Thursday, December 31, 2009
The descent had been tricky and we had wasted a lot of time trying to find a way past a recent cave-in. That alone had prompted a near endless argument about whether we shouldn't high-tail it back up straight away. Longfellow was spooked the whole time we were down there, kept on telling me he had a bad feeling. He always does. He's the brake that Gomez and I need sometimes or we'd just go throwing our dumb selves into every stupid, dangerous situation there is. When we got back to the surface it was late and the light show must have passed.
First thing we heard was a god-awful, keening moan that set the hair on the back of my neck up stiffer than a wedding dick. As I was pulling myself out of my rig, my torch illuminated the Sheriff crawling about on his hands and knees. Just as I freed myself he got to his feet again, took a few steps and stumbled back to the ground. I ran over to help him and he clutched at me, took a grip on my arm like a vice.
"I can't see!" he yelled at me, then in a calmer voice he asked, "Who is that? You've got to get me to a hospital."
Longfellow was out of his gear right after me. "I'm out of here, man," he said. "I've got to get to my family. Something ain't right."
He took off in his car straight away. Gomez helped me get the Sheriff calmed down and into my truck, but I could tell Longfellow had spooked him. "Go on, get home now," I told him.
I never saw my two buddies again.
I debated whether to take the Sheriff to the local clinic, or all the way out to the hospital. I figured it would be best to get him seen by somebody with proper training as quickly as possible so I headed for the clinic. Even if there was no-one on duty this late, I knew Doctor MacManus lived close by and he'd have skinned me if he thought I'd let him sleep while the Sheriff needed help. The decision to head for the clinic probably saved my life.
The Sheriff was mostly lucid now, except for when he just moaned and thumped at his legs with his big, balled-up fists, like he was angry at himself for being blind. I'd heard about the light show everyone was getting all giddy for, but it hadn't seemed like any big whoop. Me and the boys had spent upwards of two years, back in our dim and distant youth, in Fairbanks, Alaska, working some at the gold mine just so we could say we'd done it, and we'd seen our share of the Aurora Borealis. Judging from how the world had been cut off at the knees, I guess the solar lights had been a bigger deal than we reckoned, but I can't say I'm sorry to have missed them.
There wasn't another car on the road, but that wasn't so unusual until we hit the outskirts of town and then it just got eerie. I pulled up a good distance from the clinic, plain freaked out by what I was seeing. It was like some scene out of Dawn of the Dead, with all them folks clamoring to squeeze through the doorway. They were tugging and pulling at each other, some where outright attempting to throttle one another. I had them lit up in my high beams but no-one turned to look, and the racket they were making must have drowned out the sound of my engine as I came to a stop. The door of the clinic had been clean pulled out of the frame and there were no lights on inside. Those lucky bastards that managed to bully and fight their way inside were probably getting slowly crushed to death in there.
"Why've we stopped?" the Sheriff asked me. He had his hands on my arm again, fingers digging into my flesh.
"Calm yourself, Sheriff," I said. "Looks like a few other folks have got that same temporary blindness, and they're getting a little crazy. I'm gonna walk you over to Doc MacManus' house, but you gotta promise me you'll keep quiet."
"Sure, sure," he said. I never heard that man sound so pitiful. He looked lost as I got out of my side of the truck and by the time I was round to let him out he already looked near panicked to death. He signed with relief when he could get his hooks back into my poor bruised arm again. I fished a hand torch out of the bed of the truck to light the way.
"Now remember, Sheriff," I said. "You promise to keep hushed, okay?" He just grunted and gave me an impatient tug at my arm like I was an uppity guide-dog.
We hadn't gone two dozen yards, just to the point where we were closest to the clinic as we skirted past it, when the Sheriff, speaking loud enough so he could be heard over the rumble of the mob, asked me, "Are there any other people about that can still see?"
I shushed him, and he must of gotten the point because he looked suitably embarrassed.
I played my torch across the seething crowd of people, but as far as I could tell most of them hadn't heard and all I saw were their backs. All except for one fellow with a thin, feral face, dressed in nothing but underpants, an inside-out jacket and a pair of cowboy boots. He was turning his head left and right in our direction, like he was ready to gauge where we were if we made another sound. I hurried the hell up, dragging the Sheriff along behind me. I checked behind us several times on the way to the doc's house, but we weren't being followed as far as I could see.
There was a light on in the front room of MacManus' house when we got there. I banged on his front door, but when I saw the light go out a few seconds later, I thought he might be trying to lie low. Then a couple of seconds later the hall light went on, but the door didn't open.
"Who is it?" It was the doctor, shouting at us. I told him who it was, and that I had the sheriff with me. When I told him I could still see he quickly opened the door.
I was shocked, and saddened to find that he was also blind. He led the way into the front room, turning off the hallway light as he left and flicking on the switch as he entered the other room, arm stretching out instinctively to do it from years of habit. He peeled the Sheriff off me and settled him on to the couch. I started to tell him what had happened with us but he interrupted me. "I need you to do something for me," he said. "Tabby is down the cellar. Got all confused after the lights, and took a fall down the steps. Can you check on her?"
"Sure," I said. "But-"
"I know how she is." He squeezed my hand. "I've already been down there, but I have to be sure. You understand?"
I found my way to the cellar, turned on the light and took my second descent of the day. She was lying at the bottom of the steps. It was obvious from the twist in her neck that she was dead, but I checked for a pulse anyway. The doc's wife, Tabitha, had been an imposing woman, inclined to scolding but thoroughly decent through and through. I stayed there a little while, hunkered down by her body, trying to put some words together into a prayer for her.
I didn't know what to tell the doc when I got back up, but he seemed to understand just fine from my silence. "You turn the lights out down there?" he asked. "She was real particular about the lights." I hadn't, but I told him that I had.
With the benefit of my sight, he had me answer a bunch of questions about him and the sheriff, having me shine the light in their eyes and report back what happened. He wracked his brain thinking of tests he could perform but there just wasn't much that could be done here in his home and there was no way we could go to the clinic.
"It's gone crazy all over, son," he said. "The TV was saying nearly everyone has been affected. It's not working now. I think the cable is out, and I can't find her damn radio. You've got to get over to ARH, find out what's happening."
"He's not leaving me here," the Sheriff said. "He's gotta take us with him." He reached out for me but grabbed MacManus' arm by mistake. Regardless, it seemed to settle him a little.
"Don't be crazy, Buck," the doctor said. "We'll just slow him down. You'll come right back here with help, won't you, son?"
"Of course," I said. "But the clinic was bad, the hospital is going to be even worse."
"Don't you worry," the sheriff said. "Folk are basically decent. They'll have settled down by the time you get there."
He hadn't seen the scramble at the clinic, but I didn't see any benefit in educating him. "I guess so," I said. "I'll head over there now." Before I left, I went back to the cellar and turned off the light. The doc was there in the hall to see me out, so to speak. He didn't say anything but he must have known what I'd done and he seemed to appreciate it.
As I left the doc's house I got knocked over. I was lying on my back with somebody on top. I hadn't even had a chance to turn on my torch but it was in my hand so I used it to swipe at whoever it was.
"I got him! I got him!" he was shouting, so there must have been more than one of them. I flicked on the torch and could see if was the ferret-faced guy from the clinic. Now I could see his face I hit him a stiff blow on the side of the head with the torch and rolled him off me. Just as I was getting to my feet a grizzly in a human suit came weaving towards me, arms outstretched, head swivelling side to side like he was motor-boating invisible titties. I ducked around him easy and shoved him on top of the weasel, then planted my boot in the side of head, leaving him out cold as his pal struggled for air under his enormous belly.
There were sounds from the doc's house now and the Sheriff was out shouting something I couldn't quite make out. He had his gun in his hand and his hollering was getting higher pitched and more animalistic with every second. I wanted to tell him I was okay, but, honestly, I was frightened he'd put a bullet in me before he realised who it was.
I ran half the way back to my truck, only slowing down as I got to the clinic. The Sheriff had been right, after a fashion. The scramble was over, but it looked like half the mob that had been fighting their way in were lying dead, either inside or right in front of the clinic. The rest were drifting about and I had to dodge past them to get to the truck.
Once I was back behind the wheel, I couldn't get the images of the riot outside the clinic out of my head every time I thought about having to go over to the hospital. I switched the radio on, anxiously twisting the volume knob down so I could just about hear. I scanned up and down the wavelengths. It was still mostly music, running on automated systems this late at night, everything pre-programmed with nobody but a security guard actually manning the station. Every so often I heard a human voice, but they were all reporting the chaos, the madness. Nobody had an explanation. Nobody was telling me what I should do.
Something banged on the glass beside me. Something else slapped against the passenger side window. I turned the high beams back on. They must have heard the radio anyway, because there was a crowd gathering around me. I jammed on my door lock and was reaching over to the passenger side when it opened. It was someone I knew, my insurance agent Jeff Harrington, but I didn't recognise the face behind him, or the face behind that.
"Can you see?" Jeff begged. "Please, you have to help me."
All I could say was, "Sorry!" I drove my fist into his face, again and again until he fell backwards and I could get the door shut and locked. I blared my horn, but the press of hands and faces on the truck just kept getting worse. I made my decision. There was no way in hell I was going to the hospital to get drowned in a sea of desperate people. I threw the truck into gear and tried to blank out the thought of what I was bumping over as I reversed out of there as fast as I could go.
I headed straight to the big out of town mall. I was going to need provisions. Food, fuel, camping equipment, and guns. Lots of guns.
My initial plan had been simple, to wait it out until some kind of normality returned. But it never did. It was around two weeks later that the reports began coming in about the triffids. I couldn't believe it at first, thought it was a sick joke. Were they seriously telling me I should be worried about a bunch of plants we sweated for gasoline? But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I had had friends back in Fairbanks who had swore blind we'd regret the day we ever started using plants for fuel, when there was still tens of thousands of square miles of Alaska we hadn't raped for oil yet. Admittedly that was not a universal point of view.
We all knew that Big Oil had lied to us every chance they got, so why would the triffoil companies be any different? Maybe triffids really were deadly, and they'd been keeping us in the dark all this time.
I was safe where I was for now, up in the mountains, but I figured somewhere with a healthy stretch of desert would be the best place to keep the killer plants at bay. Arizona sounded like a safe spot, but since I was going to be travelling clean across country I might as well stop off in California and see if my grand-folks had made it. Mom was dead, and dad was a mystery. I had lost track of my sister years ago. Gramps and Grammy were all the family I had left. Or might have left. I owed it to them to find out if they were still alive.
I went back to the mall to re-supply. Somebody had been getting organized there and had begun to systematically strip away food and other goods. I toyed with the idea of waiting around to see if anyone showed up but there was no telling how I'd be greeted so I took what I needed and hit the road.
In the weeks that followed I saw a whole lot I wish I could forget. Like sighted children on leashes leading around groups of hard-faced, blind adults. One time I saw a group of triffids use their stingers to whip a man into something unrecognisable as human, and another time I saw a mob of blind men overwhelm a lone triffid, tearing it to pieces with their bare hands and eating what they wrenched free until there was nothing left of it.
I was treated fairly and politely at a Nation of Islan compound, but after we had traded goods and gossip I was firmly sent on my way because of the color of my skin, though none but a handful there could see it. Still preferable to the countless times I was chased away with rifle fire by white trash warlords.
And so, eventually, I reached California, and like I had expected all along, there was no sign of my grand-parents at their home. No sign of anyone for miles around in fact. The fire that had claimed the neighborhood had been a big one. There was no way to tell if they had gotten away and no way for me to pick up their trail even if they had. I decided to set off for Arizona, after finding another mall to grab supplies.
It was at the mall that I found Roddy, lying under a stack of fifty pound sacks of flour, looking like Casper the friendly, if somewhat pissed-off, ghost.
I was wary at first. I'd seen too many traps like this, baited with an injured person and with a gang of cut-throats ready to jump on you when your guard was down. But, damn, Roddy just looked pathetically happy to see me.
We made our introductions as I helped him up. He'd climbed up to reach for something at the top of the racks when he slipped, bringing the flour down on top of him. He must have banged his head, knocked himself unconscious and was just coming round when I found him. He'd managed to sprain his ankle pretty bad, but I didn't think it was broken. When I asked him where he was staying, so I could take him there, that's when he got cagey.
"I've been helping some of the blind," he said. "Just been doing what I can, you know?"
"Sure," I said, wondering what his angle was. Was he trying to make me feel guilty?
"It's been pretty hard most of the time," he said, then he giggled. Honest to God, giggled.
"Roddy, dude, I'll help you get back home, if you ever get round to telling me where it is, but I can't stick around to help you with a bunch of blind guys. It's every man for himself, and if you had any sense you'd-"
"Hear me out!" he said. "I've picked a good bunch. There were so many, I had to be selective. Kandy was a nurse, and so was JoJo. Tina's dad taught her everything about being a mechanic. Grace has a masters degree in science. Kim is a black belt, and Tiffany used to be a cop."
"Roddy, did you pick them all because just because they're chicks?" I asked.
He waved his hands at me. "Of course not. I told you, they all have skills. There are millions of ordinary women out there. I wanted smart, funny women... and there was the other thing..."
"What other thing?"
"Whoever I was going to take in, needed to be... well, they had to have really big boobs."
I was flabbergasted, but all I could do was laugh.
Roddy grabbed my wrist and shook it. "Hey, come on man, I needed some criteria to narrow down my selection."
"Okay, Roddy," I said. "I'm real happy for you, but what do you need my help for? Sounds like you have a pretty sweet set-up."
"It's too much, buddy. I've shot for the moon and hit the Sun. Come back with me and, you know, help me keep the girls occupied."
I had just been thinking that my trip West had been a bust, and now this. "Just how big is big, Roddy?"
"Are you kidding me, man? This is California. We're talking monster titties, my friend."
I did the sums in my head. "So... three each?"
He winked at me. "Six each, pal."
Suddenly Arizona wasn't looking so good.
Monday, December 28, 2009
Perched upon the lofty, snow-capped peaks of Mount Kaligari, were you but to look, there would not be the tiniest square inch of soil visible that you do not clasp in your greedy fist. Neighbourhoods, districts and cities all fell to your ambition. What you could not take with threats, you ripped away with bloody actions.
Sage leaders surround themselves with wise counsel, but when you told me of the joy and pride you took in finding the best and brightest minds, I never knew it was so your torturers and executioners would be entertained. I did have my suspicions, but what was I to do? A mere woman, engaged upon household chores, I was pre-occupied. Staff do not organise themselves.
It delighted me to hear how gratified you were on receiving my gift. The Emperor was a tricky fellow and a hard nut for you to crack. Having his skull fashioned into a nut-cracker was simply destiny. If only he had known it, he might have kept a lower profile.
Now that you have conquered these lands, now that your enemies are beaten, dead or enslaved, now can we do what I want?
Mother wants to meet you.
I realise I may have painted a picture of her that is less than flattering. We are not estranged, as you have suggested, we merely hold different opinions on who ruined who's life. Please, do not take sides, however your conscience might urge you. I trust you will treat my mother the way she deserves. All I ask is that you journey with me to her estate. She is simply dying to meet you.
Saturday, December 26, 2009
In the split second that he shed the negative, a massive vacuum formed within him. Inspiration clasped his ears, pressed his face to her bosom but when he opened his mouth, so his tongue might play across her soft flesh, his head was filled with wondrous ideas.
He felt re-born. Reborn and renewed. At last purpose motivated him, something solid, real and tangible. He had a goal, and for the first time in his life he ached and burned to achieve that upon which he had set his heart's desire.
Misfortunate it was that this vision and clarity, this new direction in his life, struck him while he was two steps into a five step crossing and the bus that struck him seconds later was hampered less by epiphanies and more by physics and a slow foot upon the brake.
Friday, December 25, 2009
Thursday, December 24, 2009
"Charles?" The voice exploded trees filled with birds in his head.
"Steady, sirrah!" Charles said, spitting the last of the water from his mouth in the process. "My men are close behind me and, on my word, will treat harshly with you."
"Hah!" the voice replied. "I have a veteran company ready to fall upon you at my single word."
Charles recognised the voice now. "What single word? Charlatan? Liar? Thief?"
There was a sigh. "So it is you, Charles. Do come a little closer. I can barely see you from here."
"What sort of fool do you take me for, Henry?" Charles asked. "Do you really-"
"It's is drier here, and sheltered, somewhat, from the wind," Henry said. "Don't be a ninny."
Charles, aided in no small part by his bull-headed nature, stood and after teetering on his feet a while, took step after shaky step towards the voice. He moved, slowly and deliberately, from the riverbank to a small copse of trees not far from the water. The owner of the voice lay here with his back against the trunk of a tree and his hand pressed to his side, ineffectually staying the flow of blood that soaked his shirt.
Charles slumped to the ground, opposite. "Is it bad?" he asked.
Henry raised his hand to show the bloody palm, but winced and quickly pressed it back again. "Bad enough."
Charles snorted. "But for your trickery, I might have laid a heavier blow myself and decided the matter for sure."
"But for your stupidity," Henry replied, "you might not have charged your cavalry across a bog."
"It was green grass, as far as anyone could tell," Charles said.
"Aye, and a bog it became, after the previous week's rain and your horses churning it to mud at a gallop."
Charles snorted again. Then, after a while, he asked. "So... you won the day then?"
Henry raised his bloody palm anew and laughed. "Hard to say. The day is not yet done, but I may be."
"Pah, it'll take more than that paltry nick to finish you, Henry."
"While I value your opinion, I... well, anyway... there was another matter."
"Speak your mind," Charles said. "I welcome the distraction after this debacle."
"Quite," Henry replied. "I just wondered whether I should have sent young Catherine some token last week."
"It was her birthday." Charles shrugged. "Despite our disagreement, she is still your niece. Oh, she is with child."
"That young dolt finally figured out what he was doing then?" They both laughed.
"You're quite the favourite uncle, you know," Charles said. "She became ever so cross when I told her I intended to have your head."
"Sweet child," Henry said. "And such a doting daughter for thinking you capable of achieving the deed."
"I could yet..." Charles slapped at his empty scabbard. "If I only..."
"Why not come over here and finish me off with your bare hands?" Henry asked. "As father would have."
Charles barked a laugh. "With his bare hands? Why the merest glance would have shrivelled you to ash, the way he told it. Anyway, it would be undignified. Suppose we were to be found out, rolling around here, attempting to slap and pinch the life from each other? It wouldn't do."
Henry nodded his agreement. "You know, of course, who will benefit most from this? Your man, Le Croix. I expect he is already back at your castle, digging your grave."
"As if Penningham will let this opportunity go to waste," Charles said. "You may hope to leak away completely from that pinprick, for you can be sure he will squeeze some advantage from whatever else is left."
"He is an ambitious man," Henry agreed.
"As is Le Croix," Charles acknowledged.
The wind howled over the river. The sounds of battle were distant now, and growing quieter as the sky darkened.
"I shall be going now," Charles said. He stood and stretched, shook the blood back into his limbs and turned away.
He had walked just a few yards when he heard: "Stop, Charles. Lend your brother some assistance."
Charles sighed. He retraced his steps, then went over to his brother and helped him to his feet, choosing not to comment on the pained grunts he heard as he hauled the other upright.
"You know, brother," Henry said, "much of the trouble between us would be settled if you were to wrest Penningham's estates away."
"I expect so," Charles said. "And I fancy you might help me with that, in exchange for some land on my western borders."
"I expect so," Henry echoed.
With their arms about each other they made slow progress away from the river.
"Doesn't Le Croix have his lands on your western border?" Henry asked.
"Do shut up, brother."
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Vladimir, Ruth's husband appeared by the chair she was sat upon and swapped her tea for a fresh cup. His hand reached out and stroked her hair, and with sleight of hand that would have pleased his father he rubbed the salty tear off her cheek. He looked so handsome in his black tails. They exchanged sad smiles before he slipped back into the crowd. She took a sip from the cup. It was far too sweet again, but she so appreciated the gesture.
"Sorry for your loss, Ruthie." she clasped the long bony hand that was offered to her. Poor Marco, forced to stoop inside the confines of the trailer. Such a sweet young man, but already he had to use a cane to support his frame.
Vladimir returned, set a plate of buns on the arm of her chair, squeezed her hand and was away. He had spoken such beautiful words about her sister. His rasping accent painting an aching portrayal of her love for live, love for her friends and for her work.
Lolo and Bolo both tried to hug her at once, bounced off each other and settled for patting her shoulders, an arm around each other's waist. Sad, nonsense words burbled from their quivering lips and their beady eyes in their tiny heads looked so miserable, though they probably didn't quite grasp what was going on. They knew their friend Ruthie was unhappy, so they were unhappy.
Vladimir came and steered them away, gently shoving them towards Miriam, who he knew detested them. He handed Ruth a heaped plate of biscuits. With her free hand she pulled his head down to kiss him on the check, making him wriggle. He put his hand over her hand, pulling himself free, fingers trailing off against her fingers until just their tips were touching and then he was gone again.
"She was a fine, fine woman." Henry's eyes were level with her own and she recognised the moist redness of genuine grief. There had always been stories, rumours about Henry and her sister. He was a decent man, but she wished they had been more open. People would have been happy for them. The opportunity to be a couple was lost for fear of ridicule. Faint heart.
Vladimir reached down to rest a hand against Henry's back, exchanging a silent nod of understanding with him. With his other hand he placed a plate bearing a whole coffee cake on Ruth's lap.
Ruth looked at the cake, stared intently at it for several long seconds. Her whole upper body fell forward, curled into a ball of sobs, her beard bunching in the the cream topping of the cake. She stood suddenly, sending the plate to the floor and the cake with it. She swept biscuits and buns after them, charging through the mourners to collide in a desperate hug with her sister Miriam, who stared daggers over her shoulder at Vladimir.
Her husband started towards her, but Henry's grasp on his coat tail stopped him short.
"Give her a minute," Henry said. "We've all taken Two Ton... I mean... Tessa's death pretty hard" He looked at the pile of food on the floor. "But you have to remember, Vladimir, there's no getting her back."
Thursday, December 10, 2009
The man behind the desk pushed the spectacles up the bridge of his nose and sighed. "Captain Awesome, first of all it's 'Doctor Silverman'. Secondly, I really appreciate your positive attitude, and believe me it will be a boon in the coming months, but the tests are conclusive. I'm afraid it's definitely cancer."
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Sitting on a low wall, bordering the car park, was a young man who must be her father. The little girl would throw her stone, then hop, skip and jump the course, running to hug her father's leg when she succeeded and letting him lift her onto his knee and bury his face in her neck when she failed, kissing and snuffling and sending her squealing back to the course.
Drawing nearer, Alice could see the toy shop carrier bag next to the man's foot, and next to that the discarded MacDonald's wrappers, stacked ready for the bin. The man looked at his watch, and though she was still too far away to hear it, Alice sensed how wistfully he sighed as he called his child over for another hug, just because.
He caught Alice's looking at him, chin resting on the little girl's head and he gave the old lady a shy smile.
When she was level with him Alice looked at the hop scotch course the little girl had drawn on the paving slabs. Each chalk line neatly intersecting the middle of the block's edge. With every hop and jump the little girl's feet landed where the corners of four blocks met.
"Oh, love, doesn't she know?" she asked the man. "Step on a crack-"
"She knows," he replied. "She won't let me draw it any other way."
Monday, December 7, 2009
It all looked so delicate, so precious, so perilously balanced on the tiered glass shelves.
“Can I help you?” A woman’s voice.
Pretty, mid twenties, dressed in a plain blouse and knee length skirt, she stood in front of the counter. Behind the counter stood a thin, angular man, arms folded across his chest, coolly weighing up the prospective customer, sneer barely disguised.
“I want to buy a vase. It’s for my wife... I’ve left it to the last minute, as usual.”
“Everything we have is on display,” the man behind the counter said, sweeping a finger in front of him.
The young woman tutted. She took the old man by the elbow, carefully leading him on a circuit of the shop, pointing out thin stemmed crystal, twisted metal and stark ceramic vases every few feet.
They arrived back at the counter.
“Did you see anything you think she’d like?” she asked.
“It’s all very nice, but I was hoping for something more colourful. Something, brighter?”
“There’s a pound store-”
The girl interrupted the man behind the counter. “I think we might have something in the back.”
“The old stock that was here when he took over,” she reminded him. She vanished into the back and returned with a brightly coloured pottery vase.
The old man’s face lit up. “Oh that looks perfect. She loves bright things. How much is that?”
“Forty pounds!” the man behind the counter said.
She shot a glance over at him. “It’s old stock. You’re doing us a favour by taking it off our hands. No charge. Special offer, today only.” She smiled at the old gentleman.
The thin man reached out to pull the vase from the girl’s hands. “At least let me wrap it up. Christ knows, I don’t want anyone seeing you leave here with that.”
As the old man was about to leave, the wrapped vase in a carrier bag in his hand, he turned and said, “Thank you. Thank you, both, very much. I was ever so afraid I’d left it too late, but I promised her I wouldn’t let them put her in a plain old urn.”
Friday, December 4, 2009
My initial enthusiasm and romantic notions had long since abandoned me, nudged off the sofa by the fat-assed dichotomy of monotony on the one hand, and the constant threat of violence on the other. We have no truck with the gallant knights of the road, those picaresque rogues with their tall tales and hearts of gold. They do not exist. Instead we deal daily with the psychotic, the miserable, those who have slipped through the cracks and those who use the cracks for cover. The drug addicts, the delusional, those who hear the whispering and those who whisper.
It's not much fun.
Ben "Lost Dog" Burling is one of the quiet ones and reputedly harmless. Scarecrow hair, scrawny body buried under multiple layers of patched clothing, his boots are as scuffed and worn as his grimy, tanned face. He approached the line, a plate in one shivering hand, a twist of trailing string wrapped around the other.
"Still no sign of your dog, then?" I joked, just as I'd joked with him every Tuesday for the last two months. The frayed end of the piece of string hung limp from his hand, quivering slightly as his decrepit body shook.
He mumbled something in reply. I reached out for the piece of string. "Why not give me that to look after while you get some grub in you."
He snatched the string away, the plate slipped from his other hand, smashing on the floor. "No!" he screamed. "I mustn't let go or the world will get away. Where will we go?"
The supervisor, Gloria, pushed past me, waving her arms to keep everyone away from the broken shards of plate. The glance she assaulted me with told me squarely who she blamed for this calamity.
But there was worse to come as from the line Doug Catterly decided he had to help me. He was one of the worst of the creeps, fawning and obsequious, bubbling enthusiasm that swiftly turned to frustration and rage. He'd taken it into his head to help me with the recalcitrant Burling, grabbed the old man by the scruff of his jackets as he tugged and pulled at the string wrapped round the old man's hand.
Gloria looked at them, tutting as though they were children, but I could see old Ben's fingers squashed together as the string tightened on them. I rushed to his aid, grabbed at Catterly's arm and instantly remembered the warning from my first day's training. Never touch anyone. The results can be unpredictable. Spectacularly so.
Catterly had the strangest look on his face now. I dropped his arm and pointedly turned away, helping old Ben up from where he had fallen. The piece of string was no longer in his hand and there were tears in his eyes.
I turned to Doug and said, "Give him back his string. He's only an old man."
Catterly shook his head. "I must not let go or the world will get away."
Confused, I turned to look at old Ben, staring at his reflection in a darkened window, hands on his hair, on his beard, looking at himself as if for the first time in decades.
"Excuse me, my good man, might I interest you in an aeronautical display?"
He was in his seventies at least, a little stick of a man, dressed in an over-sized world war two RAF uniform, complete with leather skullcap and goggles. A white silk scarf, wrapped around his neck, completed the ensemble.
I didn't say anything at first, craning to look behind him. He could see what was troubling me.
"They won't let me have a plane any more. Not since the incident with the Germans."
"You were in the war?" I asked.
"No..." he said. "What do you say? A ten minute aeronautical display. Only five pounds!"
I looked through the change I'd received after buying my ice cream. "I'll give you a quid."
"I used to get a thousand pounds a performance you know," he said.
"You used to have a plane," I retorted.
"Very well," he said in a dejected tone. "But you get five minutes and no loop the loop."
He began by running a hundred yards back and forth in front of me, humming engine noises, with his hands on an imaginary joystick, the left occasionally working the throttle. Then he was twisting off to the right in a lazy turn that gradually became a graceful figure of eight.
And so it went on, with him at one point rolling on his side along the ground, before leaping back to his feet, looking very spry for a man of his age, and running two hundred yards directly away from me, turning and running back at me as fast as he could manage. Before he barreled into me he stopped, hunkered down, wrapping his arms around his legs before throwing himself backwards, ankles over head. Once again he leaped back to his feet, then sauntered casually back over to me.
He pulled his monocle out, winked at me, then replaced it. "I threw in that last loop for free."
I fished the one pound coin out of my pocket and placed it onto his outstretched palm. He wrapped his fingers about it, placed his fist to his forehead in a salute, then stashed the coin in his puffy trousers.
"Well, young man, what did you think?"
I wasn't sure what I thought, but what I said was, "I've never seen anything like it. Can I offer a suggestion?"
"Of course you can, young sir. I value customer feedback."
"When you're running around like that you should stick your arms out, like they were wings."
"Wings?" he exclaimed, his monocle popping out. "My dear boy, I wouldn't wish to appear foolish."
Friday, November 27, 2009
"Still in a bad mood then?"
The heavens roiled with thick black cloud, sundered by the bright flash of lightning, sky ringing to the din of crashing thunder.
"A bit." Gabriel confirmed.
"Drama queen." St. Peter said. "Creates the entire universe in six days, and he's making this much of a fuss about fifty thousand words in a month."
Friday, November 20, 2009
An orchestra this time.
"Well, dearest?" he asked. "Only say you will be my bride and I will give you your heart's desire."
She pulled her hand from out of his. "Never," she said. "Never, never, never."
His face fell, and he brushed away tears from his eyes before they had the chance to roll down his cheeks. He stood. Looked down at her where she sat, his mouth opening a crack but he had no more to say. Head hanging he trudged from the room, turned in the doorway and said, "I will return tomorrow, dearest one." Then he left, letting the door fall shut behind him.
She went to the window and looked out across the land, the rolling green fields, the dark forests, the great swelling river that ran through it all, originating in the mysterious great mountains far in the distance. A vast world of adventure that she had yet to sample.
She looked at the door the prince had used to exit the room and thought, yet again, of her heart's truest desire.
The key that would open that damn lock.
Friday, November 13, 2009
I spent ten minutes trudging across perfectly manicured grass as the last of the light was going, desperate to find my contact before it got too dark to see my way. There was a shack with a light on so I knocked at the door and took the gruff response as permission to enter.
When I pushed the door open I was greeted with the sight of a grizzled old guy lighting his pipe with a guttering match. He was the sort of geezer you expect to see leaning over fences handing out ominous advice to unwary teens in some schlock horror movie.
"I'm-" I started.
"You my replacement?" he asked.
"Cheating me out of my pension is what he's doing." The old guy sucked at his pipe noisily. "Drunk, my ass! You need something to keep the cold out of your bones."
"I'm looking for Mister Barnes..."
The old boy stood up, pulled his coat on, his pipe clamped between his teeth so when he spoke to me it was through gritted teeth. "He's out back." He jerked his head in the general direction, and then pushed past me as he left.
I heard a truck fire up as I went back of his shed. Stuck in the newly turned dirt of a fresh grave was the shovel I expected I'd be using as the town's new gravedigger. Mr Barnes was nowhere to be seen.
Friday, November 6, 2009
Such an unexpected find. He remembered how they'd immediately clicked, as if they'd known each other for decades, as though getting to know her was part new and part recalling her moods, her body and the secrets she kept hidden from everybody else.
But things were different, circumstances had changed. He had changed, though she had somehow remained the same. There was no kind way to end this, he had to let go.
When he did, she didn't stop screaming until she hit the rocks, far below.
Friday, October 30, 2009
When the men of Alexandria fell to their knees, clawing at the pustulant boils that disfigured their faces and bodies, it was my caress that laid the curse upon them. When London lay decimated by the "Black Death", it was my dark gift of flea-ridden rats that choked the life from them. When the great flu claimed one hundred million souls, my choking cough started the infection, virulent spittle on the faces of a thousand disgusted travellers.
And as I take your alms my hand leaves the mark of death upon your offerings. My deadly touch lingering to claim whoever next samples your wares.
Hey, sour gummies, neat!
Friday, October 16, 2009
The last of his servants had fled the night before, joining the porters from Conall's Valley who'd abandoned him two days earlier. They had laughed and dared him to come retrieve the fees he'd paid them. He would have his revenge on them all, but first he must slay the great snow bear and could afford no deviance or wasted resource until his plan was complete. Even now the plan hung in the balance for if he were to find the bear and slay it how was he to transport the carcass back to the temple in Stygia unaided?
First things first though. Slay the bear and harvest the more easily preserved and transported organs, then stash the rest of the beast until he could fetch it later. At this time of year the body would not spoil, buried in the frozen earth, and it was still several months until the partial thaw of Spring.
Having hidden the bulk of his alchemical equipment and whatever loose items around the camp which might prove of interest to wandering beasts or human pilferers, he hoist his pack high on his back. The massive holdall was stuffed with preserving jars, provisions and a selection of poisons and potions which were very much the tools of his trade.
Legend had it that the great snow bear roamed a broad step like plateau in the mountain range, reachable only by a treacherous path and it was this that he now hauled himself along. Even the easiest going was fraught with peril and taxed every last muscle and sinew as he fought his way up sheer inclines foot after foot. With each agonized step he muttered an invocation to bolster and enervate his sinewy body, slowly finding himself closer and closer to the summit. Then, no more than ten feet from the top, his foothold faltered and he tumbled wildly down the steep slope, futilely grabbing at shrivelled weeds for handholds only to have them pull free in a shower of frigid dry soil. With a crash he jammed against a stunted bush that stubbornly clung to the jagged path.
Now the weight of the massive pack threatened to tilt him back towards his head over heels tumble to a certain death, so without a thought for the consequences he shrugged himself out of the straps which now cut into his shoulders and ached to tip him over to his doom. With relief he was at last free of the pack and after a brief rest and some arcane ministrations to his scuffed and bloodied limbs returned to his climb.
By the time he pulled himself up onto the plateau's floor it was midnight and he was totally spent. He lay oblivious upon his back until the call of a night bird shocked him back to sense and, warily, he looked about. Lit only by dim moonlight the plateau had an eerie quality and the hairs on his neck stood to attention as an unfamiliar wave of hopelessness wrung him out.
With a curse to olden gods he shook himself from these feelings of despair and attended to a closer inspection of the plateau by whatever light there was, for even had he dared to without his pack he goodn't strike a light. The plateau was, as to be expected, almost perfectly flat with just a single gnarled old tree standing very close to the edge where he was. A hundred yards or so across the plateau was the mouth of a terrific cave, decorated about with tumbled boulders and rocks apparently fallen from the mountain range which continued ever upwards towards the grey skies that framed the mountainside beyond the plateau.
Eyes fixed upon the massive cave mouth, he patted at his clothes as though entered in some compulsive ritual. He stroked his hair, rubbed at his chest, felt along the seams of his pockets, at the belt at his waist and finally checked the tops of his boots. Then just as he prepared to head towards the cave a movement from the tree caught his eye and he spun to face it.
Until now he had not seen it but a great shadowy figure perched within the branches of the tree and with a start he realised that he was looking at a vulture, its wings drawn up about its scrawny body. What did this weird vision portend? There were no vultures to be found in this cold country and the carrion bird could mean only one thing. Tonight someone would die but who would it be?
"You'll not dine on my flesh this night graverobber!" he raged.
"I had not wanted to eat you," came a gruff reply in awkward stilted Stygian.
"Who's there?" cried the Stygian, switching to flawless Cimmerian, reckoning this to be most appropriate. Now, as the figure became clearer he could see that this was no vulture but simply a man wrapped in a ragged fur cloak. But the Stygian was still wary for even now that he could see no trace of vulture in the man's appearance, he was yet sure of what he had seen.
As he drew closer he saw a weathered Cimmerian, as he had correctly guessed, garbed for war.
"I said who's there?" he said sharply. "What do you want?"
"Plain to see that I am here, stranger," said the Cimmerian. "as to my purpose, well... I hunt the great snow bear."
"Pah!" spat the Stygian. "You hunt squirrels and birds if you choose to clamber amongst them. Why else would you be up there?" Then after a moment's thought he said, "What can you see from your lookout?"
"Why, I do believe I see the great snow bear," said the barbarian and he nodded his head to indicate that the priest of Set should turn and look.
What the Stygian saw was even more imposing and fearsome than he could have imagined. It would have taken a team of elephants to haul this beast home. Padding from the cave's mouth on all fours its shoulders stood taller than a man. Its head alone was almost two feet wide with raging pink eyes that shone bright against pure white fur. It stopped and sniffed the air letting out a low rumbling questioning groan that seemed to shake the Stygian's bones loose in his skin.
He turned back to the barbarian in the tree. "You will not interfere with my business here. You will not cross me and you will not aid me. I hunt the great snow bear and I, and I alone, will slay it."
He turned sharply and strode towards the bear. He felt no fear now and indeed a feeling of bloodthirsty elation was bubbling up from his gut spreading warm rage to his very fingertips. This beast was huge but it was just a beast and no match for a priest of Set.
He flung his hands towards the mighty bear and at once it was haloed in bright blue light as sparks leapt about it's shaggy coat dancing from ear to ear and front to rear. When the dazzling show was done the bear lazily turned to regard the priest, apparently none the worse for the magical assault. With a curt word the priest sent another more focused blast of lightning directly into the face of this king of bears, landing a terrible smoking ruin directly upon its soft pink nose.
With a roar that surely shook the very mountains to their roots in the ancient earth the bear launched itself with horrible pace towards the priest, who stood momentarily frozen by the blood-curdling sound. With only inches to spare did he throw himself to one side before the bear could land upon him and instead it charged past him towards the edge of the plateau.
With familiar ease the bear turned with uncanny agility before the precipice and hurled itself back towards the Stygian who was now back-peddling furiously to create some distance between himself and the moving wall of death.
Plucking a brooch from his chest he flung it at the bear and as it arced through the air it grew and twisted until it landed on the bears head as a spider as big as a cart. The evil many-legged creature scuttled about the bears back but the priest could see it could find neither purchase for it's spindly legs on the thick stiff bristles of the bear's hide nor opportunity to sink its fangs into the great beast's flesh. With an irritated swipe of a paw the bear turned it to sickly orange pulp and continued in its mission to rip the Stygian to pieces.
Simultaneously the priest pulled a long needle from the top knot of his hair and a glass-bladed dagger from his boot and hurled these both towards his nemesis who simply batted them aside in his fury. Stymied for now, the priest dashed once more past the hurtling monster and swung about, pulling a folded parchment square from his belt. With feet to spare he flipped this at the bear's head unleashing a cloud of powder directly into its face but its steamy breath clouding the frigid air harmlessly dissipated the threat of the black lotus dust.
Then, certain his fate was sealed, the priest felt a strange sensation as though the weight was lifted from him and he suddenly found himself hauled up into the tree beside the Cimmerian. A moment later the tree shook and shuddered but it did not fall.
The barbarian leaned in towards the Stygian and said. "And NOW do you see why I'm up here?"
Marcus looked at Talosh and wondered what thoughts ran through that head of his.
"I watched the sun rise this morning," he said.
Talosh roused himself from his daydream and turned to regard Marcus, keeping his back pressed to the rock where he crouched. "Did you not sleep last night? he asked.
"Oh, I slept well enough," said Marcus, "but I've always been an early riser." He shifted uneasily against the rock, vainly trying to find a confortable spot. "I never really paid that much attention to the sun's rising. This morning was different. I lay awake in the dark and actually noticed as the sky began to pink and as the first rays crowned the horizon. I watched as the shadows fled along the grain field yonder and saw the light halo the black smoke rising from Ganderhome. I don't know why but it made me feel better. Stupid notion... It felt like the light makes everything better, drives away the uncertainty, expose the things you didn't want to see. Forces you to confront them. Does that make any sense?"
Talosh nodded slowly. "I understand." He said nothing for a while, as though gathering his thoughts then continued. "Once I was travelling the desert to Samaland. It's a small desert, not like the Great Yarosh or even like the salt flats hereabouts. It's just a sandy thumbprint in the grand scheme of things and easily crossed though the going is unpleasant enough. I was making my way to the festivities they hold each year in Samarkhan, the capital. There's singing and dancing, many sacrifices and much in the way of fleshy delights. They are a wanton people but fun if you're of a proper mood. Improper mood I should say. In any event I was not. In fact I was beset by a most melancholy despair, nor could I even put a finger on why I was so disposed."
"I was travelling at night, when it is cooler and the sand is not so likely to whip at your eyes, and as I trudged towards my goal I took notice of the moon. It shone bright and clear and full that night and the stars themselves were dulled to insignificance by comparison and a curious notion struck me. It was as though a great black blanket was hung across the sky and the moon a peep-hole through to a lighter, brighter, happier place. I stood and regarded it, and because my breath clouded the cold night air I held it in as long as possible, just staring up at the moon and wishing myself to be in that better place which I could only glimpse. Eventually I was forced to take a great gasp of air and the moment passed but that thought has stayed with me since."
They sat awhile in a silence. interrupted when Talosh said, "I should like to see the sun rise this morning. Like your self of old I have never paid much heed to dawn but with your words in my head perhaps I will take it into my heart. Will you wake me when it's time?"
"Certainly," said Marcus, "and when next the moon is full I will look at it and see if I observe that better place of which you spoke."
"I regret to say, but that is most unlikely," said Talosh. He stood and stretched. From cloven hoof to wicked claw he stood ten feet tall, barely half the height of the rocky ledge on which Marcus was perched.
Craning his neck, Marcus looked down at the demon, surrounded about by the heavy vines Marcus had used to reach his sanctuary but which had torn free when the demon pursued him.
"You're going to have to come done from there eventually," said Talosh levelly.
Marcus plucked a few berries from the straggly, lop-sided bush that clung to a crevice beside him. "Perhaps," he said, "but not today."
When Tony O. lurched into my room, a paper bag clenched in his fist, it made me wish I'd gotten the lock fixed. This was the third time it had happened this week and it was only Tuesday.
"What's in the bag this time, Tony?" I asked him.
"Doughnut holes." He sounded really pleased with himself.
"That's a myth," I said, feeling pretty smug myself. "When they make ring doughnuts they don't punch out the centres. There's no such thing as doughnut holes. They're just lumps of fried dough."
"What kind of punk you take me for?" said Tony, his voice rising. "These aren't doughnut centres, these are doughnut HOLES!"
He handed me the bag and I opened it. It was empty. I turned it upside down and shook it.
"It's empty," I said.
Tony O. fell on his knees. "You dropped them!" he wailed, scrabbling at the carpet.
"Who sold you the holes, Tony?" I asked.
"And what else did he sell you?"
"Maybe a little acid."
An Abbreviated Diary
Woke up and got out of bed. I headed straight to my kitchen for a cup of coffee but no matter how hard I tried I couldn't get the lid off the coffee jar. I twisted it and twisted it but the jar just skirled noisy circles on the marble counter top. Went back to bed.
Woke up and got out of bed. I was gasping for a cup of coffee so I went straight to my kitchen. The coffee jar was where I'd left it. Nothing I tried would get the lid off. Went back to bed.
Woke up and got out of bed. Hopped to the kitchen and glared at the coffee jar for a while. Went back to bed.
Stayed in bed.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Weak Will tapped the glass politely and said, "Excuse me, miss, but may I be of assistance?"
"I've been trapped in this bottle by an evil giant and he will soon be back!" said the small woman, her voice distorted and faint because of the thickness of the glass.
Weak Will just hardly managed to clamber up to the neck of the bottle and, fixing himself with an arm wrapped about, he tried to work loose the giant cork that sealed it tight, but it had been driven home far too tight and would not shift.
"You will suffocate," said Weak Will, distraught.
The woman shook her head. "I sucked in a puff of air before he corked it and I have been breathing hardly at all ever since." She jerked a thumb over her shoulder, wedged too tight to turn about. "See that tree at the bottom of the hill?"
Weak Will nodded.
"Give the bottle a push and it will roll down and strike the tree!"
Weak Will was sceptical, but concerned by the lack of air he heaved the bottle over and began to push it towards the steep downward slope, from where down below he could see the old tree with its thick trunk. A stranger's voice hailed him.
Weak Will turned to see a man in a fine suit, wearing a tall hat. "What are you doing there?" said the man, sternly.
"I'm going to roll this bottle, and the small woman therein, down this steep slope and into that tree yonder!" said Weak Will, indicating the tree in question.
"Out of the question!" said the man. "Do nothing. I will fetch the people from hereabouts."
Weak Will thanked the man and said, "but do hurry! She has had only a little puff of air and will soon expire."
The well dressed man ran off down the steep slope, but eventually returned alone.
"Where are the people to help?" asked Weak Will.
"To help?" asked the man. "The people are down by the tree, ready to watch. You may proceed forthwith."
Weak Will looked down to the tree and saw it was surrounded by a great crowd of people, busy erecting stalls and generally preparing for a terrific festival.
Looking from the spectators to the small woman inside the bottle, Weak Will wasted no more time on words and gave the bottle a tremendous push so it clattered and rolled down the hill, building speed, leaping into the air as it struck each bump, and landing with a crash to keep on rolling. The mob of people around the tree hooted and hollered with excitement. Weak Will ran after the bottle, unable to keep pace with it so that it steadily drew away from him until it crashed into the tree.
Arriving at it just seconds later, Weak Will saw that the bottle was intact, the small woman inside it conscious, but dazed and bloody. "Again..." she croaked.
Weak Will struggled mightily to push, haul and roll the bottle back up the hill, his pleas for help falling on deaf ears. When, after an absolute age, he had managed to return the bottle to the top of the hill he checked once more on its occupant.
"I've been trapped in this bottle by an evil giant and he will soon be back," she said. Weak Will shook his head, kicked at the bottle and sent it tumbling back down towards the tree. The crowd cheered, very nearly as loudly as before, but once again when he arrived beside it, Weak Will found the bottle was still intact.
"Again..." said the small woman, so once again Weak Will crawled back to the top of the peak with the enormous bottle, and once more he sent it careening down at the tree. A few stalwarts in the crowd managed a weak shout, but most of those gathered about were busy eating or chatting and had lost interest in Weak Will's efforts.
For a third time the bottle hit the tree, and for a third time Weak Will found it to be intact when he caught up to it.
"I fear we will never get you out!" wailed Weak Will.
The small woman looked at him blankly through the thick glass. "Get me out?" she asked, confused.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Inside the cottage the Snark awoke with a start. He jumped out of bed and ran to his kitchen, grabbing a huge pot from the sink, and a spoon from the floor.
Outside his house he set to with banging and hammering, clattering and rattling. The Snark was making a terrible din.
Up in the village the Grufalump heard. He poked his head out the window and listened a little, but the din was terrific and set his teeth on edge.
"Here boy," the Grufalump called to little Billy Rabbit, throwing him a quarter, "Go see what the Snark's at and come back right quickly."
Little Billy Rabbit bounded away and in no time at all he was back, under the Grufalump's window. "The Snark is making a din," Billy Rabbit said.
"I can hear the din, boy," the Grufalump said, "But why? What's his reason? Why such uproar?"
Little Billy Rabbit shrugged his confusion. "He wouldn't say, Mr. Grufalump. Just keeps beating his pot. When that tires him, he drops it and commences to hooting. When his throat closes over, it's back to the pot."
The Grufalump sighed and put on his tie, popped his hat on his head and took up his cane. He would visit the Snark and ask him, politely, to refrain.
Outside the Snark's garden the din was tremendous and the Grufalump did his best to curl his enormous ears closed. "Mr. Snark!" the Grufalump called. "Mr. Snark, may I have a word?"
Shortly, out from the briar and the nettles, the Snark appeared, frantically banging his spoon off his pot. Not a word did he say, just fixed his beady eyes dead upon the Grufalump's own great orbs.
"Please, Mr. Snark, can't we be civilized?" the Grufalump asked. "This din is atrocious and leaving me agonized."
The Snark stopped beating his pot and cocked his head in thought. Then he was back at it, harder and faster than ever before. The spoon spat tiny wooden chips as it drummed off the pot.
The Grufalump, fast as you like, darted out a mighty hand and grabbed the spoon away. The Snark's mouth fell open, the Grufalump's too. Making a din is one thing, but grabbing is impolite.
The Snark reached for his spoon, but the Grufalump whipped it away, hiding it behind his broad back. Turned on his heel the Snark vanished back into his garden, but was back in flash with a pot in each hand. He pounded the pots, near hammered them flat, the din so intense it knocked off the Grufalump's hat.
So the Grufalump killed him. Pounded him flat as his pots. Then he scooped up the body and threw it in the river.
Back at his home the Grufalump lay on his bed, holding his hands over his ears to drown out the drumming, the beat of well-wishers hands on his door.
"Well done Mr. Grufalump!" they said, "Whatever did you tell the Snark to make him stop?"
The Grufalump lay in his bed, overcome with guilt. Eyes closed, head buried under his quilt. But still he heard the drumming.
That night came a storm, and a terrible racket, but as midnight faded so did the drumming. The Grufalump heard another sound as the wind beat the trees. He heard a scratch, scratch, scratching at his door. It might have been a flailing branch, bucked by the frenzy. It might have been litter, tossed by the air. But the Grufalump knew what it was.
The Grufalump knotted a noose, took a run at his window, and dived through most elegantly. The rope broke his fall, but also his neck.
The call went up when they found him at the first light of day. They swung on his feet, and heaved on the rope, but the Grufalump's bulk was too much to shift. The piled into his house, and hammered his stairs, crowded his bedroom and filled everywhere.
They sawed at the rope and he fell with a thump, and they crowded around him in a bewildered clump.
"Why?" went the cry on everyone's lips, the hubbub rising to impossible height. They were making a terrible din.
Only Little Billy Rabbit wasn't questioning the corpse. He stared at the the Grufalump's door in wonder. There on the door, just where the latch is, whatever had made those terrible scratches?
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Tanya picked up the folder her boss had dramatically pushed across the desk with the tip of one forefinger, and began sifting through it. She pulled a photograph from off the cover of the background report.
"And handsome," she said, studying the flamboyant Italian-born gangster revealed in the grainy picture.
Jeff Richter snorted dismissively. "Even better looking in real life, so they say, but that's the best shot we could get of him. The iron curtain of secrecy has been extended to cover signor Bellus by our counter-parts in Moscow, and now the only way anyone gets to see him is if he wants to see them first. That's where you come in. There's a TWA flight leaving for Malpensa, Italy, from JFK in exactly 93 minutes. You're going to be on it."
"Time for my special services?" Tanya all but purred the question. "Personal contact, and then?"
"And then... the men upstairs want him dead."
The bare flicker of an emotion troubled the icy calm of Tanya's face. She nodded. "There's something we need to discuss first," she said.
"You can speak freely, " Jeff said. "You know that."
Tanya twisted to glance at the door behind her, as though she was expecting someone to burst in.
Jeff buzzed the intercom on his desk. "Kathy, no interruptions for the next half hour, please."
"Yes, mister Richter," came the tinny reply.
"Good enough?" Jeff asked. The first bullet convulsed him where he sat, pluming red from his breast, the second snapped his head back, throwing the glasses from his face.
Mechanically, Tanya removed the silencer from the Beretta and stashed both items in her clasp-bag, then she left the office.
"He doesn't want to be disturbed until further notice," she said to Kathy, her voice cracking towards the end of the sentence. Kathy idly wondered why she seemed so upset, but it hardly registered and she was soon giving Movieland her full attention again.
Everything was sitting ready in her car in preparation for the alternative flight she had booked to Italy two days earlier, but first she found a pay-phone in a diner a few miles from the airport.
Her head was spinning, reality catching up to the situation, as she traced out the numbers on the dial.
"It's done," she said. The line went dead. "Marco? Marco?"
Her head was pounding now, blood jack-hammering at her temples, and as the stuffiness of the crowded diner pressed in on her she clawed at her throat, desperately trying to breathe the super-heated air. The phone fell from her other twisted hand, and she slumped to the floor.
It wasn't until two days after she died in hospital that they were able to identify the poison that had killed her. The same contact toxin they were to discover hidden in Jeff Richter's house more than a week after that.
Marco Bellus was a very charming man.
When I roughly stroked your fur,
But fell on your back and played,
With the toy I dangled there,
Attempts to grab - preventing
Leave me looking like a chump
Head down, back arched, presenting
Only showing me your rump
What is hidden in your eyes
Is it like or is it more
What drives your crazy ways,
Such mystery to explore
An answer I need to see
When at last I've got you caught
But you've started licking me
And I've lost my train of thought
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Never want to see you pained,
But shattered psyches cut too,
And the wound the scars explained,
Fingers twisted up in hair,
Tear damp lips upon the neck,
Frozen lest the movement scare,
Drops the mask upon the wreck,
Time to grind away the edge,
Or onto the blade must fall,
Blind choice teeters on a ledge,
Tortured trip so clear to all,
Sorting one corpse into two,
Was the only truth I said,
I never meant to hurt you,
Or the only lie I bled?
Thursday, September 3, 2009
His left 'arm' was almost dead, but the right was holding up, as were the rarely-used, pincer-like helper limbs on his torso. The tracked lower chassis he'd salvaged from a construction site almost a century and a half earlier, and substituted for his legs, was growing temperamental. He would need to find parts soon or it would all be over.
Blind since his natural eyes had died, nonetheless he scanned the area in all directions at once using low powered radar to check for... what? There was never anything bigger than a monkey within his scanning range. Either there was nothing else out there, or it was keeping just ahead of his ability to detect. Switching to his crude, but necessary, visual sensors, he began searching for the clearly identifiable colours which would indicate fruit.
Marking a likely spread of patterns that suggested a fruit tree, he pulled up an infra-red overlay, and, as expected, found it to be heaving with bright, warm life-signs. The frantic contortions, the twining, twisting bumps and bumbles of more than a handful of the heat traces suggested that not a few of the little devils were fornicating. As usual. If he could only grab one of these gormless, little monkeys it would feed his digestion reactor for a month, but it had been years since he had been able to trap game, and in any event, he was now all but resigned to a vegan lifestyle. Even as his systems failed, he grew more resigned to his inevitable death, and more compassionate towards the life around him.
With a lurch he trundled towards the fruit tree, picking up speed at a painfully slow pace until he hit the tree with his reinforced lower front. Heat traces scattered, leaping to neighbouring branches in the canopy, those interrupted in flagrante delicto, no doubt cursing him with their chattering nonsense, but he had no energy to waste right now on his aural circuits. The scoop he'd adapted around his chassis caught the falling fruit, and he set one of his helper claws the task of collecting and feeding these into the bio-reactor.
When all the fallen fruit had been collected, he backed up a dozen yards and took another run at the tree, repeating the harvesting process. But now when he tried to reverse, all he got in return was a grinding clunk, and the slow fade of dying signals from his tracked sub-assembly. He was crippled.
He took an entire minute to let this sink in. An eternity for a dying man. It was over. It might take weeks, months, or even years but he knew his death was as certain as if he had been struck by a meteorite.
Something struck him. Then there was another impact on his armoured shell. Seeing him trapped there, the monkeys had returned to their tree and, emboldened by his stillness, were pelting him with fruit. The beautiful little monsters were unwittingly doing him an enormous favour, buying him time to come up with a solution. And if there was a way out of this, a way to keep on living, then he, the last civilized being on this forsaken planet, would find it.
Long-Leap Scholar plucked another gawak fruit from the branch and, after a brief moral wrestling match, took a bite from it, as he mounted his lover, Tail-Sheen Joker, for the third time that morning. He dropped the rest of the morsel to the organic-metal hybrid below, as he slipped a thought into his paramour's mind. "I feel so sorry for it. Its people took the wrong road so very long ago."
Carefully I straightened my back and slowly stretched to remind myself where the pain was. It was everywhere.
Ahead of me was the ploughed soil from the day before, while behind me lay row upon row of planted seedlings. I fished around in my pocket for the last of the berries I'd kept from breakfast and threw a palm's worth into my mouth. I crunched on their tart skin and let out a satisfied moan as their moisture salved my tongue, “ah...” It had been an involuntary noise but suddenly I felt guilty. It wasn't that I was enjoying myself, it just sounded like I might be.
The quiet was shattered by a familiar shriek, “Slacking again? Slacking, you lazy pig? Just stuffing your face with berries and sleeping, eh?”
It was my wife, hands on hips, screaming at me. I didn't even need to look, I could see her vividly in my mind – head cocked sharply to the left, eyes slit, and phlegm dancing on her lower lip as she vented her fury. “You ever think how much it takes out of me to collect those berries? You ever wonder how hard a job I have forever seeing to your needs? No, you just tear everything from me and leave me with nothing but pain. Pain and disappointment. ”
When I turned to face her I saw row upon row of seedlings. Seedlings I had spent all day planting. Then I tilted my head up a little. Head haloed against the dusk, there was my wife. Behind her our home. Off to one side was the pile of lumber I needed to add the windows she wanted, and beside that the pipework which, once laid, would make give us indoor plumbing, fit to make anyone in town jealous. What more did she want?
Every little thing she wanted I gave her, or promised to give her, but I couldn't do it all at once, so sometimes I lied and made promises I couldn't keep right away. But that was normal, wasn't it? It was what everyone else did. If she wanted a sewing room she would get it, but first I would mark out the dimensions in the dirt and blame the weather for holding me back. Meanwhile I would see to the important jobs that fed us and kept the roof over our heads. I knew she didn't understand, so I kept quiet when she shouted. She was a good woman. It wasn't as if I wanted some timid mouse for a wife...
I looked her square in the face but all I could think of was the pure and simple love I had always felt for her. There had been nuances in our relationship but I was certain there had only ever been one important factor and that was that I loved her, and that in her way she loved me and wanted to see the best for both of us. She did not nag because she hated me, she nagged to make me love her more. This simple truth had buoyed me for fifteen years. It had kept me by her side in the rough shack that I had built, and then later in a rough house.
I idly wondered how it would be if I only grabbed her shoulders and shook her, would she admit my worth and see everything I'd given her? Or would she plunge a dagger in my heart and lap at my blood, then complain about the taste. I did not grab at her. I simply ached for her.
When she'd been a younger, she had turned heads wherever she'd gone. My heart welled up with pride knowing she was MINE. Now when I tried to meet her eye she looked over her shoulder and hollered, “Evan, get over here so you can look at your father.” My heart sank in my chest, though it had only a short drop left to fall.
Answering her call my son flew to his mother's side, skipping across the muddy earth to hug at her legs. He was thirteen and sickly, big boned but puny. I loved him dearly. I wanted to see him climb trees and stumble off rocks, roll in sand dunes and get bitten by dogs. Mostly though he kept by his mother's side. Now he glared at me without the slightest whiff of respect, utterly certain he would witness his mother humiliation of me yet again.
Now she threw down the sack of washing hung about her arm and stomped towards me, expression fierce but tinged with eager humour for the entertainment she was about to have. When she was directly in front of me she turned to our son and jabbed a wicked finger at him.
“Look at your poor boy!” she said. “Are you looking at him?” She was almost laughing. “If he ever turns into half the failure you are I'll crack his head open with a shovel.” She turned to our boy, “You hear me, Evan? I'll split your head with a shovel and you should thank me for it. You'll thank me, won't you precious?”
“Yes mama,” he said and a little something died in me. “I don't want to be like daddy.” he said, and the remainder also expired.
"I've done my best.”
“I've made sacrifices to see you have enough.”
“I have never put myself before either of you.”
“The only important thing in my life and that is my family. My family!”
“If only you had...”
I could have said any of this, but I didn't. I shrugged my shoulders, turned my palms up and shook my head. Surely she could understand the circumstances I was up against, the conditions I faced. She must have a clue what I had to put up with.
Of course she didn't. SHE was what I had to put up with.
“It'll be night soon so get a move on. Look at your wife and your baby out here freezing. I'm not hanging around here while you day-dream.” She beckoned our son to her. “Evan, you can come in when your father is finished, and pray he doesn't slack and keep you out here too long, so you catch a chill. He won't make you freeze, if he loves you.”
There was no way I could be finished tonight. She assumed I would strive to do what she told me to, just as I had for years. All I could imagine was telling her “no” or “you do it”. I almost laughed out loud at the thought. “Yes, dear.” I said. “Yes, dear.”
Eyes slit, brow furrowed, she looked me up one last time before turning back towards our house. She set off at a brisk pace, pulling her clothes about her. It WAS getting cold.
I shouted at her. “Wait,” I said, then “WAIT!” so she could hear me.
She turned and fixed her beady eyes on me. I felt naked under her gaze, standing there in the middle of a half-planted track of mud up to my knees in dirt. “Wait,” I said again and started towards her. Her face turned mask-like and she came charging back at me, not a word said.
We met close together, some hundred yards from Evan who stood confused by my defiance. I stopped when she was a half dozen steps away but she barreled on until her face was square against my chest, peering upwards.
“What are you playing at?” she spoke through clenched teeth. “Are you trying to make me look like a fool in front of my son? Haven't you ruined his life enough?”
There was so much I wanted to say but it was all mixed and jumbled in my head. I wanted to tell her we were finished, that I would make a new life for myself, and she must do the same. We would make new homes away from each other and find work. Perhaps in time we would raise different children.
“We are finished.” was all I managed to say.
She bent her head up towards me and sneered, “we are finished when I say we are finished.”
I wanted to pull her close but was afraid she would struggle and one of us would be hurt. Instead I just shook my head and said “We ARE finished. I love you but I no longer love being in love with you.”
She stared at me blankly. “What kind of addled-brained manure is that?” she said. “You have responsibilities here. What about your baby? What about me? If you can't even think about me, at least think about your son. I've always known this was coming but he is just a poor innocent child.”
I struggled to find the words I needed, but she took my silence as defiance. “So how will it feel to make his life miserable?” she asked. “Oh, I know you're just hurting him to make me miserable. You've always tried to hurt me, but I was always too strong. I knew how to handle you, how to ignore your petty cruelty.”
She started stabbing her forefinger into my shoulder, “How does it feel to be found out? How is it to be discovered, discovered and exposed as a craven rat?”
It felt good.
“And what will you do now,” she asked. “Where will you go? Who will take you in?” She clenched her face like a fist and spat out, “You are not welcome here any more!”
I turned and walked away, but something in the noise she made and something else, something growing in me, made me turn to face her again. She was about ten feet away from me. I took the seed bag from over my shoulder and threw it at her feet. I closed the distance between us pretty quick, my knuckles tight white on the seed drill in my hand like a spear.
I pushed it into her hand. “Set the seedlings within the next few days,” I said. “I paid extra for good stock, so it will be a good harvest if you're smart.” Still I wanted to stretch my hand to her face and stroke her cheek. Let her know I still loved her despite everything. I could not.
“What do you think you're going to do?” She asked. She was bewildered. Just the tone of her voice twisted my guts. She wasn't the strong arrogant bitch I knew. Now I could hear the little girl in her that I hadn't heard for years.
I took my chance and hugged her. Over her shoulder I saw my son, looking flabbergasted, and I winked at him.
I pulled myself away from my wife but leaned my face close to her. “I shall leave. I shall go away from here, far away from you. You don't need to think about my failings any more.”
“It was not always bad,” she said. “We could talk about this tomorrow. We'll go inside.”
“Come inside,” she said, “or I will drag you in. You're not staying out here at your leisure. You've work to do. You have responsibilities!”
I tried to turn but she was holding me now. I wanted to find something of the past within her eyes but all I could see was desperation, and not a trace of innocence. The girl I had known was long gone. I wondered then, as I looked into her faded, beautiful face and ached to kiss her, I wondered if she ever looked at me and ached for what I had been. And then I wondered if either of us truly ached, or did we simply mistake the hole where familiarity had been, for pain.
“If your mind is made up.” She shrugged, at last, but her gaze held me. “Where will you go, and when”
“I will be leaving now.” I said. It was getting on for pitch black and the stars were out. I pointed up, towards the night sky. “I shall jump away from here and seek a new life for myself on another world.”
At first she was puzzled, then she began to laugh. And as she continued to laugh, I also laughed a little. “If I can,” I said, “I may come back to see how you are. I...I cannot be sure it will possible.” I reached for her again, but the moment we'd shared was over and she slapped my hands away.
“You're going to run off to another world? Fine, my darling. Just promise you'll pay us some thought when you get there.” Hands on hips now, face screwed up, no longer pretty. “Don't worry, your son and I will be right here, unless we get the notion to go traveling the night sky to pay hither and yon a visit. Be sure to make an appointment before you come back from your little adventure, because I surely don't know where I might be when you decide to return.”
“I'll be going then,” I said.
“Fine!” she said, her voice rising to a shriek. “You take care. Be sure, your dinner will be wrapped and ready for you when you get back.”
She was not going to take me seriously and with a heavy heart I turned away, looked to the black night sky, sucked in my breath and began to run.
I ran for the bright stab of light in the night sky where I'd find a ready junction to the rest of the Galaxy. Fifty yards I ran and then I leaped at the sky, arms stretched to their limits and legs exploding like massive springs beneath me. My wife and son were watching though, so it was not to be and I stumbled and drove my face into the mud, slammed my shoulder hard against the dirt and felt my back twist hard on the impact.
I lay and groaned and whimpered but above the pain I could hear my wife and boy near bursting with laughter, fat with mirth.
“Oh, you nearly had it” she said.
“Is daddy on another world now?” my son cruelly asked.
I stood up, more hurt than I wanted to show. I felt ashamed, and wanted to hide myself away. I wanted to go somewhere to lick my wounds, to think about the day, and tomorrow I would come back to make peace with my family.
“Have a good trip?” shrieked my wife, laughing so hard she was exhaling snot.
“Daddy! Daddy! What do we look like from up there?” My son, squealing with delight.
And that was that.
I squared my shoulders, even as I turned my back on them again. There was the bright spot of light I had set my course on. There I would meet cultured folk just like myself.
I set off at a lope, building to an awkward painful gallop and eventually pushed myself to a blistering, excruciating sprint. I could still hear the choking laughter. My eyes and mouth were slitted, intense with concentration. Out of the field and halfway down the straight of what had been an ancient road, some seven hundred yards from home, now I reached my top speed and sprang for the sky.
I made a clean break with the ground and clawed further into the sky, pumping my arms and shoulders until I was a thousand feet above the earth. My momentum carried me on for another thousand feet but the temperature dropped rapidly and the thin air was already making me light-headed.
I don't know why it was, but I looked to the deep of space and knew I would not break free from the earth's jealous grip today. Already I was losing speed, and would, like as not, fall back soon enough. But still I wind-milled my body upward.
Ice clung to my clothes and body but it didn't matter. My teeth chattered and I let loose a stifled yell of freedom, and escape. Soon I couldn't move or feel my limbs, so caked in ice were they. Weighed down by the mass of frozen moisture, I reached the apogee of my escape attempt. Too soon. I crested an invisible peak and began to gather speed as I fell back towards the ground.
I accelerated towards the earth even as my clothes whipped away and the ice melted off my skin. I had a thought just before I hit the ground. Hopefully it wasn't very important.
The earth cratered about my landing site, pummeling a me-shaped hole into the ground, and raising a shower of dirt all about.
I wasn't surprised to survive the landing. You get used to these things. What did surprise me, as I lay prone and naked at the bottom of a shallow crater, was that people should find me so quickly. I must have crashed near a village, or town. It didn't really matter. Once I was fully recovered I would make my excuses and leave.
Then, there she was, crouched over me. I had never in my life seen anything so beautiful. Pure concern was written across her strangely wonderful, almond face. I winked at her and she smiled. It never occurred to me how horrible it must have seemed to have the pulpy mess that was now my face, awkwardly, and painfully, close an eye in her direction. Yet, it appeared to charm her. She whispered something at me in an odd language. Not so much whispered as cooed, and not so much that, as gently stroked my ear drums with her soothing, foreign babble. Like her, it was alluring,
I smiled back and hoped there weren't too many teeth missing for now. Somehow I managed to reach out a hand and stroke her cheek. She giggled and turned her head just so, and I knew then, without a shadow of a doubt that this was the woman I would settle down with and raise my children.
This time it was going to work.
Sunday, August 30, 2009
Sven was holding the wide, open end of a drinking horn to the side of his polished iron helmet. He held it out for Lars to inspect. "It's something I'm working on. Imagine a horn on either side."
"It's certainly a look." Lars said, sceptically.
"You really need to see it with both horns in place. It'll make me look like a bull, it will."
"A bull?" Lars asked. "Why?"
"It's ferocious!" Sven exclaimed, shaking the helmet and horn in Lars' direction. "Watch out, I'm charging, see?"
"They're only going to get stuck on things. Suppose you were ducking through a doorway and they got tangled in the frame. You could get a nasty neck strain. You don't want to go raiding and come back hurt, do you?"
"No, I suppose not," Sven said, crestfallen.
"You could put ears on the helmet," Lars said. "Like a wolf. Make them floppy so they don't catch."
Sven tried to picture this in his head. "Floppy ears? That's not very frightening is it?"
"Wolves are scary," Lars assured him. "And they're carnivores, not like bulls. Bulls eat grass for Odin's sake."
"With a pair of floppy ears on my helmet, people might think I'm a dog." Father Peter perked up and fixed his sole rheumy eye on Sven, waiting to see where this was going. "Which is fine," Sven added. "Dogs can be tremendously ferocious, but if I was going with ears, I'd want to be sure people knew I was a wolf."
"You could write 'wolf' on the front of the helmet. People'd know then."
"Now, you didn't think that through, did you, Lars? We're up and down the coasts of Ireland, Britain, Europe. All with their different languages. I'd be having to keep track of where we're going to be and what the local translation for 'wolf' is. Managing that would be a perfect nightmare."
Lars nodded. "It's always the paperwork that catches you out," he said, forlornly. "What if you drew a pic-"
"You've put me right off the idea now, to be honest," Sven said, setting the helmet and horn aside. "So, you ready for the raid tomorrow?"
"You bet," said Lars. "Plenty of pillaging, eh?"
"Oh, yes. But not just the pillaging. We don't just go for the pillaging, do we? I mean specifically, I'm not there for the pillaging so much as for the-"
"That's actually, why I'm here," Lars interrupted. "The pillaging? The pillaging, I'm comfortable with. But the other... suppose it was your sister, what then?"
"I don't have a sister," Sven said, confused.
"Your mother then."
"My mother? What, doing it?"
"No!" Lars said. "Having it done to-"
"MY MOTHER?" Sven shouted. His whole body began to shake, his eyes bulged and his fists bunched, as he worked himself into a frenzy.
Lars frantically searched for a shield his berserking friend could chew on, but stopped when he realised the truth. "Quit laughing," he said. "I'm serious."
"Oh, come on, Lars." Sven said, having regained control. "I mean... my mother? I love her dearly but, can you imagine? Now Sigursen's mother, that I could imagine."
"Sigursen's mother?" Lars asked, wistfully. "I think we could all imagine that."
"Imagining that got me through puberty," Sven said. "In the nicest possible way, she's a very easy woman."
The pair allowed their thoughts to drift a while, then Lars took another tack. "Remember when Ulrich borrowed Bo's massive boar to cover his sow? That year his piglets were twice the size they were the year before. Do you see what I'm getting at?"
"Oh, I do," Sven said. "And you're going too far. Not with pigs, Lars. Never with pigs... remember the time we landed in France and all the women had gone? Big Alfrik had his way with the goat, remember? We made terrible fun of him about that."
"That's not what I mean," Lars said. "And we wouldn't have given Alfrik such a hard time if the goat hadn't looked so bored. Quite frankly I don't know which of them I was more embarrassed for."
"We didn't eat Alfrik, so he probably had the best of it."
"The point I was trying to make," Lars persevered, "was that by spreading our Viking seed to all the peasants we're raiding, we're going to make them bigger and stronger. What are we going to do in the future when boatloads of huge peasants, harbouring years of anger, turn up on our shores?"
Sven rose from his seat and took his battle-axe from where it hung on the wall. "I don't know about that," Sven said, running his thumb along the edge of the blade, "I don't know about enormous boars, or Viking seed, but do you know what I do know? I'll tell you, shall I?"
Sven slapped the flat of the axe into his huge hand. Lars said nothing, waiting for him to continue.
"If those boatloads of giant peasants come to my land, all fired up with Viking blood surging through their veins and intent on paying us back for years of honest raiding, do you know who will be waiting on the beach, ready to deal with them?"
Lars nodded and, together, they said: