I had this idea crawling around my brain for ages, and even wrote sections of it and then deleted them on three separate occasions. Finally, I decided to do the thing and be done with it, bad or good. I think it actually turned out pretty good. The concept definitely worries me, that’s for sure. This will again be the last story for a little while, because I’m well on my way into a new novel. Enjoy!

Eraser

By Ben Pienaar

 

In the year 2045, a baby is born, wailing and screaming and flailing pudgy arms. The mother lets out a sigh and wipes the sweat from her face before promptly closing her eyes and going to sleep, while the doctor takes the baby into the next room. After cleaning and wrapping the squirming infant in a blanket and ensuring its health, the doctor, a middle aged man with a neutral expression, takes what appears to be a gun from his coat. He turns the baby onto its stomach and presses the wide, narrow barrel of the weapon to the baby’s head, at the point just where the brain stem meets the spinal cord. He pulls the trigger, and the baby falls dead silent mid scream. It will not scream again for another thirty two years.

 

Colin and Mike clock on at nine and start work beside each other. You’d think assembly work should have been a thing of the past since 2030 but in the end, nothing beats manual labour when you can get it so cheap. Not that either of them are complaining. Not that they’re doing anything besides standing next to each other and screwing the same bolts onto the same screws as they roll past over and over again. Neither has a concrete thought in mind, only a vague anticipation of what comes later.

After twelve hours (and no breaks) of uniform movement, neither so much as glancing up for a moment in that time, neither uttering a word or thinking anything more meaningful than a fleeting can’t wait! – they clock off and head straight for Reilly’s bar across the road.

First though, they stop off at Sina’s Taste Emporium, where Mike gets himself four beer chips and Colin gets two plus a chicken burger chip for dinner later. At the bar, they slide the first of their chips into one of the ten horizontal slots in the back of their necks and order the beers. They slide into a booth in the far corner, away from the music. When you don’t have the chip for it, music is just blaring noise.

‘I don’t know how you do it, man,’ Colin says these words, his first of the day, to his best friend after the beers arrive.

‘Do what?’

‘Only taste. And only drinks, too. I mean, doesn’t it get old by the time you hit beer number four?’

His friend takes a long draught and closes his eyes while the chip does its work. A small smile touches the corner of his dry lips. ‘The taste maybe,’ he says. ‘But I like to appreciate being drunk, too. Nothing worse than drinking beer after beer and feeling nothing until the hangover hits. Nah, if it’s taste you want, there’s only three ways to go: good wine, good scotch, and the sip of the first beer.’

‘So why you go the other three beers?’

‘For the sip of the last, just before the chip runs out and you’re good and buzzed. You should try it sometime.’

Colin shrugs and takes a swig himself. He has to admit, it feels good. Damn good. The past twelve hours are already blurring in his memory, another piece of his life he’ll never have to think about again. ‘One day, brother, I’m gonna save up five of the best and try em all at once.’

Mike laughs. ‘You’ll have a heart attack. And so will your bank account.’

He shakes his head, but it’s true. Thanks to popular demand touch alone is more expensive than all other four senses combined, and that’s only for the most basic pleasures. Taste, music, sight and smell follow in roughly that order. ‘I guess we’re living pretty good as it is,’ Colin says.

‘Besides, it’d be a waste. You plug in all five senses at once you won’t be able to concentrate on any of them, they’ll get in the way of each other. Nah, always better to try em one at a time. And you still gotta buy the product, don’t you? I’m gonna get myself a girl before I go anywhere near touch, and what the hell are we gonna look at, or listen to, in this city? I get one of those chips I wouldn’t even know where to start. That stuff’s for rich people, man.’

Colin nods and takes another drink. The chip makes sure he misses none of the rich hops or the smoothness or the way it slides down his throat. He sighs. A fight breaks out near the juke box and they turn in their seats to see a bony looking man with the build of a child on top of someone twice his size, pounding his face. A few others stare at them until security drags the maniac out and a medic goes over the other guy to make sure he’s not too badly hurt. He isn’t. He gets up with blood dripping from his nose and mouth and keeps drinking his beer, shaking his head.

‘Don’t see that every day,’ Colin says.

‘Yeah, guy must’ve taken some Rage.’

‘Weird. You’d think you go for Adrenaline at least, or Love, or hell, just raw endorphins.’

He turns back to see Mike staring at him like he’s mad. ‘Love?’ he says. ‘Man what planet you living on? You think that guy’s got the cash for that?’

Colin shrugs and orders them another two each with a hand signal. ‘True. Me, I’d rather save up for the good stuff than waste it on Rage.’

Mike chuckles and finishes his beer. ‘Yeah, you think it’s a waste, but wait till you’re twenty years older and still working in the factory. You go nuts to feel anything, my friend. Trust me.’

‘Oh yeah? So what do you take?’

‘You know me, I’m just a regular alcoholic. I like my fine wines and they can keep their fancy senses for themselves. But I’ll tell you one thing, I am saving up.’

‘Are you?’ Colin watches his friend over the brim of the glass and can’t help but feel one of the rare emotions not yet exploited: curiosity. He used to wonder why they hadn’t commercialised it yet, and then he realised that if no one was curious about what the senses were like, they’d never buy them.

‘Yes sir. I’m gonna buy myself some dreams. Really good ones, you know, like where I’m on a tropical island with some woman drinking mai thais and living it up. Long dreams.’

‘Why don’t you save up for the island and the woman instead?’

‘Because, man. Then I gotta afford the chips too, otherwise what’s the point. How am I gonna afford a week’s worth of chips running on all six cylinders? And they better be on all six, I’m not going on a holiday like that unless I enjoy every goddam second.’

‘Yeah, I guess. Dreams, though. I dunno.’

‘We all got dreams, my friend. I heard, you get a really good quality one it’s almost as good as the real thing. The way the guy explained it to me, the difference between drinking scotch and drinking watered down scotch. Still sounds alright.’

‘Maybe. I just don’t like the idea it’s not really… real. I sometimes feel like I’d rather have a beer without the beer chip, instead of the chip without the beer.’

Mike’s expression doesn’t surprise him. A beer without the chip is just water with a hangover. The chip is everything. Half the guys at the factory never even bought the product to go with it, would just buy a bunch of chips and load em up, one after the other, until their whole pay check was gone and it was time to get up and go to work. You still missed out on a lot that way but it was a hell of a lot cheaper.

‘It’s just at least it’s real, then. The beer…’ He’d just finished his second – and last – beer, so he picks up Mike’s glass and takes a long sip. ‘That’s the real deal. The taste,’ he taps his head, ‘is all in here.’

Mike snatches it back, looking offended. ‘If you say so, buddy. Me personally?’ He closes his eyes and downs the whole thing in one and wipes his mouth. ‘I’d be happy if they just gave me one chip and made it reusable.’

‘Guess which one?’ Colin says, and they laugh, both of them feeling more than anything grateful for the laughter, that they can still do that at least, without paying.

 

Colin leaves first, looking forward to that chicken burger, and chucks his used up chips in the can outside for recycling. The second beer and chip are gone, but the buzz he feels will continue until it wears out naturally. Usually the walk home is his favourite part of the night for that reason, that warmth in his head, but tonight it’s drizzling and he’s hungry. Hell, maybe he’ll save the dinner chip for tomorrow and just gorge himself on the tasteless stuff and fill his belly.

He’s a step from passing the alley between Fragrance and the Thriller bar when a hand reaches from the dark and grabs his arm, pulling him into the dark. He brushes it off, mildly annoyed. It was this kind of thing that made him think the Protesters for Free Adrenaline had a point. If this guy stabbed him, he would die. Fight or Flight was a thing of the past, though admittedly it had done wonders for the population problem.

The guy himself is short and wiry with a wild red beard, and almost immediately Colin recognizes him as the guy they’d thrown out of the bar for fighting earlier. His eyes are wide and mad, and Colin wonders what kind of chip he’s got in the back of his head right now. Probably adrenaline, or more rage.

‘Hey pal, wanna see something cool?’ He grins crookedly. Colin stares back, unsure what to say. He might not be afraid but he’s still got some survivor instinct, so he tries to pull away.

The guy wrenches him forward and brings his face close, breathing hard. Colin finds himself extremely glad he can’t register smells. ‘I gotta make someone else like me, man. I don’t think you’ll like it at first, but I gotta do it.’

‘You’re insane,’ Colin says.

The guy laughs and his throat sounds raw, like he’s been shouting a lot. ‘Oh yeah, baby, I’m insane alright! I’m drunk and high and I don’t got a chip to my name, son. It’s all free, all the time, every day. And it ain’t all good, believe me, but it’s all good. Know what I mean?’

His grip is so tight the circulation is cut off to Colin’s arm, and the guy’s practically hanging off it. No escape likely, unless he can talk him down somehow, or just wait it out. The guy stares into his eyes again and chuckles, shaking his head. ‘Oh boy it’s just like I was, just like I was. Tell you what, man.’ He whips out a square metal object about the size of a pack of cigarettes. It glistens in the rain, featureless and smooth. Colin has no idea what it is.

‘I got a whole stash of these just down this alley,’ he says. ‘There’s a door that goes into the back of Thriller. I used to work there, see, and I lived down in the basement only no one knew. Used to experiment, trying to make new chips and senses, and then I made a whole crate of these bastards once I found out what they could do.’ The hand holding the square is shaking as he talks, flecks of rain flying into Colin’s face, or maybe it’s spit.

‘I gotta get out of town before someone catches on, and I’m takin one with me just in case, but the others? You can have em.’

‘I really don’t want them, sir. Please let me go, I’ve got to get home to my wife and kids.’ He doesn’t have a wife and kids, but once someone had told him that some chips made people sympathetic to that stuff. It could work.

The guy moves his hand from Colin’s arm to his neck and pulls him roughly again, so that his lips are right up against his ear. ‘Some of those chips they give you, man, they’re fake. They’re not the real deal.’

It takes a moment for Colin to register what the words mean, but before he can react the guy slams the piece of metal into the back of his head and everything goes white. He drops to all fours and an electric shock rocks his whole body, starting in the ports at the back of his head and shooting through him. For those agonizing moments he feels as though his skeleton is burning red hot, writhing inside him like a separate entity and trying to peel off the coat of burning flesh.

Finally it’s over and he’s face down on wet asphalt, breathing but otherwise paralysed. He hears scratching noises and realises it’s his own hand twitching on the pavement. The guy is gone.

 

Colin makes it back to his apartment, locks the door and drops onto the couch. He’s breathing hard, his sweat as cold as the rain, and there’s something else: his heart is beating. Am I having a heart attack? No, he doesn’t think so. Actually, now he thinks about it, it doesn’t feel that different from the one and only time he bought himself an adrenaline chip – more intense, maybe.

The metal object is lying on the carpet and he stares at it. What the hell did you do to me? Oh shit, what if I’m dying? He considers calling the ambulance and then doesn’t. He lies where he is for a long time, calming down, breathing slower. It’s alright.

He gets up, a little unsteady on his feet, and feels the back of his head tenderly. There are mild burns on the skin surrounding the six ports but nothing serious. He wonders if the guy disabled his ports. Another stab of fear shoots through him as he imagines living the rest of his life unable to enjoy anything, and then shakes his head and gets up.

He gets the chicken burger he saved out of the fridge and puts it on the counter, and ruffles through his coat for the chip he bought earlier. Nothing. He reaches into his pockets and finds only his house keys, phone and wallet. Shit. It’ll have to wait. For now, hunger is burning a hole in the bottom of his stomach and an unchipped burger is still better than no burger, so he grabs it and takes the biggest bite he can manage.

He almost spits it out in his surprise. Within seconds flavour is flooding his mouth: delicious lettuce and tomato and Christ, what is that? It surely can’t be chicken – the chicken he knew was never this crispy, never so… rich! He chews the stuff a good ten times after he’s already made it into mulch and then takes another bite. Incredibly, all the tastes are still there, and so strong! He got pickles this time, and somehow he tastes the individual pickles over the other things. Usually every bite tastes the same, an equal measure of all chicken burger ingredients, regardless of which part of it he’s eaten.

He gropes the back of his head again, certain he must have put the chip in without realising it earlier, but there’s nothing there. How is this possible? He finishes the burger in minutes and stands up, looking around for another test, anything. His eyes settle on the open sliding door that leads to the balcony.

Originally, Colin bought one of the rooms with a view thinking that an occasional sight chip and a rest on the balcony would help to relax him, but he’d never got around to it. Now, the view isn’t enough: all he sees are dark streets and an overcast night sky. The rain is still falling fast.

He goes right to the railing and looks ten stories straight down and sees a few parked cars. He puts one leg over and his heart starts going faster again. He puts the other over and stands right on the edge, leaning back with his hands on the railing and staring up at the sky. His whole body is going mad with it, the fear, excitement, utter exhileration. He can see the building stretching up another ten stories of empty balconies and then the sky above that, pouring rain into his face. He laughs genuinely for the first time he can remember and then imagines what it would be like to slip now and fall. He realises he’s scared, no – terrified.

He screams for the first time in thirty two years and feels it run through him as powerfully as the electric shock from the metal device. It is his first real emotion. ‘I don’t want to die! I want to live!’ He shouts.

A light goes on in one of the apartments above him but before anyone can come out he’s heaved himself back over the balcony and gone back inside. His heart beating madly, he goes straight for the fridge and opens it. There are some onions and bacon, and he throws them onto a pan. He grabs three eggs and throws them on, too, and then grabs the half eaten pizza and eats it all, cold. There’s a block of cheese, the same cheese he buys every time but never has the chips to taste it, and he shoves a chunk of it into his mouth and eats it.

‘Tastes like shit!’ he says, and laughs again. The bacon and eggs and onions are much better, and he licks the plate and is out the door before he’s finished chewing his last bite. The smell of the street hits him for the first time: of gutter and exhaust and rain on the asphalt. He breathes the acidic stench deep into his lungs and relishes it. It’s not good, not a good smell at all, but boy is it good to taste it like that – the pure, unadulterated real thing.

He walks through the doors of Reilly’s and stops for a minute to appreciate the smoky glow of the place. It makes him feel warm inside, somehow, a familiar place, and when he sees Mike still sitting there in one of the back booths with a beer in his hand he feels glad to see him. He’s never felt glad to see Mike before; Mike was always just there. He just was.

As he approaches, Mike looks up, surprised. ‘Hey, wasn’t expecting to see you for at least…’ He looks up at the time displayed on the television over the bar, ‘eight hours.’

Instead of replying, Colin signals for two beers and slides into the booth. He breathes deep, trying to slow himself down. He’s not sure exactly what he’s going to do with his new ability, but getting noticed is not high on the list.

‘You alright, man? You look pale. You get some new beer chips?’ he adds as the barman drops the brews on the table and walks away. Colin immediately takes a long draught. Yep, the taste is still there. No, in fact it’s better. It’s far better than having a beer chip. What had the guy said? Half the stuff they give you ain’t even the real deal.

‘I got unplugged,’ Colin says, still looking at his beer like it’s made of solid gold.

‘What?’

‘I don’t know what else to call it. Erased, deactivated, realised.’ The last word catches him and he looks up and repeats it, a half smile on his lips. ‘Realised. I’m real now, Mike.’

Mike looks like he’s about to call the crazy house so Colin talks quickly, telling him everything that happened and, most of all, how it feels, how it tastes to be real. When he’s finished, Mike’s expression has returned to neutral. Of course, he can’t feel fear or excitement unless he buys it.

‘Colin, get your face in order, you’re drawing stares.’ He’s right. People don’t usually have expressions unless they’re on something, and if anyone caught a glimpse of the manic smile on his face and saw that he had no chips in the back of his head… He sees one of Mike’s used up beer chips lying discarded on the table and he picks it up and jams it in one of his ports. ‘There, now if I slip up they’ll just think I’m on something.’ Still, he forces his features to relax. It’s a strange feeling. He’s not used to being aware of his facial features at all, let alone using them to have expressions.

‘Let me get this straight,’ Mike begins slowly. ‘A guy pulls you into a dark alley and erases all your limits with some machine, and then runs for it… why?’

‘Why what? Of course he runs. This shit ain’t exactly legal, Mike. It’s stealing from the government.’

He nods. ‘But why do it at all? Why not just keep it a secret and stay hidden?’

‘Because. He must be some kind of revolutionary. What he said was he needed to share what he was feeling with someone else. He said he was going crazy.’ Looking at Mike’s blank face now, Colin can understand. He imagines walking around day in, day out, trying to look normal, seeing everyone else’s blank dead faces all the time.

They fall silent for a long time. Dread settles in Colin’s stomach as it occurs to him that the government might have put something else in them all, like some kind of loyalty chip, that would make Mike want to turn him in. If it was possible, he was certain they did it. But when Mike finally speaks, all he says is: ‘What’s it like?’

Colin lets out a sigh. ‘Oh, man. The chips we been buying? Not even close to the real thing. I mean, from what I’ve experienced. God, there’s still so much to do. How the hell am I gonna get through work tomorrow?’

‘You gotta be careful. Real careful. Are you going to get that guy’s stash? Can’t you use the same device over and over?’

‘I don’t know. But if we could, we could distribute the others, get them out to people. It would be a revolution, a real revolution. The government couldn’t replug us all.’

Mike’s nodding, and Colin takes another swig of delicious beer – the glass is almost gone already – and glances around the bar. No one’s looking their way, so why does he feel so self conscious?

‘We can’t stay here, okay?’ Mike says. ‘Listen, tomorrow, we work like normal, then I’ll come over yours and you try to use the thing on me.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah. What can I say, I’m curious. Look at you, you can’t stop smiling, and it’s a real smile. Too real, it’s kinda freaking me out, man.’ Colin hadn’t realised his expression had changed and he makes it neutral again. Damn this was going to be hard.

‘Anyway,’ Mike goes on, ‘Whether it works or not, we wait till late at night and go to this alleyway, and check the place out.’

‘And? If we find the stash? If it all works?’

Mike smiles. ‘We deliver to the masses, baby, but not for free.’

‘What, like a black market? Make people pay?’

‘Yeah, why not? Not too much, and we’ll make it cheaper once we learn how to make them. The hard part will be distribution, do it some way we can’t be traced.’

Colin thinks about it, but not for long. He finishes his second beer in three long gulps and puts it down, his head spinning in more ways than one, and he’s never felt like this before, ever. ‘Okay,’ he says at last. ‘Let’s get out of this hole. I’ll see you tomorrow, alright.’

‘Alright.’

 

I’m living in hell, Colin thinks as he stands next to Mike eight hours later with a pounding hangover, staring at the endless conveyor belt. Mike doesn’t say a word, as per usual, just sifts through the screws, picking one up now and again, throwing it away or putting it back. His face is totally blank. Is this what I was like? He knows it was. He hadn’t realised how numb he was until now, and now he finds himself wishing he was numb again. I’ll go insane before my shift ends.

In the end, he can’t take it. He mutters ‘See you later’ to Mike and leaves without notifying the foreman. It could cost him his job, but if he cited sickness they’d send him straight to the infirmary where they’d find out nothing was wrong. What other reason for leaving was there? Besides, without the need to buy a chip for everything, the savings he had now could last him years.

The sky is grey and everything is still wet and humid from last night’s rain. He tries to walk like he normally does: slow but purposeful, looking straight ahead, disinterested. In fact his mind is going wild with everything – the smell of delicious sizzling beef wafting from a street stand (which also happens to sell taste chips), the way the suns rays are creeping around a dark cloud, a violinist playing something so beautiful it almost brings a tear to his eye; how long has it been since he could afford a decent music chip? And here it was, all free. All he wanted to do was stand there in the street and listen to it, but that was dangerous, so he kept walking, his face as featureless as stone.

There were just six hours left in his shift, so all he has to do is wait it out in his apartment until Mike shows up. He wonders what it’ll feel like to have a hot shower, or if anyone’s ever wasted such an expensive chip on such a basic thing. No factory worker has, anyway.

He doesn’t find out. His apartment is empty when he opens the door, empty when he closes it. When he locks it, though, two cops step out from the adjoining room and level pistols at his face. He backs against the door, hands up, and if they had any doubts as to what he was doing before they couldn’t now because the terror is written all over his face.

They keep coming at him fast, as if they’re just going to walk right on through him and out the door, but they stop when the barrel of the pistol is pressed right up against his face and the other guy is cuffing his hands in front of him. All this happens in silence, no one saying a word. The guy who cuffed him, a tall lanky blond, pulls him forward just like the guy in the alleyway, only he lets him keep going until he’s face first on the carpet.

‘Where’s the eraser?’ It’s the other guy talking, the one with the gun who was heavyset but in a tight suit. He’s sitting on his back now, pressing the barrel of the gun against his head. Colin’s breaths come in gasps and wheezes.

‘What’s an eraser?’

The butt of the pistol comes down on his ear – the ear, of all places! He doesn’t cry out but grinds his teeth against the pain. He realises that in that same weird way, he’s enjoying it. Like the guy in the alley said, it’s all good. He’s alive, alright. He chuckles, and then regrets it as the cop hits the exact same place again, hard.

‘Ow! Shit!’

‘Ha. It’s funny, you know, cos they always work people over in the movies, doing all these fancy things, but the best is to just get the same place over and over. Doesn’t matter where you go for, just as long as it’s the same. You can kill someone like that, just being relentless.’ He hits him again and now Colin decides he’s definitely not enjoying it anymore. Not even a little. The carpet is warm next to his head where the blood is pooling.

‘It should be right there, next to the coffee table in front of the couch I’m lying next to right now,’ he says.

The lanky guy goes around pauses, and picks up the metal object. ‘Got it,’ he says.

‘Chuck it here.’

‘Fuck you, I got it.’

‘What?’

‘What, just cos I’m the new guy you get all the credit? Eat it.’

The heavy guy pulls something out of his pocket, cursing under his breath, and Colin has a short lived fantasy in which he draws a handgun and blows the other guy to hell. Short lived, because what he draws is something small and metal and when he plugs it into the first of Colin’s ports the world turns to static, like the kind you get on televisions with no signal. Hissing, white noise.

 

When he wakes up he’s still on the carpet in his own dried blood, and he knows they’ve re plugged him because he feels fine. Not bad, not good, no hangover, just fine. There’s an official looking note beside him.

Dear Citizen.

            This note serves as your first and only warning in regards to the crime of erasing. Thanks to your co operation and information supplied, no further action will be necessary. If, however, you are found to be erased again in the future you will be summoned to court and possibly sentenced to the following:

  • A depression chip lasting up to six months.
  • A mild to moderate pain chip.
  • Imprisonment and sensory deprivation of up to three days.

If you offend again in the next three months, these punishments may be incurred without trial. If you have any queries or complaints, contact your local Government Citizen Liason branch.

Signed, S. Manfried, NYPD.

 

Colin reads it twice, rubs his eyes and reads it again. ‘Thanks to my co operation and information supplied?’ He says out loud, and shakes his head.

He cleans the carpet and grabs a few hunks of old bread for calories. It tastes, as usual, like nothing. When he’s finished, he looks out the window and realises the sun has just risen – he must have slept for twelve hours. They’d be expecting him at work soon. He gets ready, showers, washes the blood from his head, and stares vacantly out of a window. He thinks of the guy from the alley, and wonders why Mike never showed up.

He leaves early, and this time he doesn’t have to pretend to be normal. His thoughts are vague and disconnected, but he’s thinking about that shower he never got to have. Still, he’s got some savings, and after today maybe he could buy a touch chip and try it for real? Yeah, that’d be nice.

He stops in the alleyway. It’s dark and empty, the small door with the rusty hinges is still there. He looks at it for a while, and then shakes his head and walks on.

No one says anything to him about leaving early the day before, which strikes him as strange, but he doesn’t think about it for too long. His mind soon becomes absorbed in the comforting routine of a familiar job. He picks up a screw, puts it down, picks up a screw, throws it away. Picks up a screw.

‘Hey.’ He’s been working three hours already and yet it’s only now he realises it isn’t Mike working beside him but one of the other full timers, a short wiry guy with bright eyes called Keiran. They’ve worked in the same area of the factory for two years, and this is the first time they’ve made eye contact, let alone spoken. Colin just looks at him.

Keiran begins a smile, but falters at Colin’s expression. ‘Hey,’ Colin says. For some reason Kieran only shakes his head and turns back to the conveyor belt, and a minute later so does Colin, although a while later something occurs to him and he looks up again. ‘Where’s Mike?’ He knows the two of them spoke sometimes, but doesn’t know how well they got on. Still, worth a try.

Kieran shakes his head again. ‘Don’t know,’ he says. ‘Just didn’t turn up for work, I guess.’

It’s a strange shift. Besides Kieran’s attempt at small talk, Colin swears he catches one or two of the other guys glance his way and just look at him. He wonders how he’d be feeling if he were still erased. If he’d be bored or scared or worried or depressed. In truth, none of those emotions seem desirable at all and he finds he’s glad he’s not feeling them. Plus, time moves quicker this way, and before long his twelve hour shift is over and he’s out the door, heading for Sina’s Taste Emporium. Touch could wait for another day – he needed a beer. Maybe Mike will be at the bar, taking work off sick.

Mike isn’t at the bar, and he doesn’t answer his phone. At work the next day, no one Colin cares to ask seems to know where he is or what happened, and those strange looks just keep coming. Colin keeps getting the feeling they’re supposed to be meaningful, those looks, but he can’t for the life of him decipher them. And he doesn’t really care.

But he is curious. Just a little bit. He walks past the alley way every day, and every time he does he pauses and looks down it, expecting to see a guy, Mike, maybe, standing there with a little metal device and a smile. He wonders if the cops are watching him.

It’s almost a week after Mike’s disappearance, and he steps into the alleyway. He makes the transition into darkness smoothly, his overalls blending totally with the darkness. He waits there, invisible, for almost an hour, staring at the brick wall opposite, thinking nothing in particular. No one follows him.

Eventually, he turns down the alley, pulls open the door, and steps inside. Smells come to him with the stale air that he can’t discern. He knows they’re dusty, old smells and can identify some of them: soil, rusted metal, stone. But he gets nothing from them, feels nothing as a result of them.

He goes down a short flight of stairs and enters a dingy, basement room where the crazy guy must have been living for a while. There’s a hole ridden mattress in one corner with a few thin blankets on it. A rotted wooden desk with a mug of something black which has round pools of fungus floating in it. Everything else has been cleared out, except… A piece of paper full of scrawled writing, and a paperweight. A square, metal paperweight.

Colin has never seen Mike’s handwriting before, but the note is signed Mike, and once he reads it he’s sure it was him.

 

C.

            I couldn’t afford to leave any of the others, but even if the bastards get this one I got a feeling it’ll still only be a matter of time for you. I had to get rid of a bunch to lighten my load, and guess where I started? Heh heh.

            Anyway, let me explain: I walked in on you, bleeding on your floor with the metal thing, (Eraser), missing. I have to admit I felt kind of mildly disappointed that I wasn’t going to see what it was like, but then I remembered you telling me about the guy in the alley. And the fact that the cops beat you so bad made me even more curious. So I came down here, and guess what? Turns out these things do work more than once! That’s right, I’ve been busy.

            I had to run pretty much straight away though, and I have a feeling I’m going to be running for a long time, man, a long time. I know we never really got to know each other, but you’re the only person I could ever really call my friend. You won’t have any idea what I’m talking about until you erase yourself and please, for the love of god, erase yourself. Friends seem to be few and far between in this world, but I’m going to change all that. As long as I’ve got my mind to myself, as long as I’m free, I’m going to change everything, and you can help.

            There’s a revolution starting, C, and it’s going to be big. Step one is erase. Don’t worry about step two. It was good knowing you, man, I hope we meet again someday in another world.

-          M.

 

Colin drops the letter back onto the desk and shakes his head. It seems bizarre, too strange to be true. A revolution? Maybe the ‘eraser’ as Mike called it, messed with his head, made him crazy like the guy from the alley. Maybe all the stuff Colin thought he experienced after he got erased was all an illusion, hallucinations?

What if it isn’t? A quiet voice in the back of his mind asks him. And what was life like before senses and feelings became things that had to be bought and sold? Someone like him, who’d lived almost his entire life this way, would surely be shocked by the change. What if all that was how human beings were really supposed to live?

Colin picks up the eraser and holds it up by his head. He feels nothing, of course, no elevated heartbeat or excitement or anticipation. It would be so easy for him to put the eraser back on the desk and walk out of this dingy basement place and go back to work. It would be like slipping into a comfortable old pair of shoes. No, better, it would be like curling up in his blankets on a cold morning and going back to sleep. But there is that curiosity.

He puts the eraser against the ports on the back of his head and the world turns white again.

 

He’s not sure how much later it is when he picks himself off the floor, wiping a trail of drool from the corner of his mouth. He has a hell of a headache and he wonders how bad the side effects might be from too many erasings and re pluggings. He decides if the cops re plug him again, he won’t erase, just in case.

But this feels good. He’s unsteady on his feet, and his hearts going mad, now. The full force of what he’s done – of what Mike has done – hits him and he lets out a dry laugh which quickly turns into a cough. It’s dusty in here, and now he takes a deep breath and really smells it, the mustiness that reminds him of the old beach house he used to visit as a kid.

The feelings and senses bombard him in waves, but he closes his eyes and stays in control. He lets it wash over him and breathes slow, and after a while it gets easier to filter some of it out and steady himself.

Now what? He wonders, and almost immediately the words from Mike’s letter jump out at him: Don’t worry about step two. Well, he’s trusted Mike this far, after all.

He slips the eraser into his pocket and tears up and scrunches the letter before doing the same. He’ll find somewhere to dump them later, but it would be too risky to leave them here. He slides the door shut behind him on the way out and hurries down the alleyway and into the bright sunlight. It feels so warm and pleasant on his skin, but he doesn’t smile. Instead, he turns the corner, stares straight ahead, and walks at a slow and steady pace to work.

He’s almost an hour late, but he doesn’t see any of the foremen and no one pulls him aside to give him a warning or fire him or anything. He walks right in and takes his place by the conveyor belt, where Kieran is already hard at work, methodically sorting the screws.

Just like before, a feeling creeps up on Colin, a sense that something is wrong. The cautious, searching glances out of the corners of eyes, the silence of the place broken only by the sound of relentless machinery. He picks up a screw, analyses it, puts it back. He picks up a screw, throws it away. He looks up.

Kieran has stopped work. He’s looking at Colin with a strange expression on his face and the beginning of what may be either a smile or a leer. ‘Hey,’ he says.

Colin looks at him for a moment, his face still neutral, his heart and mind racing. And then he smiles. ‘Hey,’ he says. He extends his hand. ‘I’m Colin.’

‘Kieran,’ Kieran says, and breaks out in a genuine smile of his own, no leer in sight.

Colin drops his screw on the factory ground, and twenty faces turn to look at him. He meets their eyes, one by one, and they all grin back at him. Everyone excited, geared up, ready to go. He realises he was the last one, and by the time he turns back to Kieran the silence is total: the conveyor belt has stopped, and only a few distant clunks sound from deeper in the factory.

‘So what now?’ Colin says.

‘Follow me.’

Not sure about the ending to this, but I really dig the concept. Has anyone else thought about this? I’m sure they have. Hopefully I’m the first to write a horror story about it, though. Enjoy!

 

Orbit

By Ben Pienaar

 

It was done. For a long time he could only sit and stare at his creation with this thought in his mind. It was done – and by him and him alone, a single man, a mad man, who until now had been nothing to the world besides a breather of others’ air.

He leapt up and clapped his hands, and then paced over to the window and looked out at nothing. Well, not quite nothing. At the foot of his snowy hill was the city, a black expanse in pure white, like a pool of sewage in a pristine toilet. But not for long, not for long. It would grow and spread and who knew what would happen to the poor souls that lived there, but he’d never see it, because while time marched forward for them, he’d be heading in the other direction.

It was the fifteenth prototype. Each one had taken him almost two years to make, and this one had taken three, but at last he’d got it all right. It had to be a perfectly round chamber, with a titanium shell – no other material worked. It had to be set to an exact and specific time, right down to the Planck second, in which it would appear. And as he’d realised after the disappearance of the fourteenth prototype, it was going to be a one way trip. Perfect.

He looked to the back of the room and saw Mae standing in the dusty corner amidst his mountains of pencil scribblings and blueprints. ‘You know you won’t get away from me, baby. I’ll follow you wherever you go.’

He cringed at the sight of her and then shook his head. He’d forced himself to stop answering her once he realised she wasn’t real, which had taken a surprisingly long time considering he’d been the one who found her hanging from the balcony by a short rope.

‘No, not found,’ she said. She leaned forward into the pale daylight and he dropped his eyes from her swollen, black face. It had once been so pretty and rosy cheeked. ‘You killed me. You killed me with your obsession and your damned machines. You.’ He goes back to the window and looks out at the black city for a while longer and when he turns back she’s gone.

The machine dominates the room, waiting for him. There are no flashing dials or lights or control panels. It has simply a door with a little round window, a chair to strap into, and a single red button beside the chair, one which he can only press once. All of the necessary machinery is built into the curved walls of the thing, all of it geared for one straight path. Like sending a fax.

He opened the door and heard a satisfying hiss as stale air escaped the airtight container. No life support needed – the transport would be instant. He knew exactly when he’d appear. His research told him that in the summer of the year 2014 this hill was covered in golden green grass and isolated enough that he wouldn’t be seen. A twenty kilometre hike and he’d be there: right at the very beginning of the golden era of human civilisation. He’d be ancient and dead with a smile on his face before it was over.

He froze at the entrance, feeling those bulging eyes staring right into the back of his head. Her cold breath was on the back of his neck but it was not really breathing; it was all exhale. He waited until it wheezed to nothing, but her presence remained. She put an icy hand on his shoulder and whispered, ‘please.’

He shrugged it off, stepped inside and slammed the door shut behind him. His breathing was hard and fast in the tight room. After he strapped himself into the seat he could hear his heartbeat as if it were an external sound, echoing off the walls and seeming to make them vibrate. The insulation in the walls of the thing meant that this room was one of the quietest places on earth. The only place quieter was at Orfield labs, Minneapolis. The decibel rating in their anechoic lab was -9. The padding on the walls made his machine a slightly louder 1. The longest anyone had stayed in there alone was forty five minutes before the auditory hallucinations and the sound of their own organs working started to chip at their sanity, but thank Christ he wasn’t going to be in this place for much longer than five minutes.

The red button was set low on the wall within easy reach of his right thumb. He rested his hand there and then looked up at the window and wondered what he’d see as the capsule shot a hundred and fifty years back in time. Probably nothing. If something went wrong, there would still be nothing because he’d be dead instantly. With the push of a button, he would make the decision: go to paradise or die. He chuckled to himself and then jerked in surprise at the sound of it blaring in his ears. It sounded insane.

He fixed his eyes on the clear window and saw Mae on the other side, staring at him with pleading eyes, though how eyes like that could look pleading was beyond him. She was shaking her head. ‘No, please. Stay here.’

He pressed the button.

Everything worked, perfectly. But something was wrong. In that instant, Mae disappeared and the window turned black as surely as if someone had thrown a bucket of pitch over it. His first thought was that it must be night time, but that couldn’t be: he should have appeared at exactly one o’ clock in the afternoon.

‘The timing is off,’ he whispered to himself, but when he heard his own words echoing back to him he knew they were false. There was no timing problem, no mistakes on his part or in the machine. He’d spent the last year going over every inch of his design, calculating and recalculating everything over and over, error checking and revising endlessly. So what then? Where was he?

Only one way to find out. He unstrapped himself with shaking hands and then stopped. At least, his hands stopped – the rest of him continued to move slowly upwards until he was hovering in mid air. A moment later his head tapped the ceiling. His insides squirmed inside him like a bag of snakes and he clamped a hand over his mouth to keep from vomiting. ‘Oh, God,’ he said. He realised the sweat on his forehead had evaporated and he was beginning to shiver. The capsule was losing heat quickly.

He kicked off the back wall and floated over to the window, holding on to the frame to keep himself steady as he looked out. There it was: space, black and eternal. If he moved his head he could see stars and even the sun and there, far far away, showing only a crescent lit by sunlight, the earth.

‘Oh, please God.’ He let out a sob which caught in his throat. A perfectly round tear escaped his eye and floated towards the window.

‘You calculated the when,’ Mae said from somewhere behind him. ‘But you forgot the where. You set the time for summer, but you left in late spring. The earth will only arrive at this point in a month’s time.’

A month. No air, water, food, gravity, warmth. He’d suffocate before he froze, probably within twenty four hours. When the earth finally reached this pod, it would burn up entirely in the atmosphere, and nothing more than a thin cloud of dust would reach land.

He gripped the window frame with white knuckles and sobbed deeply, the sound of his heart thumping in his ears and his breath coming in hitches and gasps. Mae was floating beside him with an arm around his waist but somehow he couldn’t keep his eyes off the earth. Down there was his paradise, his golden era.

Mae pressed her cold cheek against his and he felt her smile. ‘It’s okay, baby,’ she said. ‘You’re with me now. You’ll be with me forever, and I forgive you.’

 

This ones pretty much the twin of my other story ‘Angel’, although I didn’t have that in mind when I started writing it. I think I’m just interested with the concept. It all happened very quickly, The idea occurred, I thought it was cool, came up with the ending, wrote it, scratch to story in two hours. Enjoy!

 

Demon

By Ben Pienaar

 

Doctors, if they even had a chance to interview me, would call me a sociopath, psychopath, or maybe pure evil. If, that is, I told them everything I’d done, the whole truth. I’m none of these things, but the Doctors would never know, because they’d only have the facts to look at, the actions I’ve taken. They are rational people, who don’t believe in Demons, which is unfortunate because the truth of the matter is that there is a demon inside me, living and breathing and real. If they cut me open, I think they’d find it sitting just above my brain stem, clinging with little red claws to the top of my spinal cord and grinning from ear to ear.

I was a good kid, and I’m a good guy now, inside and mostly out. This isn’t the exorcist: no one’s crawling on ceilings and vomiting all over the place. Mostly I’m even in control. But when no one’s around, and the time is right, and the Demon is hungry, he flexes his muscles and brings a little piece of hell up to earth.

The first time I was seven years old. The Demon came to me in my dream, it was that simple. I dreamed about hell and the Demon saw me there and grabbed hold of me, and when I woke up I’d brought him awake with me, into me. It was just after midnight, and the silence was like a blanket over the house, except for the sound of my father snoring in his bedroom down the hall. I got out of bed and went into the bathroom.

I was fully aware, not sleepwalking – a little groggy maybe, but that was it. I wasn’t thinking about my movements, the way it feels when you’ve done something so many times you don’t think about it. Sometimes I drive somewhere late at night and when I think about it later, I can’t remember the drive. I still stop at the red lights and watch my mirrors, but I’m daydreaming in my head, my body and mind acting automatically. This was like that.

I took a box of matches and a candle from the mirror cupboard (we keep them there for blackouts), and took them down into the television room. I lit the candle and stood in front of the fireplace for a while. I remember wax dripping onto my hand until it had pretty much covered it, but I didn’t once flinch. The pain was a normal, everyday feeling to me, like breathing in and out; it wasn’t important.

I lit a fire in the fireplace and waited for it to get going really good, used every bit of kindling we had, and when it was roaring nicely I started grabbing burning logs and rolling them around the carpet. I set one on the couch, one at the foot of the television, and kick rolled another all the way into the dining room so it could catch the table. We had a real fluffy carpet and it burned fast.

I stood there, terror tearing through me, thinking why did I do that? Just what did I do that for? At first with a mild curiosity when I grabbed the candle and match, then with growing horror as I watched my blistering hands grab logs and roll them across the room. Why am I doing this? I don’t understand.

            I heard the Demon laugh, somewhere deep inside my brain. He and I walked upstairs together and I lay down in bed and stared at the ceiling, watching the shadows dance across the hall and the smoke drift in through the open door.

Eventually the alarm went off and I heard my parents screaming, but not my little sister Maree, even when a section of the house fell in and buried the kitchen table. The demon was asleep by then, or else he didn’t care what happened, and all my movements (and all the pain) were my own. My parents managed to get to me and my mother climbed out of the window with me while the sirens wailed far away.

My father went to get my sister, and he was dragged out by the firemen a few minutes later with burns all over him, a scrap of Maree’s pajama top melted into his palm. She didn’t make it, and her lack of screaming, I think, was because she’d already choked in her sleep. Her room was closer to the stairs, so that is what I desperately hope happened.

I relate all this to Lara now, trying to keep my voice steady. I resist the urge to come forward and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder because I don’t want to see her flinch away. Plus, I’ve still got some of her cat’s blood on my hands. Literally. The rest of it we got rid of together, before coming back into her bedroom for this little talk.

‘I’ve done a few things like that since then,’ I’m telling her, looking honestly into her tear stained, incredulous face. ‘Nothing completely evil, you know. But pretty bad. That’s why I don’t sleep much. I mean, Jesus, poor Maree, that poor girl. I loved her so much.’

I’m crying, but I don’t think she believes me. I know she believes in ghosts, but I’ve never asked her about demonic possession.

‘Have you ever killed anyone?’ she asks, and her voice is still cold.

I nod. ‘Just one guy. A bad guy, though, some gangster who pulled a knife on me. The demon saw it and flipped out, he was threatening its… its home.’ I don’t mention that the mugger had also been interrupting our stalking of a potential other victim.

‘That’s all, huh?’

‘Yes. It wants to kill, but usually I can divert it, make it settle for small things like birds and rats and…’

‘Cats.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Jesus.’ She puts her hands over her eyes and breathes in deep, and then takes them away and looks at me again. I don’t say anything.

‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’ she says, as if I’d be joking. Sure, your dead cat was all a joke, Lara, get it? Ha ha! My eyes are streaming with tears now, but I don’t mind, it probably lends credibility.

‘I just want it to end,’ I say, and in that instant, as if I had to say the words out loud for the thought to formulate clearly, I realise how simple it is. There is only one way to really and truly end, after all. Why have I never thought of suicide? And I realise the answer to that question, too: I never thought of it because the demon didn’t let me. He hid the notion from my mind, somehow, but he’s sleeping now and I’m awake and I’ve thought of it.

Holy Christ, it’s the only way. I have to go, and soon, or it’ll wake up. How long will it be before it makes me kill another family member or ,God forbid, Lara? Or some innocent small child, like the girl we followed for half a day before I gathered the will power to close my eyes until she was gone.

I can’t comprehend the finality of that – of suicide – there’s no time. There’s no time to say my goodbyes or gather my thoughts and prepare myself. I’m locked in a dungeon and the dungeon master is sleeping and left a window open. It’s jump or be trapped, now or never.

Lara is great at dressmaking. She has a sewing machine and all different kinds of materials and needles, but most importantly she has a giant pair of material cutting scissors lying on her desk. In the time it’s taken for me to have my epiphany, she’s drawn a breath, about to say something, but I’ll never hear what it is. I grab the scissors and take two steps back.

Staring at her, wide eyed, I begin to cut.

She’s fast, getting over her surprise like that. If we switched places I think I’d have been so shocked by the surprise of it all I’d have still been sitting and gaping long after she hit the ground with blood spurting from her throat. Not Lara though; she sees what I’m doing, screams, lunges, and pulls my arm so hard the scissors go flying into the wall paper and stick there.

We fall onto the bed together and she’s sticking sheets against my wound and kissing me and crying, although there wasn’t really time enough to make the cut that bad.

‘No matter what, that’s never the answer,’ she’s telling me. ‘Never do that again, you hear me? Never. God, it’s really true, isn’t it? There really is a demon inside you.’

It’s not really a question but I nod anyway. ‘I have to kill it,’ I whisper, trying not to wake it up. ‘We have to kill it, somehow.

She looks at me and a hot tear lands on my face. Her eyes are half full of sadness and half with rage, and I understand. ‘No matter what it takes,’ she says, ‘we’ll kill it, somehow.’

We talk for a while, and hug, and I apologise again for killing her cat. She rests her head on my shoulder and puts an arm around me and tells me it’s going to be alright, and we’ll kill the demon no matter what, and I don’t want to be afraid.

But I am afraid, I tell her. I’m terrified, and I still wish I’d killed myself. I tell her it’s going to be alright now, and she shouldn’t worry, but those words aren’t mine, now. She snuggles up close to me and starts talking, but I don’t hear what she’s saying. I’m watching my free hand lift up and work the scissors free from the wallpaper slowly, quietly.

I’m watching and outwardly there is no dread, no horror or sadness or remorse. I’m watching my hand grip the round black handle with white knuckles. Outwardly I’m calm and relaxed and happy. Inside, I scream. ‘It’s going to be alright,’ I say again.

I tried to write this one a few times over the past year, but each time the idea seemed to stale in my mind, better things would come along, and I’d give up. This week it was still there, sitting in my mind, and I decided it would never go away unless I wrote it, so in the end this was done out of angry spite. Enjoy!

Medusa’s Eye

By Ben Pienaar

 

I reported my father missing after two days, but I was only going through the motions. His final letters made it clear that he didn’t intend to be found, and Elmore Kendrick Sr. tended to get what he wanted.

The day before I made an official report, I arrived at his house to visit him, which I did on the first of every month, as he well knew. I found the place empty, or at least as empty as his house could ever get: my father was a hoarder, but of a very neat and organised kind. His house was full of large rooms but no open spaces, every inch of space filled with something: statues, jewellery, sculptures, paintings, ancient artefacts that should have been in a museum. On my way through the long hallways and curling staircases I passed hundreds of shelves and glass cases and displays of these, all gathering dust.

I reached his study and found it empty as well (save the bookshelves, piles of papers and notebooks, ships in bottles and his beloved ivory skull paperweight). I was about to leave and search the rest of the house when I saw that his Great Black Journal was open, and the entry was signed in large bold letters: TO LIAM. Oh God, I thought, he’s committed suicide. It seemed unlike him, but he was gone and here was a note and he always had been a strange, isolated man.

My heart was sinking fast, but what else was there to do? I sat down and began to read.

 

TO LIAM:

Son, I’m addressing this to you because you will almost certainly be the one who finds it, and because I trust you more than anyone to take the message seriously. My only worry is that your mind is so rooted in what you believe to be real that you won’t believe the things I tell you, even taking into account the proof I have for my tale. All I ask is that you think hard about it, and realise that I’d never lie to you about something so serious as my own death. Anyway, I’d better get on with it, time is short for reasons you’ll see soon enough. It’s taken me nearly half an hour to write this single paragraph.

I’ve always been an adventurer and a collector, travelling to the ends of the earth to acquire this or that thing, knowing it will never satisfy me. You know this, but what you don’t know are the details of my most recent expedition to Greece. A friend of mine living there told me that some archaeologists had started digging on the southwest coast and were turning up some interesting statues, intricately carved, realistic beyond belief. His theory was that the statues were turning up in a pattern that was leading them further south down the coast.

I’m sure you know me well enough to see out what I wanted to do: travel to the far south of Greece and make a few digs of my own before any new artefacts were claimed by the museums.

I was there less than a week later, but as I discovered on my first reconnaissance mission to the coastline, no digging was going to be required. The beaches there turn abruptly into a serious of cliffs, which are absolutely littered with caves. The archaeologists might have been dubious about finding anything of interest in them, but I was not.

It took weeks of searching, of climbing, scratching my hands, slipping on wet rocks and seeing my own life flash in front of my eyes, weeks of swearing and cursing at myself for being an idiot – and no doubt you’d agree. But on the day I found Medusa, Liam, it was all worth it, and even now I wouldn’t take back a thing.

I was barely twenty meters into the cave when I saw the statues. There was a moment when all I could do was stare, and that was my mistake. I remember it perfectly, the salty air in my nose and the wind whistling at my back, staring straight into Medusa’s Eye.

I say eye because her other one was pierced by a long stone arrow. I should mention here that there were two other statues in the chamber, both of them ancient Greek warriors of some kind. The one on the right was holding a bow and the one on the left was holding up a silver platter the size my office window.

Medusa herself was huge, like one of the Amazonian princesses you hear about in old adventure stories, and her face would have been exquisitely beautiful if it weren’t for the utter hate written in her expression. Her teeth were bared and her remaining eye was looking up at the silver platter. And yes, she had that bizarre head of snakes, which is how I knew for sure who she was.

When I got over my shock I investigated the scene up close, and I must tell you that the stonework was of a kind I’d never seen in modern sculpture – let alone that of ancient Greece; if someone had poured a bucket of grey paint over a real women it wouldn’t have looked as realistic. Her skin was so perfect and smooth I could make out the individual lines on her palms. Her teeth were bared and pointed, and the scales on the snakes had been perfectly carved. There were hundreds of them, knotted and hissing and curled around each other.

All I took was her eye. I might have claimed the statues if I wanted and even had them transported back here. I even considered removing her head and just taking that, but in the end I realised it was only her eye that had me so hypnotised, only that which I really wanted. So I took a knife and pried it free from her head. It was as round and large as a cue ball, that eye, dark emerald green all over, with little black pupil. Beautiful.

I arrived home cheerful and victorious, but for the time being something persuaded me to keep my new treasure a secret, and thank god for that. I took it out of its hiding place now and again, just to look at it. It was mesmerising, so smooth and perfect, with hundreds of tiny black seams running around it like veins. I could look at it for hours while my mind wandered.

A month passed, and it passed quickly. I checked my email one day and saw to my shock that it was almost the fifteenth of June, and I’d arrived home from Greece in early May, but in all that time I’d done little other than amble around my property and gaze longingly into the eye. I thought nothing of it at the time, besides cursing myself for being lazy, but when I went into town to go shopping the following week I discovered there was something sinister going on.

I don’t know how to describe the sensation to you, except to say that it’s like living in a movie that is always on fast forward. For a while I stood in the middle of the sidewalk and gaped around like a lunatic. The cars were zooming by suicidally fast – I was certain there would be a crash any second, but somehow there wasn’t. Then I saw how the people around me were moving, rushing by so they were almost running, talking in avalanches of words than ran on to each other faster than I could comprehend.

I took a deep breath and went into the grocery store to buy everything. In line, the cashier tapped a drumroll on the counter and the people behind me muttered insults too quick for me to make out. No sooner did I arrive home that I went and stared at the clock on the kitchen wall.

Impossible, it must be broken. I checked my watch, and then the grandfather clock in the hall, but they were as perfectly synchronised as always. And moving about twice as fast as they should have been. I timed my heartbeat, which by then was hammering wildly in my chest, and found it to be at sixty beats a minute.

You aren’t stupid, Liam, and by now you must realise where this is going, so I’ll be quick. God knows I have to be, anyway. I started this letter at ten o’clock this morning and it is already nightfall.

I’d noticed a few more grey hairs than usual, but when I ran to the mirror and looked again I saw that it had nothing to do with age: my hair wasn’t the only thing becoming grey and brittle. The horrible stiffness I felt every morning had just as little to do with age. My skin had taken on a sickly pallor, and it was dry and scaly to the touch. Now, as I run a hand through my hair, dust comes out.

I tried to destroy the eye, with hammers, saws, fire, nothing worked. I think I know how to hide it so no one will ever find it, but if you do, Liam (and I fear you’ll look for it, no matter what I tell you) please for the love of God don’t look at it. It’s wrapped in a leather cloth, DO NOT unwrap it. If you find it, I beg you, this is my dying wish, then find a way to destroy it, or at the very least, hide it irretrievably.

It’s already Wednesday. God. I must move now. I know it will be hard to believe any of this, but the latest addition to the statue room, if I make it that far, must convince you. Please believe me, Liam, you are my only hope. Destroy the eye, but better yet, don’t look for it. Soon I will see the end of the universe. I wonder what it will be like. I love you, son.

 

And that was it. I let out a long breath and shook my head. I read the letter twice more, trying to get some clue as to the truth, see some reason behind this madness. I didn’t think he’d really gone insane, and nor did I believe a word of his story. If you knew my father you would have understood: he was a born storyteller, and he relished in tall tales like no one I’ve ever known. He rarely lied, but he often exaggerated, so it was unusual for him to make up something so bizarre. Nevertheless, I was sure he had.

It was an escape, I thought: either he’d committed suicide or run away from his life for some reason. The story was a cover, something to make sure he went out with a bang, as a legend, something he no doubt hoped would revive my belief in myths and magic again.

Eventually, I went down to the statue room. He was there, and true to his word, it was a phenomenally well crafted statue. All the other statues in the room were lined along the walls, forming a kind of passage down the center, and he stood at the very end before the lone window. He had one hand in his pocket, the other raised to shield his eyes from the now non-existent sun (it was overcast).

I sighed and shook my head. He was a good, if absent father, but he’d taken the time to get to know me he’d have learned long ago that I am a man of science and reality, a believer in a long, secure and sensible lifestyle. I suppose I appreciated the effort he put in, in his roundabout way, to reach out to me in the end, but I am who I am.

He left everything to me. I auctioned off almost all of it, keeping only the things I judged useful to me. Most of it I sold to museums at prices that would have made my father’s jaw drop in dismay, but I don’t regret it – it was where they belonged and he was selfish to keep them to himself. I got rid of it all, room by room, but I have to admit I left those statues till last, and as I went through every inch of the house, I kept my eye out, so to speak.

But Medusa’s precious eye was nowhere. At last, the great house was completely empty, including the statue room. Only one statue remained, gazing eternally out of the window. One hand up, one in his pocket.

Wait. His pocket.

I looked down, my pulse rising in anticipation. I’d given up hope of finding the thing about five rooms ago, but in an instant I saw what he’d done. What a hiding place it was! Right there in his pocket, in plain sight and yet far from it, literally the last place I thought of. One never thinks of statues having real pockets, after all.

I broke it open with a hammer and chisel. The first thing I noticed was not the heavy green gem as it rolled with a thump onto the hardwood floor, but the stone hand I’d broken through. Whoever had made the statue had actually gone to the effort to carve – expertly at that – my father’s hand inside his pocket. I shook my head, amazed, and then bent down to pick up the eye.

It is one thing to read the words describing its beauty, another to see it. The patterns that seemed to twist and move in the marble even as you watched them, the dark green shades, like a tropical lake rich with life. It was cool in my hand. The pupil bored into me as if it could actually see me, and it seemed to sparkle like a black diamond.

At any rate, I ramble, and my description doesn’t do it justice any better than my father’s did. Needless to say, I could never keep such a treasure for myself. The very same day I found it I contacted a museum of sculptures and offered it to them, along with the brilliant statue of my father, for free. They took it with many thanks.

So, dear readers, that is the official story of how my father, Elmore Kendrick Sr. discovered Medusa’s Eye and disappeared from the face of the earth with the flourish he intended. I have to admit, in the end it turned out to be a very entertaining tale after all. Maybe I have learned a thing or two about adventure, after all.

I may never go on such bold travels as my father has (and probably still is this very moment), but if he is reading this I’d like him to know that I genuinely hope he is enjoying his new life. For myself I’ve also developed quite a few more grey hairs than I’d like, and a quiet life in the country sounds best for me. They say time moves faster with age, and I’m certainly finding that true as well – it seems like only yesterday I started writing this article, but it’s taken me nearly two weeks. A holiday, I think, is long overdue.

 

The infamous eye discovered by Elmore Kendrick is now open for viewing by the public: simply visit the East London Historical Museum, entry fee twenty pounds – opening hours Monday to Friday 8am to 7pm.    

Based on an urban legend I’m sure everyone will be familiar with. But honestly, I can’t be a horror writer without having at least one story about spiders. I’ve already got a couple concerning insane asylums, a vampire type thing, a werewolf type thing, ghosts, and I’m sure I’ll think of something at least halfway original for clowns and theme parks, too. In the mean time, here’s my take on spiders. Enjoy!

Spider Men

By Ben Pienaar

 

Sorry people had to take this one down cos I sold it. Read ‘Great Old Ones: Bugs Anthology’

When I first thought of this concept, I kind of shrugged if off, thought maybe I’d make it into an okay story, and then forgot about it. Until about six hours later, when I was lying up in bed, thinking about it. One of those slow working stories, where you only really freak out when you think about it and think about it. It ate at my brain until I wrote it down, so I hope I can sleep better now. Enjoy!

 

Live

By Ben Pienaar

 

Samuel was kept in the topmost room, on the third floor of the house. Sarah was apprehensive from the moment she entered the great house, with its dusty halls and wide open spaces; all these rooms just for him, when he couldn’t so much as look at them.

Her mother was talking, as she did when she was nervous, which happened to be every time she visited Samuel. This was the first time she’d ever brought Sarah along, though. She’d given Sarah a long, appraising look and at last she said it was time she met her grandfather.

‘He was always a strong spirit,’ her mother was saying. ‘He didn’t blink an eye when they told him your father passed away. Not a heartless thing, you know, it’s just that he was always very old fashioned about showing emotion. A determined man, very determined.’

A woman in a white uniform came down the curved staircase that dominated the entrance hall and smiled at them. ‘Mrs. Arnold, nice to see you again!’

‘How are you, Jane? This is Sarah, Samuel’s granddaughter.’

The nurse smiled widely and Sarah did her best to smile back without betraying any of the dread that was already building up inside her. She knew what Samuel was, even if her mother hadn’t told her the whole story.

‘Well, you’re in luck, he just woke up an hour ago so he’ll be wide awake now. Just come this way.’ She started up the stairs, and they followed.

 

‘It’s a degenerative disease, and it’s incredibly unpleasant.’

After pussyfooting around for half an hour he finally got the bastard to say what he meant. It wasn’t pretty, but at least it was finally the truth, plain and simple. Samuel sat back in his chair and looked at the man, expressionless. The doctor had his eyebrows slightly raised as if to say ‘sorry, but you asked for it.’

‘And?’ Samuel said.

‘And?’

‘What do I do about it? Money is no obstacle. You know who I am, don’t you?’

‘Yes… But any actions we could take would only delay the inevitable, Mr. Arnold.’

‘Ha. Inevitable.’ He fell silent again, but it was an expectant silence, and eventually doctor whoever he was got the picture and went on.

‘To put it bluntly, we take your leg. There is a very minimal chance it will stop there but in my experience, it won’t.’

‘But it’ll take a while. Longer.’

‘As I said, delaying the inevitable.’

‘Okay, do it.’

 

The stairs creaked as if no one had walked on them in a thousand years. Sarah breathed through her mouth and felt the dust coat her tongue with every breath. The place was derelict – the nurses all lived in their quarters across the road, and there was no need for cleaners or maintenance of any kind, really.

The second floor was empty of everything, but the all the walls in the house had paintings and furniture, all of it useless. Sarah thought he probably had a Monet or even a Picasso sitting in some dark room where no one had seen it for twenty years. The third floor was more barren, with only one room containing anything of purpose: stacks of medical supplies and mechanical tools.

Sarah considered telling her mother she didn’t want to see him anymore. She didn’t mind writing letters but why did she have to see him? It wasn’t like they could have a conversation or anything, was it? But she kept her mouth shut. It’ll be over soon, she thought, and then you’ll be on your way home and you can pretend it never happened. How bad can it be?

 

The third operation came off well. He got looks of mild revulsion at first, then of disbelief, and finally of admiration. He didn’t need any goddam wheels, he got around just fine with his two strong arms, and he built a healthy amount of muscle to go along with it. He got discounts at places for nothing, he got respect from everyone. Hell, if anything, his life had improved.

‘Dad, are you sure you’re ok?’ Little Bruce, always worried.

‘Calm down, boy. It’ll take more’n this to get your old man down.’

Of course it was only a matter of time before the numbness started on the tips of his fingers, followed by the familiar black tendrils of dying skin that crept towards his wrist.

 

‘Well, this is it. I’ll leave you alone, let me know if you need anything.’ Jane shot them another dazzling smile and then turned and marched back downstairs to take care of whatever there was to take care of. Sarah looked up at her mother, and she must have seen her apprehension. She knelt down beside her and stroked her hair. ‘It’s okay, honey,’ she said. ‘There’s no reason to be afraid. Now, he won’t be able to hear or talk to you, but he can see you and he was learning lip reading before… So you can still talk to him. Jane tells me she often reads to him at night.’

‘Okay.’

Her mother kissed her on the forehead, stood up, and opened the door. A smell of some powerful cleanness filled Sarah’s nostrils. Not the kind of hospital disinfectant clean that she’d have expected, but metallic, chemical. The next thing she noticed were the wires: coils and loops and tangles of them everywhere, running along the walls and ceiling, connected to power outlets. A hulking machine sat on the far side of the room, and connected to it, on a tall pedestal, was Samuel.

Actually, it was Samuel’s brain in a glass container filled with clear liquid. Hundreds of thin wires ran into the container and connected to different parts of the brain. A deep thrumming filled the room and seemed to make Sarah’s bones vibrate. Sunlight streamed through a small window in front of his pedestal, the only light in the place.

She let out the breath she’d been holding and her mother glanced down at her. ‘Go on, it’s alright. Go and meet your grandfather.’

As she came forward, she saw that Samuel still had one of his eyes. It was connected to his brain by a fragile network of red strands, and it floated in the liquid, staring out of the window. Awake. She wondered what he looked like when he was asleep. Why is his brain pink? I thought they were supposed to be grey.

‘H… Hello Grandpa,’ she said, and then realised he had to see her lips move to be able to hear her. The thought of standing in front of that eyeball and letting it roll over her and see her face sent chills all over her skin. She glanced back at her mother, but she only stood there with a smile on her face.

Sarah stepped in front of him and forced herself to look at the staring eye. Being sure to pronounce everything carefully, she said it again: ‘Hi Grandpa. I’m your granddaughter, Sarah.’

There was, of course, no reply; nothing but scrutiny. Sarah was horribly conscious that she was blocking his view of the window. She turned and looked out and saw a sparkling swimming pool that no one had ever swum in, and beyond that some fields and the road and a forest. ‘I like your view,’ she said, being sure to turn back to him when she spoke.

The eye watched her, and she held its gaze, trying to make out what he was trying to say to her. It was something, she was sure – the eye wasn’t glazed over or distant, but focused hard – focused on her.

Her mother came over eventually and put an arm over her shoulder, smiling widely down at the eye. ‘He’s so brave, don’t you think? All those operations, that horrible disease, eating him away bit by bit, but he never complained or showed any fear. His last words to your father were, “I’m going to live.” Incredible.’

 

‘I don’t know if I can do it, Dad.’ Bruce Arnold sat next to his father, now armless, legless and already with half his organs substituted for machines. A web of tubes radiated from his bed, at the head of which his shrivelled head stared at everything with beady eyes. Bruce wasn’t looking healthy either. He was severely malnourished and his hands shook all the time.

‘What are you talking about, boy?’ He still called him boy, even at fifty years old.

‘They told me chemo was the only option, and all it would do is delay the end. The percentage of success is practically zero.’

‘But not zero?’

‘Dad. I can’t do it.’

‘Won’t, you mean.’

‘Fine, I won’t. Live all these last miserable weeks for, what? Why do you do it? You lie here all day and stare at the ceiling.’

‘I’ll have you know I never waste a second. I think permanently. I’m learning lip reading.’

Bruce wiped a hand down his face and let out a sigh. Samuel shook his head, sad that his own son was so weak willed. A good boy, he’d always been good – but so weak.

‘Well it’s your life, son,’ he said. ‘Throw your last hours away.’

Bruce said nothing for a while and just looked at the cyborg that lay in the bed beside him. ‘I think you’re making a mistake, Dad. The path you’re going down isn’t going to end well.’

‘It isn’t going to end at all,’ Samuel said. ‘I’m going to live, goddammit, and I’ll outlive you and everyone else, too. Then we’ll see who made the mistake.’

 

‘How long has he been like this?’ Sarah asked quietly.

Her mother frowned. ‘A long time, Honey. Almost ten years now, I think. The family pays for the machines, and we’ve all agreed to keep his alive for as long as possible, no matter the cost. It’s what he would have wanted. You can still see that determination in his eye.’

Sarah stepped closer. She leaned over and put her face as close to the glass as she dared. What was he trying to tell her? There was emotion there, but she couldn’t tell what it was. She tried to imagine what expression he would have had, but all she could think of was an old man staring at her with bulging wide eyes. The old man in her mind was screaming in terror, but was that what she saw, or what she imagined?

The red nerves stretched around from the back of the eye and across parts of the white, but there was something wrong with them. There on the right side, some of the veins seemed darker than the others. She squinted and leaned closer and only then did she see it properly: one of the veins, tiny and thin as a hair, had turned black.

The eye stared at her, and this time she saw that the screaming was real.

 

 

 

One of those ones I just don’t know about. I used to just delete stories if I didn’t think they’d turned out well but I’ve learned to just keep going, finish and put them up anyway, because I’m wrong about my stories just as often as not. Enjoy!

 

Hunter

By Ben Pienaar

 

The forest was Mickey’s escape, and he spent a lot of his time there. All his spare time, really, and when they put the curfew on it made no difference. He’d stay until he knew dinner was being served and then he’d tear up the hill and home to keep from being late. Being late was a hittable offence.

It was rare that Mickey skipped school, but that first winter Monday was one of those days. He had homework due he hadn’t done. He’d built a new slingshot he wanted to test out, and a little photograph of his father he wanted to test it out on. To hell with school, today was his day.

So when his father dropped him off he hung his head and walked in, as soon as the car turned the corner he was off. He hadn’t packed any textbooks that day, but fresh clothes and lunchbox and the slingshot. He changed quickly and then left the gravel path so he could be sure he wouldn’t pass anyone else.

He found a clearing after a half hour of hacking through undergrowth and branches and thorns, and it was there he set up his target practice. He pinned the photograph of his father to a leaning tree and shot rocks at it until it was tatters. He turned his aim to birds, but they always seemed to fly away before he could hit them.

That was when he caught sight of the hunter, standing in the clearing and watching him with a big half smile on his face. He looked ragged and dirty. ‘You’re a good shot,’ he said.

Mickey lowered the slingshot and loaded another rock. He didn’t smile. If the guy tried anything he’d let off the rock and sprint as hard as he could.

‘Don’t worry, lad. I’m no danger. I’ll stay where I am. Don’t want to be on the wrong side of your sling, eh?’ he winked.

‘Who are you?’ Mickey said.

‘The name’s Harry. I’m a sort of ranger around here, you know? Keep the forest in order, pick up pollution, look after the animals.’

‘Oh.’

‘Live in here, actually.’

That piqued his interest. ‘Really?’

‘Aye. I like to live in the wild as much as possible. Gives you a real perspective on life, you know. Or maybe ye’r too young for that.’

‘No way.’

‘Oh? Who’re you shooting at, there?’

‘That’s my dad.’

‘What for?’

‘I don’t like him – he beats me. Mean bastard.’

The man laughed hard at that, slapping his knee and looking around as if to find someone who could share the joke with him.

‘You’re lively! Bastard! How old are you?’

‘Almost twelve.’

‘Eleven, then.’

‘Almost twelve.’

They looked at each other for a while longer. Mickey kept his sling lowered but the stone stayed in the pocket. The man – Harry – held his gaze, the smile fading slowly and leaving a thoughtful expression. After a while, he said, ‘How’d ye like to learn how to lay a trap?’

Mickey showed up for school less and less after that. It would have been not at all, but Harry made him go. ‘You start going missing it’ll be the worse for you. Yer old man for one, and they’ll start putting restrictions on you for another. Watching you. So you better go just enough to keep em off your back, right?’

At first it was mostly training, not always riveting stuff but plenty more interesting than school. He’d rather shoot an arrow at a tree trunk a hundred hours a day than do one hour of school. At least arrow shooting was something you could use. And there were other useful things, too, like knot tying and trap laying and camouflage and moving in dead silence over leaves and twigs.

He was wary of Harry, but he soon realised there was nothing sinister about the man. He was a bit crazy, but harmless in the end – too nice to hurt a fly. They caught a rabbit in a trap, but it had babies and so instead of eating it Harry made Mickey let it go. ‘You don’t kill women or children, lad. It ain’t right. The very very old, maybe – that’s just nature, mercy killin.’

‘So who d’you go for, then?’ Mickey asked, watching his first catch go bounding off into the undergrowth.

‘You want to go for the strong males, the ones in their prime. They’re the ones that fight and cause trouble, anyway. ‘Course, with animals, a lot of the females hunt, but usually the males are the source of the violence, fighting over territory and women. That’s all an aside, though. Main reason is, it’s the best game. When you’re up against something in its prime, really thinking and on the ball – that’s the real challenge.’

He didn’t catch anything the first time they went proper hunting, or the second, or the third. Mickey couldn’t believe how hard it was to hit a moving target, especially when it was darting in and out of the tree trunks, getting further all the while.

‘You draw the bow back all the way, you breathe in and out nice and slow, right, take aim and remember to lead, relax, let the arrow go. You don’t shoot the arrow, you let the arrow go, know what I mean?’

For a year this went on. Games and talking by the fire and, when Mickey’s dad didn’t give him enough to eat for some punishment or out of neglect, he’d sneak down to the forest, rain or hail, and he’d always’ find Harry, soon enough, like as not roasting up some rabbits or a wild pig on the spit.

Harry said he’d lived in the forest for years. ‘Since I was a boy. Ran away from home because my ma went mad after my little sister died. Went right crazy, you wouldn’t believe half what I could tell you.’ He would always look somewhere else when he told stories about his past: into the fire, or up at the stars, or nowhere at all but the dark.

‘What happened to her? Your sister I mean.’ Mickey was tentative, sensing if he said the wrong word Harry might never talk of it again.

‘Killed.’ Was all he said. ‘By another who’d gone mad. Lot of madness around, when you think about it.’ And the way he grinned, with the moon and firelight casting weird shadows across his face, Mickey could believe it, alright.

‘What did you do about it?’ he said.

‘Hunted him,’ came the answer, almost too quiet to hear.

 

One of the days he had gone to school, Mickey’s father was waiting for him at home, with a report card in his hand. He wasn’t a big man, Mickey’s da, but he was hard as steel and always wired to explode, full of tension and electricity. He’d sit without moving, staring at the television in the dark for hours on end, but in a temper he could erupt in a flurry of blows so quick they’d hit you before you realised he was out of the chair.

Soon as Mickey walked in the front door he knew he was trapped. It was like being close to a lion – if it chose to attack, there was nothing you could do to stop it, and the only sure way to get it to attack in the first place was to run. All you could do was stand your ground and hope.

‘Not a step more, son.’ He growled. He had dark hair that hung over his face and a three day old beard. Neither of them had slept much since Mickey’s mother died, but now his father’s sleep came from a bottle.

‘What’s this I see on here? Eh?’ His voice always started quiet and then got loud as it went on. Mickey knew better than to interrupt, or speak at all for that matter. He gritted his teeth and poised to run.

‘D maths. B English. C art. D science. And what’s this here, down at the bottom? Sixty percent attendance, it says. Teacher’s concerned for child’s numerous absences throughout the term. Eh? JUST WHAT THE BLAZING HELL IS THIS?’

Mickey closed his eyes just in time, and opened them with the left side of his face half numb and half stinging, his ear ringing. The floor had somehow come up on his right side, but his father was still sitting where he had been, at the foot of the stairs, as if he hadn’t moved at all.

‘Your next one,’ he said, quiet again, ‘has attendance every class, and a lowest grade B, or you’ll suffer the worse for it. Understand?’ Mickey nodded.

 

‘What happened to yer face, ye stupid prick?’ Mark Reid approached him with this on the oval. He had five with him – he’d learned to do that after he realised Mickey was prone to fighting back.

‘Leave off, I’ve nothing on me.’ He was heading to the cricket pitches at the far end. He liked to sit there and read at lunch time, in the shade of the oaks where no one could see him. He was hunched over with his hands in his pockets, but now he took them out and straightened up a little. He still had a headache from the day before.

‘Dunno about that. We want to play some cricket, only we don’t have a ball. Maybe we’ll just take one of yours.’

‘Maybe you should grow some yourself.’ He replied, with a surge of pride. He’d thought that one up right there, on the fly. He threw a fist right at Mark’s surprised face, but it was the first and last of that quick fight.

 

‘Bloody Christ, who done that to you?’

‘Ah, no one. Let’s play tree tag a bit, can’t we?’

Harry squinted down at him, concerned.

‘Ah, no,’ he said, after a while. ‘This month I’m going to teach you how to fight.’

 

Sometimes at night they’d sit and tell each other stories. Mickey wasn’t that good though, so most times it would just be him sitting and Harry doing the telling. He’d go on about years he’d spent travelling through cities and then going to live out in the wilderness. He’d lived most of his life without ever earning or spending so much as a penny, he said. Everything he had came from using his own two hands.

‘Where’d you get that wicked knife, then?’

‘Stole it,’ he said, grinning.

‘What about your bow, and all the arrows?’

‘Ah, them I made.’

‘How?’

After more than a year escaping his life into the forest, Mickey learned that he could live in the wild, too. He’d always thought he had no choice but to have what his father called a ‘proper job’: an accountant or a banker, but now here was this tall, strong, cheerful man, more of a father than his real one had ever been, telling him he was born to live in nature.

‘You’re an animal,’ Harry told him, walking down to the lake where they would sometimes catch fish and filter water for drinking.

‘Fuck off!’ Mickey said, and received a smack on the back of the head.

‘No, idiot. Think about it. We’re all meant to be animals, cavemen, living off the land, hunting for our meat and sleeping in trees. Tell me you don’t feel it, walking through a wild place like this, full of animals and trees and lakes, tell me you don’t feel like you belong.’

In truth, Mickey was thinking of one of the time he’d camped out overnight in the forest with Harry, sleeping on a blanket of leaves and falling asleep with starlight on his face, but the feeling was the same. He nodded.

‘Tell me you don’t feel it when we’re on the hunt.’ He nudged him, and this time Mickey nodded without hesitation. Once he’d got good with the bow, the spear and the knife, hunting had become his favourite past time.

‘And that’s not even the best of it,’ Harry said, looking up at the sky. ‘Just wait till we start hunting a man.’

 

His father got him border collie puppy half way through his fourteenth year. There was no reason for it, to Mickey’s eyes. Nothing he’d done that deserved reward. His father gave him no clues: one day he got Mickey came home and the puppy ran up and licked him right in the face and pushed him up against the wall. His father was watching the rugby in the main room, expressionless. ‘Its name’s Finny,’ he said, without looking around.

Finny was hyperactive and loyal. He would fetch sticks and listen earnestly to everything Mickey told him. When Mickey took him into the forest to meet Harry they were instant friends, and within a week he was coming on hunts with them and doing a hundred tricks Mickey’d never have been able to teach him on his own.

For the first time in his life, Mickey felt a wave of gratitude to his father. Who knew why he’d done it – maybe he felt bad for hitting him so bad sometimes, or he thought Mickey’d been doing well lately. Whatever it was, Finny was the best thing that had ever happened.

He gathered up his courage one day – and it took courage all right, to talk to his father unbidden – and said thanks. His da gave him a funny look and then laughed, and that was the end of it. Almost. While he never played with the dog or did anything but feed it, now and again Mickey caught his father looking at Finny in a strange way. A mean, sly way that he’d never seen before. Finny didn’t mind, though – he just wagged his tail and whined.

‘Dunno if I want to, though. It’s murder, isn’t it?’ He asked Harry, on the eve of his first man hunt.

‘No, no. I mean it is, sure, but the men I go after, I always make sure they deserve it, first. I do my research, see, and always make sure that one or this one has something evil in his past. I hunted one who’d been touchin little boys, and another that’d killed his wife.’

‘Oh.’

‘The law doesn’t like it, of course. You can’t have just anyone doing this sort of thing. But you and me, Mickey, we’re highly trained professionals. And besides, I’ve taught you not to waste a scrap, haven’t I? Wasting is the real tragedy.’

‘You mean… We’ll eat him?’

Harry chuckled and ruffled his hair. ‘Not all of him, lad. We’ll give the bad bits to Finny, here.’

The man Harry had chosen was a dusk jogger. Harry hunted for potential pray by sneaking through the streets late at night and spying through windows, and he’d seen this one beating his girlfriend with a hockey stick the week before. ‘Damaged as she was, no tellin if she were even alive or not. Just imagine, eh, Mickey? A defenceless woman, probably some nice lady like one of your teachers, like that Miss Brien you like so much? Takin a beating from this bastard.’

Mickey did imagine it – Miss Brien with her nice eyes holding up her slender arms to some hulking enraged man. He tightened his grip on the bow.

‘There he is, now, see?’ Harry’s face was brightly lit. He dropped lower behind the bush and drew his hunting knife from his belt. It was just in case Mickey missed. Mickey peeked around a thick trunk and saw him, a well muscled man with a tattoo on his shoulder. Harry had taught him to immediately judge a person on sight. This one was about six one and weight around eighty kilogrammes. He was jogging with purpose, sweat dripping from his forehead and determination in his eyes.

‘Remember what I taught you, lad.’ Harry whispered.

 

Two weeks ago Harry had given him a demonstration. His strict orders were to stand back and take it all in. ‘You’ll get a moment where you want to run,’ Harry warned him. ‘Your mind will tell you it’s all wrong, and make you sick, and that you should run, but just resist it, it’ll pass.’ The prey then had been a wiry looking morning walker who beat his dogs until they died and bought a new one every other month.

He’d come walking down the path, the only walker at such an early hour, and Harry had stepped out in front of him with the knife out at his side and said loud and clear. ‘I’m here to kill you, ye dog murdering arsehole.’

The man had frozen mid stride and stared at him. He fumbled for his wallet and then the words hit home and he realised, as Harry came for him, what was going on. He sprinted, Harry sprinted, Mickey sprinted. It was all over in a few seconds. Harry caught up, tripped him, got on his back, slit his throat, and dragged him away. Without saying a word, he ran back to the path and covered the blood spatter and tracks with sand, mud and leaves.

‘You always tell them first, that you’re going to kill them,’ he told Mickey, still breathless with excitement. ‘To give them a chance. That one ran, but some of them fight, and you have to be ready.’

‘What if they win?’

He shrugged. ‘Then they were the hunter. You want to be the hunter, you better win.’

Nothing too bad had happened for a while, but one of the days he turned up to school they were on to him. It had been a while, maybe they were bored. He knew they were after him before they did, the way the grouped together when lunch bell sounded, glancing at him in the corner of their eyes now and then. He remembered Harry’s lessons.

He headed for the cricket pitches, like usual, book hanging in one hand and the other loose by his side. They were following him at a distance, closing in now. He waited for Mark’s first call. The taunts he always liked to get out before they really laid into him.

‘Hey Mickey!’

What they expect, do the opposite. Mickey spun around on the spot and stopped in his tracks. His eyes were wide, his mouth hanging open in an obscene smile like a circus clown. They all stopped. No one had ever seen a smile on Mickey, let alone this monstrosity. He spread his arms wide and laughed, loud and crazy.

Attack at the first sign of hesitation, surprise, or fear. They hesitated.

Every fight is a fight to the death. He came forward, reaching into his pocket. There was a little stick in there no longer than his index finger, sharpened to a razor end.

You’re an animal. Act like one. And always attack the leader. He slit Mark’s throat, not deep, but deep enough to draw lots of blood. He kicked him in the balls and pushed him back. The others were almost on him, already moving forward to attack – and then they saw what he’d done.

One of them cried out as Mark fell back into his arms, spraying blood into his face. The others backed away as if it was poison, and a couple looked at Mickey, who was still screaming laughter as he crushed the weapon under his foot (don’t leave evidence if you can).

He expected them to come for him, to try to kill him even, but they didn’t. It was all over. They were looking at him with something he’d never seen in their eyes before: real fear. And blood was still spurting from Mark’s neck. It wasn’t a deep enough cut to kill him, but that was fine.

‘Crazy, man.’ One of them muttered, eyeing him.

He laughed again, and then found he couldn’t stop. He laughed and laughed, and they dragged Mark away and called for help.

 

He stood in the middle of the path and called out to this man who had almost a foot and twenty kilos on him: ‘I’m going to kill you, for beating your girlfriend. Bastard.’

The man saw him, kept jogging, and then skidded to a stop when he raised the bow. Harry usually waited three seconds, because surprise was such a big advantage and it was important to be fair, but he said that since it was Mickey’s first hunt it was alright. Mickey took a deep breath in and out, saw his hands were suddenly steady, and let the arrow go. It went straight in with a thick sound, burying about half the shaft, the back end wobbling.

The man kept skidding on his knees in the gravel, and then stood up and came for Mickey, his eyes wide. Mickey had his knife out and was crouching, ready, but Harry got there first, ramming him against a tree just long enough for Mickey to plant two more arrows in his heart.

The next few minutes were wild activity, Harry dragging the body further out into the forest while Mickey covered the tracks with dirt and rocks. They made sure to keep well away from the area while the police searched the man’s jogging route, briefly. They didn’t find anything.

That evening, they ate some of him and buried the rest, giving the eyeballs and brain to Finny, who slurped it all down like it was a Christmas treat.

 

Mickey felt sick for days afterwards. Harry told him he’d feel sick at first, but when Mickey told him how he hadn’t been able to sleep for a week Harry just looked at him funny. ‘You’ve got to sleep,’ he said. ‘You need to stay aware.’

‘I just keep thinking of the guy, being dead. It’s all over for him, isn’t it? I mean, he doesn’t get to eat or breathe again, go on holiday or go jogging or…’

‘Or beat his girlfriend, eh?’ Harry was smiling but Mickey had seen the report on the missing jogger, and his girlfriend hadn’t looked too happy to be free of him at all. She’d been crying like her own mother was dead, it seemed to Mickey. It made him wonder if that black pool in his stomach wasn’t justified. It made him wonder a bit why Harry didn’t have a black pool in his stomach, too.

 

His report card was almost good enough. Almost. All As and Bs and even an A plus! But then there was that lonely D at the end, under the column marked ‘Mathematics’. He braced himself for attack, still the victim when his father was concerned, still afraid… but nothing came. His father sat at the kitchen table and looked at the card for a long time, saying nothing. Eventually, he muttered something and pointed at the stairs. Mickey didn’t eat dinner that night, nor breakfast the next morning, and that was it. No further mention.

He came home from school starting to feel almost as though he’d gotten away with it. He felt that way all the way home, right through the front gates and halfway up the drive to the front door. Then he looked up.

Finny was looking at him, right at him, with eyes that were once brown and now only white and red. Ragged, muddy fur. He ended at the neck, and where his body should be was only a splintery piece of wood jammed solidly in the unkempt weeds next to the front door. The wood was stained with blood right down to the ground, as thoroughly as if it had been painted.

Mickey stared at the head for a long time, his breath caught in this throat and his thoughts stopped in his head, so completely he wondered if he’d just stay that way forever: in pause. But time goes on, and soon his breaths came in quick gasps and his thoughts emerged as blind flashes of rage. Here, at last, was his punishment.

He pushed through the front door, glanced at his father who was sitting in the dark watching Television with a glass of scotch on the rocks like nothing had happened. He didn’t look around. Mickey headed upstairs, his mind a blank screen dyed red. His whole body was riveted with twitching energy, wanting to explode, destroy something.

He didn’t keep his bow in his room where his father might see it but in the broom cupboard, on a top shelf that held nothing else but darkness and cobwebs. He grabbed it along with a single arrow and headed back downstairs.

‘Stop stomping around everywhere, boy! You’ll bring the house down.’ His father called over his shoulder as he descended, already drawing back the tight string. He stepped up, three feet away now, aiming straight down at the back of his father’s head. Someone made a hard tackle on the screen and his father lifted both arms in the air, the ice clinking in the glass in his right hand, a whispery cry of delight escaping him.

Mickey’s hands didn’t shake; the arrow went just where it was supposed to, right through the centre of his father’s neck. It didn’t pass completely through, but the feathers on the back were touching his skin. Most of the shaft stuck right out from the front of his neck.

His hands went right to it, the glass shattering on the floor. The cry of delight was cut short into a rough gurgling. He rolled onto the floor and kicked his legs as if the arrow was something he could get away from. Mickey lowered the bow to his side and watched. A flash of bloodshot eyes, a mouth leaking blood, hands gripping the shaft of the arrow but not entirely sure what to do with it. It took two minutes for him to die.

Afterwards, Mickey went back upstairs and took the rest of his arrows, and then went into his room to pack. He didn’t have many things, but that was fine. He knew enough to live down in the forest by himself, even if Harry hadn’t been there to help him.

He left the house and headed down, but first he took Finny’s head under one arm. He realised for the first time his face was wet with tears, and took care to wipe them off before he headed for the trees. Harry saw his face, and then his eyes dropped down to the dog. ‘Jaysus. What happened?’ he said.

He gave Mickey a tin of hot water and sat him down on a tree stump by the fire where dinner was cooking. Mickey told him everything and he listened with a dark expression. He helped him bury Finney’s head nearby. ‘A loyal friend, so you were, rest in piece,’ he said. ‘I got him back, Finney. He’s cold an’ dead now,’ said Mickey.

They ate most of the roast animal – it tasted like venison – and drank the water in silence, until eventually Harry asked the crucial question. ‘So, what are you going to do now?’

He shook his head. ‘Dunno. Live with you I guess. I’ll find something.’

Harry nodded seriously. ‘Aye. Y’know, in a way, and hear me out, right – in a way it was a good thing. Finny dying gave you the strength to kill your old man, and sounds like he deserved it, eh? Finny gave you the strength to stand up and be a man. And now you’re your own man, you can do what you like. You can hunt down more like your father and kill them, too, sort of like I do.’

‘You do?’

‘I kill them that’s like the one killed my sister. You have your cause, both of us do good in our own ways, because of what’s happened to them. Point is, like, in a way your old man did you a favour, killing that dog. He made you an enemy of all the bastards like him.’

He gave him a pat on the back and a half hearted smile. Something churned in Mickey’s stomach, but he didn’t know why. Harry kept talking, still serious but starting to get to his old cheerful self already, saying how they were going to do so much together, clean up the human race.

‘Not that it’s possible, that, really. But we can make a start, can’t we, we can make a difference, no matter how small it is it’s still worth it. And what if we found more like me and you, eh? And trained them up, got a whole organisation going? Who knows?’

There that churning was again, but it was as much a mental churning as a physical one. Some instinct trying to tell him something he wasn’t listening to. Always listen to your instincts, Harry taught him. Or was it something he ate?

He looked at what remained of the roast, set aside on a sheet of metal beside the fire. It was unrecognizable mostly, just burned meat and bones. There was, however, a leg they hadn’t gotten around to eating. It didn’t look like deer, and it was much too big for rabbit. It was nothing like Mickey’d ever eaten before, for sure. The leg was cut at the ankle so it was impossible to tell by footprint, but it was familiar. Particularly the long cut about halfway along the shinbone. Finny had a scar just there; she’d got it trying to chase a rabbit through a vicious thorn patch.

That churning. Harry was still talking, starting to smile now, going on about all his ideas, all the things they were going to do, how they were really heroes that no one understood. Mickey felt like someone was pouring a bucket of cold water over him in slow motion.

Unless you’re on a hunt, hit without warning, and fast.

But Harry had seen the look in his eyes. That was breaking one of the rules, showing what you were thinking of doing with your eyes – only there was a moment when Mickey looked at Harry and Harry saw what was going on, and he dove forward and sprayed a handful of ashes into Mickey’s eyes.

Mickey had slipped his knife into his pocket when he packed, and he came forward with it now, blind, because it was the only chance he’d ever get. If Harry got away Mickey would never see him again. He would become one of Harry’s problems, and Harry would hunt him down and stop him being a problem.

The knife hit earth, grazed cloth, and then sunk into something soft. Mickey was fast, and he struck three times before Harry got his own knife around. It was meant to pierce his heart from the back but instead it glanced off his shoulder blade. Mickey got in a few more blows, pressing down on Harry and feeling with his hand so he knew he was getting close to his face. Harry sunk the blade into his left shoulder.

Mickey kept stabbing. Even when Harry went limp, he stabbed, until the blood that covered them started getting cold.

He crawled over to some bushes and vomited the pieces of Finny he’d eaten. He checked his wounds, and decided they were bad, but not bad enough for a hospital. He stitched them up the way Harry taught him. Night fell.

The police searched for the missing boy who they said was also a suspect for the murder of his own father. He had a history of violent behaviour at school, and the disappearances over the years in the nearby forest pointed nowhere good. They searched, but he forest was vast and they found nothing. The curfew was extended to five thirty in all areas immediately surrounding the forest, and citizens were told to be on the watch for a probably malnourished, ragged looking teenager, who may be dangerous.

In 2009, A young Markus Reid did not arrive at school one morning. His friends all testified that he was an enemy of the missing boy, who had reportedly slit his throat in one confrontation.

Less than six months later a notorious gangster by the name of Goldy went missing by the now infamous Keyneton forest and parklands. He was not the last. His body was never found.

 

 

I used to wonder if dreams were your consciousness waking up in other universes, inhabiting other bodies for a short space of time. It’s a creepy thought for me, because I die a lot in my dreams, so what if I was invading innocent bodies and then getting them killed? Or what if someone from another universe dreamed themselves into my head and then got me killed? Just think about that when you go to sleep next… enjoy!

 

Sleeper

By Ben Pienaar

 

The dreams that weren’t really dreams started around Tyler’s nineteenth birthday. It seemed to him the same as it always had been: he’d close his eyes, darkness would descend, and he’d wake up. He’d never experienced the ‘dreams’ that his friends talked about sometimes.

He only became aware that he was having dreams at all when he was twenty, but these were all similar things, just flashes of light here and there, muffled voices speaking gibberish, and they were always quickly forgotten upon waking. In fact, it was only around his twenty second birthday that things started to get weird. He woke up.

He opened his eyes and found himself in someone else’s room. It was hot instead of cold – really hot – and he threw off his blankets and sat up. ‘Is this a dream?’ he said out loud, and then clamped a hand over his mouth in sudden fear because the voice that sounded was not his at all – it was high pitched, like a little boy.

The feel of his hand on his mouth was wrong, too, and when he craned his head to look at himself, he saw that his legs were short and thin, his body scrawny. He couldn’t be more than four feet tall. Okay, he told himself, that just means it’s a really weird dream – a nightmare.

He stood up and looked around the bedroom, taking in everything from the little brown desk to the cars and army men scattered around the floor. It was something about seeing those that triggered his memory, and all of his previous dreams came back to him in a surge.

It wasn’t the first after all – only the first time he’d remembered the others. He’d been waking up in this room for years in his sleep. The only difference was he used to be smaller. He couldn’t remember everything, and the further back he tried to go the less he could recall. Only quick flashes here and there, memories. He had parents in this place. He remembered falling into a swimming pool maybe a year ago, and his father, a dark haired grinning giant, diving in to save him.

‘My name is Daniel Grey,’ he said in that same high pitched voice. It didn’t sound so strange now. ‘I’m five years old. I live in Melbourne, Australia, not Birmingham, England. And I have parents.’ The thought brought tears to his eyes and he remembered this, too: the power childish emotions and thoughts had in his mind. Sometimes he yelled things for no reason, and he didn’t know what some words meant that Tyler Hunnam did. How was that possible?

By the time he was at school, the dream that was Tyler had faded to the back of his mind, but not disappeared – it never did. He was mostly Tyler in his mind, and he knew that was why he was so good at school: Tyler had already done it all. He’d screwed around a lot but he’d done it and besides first grade was piss easy for a twenty year old. These were typical Tyler thoughts, and though Daniel did have thoughts of his own, it would be a long time before they grew enough to merge with Tyler’s and become part of a whole person.

And then it was time for bed, and his mother tucked him in and read him a story and even though he thought it was cheesy and gooey as hell, secretly he loved it because Tyler had never had parents to read him anything. He closed his eyes and started to drift, and it was unpleasant because why would he want to leave a place like this and go to his shitty life?

But sleep came like it always did, and then he woke up and went through the whole process again: discovering he had an adult body and no parents, freaking out, then marvelling at the realism of his dream. He told everyone about it, but none of them seemed to understand what he meant when he said it was real, or that he’d dreamed the same life for twelve hours. Everyone just dismissed it. Told him it was weird enough that he hadn’t had a single dream since the day he was born and it was about time.

But there were always the dreams, always Daniel’s life going on to remind him how real it was. He was doing well, Daniel. Very mature for his age, everyone said. He made friends quickly. Tyler’s own childhood had been awkward and full of terror and bullies, but he’d eventually come out of his shell around seventeen, and now this lucky kid got all of his balls and brash five years before he had. And while his intelligence (emotional and otherwise) was mediocre for a twenty two year old, it was practically genius level for a kid. He even landed a girlfriend when he was seventeen, and it had taken Tyler years of horrible angst before he even felt comfortable near a girl.

Tyler was the one who suffered. No one listened to him about the life he was really living, and any stories about the popular Australian boy were dismissed as crazy talk. The only person who really took him seriously was Daniel’s girlfriend, and even then, it took a while. He brought it up, they joked around, and then a couple of years later they got onto it and she understood that he was serious – that it was real. He was twenty himself, then, and they were staying in, watching Coraline for the hundredth time.

At some point, she turned to him with her big brown eyes and just asked him, flat out, and he couldn’t help it; he told her the truth. If she thought he was a nutcase, well… just as well it happened now than later. ‘Is that what it’s like for you?’ she said. ‘With the two worlds?’

‘I guess, only… without the buttons in the eyes.’

‘Seriously, though. Do you think it’s real?’ And she was serious. There was none of the usual laughter in her eyes, only patient scrutiny. She probably thinks I’ll laugh at her, tell her I was joking about it, he thought, and for a moment he was tempted. It was mean, but it would make it go away.

Then it occurred to him that that was a Tyler thought, and Tyler was becoming more of a ratbag as the years went on. Only when he was Daniel could he rid himself of that growing sense of worthlessness and self hatred that plagued Tyler.

‘Yeah,’ he said eventually, dropping the smile. ‘I think it’s real. I know you think I’m crazy, but I believe that world is just as real as this one. I broke my leg as him – Tyler – once and I promise you that wasn’t any kind of dream pain. It was just as real as here, as right now.’

She stared at him, saying nothing, and he couldn’t help but keep talking. ‘Remember that time in Tasmania? In the hotel room, I was dead asleep and then I just woke up, wide awake out of the blue? And then a few hours later I was watching TV and just dropped off like a rock?’

‘Yeah, I remember. You were in the middle of kissing me, you ass.’

‘I was getting an operation on my knee. That put me out in that world so I woke up in this one. When the anaesthetic wore off, I fell back asleep here and woke up there.’

‘Daniel… Please tell me you’re not joking. I mean, I know
you pull my leg and that but I’m serious here, okay?’

He squeezed her hand and shook his head. ‘Not joke. I know it sounds goddam insane but it’s real. I’ve tried to tell people before but no one ever believes me. I kinda… To tell you the truth I’m going a bit crazy, Jen.’

He looked away, but now that the weight was coming off it was impossible to hold anything back. It was all or nothing. Like when you were hung over and something just triggered the urge to vomit. That’s a Tyler thought. I don’t drink, remember? ‘It’s just getting to me… really bad lately. I get confused, sometimes. There are so many differences, people I know over there I don’t know here, things that are different over there. Everything gets muddled up in my head and drives me insane.’

He took a deep breath and looked back at her. She was lost for words, but her eyes were full of concern. He couldn’t tell if she thought he was crazy.

‘And Tyler?’ she said. ‘How does he feel?’

‘It’s me, remember? We’re still the same person, in the end. But Tyler’s depressed, really bad, and I’m not. And I think he’s going insane, and his insanity is leaking over into my mind, making me crazy. Fucking drug addict.’

She raised her eyebrows and blew a strand of brown hair out of her face. ‘Drug addict?’

‘Ha. Yeah. I mean, I always figured, what the hell. That became my spare life. He was the one that took the drugs because his life was worse, and he knew all the right people anyway.’

‘Is that why you never drink?’

Daniel nodded. ‘He does it all for me. Shit, that reminds me, I’m going to have such a hangover tonight.’

‘My God. Daniel… Haven’t you… I mean I believe you, I really do, but isn’t there anything you can do? Make it easier on yourself?’

He shrugged. ‘When I’m him… It’s not that easy. He’s on heroin, Jen. All the bad shit.’

‘Holy shit, Dan.’

He looked down and saw a tear fall into his lap. Was he actually crying? His hands were shaking. He hadn’t realised how bad it was weighing on him, the second life. As Tyler it was always so easy to just take a hit and escape to the clouds.

‘I’m going to kill myself,’ he said suddenly. He felt her nails dig into his thigh and added quickly, ‘Tyler, I mean.’

‘Dan.’

He looked up at her and saw that she was on the brink of tears herself, but all it did was solidify his decision: Kill Tyler.

‘If I kill him, maybe it’ll just end and I can sleep like a normal person, or stop dreaming totally, or maybe I won’t even have to sleep at all. No matter what it is, it has to be better than this, Jen.’

‘Dan, just hang on a minute okay? No rush, just think about it.’

He stared at her, amused. ‘How can you care, though? I mean, you don’t know Tyler.’

‘He’s you, isn’t he?’

‘Yeah, but… I mean, I just told you all this stuff about alternate universes, a place where there were two world wars and the president of America is black.’

She shrugged. ‘It’s not that unbelievable.’

‘Jen. In that world, people built a space ship and went to the moon. Not just a space station, an actual ship, and they got people to walk on the moon.’

‘Why?’

‘I dunno, but the point is, it’s insane, isn’t it? I mean, don’t you think it’s insane? Don’t you think it’s crazy that I have memories going back like fifteen years before I was even born?’

She looked away for a second, shifting in her place but when her gaze rose to meet his again it was steady, if disturbed. ‘I believe you, Dan. I’ve woken you up one time, in the middle of the night.’

‘What?’

‘A few months ago. I shook you awake and you were in mid conversation, talking to someone called Hamish. You had this really strong English accent, and then you opened your eyes and saw me and it caught in your throat. It was so weird. Makes sense now, I guess.’

He shook his head and looked down at the floor. He’d felt the dread of it for a while, but now that he’d told her what he really wanted to do it rose up in a boiling whirlpool. ‘I have to do it, Jen,’ he said quietly. ‘I have to do it or I’ll go insane.’

He looked up at her, and the tears were spilling from his eyes again. ‘I don’t know what’s real anymore.’

She put her hands on his temple and brought his forehead to touch hers. ‘This is real,’ she said, and kissed him. But it wasn’t enough.

 

Tyler woke up with the fucking seven dwarves pick axing the inside of his skull. He rolled over onto his stomach and then remained there for an hour and a half, after which point he was able to progress to a curled position. Hamish, Kyle, Sara and the others were sprawled around him in similar conditions and judging by Hamish’s groans he wasn’t the only one this badly off. His first thought was that suicide wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

After a very long time he walked out onto the front porch and sat down in front of a front lawn so overgrown it was practically a jungle. Sara’s house was further from the city than he was used to, but he could still hear the sirens and taste the pollution in the air. He lit a cigarette and savoured it. Maybe Daniel was fit and healthy, and never got cravings for tobacco or alcohol or heroin, but he also never got that first cigarette in the morning feeling. Tyler took it in and thought about how he was going to kill himself.

Overdose was out of the question – he’d heard that could be pretty horrible – but he’d definitely have a few last hits before he went. And he didn’t want it to be messy, either. No one was going to clean up his corpse. He was gonna go back to nature, somehow, that was what. Return to the earth, kind of thing.

He didn’t do it that day. Instead, he spent everything he had on heroin, a bottle of whiskey and some hash. He took these back to his place and then fell asleep. Over the next few days, he took care of the whiskey, then the hash, then the heroin, in that order. He told his friends he wanted to go to the beach and they laughed at him, but in the end they came.

His last day was a good one, in the end, and it surprised him, after all the shit he’d been through in this life. They got drunk and went to some shit beach full of rocks and flat water, and lit a fire by the sea. Later Sara and Hamish would say he was uncharacteristically melancholy that day, and also more talkative than usual. When he got drunk he told them all how much he loved them and how it wasn’t such a bad world after all. After that they didn’t remember anything: they simply woke up and he was gone. His body was never found.

It was still a few hours before dawn when he left them, snoring by the smouldering fire. He took off all of his clothes and waded waist deep into the ocean, and took in his last moments. He chuckled to himself, shivering in the water. The only person to ever truly experience death more than once, and no one would ever know. No one would ever know about his condition, because it was impossible. There was no way to prove the existence of two universes. Only he would ever be able to prove it, and only to himself.

He closed his eyes and breathed in and out, slowly, sampling the saltiness in the air. It was going to be very hard to die, he realised, because it was so damn real. Everything was so real. But there was Daniel. Daniel gave him the strength, and even more than him, Jen. He had to be there for her, stay sane. It was going to be okay.

‘Alright Jen, here I come baby,’ he whispered to himself. He began to wade out into the ocean.

He didn’t stop or look back until his whole body was numb and his muscles were threatening to give out. By then the sun was up, but when he turned back he couldn’t see the shore. It wasn’t even a line on the horizon; it was nothing.  He knew he’d been awake about twelve hours. It was time.

He ducked under and swam straight down. The abyss of deep ocean stretched around him like the depths of space itself. He felt like an astronaut who’d launched himself from his spaceship and into the black with no hope of return. He pushed himself down and down until his lungs were burning for oxygen and his limbs were weak and dead in the water.

Finally he stopped, floating naked in the black void, and looked up at the surface. It sparkled above him, unreachable as the heavens themselves. He held onto what was left of his breath for ten more agonizing seconds, and then he let it go, along with his life. He smiled until the end.

 

Daniel Grey woke gasping. The blankets had fallen over his face and he pushed them off and rolled onto all fours. Precious oxygen flowed into his lungs. It was alright – he was alive, and Tyler was dead. His life was finally his.

‘Dan? What’s wrong?’ Jen rolled over and sat up, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. He got to his knees, still recovering his breath, and smiled. ‘I did it,’ he said. ‘I killed him.’

She stared at him for a second and then understood. ‘Jesus,’ she said. ‘Are you okay?’

He nodded and got to his feet. ‘I think it’s all over now,’ he said. ‘I don’t feel like he’s in my mind, you know? He’s gone, Jen. I think he’s gone for good. It’s just me and you.’

‘I’m glad, Dan, I really am. But did it have to be so early in the morning?’ She turned her back to him and passed out again, just like that. Dan wanted to join her, but he was wide awake, now, his heart still beating with the adrenaline of the final moments. Eventually he kissed her on the cheek and then went to make breakfast.

 

It was early, and he did sleep for a long time, but surely he’d have been up by twelve? Jen knocked again and got no answer. A little irritated, she went around the side, hopped the fence, and made her way through the back door. His parents would have left long ago, but they never locked the back door and she let herself in. The house was quiet, the only sounds the humming of the refrigerator and the snoring of Stupid the beagle.

‘Daniel?’ No answer. She went upstairs and saw that his bedroom door was closed. A bad feeling came to her, then. Not strong, yet, the nagging kind that ate away at you. All of a sudden she didn’t want to open the door.

But when she knocked it swung open easily, and the room was empty. No sleeping Daniel, nothing. The bed was ruffled and untidy, but otherwise the room was as neat as usual. Nothing wrong.

She was about to head back downstairs and call him from the house phone when she heard the singing. It was his voice, but there was something very wrong about it. For one thing, it was coming from his parent’s bedroom at the end of the hall, and for another, it wasn’t like Daniel’s voice at all. She couldn’t hear most of the words he was singing, but his tone had a slight English lilt to it, like Tyler’s.

She took her foot of the top stair and made her way down the hall, listening to that odd, off key singing, the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end. When she got close, when her hand was stretched out in front of her ready to push the door open, she heard another sound: eating. At least that’s what is sounded like. It sounded like someone digging into a hearty plate of mac and cheese or pizza, some thick, rich comfort food that made your tongue work and your lips smack.

She opened the door.

It was Daniel, alright – at least in body; his mind was in another universe. He was sitting on the corpses of his parents who were lying on the large double bed in the middle of the room. A paring knife lay on the bedside table next to the lamp, and blood trickled from its point and onto the carpet, making a little pool.

Nicolette and Gary Grey were unrecognizable. Both were face up, but they had no faces – those had been taken and laid out on the balcony to dry. Their stomachs were wide open, and the entrails and various organs spread over the bed, some spilling a little onto the floor. What looked like a tendril of small intestine was in Daniel’s mouth, but it fell out when he looked up to see Jen.

‘Jen!’ He almost screamed. His eyes were wide and deep. She thought that if she looked right into them she might drown. ‘I’ve been so happy since I did it, Jen, so happy.’ He smiled with a mouth in a lake of blood. ‘I know all the truth now.’

She was frozen in place, her mind blank. She only watched as he slid off the bed, took a step to balance himself, and came towards her, arms outstretched. ‘I know all the truth…’ he said again. ‘I saw hell, Jen. See? I saw hell. It was so beautiful.’

She ran.

One of my rare non supernatural stories, which in a lot of ways I think makes it more horrific. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions… Enjoy the trip!

 

Lost Cause

By Ben Pienaar

 

It was good to be home after so many hospital stays, but Toby Morrow’s relief was short lived. In the days following his last visit, his parents been increasingly depressed, and when they thought he was asleep they’d argue in hushed voices downstairs. He’d caught both of them wiping tears away at the last minute and then denying it when he asked. As if they were guilty.

‘Your father and I need to talk to you,’ his mother said after breakfast the following Sunday. Janine Morrow had never not looked tired and depressed in her whole life – even her kindergarten pictures were of pudgy, sad eyed little girl – but today she looked worn down solid. His father was the same, only for him it was a little more uncharacteristic – he was usually just expressionless.

Victor Morrow was waiting for them in the study, and when they entered he didn’t turn around from the window. He had one hand on the chair and stared out at the rainy day, as if deep in thought. Toby might have been only thirteen, but he knew his father better than to think that was the case.

‘Your test results came back last night, Toby,’ he said. His voice was choked, and Toby realised with a stab of worry that it was genuine. ‘It… Wasn’t what we hoped.’

‘Oh.’ Toby wiped his perpetually runny nose and sat down on one of the soft chairs. He’d been feeling tired a lot lately – it was one of the reasons they’d taken him to the hospital in the first place. Janine went to stand behind him and rested an ice cold hand on his shoulder.

His father finally turned around and Toby saw tears brimming in the corners of his eyes. The worry deepened and turned to fright, but it was nothing compared to what he felt at the next words. ‘They say you’re dying, Toby.’

There was a long silence. Toby’s mother squeezed his shoulder and let out a choked sob, also genuine.

‘It’s not a hundred per cent but, well… Ninety nine is the same thing, isn’t it? They’re all sure of it. We’re sure of it. We think, deep down, you’re sure of it, too.’ His bottom lip trembled. ‘There’s a surgery that might delay the onset of it, but not for very long. And it would cost a lot of money – more than we have.’

‘How long then?’

‘I… what do you mean?’ he was taken aback at Toby’s abruptness, but Tony hadn’t even begun to comprehend the truth of it all. For now there was only the electrifying terror and speed of thought that came with it.

‘In the movies the doctors usually tell people how long they have,’ he said. ‘So I want to know. Usually it’s six months.’

‘I…’ He looked up at Janine, and she squeezed his shoulder again.

‘We’re not completely sure, dear,’ she said in a shaking voice. ‘The doctor did tell us, though, that for boys around your age, with this particular condition… it’s usually between about two and six mon… two and six mon…’ she let out an especially hard sob.

Toby was speechless. The thought that he’d be dead, gone, zippo – in as little as two months was just too much. How could it be possible? He felt fine! Well, not really, he felt terrible, but definitely not that! Definitely not dying. It was impossible. He was shaking his head.

‘I don’t want to,’ he said eventually. ‘I won’t do it.’

‘I’m sorry, son,’ his father said. ‘It’s just the way it is. You’ll see, in time. Janine and I thought that maybe – ‘

‘We’d go on holiday!’ she cut him off sharply and he looked up, surprised. Toby spun around to look at her but whatever look she’d shot him was off her face and she was smiling down at him. ‘We decided we’d go to… to Hawaii. I was going to book the plane tickets tonight, in fact.’

‘I don’t feel like a holiday,’ Toby said. He stared down at his thin hands in his lap and wondered what they would look like in two months. Would they turn yellow first or would they look completely fine, right up until the end?’

‘Don’t worry, it’ll be brilliant,’ she babbled on. ‘We’ll go swimming and eat all the delicious American food and do whatever you want.’ Toby nodded almost imperceptibly, and both of his parents moved in to drown him in watery hugs, which he accepted, his mind a whirlwind of doubt and horror and morbid curiosity.

When he fell asleep that night, he wondered if he’d ever wake up.

 

While he was around, both of Toby’s parents made an effort to be happy. They took him snorkelling and hiking (though he felt so tired and sick they had to stop early and turn around), and all the while they wore smiles so stretched he thought it was that and not the hot summer sun that was making them sweat so much.

In their luxurious hotel suite the rooms were closer together and Toby could hear them argue more clearly, though he could only make out a few of the words. For some reason, several of their arguments were about the youth in Asia, and he couldn’t figure out why until he realised it was probably they who were researching the cure for his condition. He hoped they worked quickly; the daily expeditions only seemed to be making him weaker – soon he’d be too sick to leave the hotel.

He seemed to sleep a little longer each day, or at least he wanted to, but more often than not his parents would wake him up so they could take him to some exotic place or do something ever more (they hoped) uplifting: scuba diving, fishing, parasailing, whatever crossed their minds. There was one night in particular, about a week after their arrival in Honolulu, that cured Toby of his habit of sleeping in – and almost entirely of sleeping.

It was past midnight, and though the sickness made him muggy and drowsy at all hours, this night was especially humid and Toby was only half asleep, tossing and turning every twenty minutes to get a cool breeze on his leg, then snatching it back when it was too cold. The images he remembered later came to him as if in a dream, and that was what he thought they were at the time – a draft on his face, a door creaking open and closed; a presence in the room.

A mosquito landed on his arm and tried to sting him but he rolled over and it went away. He drifted between consciousness and dreaming and when it stung again he slapped it away irritably and sat up, and that was when he saw his mother on her knees at his bedside, crying.

‘What’s going on?’ He said, rubbing his eyes.

‘Nothing honey, nothing. I’m sorry I woke you. I was… I was just praying.’

‘Praying?’ He’d never seen either of his parents praying in his life before.

‘Yes. I’ll go back to sleep now, you need your rest, okay? I’ll wait here until you sleep.’

‘Okay.’

He lay back on his bed and closed his eyes, but not all the way. After ten minutes or so, he slowed his breathing and made it sound like he was fast asleep. For a while, his mother did nothing but rock in place and cry silently, but every now and again she would look at something in her lap and shake her head. After a long time, she got up and walked to the door, and in the few moments her form was silhouetted by the hallway light he caught a glimpse of something in her right hand: a long syringe. Mosquito bites? He thought, as the door clicked closed behind her. Poison? A hysterical voice asked in his mind. Medicine, he answered, and then remembered the way she kept looking down at the needle and shaking her head.

The next morning he told them he needed some time alone, and wanted some money to explore the city. They exchanged significant glances. ‘Why, what’s going to happen?’ he said. ‘Someone gonna kill me?’

His father shook his head. ‘Son, there are worse things that could happen to you than that, you know. It’s not that simple.’

‘It’s ten in the morning,’ he said, and looked up at them with his most helpless, pleading look. They gave him three hours and a hundred dollars. ‘Don’t go too far!’ they called after him.

He ate an enormous lunch at the Hard Rock, if for no other reason than he was worried he wouldn’t be able to stomach much food in future, the way he was going these days. Feeling queasy, he went to the internet café and surfed the net, but after a few minutes he typed the inevitable phrase into the Google search bar: ‘Youth in Asia.’ The first link was clearly irrelevant, but the second got his attention. A Wikipedia article about something called ‘Euthanasia’. It didn’t take him long to read it.

They were trying to kill him. It was mostly mentioned in relation to old people, but that didn’t fool him – it was about dying people. They were trying to kill him… why? So he wouldn’t have to die? It didn’t make sense, but the more he thought about it, the more he thought about their arguments and the needle in the night, he knew it was true.

He stayed out far longer than the agreed three hours, walking along Waikiki beach, wondering if it was possible to swim to America. He didn’t think so. Maybe you should just let them do it. The thought came unbidden and for a moment he found himself wanting it. An end to the constant terror, to the waiting. He was going to die anyway, wasn’t he? Maybe you will. Probably. It would be so easy. He wouldn’t even have to say anything. Just go to sleep and never wake up.

‘There! That’s him!’ He spun away from the sunset and saw his parents running towards him, an overweight and somewhat relieved policeman trotting in their wake. He didn’t run to them, but watched the sun and let the fresh air cool. He hoped it would be a cooler night.

 

For a while, he couldn’t get himself to sleep because he was so terrified of death, but eventually he convinced himself it had all been a false alarm anyway and he drifted off just after midnight.

And woke up. They hadn’t come for him after all. There had been no repercussions for his excursion the day before, and most of the meaningful looks and hissed words had been between his parents. He had a feeling he’d find out what was going on today, one way or another.

He made an orange juice and stepped out onto their little balcony to watch the surfers catch the morning waves. There weren’t many, but they looked like they were having fun all the same, floating in the water. He found he was enjoying himself, and when he took a long sip of juice and felt the first of the sun’s heat on his arm he decided he wanted to live. He wouldn’t let his parents kill him, and he wouldn’t let the disease kill him, either. What had the doctor said? He still had a small chance. He didn’t feel too good today, though. He’d woken up with a fever and the world rocked around him with each step. It wasn’t pleasant. Still worth living for, though, even if it lasts forever.

His parents waited until after lunch to have another talk, and this time it was his father who sat beside him on the couch and his mother who stood by the scenic view with a broken expression and explained it all.

‘We should have talked to you about it first,’ she began. ‘And I’m – we’re sorry we didn’t. But we did it in your best interest. We thought maybe if you didn’t know… It would be easier on you.’

‘Didn’t know what?’

‘What we were doing. Or trying to do – to help you, see? It’s just.’ She put a hand on her forehead and looked down, shaking her head.

‘I think the best way to put it is to remember Wellington,’ Victor began, but she put a hand up and he stopped.

‘Wellington?’ Toby said, dimly remembering a big fluffy husky from his childhood.

‘Your father means, I mean never mind about that,’ Janine said, casting her husband a look. ‘It’s just. Your condition is… It gets a lot worse, before you, you know.’ She paused to sob for a few minutes and Toby waited quietly. He had been feeling worse.

‘How much worse?’ he asked.

She shook her head and fluttered a hand in front of her face, unable to speak.

‘Horrible, son,’ his father said. ‘It gets worse than you can imagine. The doctor said it’s not uncommon for people to try to kill themselves because of the pain.’

Toby’s heart, which had been sitting in the back of his throat for the past few weeks, fell into the pit of his stomach and rolled over. He gulped. He didn’t think he could imagine that kind of pain.

Finally, his mother regained herself. ‘So we just thought, before it got too bad, we might hurry up the process a bit.’ She finished.

‘So you didn’t have to feel too much pain.’ His father added.

Holy shit. All of a sudden, another memory, partially forgotten, flashed bright in his mind: His father three nights ago, trying to persuade him to drink a foul smelling cocktail which he called a nightcap; his adamant refusal because of his nausea; his mother’s tears moments later.

He stood up, knocking his father’s hand away. ‘NO!’ he said. ‘What’s wrong with you? You were trying to kill me!’

He was half expecting shocked faces and stern denials, but he saw only sympathetic, sad eyes. He felt sick. ‘I might live, still – I might!’ His parents exchanged a look with each other that seemed to say: the poor child, he doesn’t know what he’s saying. ‘I don’t feel that bad yet – just wait till I feel worse!’

His father stood up, tears spilling down his face. ‘Toby, please, you don’t understand. You don’t realise how bad it gets, how… horrific. And by then, you’ll be trapped in the hospital – even if you want it to end there’ll be no way for us to help you. I’m sorry but we agreed to talk to you.’

‘We don’t want you to feel like you don’t have a say, dear,’ his mother said. ‘We’ll do it just how you want, and when you want, okay? You can go in your sleep, or – or lying down in a hot bath eating pizza. Whatever you want.’ She smiled, but the expression was offset by her thickly running mascara and shaking hands.

‘Okay,’ he said. It felt as though every thought had to be pushed through swirling lakes before it could surface with any clarity in his mind. He hated being sick. ‘I choose three days then. And I want to be asleep.’

They exchanged another look, and this one was mostly grief, sure, but there was no shortage of relief there, either. They didn’t want to force me, he thought. If I’d refused, they would have forced me, somehow – killed me. ‘We’re so glad you accept it,’ Janine said, maintaining that painful smile. ‘And it is such a nice, calm way to go. Isn’t it, Victor?’

‘Yes it is. Very sensible. There’s no need for you to suffer anymore, Toby. And until that time, you can have absolutely anything you want, you name it! Okay?’

‘Okay,’ he said.

‘Good. Now there’s no need for us to talk about this again, is there?’ his mother said. She spread her arms. ‘Hug?’

 

He went to bed early, but although he was so tired he could barely keep his eyes open, he didn’t sleep. Instead, he waited until his mother came to check on him and pretended to be asleep, and as soon as she was gone he crawled over to the door and pressed his ear against it.

It took almost half an hour of listening to the droning television, and he almost fell asleep for real, but at last it flicked off and he heard his father say: ‘You think he’s asleep yet?’

‘He was when I checked on him.’

‘Poor kid, must be exhausted.’

‘Yes. Oh, Victor, it’s so sad.’

‘I know. The worst thing of all must be the dread of it. Just knowing it’s coming…’

Toby shivered and the feeling of nausea rose again. He was sweating, but the air felt bitterly cold around him. It was true, he thought: the dread was the worst.

‘I just wish there was some way to take that away from him – the fear.’

‘Me too, honey. Maybe there is, only…’

‘What?’

‘Ah, I don’t know. Never mind.’

They fell silent after that, and a few minutes later the television clicked on. Toby stayed by the door until his eyes were drifting closed of their own accord, and then he managed to crawl half into the bed before he passed out from exhaustion. His last thoughts were of wild plans to run away or hide somewhere until he was sure he’d survived, but in the end they came to nothing but fantasy.

Lately he’d been moving a lot in his sleep, but this night he practically went into a coma. It was only when a fresh draft chilled him that he tried to get under the blankets and found he couldn’t. His arms and legs were stretched out on either side of him, tied down with what felt like thin sheets. He couldn’t move an inch.

One of his eyes half opened but he was still so sunk in his previous dream in which he’d floated on his back in the ocean that he didn’t register what he saw: his father standing over him with the same long syringe he’d seen his mother holding.

He tried to sit up and couldn’t, and then he felt a weight on his legs and saw his mother sitting on the end of the bed, looking at him with a mixture of sadness and warmth. Then it came to him. No, no, they said three days they said three days. His father put a hand on his forehead, not too hard, but there was weight behind it. He glanced over at Janine and shook his head. ‘His forehead’s so hot,’ he whispered.

‘No, stop. I’b awage.’ He said groggily through a sinus full of phlegm. ‘I’b awage please.’ He felt so weak. He tried to sit up but it was impossible.

‘Ssssh, honey,’ his mother said in a soothing voice. ‘Go back to sleep now.’

His father lowered the needle to his neck and panic fell over him like a blanket. He struggled madly with every ounce of strength in his body, wrenching at the ties on his wrists and shaking his head back and forth to get away from the cold prick of the needle.

Victor Morrow was a man driven by love, and no amount of struggling could convince him that he wasn’t doing the right thing: his grip was steady as iron. It was only a few moments before he had a hand pressed over Toby’s mouth and turned his head to one side to expose his neck. ‘Ssssh,’ he said, struggling not to burst into tears, ‘ssssh now son, it’ll just put you to sleep, that’s all. Just something to help you sleep easier.’

Toby felt the sting as the needle entered his neck. He tried to fix pleading eyes on his mother but she was standing just out of his line of sight, sobbing. There was another clear thought that struck him with its absurdity: the last thing I’ll ever see is a lamp.

There was a pressure, and he felt it, actually felt the poison entering his veins, pumping in as if through an external heart, circling his whole body and settling in his heart and brain. He sucked in a breath and the world shrank. He let it out and it shrank again, to a pinhead now, and all the black around the edges held nothing but terror. He took his last breath.

And the phone rang.

Victor paused with his thumb on the plunger and turned to look at his wife. Two more rings went by. She shrugged and shook her head. ‘I don’t know… it’s after midnight!’

There was a horribly long pause and then Victor said, ‘better check just in case, honey.’

She went over to the little stand in the corner of the room and picked up the receiver, and in the silence Victor clearly heard the voice on the other end. It was familiar, but he didn’t place it until the caller introduced himself.

‘Hello? Is this Mrs. Morrow?’ He sounded out of breath, rushed, panicked even.

‘Yes, who is this?’

‘It’s Doctor Truman. You remember me?’

Victor certainly did: he was the doctor who’d done all of his tests. His mother only nodded dumbly and the doctor continued as if she’d spoken. ‘I don’t know how… I’m so sorry about this, I don’t even know where to begin. This is going to cost me my job and god knows what you’ve been going through. I would have… I’ve been trying to get hold of you but they said you’d left the country and no one seemed to know where you’d gone.’

‘Doctor Truman, please get to the point.’

‘God, yes, I’m sorry. I… screw it, I’ll just come out and say it. I mixed your son’s diagnosis up with another patient. I’m sorry. It happens, and yes it was all my fault. My first call was to the other guy who’s been walking around for two weeks thinking he just had a fever. Ah, Jesus.’

There was a long silence. Janine Morrow’s voice shook badly when she next spoke. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand.’

Doctor Truman uttered a loud, weary sigh. ‘Mrs. Morrow. Toby isn’t dying. In fact, if you just give him a week or two of good rest and plenty of fluids he should be perfectly fine. I… again I’m so sorry I can’t even begin…’ she took the receiver from her ear and lowered it into the cradle, the doctors voice babbling on the other end until it clicked home.

As one, they turned their heads to the small boy laid out on the bed. He seemed relaxed in the way only the dead can, and cliché or not, he looked peaceful. There was no pain where he was, none at all.

In the silence broken now only by two heartbeats, Mrs. Morrow began to cry.

 

Yep I’m back and ready to hack. I’m hoping to slam out maybe ten to fifteen more stories for this blog before I write the next novel and edit the one I’ve just finished. And I’ve got me some pretty nasty ideas too, so I can’t wait. In fact, I didn’t - here’s the first one: a true tale of the writing experience. When people ask authors where they get their ideas it’s always some bullshit explanation, but this is the truth, baby. Enjoy!

Muse

As much as I wish I could’ve kept this one on the blog (I really liked it), it just got published by Death Throes Press. So you’ll have to go to them if you want to read it!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 190 other followers

%d bloggers like this: