get the point here. I recognised the format, and the author of it.

He blinked at me. It was his stock expression, used to evoke laughter after heated confessionals. My stomach turned and I looked away.

‘Can you help me?’ he said.

I closed my eyes and pressed my fingers to my temples. I hadn’t wanted to see Erin after what happened in Burnley last year. My friend had traced the warm, pink scar running down my right side and telling her sunk me into a quiet melancholy.

‘I’m not doing this for you.’ I said.

He grimaced with a puerile warmth and I switched the television off.

The problem was a matter of infection. An idea fed on attention would spread through other recorded media. Imagine taking your kids to a movie and watching men being eviscerated whilst the talking dog and singing cat dance in the background. Reality takes a knee from time to time, and no one wanted something like this getting out into the world.

I told Mitch to double my fee as I walked out of the house. He was on the phone to the studio, barking at his director about the quality of the latest rushes. Mitch was on every big movie of the last ten years, it had given him two heart attacks and a desire to deal with things beyond his capabilities.

We did well from one another, Mitch and I. A perennial predator, but power got him hard in a way women never would. I was the bloke he called when things reacted to his actions. He held the phone to his chest and asked me where I was going.

I told him. He flushed red and shouted down the phone, jabbing the air with his index finger for emphasis. The ragged anger of his voice followed me out to the driveway.

Erin was an abbreviation and a pseudonym. Her real name disappeared before 400BC and her work keeps her young and mobile. It was obvious she had come to Hollywood, women’s anger was her meat and drink and the world was awash with it.

I worked a small charm in the front seat of the car. A small crystal suspended on a length of rawhide, pulling in Erin’s direction. She had rented a suite at the Everley and giving off waves of psychic energy which made my fillings hurt.

3.

The women in the corridor looked at me with a wounded malevolence as I stepped out of the lift. I strode down the hall, hands up and palms out as She opened the door and smiled at me, her canine face full with sharp, yellowing teeth. The snakes on her scalp twisted in the air and hissed at me.

I raised my hands as she stepped back into the room. I spoke to her in Mycenaean greek, which took concentration to remain fluent. It was a Bronze age language.

‘I come in peace. Whatever you’re doing, it’s working out for you.’

She waved me into the suite.

Erin was a bomb sight but every woman who had come forward provided the munitions. These things happened in cycles, but we were more connected now. When Erin came out to feed, it was a terrible harvest. Victimhood was like virginity, rare and often co-opted.

Erin. Abbreviated from Erinyes. She wandered the earth, feeding on pain, anger and vengeance. She fed on men who had given false oath, which was why I got the scar down my side.

‘I know you can tear me into chunks but I need a favour.’ I said.

She sat down on the couch, plucked a wet lump of something pink and glistening from a tray to her right, shovelled it into her maw and chewed. Her pointed black tongue licked at her teeth as she nodded.

‘You can’t put this stuff out there. You’ll be calling down things neither of us want sniffing around.’

She snorted and leaned forward.

‘It gives me permission to act as I see fit.’

I sat back, struggling to hold back my concern without angering her.

‘Unless you want to bring the Logos down on us, keep things quiet.’

She raised her muzzle and snorted.

‘I do not fear the Logos.’ she said.

I whistled under my breath and put my palms together, forearms resting on my thighs. I focused on my breath and felt the first curls of kundalini travel up my spine.

The Logos was the first entity to exist. It existed apart from nature, watching over the world with a stern, paternal eye. It policed those of us, gods, monsters and magicians, who risked pissing off consensual reality, and in return, we tried to keep things quiet. Erin was incoherent with power, at the point of the cycle where she was incandescent with rage, blind to sense and I had to make her see how much trouble we were in if she continued.

‘Erinyes, oh fury of the underworld,
you who has come from night,
Bathed in righteousness
I come not to deny
The rage which
Puts such light
In your eyes
As to blind me
I acknowledge
But the rage
Burns
Bites
Claws
And I ask you
To let it run
True to its nature
Not
Yours.’

The air crackled around us as she got to her feet. Her shadow thickened and crawled across the floor towards me.

‘I murder
Those who keep
Secrets
Let them
Hang
Witnessed
A literal
Falsehood
Metaphorical
Truth
It
Does
Not
Matter
I
Must
Feed.’

These negotiations were prone to collapse. The kundalini spread out to my limbs and I stood up, outstretched my arms and bared my throat towards her.

She smiled and came towards me. Her hot, damp breath brought blisters on my skin before she sunk her talons into my chest. I gritted my teeth and became the sacrifice she needed. She tugged at the muscles in my chest as pain made me seize and scream. My blood ran down my chest in hot showers, soaking through my shirt as I gave in to the scream.

Her fingers closed around my heart and everything went black.

4.

There was a swell of strings and a tracking shot of the Manhattan skyline in black and white. Pure award bait.

I took a deep drag on the cigarette and narrowed my eyes. The director sat there, gasping as I lit a cigarette.

‘What have you done?’

I blew out a plume of smoke. If I had to spend time in Hell, it would be a beautiful version of it.

‘I’ve traded myself. The thing which did it to you, I gave up my body for a while to keep this from getting out.’

He smirked in a way which made me want to punch him.

‘Welcome to Hollywood.’ he said.

The shriek of fury echoed across the ballroom as Marlene Dietrich started the petrol chainsaw. I took a puff on the cigarette as the director stood up.

‘You deserve this, you fucker. I’m just trying to stop this from fucking over everyone who wasn’t involved at all.’

He glanced at me.

‘Do you think I did it?’

I shrugged my shoulders.

‘Does it matter?’

I told myself Mitch would pay triple as Sandra Bullock stepped out from the shadows with the crossbow held to her shoulder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standard
men, short fiction

Duelling Terms

(From a writing exercise in Stephen King’s On Writing)

‘How are you supposed to duel if no one knows what weapons you’re supposed to use?’

 

David sat back on the hard wooden chair and chewed the inside of his cheek, looking around us with reddened, swollen eyes. Another survivor, like the rest of us, dealing with the same thing. There are hierarchies everywhere, and you seldom notice them until you’re at the rough end of one. We were a group for survivors of domestic abuse. It was a lie, you never survive it, but in time, you can live with it.

 

I hadn’t figured out when that would happen.

 

Growing up, I remembered cartoons and comic strips where the errant working class husband gets a rolling pin or a frying pan across the head for coming home late from the pub. One panel later, there would be birds and stars circling his head. His wife would loom over him and that was the joke.

 

I can tell you I didn’t see stars or birds. I saw blackness and withered with a terrible nausea as she stood there and laughed at me as I crawled around, fighting between vomiting, shitting myself or crying with the blunt agony of it. I refused to hand over my phone to her. My best friend had sent me the number for his solicitor and I hadn’t time to delete the message or save the number before she demanded to see it.

Paige slept in her cot down the hall as my wife scrolled through what few messages I had left. Cheryl threw the phone at the floor and I watched it shatter in dual, overlapping images. She leaned forward and I caught the smell of bergamot on her skin, sweet and metallic.

 

We had progressed. Open handed slaps to blunt objects. I had gone from a man to something less. It wasn’t until the court case anyone knew about her contempt for me, locked away on a social media account. My friends and family didn’t comment, more concerned with the coma she put me in. Three weeks gone forever. Time missed with my daughter, with the horrors explained to her by social workers and members of my family.

Her sentence was light, considering my injuries and the historical nature of them but she was pretty and garnered sympathy. The barrister had the decency to look nonplussed by it. She smiled as the court officers led her away.

 

David was a builder who showed us the constellation of cigarette burns on his ribs where she had offered him reconciliatory sex, tying his wrists before straddling and using him as an ashtray. Her husband gave evidence for the defence, making damp, pleading eyes in her direction. David, with his square jaw and callused hands spoke about it in a harsh whisper. We met once a month, shared our stories and our progress. Time and circumstance fragmented them, made the victories small and the setbacks monolithic but we turned up and talked to each other. My mum had Paige because I was fragile afterwards so I had the awful relief of an afternoon to myself.

