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The Exchange

Joe was met at the space-port by his host family.  They looked human enough.  Well, humanoid – if you disregarded their elongated, cigar-shaped torsos supported by three squat legs like a milking stool.  They smiled brightly, their large eyes shining.  The tallest of the trio – the father, Joe assumed – extended a clammy hand at the end of a spindly arm.  Joe shook it.

“Was that done well?” said the male.  “Your Earth custom?”

“Very well,” said Joe, hoping he’d find a moment to give his palm a surreptitious wipe.

“I am Gorb,” the male inclined his head.  “This is my spouse – the how you say chain-and-ball? – Flera.”

The female simpered and nodded.

“And our offspring, Teebo.  You will be sharing a room with it.”

Joe smiled at the youngest member of the family.  Patches of green blossomed beneath Teebo’s eyes, which Joe interpreted as blushes.

“You will be safe with Teebo,” Gorb explained with a chuckle.  “We do not choose our gender until our sixteenth rotation.  Prior to that we have neither sexual organs nor inclination.”

“Dad!” Teebo protested, flushing a brighter shade of green.

“We hope you will enjoy your stay with us, Cho,” Flera smiled.  “We will try to make you feel at house.”

“The boy is here to experience life on our world, our culture,” said Gorb.  “See how we do things in this sector, eh, Joe?  Right,” he clapped his hands.  “Let’s be going.  I’m sure Joe doesn’t want to spend his entire visit in the space-port.  Our family carrier is parked on the roof.”

The family waddled toward the exit.  Joe followed, struggling with his luggage.  Obviously not part of their culture to offer to help, he observed.

The doors swished aside and Joe was struck by the beauty of the lavender sky.  A pair of pallid moons shone their ghostly light on the elegant Hongoolian architecture of the city spread out before him.

“Yes, we rather like it too,” Gorb nudged him.  “This way.”

On the roof, row upon row of egg-shaped vehicles stood to attention.  Teebo beckoned Joe to the appropriate one and slid open a hatch in the side.

“Your suitcases,” Teebo grinned, reaching to take them.

“No!  Teebo, wait!”  Flera and Gorb cried out in panic.  “He hasn’t got the boots on yet!”

But it was too late.  Relieved of the ballast his baggage provided, Joe was already floating up into the sky, already out of reach of Gorb’s long and skinny arms.

“Whoops,” said Teebo, turning emerald.

“Poor Cho,” sobbed Flera.

Meanwhile, on Earth, Joe’s family was driving home, disappointed – to put it mildly.

“I really thought our exchange student was coming today,” Joe’s mother checked and rechecked the calendar in her phone.

At the wheel, Joe’s father gnashed his teeth.  “We send them our boy, our lovely boy, and what do we get?  A bloody puddle of goop!  It’s an insult, that’s what it is!  I’m going to contact our representative.  Don’t you realise the gravity of the situation?  This means war!”

luggage-md

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The Man in the Bowler Hat

The old man must have taken the seat opposite Sandy while she was fiddling with her mp3 player.  She looked up to find him watching her.  His eyes were benevolent, bright marbles beneath the canopies of his eyebrows.  White-haired he was and sported a thick but tidy moustache.  Dapper in his black suit and patent shoes; Sandy looked him up and down.  It was the bowler hat that really set him apart.  Sandy didn’t believe she had ever seen one before, not in real life.  The old films Nan was always watching were full of them: businessmen in bowler hats bustling to work in the City, like penguins in a nature documentary.  Umbrellas tightly rolled.  Newspapers sharply folded and tucked under a wing.

The old man smirked, enjoying her scrutiny.  Sandy blushed.  The luxuriant moustache twitched in a smile.  Awkwardly, Sandy returned it and looked away.

“Good morning,” the man said, his hands folded on the handle of his umbrella.  Sandy nodded, “Morning.”  She cast her eyes to her lap, wishing she had something to read, wishing she had accepted the free magazine from the lad in the hi-viz tabard at the station instead of hurrying past, jaw set and eyes averted.

At least I’d have a barrier, an excuse not to look at the old git.

Thankfully, the old git didn’t attempt to engage her in further conversation.  Sandy put her elbow on the narrow sill and rested her cheek on her palm and watched the countryside scurrying by.

The sky was grey and growing darker.  Raindrops clung to the glass like a beaded mesh.  I’m going to get drenched, Sandy realised, as the rain darted in earnest, volley after volley of arrows.

Her mind wandered.  She imagined the fields before they were fields.  As common land tended by bedraggled peasants, bent double in the rain.  As the sites of bloody, muddy battles where broad blades clanged against armour and men and horses screamed in agony.  As ancient woodland where fur-swaddled hunters stalked deer and rabbits.

The train jerked to a halt, the doors chirruping like crickets.

Sandy jerked upright, her palm slick with drool.  Dozed off, she realised… and the old man still watching…

“End of the line,” he smiled.  His voice was as warm as whisky.

Sandy blinked.  Feeling exposed, she pulled her coat around her and gathered the handles of her bag in her fist.  She gave a curt nod and stood.

“Wait, my dear!” the old man said, quiet but insistent.  “You will be drenched.  You’ll catch your death.  Here.”

He offered his umbrella, tightly wound like an upholstered walking stick.

“I couldn’t –” Sandy floundered.  “But thank you.”

“I insist.”

He placed the handle in her hand and suddenly he was on his feet and springing along the aisle.  He cast off his bowler hat and his hair, once arctic white, was chestnut brown.  He waved energetically from the platform, laughing and blowing kisses.  The moustache was gone; it had no place on a young man’s face.

Confused and suddenly breathless, Sandy lowered herself back into her seat, her joints creaking and protesting.  Her hands on the umbrella were pale, almost translucent, spotted with brown and corded with blue.

The train vibrated and shuddered, beginning the return journey.  Sandy turned from the window, reluctant to catch sight of her own reflection.

At least I haven’t got to wear a bowler hat, she mused.  She sat back, hands folded on the handle of the umbrella and waited for some bright, young thing to get on board.  Someone foolish enough to come out on a day like this without a brolly.

The sky was brightening and the rain was easing off.

I could be in for a long wait, she supposed.

bowler

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Space has no fury…

“Hey, baby, what’s up?” Zed Bronco rubbed his eyes and sat up in the cryo-bed.  His partner in work and in life, Boruba Meingarb was pointing the business end of a plasmo-blaster at his nose.  She tossed her blonde-green hair and curled her upper lip in a sneer.

“It’s over, Zed,” she frowned.  “We’re through.”

Zed laughed.  “Oh, baby, not this again!”  He put up his hands in surrender although the smirk on his chops suggested he was anything but sincere.  “Put that thing down before you hurt yourself and let’s talk.  Is the coffee on?”

Boruba glanced over her shoulder pad at the kitchenette – it was the momentary distraction Zed needed.  He kicked the gun from her hand and caught it, bounding to his feet in a fluid movement.  Boruba seemed more bored than surprised.

“I’ll make the coffee,” she sighed.

Zed sat at the table, his boots on the top while Boruba busied herself with beans and a grinder.  He watched the tense set of her shoulders.

“Listen, Boru baby.  If it’s about that barmaid on Reeglox V, that was all part of my cover.  It didn’t mean nothing.  And it got us access to the convention centre, didn’t it?  How else were we to pin down our target?”

Boruba didn’t answer, letting the whirr of the mechanism be her response.

“And I wasn’t trying to swindle you out of your share, baby; honest I wasn’t.  It was a clerical error.  I miscounted.”

Boruba shook her head as though clearing his words from her ears.  She watched the rich dark liquid filter into the pot.

Zed checked a few monitors.  “Where are we, anyway?  Why have you woken us up in the tail end of this godforsaken sector?  I should have known better than to let you set the coordinates!  Honestly, I’m a fool to myself.”

“Because I am female,” Boruba’s words were flat, her face expressionless.  She brought him a steaming mug.  Chuckling, he took his feet off the table.

She sat and watched him drink.  As his smug expression turned to confusion, anger and fear, her smile grew, stretching to a grin.

“What – have – you – done?”  Zed clutched his throat, dropping his coffee.

“Oops!” Boruba caught the mug before it could spill a drop.  He had always admired her superfast reflexes.  “I didn’t mean to put paralysing drugs in your coffee,” she purred.  She reached out to smooth a stray lock of hair from his forehead.  “I’m taking the shuttle,” she breathed against his cheek.  Zed’s eyes darted – the only part of him he could move.  “Don’t worry, baby, I’ve transmitted your location to all of your enemies.  I’m sure they’ll all be racing to be the first to get to you.”

“Hmmm!” Zed groaned, cried, and wailed all in one sound.

Boruba kissed her own fingertips and patted him on the nose.  “Toodles, baby.  I’d say it has been fun but one thing I ain’t is a liar.”

She slunk toward the airlock, affording him one last look at the curves he had so admired.

Powerless, Zed could do nothing but watch her go.

Typical woman, he thought.

boruba

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The Intruder

The princess quickly pulled the veil over her face.  “Guards!  Guards!” she cried, despite the protestations of the young man who had climbed over the garden wall.

“No!  Wait!  Listen!” he made calming gestures.  “I can explain.”

“You are aware, are you not, of the statutes?  No man may look upon my face and live!”

“It can’t be that bad,” the young man scoffed.  “No, wait.  Listen.  I didn’t mean that; that was a joke.  But honestly, Your Highness, I didn’t see anything.  I am not here for you.  I don’t give a hoot what you look like.  I’m not interested.”

Behind the mesh, Royal eyebrows dipped.

“My beauty is famed far and wide.  Many highborn men have forfeited their lives in the trial to win my hand.”

“Yes, yes,” said the young man.  “We’ve all heard the stories, love.”

The princess was aghast.  No one had ever spoken to her in this manner.

“You dare!  You have the temerity, the audacity, to call me your love!”

“Don’t get your knickers in a knot.  It’s just an expression.  Where I come from, we all call each other love all the time.”

The Royal shoulders shuddered.  The princess dreaded to imagine what kind of squalor had given rise to the scruffy youth before her.  His clothes were patched and ragged and his face, though not unpleasant – rather handsome, in fact – was dirty and unshaven.  His arms looked strong – why, if he were to force himself upon me, to carry me away, there would be little point in resisting…

The princess brought herself up sharp.  And where the hell were those guards?

“You say you have not come for me.  For what then have you scaled my walls and penetrated my private garden?”

“Steady on there, Mrs,” the young man laughed.

“Apples!  You are after my apples – what’s the word?  You are scrumping!  Guards!  Guards!”

“Relax.  I don’t give a fig about your apples.  If you must know, I’m here on an assignation.  Within these walls my true love resides.  Stony limits cannot keep love out.”

There was a fire in the young man’s eyes; the princess was certain none of the highborn men who had ventured their lives to win her hand had ever looked at her with such passion.

“For whom have you come?  For whom do you risk your neck?”

The young man blushed, rather endearingly.  “Why, for your brother, the Prince.  You see, once he smiled at me, that special smile – you know the one?  The smile that burns through your eyes and into your very soul and you just know.  You know?”

“I can’t say that I do,” the princess scowled.  “For my brother, you say?”

Curse the fool!  Why should the Prince have everything?  Was it not enough that he would inherit the kingdom?

“Your Highness.”  Two burly men with gleaming breastplates and curvy scimitars bowed before her.  “What is your will?”

“You took your time,” she snapped.  “This youth.  He is an intruder.  Seize him and execute him.”

“No!” cried the youth.  “Why?”

The princess removed her veil and grinned.

veil

 

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Rogue Returns

Rogue Pardew rode his horse along the main street.  Nothing much had changed during the twenty years of his absence.  Old Jem’s Mercantile stood where it did, with tin baths and buckets displayed on the porch, shovels standing in a pail like flat-headed flowers in a vase.  Brindley’s Funeral Parlour looked as grim as ever – if things were truly the same in Coyote Creek, old man Brindley was most likely the richest galoot in town.  Undertakers never went short of business; it was the same all over, Pardew had found during his decades of exile.

But now I’m back right enough, he set his square jaw, to right a wrong that ought to never have been done in the first place.

But first, a drink.  What the preacher man would call a libation suckled straight from the devil’s teat.

Whisky.

He hitched the horse to the post outside the Scarlet Woman and pulled his hat down over his brow.

Twenty years is a long time, he reflected.  Folk come and go.  Some of them most likely gave old man Brindley some business and were pushing up the daisies on Tombstone Hill.

Even so, Pardew didn’t want to take chances on being recognised, least ways not afore he’d done what he’d come back to do.

He pushed the saloon doors inwards and stepped over the threshold.  Jake was on the piano, tinkling away just like the old days.  Card-players were grouped around tables, intent on their hands.

And there behind the bar, Frankie was polishing a glass with his apron.  The barkeep’s hair was still slick with a centre parting, Pardew observed, but there were streaks of white at Frankie’s temples, the only concession to the passage of time.

Frankie raised a luxuriant eyebrow as Pardew approached.

“Whisky,” Pardew kept his voice to a soft growl and the brim of his hat shadowing his eyes.  He slapped a five-dollar bill on the counter.  If Frankie recognised him, he gave no sign; he just poured the drink and asked no questions.  Professional discretion, Pardew reckoned.  Even so, he didn’t want to risk being spotted.  He tossed back the whisky shot, feeling it burn the back of his throat and the subsequent kick to his belly.  He turned to go but found himself face-to-face with a fella in a red shirt.  The fella had a beard now but Pardew recognised the close-set eyes at once as those belonging to his old acquaintance, Wyatt Bell.

Bell was jawing tobacco.  He looked Pardew up and down and, with a contemptuous sneer, spat on his boots.

“Well, look what the cat drug in.”

Pardew tipped his hat.  “I don’t want no trouble, Wyatt.  I ain’t here for that.  I ain’t here for you.”

“Plenty folk round these parts got scores to settle with you, you lowdown rotten snake.”

“I don’t want no trouble neither,” the barman interposed, patting the trusty rifle he kept within reach.

“Tombstone Hill, afore sundown,” Bell spat again.  “I got me a bullet with your name on it.”

“Well, well, well, if it ain’t Rogue Pardew,” said a hoarse but decidedly female voice at Pardew’s shoulder.  “I knew you couldn’t keep away from my womanly charms indefinitely.”

Pardew barely glanced at the buxom showgirl, but it was enough to show him Miss Liza had gained quite a bit of weight and quite a lot of tattoos since he’d been gone.

Pardew didn’t respond other than to tip his hat – Miss Liza was still a lady, after all.

“I knew you’d come crawling back, Mister!” the ageing showgirl called after him, her crumpled feathers bristling.  “Show your face in here again and you just might find yourself gelded.”

Pardew pushed his way out of the saloon, aware that every eye in the place was upon him.  Word would get round like wildfire.  Guess who’s back in town, folk would nudge each other.  I figure I might not live long enough to make that appointment with Wyatt after all.

He strode along Main Street, ignoring the faces at the windows he passed and the folks who pulled their children indoors when they saw him approach.  I ain’t here for that, I ain’t here for you, he wanted to tell them, but he had no time to shoot the breeze and put folk in the picture.

At the end of the street, surrounded by a neat little yard and a prim picket fence, stood Coyote Creek’s schoolhouse, red and proud with white around the door and windows.  It was just as he recalled it all those years ago and it made him feel like a child again.

Quit that, he scolded himself.  You’re a man now and you must do what’s got to be done.

Steeling himself, he went inside.

And there she was, behind her desk, the schoolmarm, Miss Clementine, not looking a day older.

“School’s out,” she said without looking up.  The cocking of his pistol got her attention right enough.

“My, my!” she rose from her chair.  “Ethan Pardew as I live and breathe.”

“Don’t you say a word!” Pardew kept the gun trained on the teacher and hoped she couldn’t see how his hand was shaking.

“Finally come to turn in your homework assignment!” Miss Clementine laughed and it was all Ethan ‘Rogue’ Pardew could do not to piss his pants.

“Somebody should have done this years back,” he stammered.  “Maybe then the kids of this town would have stood some kind of a chance.  Maybe I would have stood a chance and wouldn’t have turned out so bad, like I did.”

Miss Clementine arched an eyebrow as though waiting for a child’s tantrum to blow itself out.

“Dear, dear, still making up your stories, I see.  Still letting that imagination of yours run wild.”

A shot rang out and Miss Clementine spoke no more.  Her eyes rolled up trying to see the hole that had appeared in her forehead and then she crumpled over her desk.

Rogue Pardew blew on his gun barrel before he re-holstered the weapon.

He walked slowly back to the saloon, feeling lighter as though a great weight had been lifted.  Maybe I’ll get myself shot or lynched or tarred and feathered – Perdew was beyond caring.  Or maybe folk’ll give me a second chance; hell, it was worth the asking.

One thing he was sure of, as sure as eggs, that Clementine witch would be putting her hands on no more little boys from now on.

Rogue P

 

 

 

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‘Til Death

The reporter held a finger to his earpiece and turned to the camera.  Behind him, a crowd jostled to share his shot.

“Quite a number gathering here at the law courts.  So far, they’re a good-natured lot and the police are having an easy time of it.  So far.  With me now is Janet from the equal rights organisation, Sweet F.A. – Freedom for All.  Hello, Janet.”

“Hello.”

“What makes this particular issue so important to you that you come down here with your placards and your banners?”

Janet scowled.  “When I could be at home with the kids, do you mean?”

The reporter’s smile faltered.  “Um, no, I –”

“We’re here for everyone,” Janet cut him off.  “We want this law brought onto the statutes.  The test cast going on behind us in these hallowed halls of justice will decide what kind of country we live in.  Is it a country in which anyone and everyone is free to find love and have it enshrined in a legally recognised contract?  Or do we live in a country that continues to discriminate against and alienate many of its citizens?”

The reporter pulled his ‘I’m impressed’ face.

“Strongly held views there.  Thank you, Janet.  With me now is the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Good morning.”

“Good morning.”

“You – that is to say, the Church – take a different view.”

“Well, of course we bloody do!” snapped the Archbishop, giving rise to an upsurge of boos and an increase in placard-waving.  “I am all for fairness and equality – Check out my voting record on issues of gay rights and all the rest of it – but this, this is a step too far.  The marriage ceremony clearly states, ‘’til death do us part’ – Anything else is abhorrent.”

“So…” the reporter angled his body away from Janet, who was quietly seething in her kagoule.  “What you’re saying is no one in Heaven is married?”

“Ah, that’s a different matter for another time.  What we’re discussing here is the notion that the dead, here on Earth, have no right to get married.  They’ve had their chance while they were among the living.  Now it’s time to rest in peace and await final judgment.”

“Bah!” Janet jeered, forcing herself back into frame.  “You need to modernise and get with the times.  They’re still very much with us!  They’re not resting in peace.  They’re still walking about!”

The Archbishop gave a patronising smile.  “A few isolated incidents –”

“Bollocks!” Janet roared.  “Things are changing.  The Dead are back.  They’re part of society and – newsflash! – they’re still people, mate.  And as such they should be afforded the same rights that the rest of us take for granted.”

The Archbishop sneered.  “Like claiming benefits?”

The reporter, with a pained expression, apologised to the viewers at home for the bad language.

The crowd, on Janet’s side, yelled at the Archbishop.  The police finally had reason to hold them back.

“So you can see,” the reporter tried to finish up, “Debate is still lively on this issue and –”

He was cut off by the sound of every alarm in the law courts blaring out.  People streamed and stumbled from the building, blundering into the crowd.

“Run!” they urged.  “Just fucking run!”

The reporter grabbed a wide-eyed woman and thrust the microphone under her chin.  “What happened? Can you tell us?”

“It’s all kicked off,” she whimpered.  “The – the dead one – the bride – got out of her restraints and took a chunk out of a copper, who turned – I mean, changed – it was the blink of an eye – and sank his teeth into a solicitor.  Within about thirty seconds, half the courtroom was turning on the other half – it happened so fast.”

Sirens wailed.  A helicopter circled like a noisy vulture.

The crowd gasped and screamed, some of them at last having the sense to run away.

In the doorway stood the judge, his red robe already in tatters, his pale grey wig askew.  His jaw hung slackly and his chin was smeared with gore.  From deep within him a low growl arose, hungry and ungodly.

“Well done,” the Archbishop rounded on Janet.  “This is the country you live in!”

zombies

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The Attendant

The lavatory attendant didn’t need a watch to know what time it was.  His regular customers – for want of a better term – were like the clockwork figures on the town hall clock back home; they always arrived at the same times, unless of course their trains were delayed, and then the attendant would adjust his internal clock accordingly.  Here was the overweight businessman who always squeezed into the left-hand cubicle; here the long-haired fellow who was too old for the ponytail he sported; the student with his shoulder bag brimming with books; the youth in the tracksuit who never washed his hands.  We are all creatures of routine, the attendant mused, and I am no different.

Eight years ago, he had had to become accustomed to a new routine, a new job, a new life in a different country.  But that was a long time ago.  Would he go back to practising medicine, he asked himself?  No.  The one thing he had decided when he had fled the ruins of his home town and the smouldering corpses of his family and neighbours: there would be no going back.  Of any description.

He sprayed and wiped the washbasins and waited for The Man.

Sure enough, at precisely 8:10 the outer door opened.  The attendant glanced in the mirror above the sinks.  It was The Man all right.  The pinstripe suit he wore, the newspaper tucked under his arm, the umbrella…it was him.  There was no doubt in the attendant’s mind.

He had been watching The Man for months, slyly, discreetly, until he was certain there was no mistake.  It was most definitely the Man.  The Man who had led the raid that had turned the attendant’s whole life upside-down and deprived him so cruelly of all those he had loved.

While the attendant emptied a bin, The Man installed himself in the right-hand cubicle as he always did.  The attendant knew he didn’t have long,  He flicked the lock on the outer door to prevent interruption.  He sidled up to the cubicle door and spoke in his old language.

I know it was you.  I know!  And I’m not taking any more of your shit.

From the other side of the door, there was nothing.  Silence.

The attendant blocked the sinks with paper towels and turned on the taps.

“I say!” came a voice from the stall.  “Is there someone there?  There doesn’t seem to be any paper!  Could you help me, please?”

The attendant froze, the gushing taps in synch with the galloping thoughts flooding his mind.

“Hello?” said the Man.  He’s good, thought the attendant.  Better English than me.  Not a trace of an accent.

“Hello?” the Man repeated.  The door jiggled a little.  “I say!  The lock is jammed!  I’m stuck!”

With a smirk, the attendant tiptoed through the outer door and locked it behind him.  He affixed an OUT OF ORDER sign – water was already seeping under the door.  He took off his hi-vis tabard and dropped it in a litter bin.

“Not like you to be knocking off early,” observed Terry at the gate.  The attendant kept walking.  It was time to seek out new routines.

There would be no going back.

gents

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The Favourite

The young woman approached the middle-aged man on the platform.  She peered into his face and smiled.

“Mr Bennett?”

The man bristled.  Here we go again, he steeled himself.  Another former pupil presenting themselves for a trip down Memory Lane.

“Yes,” he confirmed.  He glanced along the track, hoping the imminent train would curtail the interview.

“Hello, sir!” the young woman laughed.  “It’s me!  Donna!”

“Ah, yes, of course.”  Bennett smiled although he had no clue.  “Donna.  How are you?”

“I’m fine,” Donna looked him up and down.  “You haven’t changed a bit.”

“Um, I don’t know.  Bit thinner on top and a bit thicker around the middle.”

Donna laughed.  “You was always my favourite.”

“That’s good of you to say.”

“And I was a proper tearaway, wasn’t I, sir?  Always getting into scrapes.  Do you remember when Mrs Bagshot caught me and Trisha Fenton smoking in the toilets?”

“Um…”

“And when we was doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream and you gave me an A-star for my Frisbee.”

Thisbe,” Bennett corrected automatically.  But Donna, true to form, wasn’t listening.

“Oh, we had some laughs, didn’t we, back in the day?  Are you still teaching?”

“Oh, you know,” Bennett raised his battered briefcase.  “Bit of supply, here and there.”

“Here,” Donna nudged him.  “Remember that supply teacher we had for Music and he ran away crying and you came in and put us all in Detention!  Talk about laugh!”

“Um…” Vague memories were beginning to stir in the murk of Bennett’s memory.

“And remember when Darren Slaughter brought his dog into Assembly because he knew the Head was allergic.”

“…Yes!”  A grin broke out on Bennett’s face.  “I do remember that!”

A train hove into view, crawling steadily toward the station.  Donna gripped the teacher’s arm.  Even through the thick corduroy of his sleeve he could feel her hand, icy and determined.

“Please, sir,” her eyes searched his.  “Ring in sick or something.  Or go and have a coffee.”

“What on Earth –”

“Please, sir!”

The train pulled in with a long, slow squeal.  The other commuters bustled for the doors, jostling past Bennett and Donna.  Bennett blinked.

The young woman had gone.  Vanished!  Or just lost in the huddle waiting to board the train.

Donna… somebody…

Donna Parker!

The memories rushed to the surface like bubbles in carbonated water.  Donna, the bright, down-to-earth girl, with the gift of the gab and a heart of gold.

Donna, who at the age of 20 had been pushed under a train by a no-good boyfriend when she’d told him she was pregnant.

Donna…

Bennett remembered donating a couple of quid for some flowers.

A chill ran through him.  It had happened at this very station.

The carriage doors beeped impatiently and closed.  The train moved on, leaving Bennett behind.  He headed to the café and ordered a double espresso but he merely sat staring at the steaming cup, too jittery to drink it.

Donna Parker…

After a while, he felt better.  He’d imagined it, he supposed.  Or confused the girl with someone else, some other Donna.  There had been quite a few, he seemed to recall.

He went to check the departures board for the next train but found all services were cancelled.

“You’ll be lucky,” said an operative pushing a broom across the deserted concourse.  “All trains are off.  The last one to leave here has come off the rails just up the line.  Terrible mess.”

platform

 

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Deal of a Lifetime

First of all, I’d like to thank you for inviting me into your lovely home.  It really is quite – well, let me put it this way: it has real potential.  It’s a real fixer-upper!  Is that what you have in mind?  Fixing this place up?  Or perhaps you want to move to something bigger?  With a better climate!  Somewhere where it’s hot all year round!  I can think of somewhere…

If it’s travel you’re into, the whole world is your oyster – if it’s pearls you want, you can shower yourself with them and any precious stones you can think of!  The only limit is your imagination.

Perhaps you just fancy the idea of limitless funds in your bank account.  That’s OK, too.  Then you can dip into it whenever you like.  You can splurge to your heart’s content; it’s never going to run out.

And you can put that money to good use.  Charities!  There’s a lot of need, a lot of suffering in the world these days – same old same old, am I right?  But think of the good you could do!

You’d be famous!  Or, if you don’t like that sound of that, your donations could be completely anonymous and only you would know.  Imagine the secret thrill of knowing you had changed someone’s life!

Honestly, the possibilities are limitless.  You would want for nothing.  You’d be set for life!

Of course, I am honour-bound to draw your attention to the small print.  Nothing much to worry about.  The usual blah-blah.  In exchange for anything you want, I get, upon your death (and let’s hope that’s a long time coming, am I right?) your immortal soul to do with as I wish.  Are we clear on that?

Now, are you ready to take full advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime deal?  Or do you have questions?  Questions are good, questions are welcome.

What’s that? You want what?

Oh, no, sorry!  Can’t help you with that.  I’ll have my pen back, if you don’t mind!  Inviting me in here, making me go through the whole spiel.  If you’d told me at the start all you want is to be rid of your depression, you could have saved me the effort.

There’s nothing in this deal for me.  You already know all the torments of Hell.

Bloody time-waster!  I’ll see myself out.

devil-md

 

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The Night-Watchman

“Oh no, you don’t, sunshine.  Stop right there!”

At the sound of the night-watchman’s voice, the slender figure in black raised its hands.  The beam of light from the night-watchman’s torch danced around the scene.  At first glance, everything seemed to be intact – then how had the bugger got in?

High above the intruder’s head, a skylight was ajar, letting in the chilly night air.  A rope ladder dangled like a broken pendulum.

“Don’t you bloody move!” the night-watchman threatened.  He sidled to a nearby control board, twisted a key and pressed a red button until it turned green.  The skylight whirred and clanked into place.  “Right, sunshine,” the night-watchman shone the full beam of his flashlight into the intruder’s face.  Only the eyes, blue and squinting, were visible; the rest was covered by the coarse wool of a balaclava.  “What the hell do you think you’re playing at?”

“Three guesses, grandad.”

A young woman’s voice.  The night-watchman chuckled.  “You’re from the university, aren’t you?”

“Might be.”

“You kids and your idealistic nonsense.  Animal liberation, is it?”

The intruder didn’t reply.

“Look, love, you’re barking – up the wrong tree, I mean.”

“I’m not your love!”

“You should be so lucky!” the night-watchman laughed.  The young woman gasped, aghast.  “What I’m saying is, you’ve got it wrong.  There are no animals here.  Not even a mouse.  This is a strictly controlled environment.  Air quality, temperature, light – well, it was until you forced your way in.”

The young woman jutted her chin in defiance.  “Don’t feed me your lies, grandad.”

“Now you’re being ageist!” the night-watchman interjected with a look of faux offence.

“I’m sorry,” the intruder faltered.  “But I don’t believe you.  Everyone knows what goes on in here.”

“Do they?”

“Yes!”

“Are you sure about that, lo –  I mean, are you?”

“Well, it’s wrong, isn’t it?  Everybody knows that.”

“Wrong?  Wanting to feed people is wrong?  I may only be a part-time security bloke but even I know there’s a food crisis going on.  I don’t claim to know all the science behind it but it seems to me the boffins here are heroes.”

“Bah!” the intruder crossed her arms.

“No, hear me out.  They’ve come up with a way to provide meat for everyone on the planet.  Healthy, sustainable meat that doesn’t decimate the rainforests and – this is for all you bleeding hearts – doesn’t involve the harming of a single living creature.  Now, you tell me what’s wrong with that?”

The young woman opened her mouth, stretching the fabric of her disguise, but she couldn’t reply.

“That there,” the night-watchman directed his torchlight at her boots, “That tank you’re standing on fills this entire enclosure.  It’s the width and breadth and depth of a swimming pool and it’s full of ethical protein – or will be, when it finishes growing.”

The young woman looked down.  She was standing on one of the narrow metal walkways that crisscrossed the tank.  A pink substance, glowing faintly, pulsated beneath the clouded Perspex.

“It’s wrong!” she persisted.  “It’s Frankenstein food!”

“Think of it, love!  World hunger solved!  Deforestation halted!  Factory farming a thing of the past!”

The young woman put a hand to her brow and shook her head.

“Come on, love,” the night-watchman held out his hand.  “In the spirit of compassion, I’m going to let you go.  I’ll take you to the way out and no harm done, eh?”

“I –” the young woman’s knees buckled.  The night-watchman rushed to catch her.  He steadied her on her feet and helped her along the walkway.

“You’re bleeding,” he observed, as red drops landed on his hand.  “Must have cut yourself when you forced that skylight.”

“I’m – sorry –” the young woman sounded dazed.

“You just be sure to tell your friends at that university not to trouble us again, OK?  You can do that for me, can’t you?  And let that be an end to it.”

The young woman nodded weakly.  The night-watchman took her through an airlock and the car park beyond.

“Releasing you back into the wild, love,” he laughed.  “Off you go!”

“Sorry,” the young girl was downcast.  She shuffled away.  When she was some distance from the compound, she straightened and laughed to herself.  Job done!

The night-watchman returned to his office and put the kettle on.  Kids, eh?  They mean well but they should do their homework first.

On the bottom right screen of a bank of monitors, unnoticed by the security guard, the intruder’s blood seeped through a tiny crack in the Perspex.  Beneath the lid, the pink mass darkened and trembled.

And an appetite for human blood was born.

torch

 

 

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