#Rule 1

silences

Everyone knew Rule Number 1.

A soft evening light had curled along the back of the sofa. Adam caught at it with his fingers,‘Don’t play the innocent child with me, you know damn well that avoiding the bad things is all we care about.’

‘So why do I still feel like I’m failing some kind of test?’

‘It’s always that way with belief,’ the older man turned away, gathering his things, ‘once you get that, it’s easy.’

‘And you expect me to accept that this life is the culmination of hundreds… no thousands,’ he almost laughed, ‘possibly millions of lives, that I’ve lived before?’

‘Sure, why not.’

‘So it IS some kind of test then?’

Adam knocked the words back with his finger, ‘How many times do I have to say this? One, ten, a thousand… even a million, would make no difference. Each life is a new beginning. The first is always the last, and the last is always the first.’

His companion looked genuinely worried, ‘That’s why there’s no memory?’

Adam smiled like there was nothing remotely weird about what he was saying, ‘Absolutely. And because there’s no memory, there’s no test. You can’t fail at being you, because you’ve never been ‘You’ before.’

‘Okay…’ the younger man wrapped his mouth awkwardly around the words, ‘but if there’s never been any memory, and there’s never been a ‘Me’ before… not for any of us, then logically, there can be no witnesses either?’

‘Yes, that’s right,’ Adam absentmindedly checked his phone.

‘So, if there are no witnesses, then how come you know so much about it?’

And a silence, deep and dark, filled the space where forbidden words had been spoken.

EVERYONE knew Rule Number 1.

 silent-hedges

 

 

A man with seaguls

She touches her fingers to his for as long as he will bear them, ‘Hey, I meant to tell you earlier, Poppy painted a picture at nursery today.’

‘You peddle words like they would call him back,’ he shuffles on the path, white slippers catching at the stones, ‘but he is set free. Why would he return to the wasteland of your suburbia?’

‘She said it was you,’ she smiles anyway, ‘and actually, I can see where she’s coming from, in a primary, dribble down the paper with a blunt object kind of way.’

‘Where do you want him? Where is he in this?’ he smacks the palm of his hand into a long scar that cuts through his hairline, ‘Where is he in this utopia of you?’

The wind stirs up the bones of empty trees. She stoops, picking up a silver remnant, another bastard reminder of that November night, ‘She even gave it a title, A man with seagulls.’

He pauses, tilting his head to catch her words and her breath is burnt away in the sweet of his familiar. He leans in, conspiratorially, ‘Man, men, mice, a misplaced piss, a strange choice of water bottle and they rapture, they have no idea that it’s really them who run on the wheel.’

Grief, vicious at her flesh. Even the scent of him has been sanitised away, ‘She wanted me to give it to you…’

‘They don’t know that the cage has bars on the inside. Locks on the inside. They are the caged, they are the rats,’ he laughs, spinning away from her, stumbling as his slippers lag behind with the stones, ‘they are the watchers, watched.’

‘But they say you can’t be trusted with anything,’ the bullets still ricochet, ‘…not even your daughter’s painting.’

‘You’re not welcome here you know,’ he stumbles again, ‘he won’t tell you, but you make him sick. Sketching out Foucault in the charcoal of your conformed normality. You make him vomit.’

The madness of mankind had scattered his sanity. And now it seemed that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put him back together again. Tears can burn like anger in the meaningless. In the desolate. She closes her eyes and feels them die away, ‘I asked the staff if they would put Poppy’s painting up in the main corridor instead.’

He turns, stooping, whispering back through her words.

‘And then everyone who sees it will remember that the world isn’t ready yet,’ she watches him curl, twist again into winter, ‘not for a man with seagulls.’

Signposts

Mind flickers fluorescent. On. Off. On. Off. The snap of plastic, sharp in the air. Soiled. Another broken picture show. Another broken streetlight. Another broken stranger. We catch water in a paper cup from the segregated graveyard. Where are the signposts in this land? We break. We crawl. We stand. We fall. We crawl. We break.

‘It’s not so bad,’ whispers legion, ‘not so bad here.’

A peeling poster grips the floor. Gravity always has its own agenda.

 

Cut along the L. ‘Is that my name?’

‘Mr Tuesday?’ The door shut over her voice, but she waits anyway. There is no Mr Tuesday here. Camouflaged in the bamboo of shadow, she calls out again, ‘Mr Tuesday?’

No one wants this name. It’s a nice name. Perhaps it could be our name? Snatching twists punctuation into the neat little row of 17 green chairs, ‘I’ll have it!’

Her smile is, cold, alone, ‘Have you returned all the pens, Mr Tuesday?’

‘Is this my jacket?’ we are feeling for pockets that might be there, ‘I don’t seem to know.’

She sighs like we have done this a thousand times, ‘Do you want me to check?’

A moth is circling the moon. Burn. Burn. Burn. I’ll have it,’ our lips are working her harmony around the words. No more signposts. In this land. Don’t tell.

‘They will just search your room again you know,’ she taps her foot tunelessly on peppered vinyl, ‘and that’s wasting everyone’s time.’

‘Can I have some tea?’

 

Cut along the O. ‘Is that my name?’

An old woman stares empty at the TV, clutching a teddy bear close to her chest. I was a person once, now legion breathe with my lungs. A piece of rubber stranded between the pale forest legs. It was a shoe once. Everything was something, once.

Rain on glass. Fallen leaves on fairy lights. There were signposts… once, we remember, ‘Can I have some tea?’ we ask the blue overall, ‘Can I have some tea?’

‘You had your tea 10 minutes ago.’

The fluorescent flickers, ‘….Can I have some tea?’

 

Cut along the S. ‘Is that my name?’

‘Do you remember me?’ she is pleading for an answer with her pretty eyes, ‘Do you remember?’

‘Yes,’ we remember, ‘I have returned all the pens.’

She smiles, warm, searching, ‘Dad, I miss you so much.’

Dad? The moon burns down to the wick. Black smoke….  …. I remember… There are fairy lights. Hidden in the cellar. Don’t tell. About the signposts.

 

Cut along the T. ‘Is that my name?’

Blinds run sideways, keeping the dark out. Necklaces strung like fairy lights……. She is crying…. Don’t tell…….I….. I…………. There are fairy lights. Legion say. In the cellar.

 

Legion say, ‘But don’t tell about signposts……….  or we will all be lost.’

‘Is that my name?’

 

Game of dice 

The outcast of carrion rises, curing a smile with the salt of his words, ‘You would risk everything?’

‘Yes.’

‘And you are certain that you would leave the terms of your defeat to me?’

‘I am certain.’

A laugh, gaseous and fetid, seeps through the tenure of agreement, ‘Then you are a fool, for only a fool is certain of anything.’

She turns an arc, stirring dust into the desert, ‘Do you seek to mock me now?’

‘You would speak of mocking, to me?’ The Tick. Tick. Tick. Of the clock, falls silent with his question.

She does not answer.

‘Then perhaps this is just another shattered grail to you?’ Familiar, cool cotton rain falls, temperate. A blind drawn backwards across the sun, ‘So many have narrated my form around that sniveling companion.’

Still she does not answer.

Teeth snap at the air, blood on black, ‘Tell me at least why you would chose dice as mechanism for this game? Why not a game of skill where the odds can be woven closer around your skills?’

She finally lifts her head, her eyes raw, ‘It seems that chance is the only truth left now.’

‘Then we are done with talking, make your choice.’

‘It is for you to choose,’ she waits even then, for another way.

But there is none. The words ooze suit from the fat of his pale lips, ‘I choose, Even.’

‘Then,’ she sighs, ‘Odd is mine.’

The die are cast.

Thrown.

6 in 12.

A shift.

Too small to catch.

Missed between thumb and finger.

Both fall.

Scattered and discovered.

Made again with the ragged dots of bone.

The numbers.

The fates.

Skip.

Slow.

Settle.

EVEN.

He tilts his head, flicking his tongue around the maggots of her flesh, his blood drawn raptor by the sweet of it, ‘I win!’

‘So it is,’ she whispers. But it is her unspoken words that writhe poison in the pastures of his bloated victory.

He recoils, ‘What is this flavour, this scent of grey treachery in your loss?’

But she is already breaking.

Wing on stone. She breaks. Wing on stone. She is lost.

Dying, again.

Beginning, again.

A new earth. She forgets again. That there was once a winner. In this game of dice.

 

 

Gallery

The door whispers. A woman speaks, ‘Ethan is so busy building his empire, he forgets his manners,’ The crow circles. Darkness between the couple. She takes the young woman’s arm, ‘Come my dear, I have something to show you.’

He is young again. Hesitant. His face hidden behind soft ribbons of hair.

‘Hurry up child!’

He remembers her hands. Rough on his. Lifetimes. Mapped out, drawn, painted, sealed beneath the yellowed varnish of this hallway. Just one word. An oath sworn.

A soft hiss of tapestry on oak. A dagger through his thoughts. He runs at her, taking her shoulders. Forcing her back against the wall, ‘I told you never to follow me.’

‘But you were gone so long,’ she moves her body into his anger, ‘and I got tired of waiting,’

‘I’m sorry,’ he tempers his strength, steering her towards the concealed door. Guiding her way back. Holding the leash of his rage tight.

But she slips away from him. Dancing. Pirouetting into the long room, ‘I thought you had a dungeon or something hidden back here,’ the tips of her fingers are curling a smile around her mouth, ‘but it’s just a gallery, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.’

‘Did I say I was ashamed?’ He grabs at her. Playfully. Deliberately. And she folds into his body.

‘Are they all paintings of your family?’

‘No… Yes.’

‘No and Yes? You drive me wild with your enigma, Ethan.’

‘Yes, they are my family.’

‘They are all so…’ she tilts against his chest, ‘I mean usually there’s something like a massive nose or receding chin in common, some blood born connection. But these look more like a bunch of random strangers that someone pulled off the street. That’s so weird.’

Frozen in time. Another. Another. Unmoved. Untouched by her words.

‘Weird and dead, that’s my family all over.’ He wraps his arms tight around her, ‘Come on, let’s go make some noise in the music room.’

‘Except for the peacock blue of their eyes,’ her smile lights slowly, ‘and I thought you were the only one.’

The first wave of panic. Biting. Breaking across his chest, ‘No,’ he whispers, ‘I won’t let this happen.’

‘So strange…’ she pulls away, caught by the shimmer. Blue to green. Green to blue. And she sighs.

‘Sarah, I mean it, we need to leave before it’s too late.’

‘What do you mean, too late?’ Her fingers still held to her mouth.

And he feels it. Bite in him. Drag in him. Burn in him. Ropes. Chains through his blood. Just one word. An oath. The last to rot here is the first to rot here. The culmination and the destruction. It curls in his throat. Growls at the moon. The sum of it all. Just one word.

‘Too late to leave,’ he says.

But his words come late.

The door whispers.

He whispers.

‘Yes.’

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing

The small print wasn’t even small when you made a deal with the devil. So why did people still sign up? The question had lived inside his head for as long as he could remember.

He took another drink and looked up at the disc of silver light that hung just above the horizon. Bathing in the reflected fury of a distant star, the lonely satellite crawled a path around its protector. It was nothing but a second hand jewel, an enslaved rock, and yet its mass was enough to drag the tides of the planet below. He squinted, holding the moon between his fingers. Perspective pulled it all down to flesh and blood, and flesh and blood pulled it all down to time.

Everything that had been before was gone. Time was illusion. The beginning and end of everything, wars, famine, disease were nothing. They fell like the insignificance of raindrops on an infinite ocean.

They were nothing.

But those billions upon billions upon billions of tiny drops of nothing also made up the ocean. Without even one of them that ocean of nothing would be a different place. Change one drop of nothing and you could change everything. And suddenly, each drop was the most important thing in the universe, without it the universe would be gone.

He had realised the implications when he agreed to sign the contract.  Touch one part you touched it all, move just one part of nothing and… The knock on effect was incredible.

Time had a suggestion of Lycra about it. People went around treating it like it would hold its shape no matter how many times you washed it. But it was more like the George Bailey scenario than they had ever imagined. That whole town had re-shaped because one man had never been born. The film had set its boundaries around Bedford Falls, and no one got to see what happened outside of that sweet shop utopia. Throw a stone into the water and the ripples grow bigger as they fly away from the centre. A butterfly flaps its wings and on the other side of the world a mountain crumbles.

He emptied his glass and turned back to his desk. It wasn’t complicated, it was just pyramid selling with time. And once this contract kicked in, the moon was in for a shock. Everyone was. He flicked his eyes over the parchment. He’d been in marketing for years and this was pretty standard stuff. Hyper realism at its best, the whole industry was built on the damn stuff. Give them what they want in a way they don’t expect, no wonder the world was in such a bloody mess. Even the putrid spewings of politics had been vindicated by that rag-tag line.

The best part of this was that the man had come to him. His pathetic flesh crawling with desire, begging for that one selfish thing that felt like nothing.

He grinned, in a way he’d miss the Human Race, he’d have to go a long way to find another species so wrapped up in perceived reality. But hey, a deal was a deal, there was no going back now. And how did that old saying go?

The Devil is always in the Detail. 

Normal

Nothing about this was normal. But then, that was Normal all over. Most people didn’t realise that the damn thing had been hanging out with them until it buggered off. Waking up to find a recycling bin rammed through the windshield of your second hand BMW and a dollop of sketchy looking poo sliding majestically down the inside letterbox was a boot camp reminder of how fickle a companion normal could be.

See, that was the other bastard thing about normal- you could only measure it by its opposite. Which always felt like a kind of roundabout way of doing things. Conner looked over at the man perched perkily on the edge of his favourite chair. Good old normal had its non-descript fingers in every pie imaginable. It had happily skipped with him through long, golden days and it had cowered with him under the duvet as the black dog paced the dark halls of his mind. It was littered across the monochrome grey of scarlet battlefields and feathered with the peacock colours of love. In a line up, normal would stand, perplexedly overlooked and ordinary next to the average looking guy, while whispering corrupted stars into the ears of the serial killer.

Conner cleared his throat, ‘Well I for one need a cup of tea, can I get you anything?’ he ran his hands over his face, feeling unwelcome stubble catch at his fingertips. The man certainly looked better, there was a healthy colour to his cheeks and he sat with an annoying authority that made Conner feel decidedly uncomfortable. The prospect of an ambulance being the solution to all his problems was rapidly fading along with the evening light. Even the most tolerant of paramedics would look unkindly on him calling them out to a patient who vaulted onto the stretcher as they arrived through the doorway. He just had to keep reminding himself that whatever happened, he was not answerable to this stranger.

‘The outline of civilisation scours chalk from willow fingers…’ the man spoke softly, threading the line like poetry. His voice also cut out the middle man and interfaced directly with Conner’s brain.

Good old normality eh? It was so easy to overlook just how great it was until it had thanked the crowd and gone for a drink at the hospitality bar. People talked about weird shit like telepathy, but no one actually believed it was real. Conner battled on, ‘I have Darjeeling, Earl Grey, Green, White… Peppermint?’ Strictly speaking, Peppermint wasn’t a real tea, but these were desperate times.

‘Specters of acrid hope.’

Conner laughed easily, but it was the daisy chain laugh of a deceiver, ‘Is that some kind of Himalayan blend?’ He had never been so freaked out in all his life.

‘Snakes of peroxide venom are the martyred weavers.’

‘I have decaff if you’d rather?’

The man twisted his head like a bird, ‘Sanctuary and oblivion flicker with the same tepid fires.’

The words roamed around inside Conner’s mind, trying to find a purchase of understanding. He grinned hopefully, ‘I’ll put the kettle on then shall I?’

In the relative safety of the kitchen, Conner leaned against the dishwasher and wondered if the milk was still in date. He wished he had an answer for what the hell was happening here, but he didn’t. He just had tea. And tea would have to do because tea was normal. And in all honestly, normal was the only thing left to hold onto in situations like this.

 

 

 

 

The island

The island was exactly 50 paces across. Not so strange in itself, except that it didn’t seem to matter which direction Seth went in or what size steps he used, the land always ran out on that 50th step.

He wriggled his toes in the clear water and looked up at the sky. It was almost noon and time for the weekly food drop off. Lately he had admitted to feeling almost excited at the thought of company. But he also knew that with each encounter came a curious sort of emotional hangover which had become harder and harder to shift.

Sentenced to solitary confinement for heinous and unforgivable crimes,’ Seth winked, ‘I mean, come on you have to admit it has a nice ring to it.’ There was no one around to agree with him, but he laughed anyway. He’d found that talking to the empty sea made more sense than talking to himself. What he wouldn’t give now for the flash of silver fish, the music of birds… even a tree to hug. But there was nothing else on this damn island, nothing. There was just Seth.

In those first few months he’d been so angry, throwing himself into escape plans and building life rafts out of his torrid dreams. But the truth was that there was nowhere to run to, not even death. And when that desperate day finally came, the same sea that had offered him oblivion had just washed him ashore, broken and screaming with rage. He sighed, it was obvious now that his anger had at least been something meaningful, because it was the damn fading of it that had finally shipwrecked him on this wasteland of sanity. 

The familiar grating noise that tasted of lemons and made his ears pop, pulled him from his thoughts. He took a deep breath and turned, knowing there was no time for his usual contrived politeness, ‘When I stepped through the gate, and I crossed the border into this world, I knew that the killings would stop. But, but I didn’t think, I didn’t expect, that it would be…’ He looked up at the shape, hiding in the shadows.

‘You didn’t expect it to be you?’ the dark figure swapped the empty packet of food tablets for a full one before turning away. 

‘Wait,’ Seth scrabbled forward, ‘can’t I at least have another jailer? Someone less…’

‘Evil?’

‘Familiar,’ Seth gave a jovial little shrug.

‘You’re the crime, the carrier and the final sentence,’ the figure said, ‘That’s whole the point of this place. You decide your own fate and then you enforce it.’

Seth fought against the urge to make a break for the open door, this was the one brief moment of interaction left in his world of isolation and he wasn’t going to waste it, ‘At least tell me how this 50 paces thing works?’

‘It works because you’re cruel.’

The door had begun to count down, there were only a few seconds left, ‘Come on, give me a clue at least?’

‘Look at what’s fixed,’ the figure said, stepping through the fading door.

Seth sank down onto the sand, ‘Of course, it’s the damn number that is fixed, not the pace.’ And there it was, his punishment laid out for him in the plainest of terms. One pace for each year on the island. And the lengths he went to in order to change that were irrelevant.

He couldn’t help feeling a flicker of admiration. The nature of the torment was slow burning and brutal. There was no doubting it now, the person who had designed this prison was a real arsehole.

p1020056a

This story came out of a conversation with the lovely and wildly talented, Matthew over at  Twisted roads of madness . He had just posted a 50 word story based around a prompt, and his creation, Border, was so brilliant that I couldn’t wait to read the expanded version. Instead of dropping everything and immediatly penning a masterpiece as was my want, Matthew suggested that I too could write an extended version based on his 50 word story. What a meanie eh? 

You can read Matthew’s expanded story here 

 

 

End of days

The sky boiled, spewing a caustic mirror across the broken city. As the young man lowered his hood, Isaac felt the familiar taste of shame stir in him. Rain had blown in through the open window and soaked the edge of the curtain in a yellow slime. The mustard coloured residue was all that remained now of that final attempt halt the pandemic. He made a despairing kind of noise, ‘Do you wanna know what I miss the most?’

‘I need to change,’ the boy said without lifting his head.

‘Video games,’ Isaac grinned, ‘and damn lucky for us we had them eh? Forty quid and a mild vitamin D deficiency was a small price to pay considering the tactical training we got.’

The kid showed no sign of returning his mirth, ‘My clothes are soaked in blood.’

‘Oh… sure, of course.’

This survivor hadn’t really needed rescuing. The gory truth of that lay scattered across the pavement outside. But the day was leaking away and all light would be gone within the hour. It wasn’t safe to be outside at night, not even for a kid with that many weapons.

Isaac raked through his cupboard, pulling out a set of grey sports clothes, ‘I’ll try the phone again, you never know.’ There was no response from the young man but Isaac didn’t expect any, mostly he was talking to the situation. ‘I’m also gonna have a quick look around the rest of the building,’ he said, handing over the dry clothes along with another grin, ‘see if I can find anyone else still alive.’

The boy finally looked up, ‘I’ve seen you before,’ he said softly, ‘I know who you are.’

‘Yeah well, seems like I have one of those faces.’

‘Why do you do this?’

‘You want to question my motivation?’ Isaac pulled air into his lungs more out of habit than anything else, ‘Isn’t saving your life enough?’

‘No it isn’t, not any more.’

‘Yeah well,’ Isaac sighed, ‘I’ve spent all of my life defending Human Rights, I’m not gonna throw that away, not even now.’

‘So that’s why you rescue people is it, to kick against a system that no longer exists?’

‘Plus I’m a vegetarian,’ Isaac hauled open the re-enforced door that led through to the lounge. A glitter ball caught the light and span in a thousand mirrored colours, ‘Guys, we have a new arrival,’ he yelled above the music.

‘You’re crazy, you know that,’ the boy said.

‘Comes with the territory kid,’ Isaac grinned, ‘and I figure that if this is the end of everything, well then we may as well have a party.’

‘So this is what you do now, you round up the living and party?’

‘Pretty much,’ Isaac winked at him, at least it could have been a wink, it was hard to tell when the accompanying eyeball was hanging against his cheek, ‘I mean of course I tried to organise something with the other zombies to begin with, but seriously, they just hung around in the kitchen groaning and eating out of the bin. And trying to get them to dance, honestly kid, I may as well have been at a damn funeral.’

I’m mortal

Whim and blind rhetoric wound the warriors of death. From the dark folds of impenetrable storms they watched life bloom and ebb away in their own private picture show. But eternity is a bleak landscape and even malevolent gods grow tired of games. 

He fixed his eyes on the clock and watched the old day die. It was nothing now, just the manifest of a self-imposed duty and in the darkness he cursed the legacy of a habit never broken. How ironic that time had turned out to be so relentless in its efficiency? No more glorious permanence to laze around in. Entropy had arrived to spoil the party and in the waning hours it had turned out that his was the only song left on the Karaoke list.

Everything changed now. Everything. He stared out of the window and waited for the movement of the earth to show along the skyline before turning to face the wall. But even with that first light he didn’t sleep. He just wanted a change of perspective while he waited for the rest of the world to wake up.

By 7am a low mist had taken hold. He stepped through his front door like he was passing through a curtain. The air clung to his face and settled dark fingers along the rim of his shirt. He took a deep breath, holding the zoo of grey clouds inside his lungs for as long as he could. Sometimes the simple things were the worst.

His car was tucked against the car port. A crouched talisman that represented all the noble deeds he had done. Except that he didn’t live in a time of heroes anymore. Here in the mortal world the monsters had won and the knights of the new order wore a far more tarnished mask than the ones he remembered.

The roads were busy. By the time he’d reached the first roundabout they had slowed to crawl. In the distance some reclusive piper played. He tapped the dashboard and watched while the white dragon danced with the red. And all the time his wiper blades tracked a hypnotic path back and forth, back and forth.

Rain on glass. It was pretty mundane stuff but even after all this time, it was still utterly beautiful. He tilted his head to watch the water distorting the world into cubist shapes of pigment, and he watched as it filled up with blue. A moment in time where paths met and things had changed. He watched as life beat its gossamer wings against steel and tarmac.

‘How hopelessly fragile they are,’ he spoke the words softly as an ambulance squealed and wailed out a path behind him. And in his mirror he saw the traffic part like a biblical miracle.

It was Wednesday, and yet for the life of him all he could do was watch.