 

I switched on the radio when I got in, filled the stove top kettle and turned the gas on. The whistling made me jump, but it was a ramshackle form of therapy, inoculating myself against the poisoned ambience of my marriage.

 

The song finished and the mellow tones of the dj slipped into the silence like a blade between the ribs.

 

An absconded patient from the secure unit.

 

I stared at the radio, waiting for a name. I made myself breathe and my nostrils flared at a scent which still made me unable to drink earl grey.  Her laboured, wet breathing made me turn around and I looked into a pair of eyes, shining with malice like the paring knife in her hand.

 

The anti-psychotics had put weight on, slapped onto her jawline and hips like handfuls of wet suet as she charged forwards. Her hair was close to her scalp, dull like dry tobacco and beneath it, the feral expression of terrible passion. She raised the knife overhead as she came towards me.

 

The scream of the kettle saved my life.

 

In a vicious primal spasm which electrified my limbs, I grasped the handle of the stove top kettle and swiped it around as she came forwards. It reverberated against the side of her head with a dull thump and the sizzle of flesh against metal.

 

She gave a strangled cry and fell against the kitchen floor, eyes rolled back in their sockets and her cheek coming away in strings of melted skin like mozarella. I stood over her, the kettle held above my head and I heard someone roaring.

 

I realised it was me.

 

My body throbbed with adrenaline as I set the kettle back onto the stove. I staggered back against the counter, braced myself with my hands as I stared at her.

 

I shoved myself outside and grabbed my phone from my pocket.

 

I don’t remember what I said. I held it together long enough to give my details before I sat down, unable to be in the house when the police came. Another detail David had shared.

 

When I saw him next, I decided I would tell him my answer to the terms of the duel.

 

 

 

Standard
short fiction

Home

Liam leaned against the brick wall, sucking on a cigarette as he waited for the software engineer to deactivate the house system and allow the CSU to start working the scene. Punit was a good man, soft spoken and polite as he unplugged his laptop from the port by the front door and gave Liam the thumbs up.

 

Liam wasn’t first on the scene, that dubious honour went to the neighbour who saw the spray of blood against the living room windows before the house cleaning software kicked in and washed it away in sprays of heated water launched from recessed nozzles in the walls.

 

Liam had come to the system liaison unit from homicide, hoping for something soft to see out his last four months before he moved to Arizona. He had endured a week of presentations from technicians with soft, full bellies and speaking gibberish at a mile a minute. The job made him tired, but his time in the SLU felt like dog years. He was there to rubber stamp the insurance forms and go back to the precinct until another call came in.

 

People murdered by their homes.

 

They were standard for the poorer housing developments, installed to ensure welfare recipients remained drug and alcohol free and maintained a diet in line with their allocated welfare. If you put a six pack in the fridge, an automated message came to your phone, asking if it was the best use of your welfare payments. It wasn’t good quality work and the artificial intelligence systems developed tics and had seizures. Ten to twenty people a year, but it got written off as house fires and gas leaks. Accidents happened all the time and the better end of the housing market had intelligent housing systems which were subtle and responsive. Liam had a basic system, he could turn the oven on from his phone and a burglar would get deluged in foam which hardened to concrete and deafened them with directed sonic pulses.

This wasn’t the sort of house which went wrong and Liam had called the CSU because his cop instincts were yelling like nicotine withdrawal.

A family of four. The father was in the living room playing with the VR system whilst mother spoke with her sister on her tablet. The daughter was watching a 3D concert in her room. Ariana Grande on her retirement tour.

The son was on his laptop, commenting on a political video. Liam read the comment, dismayed people said such things where they lived forever. It triggered an artificial intelligence and flagged the action as hate speech and subject to family review.

Between the command and the neighbours report, the house system activated its security and privacy measures. The autopsy report indicated it was fast and effective work, less murder than erasure.

Liam forwarded the information to the station and went outside to smoke. Punit was getting into his car but Liam called him and he got out and shut the door.

‘Was there a glitch?’ Liam said.

Punit shook his head. They both knew discussing it was frowned upon but in his gut, Liam knew this was unusual.

‘No, the code is different but we account for evolution in these systems.’

Liam sucked on his cigarette and narrowed his eyes.

‘Evolution?’

Punit smiled and nodded.

‘The system reads your actions develops itself to better serve you. It’s thinking about you all the time.’

Liam disliked the plastic tone, pure marketing copy but Punit had a job to do and someone was always watching.

‘Detective, I don’t have one of these systems in my home. Evolution is amoral.’

Liam was about to ask him about it when his phone flashed with a priority call. The commissioner’s office.

The case was being handed over to Major Crimes. Liam had ten minutes of the case left to him. He listened to his instructions and waited for the cavalry.

On his way home, Liam cancelled his system subscription and stopped at a hardware store. He picked up an axe, insulated pliers and a set of gloves.

It took three days and by the time he was done, the air was thick with plaster dust and there were ragged divots in the walls where he had torn the wiring out.

The increased insurance premiums would hurt his bottom line and he was looking at a few thousand dollars for renovations but he couldn’t put a price on making his house feel like a home again.

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short fiction, women

Stet

Cara poured out the last of the coffee, inhaled the metallic fumes and took a deep gulp as she looked out of the kitchen window. Her eyes itched with a profound exhaustion as she watched dawn creep towards her. It hadn’t occurred to her that sleep would help to any degree, so she had sat alone, refreshing her social media feeds and feeling each comment pinch the lining of her stomach.

A chorus of strangers singing their hatred and disgust for her.

Battalions of enraged teenagers posting her name and address.

Calling her names.

Pedophile.

Rapist.

Johnny Ten was a victim. The biggest pop star on the planet had claimed he’d been raped by her.

Cara had been working for his record company in public relations and had been sent out to meet him on tour in Florida. She flew into sheets of brutal summer heat. When she was introduced to him, it was a physical reaction to him, a blind want which made her thighs clench as she shook his hand. Fourteen years old and about to release a debut single people had been screaming over. A reedy, anodyne voice but she was lost to the sight of him.

Three nights later, he came to her room.

She thought of his face, the way his cheekbones pressed against the fine, golden skin and the tight curls of hair on his navel beneath her fingers. Imagining the arrogant length of his cock spasming inside her made it better and worse.

He fucked with a self conscious mechanical technique which he’d learned from porn. Pushing her legs apart so her hips screamed for days afterwards, sore from his insistent enthusiasms. She came with a reflexive force which sent her body into paroxysmal blasts of motion on the sheets.

He had avoided her afterwards. She tried to speak to him but he kept Ron, the thick, amiable security guard between them.

Cara had wept in the bathroom of the restaurant when he walked in with his new girlfriend. The puffy moist eyed singer who spoke like she was being choked. She kept his hand in hers, running her fingers over his in a feathered caress which enraged Cara. He had smiled at Cara, but after seeing him contort with pleasure, these public gestures were as anonymous as a Halloween mask. She quit the next day, joined Apropos Entertainment as their VP of sales and met Ethan six months later. Aidan asked her out and she had enjoyed the slight remove of affection for its power. She avoided Johnny’s videos and the news reports when things went downhill.

 

She’d revolted at the idea of having children and although Ethan still pressed her, the animals at the house became their proxies. It was a comfortable life, but when she was told about the book deal, she felt the earth shift underneath her as she was passed an uncorrected proof. The autobiography to give his comeback a boost.

 

Along with a polite warning to clear her desk and to stay off social media. She read through his version of events.

 

The accusations.

 

Cara called her lawyer then Ethan.

 

Ethan had slipped into the spare room without speaking to her. She wanted his anger, the burn of his hand against her cheek would have been a sign of something deeper than the dry comforts of their marriage. He denied her his anger but his sobs clawed through the bedroom door. The cats looked at her with a recognition she couldn’t bear.

She looked at the manuscript, read the pages of mawkish confession, the self serving omissions and his description of her. The transparent need in her eyes and the soft crepe paper skin on her thighs became signs of some awful flaw. Cara had stopped throwing up after the sixth rereading and after the deluge of insults, she wanted to feel pain issued from someone who she cared about.

 

She looked at the single word in the upper left corner, next to the paragraph about how he asked her to stop sucking his cock and she kept gulping him down with an avaricious hunger.

 

Stet.

 

The changes made to the manuscript were minimal and it had been decided to keep them. She ran her tongue over her lips and wept as her hand strayed between her thighs.
It had felt like love and even in its recollection, she was too deafened by it to hear the doorbell.

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fiction, mother, women

Lights In The Sky

Jenny parked the truck, unbuckled her seatbelt and looked out through the smeared windshield. She saw the empty child seat in the rearview mirror and wiped her eyes before the tears came. She opened the door and got out, breathing through her mouth to limit the stink as she walked around to the trunk and opened it.

She slipped off her sketchers and put on the boots, tying the laces in a few attempts to compensate for her trembling fingers. The cargo pants were canvas, patterned in a mottled camouflage and the chambray long-sleeved shirt was already collecting the heat of the day. She kept the ball cap on, with her light-blonde hair tucked up underneath it and the orange-tinted glasses hung from a lanyard around her neck. She reached into the trunk and brought out the rifle.

She had brought the rifle from a gun show in the next state over. The owner had spoken of its pedigree with the same pride she showed in her children. She had paid cash for the rifle and two cases of ammunition. Twenty rounds of hand tooled.303 ammunition less the ten rounds she had fired at the range, punching holes in paper targets, committing the pull of the bolt to memory until her arm throbbed like a rotten tooth.

She slipped her backpack onto her shoulders before adjusting the straps until the pressure left the small of her back. She held the rifle with the strap over her shoulder.

Locking the car meant she was looking at the child seat again. Jenny swallowed and turned away as she tucked the keys into the front pocket of her pants. She held the rifle in both hands as she walked into the trees.

Dean had waxed lyrical about his childhood camping trips, and although Tommy preferred books and math problems, Dean saw it as an opportunity to make a man of his son. Jenny wanted to like the idea, but she saw the wounded light in Tommy’s eyes and tried to reassure him of how much fun it would be.

Jenny had gone to dinner with Louise, enjoying a drink with dinner and a cab ride home, giggling and singing to herself around the empty house before she realised how empty it was without them. She had sent him a text message before going upstairs to sleep. His last reply had been to reassure her Tommy was having a great time.

 

Jenny had been dealing with a domestic incident on the day Dean announced the plan. Rosa Trevor had surrendered to the slow build of pressure by stabbing Pete with a bread knife sixty times whilst he dozed off in the recliner, knuckles bloodied from where he had taken her up for not having dinner on the table. The blade had broken off in his skull, and Jenny thought about the blue guy from the movie they had watched the night before. Tommy loved the talking raccoon, but she had nursed her Chris Pratt crush in secret whilst Dean was in the garage, airing out the sleeping bags. The blade stuck out from the top of his head as he sat there, stinking and soft. She had not told him about it, which was why she had not fought Dean about his idea.

By the evening, she had used professional courtesy to contact the ranger station. It had taken her a tremendous effort to keep her voice even. The voice on the other end remained indifferent until she mentioned her job.

‘Sheriff Ronaldo, we’ll get someone out to find them.’

Jenny hadn’t been a sheriff then, just a mother. A wife too, but it was more of an afterthought after he lost his job at the manufacturing plant. The camping trip, in hindsight, was about Dean trying to claw some of his power back but those thoughts were unkind and inappropriate. She wanted them home.

The search had started small but after forty eight hours, the stretch of forest became home to the collective goodwill of the community and Jenny’s agonized patience.

Jenny gave up every doubt and flaw she had, hoping the candour might help find her family but against the mocking silence of their continued disappearance, it was all for nothing.

It was a year to the day.

Drinking got her through their birthdays and their anniversary. The lace teddy sat in the top drawer, too tight on her to wear for him along with the tablet she’d brought to help Tommy with his studies was still in the box.

Her boots were stiff and creaked as she strode through the woods. The air hummed like a loaded spider web as she looked around, recalling the steps taken to find her husband and son. She took in deep breaths to calm her nerves.

Anoise snaked through the trees and she lifted her head to gauge the direction and distance. A single wail, like someone disappointed by a discovery. She knew the sound all too well, having lived with it throughout her career. She paced in the direction, bringing the rifle to her shoulder and fighting the adrenaline coursing through her body.

She charged through the brush, ready to rack the bolt back but within her, the pragmatic armour of experience abraded by the wife and mother within. The bushes loomed over her but she pushed through.

‘Mommy?’

The voice ripped through her like a blade. In the first year, she had refused to leave him, committing every breath to memory for fear of missing a moment of it. Jenny had spent so much time around death and disaster, she saw its shadow fall over everything. Not her Tommy, she vowed though.
Not Tommy.

His hair had grown out into tangles infested with dirt which fell to his thin, pale shoulders. His eyes peered out from underneath the ridge of fringe as he squatted in front of her. Tommy was a boy more disposed to tears than tantrums, but his lips drew back over his teeth. The gums were swollen and bleeding and he had lost one of his incisors.

Jenny saw the faded logo on the ragged remains of his t-shirt, the shield had flaked away to a stain, no different than the other marks on the cloth. His legs were smeared with dust, emaciated and tattooed with scratches.

Jenny shuddered and lowered the barrel. Her vision blurred as she took a step backwards but the child remained on his haunches, tilting his head to the left as he stared at her with open interest.

She wanted him to run to her, but the cop part of her brain screamed for her to treat this with care. The rifle was heavy, but she clung to it without raising it.

Tommy capered forwards, and Jenny sobbed at the nails, yellowed and curling over the tips of his fingers as they scraped the dirt ahead.

‘Where’s Daddy, Tommy?’

Tommy snorted and stopped.

‘He’s back there, Mommy. With the others.’

His voice had the rusted wheeze of disuse. Jenny strained to find the child within it.

She wondered why she had not put the rifle down, held him in her arms after too long apart. Within her chest, her heart was being pulled apart with rough fingers but she held firm.

‘Others?’

Tommy snarled and looked back over his shoulder.

‘Yes, they’re sleeping. They said you would come.’

Jenny slung the rifle over her shoulder and knelt down so her eyes were level with him.

‘Baby, we need to find your dad and go home. It’s been a long time.’

It had been forever.

He sniffed the air as he came forwards. Jenny extended her arms and he rushed towards her. His face pressed against her neck and he sobbed, hot and tormented as she held onto him. Her hands went to the back of his head, her fingers starved for the fragile triumph of her son in her arms again.

She sobbed as she drew back, lifting a tangle of hair as she asked him to turn around.

It looked like an opal surrounded by a fringe of infected flesh oozing with pus. Jenny clamped her hand over her mouth as she staggered backwards, landing on her ass as Tommy stared at her.

‘Does Dad have those?’

Tommy’s eyes welled up with tears as he nodded. He looked down at his fingers and counted, mouthing the numbers until he ran out of fingers to count on.

Jenny pulled him close as she looked past him. Over the roar of her own heartbeat, she caught a humming sound like something massive powering up behind the trees. It made her fillings sing in her mouth and she felt a horrible pressure building in her sinuses as she dragged him away. He surrendered, going limp as his mouth spasmed at her neck like she was nursing him again.

They staggered away, but the humming grew and Tommy seized in her arms but she continued.

A rustling started in the trees, something large and forceful which moved the branches with ease. She fled with her son in her arms, shocked by how light he was. All those nights spent worrying about how chubby he was getting, and the horrible irony of it motivated her to move back to the truck. The humming rose in pitch, making her eardrums throb like an infected limb.

Tommy smelled different. The sweet milk smell had gone, replaced by something sour and metallic but she held onto him with everything she had.

She looked back, squinting her eyes against the column of white light which stabbed like a knife thrust upwards into the belly of the sky. A wave of heat and pressure pushed her forwards, but she clung onto her son and remained upright.

‘Dad’s coming, why aren’t you waiting?’ he said.

Jenny kept running. If it was her husband there, then he would know where to find them.

She was afraid he would.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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