I actually have yet to give blood, unfortunately. I was thinking about it the other day, and of all the possible things they might find running around in my veins. enough alcohol and caffeine to simultaneously stop a heart and start it again a few seconds later, no doubt. But after a while my mind went off on a tangent, as it does, and this story is the result. Enjoy! And remember to give blood! People like me will undoubtedly need it at some point.

 

Holy Grail

By Ben Pienaar

 

‘So why’d you decide to give blood today, Mr. Carpenter?’

He smiled. ‘To be honest? I’ve never done it before. It’s not exactly a bucket list item but… I dunno. It seems like something I should do, you know?’

‘Well I hope it’s not the last time. Oh…’ She was about to say: You’ve got some nice big veins here! But decided against it at the last second. While it might be normal for nurses to say that kind of thing, he might find it weird, and he was cute enough that she didn’t want to weird him out just yet. Even if she was only going to see him this one time.

Instead, she took his blood and taped the cotton ball over his arm. ‘There you go,’ she said. ‘You did pretty well. Not scared of needles, huh?’

‘Nope. Never have been.’

‘That’s good. You wouldn’t believe. I had a guy in here just last week, he must have weighed about a hundred kilos – all muscle – and, I mean. He sat down all macho, I asked him if he was okay with needles and he smirked at me. I took it out and he stared at it, then just keeled over. Literally, like, fainted. On the floor.’

She filled one small bag and one large, thanked him, and waved goodbye without, unfortunately, being asked for her phone number. She sent off both bags – the little one for testing and the big one for storage, and forgot about them until she saw him on the news two months later.

 

When he received a polite letter to visit the St. Albert medical centre again, surprise didn’t cut it – John was shocked. For one thing, he’d almost completely forgotten giving the blood. It had been a whim on a strange and distant day. For another, he’d been certain nothing would come up in the mandatory test. He was healthy, didn’t smoke, rarely drank, hadn’t had an STD in his life, and as far as he knew there was no history of anything bad in his family. But it had to be something like that, some genetic mutation or one of those strange diseases without any visible symptoms.

Whatever it was, the fact that they’d called him in could only be bad. Anything else would have been a quick courtesy phone call. It was with these thoughts in mind that he made the short drive, waited in an office smelling of industrial cleaning detergent, and then sat down in front of a modest wooden desk.

  1. Patel was a small indian man who looked like the reason for his skin colour had more to do with the amount of coffee he drank than his place of birth: his eyes were wide and unblinking, his movements fast, efficient, and twitchy, his voice quick and precise. He was also excited, and as soon as John picked up on this the dread melted off his shoulders in waves. Whatever it was, this was not The Death Talk.

‘Hello! Hello, Mr. Carpenter. Yes very pleased to meet you too. Okay.’ For a minute he didn’t say anything, just beamed at John, who couldn’t help but smile back.

‘So you gave blood recently, yes?’

‘Yep. Sure did. Everything alright?’

‘Ah, Mr. Carpenter. Ah, yes, it is alright. You know, it is usually the much shorter time before we get results back, but it took much longer with you because, you see, there were so so many things we needed to check after, you know, we are giving the initial tests.’

‘Okay.’

‘Bear with me please.’ He held up a finger and then opened his top desk drawer, digging around for a few minutes before pulling out a stapled sheet of papers, which he laid out in front of him. He flattened it out, breathed deeply through his nose, and read in silence. John waited patiently. At last, the doctor looked up and beamed again.

‘Okay, so your blood is extremely good stuff, yes? It is like nothing we are seeing before. This I have here is a list of all the things it is good for, that we found after a long time of testing.’

‘Okay.’ The smile was gone from John’s face – he was simply mystified. This was the last thing he was expecting.

‘So far, because you see testing is still going on – but so far, we have found certain qualities in your blood that are able to be curing the things on this list, or in some cases very much helping with the curing. You understand?’

‘I think so, yes.’

‘Okay.’ Dr. Patel looked down at the piece of paper and began to read. For the most part, the things he listed sounded like complete gibberish – or more accurately, latin. But every now and again, he said something that John recognized.

‘Hold on,’ he said, stopping the doctor about a third of the way down the second page. ‘Are you telling me… are you saying my blood cures leprosy?’ He expected the doctor to laugh and shake his head and tell him that actually Mycobacterium lepromatosis referred to something much less serious, not leprosy at all, but instead Dr. Patel nodded and grinned. ‘That is only the beginning Mr. Carpenter, only the beginning.’

‘What? I mean, can’t you skip the latin and just tell me then? What does my blood really do? I mean what’s the really serious stuff I can help with?’

‘Ah, Mr. Carpenter. Oh, dear. There are three big stuffs you can help with, three very big stuffs.’

‘Really? Bigger than leprosy?’

‘Oh yes. There is the Motor Neurone Syndrome. We did not even know really what is the cause of this disease, but we injected your blood into a mouse with this disease and it is better, I’m telling you, completely cured. I apologise but we used all of your blood, even that not meant for testing, for all the tests we needed to do.’

‘Jesus. What else?’

‘Several cancers. Not all of the cancers, but at least twenty of them so far. And there are another twenty it definitely does not work on, but many more untested. And the big one, Mr. Carpenter, oh yes, my favourite. Your blood is the cure, definitely and proven, the cure for AIDS.’

‘WHAT?’ He couldn’t remember standing, but now he was staring down at the little doctor’s grinning face. ‘My blood. Cures. Fucking AIDS.’

‘Yes, yes!’ The doctor was standing now, catching John’s excitement and adding his own. ‘Your blood is not one in a million, Mr. Carpenter, it is one in a billion. One in ten billion. Probably there have even been others in your family who have had the same things, or someone else in history, but they have never had their blood tested. You are a miracle, sir.’

John forced himself to sit back down, his mind spinning with it all. How was it possible? It was madness. He was so afraid of being struck by lightning he hadn’t even considered he’d win the lottery.

‘So. I have called you in today to tell you this. And I and the entire world also are encouraging you to donate as much of your blood as physically possible, Mr. Carpenter. The government has been involved and they are also offering a cash money incentive for you to donate blood.’

‘My God, of course. Of course. I can’t believe this.’

‘Mr. Carpenter, have you heard of James Harrison?’

‘Can’t say so, no.’

‘He is a man the closest to you that I can think of. His blood had an enzyme in it that cured Rhesus disease. Just that one disease. He has given blood more than one thousand times, and has saved more than two million lives. Two million lives, Mr. Carpenter. One disease. Just imagine what you can do.’

‘Yeah. Just imagine.’ John stared out of the window, shaking his head. The government incentive was a welcome bonus, sure, but he would have given every litre of blood he had, regardless. It was beyond belief.

‘And you’re sure. I mean, you are a hundred percent sure about everything you’ve just told me.’

‘Yes. In fact, there are many more things that are not on this list that I have not told you, simply because we are not completely sure. But we will soon be sure of the complete scope of your blood, perhaps within six months. Even what we’ve already found, Mr. Carpenter, it is enough.

‘Your blood, sir, is nothing short of the Holy Grail. It is magical.’

 

For three months, John Carpenter lived a golden life. He gave blood the moment he was eligible for it, regular as clockwork. He received letters of gratitude from the hospital, and even more moving, from those who had benefitted from his blood. The government incentive was not exactly enough for him to quit his day job as a wedding photographer but it was plenty. He was happy.

John’s apartment was on the third floor, and when he stepped out of an elevator that last day – almost exactly ninety days since he’d first given blood – he sensed something wrong. If he’d been more aware, or at least more paranoid, he might have picked up on the exact things that were making him feel this way: the unfamiliar cologne hanging in the corridor; the strange look the clerk had given him in the lobby; the silence of the whole place. But he didn’t.

Instead, he felt only a vague sense of unease, and he dismissed it because he didn’t know where it was coming from or what it meant. He hesitated once, with his apartment door halfway open. It’s all wrong! There’s something weird going on, man! Get out of here and get some coffee, anything, just get out! But he didn’t listen.

He pushed open the door and someone pushed something hard against the side of his head. Before he could turn and see what it was someone else stuck something in his side and electric pain seized his whole body. He dropped to the floor, and in the agony and helplessness of it all he didn’t feel the prick in his well used arm.

It was only a sedative, and a mild one at that, but it might as well have been liquid death. He never woke up again.

 

Two men in suits stood and looked at the floor. John Carpenter was beneath their feet, under a coffin sized plate of glass fitted in the floor. He was suspended in clear liquid, with what looked like a hundred tubes running out from various parts of his body.

‘It’s madness, isn’t it? The whole thing.’ The man on the right was tall and lanky, with a narrow black beard. The man next to him – a professor – was also tall, but thicker round the middle and twenty years older. Both of them had serious expressions on their faces.

‘It’s right,’ the thicker man said.

‘Come on, Gordon. It’s immoral.’

‘Not at all.’

‘Why don’t we wake up Mr. Carpenter and ask him?’

Professor Gordon chuckled. ‘It’s a question of mathematics, my friend.’

‘Is that so?

‘Yes it is. Let me ask you a question. You have two buttons in front of you. If you press the green button it instantly kills a billion people. If you press the red one, one person dies. So which do you press?’

‘Neither. Let nature take its course.’

‘You have to pick one.’

‘You’re forcing my hand. Obviously I pick the one guy.’

‘Well.’ He gestured at John Carpenter’s floating body. ‘There you go.’

‘Come on, man! Have a heart. The guy has as much right to live as anyone else.’

‘Negative. He lost that right the moment he was born. Every second he lives without supplying us with the maximum amount of blood amounts to lives lost. You know that.’

The tall guy, Rayner, shook his head. He laughed. ‘Shit. For the greater good,’ he said.

‘Yeah. Exactly.’

They stood in silence for a while, watching the tubes suck blood from John Carpenter’s body at the maximum allowable rate, while others supplied him with the nutrients his body needed to create more blood as fast as possible. He was a cyborg, in the end. A machine engineered to create blood. Saviour of lives.

He looked so peaceful.

 

I KNOW, okay. But I had to do this one, even though it is now my third insane asylum related short story. Besides, I’d argue that the other two (Room for Thought and Scaredy Cat) were both pretty decent stories, and original despite the hackneyed setting. The nature of the asylum can be interpreted in one of two ways, as can Lucy herself. Either way is pretty horrifying, though, so believe what you want. Enjoy!

 

Asylum

By Ben Pienaar

 

Abandoned asylums were considered clichés in general, but Lucy Neil had found that in real life they were quite interesting. Each one was unique, and not just in terms of the layout – they all had their own personalities, their own moods. Some were places of peace, even years after they’d begun to crumble, places with comfortable old chairs and big windows and gardens with ponds. Others were dark and tense, full of twisting corridors and walls so white they seemed to scream at you. Rooms that were empty but dense with the memories of what had happened inside them.

This one was more the latter than the former. She told herself that it was in her head, nothing but a result of knowing exactly what had happened in here. This was one of the older ones – the worst ones were always old – and it had been operational far past time it should have been demolished. Back then, they’d thrown in as many sane people as mad, (at least, they were sane when they came in).

She walked slowly – Lucy was one of those that always did everything slowly, enjoying every moment. She’d come at noon instead of night, so the dark and ominous feel of the place didn’t have so much of a hold on her. She’d come again later in the week at midnight, but that would be with Jim. The front door opened on a long, narrow hallway with walls of heavy stone, and she made her way down, tempted to duck into one of the many rooms branching off on either side. She decided to make a full round of the place until she really got into it. You never knew, sometimes there were squatters or drug addicts, even in the day.

But it was all empty. Empty and safe – there was literally a main road right out at the front door. For some reason, she didn’t feel that good about it. All abandoned asylums were different, sure, but most of them were also the same in a lot of ways. They all had broken windows, there was always tons of graffiti throughout the building, and they were always strewn with trash. She was glad she hadn’t found any squatters here, but it sure seemed strange that there were no signs of squatters ever having been here.

But it was just the mood. The mood of the place always got into her, one way or another, and places like this were worst of all. She put on her business face, tied her hair back so it wouldn’t fall in front of the lens, and started unpacking her tripod.

She snapped a few pictures of the hall, trying to catch the way the shadows crouched in odd corners, as though the broken light hanging from the ceiling was still shining with head aching fluorescence. She found a large tiled room that looked like it had once been a communal shower and bathroom, although it was hard to tell because whatever flimsy concrete had made up the dividing walls had crumbled all over the place, now.

The further down the hall she went, venturing into this room and that one, missing none as she made her way, the less run down it seemed. The crumbled bathroom was the worst she saw, which was strange because she could have sworn she’d glanced into one or two rooms on her initial run through which had been half demolished.

She picked up her tripod at the end of the hall and went up a steep, twisting stairwell to the second of three stories. This one was in even better shape than the first. She turned into the first door on her left and set up in what looked like a patient’s room. For a while, she didn’t take any pictures, but stood and absorbed the mood of the room.

She didn’t like it. It suffocated her. For one thing, the walls were too heavy. They were made of some thick stone or something, barely covered by a thin coat of white paint, that made her wonder how the so many of the walls downstairs had crumbled so easily. These looked good for another hundred years. She knew what they were for, too: to muffle the patient’s screams – the same reason the walls around the place were so tall.

She took a few pictures of the bed and the little bedside table, making sure to zoom out the image so it took into account the door and revealed how cramped the room really was. The window had a large jagged hole in it as though someone had thrown a rock through it and she took a picture of that as well and then placed the camera in front of it so she could take a few of the back garden. It was a paltry, wilted garden. Full of weeds now, but she had a feeling it had looked just the same when the asylum was still running.

Lucy picked up the tripod and kept going, moving systematically through the building. The carpet up here was soft but whole and mostly unstained, while the one downstairs had been full of holes and black blotches of… who knew what. She found two little white switches at the end of the corridor and pressed one of them. To her surprise, the lights in four of the ten rooms came on. She clicked the second switch and the hallway light flickered once and then went off. Aren’t they supposed to cut electricity to these places? She flicked off the lights, folded up her tripod and started back down the hallway for the stairwell that led up to the third floor.

Just before she turned to start up the stairs, she glanced into the first room she’d photographed – the one directly opposite the stairwell, and saw that the door was shut. She hadn’t shut it, had she? No, no she was sure she hadn’t. Only she must have. She’d have heard it, otherwise. Squatter. Must be. Shit, I should have brought Jim.

            But it was better to be sure. If it was a squatter or drug addict or whoever, she’d just look in and get out before they could see the thousand dollar camera around her neck. Better to be sure.

The door opened easily, didn’t even creak, and there was no one inside. Now that she was looking into the room, she realised the closed door hadn’t been the only odd thing: the window wasn’t broken. She knew it had been – she’d taken a picture of the sunlight glinting off the jags in the glass. But it was solid now. And there was something else: the bed had been bare, nothing but a metal frame and a stained mattress when she was last there. Now it was fully made up, complete with a pillow and scratchy grey blanket.

‘Okay, this place is officially creeping me out,’ she spoke aloud. Usually, the sound of her own voice comforted her – it was why she tended to speak rapidly when she was scared, especially when she was by herself – but for some reason that wasn’t the case today. This time it just reminded her how alone she was.

She backed out of the room and closed the door. The sound of cars running by on the highway outside reassured her and she let out a sigh. It was noon, after all; the sun was streaming in from every window. One more floor and that was it, she promised herself. And maybe she wouldn’t come back after all.

She went up the stairs, trying to ignore the way her steps echoed against the concrete walls, and opened the door to the third floor.

The hallway was brightly lit, and when she stepped into it she saw that all of the doors were shut tight, save the one at the far end, which was slightly ajar. For some reason, she felt certain they were all locked, too. Someone coughed from inside one of them.

Lucy stood in the hallway, breathing in short gasps and trying to get herself under control. She’d already been up here, that was the thing. She’d come through here and looked in every room and seen the same kinds of things she’d seen on the first floor: holes in walls, worn carpets, broken windows. Some of these doors hadn’t even been here.

She turned to go back down the stairwell and saw that the door was closed, even though she’d been standing directly in front of it the entire time. She tried to open it, but it was locked. Oh God, what’s going on?

            She heard him before she saw him, a soft footstep on the carpet, and she spun around so fast she almost fell backwards. He put a hand up and took a step back down the hallway. ‘Hey now,’ he said, ‘it’s alright, Lucy.’

‘W… What? Who are you?’

‘My names, Gareth, remember? And she’s Lorraine.’ His eyes flicked over her shoulder and she looked around just long enough to see a woman, middle aged and squint eyed, standing with an overly enthusiastic smile in front of another door. Lucy backed up against the stairwell door. ‘Stop, just hang on. Who the hell are you?’

‘Don’t you remember?’ He looked genuinely hurt. ‘We take care of you. We’ve taken care of you for the last two years.’

‘What? Okay just… Hey, just get back!’ he’d been edging closer, but he stood straight now and put his hands up, as if in surrender. ‘Alright, alright. We just want to help.’

‘I don’t need help. You too!’ she snarled at the old woman, who also retreated a step. Her hands went behind her back but not before Lucy caught a glimpse of the syringe clasped in a well practiced grip between three fingers. ‘Hey! What’s that?’

‘Nothing, dear.’

She spun around and tried to wrench the stairwell door again – maybe it was just jammed – but it wouldn’t budge. The other two stood their ground, and when she turned back around the man was looking at her with something like pity in his eyes. ‘Lucy,’ he said. ‘Please.’

She moved to grab her camera, thinking only that she could throw it at one of them and make a break for the window at the end of the corridor – but when her fingers reached for the strap they closed on nothing. She looked down. Her camera was gone, and so was her tripod. Somehow they’d disappeared in the last few minutes.

‘Okay now, do you see? We don’t want to hurt you,’ he said.

‘What did you do with it? You took my camera! Jim! Jim!’ This last she screamed as the woman finally took her chance and ran for her, syringe brandished in one hand. Her expression was that of someone who was doing an unpleasant, but necessary job.

Lucy threw herself backwards in time to avoid it but the man caught her under the arms and held her up.

‘No! NO! Stop! I’m not from here, I don’t belong here! HELP! HELP MEEEE!’ She kicked and flailed and screamed, but somehow the old woman got the needle past her guard, and she felt something cold shoot along the veins in her arm.

She fought, she fought so hard, but her body betrayed her, her muscles slowed and relaxed. She rested on strong arms, staring at the too bright light on the ceiling, watching the shadows close in on the corners of her vision. ‘Jim…’ she whispered. ‘Help me, Jim.’

But he didn’t come, and soon she was fast asleep.

This is just me playing with myself. Uh, not literally. I mean you know, playing with themes and ideas and stuff. Anyway, it was all for fun, and when I read over it I realised it was actually not a bad story, too. I was split right in two minds about whether I should include those last scenes at the end or not. I’ll let you judge. Enjoy!

 

Main Character

By Ben Pienaar

 

He woke with a pounding head and a mouth dry enough to sand the splinters from a plank of wood. He rolled over, repressed the urge to vomit, and then pushed himself up against the wall.

It took a few moments to realise the pounding wasn’t all in his head.

‘Open up, buddy! Let’s not make this hard, okay?’

He was in a dingy one room apartment. The place looked like a… Oh, shit. His eyes had come to rest first on the loaded .38 in one corner of the dusty room, and second on the bloody knife half wrapped in bed linen just a few feet away.

Wait, how do I know that’s loaded? What the fuck happened last night? He thought the empty bottle of Jack lying beside an old desk could explain that, but then he realised he couldn’t remember the whole previous week. In fact, forget last week, what about last year? Last decade? He had no idea what he’d been doing his whole life. It was as if he’d just woken up today. A fine time for amnesia to strike.

‘Come on, Jack, there’s only one way out of there and we got it covered.’

Cops. It had to be. He’d murdered someone last night and the cops were here to pick him up. So why didn’t they just smash through the door? Maybe they thought he had a weapon. Shit, he should have a weapon.

Jack fought off fresh waves of nausea and crawled over to the .38, which was in fact loaded. He tucked it into his belt and used a short dressing table nearby to pull himself to his feet. The room spun wildly around him but he managed, somehow, to steady it.

When he forced his eyes to open wider than a squint he saw two things. The first was the victim, a huge guy – the kind of guy you see playing the villain’s muscle in the movies. He was pretty cut up, and his throat was opened in a big red grin. The floorboards were saturated with blood. Damn. No wonder this place is so trashed. The second thing was that the door wasn’t the only way out, after all. There was a small sliding window. Jack went over to it.

‘Stay the hell back, I’ve got a gun!’ he shouted at the door, using the sound of his voice to mask the bang as he wrenched the window up. He heard the guy on the other side relay the information to whoever he was with him. There were murmurs of worry. Good – the more reluctant they were, the longer he had to get out.

He stuck his head out of the window and looked down. Six stories. Broken legs if he jumped from here, for sure. Nothing but smooth brick all the way. The window was no way out. No way at all. He swore quietly. How had this happened? How the Christ had this happened?

He tried to remember things about his past, but all he could come up with were a few scenes in italics about his past in the army…

Wait. What the fuck was that thought? Scenes in italics? Who thought of their own memories in italics? That was the kind of thing you saw in a book. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. ‘You’re losing it, Jack.’

Only he wasn’t losing it, he was just starting to get it. He opened his eyes again and looked at his hands. He turned them over to see the palms, then turned them over again, and then again. They were different. The first time, his hands had looked… generic. Like anyone’s hands. They could have belonged to any one of millions of males in their twenties. But when he turned them over again, he suddenly noticed a deep scar on the back of his right hand that he swore hadn’t been there, and when he looked at his palms for the second time they were no longer smooth but rough and calloused.

‘What the hell?’

‘Listen we’re gonna be here all day and night if we have to be. You just come out in your own time, alright Jack?’

‘Stay the fuck back! I’ll kill you all!’

Come out in his own time. Yeah right. They probably had a swat team landing on the roof of the building right now. But how were they after him? If he’d only killed the guy last night, who tipped off the cops?

No one tipped them off, that was who. No one had to. The cops were there because it made things interesting. Because he was Jack Hunter and he was supposed to break out of here and go in search of the truth, and maybe cure his amnesia.

‘You’re thinking crazy, man.’ He went into the bathroom, swaying a little on his feet and trying to keep whatever was left in his stomach down. It was a dingy, mouldy old room with a cracked mirror, and when he looked in it he saw the face he pretty much expected. It was a hard, carved out of wood face. Square jaw, ice cold grey eyes, scars all over the place from a million fights. He knew the face, but he really didn’t recognize it. It was his, but he was certain he’d never seen it before.

‘Weird.’

There was more banging on the door, but it sounded almost half hearted. They were only trying to seem genuine, distracting him while the backup came.

Jack put a hand up to his face and felt his skin. Rough. Only… Was he really feeling it? Suddenly he wasn’t so sure. On impulse, before he even had time to think about it, he rammed his hand into the mirror, shattering it and spilling shards of bright glass all over the place. He pulled some glass out of his hand and winced. There was plenty of blood – and it sure felt like pain, but why was he so disconnected? Like the hangover, it was there when he thought about it, but… He looked at the wall for a minute, focusing on all the little cracks and fissures in the concrete. He inhaled dusty air and sneezed. The pain vanished. And now it was back.

The more he thought about it, the more it made sense. The amnesia, the cops surrounding the building, the dead guy. And who had a name like Jack Hunter, outside of some noir action story? It had to be a noir action. His thoughts were made up of witty similes and dark cynicism. The city outside was vast and grey and rainy. I’m just a character in some goddam story.

No, no. It couldn’t be, because if it was, surely the writer would never allow him to think that. If he really was a character, the writer had full control of his thoughts as well as his actions – so why would he let him know so much? Why not just block it all from him and let him go ahead and get on with the story.

It’s some kind of experiment. He wants me to be real, as real as possible – only he made some kind of mistake, made me so real I saw through the thin world he created. It’s just a goddamn veneer, wool pulled over the eyes of everyone but me.

‘That’s right, asshole. Only you’re missing just one thing.’

Jack froze at the sound of the voice. It had come from the other room. It sounded raw, like someone with a very sore throat.

‘If it was a mistake, how come he didn’t just go back to the beginning and start over?’

Jack took a step towards the door and then stopped. He was supposed to go check it out, wasn’t he? So he didn’t. He stayed where he was, and before the voice could say anything else, he raised his arms above his head and spun around like a ballerina. ‘I feel pretty! Oh so pretty! I feel pretty and witty, and freeee!’ He shouted at the top of his lungs, executing enthusiastic if awkward dance moves. He stopped and stood there, heart racing.

The cops from the door started up again. ‘Come on Jack, buddy, just calm down and come with us. We’re not here to hurt you or take you away anywhere. Just put the gun down and come with us.’

‘Fuck, fuck! I can say anything I want!’ Jack screamed from the bathroom.

There was a throaty chuckle from the other room. ‘Having fun in there?’

Jack looked at himself in the mirror again. There was still that same feeling of disconnection, the knowledge (growing more and more sure by the second) that he was in a story, but now he was also sure he was free. There was no way his character – a hardened man with a name like Jack Hunter and a military history – there was no way a character like that would do what he just did. And no one had tried to censor him, either. He hadn’t screamed Fudge, after all, and while that may not be proof by itself, it was something.

Finally, he stepped out into the other room.

The corpse – the big guy – was sitting up, and while his once white shirt had been pretty red before, now it was drenched black. The act of sitting must have caused some of the pooled blood in the back of his throat to seep out of the wound. He was smiling, and Jack noticed he was missing some teeth.

‘Heyy, Jacky boy. You made it.’

Jack said nothing, his teeth clenched. Whatever it was, it was just another game or trick put there by whoever was writing this to make him do something. Get him moving in the right direction.

‘That’s sorta right… Only not really. I’m here to help, Jacky boy.’

‘What the hell would you know? You’re just some thug.’

‘It ain’t the thug talking now.’ He made a sick choking noise and some more blood dribbled from his throat.

‘Way I see it,’ Jack said, ‘There’s only two ways about it. Either I’m just a character doing what I’m told, in which case there’s nothing I can do that I’m not supposed to anyway, or else I’m the only one in this world who’s not like that.’

‘Bingo,’ the corpse said.

‘Which one?’

‘Who’re you talking to in there, Jack?’ The voice started up outside. ‘You can talk to me, you know, I’ll help you out, I promise. There are some more friends coming who can help you out too, but they’re not as nice as me. Why don’t you talk to me instead?’

‘Touch that door and you eat bullets!’ Jack shouted at the door.

‘The latter,’ the corpse went on as though nothing had happened. ‘You’re the real one. The only real one around.’

‘No shit? What about you?’

‘This guy? He’s got even less of a past than you. He was born the moment he walked through that door, knowing only enough to make a few threats and get himself killed. He only existed so you could kill him, just like this room exists so you can be in it. Ha. He never even had a name.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘What does it matter? I’m not from your world. Point is. You’re real, Jack. You’re as real as they get, and you’re free, too.’

Jack opened his mouth to say something, and then things the corpse was saying struck home. He looked back at the window, thinking of the fall.

‘Go ahead,’ the corpse said. ‘I won’t stop you. I can, you know, but I won’t. It’s not my place.’

‘If that was true I wouldn’t be in this goddamn mess in the first place, asshole.’

‘I made you who you are, sure, but that’s the end of the story. You should be grateful, you’re a pretty capable guy, Jack.’

There was some kind of thumping going on in the ceiling. It occurred to Jack that he forgot to look up when he looked out the window, to see how far he was from the top of the building. For all he knew the roof was right above him.

‘I’m not stupid.’

‘I know.’

The voice outside, sounding a little more frantic now: ‘Jack, gimme a break okay? Just let me in the door and don’t shoot me, all I want to do is talk, alright?’

‘I know exactly what you want me to do. You want me to break out of here, maybe kill some people in the process. I’ll bet a hundred bucks I’ve got a few decades of hand to hand combat training under my belt, and I’m not bad with a gun either.’

‘Well sure, look what you did to muscles over here.’

‘So why’d you give me all this? You want some kind of an action hero? I’m gonna escape this place and go find out all about my past? Maybe find someone I’m supposed to get revenge on, or whatever?’

The corpse shrugged. ‘You do what you want, Jacky boy. But hey, maybe there’s a love interest in it for you.’

Jack went over to the window and looked out again, this time twisting his body so he could look up. Thankfully, he wasn’t in the top apartment, otherwise the four SWAT guys rappelling down the side of the building would have reached him ten floors ago. He swore, ducked back inside and slammed the window shut.

‘Still time, Jacky, you’ll know what to do if you think hard enough.’

‘Oh yeah?’

Jack put a hand on his chest and closed his eyes. His heart was beating there, regularly and slowly. Of course it was. He was a stone cold killer, wasn’t he? No fear. Maybe he wasn’t even the good guy. Maybe it didn’t matter anyway, since everyone in this whole world was made of cardboard.

‘Fuck you,’ he said, then: ‘Fuck. You!’ He turned, took aim and fired. The sight of the corpse’s brains splattering all over the back wall, that wet sound, was so satisfying that he fired again and again into the now horizontal body. He fired all the bullets but one. The voices outside were screaming, and one of the SWAT guys came swinging in through the little window, boots first.

Jack could have beat them, even then, and he knew it. He could have disabled the first guy in a matter of split seconds, then used his gun to take care of whoever came afterward. Then it would just be a matter of the guys outside the door and disappearing into the vast city before anyone else could show up to the party. Hangover or no, he was calm and tensed, ready for the action. He was certain he could handle it. But why?

He was quick, too, and while the SWAT guy was still rising from a crouch and bringing his gun to bear, Jack stuck the .38 so far into his mouth it was practically touching his tonsils. ‘Fuck you’ he said (or meant to say – with a gun in your mouth everything comes out in vowels).

His last thought was: Before anyone else could show up to the party? Who thinks like that at a time like this? And then, loud and clear: THE END, Asshole.

He pulled the trigger.

 

The rest of the SWAT team landed while the first of them stood over the body, shaking his head. Once they saw the body, the others relaxed, lowered their guns, flicked off the safeties.

‘So close.’

‘What the fuck?’

‘Don’t beat yourself up, Jay, we went as quick as we can.’ A rough hand rested on his shoulder for a second and then fell away.

‘What the hell is going on in there?’ A frantic voice came from the hallway.

Still shaking his head, Jay stepped over the body, looked around the trashed but otherwise empty room and opened the door. A group of four guys in pale blue uniforms with nametags stared at him, shocked.

‘Oh, God,’ said one of them, a middle aged professor type with messy grey hair. His nametag said Daniel.

Jay shrugged and stepped aside, letting them come in and see for themselves. One guy stayed in the hall and leaned up against the wall, his eyes closed. Some people just couldn’t take it, Jay thought. He didn’t blame them.

Daniel was staring down at the body while the other SWAT guys stood around awkwardly. Tanner was radioing it in, in case they hadn’t heard it from the street. By the look on Daniel’s face, the dead guy was his own son. Jay stepped up beside him.

‘Friend of yours?’

‘Yes, very much. On his better days, anyway.’

‘You’re from a nuthouse, aren’t you?’

Daniel nodded without talking.

‘So what was his deal?’

‘He thought he was a character in a story. Just for short periods at a time. Sleep seemed to be the trigger and the finish of all his episodes. He had entire days where he was just as sane as you or I. Saner, even. Diggory Hermon. That was his name.’

‘Shit. A character in a story, huh?’

‘I had hope for him.’ Daniel put a hand to his forehead and turned away again. The ambulance sirens were loud and clear now – they sounded right outside the building.

‘I really had hope.’

The rough original plan for this was: Woman with mind reading abilities goes to a cemetery and accidentally reads the mind of a dead person. Goes insane as a result. In the end, I decided the idea just wasn’t good enough, and it sounded unoriginal. But by then the idea of a psychic reading the mind of a corpse was just too good not to write something about. This story was the tree that grew from that disturbing seed. Enjoy!

 

Bloody Mary

By Ben Pienaar

 

Rain spent a lot of time in cemeteries, because it was the only place she knew true silence. Anywhere else, unless she happened to be driving way out in the middle of nowhere for whatever reason, she’d get thoughts intrusively pushing their way into her mind. Obviously it was helpful in some ways, her thin talent allowing her to make a living as a live TV psychic, but more often than not it was just incredibly annoying. The problem being that ninety nine percent of the thoughts that were so determined to make themselves heard were completely useless and inane. The cemetery was blessed relief.

Until the day she heard a voice call out to her.

Voices had a direction, but it wasn’t the same as when someone called out to you on the street. It was more like having someone flick you on the back of the head in a crowded elevator. You had a pretty good idea who it was, but you weren’t certain unless you caught them in action. In this case, Rain was definitely not certain, because all of her instincts were telling her the voice was coming from underground.

‘Please…’

She looked around, startled. She knew it wasn’t spoken – people’s inner voices always had emotions attached that you could pick up with them. But someone had to be around for her to hear them. The cemetery was less than fifteen minutes from closing and she couldn’t see a soul.

‘I couldn’t go… isn’t there anyone there? Please.’

She listened hard, and the direction was more definite now. She would bet her bank account it was coming from the grave she’d just passed a second ago, the one marked MARY MARIE LESTER 1901 – 1945. She took a couple of steps back and stood in front of it, and for a while there was nothing else besides the sound of yellow leaves blowing across the concrete in a gentle breeze.

It was a cold day, and Rain started shivering. She turned to leave and it came again, as if sensing the movement. ‘Can you hear me?’

She spun around and stared at the grave. It was made of black granite, the letters once golden, now faded almost into obscurity. ‘Yes,’ she said, and then, when there was no reply, ‘YES!’ In her mind, as loud as she could. She’d never tried telepathy before.

‘Really? You can hear me?’

‘Yes.’

‘I’m so lonely,’ the voice said. ‘I can’t go on, I don’t know why. I think if my body wasted away… but it’s taking so long. I’m afraid.’

‘God. You’re not alive?’ For some reason, she’d assumed the owner of the voice had to be alive still, some unfortunate soul buried in a false grave, maybe by the mob. The idea that she was talking to a real dead person made her want to scream and tear her hair out. Somehow, she held her ground.

‘No,’ the voice said. ‘They buried me too early though. Much too early. I’m so lonely. Won’t you… be my friend?’

‘I… yes of course I will. You poor woman.’

‘Will you take me out? Please, I’m suffocating in here. I just want to be out in the open, I want to see the world again. Won’t you dig me out? You’ve no idea how long I’ve waited…’

But she did, of course. If she’d died in 1944, then the woman talking to her right now had been buried for just on forty years. It was all madness. Usually the thoughts she picked up were meaningless half the time, snatches of songs or snippets of semi formed ideas or pictures – total gibberish. Yet here this dead woman was talking quite plainly to her as though they had bumped into each other on the street.

Rain was silent, her mind working as it always did, looking for some kind of opportunity. This dead woman was going to change the world, she was sure of it – she just didn’t know how yet.

‘Yes,’ she said, still thoughtful. ‘Don’t you worry any more, Mary. I’m going to take you home.’

 

Feeling like a child in a morbid game of hide and seek, she took her place behind an enormous crypt, huddling in a shadowy corner while the security drove the narrow roads, shutting and locking gates and checking for stragglers. She stayed there for another half hour after they left, just in case. When she finally stretched her legs and dusted herself off, the sun was well past the horizon and the air was several degrees colder.

She didn’t head back to the grave, but uphill to the back of the cemetery, where the maintenance shed stood in the shadows of overhanging oaks. It was locked, of course, but it was also shoddy and made of wood and a good sized rock took care of the rusty lock. It was the work of a few seconds to grab a hefty shovel and head back to the grave.

She hesitated for a moment in front of Mary Marie Lester’s grave. Am I mad? She thought. No, Margaret’s voice spoke in her mind. She wasn’t sure whether to be comforted or disturbed. In the end, she trusted her intuition as she always did, and began to dig.

 

Mary Marie Lester took up space (she couldn’t really be said to be living, after all) in Rain’s basement. She claimed not to need any creature comforts or food or anything else for that matter. All she needed was a little company. That she had plenty of, because Rain spent hours every day talking to her, sometimes teetering on the line between conversation and interrogation.

As she’d predicted, it wasn’t long before she discovered her big opportunity. As usual, they were talking about Mary’s life, trying to work out why she should have such a strong psychic presence and why she hadn’t been allowed to ‘pass on.’

‘I lived through the great depression, and I always thought it must have been what made my parents so… strange.’ She sat in a tall wooden chair that Rain had dragged down into the basement, her body slumped back in it, her head rolled back and the whites of her eyes staring at the ceiling. Considering how long she’d been under, her state of preservation was amazing. Her skin was grey and clung to the bone, but her teeth were all still there, if a little yellow and cracked. Her nails were an inch long and her hair still clung to her head in grey strands. She looks like the crypt keeper, Rain thought, and stifled a laugh.

‘You’ll see a depression soon enough, and it’ll be just as bad. Perhaps you’ll understand then.’ She spoke only with her mental voice, but now and again her jaw would move up and down and sometimes her teeth would click. Distracted, it was a few moments before what she’d just said struck Rain.

‘Wait, did you just say we’d see a depression? Soon?’

‘Yes.’

‘How do you know?’

‘In death, there is no time. Everything exists at once.’

‘I… Do you mean to say,’ Rain spoke slowly, hardly daring to believe it was possible, ‘that you can see everything? The past and future of the whole world?’

‘Not of myself. My own future ended when I died, so I can’t see that. The world of death is lost to me. Only the affairs of the living are visible, and the past.’

‘But you know what’s going to happen? You know there’s going to be another depression.’

‘There is always another depression,’ Mary clicked.

‘What else do you know? I mean, in the next, say year or so, what will happen?’

‘Well. What year is it?’

‘1984.’

‘Ah… I’m so glad to see Mr. Orwell was mistaken, and that there are no big brothers or great wars here.’

‘I’m sorry…’

‘Never mind.’

She began to talk, in that mind voice that was almost a whisper, and Rain grabbed a pen and paper and scribbled furiously for five minutes. When Mary stopped talking, she looked up. ‘That’s all this year? All that happens in the next six months, on those days?’

‘Yes,’ she sighed.

Rain looked down at the piece of paper on her lap. She had almost filled the page, a line of dates on the left side and corresponding events beside them. Many things were useless to her, only mildly interesting if they were true. But amidst the useless tidbits of information, she had the following:

  • An East Rail train derails between Sheung Shui and Fanling stations, Hong Kong.
  • A series of explosions at the Pemex Petroleum Storage Facility at San Juan Ixhuatepec, in Mexico City, ignites a major fire and kills about 500 people.

 

  • San Diego: 41-year-old James Oliver Huberty sprays a McDonald’s restaurant with gunfire, killing 21 people before being shot and killed himself.

 

‘And you’re sure of all this?’

‘Yes, yes.’

She forced herself to talk a little longer, but eventually her itching mind won out and she told Mary she had to ‘work’. Up in the kitchen, she flipped open her laptop and within minutes had signed up to wordpress and started her very first blog. It was entitled: The Psychic Predictions of Rain Carmen. She titled her first post: 1984, June – December, and carefully transcribed everything Mary had told her.

She clicked publish, but didn’t bother to check if anyone would follow. It would be a long process at first, but just because she was greedy didn’t mean she was impatient. Besides, there was a lot of work to do.

Over the following months, Rain began to make posts daily, extracting every bit of major future news from Mary along the way, enduring her life stories with patience in return. The followers were few and far between at first, but then her predictions began to come true. And they were true to the letter – Mary didn’t get a detail wrong. It was as if there was some phantom calendar filled with all the poignant events of history that she could read at will.

By the time Rain was writing about the tragic death of Princess Diana, she had thousands of followers and dozens of offers to appear on television and radio and give live predictions. By the time she predicted the fall of the twin towers, she was world famous.

All the while, Mary seemed oblivious, and even while she was discreetly transported (in a box labelled ‘equipment’) to Rain’s new Florida mansion, she took to the new basement like it was the same place. She rotted in her chair and whispered endless, repeating stories, while Rain prodded her all the while for events in the coming years.

Then the rotting became a problem.

Rain first noticed it only in Mary’s manner. She began to talk in slow, meandering sentences that made less and less sense, as though she were drifting in and out of sleep. At last, when an unnerving silence fell between them, Rain asked her about it.

‘Oh, dear. I think I’m finally beginning to rest. It’s you, Rain, you’ve been such a good friend. You’re putting this old girl to rest at last.’

‘What do you mean?’ she said softly, trying to keep the alarm out of her voice.

‘I’m not lonely anymore… I’ve been feeling so warm and comfortable lately. I feel I’m going. I can’ thank you enough, Rain, I really can’t. You gave me what I never had in life – friendship. And now you’re going to give me peace, and I can never repay you. I’m sorry.’

You better be sorry you bitch! I’m not even close to done with you. I need predictions good for the next hundred years. I’ll be treated like a Queen all my life and remembered for ever as the one true psychic, and you won’t take it away from me. I won’t let you. Somehow, Rain managed to drown this thought in a flood of others, masking it from the corpse’s ever sensitive mind. Even so, the rotten head lolled on her shoulders and the white eyes rolled in their sockets.

‘Rain? Is it all right?’

‘Of course, yes I’m sorry about that, it was all so shocking, you know? I thought I’d have you forever, Mary.’

The black lips twisted at the corners into the smallest of smiles. Mary’s body hadn’t changed in the first months, but that had come along with her change in behaviour. The earthy, almost floral smell had darkened to something more resembling a stench and more black flaps of skin were hanging from the yellowing bone by the day. It was bad.

Rain had no choice but to turn to her only recourse, the only hope she’d ever had when it came to things of the spiritual realm. Her bible, a thick dusty tome entitled: The Natural Supernatural. To her knowledge it was the only book that wasn’t full of rubbish. It had helped her learn about her own innate psychic powers, and it had told her all about what kind of Ghoul Mary was. In retrospect, she should have seen it coming. If the business of a troubled undead came to a close, the undead became dead. Rest in Peace, end of story. If there was any way to stop it, it was in the book.

She found it alright, flipping fast through the pages and scanning the words in a fever, knowing that every second the old bird and her dead vision was getting away from her. When she found out what she had to do, she dropped the thing like it had turned white hot. The pages flicked over and the book closed by itself, and the pair of empty eyes engraved in the leather cover stared back at her. Not before she had one sentence fixed in her mind, however – branded there and likely to scar: Only an infusion of the most youthful blood will prolong the life of the resting undead.

 

She brought the first glass of it to Mary less than a week later, her hand shaking slightly. ‘It’s a tomato juice,’ she said brightly, tipping it down Mary’s tilted open mouth. She half expected it to pour out of a hundred holes in the deteriorating corpse, but somehow it didn’t. ‘I thought it might liven you up a little. It always does the trick for me, after all.’

And it did, oh, it livened her up alright. For the next three months, Rain brought Mary a tomato juice every day and it was like watching a snuff film in reverse. At first it was only subtle changes: her limbs a little more mobile and less stiff; her eyes moving and focusing rather than rolling; her skin a bit fuller. Then one day Rain descended into the basement to deliver the daily juice and receive the daily news for her television show – Looking Ahead with Rain – and saw Mary standing up.

Rain almost dropped the glass when she saw the empty chair, and then she heard a shuffle and caught sight of the crooked upright form in the corner. ‘My God! You gave me a fright, Mary! I thought you were… gone.’

She came close to dropping the glass again when, instead of hearing Mary’s voice in her head, the old bat open her mouth and spoke. Her once black teeth were now mostly yellow. ‘What is it? What is in the glass?’ She had the voice of a lifelong smoker. Or someone with rotted vocal chords, Rain supposed. She put the glass down on the table.

‘Just tomato juice, dear. Don’t you like it?’

‘Rubbish. There’s something in it. Look at me, just look at me.’

The once sagging flaps of skin on her chest seemed almost to be filling out. Her hair was still grey and ragged, but it was thicker on her scalp. She’s coming back! Rain’s mind screamed madly in her head, and for once she forgot to mask the thoughts from the other woman. She’s going to come all the way back!

‘I… You look good.’

‘Rain, I owe you my… I suppose I owe you my death, rather than my life, but God, that’s just as important to me. But whatever you’re doing… it can’t be right. It’s not natural. It has to stop.’

‘You don’t mean that. It’s like you said, look at yourself. Just think, Mary, you could have it all back again, a real life! It’s your right, after all, isn’t it? To take back what was taken from you?’

The corpse – Rain was still having trouble thinking of her as anything but a corpse, though she had a feeling that would change soon – just looked at her. It was unnerving. Eventually she let out what sounded almost like a sigh and returned to the table to sit down. When Rain gave her the juice, she dutifully drank it down. Rain made a mental note to start experimenting with the mixture. If Mary’s tastebuds started to come back…

‘Alright,’ Mary said, her black tongue flicking out to lick her lips. ‘What do you want to know?’

A week later, Mary’s progress seemed to slow and then stop. When she started noticing signs of reversal, Rain started giving her three glasses of ‘tomato juice’, now also mixed with liberal amounts of actual tomato juice, a day. The reversal stopped, and a month later Mary was frighteningly alive, sometimes pacing as she answered questions, her hands clasped behind her back or in her lap, her back straight instead of bent, streaks of black now visible in the grey hair. At her request, Rain brought her a black dress of hers – she was beginning to feel self conscious in her nakedness.

And all the while the predictions went on. Rain’s live television show continued, and each day she made predictions about the following day, all taken from an exercise book she kept full of notable events and dates, several for every day starting in June 1984 and currently up to December 2035. Some people critiqued the show, pointing out that many of her predictions never came true. This was in fact the case, but it was only because the events were always tragedies, and by now the police were taking her seriously enough to prepare for them.

In November 1987, Jeffrey Dahmer’s hotel room was suddenly infiltrated by a SWAT team just as he was standing over the unconscious body of Steve Tuomi with a hammer raised over his head.

In April, 1988, Kuwait airways flight 422 suffered an attempted hijacking, which was thwarted by six undercover policemen who happened to be on the flight.

In December, 1989, the residents of Newcastle, Sydney prepare for an earthquake despite there being no warnings from meteorologists. No one dies when it hits.

These things all happen, but many things also go wrong: massacres and murders, death and destruction, some of which Rain predicts – the people involved either don’t believe her, don’t care, or in the case of mass revolutions and riots, have no control over or don’t want to change. Some she doesn’t predict, and she admits humbly that much of the future is dark to her. It is an immense effort just to see the things she does.

Some things don’t happen at all: in August 1991, Wade Frankum watches Rain’s show predicting the Strathfield massacre. The following day passes uneventfully, and a week later he dies from an overdose of sleeping pills.

 

‘What you are doing is amazing,’ Mary said one day, thoughtfully sipping her tomato juice. Her voice was only a little scratchy now; her skin still rotted and black but now fully covering her body. ‘Every day I look into the future I see something different to what was there before. The world is getting brighter, thanks to you. You will have to change many things I’ve told you – they won’t happen any more. People are listening closely to what you say.’

‘Thanks to you, Mary.’ Inwardly, she was cursing. Mary might be on the moon, but she didn’t realise what it meant for them. If her future predictions were becoming inaccurate because of what people were doing now, she’d never be free of this corpse – She’d be dependent on her for the rest of her life. And Mary was already getting restless, beginning to walk around the house despite Rain’s caution that she might be seen. What would happen if she decided to leave, take credit for everything? If she kept getting better people might even mistake her for a living person, and then what? Maybe she’d reveal Rain for a fraud and take over. Maybe she’d find out about the tomato juice and make it for herself. Maybe Rain would fill the grave that Mary was made for. What then?

After that, Rain started mixing more and more tomato juice into the cocktail, now adding a little vodka and a stick of celery, that at Mary’s request. ‘I always liked bloody Mary’s, she said with a smile. ‘You know, because of my name. They’re good, too. I think I’m starting to taste again. I think I’m starting to feel alive.’ Rain didn’t like the way her eyes shone when she said that, not at all.

She stopped her show and kept to her website instead, and now she only predicted one event a day, claiming that the future was becoming dark to her and she could only see some things. People were surprisingly understanding, many even claiming it was a good thing, and that the future was something no one should know anyway. There was hate mail, as always, and people claiming God was taking away her witch powers and would exterminate her soon. There were death threats, but weren’t there always? If anyone was serious, Mary would tell her well ahead of time.

‘Are they changing? Are people really changing?’ Mary asked her once. ‘Sometimes the future looks so peaceful, and then… I see something else, more evil. You’ll stop it, won’t you, if I keep telling you?’

‘Of course, Mary! That’s the whole point, isn’t it? I mean, we can’t bring world peace, but there is so much we have the power to change. So much. Now drink up.’

‘Good, good.’ But Mary wasn’t so good lately. Rain watched with satisfaction as she began to deteriorate little by little. The pacing stopped and she was restricted to the chair more often than not, her skin drying out and turning from light green back to black. A couple of teeth fell back out and her eyes returned to their dim milky white.

After almost six months of trial and error, Rain had arrived at the perfect mixture for the bloody Marys, and Mary stopped changing altogether. She was alive enough to be useful, and just dead enough not to be trouble.

‘Do you think I’m going? Do you think I’m finally dying?’ she asked Rain.

‘Maybe. I’m not sure. I haven’t changed the mixture.’

‘God. What’s in it, Rain? Why won’t you tell me?’ Her head rolled on her shoulders and her teeth clicked. Rain felt those cold fingers picking at her mind, but she kept the truth of the Bloody Marys locked in a dark box in the back of her mind, and Mary would never find it.

‘Please don’t do that, Mary. I’m sorry, it’s just, you really don’t want to know. You told me once you were never adventurous with your food. How would you like it if I told you there were crushed spiders or pureed fish eyes or something?’

‘There isn’t, is there?’

‘Not any of those, but think about it, how tasty could the ingredients of a drink be that does such unnatural things? You know what kind of things go in a witch’s brew.’

She let out a sigh. ‘I suppose you’re right. It doesn’t seem to work well any more. I won’t have to drink it for much longer, anyway.’

‘We’ll see.’

 

Rain was out of the house most of the time, but in her current state Mary was in no position to explore the way she used to. She was so tired, lately. So bone tired – dead tired. They’d done all they could, surely? She’d told her so much, the future was changed for good, couldn’t she die now? Rain wouldn’t begrudge her that, would she?

But first, she had to know.

Mary was plenty worse off than she had been at the height of her revival, but she wasn’t quite as helpless as Rain thought she was. The truth was, her taste buds had come back for long enough for her to know that Rain was changing the mixture, lessening it, degrading her on purpose. And why? Mary thought she knew – she’d also seen more of Rain’s mind than the selfish girl would have her believe. It made her uneasy, that. A woman that could turn the lives of others so easily to their own purposes without remorse could only mean trouble.

So one day, when Rain was out somewhere, (who knew where? Fame had made her a popular woman indeed) she stretched her arms and legs, wincing at the cracks her old bones made, and stood up. Rain would have been shocked to see it, and it wasn’t easy, but… she had to know.

Mary opened the basement door and headed up the stone steps. She’d seen plenty of the house when she’d been more lively, but she hadn’t really looked, then. She’d only wandered around, thinking and looking out of the windows, wondering if she’d ever really see the world again. The thought had given her such hope, then. Her consciousness always at war with herself, half saying she needed it, she deserved it, the other saying there was something too wrong about it, something unnatural and false. But she couldn’t make the decision until she knew the truth. She began the search.

It did not take long to find it. After all, there were only three places one would really keep potential ingredients for a bloody Mary, and they were all in the kitchen. There was the vodka on the marble counter, two empty bottles and one half full with a shot glass for measuring. She opened the fridge and saw the celery and the carton of tomato juice. The pantry showed her the Tobasco. So where else could she look?

Rain had a freezer, its big metal door the same size as the fridge, and when Mary tried to open it she saw a heavy padlock. She didn’t have blood to run cold, or a heart to beat faster, but she felt the fear all the same. Why on earth would someone lock a freezer? There were no servants maintaining the mansion, which was unusual in itself: there was only Mary and Rain.

She searched the kitchen briefly, without much hope. Of course Rain kept the key on her – it was the only logical thing. And if she had a spare, wouldn’t she have stashed it carefully away, especially when Mary had been up and about?

But I’m not like that, anymore, Mary told herself. And she makes me a Bloody Mary every morning. Every morning, she has to pull out the ingredients and put them back again. She might have kept the key far away at first, but for how long before she got lazy?

Hardly daring to hope, Mary reached up and felt along the top of the freezer, standing on tiptoes. She brushed something, grabbed it, and brought it down. The key.

She pushed it into the padlock and heard the satisfying click as it came unlocked. The freezer door opened a crack and icy air spilled out into the kitchen.

Mary hesitated. I don’t want to see anymore, she thought. I don’t care. I won’t drink anymore anyway – she can’t make me. Then we’ll see how good she really is, how selfless and caring. What can she do, anyway, kill me?

She laughed, winced at the sickening crackle of it, and turned from the freezer. She didn’t move.

She had to know.

The freezer was a walk in, as it turned out. There were no shelves inside – the door simply opened into a long room with the dimensions of a generous bathroom. The floor and walls were concrete, and when she opened the door a tiny fluorescent light came on, illuminating everything in pale white.

She was looking down at first, not really wanting to see it all at first, and she knew then that she must have suspected it, deep down. So she saw the trails of blood first. Dots and lines leading to large puddles of frozen black blood. Then she looked up and saw that the puddles were centered under hanging bodies – six of them – hanging from metal hooks.

They were children. She stood at the entrance to the freezer in a state of shock, feeling empty. Her emotions were sucked from her the same way a tsunami sucks the water from the beach before it comes thundering in. There was a boy here, ten years old maybe, and opposite him a girl who’d yet to see her fifth birthday. And dear lord, that one looked like it was barely old enough to walk.

Parts of them were sawn off, and the saw that did the job was hanging on a hook to her right. Just little bits. Fingers and toes and little chunks of flesh. Bite sized morsels.

Mary thought of the tomato juice in a glass: the thickness of it and the way it clung to the sides. She thought of the horrible sour taste she’d begun to detect as her tastebuds regenerated. She pictured Rain fixing her a tall Bloody Mary every morning, microwave humming in the background as it heated and softened a severed heap of flesh, letting the blood leak out and simmer in a bowl. Oh. Oh God.

Somewhere in another world, she heard a car crunching up the gravel driveway.

 

Rain knew there was something wrong the moment she closed the front door behind her, but it was several moments before she could put her finger on it. There was that smell, for one thing, that sickening, familiar smell of microwaved human meat. And the air was too cold inside. Hadn’t she put the heater on before she left?

When she realised what happened, she could only stare at the kitchen door, keys dangling from one hand, dumbfounded. Surely not, she thought, surely not. If Mary had really found her… stash, the last thing the sweet and innocent girl would have done would be to go ahead and mix herself a fresh cocktail. Rain was a good judge of people – after a lifetime of mind reading how could she not be? And Mary Lester was the kind of girl who would lose her mind, go absolutely mad at the sight of the bodies in the freezer. She must have been desperate.

            She let out the breath she’d been holding, prepared herself for a confrontation, and pushed open the kitchen door. The smell hit her a little stronger in here and she wrinkled her nose.

There was no one there. The freezer door was wide open, just as she suspected. The microwave door was also open, and the inside was splattered with red. ‘Oh my God, she actually did it.’ The sound of her own voice in the silence was unnerving.

‘Mary?’ she said, stepping closer to the freezer but not quite daring to look inside just yet. She darted back to the counter and grabbed a knife out of the cutlery drawer, just in case. She wasn’t sure if it would do anything to a dead woman, but it was better than nothing. There was no reply, and she approached the freezer door again, more confident now.

She was tempted to lunge for the door and swing it shut, but then she’d have the old corpse locked in there, and she’d either have to risk letting her out or freeze her completely. ‘Shit. Listen to me, Mary, please. I know it looks bad… I mean it is bad, it’s horrible and evil I know, but before you make any decisions you might regret just think about all the lives we’ve saved, you and I. Believe me when I tell you it’s in the thousands. Thousands of lives we’ve saved, and we’ll save thousands more, and all at the cost of only six.’

She had a prickling on her neck and looked around the room. It was possible Mary wasn’t in the freezer. She should check the rest of the house first. No – room by room was safest. She went back again and shut the kitchen door tightly. The door to the basement stairs was already closed, so if Mary came in behind her she’d hear her in time.

‘Tell me that’s not worth it,’ she said, approaching the freezer. ‘Tell me thousands of lives aren’t worth six and I know you’re lying.’

She stepped into the threshold and stared down the length of the freezer. It was empty. Of course it’s empty! Why would she leave it to make herself a bowl of blood and then hide in there? She’d be expecting me to…

She whirled around in time to see the cupboard underneath the sink explode outwards with a deafening crash. Mary charged, her face snarling and covered in blood. She moved with frightening speed, but there were several steps to cross and Rain had the knife up with plenty of time to spare. She sunk the blade straight into Mary’s heart as they collided.

Rain went flying back into the freezer, sliding over the slick floor until her head knocked the back wall. She stared at Mary, dumbfounded, and watched as the old corpse pulled the six inch blade out of her chest as though it were a splinter. A single stream of thick black ooze spilled from the wound.

‘No, wait!’ Rain struggled to her feet, but it was too late. Mary stepped back and slammed the freezer door shut on her. The key clicked in the lock.

Oh God no, this can’t be happening, this cannot be happening. She stood in the dark. Mary’s voice came to her from the other side of the door after a minute of terrifying silence.

‘Did you kill them?’

It took her another minute to realise what she was asking. Of course I killed them, you crazy bat! But when she did relief flooded in. ‘No!’ she almost shouted, already shivering badly in the cold. ‘I got them – stole them from a morgue. It was wrong, I know, it was wrong, but the book said only youthful blood would work! I’ll return them, I promise.’

‘I will see.’

For the next half hour, there was nothing but silence from outside, and Rain huddled in a ball at the back of the freezer, rubbing her arms furiously. Her fingers and toes were going numb, even though she’d put on long pants and a jacket before going out. It was impossibly cold.

‘You lied!’ She jumped hard enough to knock her head on the wall when Mary screamed through the door at her.

‘I used your computer, I checked! I recognized the boy and girl! They were reported missing years ago!’

‘You what? How?’

‘I’m not stupid. Just because I died before you were born doesn’t mean I can’t learn what you do with that black box after watching you every day. I know how the world works. I was going to sleep and you didn’t want me to, did you?’

‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I just saw all the good we could do! And we did do good, Mary! We did so much good! Please let me out, I’m freezing to death in here.’

‘Mary?’

‘Mary, Please! I swear I’ll confess to everything, I’ll do whatever you want! No one else has to die! I already worked it out – those six bodies will last a hundred years!’ That wasn’t true – they’d last more like ten, but Mary wouldn’t know that.

‘You’ll do anything I want?’ If she hadn’t been pressed up against the freezer door, Rain wouldn’t have heard the words, spoken so softly. Hope rushed through her.

‘Yes, God yes, anything at all.’

‘Die.’

‘Mary? Please. We can change the world.’

‘Mary?’

‘MARY!’

‘Oh, God.’

 

The list of missing persons in Rain’s area dropped from six to one in a single day. The one was of course Rain herself, and after seeing the contents of her freezer no one was surprised on that front. The media went mad. Rain’s fame as a philanthropist had risen her to such heights it might as well have been Mother Theresa revealed as a cannibal killer – of children, no less.

How could someone who had done so much good be so evil? Yet even the doubters had to admit that the presence of the corpses in her home and the blood stained microwave, coupled with her subsequent disappearance, was incriminating.

Less than six months later, the website for Looking Ahead with Rain published. And it was no paltry day or two of events either, but a list of every major event and catastrophe that was to come for over a hundred years, along with a short but detailed description for each. People who had yet to be born were accused of mass murder, terrorists and war criminals named, and disasters that no one expected to happen ever, let alone within the next century, were sited. The list stopped at the year 2100, but not before predicting that, as a result of the list, many would believe the year 2100 to be the apocalypse, but that this was in fact, not the case.

The website was never updated again, and Rain was never found. During the course of their investigations police found human tissue in Rain’s basement that matched that of Mary Lester. Her absence had gone unnoticed, the grave neatly filled, but when investigators dug the well turned earth they discovered that her body, it seemed, had also disappeared. Some speculated that Rain had been murdered by a vigilante – there had been so shortage of death threats sent her way since her very first prediction – and the police finally admitted the theory held a lot of water. Rain’s hefty bank account went to her only next of kin – a brother who hadn’t spoken to her in years and who’d lived in Australia for all of them – while the safe in her bedroom had been opened and emptied on the day of her disappearance.

Far, far away, on a crystal beach in the middle of the pacific, a beautiful woman reclines on a polished wooden deck chair. She closes the laptop she had open in front of her and lays it on the sand beside her, marvelling at the progress of technology. In her day only the most powerful governments even knew what a computer was; now every other person has one of their own.

It is a fascinating world indeed, and the more she thinks of it, the more Mary decides Rain had a point after all – it wouldn’t be right for her to go to sleep just yet. She had so much to catch up on.

Smiling at the prospect, she leans back and watches the warm Mediterranean sea sparkle and shift before her, the sunlight glancing off the water like a million brilliant stars. She takes a long sip of the Bloody Mary she brought down with her, closes her eyes, and thinks of the future.

 

I think everyone’s experienced the central theme here: a sense of social suffocation. You feel you must impress the people you’re with, or at least avoid their judgement, and so must be on your best behaviour. Eat with a straight back and hold the knife and fork correctly; be painfully polite and have impeccable manners; smile and answer questions. If you’re like me, your behaviour is the result of a polite mask you acquire, while inside you suffocate, slowly. Or maybe I’m just a psychopath… Anyway, enjoy!

 

Matriarch

By Ben Pienaar

 

If a stranger looked in during the evening, they would see the family of five sitting around a fire in the living room: the straight backed mother focused on her knitting, the father perhaps still in his suit and reading a book about politics or history; the sixteen year old son perhaps also reading or maybe just sitting in intense thought; the fifteen year old daughter helping her ten year old sister work on a puzzle laid out on the floor. The stranger would probably grow bored very quickly and move on. The horror of the situation would be lost on all but the most perceptive.

The sixteen year old son was Cedric Dillon, and on the evening in question he was fighting a fierce internal battle with his mother. As usual, it was short lived, and he exhausted himself within minutes. If the stranger had looked very closely just then, he might have seen a single tear well up and roll down the boy’s cheek.

‘Cedric,’ Agatha said, only the smallest hint of annoyance present in her voice, ‘why don’t you play a game of chess with your father?’

That was the end of it, of course. It took every ounce of focus and effort just to put up the slightest resistance to her, every bit of willpower. After a game of chess he’d be drained completely. It was amazing she even let him try anymore, though he knew why she did: having him sit quiet and motionless was her way of punishing him, and of reminding him how little power he had. She knew how badly the boredom got to him, how it suffocated him.

His head nodded and his arms pushed him up out of the soft couch.

‘Sounds like a plan. We’ll see how you’ve improved,’ his father said, standing and moving to the little table in the corner, where an ornate ivory chessboard was set up. He didn’t answer, letting his legs walk him over to the table and sit him down. She could make him shut up and she could change the words that came out of his mouth, but she’d never been able to make him speak. For whatever reason, that was still his.

They played a long game, and by the end of it Colleen and Janet had both gone up to bed, stopping to give Agatha a kiss and a cheerful goodnight. Cedric smiled whenever they did that, knowing that when each of them opened their mouths they were cursing her in their own way, screaming bloody hate in her face. She changed what came out, of course, but in order to do that she had to know what was going to come; she heard every horrendous word.

‘Good game, son,’ his father said, checkmating him. ‘I should get to bed, though. It’s a big day tomorrow and I can’t wait to snatch a little sleep and get started. See you bright and early tomorrow morning!’ Cedric could tell from the robotic way he spoke that she wasn’t making him say it. As his father kissed Agatha goodnight and ascended the stairs, Cedric sighed. James Dillon was broken. He was the sheep that no longer tried to scale the fence, only grazed peacefully on the bland dry grass in the paddock and waited for slaughter.

While he was thinking this his body had lifted him up and walked him over to Agatha’s rocking chair. She put down her half knitted scarf and looked up at him. She only ever looked at him that way: tight lipped, her hair pulled into a vicious bun. Sometimes he wondered, if he cut her bun off, whether the skin on her face would sag and fall off her skull.

‘How many nights must we go through the same thing? How many times must we learn the same lesson? Mmm?’ She was giving him free reign to speak, he could feel it, but he said nothing. Instead he used the brief freedom to scowl at her.

‘You were ever a stubborn boy, Cedric. But I am just as stubborn and luckily for you, not only do I have the power but I am also right and you are wrong. My way of life is the happiest way for all of us. I will remain persistent, and one day you will see the truth of it. One day, when you’re a wealthy lawyer – or perhaps Doctor or even politician, I haven’t decided yet – and when you have a big house and a beautiful wife and children. All of it will be because of me and you will thank me for it and be grateful. It is only unfortunate I’ll need to wait so long for your gratitude.

Fuck your gratitude you old whore!

‘Thankyou, mother, of course you’re right, as always,’ he said, an apologetic smile stretching his face.

Now it was her turn to scowl. ‘I’ve a mind to give you a stern punishment for that. In fact I think I will, but we should wait for the school holidays, so I needn’t be afraid of leaving marks.’

Once, when his father still had some fight left in him, they’d managed to communicate enough to organise a sort of mutiny against her. Mr. Dillon had even grabbed her around the neck with both hands at one point, but in the end the whole thing had been finished in under a minute. They had all filed into the kitchen and cut each other with knives while she watched, unflinching, until the effort of it had leeched her anger away. All of them still got nightmares about that. In fact Cedric was convinced that had something to do with her as well – her reaching into their dreams and warping them to her purposes. There was no escape.

‘Yes mother.’ She gave him a funny look. She hadn’t made him say the words, this time, and neither was she forcing the smile on his face now.

‘Perhaps you will learn, after all,’ she said. ‘But all for another day. Bed now.’

‘Yes mother,’ he said again, and his body took him upstairs, his hands brushing his teeth too hard, mechanically, and changing him into his pyjamas.

He had a room on his own now, the two girls sharing bunk beds in the next one over, and once he was lying face up in the darkness, eyes shut, he was perfectly alone. Usually it stayed like this all night: his body stuck in the same stiff position, motionless until morning. An itchy nose or an exposed foot could keep him up all night, but exhaustion almost always won over in the end. Tonight, however, was different.

It happened late, well after midnight, though he couldn’t be sure. Something woke him up – a sense of… relaxation. She’s asleep, he thought. He’d felt it only once before a few months ago, and when it happened then he’d fought her viciously, pushing off the covers and trying to throw himself out of the window. She’d woken up and regained control in seconds, and they’d been up the rest of the night. The punishment for that attempt had been the worst he’d ever suffered at her hands.

This time, he didn’t fight. Instead he gave her a kind of mental nudge, and wriggled the fingers on his right hand. Nothing. No resistance. He did the same with his left and got the same result. Adrenaline rushed into him and he forced himself to calm down. After years of fighting to get out from under his mother’s thumb, Cedric had no shortage of willpower.

After an hour, he was sitting up in bed and making, slow, easy movements with his arms and legs. The idea, he figured, was not to surprise her. He would push her aside just as he was now pushing aside his blanket, letting her roll away without any sudden movements. It was incredible he’d got this far – how much further would he push it? All the way, he thought. I’m going to push it all the way.

            Another hour passed but it was still the dead of the night when he was on his feet beside the bed. The air was ice cold but his movements were unhindered, unwatched – he was free! He shivered. How long would it last? And what could he do? What should he do?

Kill her.

But he had no idea how his father would react. He hadn’t known his true father for years, only the happy puppet his mother paraded about the house. For all he knew he’d collapse in grief and then call the police. Or even murder him for revenge.

So what, Run? There’s nowhere to go, and for all you know distance makes no difference. After all, she can still control you at school. Maybe she’ll just turn you around in the morning and march you right back home.

            Kill her. It’s the only way.

His inner voice whispered these thoughts to him as he tiptoed out of his room and downstairs to the kitchen. He was being quiet, but he wasn’t so much worried about making noise – but about setting off some unseen tripwire. He’d spent years trying to work out exactly what her powers were, but he was sure he didn’t know even half of her tricks. If he walked into the wrong room she might wake up suddenly, a silent alarm ringing loud in her mind. But if that was the case, surely she would have woken up as soon as he left his room?

He cocked his head outside his parents’ bedroom door and listened. Only soft breathing, no movement. Not that she’d need to get out of bed to bring him to heel anyway – and he was still free. He smiled and started down the stairs.

A glance out of the ground floor window, along with the still bright embers of the fire, told him there was plenty of time before dawn. He resolved to take his time, moving as slowly as possible and keeping his eyes half closed all the while, his mind relaxed. If she stirred in her sleep and checked on him, perhaps he could trick her with his thoughts into thinking he was still asleep. While he lifted a knife from the rack by the sink he was visualising himself in bed, thinking of the soft covers and warmth, trying to make his thoughts fragmented and dream like.

It took him another hour to reach the bedroom door with the knife, and still she had not woken. He was drenched in icy sweat now, his whole body tense. This door had to be it: the alarm that would wake her up. He closed his fist around the knob and turned it, slowly. The door swung open, creaking a hundred times louder in the silence and tension. The lumps in the bed didn’t stir.

The smell of varnished wood hit him, stronger than in the rest of the house, and also the mothball stench that seemed to follow her around wherever she was. It made his head dizzy.

He stepped into the room, taking infinite care with every step, until he was right by her bedside. He could see his father’s blank face beside her. She was lying on her back, blanket drawn up to her neck, breathing slowly.

Cedric brought the knife up and stared at it, hypnotised for the moment at the way it shone with moonlight. The leafy oaks outside the window swayed in the wind, masking his sigh. This was it, as close as any of them had ever come – probably as close as they ever would come. It was all up to him.

He leaned over her, knife poised just above her chest, and took a deep breath. He wanted to say something, some final, bitter goodbye, but it might wake her up in time. He was risking enough as it was. It was time to finish it.

He pushed down on the knife. Nothing happened. It stayed exactly where it was, poised just a couple of feet above her. He pushed again, even resting some of his weight on the back of it, but it was as though he were trying to push the blade through solid steel.

That was when her eyes opened.

Cedric stopped pushing and stared into them, and in those moments his body and mind paused save a single, all-encompassing terror: I’m dead.

He still fought her, at the end, and to his credit he managed to slow her down. The knife turned, inexorably, but instead of turning with it his wrists stayed where they were and the bones in them snapped one by one as the knife performed a full one eighty to look him in the eye.

He could have lifted a car with the strength he exerted to fight her, but her power was not physical in the first place and the blade approached his right pupil, wrists bent at obscene angles. When it pierced his cornea, he didn’t stop fighting, but a centimetre later his mind was lost in a lake of pain and his only desire was for it all to end. He gave in.

 

***      ***      ***

 

James Dillon woke up as the bright rays of dawn shone in through the window. Agatha had already been up and opened it, and the breeze hit his face, bringing coolness and country fragrances that never failed to cheer him up, however short lived the feeling was. He got dressed and went into the bathroom to brush his teeth.

He always treasured these few moments of freedom afforded him. As time went, he noticed Agatha’s grip loosening somewhat, especially with all the recent spats she’d had with Cedric. As long as he did what he knew he was supposed to do, she’d let him get on with it. He made sure to comb his hair and clean his teeth.

Downstairs, the others were gathered around eating breakfast, Agatha at the head of the table as usual. He kissed her on the cheek and sat down. He smiled at everyone, and they smiled back.

It was bright and cheerful as usual, and only when James looked across at Cedric did his smile falter for the first time. Luckily, he regained it before Agatha could glare at him.

Cedric’s eye was a bloody mess, and it was very fresh by the looks of it. Must have happened during the night at some point. The left side of his face was a mess of black, gummy blood. ‘Hello father,’ he said. ‘Awake at last?’

‘Yes… Did you sleep well?’

‘As always.’

He glanced sideways at the two girls, but they were oblivious to the exchange, delicately spooning food into their mouths with their usual ladylike grace. Today, though, the image was ruined by the huge red gashes along their throats, where the blood had not yet dried.

Colleen turned to look at him with vacant eyes were her sad ones had once been, and she opened her mouth to say something but blood spilled out instead of words.

After breakfast, James’s body took him upstairs to the study to begin the day’s work, and as he sat down in front of his great desk by the window he heard Agatha talking to the kids. ‘Best get cleaning now, hadn’t you? Just a few chores to get done and then you can enjoy yourselves for a little while before school starts.’

‘But mother,’ Janet said in an uncharacteristically scratchy voice, ‘School starts at nine.’

‘No, dear, not anymore. I’ve decided to home school you from now on. Much better for all round education. Teachers these days will put all kinds of nonsense into your brains.’

‘Ooh, that sounds fun.’

‘Can we go for a walk out in the woods today, mother?’ Cedric said.

‘Yes. Yes I don’t see why not. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Ah, well, get to work now. Looks like we’ve got a big day ahead of us, and your father will want dinner when he’s finished with work.’

Yes, James thought, his hand reaching down by itself to turn on his computer. They had a big day ahead of them alright. A big, busy day.

They say heroes come from all walks of life… I got the idea for this one, predictably, from the seemingly endless number of school shootings that are happening in America. Considering the horror involved, I’m surprised I haven’t read any other horror stories on the same subject. Anyway, thought I’d give this one a little twist. Enjoy!

 

Hero

By Ben Pienaar

 

The decision to end Danny Larson’s life came with a punch to the face. Not his face – few punches ever got that close to him – but Gale Lyeman’s, and in the moments after Danny’s hard knuckles collided half with his nose and half with his cheek, but before he hit the ground, Gale made the decision.

He watched drops of blood fly straight up like shooting stars against the grey sky, and then he hit the concrete and saw stars of a different kind. His ears were ringing but he could hear laughter, both the nervous kind and the genuinely mirthful kind. Gale didn’t sit up, just lay there on the ground and brought the cigarette he’d been smoking to his lips. He took a drag. ‘I’m going to kill you,’ he whispered smoke.

‘What did you say, asshole?’ Danny stomped on his solar plexus and he rolled onto his side, eyes shut tight, and waited for his breath to come back. He didn’t hear them laugh this time, but he felt someone going through his pockets and taking his phone. When he gasped his first breath and sat up at last, they were already back in the school. The end of recess bell rang.

Gale stubbed the cigarette out on the ground and got to his feet, a bit shaky. There were officially two periods left, and he’d cut so many this year there was serious hell to pay if he missed any more. On the other hand, now that he’d made his decision, who cared? What were they going to do, send him to prison for murder and then expel him?

He laughed, a pale, sickly sound from a pale, sickly boy. At least that’s how everyone saw him, and he supposed the piercings, black greasy hair and ragged black leather clothes didn’t help. He looked like a cross between a vampire and a zombie, or at least that was the effect he hoped to pull off. People seemed to be repulsed by him, so it was probably working.

When he got home, his mother was passed out, almost upside down on the torn up couch. A three quarters empty bottle of jack lay next to her hand. Gale shifted her onto her side, picked up the dog’s blanket from the floor and draped it over her. He reached into her pocket and took four Marlboro. He would have filled Freddy’s bowls but they were already overflowing, as usual.

‘I don’t wanna be one of those, you know, neglectful mothers,’ she was fond of saying. ‘I take care of you and Freddy, don’t I?’

‘Sure, mom.’

He headed down the hall into his room, locked the door behind him and lit up one of the cigarettes. He collapsed on his bed and stared at the ceiling. Some of the blood clogging his nose leaked down his throat. He figured he’d be swallowing that for a while. He could feel a lot of it drying on his face, too. He should probably clean himself up before his mother next saw him.

‘Gay Likes-men. Nice name.’ The very first thing Danny Larson ever said to him, a second after he was called up on the roll, first day of high school. The kid must have been thirteen at the time, already big enough to be mistaken for a senior.

‘Dannnnny Larrrrsooonnn,’ Gale spoke to the empty room. ‘I’m cooooominngg for you buddddddyyyy.’ He chuckled. The truth was, he was a bit scared. A little. The relief of it was, he wasn’t scared of Danny Larson for once. This time he was scared of himself, because while the decision had been made, sure, he hadn’t expected to still be taking it so seriously by the time he got home. But he was. He was taking it very seriously, and the more he thought of what it would be like, the more worth it it became.

Danny was a bad kid, right? He’d been caught for maybe half the stuff he’d done, but it was enough. Miracle he hadn’t been sent to juvenile hall already, and in a few months it would be a miracle he wasn’t in prison. Only he won’t make it that far, Gale thought with a smile.

He’d killed cats and beat kids four years his junior into hospital. Shit, he’d beat kids four years his senior into hospital. Even though the school only knew a fraction of what he’d done they’d sent him to the school psych, and guess what? Troubled child, they said. Disturbed family life. Very remorseful about his actions, bad temper control. No shit.

If the psychologist wasn’t so caught up in his own bullshit, he might have looked up and realised that he wasn’t really analysing anyone at all. The lights were bright but the house was empty. Nobody home but a bunch of mean, hungry rats scuttling around in the drywall, that was how Gale thought of him. A geniune sociopath. He was sure he was smart enough to come up with a believable sob story and a few tears, too, but anyone who looked in his eyes should have seen it a mile away.

Screw it. That beating today was the last one. Five years of them was tolerable, but not six. Apparently. That last punch got through and flicked the switch, that was all. Gale’s switch had been flicked, just like the two kids that did columbine.

Lying there alone in his room he considered making himself another columbine, or Virginia tech. But he didn’t want to kill everybody, that was the problem. He just wanted to kill this one guy. And all his friends, if he could. And it was worth it. What would they give him? A few years in a mental place. If anyone at that school could plead insanity, it was Gale.

The other problem, though, was he didn’t have a gun. He only had a really good switchblade, and that was it. He tried to wipe his nose with his sleeve and felt a sickening stab of pain when his wrist touched the bridge of his nose. ‘FUCK!’ she shouted. Yep, a switchblade was going to do just fine, he thought. A switchblade would have to be it.

He got up and rooted through his desk drawer until he found the thing, a five inch serrated blade that could slice wood like soft cheese. He dropped it in his pocket, and then sat down and wrote his mother a letter.

Hey Ma,

            Sorry I killed that kid. He was an asshole and he just wouldn’t quit beating me, you know? Fuck. Sorry if it causes you trouble, but I gotta do it. I guess we’ll talk later anyway, maybe. Have a good day. Love ya and all that. GALE.

 

He’d settled in for an essay, but it turned out that one paragraph was all he had in him. That was all he had to say to his mother. In fact all he had to say was encapsulated in the first sentence: Sorry I killed that kid. And it wasn’t even honest. Oh well.

It was only twelve when he finished. The lunch time bell would be ringing when he got there. He left his room and tiptoed past his mother (though he could have run past banging two pans together and screaming at the top of his lungs and she wouldn’t have stirred). The walk to school was eerie. The sky was overcast and there wasn’t a soul out on the streets but him. No cars passed him. It was as though the whole world had stopped to watch him, everyone holding their breath. He walked with one hand in his pocket, holding the knife.

Sure enough, just as he went up the front steps and into the main hall the lunch bell rang. He realised, too late, that he’d forgotten to clean himself up. He lowered his head and let his greasy hair hang over his face as kids came streaming out of the classrooms lining the hall. None of them gave him a second glance, and for once he was grateful for his status as creepy outcast.

‘Shit.’ Danny Larson himself had just stepped out of class no more than ten feet in front of him, laughing with four of his friends. At least, they were laughing: Danny just looked uncharacteristically withdrawn, same as he had earlier that day, when he came for Gale.

Gale hung back a little and watched. Stabbing him was one thing, getting past four burly football players was something else. He’d wait till they got into the cafeteria.

At the lockers, Danny was slow, sticking his books in one by one, fiddling with things inside. When the others had put all their stuff away he jerked his head in the direction of the cafeteria and said ‘I’ll meet ya down there.’ They shrugged and headed off. Gale was leaning up against the wall near one of the classrooms, using the stream of eighth graders pouring out as cover in case Danny looked his way.

He needn’t have worried. Whatever Danny was doing had his full attention. He did glance up and down the hall several times, but only fleetingly, as though he were checking for teachers. Gale caught a glimpse of his expression and got a sick feeling. There was something wrong. Danny looked mean as ever, sure, but he looked scared, too. Badly scared. Just who or what had done that to the most feared kid in school?

The kids moving in front of him obscured the view, so Gale didn’t see what he pulled from the locker and jammed into his jacket. He started down the hall and a second later Gale was moving at full speed after him. He was still letting the hair hang over his face to conceal the blood and he collided with a tenth grade boy the size of a bear before he’d gone five steps.

‘Hey, dick.’ The kid pushed him back into the lockers. A younger version of Danny, Gale thought. Maybe shooting up the school wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Maybe he should just stab this kid now and then go for Danny, kill two birds with one stone.

The kid saw it in his face. His eyes widened and he stepped back two paces, before narrowing his eyes. ‘Freak.’ But he moved off quickly.

Danny was almost gone in the crowd, but it didn’t matter. They were all going the same place anyway. Gale followed the masses, keeping hunched over so no one would see his face. He passed Patty Sorenson and heard her gasp behind him. ‘Oh my God did you see his face?’

It didn’t matter too much, now. Time was almost up. He didn’t realise he’d be this calm. Sure his heart was going nuts, but it was the same feeling as standing up in front of class to give a speech. Nerve racking, but nothing he hadn’t felt before. He was going to do it, he was really going to kill this asshole once and for all. He was going to live out his fantasy.

He saw Danny standing in the middle of the cafeteria. At the time he was so caught up in his own thoughts, in the electric fear shooting through his brain and churning his stomach, in the feel of the knife handle in his right hand, that he didn’t realise how strange it was. That Danny was just standing there, not going to get lunch or moving off to find his friends. Gale was too busy planning. He’d tap him on the shoulder and say something cool. He’d say: ‘Chew steel, asshole’ and ram the blade right down his throat.

He reached him at last. Came right up behind him, took a deep breath and raised his hand to tap him on the shoulder, his right arm coming out of his pocket.

That was when everything went wrong. His hand fell on nothing because Danny was already whirling around, too fast, pulling something big and black out of his jacket, his mouth opening in a wild scream that set the hairs of Gale’s neck on end.

There was no time for one liners; Gale swung the knife wildly and caught Danny in the side of the head. The point of the blade entered his ear canal just as he was turning, and the motion pushed it all the way in, way past his eardrum and on into the grey matter beyond. Had the knife connected with any other area, Gale thought later – or even struck millimetres away from where it had – it probably would have been the last thing he ever did. The blade would have struck Danny’s skull and ricocheted aside, leaving him with nothing but a deep cut.

At the same moment, a sound rang out so loud that for a second Gale wondered if someone hadn’t stuck a knife in his own ears. Danny fell backwards, smacking his head on the corner of one of the tables, the sound lost in the rising screams of everyone in the cafeteria. Only then, staring at him twitching violently on the ground – who knew people were so lively after they’d died, Gale thought (and this was followed by the far more horrifying idea that maybe he’s not dead yet) – only then did Gale see the gun. It clattered to the floor as Danny’s hand flopped around like a pale fish, and the barrel was smoking.

Still dazed, numb to the chaos all around him, the screaming and running students, several teachers running towards him now, Gale felt his midsection, expecting to find a bullet hole. It wasn’t there. He turned and saw that the glass pane in front of the lasagne was shattered and the Lunch Lady was standing several feet away staring at the obliterated pasta, mortified.

Someone – Mr. Hall – grabbed Gale by the shoulders and spun him around. His eyes were wide. Here it comes, Gale thought. He’s going to push me to the ground and hold me down while the others call the cops. Hope it doesn’t hurt too bad.

‘My God, are you alright? I saw the whole thing. He didn’t hit you, did he?’ The tall teacher, usually so uptight and stern, was running his hands up and down Gale’s torso just as Gale had done, his eyes wide.

Another teacher, a mousy brown haired woman Gale had seen around, was beside them now, staring through giant glasses at Danny’s still twitching body. She was whispering under her breath and shaking her head.

‘I called the cops!’ Someone shouted. Half the cafeteria had emptied in moments, but already kids were streaming back in, surrounding them to get a look at Danny and Gale. A couple other teachers arrived and they started pushing the kids back, urging them not to spoil the crime scene, but they may as well have stood aside for all the good it did.

Most of them, Gale realised, were looking at him. He’d expected that, sure, but not the looks he saw on their faces now. Not fear or revulsion, but admiration. ‘Hey man’, one boy said seriously, ‘I’ve never seen anyone move so fast.’

‘How did you know?’ A girl asked. They were starting to calm down, advancing on him, and the reality of what they thought happened settled in on him. He didn’t know what to do. He stared.

‘Thank God for you, son,’ Mr. Hall said, a heavy hand resting on his shoulder. ‘If you’d acted just a second later, even one second… It doesn’t bear thinking. You’re a hero, that’s all. A damned hero.’

Gale looked at the Danny’s twitching body on the floor, the pool of blood taking up as much space on the floor as his body and still spreading, and he put his head in his hands.

This one really made me cringe in some places. Rarely has a story got to me so much when I wrote it, and rarely have I felt so out of control, so helpless to change it. But, that is the joy of writing, is it not? Hopefully, you feel as uncomfortable as I did when you read it. I hope it really gets under your skin and gives you nightmares. After all, that’s the joy of reading…

 

 

For Art

By Ben Pienaar

 

For years Gregory Mayer tried to write poetry. He’d read his first one when he was just ten years old, and had been trying determinedly, persistently, to write one – just one – good poem. He read all of the classics: Keats, Tennyson, Blake, and plenty others who were modern and others who no one had ever heard of. Sometimes he read a hundred in a day and other times he read just one and thought about it and analysed it for a week. But try as he might, he could not write one of his own.

He was eighteen now, and for yet another night upon thousands he came home from school, ate a small lunch and disappeared into his dark room. He came down for dinner and then went back up again, resisting his mother’s stern warnings that he’d waste away if he continue to go on starving himself.

How could he explain to her, who’d never read a good poem in her life, that he could not be a real poet unless he was starving? He was glad she didn’t know about his drinking, which he’d taken up for the same reason.

Gregory took a breath of stale air and coughed up a mouthful of dust. His hair was long and messy and he had what almost constituted stubble scattered in uncertain patches of his face, both of which caused endless grief with teachers at school, and his parents. He had dark circles under his eyes because he only allowed himself sleep for four hours a night so that he was always in a semi aware dreamlike state.

He made his way to his wardrobe, sorting through a pile of bottles at various stages of consumption until he found one that was almost full. Brandy, by the look of it – not that it mattered. He tipped his head back and took a solid swig, shuddering and coughing and relishing the burn as it made its way down. Once he’d read about all the great authors and poets he’d decided to drink at least half a bottle of something every day whether he wanted to or not. Thankfully, he discovered he wanted to more and more as time went on. Soon he’d be a fully fledged alcoholic. Luckily he’d also acquired a menial job (which he despised, of course – if he found himself enjoying it he’d have quit immediately) as a janitor in a hospital, so he could afford it.

He took the bottle to his desk with him, swiped a pile of papers onto the floor and lit two wax candles. He took out a fresh pen and set a fresh sheet of paper between the candles. It was time to write.

But nothing came. He had read thousands, no, tens of thousands of poems and remembered them all. He had written thousands, and had ideas enough for thousands more, and yet… they were never any good. He told himself it was all part of it – a real genius was never recognized in his own time, after all – but he knew that was a lie. The truth was, he knew his poems were no good.

Technically, they were perfect. After so much practice his grammar, timing and structure, and wording were all near flawless. But they fell flat for the lack of feeling. Mostly when people read them – people he trusted to be honest anyway – they simply said they were missing that something, which they never seemed to be able to describe. It’s just… you know… It just doesn’t have that…

But he knew what it was. His poems had no emotion. You read them and then went about your day. You read them and then felt completely fine afterwards, unchanged, unaffected, uninterested. You looked at the world the same.

He took another drink and sat for a long time at his desk, thinking. He often did this, sitting and thinking himself into a frenzy. How could one write something emotional, after all, unless one was emotional at the time of writing? Sometimes he whipped himself into anger, sometimes sorrow, sometimes joy, depending on what kind of poem he wanted to write.

He scribbled several lines in a practiced untidy scrawl. He read over it three times and then crossed it all out. Nothing, he thought. It just had nothing. Never mind he’d been shaking with terror as he wrote the thing; the words contained none of it.

He took another long drink, and then, as if the thought had been contained in the brandy itself, he realised the truth.

His poems were thin because his own life was thin. He was only nineteen, after all, and most of his literary heroes were old men, or at least mature, when they made their masterpieces. They had lived long and rich and interesting lives already. They didn’t need to force their emotions on themselves – it came naturally to them when they remembered things from their real lives. They had real tragedies and horrors and joys to write about.

Gregory, on the other hand, had spent most of his life huddled over his rotten desk in this cramped dark place that was more a cave than a room. He had no friends, no experiences. He’d never done anything, never truly suffered or grieved or rejoiced at all. He just hadn’t done anything. He dropped the pen and scowled at the page.

He thought of his parents. About his father, who’d never beaten him or even spanked him, and who had built him a treehouse and given him whisky when his mother wasn’t looking. And his mother, who’d bought him presents every Christmas and comforted him when he was sad! It was a nightmare. Even his older sister had always been nice to him, letting him play with her toys when they were younger and stealing cookies for him before dinner time.

The longer he thought about his sickening, perfect life that was full of love and happiness the more disgusted he became. They’d read his poems – hadn’t they ever realised how they’d ruined him? How they were ruining him even now?

He put his head in his hands and despaired. Not really despaired – because only those who have truly faced the end with no hope of rescue can despair – but experienced a mild, diluted version of it. All of his emotions were diluted, he knew, because of his sheltered life. He should run away.

He considered it. To leave home and live out on the streets like an urchin – that would surely provide plenty of material? Assuming no one murdered him, or found him, of course. Which was unlikely. Even then, though, plenty of people lived like that and few of them every wrote anything worthwhile. Millions of people. It just wasn’t harsh enough. No. If he wanted to write something that really stood out, a masterpiece, he’d have to go through something truly exceptional. Something monstrous.

He took a thoughtful sip of whisky and it came to him then, borne on the fire as it settled in his stomach. The moment it occurred to him he knew he had to do it, and the thought sent writhing snakes of fear and horror right through him. If he could feel something so strong as that from the mere thought of doing a thing… Who knew what he’d be able to produce after having done it?

He thought on it for a while longer, but didn’t drink any more. He didn’t want his thoughts – or reactions for that matter – dulled. He wanted to experience every agonizing moment of his transformation from boy into mad genius.

Finally, he decided.

He left his room and walked on down the hall, past his sisters room with the door locked tight and pop music blaring from within, downstairs and passed the lounge where his father sat sipping hot tea and reading a five dollar paperback thriller (that probably didn’t have two characters to rub together), into the kitchen where his mother was filling the dishwasher after lunch.

She glanced up at him as he came in and gave a short smile. He must have looked bad – his face was cold with terror at the prospect of what he was about to do, both hands shaking and his heart beating in his chest – but she didn’t react. He supposed he looked pretty bad most of the time anyway. ‘If you’re still hungry there’s cold roast beef in the fridge,’ she said, turning away from him to put some plates in the dishwasher.

‘Okay, thanks, mum.’

He opened the fridge and found it, but instead of taking the meat he took only the long, razor sharp knife that lay beside it on the plate. He remembered seeing his mother slice the roast beef the night before, the knife going through it as easily as a hot spoon through ice cream.

He shut the fridge door and turned to her, but she still had her back to him, filling the detergent while she hummed a song he recognized, one she often sang to him as a child. Hush little baby, it was. His hand was sweaty on the knife.

He didn’t think he could do it if she turned around now. If he saw her face he thought he would just drop the knife and go back upstairs and tear up his bad poems and never write again.

She didn’t turn.

For a moment, Gergory felt just like a man on a skyscraper ledge. Once he jumped, there was no going back. Do it now or give up on it, forever.

He jumped.

He put everything he had into that one motion, because it was all he could do. If he missed, he wouldn’t have the stomach to do it again. If he missed, he’d curl up in a ball and that would be the end of Gregory Mayer, genius poet.

He didn’t miss.

The knife went straight through the middle of her neck and out the front just as she was lifting up to close the dishwasher. She let out a strangled cry but his aim had been true and her airway was severed along with several major arteries, judging by the rivers of blood that cascaded all over the trays of dirty dishes when he ripped it out again.

When the blood hit his face he lost his mind for… he wasn’t sure how long. He was aware only of striking again and again in a frenzy, wanting it to be over and seeing flashes of white all over his vision as though his brain was trying to block out what he was seeing, what he was doing. The only thing resembling a thought in his mind were the repeated words For art! for art! no going back now! for art!

            He took a breath and put a hand on the counter to steady himself. His mother had collapsed on to the dishwasher and then rolled over, and though he hadn’t heard anything at the time he had a feeling it had made a lot of noise. There was a high ringing in his ears now as he looked down at her, and though she looked very, thoroughly dead by now, covered in blood still flowing from the wounds in her back, he thought her green eyes were looking at him, and the look in them, the utter surprise, was enough to make him want to slit his own throat.

But not yet. He would end his life one day, yes – probably around the age of forty something when he was still young enough for it to be tragic but old enough for him to write his masterpieces, probably leaving a note or perhaps a final poem behind that people would agonize over, trying to solve the mystery that was him but never quite finding the hidden meanings. But not yet.

Instead he rounded the counter and headed for the lounge, where he could hear his father setting down the tea and standing up. ‘Marie, is everything alright? Sounded like you brought the house down in there!’

Gregory halted just around the corner. As soon as his father stepped into view he stabbed, viciously, and this time it was as much out of self defence and fear as anything else, because if his father survived long enough – and if he realised what Gregory already done – there would be no stopping him. Son or not, he’d murder him for sure, and then it would all be for nothing.

The white came back, flashing bulbs of insanity across his eyes and mind, and for those few mad seconds Gregory’s entire body was in motion, every muscle working in powerful spasms of rage. His father was so taken by surprise that he backed right off until he slammed into the front door and by then Gregory had stabbed him enough times to make any further resistance pointless. Nevertheless, he was pushing back, on the point of making an attack of his own perhaps, when the knife took him right in the eye and cut some important connection in his brain. That was the end of it. There were no accusing looks from his father. Only one wide open surprised eye.

Gregory was shaking badly now, his head spinning and his whole body drenched in red hot sweat. He was surprised it wasn’t rising off him in steam. His breaths were coming in hitches and gasps. Concentrate! the voice of reason shouted from somewhere far away. Focus! What does it feel like?

He closed his eyes and listened to his heart, and he focused. At first all he felt were the most basic sensory things. The cold tiles underfoot, except for his big toe, where a trickle of warm blood had reached him and was beginning to pool there. There was the ticking of the grandfather clock in the lounge and the birds chittering outside. He opened his nostrils and smelled that iron smell of blood. Only when he opened his eyes and saw his father again, clearly this time, did the horror strike him.

His parents were gone, horribly murdered by he, Gregory, and the truth of it was opening before him like an endless abyss. No going back now, he thought. The grief was just settling over him, the tears pouring down his face, the voice of reason now screaming in his head: What have you done? What have you done you maniac! You psycho! When he heard a tentative voice behind him whisper his name.

Deena was standing halfway up the stairs with one hand on the bannister, long black hair falling over half her face and a single shocked eye staring from the other half. She looked stark white, like a vampire. There was no going back now, Gregory thought. It was all for art, remember, and it was more than half done now so there was no going back whatsoever.

He went for her, screaming as the white curtain dropped over him again, and she was screaming too but neither of them could really hear it.

If she made it all the way up to the landing he might lose her, because there were a lot of windows and ways out and even things that could be used as weapons out there. But he made a dive before she hit the top and it paid off because his left hand got a hold of her ankle and she went down on her face.

He whited out, sort of, being aware only of pulling her down and bringing the knife up and down a few times, and when his vision cleared again she was motionless and he was lying on his back and looking at the way the blood made little waterfalls as it spilled down the varnished wooden steps.

Every breath seemed to take the effort of his whole body to suck in and get out. Every muscle was throbbing and he felt sick, so sick. He managed to crawl up to the landing and grab the wastepaper basket near the family computer before he vomited. The whiskey scorched his throat as it came back up and the smell of it made him vomit again.

He had to crawl back down the hall to his bedroom, and once he was inside he curled up on the floor and cried tears of acid. The sobs racked his whole body, the grief and guilt settling over him like a cement blanket. All the while, though his remorse was genuine and at that moment he’d give anything to take back what he’d done, and though he knew that no matter what came of this it would never, never in a million years be worth it… another voice paid close attention to his suffering and catalogued it and analysed it closely and finally sat back and said: good.

After a long time, when the grey outside his window turned to a dim blue and then black, he managed to pull himself to his knees. He pushed on his bed and got onto his feet. He went over to the desk and sat down, and poured himself a tall whiskey. Drank it and poured another.

By the third glass his hand wasn’t shaking so bad, and he lit the candles on his desk. He sat still for a while, watching the flames dance here and there, illuminating shadows and half seen objects all around the room.

It was still his room, he thought. Still the same place, unchanged in every respect. Outwardly, nothing was different about the situation at all. This scene was just the same as it had been earlier. But it seemed to him as though he were in an alien world now, an alternate universe.

Gregory picked up his pen and dragged a blank sheet of paper in front of him. He hovered over it, for a moment paralysed by the fear that this, too, would be the same. That it was all for nothing. Then he closed his eyes and remembered his mother’s eyes, staring at him without the light, without the warmth, only a hint of accusation and honest surprise. He remembered the squirming horror in his belly as he’d made his way down the hall to meet his father.

And at last, fresh tears rolling over his cheeks, he lowered the pen and began to write his masterpiece.

So this is the first one I’ve written since the novel, and reading it over I feel a bit rusty on the short story front, but I’ll warm up to it again. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the hell out of it, more as I went along, and I think it’ll be the same for you. Just a little something to remind you that monsters aren’t all bad. Enjoy!

Young Love

By Ben Pienaar

 

Monster, when she found him, wasn’t yet Monster. He was more of a creepy looking insect, so small that he was almost indistinguishable from any other crawling bug, and one that would have given any other girl nightmares. Good luck for Monster, then, that it was Mary who found him instead of a normal girl, and good luck for him also that he was almost indistinguishable from run of the mill crawling bugs, or she might just have squashed him all the same.

Mary was sitting down at the river bank at the bottom of the garden as she often did, her old dress getting muddy and her feet trailing along in the cool water. She could sit there for hours, and often did on summer afternoons, watching the water running, sun glistening off the ripples and leaves dropping from above. That day something else dropped from above, from one of the infinitely tall oaks that hung all down the river, but she didn’t see it (or rather him) until he grabbed her big toe out of desperation to keep from drowning.

An ordinary girl would have screamed at the unexpected touch – and some pain as tiny teeth sunk into the skin just beneath her toenail – but Mary merely let out a surprised gasp and brought her foot in for inspection.

Monster was there, and she was on the point of flicking him back into the water when she realised he wasn’t the spider she’d supposed. He was the wrong colour for one thing: mostly black but with twirling lines of red all over his body. And then she saw that he had only four legs instead of eight, and only two eyes. Spiders and insects tended to have pincers, but this thing had a mouth. She couldn’t see his teeth, because they were sunk all the way into her skin, but she did note that his mouth wasn’t wide the way a shark’s mouth is wide, but more tall, like a rat’s mouth if you took away its snout.

She analysed the thing, and while she watched he closed his eyes and his whole body began to pulsate gently as he sucked her blood into himself and his belly swelled to the size of a peppercorn. ‘Well, you’re greedy, aren’t you?’ she said. He paid no attention.

‘What’s your name?’

At last, he drank his fill and opened his mouth, retracting two lines of needle sharp teeth the way a cat retracts its claws. He scuttled up her ankle and along her leg until he reached her knee, where her skin was dry, and there he took refuge briefly, beady eyes flicking here and there, though back then he was so small she couldn’t make out his pupils.

‘I think I’ll call you Monster, because that’s really what you are, isn’t it? A monster.’ She could feel an almost imperceptible pressure as its four legs gripped her skin and it rested its belly on her.

She sighed and shook her head, and though she was curious she was still not above flicking the funny creature right back where it came from, but before she could make the fatal blow, Monster did a strange thing: he closed his eyes, relaxed his tight grip on her skin, and smiled. It was an odd, hair raising smile, full of black gums, but a smile nevertheless, and it stilled Mary’s hand the way mere curiosity could not. She decided to take him home.

For her last year of primary school, Mary was happy, and so was Monster. She kept him in a huge terrarium she’d created using the largest fishbowl she could find and several types of obscure plants. It sat on her desk in front of the window, and while it had initially been nothing more than decoration, soon after Monster it became a place for her to keep any interesting or helpless bug she happened to come across in the garden.

Soon, however, she discovered that some of the bugs were going missing, and Monster had his peppercorn sized belly more often than not. She began to add more bugs, and even things as boring as ants, to satisfy him. By the end of summer her terrarium was a veritable jungle of squirming, eating, fighting, mating insects. She made another just like it and put the two side by side, and when the population of the first was suffering, she would move Monster from that one to the other, so that he never went hungry. He must have been grateful, because though she handled him quite roughly at times he didn’t bite her again.

As for Mary, she had two loving – if distant at times – parents, four close friends, got consistently high grades at school and in general did well at life. So, they were happy. Then high school began.

Mary’s four friends all went to another school, St. Claire’s, while Mary’s parents bizarrely, unexpectedly, stupidly were adamant on sending her to Sion Secondary just because her mother went there. That was their sole reason. She fought with them and lost, and lost dessert for the next seven dinners for the things she said. Her first report card in seventh grade showed one B, three Cs, and two Ds. Her parents shook their heads and said they were disappointed. No one seemed to like her in her class, thinking her too snobby for them and their school, and she knew it was because she could only ever talk about her other friends and St. Claire’s.

It got worse. By the beginning of eighth grade, Mary found herself completely alone on the school ground, an outcast, the butt of every joke she pretended not to hear. When anyone tried to speak to her, she made an effort to be nice and smile, but somehow everything she said related to her house, or her family, or her clothes, and they always thought she was trying to show them how rich she was. They smiled at her face and laughed at her back.

But Monster was always there. He had grown, and now when he ate a big meal his belly was more like an acorn than a peppercorn. He was easily the best and biggest insect she had. Many of her afternoons were spent patrolling the vast garden for living things to drop in the terrarium, no longer for her enjoyment but for his. Whatever squeamishness she once had about bugs she lost in this pursuit. There was something satisfying about watching Monster gulp down a millipede and give her that cute smile of his. It was worth it.

Mary decided to take Monster to school one day. He was her only friend, after all. She put him in her pocket with a stern warning, and pushed some dead ants into a plastic baggie in her other pocket so she could feed him during the day. Even though he was just an insect, when she spoke to him and told him all her worries, he seemed to listen, and whether he understood or not it gave her comfort.

At lunch time, she took him to a wooden bench on the side of the football oval and put him beside her so she could feed him ants while she spoke. He sat comfortably and chewed on the little black bodies while she told him about the cruelty of the other girls and about how she was going to be a famous singer when she grew up, but before she could tell him how she’d spend her future millions, someone came and sat beside her.

Her name was Linda, one of the most popular girls in the year level, beautiful and smart and nice to everyone. She beamed at Mary, who was unable to give her anything in return besides a dropped jaw.

‘Hi, I’m Linda,’ Linda said, holding out her hand.

‘I know,’ Mary said, shaking it, and then realising how dumb she sounded.

‘Oh, K. Do you like it here?’

‘Yeah, I mean. Yeah. I just feel left out.’

‘Don’t worry about that, everyone’s very, I dunno, in their groups. But I think you’re okay.’

‘Thanks.’

‘So what were you doing all the way out here?’

Mary shrugged. ‘I just like… Well I don’t know who to talk to. God, my only friend is a bug.’

Linda’s smile faltered for a moment, but then laughed, and not in a cruel way. ‘Well that’s alright,’ she said. ‘Some of my friends are bugs too.’ And she nodded her head mischievously in the direction of the group of girls she’d left to come and talk to Mary. They were talking in low voices and occasionally glancing their way with scandalous faces. Mary giggled, tempted to say that some of them did in fact look quite like bugs, but she was afraid of being rude.

‘Anyway, I’m having a party on the weekend and I wanted to invite you.’

‘Really? I mean, thanks, I’ll be there.’

‘Okay,’ Linda said brightly. ‘And don’t worry about them, they’ll like you once they get to know you.’

‘Thanks.’ But the other girl was already moving off to her group, shaking her head at once of the glaring ones and saying something that made her turn red. Mary couldn’t help but feel admiration for the girl, and all the lonelier to be sitting alone on her bench. Monster nipped her hand and she dropped him back into her pencil case, where she kept a supply of ants she’d burned with a magnifying glass before school. That should keep him busy.

***

 

Years passed, and Mary seemed to rise to the challenges of high school. Her parents saw a healthy glow in her and she was smiling more often than not. Even the bitchier girls of the group accepted her after a while, especially once she learned to hide that tomboy side of her that had once kept her from making many friends. None of them ever saw her bedroom or met Monster, and her parents kept a respectful distance from her room once she put a DO NOT DISTRURB sign on the door made out of a small wooden board and blood red nail polish.

In her final year, she and Linda were best friends and the most popular and most beautiful girls in school. Their parties (always held at Linda’s house, of course) were legendary. And yet… Mary never quite seemed happy. She smiled, certainly, but there was always something else in her eyes. Like longing, Linda thought – and she thought she knew why.

One day, lying around on Linda’s Queen sized bed and listening to old music, Linda said: ‘I’m going to set you up, Mary.’

The other girl shot her a sideways glance. ‘Yeah? Who with?’

‘Dean Gallo.’

‘Ooooh, nice. Greasy hands and face for the rest of my life was just what I always wanted.’

‘He’s not greasy.’ She paused. ‘Well, not that greasy anyway.’

‘Besides,’ Mary said after a while, ‘If anyone sets me up, it’ll be me.’

‘Yeah?’ Linda sat up and turned the music down, then a little bit up again in case anyone was listening. Her mother could be so nosy.

‘Yup.’

‘Who, then?’

‘Ryan Skelts.’

‘Stilts, you mean? Really?’ Ryan Skelts was just on six feet five, and while he wasn’t fat he had plenty of meat to go with it. He had a slow way about him and an easy going attitude. Still, Linda didn’t see it.

‘He’s nice,’ Mary said, but there was a gleam in her eye Linda didn’t think she liked. There was something mean about it, and she caught a flicker of something else. Almost like her eyes had turned another colour for a second. ‘Do you wear contacts?’ she said, leaning closer.

‘What? No. Weirdo.’

They laughed, and the song ended so Linda changed her playlist and they talked about bands for a while. A little while later Mary said, ‘So will you help me?’

‘What, with Stilts? You don’t need my help, honey.’

‘Come on, I’m shy.’

‘Sure you are. ‘Course I will. Chin up, girl! Just look at you! You’re a man eater!’

For some reason, the joke struck Mary as particularly funny and she threw herself back onto the bed and laughed until her sides ached, and Linda joined in although she didn’t really know why, laughing more at Mary’s joy than anything else. Such a strange girl, she thought, but fun, really fun.

 

***   ***   ***

 

When she fell into step with him after school, he was more than a little surprised, but other than a sideward glance and a raised eyebrow he didn’t show it. It wasn’t that they didn’t speak or get along, but she’d always been a cold fish in some ways, and she sure as hell wouldn’t be walking with him, alone, when her house was in the other direction. Yet here she was.

‘Hey Stilts,’ she said, ‘how’s life?’

‘Ah, not bad, not bad,’ he answered in that ponderous way of his. He gave her a smile. ‘What’s up with you?’

‘Not enough. I’m bored.’

‘Yup, schoolwork’ll do that to you.’

‘It’s not the schoolwork.’

He didn’t know what to say to that. For now most of his effort was concentrated on slowing his heartbeat to something resembling the normal rate and trying to remain as casual as possible.

‘So did you wanna chill out somewhere after school? Linda said you like the old school Arnie movies, like me?’

‘Uh, yeah, love em.’

‘Cool, I’ve got like a thousand. That’ll be something to do, right?’ She cast an innocent smile up at him and he gave it back, not believing it for a second. It had to be something, no one was that naïve, right? The girl was all over him.

‘Yeah, I’m for it,’ he said at last.

‘Nice, I’ll see ya tomorrow.’ She slapped his back in a friendly way, same as Jimmy or any of the others would have, only it made his skin tingle, and then she turned and headed back.

He let out a breath, turned to watch her go for a little while, and then headed home, the day suddenly looking a little brighter.

 

As soon as he couldn’t see her, the smile disappeared from Mary’s face. Her stomach growled and squirmed painfully and several times she glanced down at it, worried that it was protruding enough to make a bulge in her dress. It seemed alright, but she was still queasy, and didn’t eat much when she got home.

‘Are you alright, dear?’ her mother said, when she pushed her plate aside and stood up.

‘Fine, just tired.’

‘You sure?’ Cocking her head to one side.

She forced a smile even though she was burning to get upstairs to her room, where her real meal was waiting. Her insides were screaming for it. ‘Yes I’m sure. Besides I’ve gotta get some homework done.’ Before her mother could say another word, Mary left the kitchen and took the stairs two at a time, pulled open her bedroom door and locked it tight behind her.

The room was dark and cluttered. Clothes and books and papers scattered all over the floors and bed, everything either damp or muddy, and piles of boxes stacked in the walk in closet. Several of these tumbled out as the closet door slid open and round balls of wriggling worms, wingless flies and ants poured out and disappeared into the wreckage of her room.

She’d lowered the rolling curtain all the way down and duct taped the edges all around the window, and after she kicked piles of clothes against the bottom of the door the whole room was dark as a cave. She closed her eyes and let out a sigh, relaxing.

A deep purring came from the closet and Monster came forward, only his eyes visible in the dimness. His teeth had been out, but as she came to him he retracted them and rose up to embrace her.

‘Oh, God I missed you today,’ she whispered. When he spoke it was in a series of low clicks in the back of his throat and short, soft purrs – a kind of Morse code she’d developed for him years ago, when she discovered just how well he could understand her.

‘Really?’ she said. ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t miss too much school. And I’ve been worried about… you know what.’ He growled an answer that made her smile and hugged her tighter, his black and red arms pressing into her back and warming her a little. Once he’d learned to communicate, she’d been shocked at how intelligent he was, soon matching even her sharper than average mind, and when she discovered the sheer depth of emotion he had… The rest was unavoidable, really.

Finally they parted and she felt another wave of discomfort roll over her, almost bringing her to her knees. He moved to hold her up but she held up a hand. ‘It’s alright,’ she said. ‘I just need to eat… some real food. I…’ But the pain deepened and she couldn’t waste another second. She spun around and pulled one of the spilled boxes over to her. Many of the worms had escaped but there was still a solid layer at the bottom and she plunged into this with both hands, sucking down squirming and dead bodies alike.

After her third handful she slowed down and began to pick the juicer specimens, and a few minutes later she pushed the box away and let herself fall back, blissfully into Monster’s strong arms. She let him carry her to the back of the closet and lay her down in the nest he’d made there, and it was so comfortable she almost fell right asleep. She couldn’t allow that, though, not yet. There was still a lot of work to do before tomorrow.

She rested with him for a while, enjoying the soothing relief as the worms reached her stomach and it stopped revolting and settled into a pleasant sense of satisfaction. She turned and looked at the red eyes beside her. She could see the smile in them and wished she could return it, but she was so worried.

‘It’s getting close to the time,’ she said.

He purred back to her and she nodded, but didn’t feel any better.

‘I just wish there were another way, that’s all. I’ll do anything to, you know, keep them, but… It’s sad in a way, isn’t it?’

He pressed closer to her and purred and clicked to her for a long time, and in the end she was comforted.

 

Ryan Skelts took his time, not rushing, talking to Jimmy and Dean like he always did, being normal. He waved goodbye as they peeled off the road and headed off to their respective houses, but as soon as they were gone he turned down a side road, doubled back and headed for Mary’s house. He’d thought about telling them what was going on, but word got around too fast for his liking and if Mary heard it might ruin his chances so… screw it. Just call him Mr. Bond.

By the time he reached her house his heart was hammering in his chest. He fixed an easy smile on his face and knocked on the door, preparing himself for the appraising glare of a stern father or judging tight lipped mother.

But it was Mary herself who opened the door, bright as ever, and beckoned him inside. He opened his mouth to speak as he stepped into the hallway but she put a finger to her lips and pointed through the tall archway on their right into the adjoining room. It was a cosy looking living room, and both of her parents were sitting on the couch watching television, only the backs of their heads visible above the cushions.

‘Hi, Linda, come quick, I’ve got the craziest video to show you,’ Mary said, pulling him out of view of the living room and up the steep flight of wooden stairs.

‘Hello, Linda!’ Mary’s mother called after them in a singsong voice. Luckily they were already far enough away to pretend not to hear and then Mary was pushing him into her bedroom and shutting the door behind her. She leaned on it once they were inside, grinning.

‘Sorry about that,’ she said. ‘My parents can be a bit… weird with boys.’

He glanced around the neat room and thought how unlike any girl’s room it seemed. True, he’d only ever seen a few in his life, two of them being his sisters’, but they all seemed to share the same common characteristics: they tended to be messy, smelled sweet, and were littered with hundreds of objects – books, jewellery boxes, makeup bags, etcetera. This room had none of it. There was a dressing table with a couple of rings and bracelets. The walls were completely absent of posters or decoration of any kind, and the overwhelming smell was of lemon scented cleaning product.

‘That’s alright,’ he said easily, sitting down on the side of the bed. ‘I get it. My parents are pretty strict about stuff, too. They think I’m at the library right now.’

‘Really?’ she chuckled. ‘Adults are weird sometimes, aren’t they?’ She brushed back a lock of golden hair and opened her mouth to say something, but before the words escaped her she half doubled over, clutching her stomach and grimacing.

‘Uh, you okay?’ he half stood up, not sure how he was supposed to help, but thankfully she recovered a moment later and shot him an apologetic glance. ‘Sorry, just stomach trouble. I had a bug a few days ago and I’m still recovering.’

‘Oh, okay, you sure?’ he said, sitting back down a little uneasily.

‘Yeah, yeah. Don’t worry, it’s not contagious.’ She sat down next to him and he felt decidedly better about everything, and when she looked up into his eyes, her smile returning to the corners of her mouth, and said, ‘So…’ he felt better still.

He decided she’d made enough of the moves and went to kiss her, but she was already going for it and they clashed too hard, his teeth mashing against her top lip. He tried to pull back and apologise but she hadn’t noticed, and now she’d pushed him back onto the bed and was sitting on top of him. He could taste blood. Just go with it, man! This shit doesn’t happen every day, his inner voice cried joyfully.

Indeed, it didn’t.

Her tongue felt strange. Much too long, and thick with saliva somehow – almost suffocating him. She’d obviously had plenty of tic tacs but there was something else beneath the heavy mint that made him want to retch. He tried rolling her over on her back so he could take a break but she pushed him back down, playfully. Finally, he opened his eyes, hoping he could give her some kind of warning look to say she was coming on too strong, but by then, of course, it was too late.

Her eyes were already open, wide as fists with pupils the size of raisins, and they were focused on his with a kind of blank intensity.

He tried to sit up, pushing hard with both hands on the bed, but she moved her weight forward at just the right time and he fell back onto his elbows, and in the same motion her tongue pushed further into his throat, much further than it should have been able to go. It was blocking his airway completely now, and the base of it was so swollen in his mouth that if he’d tried to bite it off he wouldn’t have been able to – his jaw was forced too far open to lend a bite any force.

He felt a hand run down his flank and one long nailed finger – at least that’s what it felt like – snaked under his shirt and settled on his belly button.

He panicked, his body suddenly revolting against her with every ounce of strength in all six feet five of lean muscle. Such an effort – even without the added power that terror lent – had in the past dislodged three opposing players pulling him down on the football field. By all accounts it should have propelled the girl clean through the opposite wall.

Instead, the energy pulsed through him, his mind electric with it, and died in his muscles. He got all the way into a sitting position, pushed ineffectually at her shoulders, and then fell back under her weight again. He was weak, like he’d just run marathon at a full sprint. His extremities were going numb, and the oxygen was stale in his deprived lungs. His screams sounded only as low groans from deep inside him.

Her finger pierced his belly, but he didn’t feel the pain. Only the sensation of splitting skin and tearing muscle. The wound just kept on widening, until it felt like her whole hand was inside him, stretching the flesh, making a space inside his stomach. He was completely relaxed now, his whole body a strange kind of numb, all feelings seeming far away from him and unattached. He stared at the ceiling.

 

She dropped the last of them into his stomach cavity, letting out a gasp of surprise at the sudden relief. She felt light on her feet, if a little exhausted, and when she stood up to look at her babies she was breathing hard. Monster came out of the closet and stood behind her, purring congratulations in her ear. After a few minutes he went over to the bed and began to seal the opening in Ryan’s stomach with deft movements.

‘He won’t suffer any more, will he?’

Monster told her he didn’t think so. He was right, as it happened. While they fed on him for the next few days he would feel nothing but a sense of calm and contentment. By the end of the week, when the babies had grown as large as a human hand, he would simply find somewhere dark and secluded, go to sleep and not wake up. They would eat for another day, until they were the size of a human head and there was nothing at all left of him.

‘Won’t he remember?’

Monster didn’t think he would, and he was right again. Mentally, Ryan would be on autopilot, moving and talking without really thinking about it as if he were in a dream, barely self aware.

‘That’s good. I hope we can find our babies later and look after them. They look so cute.’ She caught a glimpse of an innocent gleaming eye before he sealed the last of the wound and turned back to her. Ryan let out a groan in the back of his throat and his finger twitched.

She watched him, Monster beside her, feeling strangely melancholy. It was a long while before she shook it off and got back to her feet, feeling decidedly better.

‘Alright. I suppose now’s as good a time as any. I’m a bit nervous, though.’

He clicked and purred and she smiled back gratefully. ‘You always know just what to say, don’t you?’

***   ***   ***

 

Jean Tiller, Mary’s mother, was setting the table while Mary’s father sat cross legged in the study, reading the paper. When she turned and saw Mary she sucked in a breath and put a hand to her heart. ‘Mary! You almost gave me a heart attack sneaking up like that.’ Seeing the embarrassed look on Mary’s face, she cocked her head to one side and raised an eyebrow.

‘So what’s news?’

To her amusement, the girl flushed red and averted her eyes. ‘I… I’ve got a boyfriend,’ she said.

‘Really? Well… I suppose you’re about the age, aren’t you? Why so shy, Miss Mary?’

‘It’s… I mean I’m a bit worried because… he’s a little different. A lot different, actually.’

‘Oh?’ She folded her arms, a handful of knives still in her left hand. How different could any of the boys from school be, she wondered? Probably he had a disability of some kind or – she thought with a stab of worry – he was much older than she was. Whatever it was, she determined then and there to keep her face as neutral and friendly as possible when she met him. If there was something she didn’t like she could talk to Mary about it afterwards.

‘So where is this mystery man?’ she said, keeping her tone light. It didn’t seem to comfort Mary, who was looking more and more nervous by the second, and kept glancing over Jean’s shoulder at the double doors that were open on the dining room. Jean felt her back itch and had a feeling she was going to meet the man himself sooner than she expected. She resisted the urge to look around and prepared herself instead, setting the cheerful expression on her face. She didn’t want to embarrass Mary with any odd reactions.

‘Promise you won’t freak? He’s really nice, mum, and he treats me really well and everything, okay?’

‘Okay, honey. I trust your judgement,’ she said, now more curious than anything else. She’d never seen her daughter act like this before. She gave her a look that said: out with it girl, show me the goods.

At last, Mary relented with a final cautionary glance at her mother. She gestured at the interleading doors just as Jean had predicted, where the boy was probably waiting in a nervous sweat by now. Best smile, best smile, she thought to herself as she turned around, arms coming unfolded now in case he went for the handshake or even, if he was bold, the hug.

The smile remained plastered obscenely on her face even as her eyes registered the thing, black skin and red eyes and gums stretched in a friendly grin.

In the next room, Mr. Tiller, who had been listening to the conversation with great interest, heard what sounded like a loud, high pitched hiccup, followed by a familiar sigh of distress he’d often heard Mary utter. ‘I knew you wouldn’t understand,’ she said.

He stood up and folded the paper, dropping it onto the coffee table with a frown. If even Jean couldn’t hold it together, it couldn’t be good. He was going to have to have a long talk with Mary later, he suspected. Ah well, the joys of fatherhood. He left the lounge, shaking his head. He had a bad feeling about this, a very bad feeling indeed.

 

I’m back people! Over the next month or two I’ll write ten or so stories before I get into the new novel, and I’ve got plenty of ideas so pull your pants up, or whatever people say. I wrote this first one about halfway through the last novel, the idea occurring to me randomly while I watched an ant crawl across my desk. I wrote it straight away, so it might come off a bit rushed, but screw it, enjoy!

Small World

By Ben Pienaar

 Hate to do this to you dedicated readers, but believe it or not this story has been published. I literally edited it, posted it, sent it out, and received a letter of acceptance all in the course of one day. The anthology ‘Bio Hazard’ by Horrified Press bought the rights, so you’ll have to read that if you want to read this story. I’ve been prolific lately, so the next one will come out soon. Stay tuned and thanks for reading!  

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.’

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 215 other followers

%d bloggers like this: