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Meanwhile, at the estate agent’s…

“I want a refund!” Murgatroyd slapped the property deeds onto the estate agent’s desk.

Stuart Briggs, the estate agent behind the desk, flinched.  Refunds were not company policy.  He cast a glance at the document.  The bill of sale was attached by a paper clip.  Damn it.  The customer was still within the ‘cooling-off’ period.

“Is there a problem?” Briggs smiled.  “Perhaps a cuppa and a sit down…”

Murgatroyd bristled, his eyes flashing with anger.

“Liar and fraud!” he declaimed.  Briggs reddened, mindful of others in the office.

“Now, now,” he squirmed.  “I’m sure it’s nothing we can’t sort out.  Calmly.”

He gestured to a chair but Murgatroyd only stood up all the straighter.

“You told me the house was haunted,” Murgatroyd sneered.  “I have been made to look a fool.  It was the selling point my entire business was based around.  I invited special guests, experts in the field, celebrities!  Yvonne from the television!  Only to be made to look a fool.  There was not one whiff of supernatural activity the entire weekend.  Don’t you realise what this has cost me?  Now, they are posting online, in their blogs and forums, saying what a rip-off my bijou hotel is, what a disappointment.  So,” he folded his bony arms, “I want my money back, and be grateful I don’t sue you for misrepresentation and loss of potential earnings.”

Panic showed in Briggs’s eyes.  “Let’s not be hasty, Mr – ah, Murgatroyd.  I don’t recall ever claiming the property to be haunted.”

Thunderclouds darkened Murgatroyd’s brow.

“What I did say,” Briggs smiled, “was the old place is cursed.  There’s a difference.”

Murgatroyd shook his head.  “What good is that to me?  People don’t want curses; they want ghosts.”

“Potato-tomato,” Briggs was dismissive.  “If you package it right, you could be sitting on a gold mine.  You see, a hundred years ago, the owner of the mansion was dragged out into the street by a mob of angry locals.  Charges of necromancy, witchcraft, or some such bollocks.  He was probably just an old perv.  They tied him to a tree in the town square and burnt him.  With his dying words, he cursed them, the town, and the mansion – no one who crossed its threshold would ever know a moment’s peace.  Of course, that was a long time ago.  The town has been remodelled several times.  The town square replaced by a shopping mall.  Why, this very office is thought to be built where the tree used to stand.”

Murgatroyd laughed, like bowling balls rolling down a chute.  Briggs found his shirt collar suddenly constrictive, his tie coiling and rising, twisting around his throat like a serpent.

“Fools!” Murgatroyd exalted.  “Did you think I was gone for good?  Did my dying words mean nothing to you?  I waited; patiently, I waited.  And now, a full hundred years since my demise. I am back to destroy all that you have built, all that you hold dear.  Starting with you, Stuart Briggs.  It was your ancestor who lit the torch that started the fire.  How fitting that you should be on the very spot!”

Murgatroyd made a gesture with skeletal fingers.  Briggs’s desk ignited.  Briggs backed away, arms up to protect himself, but already the smoke was starting to choke him.  He coughed and spluttered and pleaded for his life.

But Murgatroyd turned on his heels, his black cloak swirling behind him, fanning the flames.  He stalked from the estate agency and through the shopping mall.  The glass frontages of the shops shattered as he passed.  The slightest gesture from his slender hands brought down ceiling tiles, cracked electricity conduits.  Sparks leapt from snaking cables.  Fires sprang up in all directions as people ran around screaming, the exit blocked by falling concrete.

When the town was utterly destroyed, Murgatroyd strode all the way back to the mansion, where he had waited, dormant, for a hundred years, waiting for a suitable vessel to come by, and then that idiot hotelier had come along to take possession.   Murgatroyd chuckled.  Take possession!  What the hotelier did to the house, I have done to the hotelier. 

He paused to take in the gothic monstrosity before him.  The jagged turrets,  The sharply arched windows.  Perhaps I should burn it down at last, he mused.  Or perhaps now, that the descendants of my enemies have been dealt with, I shall find a moment’s peace.

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Filed under horror, Short story

Ready or Not

“What the hell’s the matter with you?” Gabe brought drinks to the table and resumed his seat.  Nick barely acknowledged him.  “Come off it, Nick.  I can read you like the good book.  Something’s burning your ass.”

Nick’s shoulders heaved out a sigh.  He shook his head slowly.  Then, following a hefty swig from his goblet, he steeled himself and began.

“You know I was seeing that girl?”

Gabe nodded.  “Rosalind?”

“Rosemary.  Well, things have taken a turn.”

“She found out who you really are?  I’ve always thought your disguises were a little transparent.  Or perhaps it’s the whiff of sulphur.  I keep telling you, a dab of frankincense behind your ears…”

“No, no.  She knew who I was from the start.  That’s not the problem.  See, she turns up at my place last night, look of triumph in her eyes.”

“I don’t get it,” Gabe frowned.  “What could she possibly –oh.”

“Oh is right,” Nick sighed.  “Pregnant!”

“And you’re sure it’s yours?”

“Hey!  I only go with virgins, you know that.”

“I suppose… Well, forgive me for saying, you don’t seem overjoyed by impending fatherhood.”

“Well, it’s not that.  It’s everything that comes with it.  It’s not the money.  I have access to untold wealth – do you know how many billionaires are in hock to me?  It’s just – well, it all seems a bit sudden.  I don’t know if I’m ready to be a father.”

Gabe scoffed.  “You’re thousands of years old.  Perhaps it’s time to settle down.  Be more responsible.”

“But that’s just it.  I haven’t done half the stuff I wanted to do, and having a kid, well, it’s a bit like giving up, isn’t it?  Making room for the next generation.”

“That’s one way to look at it,” Gabe conceded.  “But having a child – or as you so succinctly put it, a kid —  do you think it will have its father’s hooves? – Well, you could say having a kid is your next big challenge.”

“It’s just happening so fast, you know?  There’s so much to plan and prepare.  An army of demons to recruit, for one thing.  I always thought, when it happens, I’ll be ready.  I’d have time to get everything in place.  What I didn’t want is for Armageddon to be a rush job.”

“Come on, you’re good at thinking on your feet.”

“Yeah, but it’s the pressure.  I want the best for my son, of course I do.  Now there’ll hardly be time to forge him a coronet for when he ascends to the throne of Hell.”

He drained the rest of his drink.

“Another?”

Nick stood and gathered the goblets.  “I’ll get these.”  He slunk off to the bar.

A human woman approached the table.

“What are you doing here?” Gabe hissed.  “If he sees you…”

“Relax!” Rosemary grinned.  “Just pay me what you owe me and we can get on with our lives.”

Gabe passed her a bulging envelope.  She pulled out the cushion from under her coat and laughed.

“I can’t believe he fell for it,” she grinned.  “And I can’t believe you, an angel, could be so devious.”

“Well,” Gabe smirked, “it’s not the end of the world.”

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Filed under Short story, horror, humour, fantasy

Footing the Bill

Alex let himself into the flat, his fingers slick with sweat on his key.  Still a little winded from his run, he pulled off his trainers and headed to the bathroom.  His path was intercepted by Graham, eyebrow arched.  Alex recognised the look.  His breath caught in his throat.

“A word,” said Graham, looking down his nose.

“Can’t it wait until I’ve showered,” Alex tried to dodge past but Graham countered.

“Now,” he snapped.  “This can’t wait.”

From behind his back he pulled out a pair of top-of-the-range headphones.  Alex’s mouth twitched.

“Found these under a cushion on the sofa,” Graham droned.  “Which I wouldn’t have done if you’d taken your turn on the cleaning rota.”

“I was going to get around to it.  After my run.”

“It’s not about the cleaning.  Well, not this time.”  Graham brandished the headphones.  “Where did these come from?”

Alex’s shoulders twitched out a shrug.  “Amazon.”

Graham exhaled in impatience.  “I don’t mean where did they come from.  I mean how can you afford them?”

Alex pulled a face.  “They were on offer –”

“That’s not the point.  I’ve noticed some other things too.  Those trainers you’ve left so haphazardly on the floor where I might trip over them.  They’re new too.  This lycra top you’re sweating through.  I haven’t seen that before.”

Alex threw up his hands.  “What have you been doing, taking inventory of my stuff?”

Tears welled in Graham’s eyes.  “You’ve got someone else, haven’t you?”  He pressed the headphones against Alex’s damp chest.  “A sugar daddy!  Buying you treats!  But what’s he getting in return, eh?  That’s what I want to know!  Or rather, I don’t.”

Before Graham could meltdown completely, Alex placed his hands on his boyfriend’s upper arms and forced him to make eye contact. 

“There is someone,” he admitted.  Graham wailed.  “But it’s not like that!  Come on, I’ll show you.”

He dragged the sobbing Graham into the bedroom.  On the dresser was a laptop – a new model, but Graham hadn’t noticed that – Alex opened it.  His fingers danced on the keyboard.  A website lit up the screen.  “Here!”

Graham squinted at it, not understanding what he was seeing.

“Feet?” he sniffled.

“Yes!  Feet!  I send in pictures of my tootsies and men send me money or buy me things off my wish list.  Imagine!  My scrawny plates!  But someone’s getting off on them.”

Graham was horrified and fascinated in equal measure.  “And that’s all it is?  Your feet?”

“Yes.  They never see anything else.  They don’t even know my real name.  And I know nothing about them.”

“How peculiar!  You’ve got horrible feet.”

“Not according to the users on this site.”

“All veined and bony.  And your toes are too long.”

“All right, all right, I’m not asking you to pay to see them, am I?”

Alex dropped into a crouch and pulled a box from under the bed.  “Here.  For you.”

“What’s this?”  Graham eyed the package with suspicion.

“That console you wanted.”  Alex pulled him into an embrace.  “I really can start paying my way now.  As long as there’s weirdos in the world.  I’m sorry I didn’t tell you from the start.”

Graham grimaced.  “You stink.  Go and get in the shower.  And I might join you…”

Alex laughed.  “But no free peeks at my money-spinners!”

“Oh, no,” Graham chuckled, chasing Alex into the bathroom.  “My mind is on higher things.”

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Filed under LGBTQ, Short story

The Wrong Shirt

Ah, at last!  Someone human!  I’ve been given the run-around by your automated assistant thing for the past half hour.  I’ve clicked I don’t know how many pictures of traffic lights to prove I’m not a bloody robot.

I understand your frustration.  How may I help?

I just need to return a shirt, that’s all.

I see.  May I ask why?  Did you order the wrong size?

No, no!  The size is fine.  Well, I imagine it is.  I haven’t tried it.  It’s still in the packet.  No, it’s the wrong colour.

I see… You ordered the sky blue.

Yes, I did.  But this one isn’t sky blue.  It’s more of an indigo, leaning towards purple.

What does it say on the packet?

It says ‘sky blue’ but –

There you are, then.  May I close this query as ‘satisfied’?

What?  No, wait!  It says ‘sky blue’ on the label but the shirt itself is very dark.  It’s not what I wanted.

I’m afraid there is nothing I can do, if there’s nothing actually wrong with the item.  Our terms and conditions are very clear.

Nobody reads the terms and conditions, do they?  Look, I’ll send you a photo and you can see what I mean… There.  Got it?

Yes… well, sir, I can tell you, it certainly looks sky blue to me.

What?  You’re having a giraffe!  Or you need your eyes tested.

When did you place your order, sir?

What?  I don’t know.  Last week some time.

Ah, I see here it was a week last Wednesday.

Well, it’s still under wossname, isn’t it?  Isn’t there a cooling-off period?

There is indeed, but I’m afraid, sir, you have fallen foul of the Province’s electoral system.

The what?

The day after you placed your order, there was a referendum, sir.  It was to decide once and for all what defines the colour ‘sky blue’.  For important, nationalistic reasons, like the flag, and the covers of our passports.

I don’t get it.  What’s that got to do with my shirt?

It just so happened that on the day of the referendum, the sky was particularly overcast and grey.  It looked like rain, and that deterred a lot of the voters.  Then as the day drew on, there was a resplendent sunset, and with it an upturn in voters, selecting the red-pink-orange end of the spectrum.  Most people turned up at the polling stations on their way home from work, when the sun had gone down, and so the majority of votes went to the hue of your shirt.

This is bollocks!   What did people do?  Look up at the sky before they went to vote to remind themselves what colour it is?

It would appear that way, sir.  But since the referendum, we have to legally refer to that shade as ‘sky blue’.  It’s what the people want.

But it’s fucking ridiculous!

Oh, don’t get me started!  Do you know what it’s like to live somewhere governed by absolute morons?  I’m only doing this job because they’re rounding up the intellectuals.

Never mind all that.  I just want to send the shirt back and get a refund.

I can offer you a credit note.

I don’t know.  I had my heart set on a sky blue shirt.  That’s my sky blue and not fuckwits’ sky blue.  No offence.

I have credited your account, sir.  Keep the shirt.  Burn it, for all I care.

Oh.  OK, right.  Cheers.  Thanks for that.

Now, is there anything else I can help you with?

No… Oh, hang on!  I need to get a present for my wife.  What can you recommend in ladies’ clothing?

Do you want pre- or post-Cultural Realignment, sir?…  Sir? 

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A Picnic for Mothers’ Day

“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten!  Every year it’s the bloody same.”  Jemima felt like she could squeeze her smartphone until it splintered.  “And don’t give me that guff about the date changing every year.  I send you enough reminders.”

She listened, waiting for her brother to mutter some expletive.  But, to his credit, Damon remained silent.  Well, good, thought Jemima.  He hasn’t a leg to stand on.

“So,” she returned to her list, “you’ll organise the transport.  There’ll be you, me, and Mum of course, oh, and I thought this year we could take Belinda along.”

She heard Damon’s intake of breath and decided to pre-empt his objections.

“I know what you’re going to say, she’s only our half-sister from Dad’s previous marriage but, well, Mum brought her up as one of us.  As much as she could anyway, with Belinda being off at university and starting her own life.  But it’s the nice thing to do, to include her in the occasion.  Her own mother—”

Grumblings from Damon cut her off.  Jemima made noises as though listening but as soon as he paused for breath, she jumped back in.

“I’ll organise the picnic.  Yes, yes, I know all about your allergies.  I won’t use the same place as last year.  And I thought we could ask Belinda to sort out the flowers.  Nothing too fancy… No, not a bloody wreath!  You have a sick sense of humour at times.  I’ll leave it to Belinda’s judgment.  You just focus on getting us from A to B… What do you mean, where’s A and where’s B?  A is where Mum is.  Belinda and I will make our own way there.  And B is the cliffs overlooking the beach.  It’ll be a full moon that night and I think it will make a lovely spot for a picnic…Well, you can use your GPS.  Honestly, do I have to think of everything?  Right, so we’re agreed.  Rendezvous with Mum at midnight, then it should only take an hour or so to get to the coast, which leaves us plenty of time for the picnic and we can get Mum back before the cemetery gates open at nine…  Yes, I know it means you won’t be drinking.   Tough.  And it’s probably for the best.  You know how maudlin you get, and it’s not fair on Mum on her special night out.  If there’s any problems, send me a text.”

Jemima rang off before Damon could launch into a string of invective with his recurring theme of how he had always loved Mum best.

“He being a little shit as usual?” Belinda raised an eyebrow from the couch.

Jemima rolled her eyes.  “He’ll get over it.  Honestly, I’d say we go without him but he’s the one with the van.”

Belinda nodded.  “Still, it’ll be good to see Mum again.  Thanks for including me.”

She reached for Jemima’s hand and gave it a squeeze.

Jemima’s face darkened.  “Damn it; I forgot to remind the little shit to bring the shovels.”

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Filed under horror, humour, Short story

Professor Deathstroke

“You can’t leave that there.”

Professor Deathstroke turned to see who had spoken.  A woman in a dark uniform with yellow stripes around her hat, a traffic warden.

“Move it now,” the traffic warden continued, “Before I write you a ticket.”

The professor was incensed.  “Do you know who I am?” he seethed.

The traffic warden looked him up and down, taking in the wild hair, the red-rimmed eyes, the plastic jumpsuit.  “Confused, are we?  Where’s your carer?”

“How dare you?” the professor’s shoulders heaved.  “I am the embodiment of evil.  I am the reason why Mankind should never dabble with science.  I am –”

“You’re illegally parked, is what you are.  What is it, any road?  Some kind of funfair ride?”

“Funfair?  FUNFAIR?  Madam, what I have in mind will be neither fun nor fair.  Perhaps you’d care for a demonstration of my vehicle’s capabilities?  A quick blast from the lasers will wipe that supercilious look off your chops.”

“Threats now, is it, sir?  Oh dear.”  The traffic warden clicked her ballpoint pen.  “Name?”

“As if I’d tell you!”  Professor Deathstroke folded his arms in defiance.

“Not to worry, I can get your details from the registration – oh, dear.  I take it this ‘vehicle’ isn’t registered.  No licence plates.  No tax disc… Oh dear, oh dear.”

She wrote copious notes.

“Dirty great lobster, clogging up the high street…”

“Crab!” the professor cried.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s not a lobster, it’s a crab.  Don’t you know your crustaceans?”

“Listen, mate, the only crustaceans I know are King’s and Charing.”

“What?”

“Never mind.  Look, it’s been a long shift.  My feet are killing me.  Just move your crab thing and I’ll say no more about it.”

“Oh, no,” said the professor.  “I’m not leaving it there.”

“Good.”

“The situation, I mean, not the giant robotic crab.  That’s staying where it is while I pop into the little Tesco for some bits.”

“Then you leave me no choice.”  With a sigh of resignation, the traffic warden unclicked her pen and tucked the pad into her satchel.  She telescoped until she was the size of an office block, her eyes glowing bright blue.  She picked up the giant robotic crab and hurled it into the air.  It arced out of sight, pincers flapping.  In the distance, a splash as it hit the lake at the golf course two miles away.

The traffic warden dusted off her hands and shrank to her usual size.

“Impressive,” the professor had to admit.  “How would you like a job?”

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Filed under humour, science fiction, Short story

Meanwhile, in the presidential office…

“Who are you?  How did you get in here?  Who sent you?”  The questions spilled from the president’s lips, colliding and merging until all that came out was babble.  He rose from his chair, raising his hands slowly to show they were empty.

At the door, the figure in black stood still, the silencer of a particularly nasty-looking gun trained on the president’s heart – although it was rumoured he didn’t have one.

“Whatever they’re paying you, I can double it.  Treble it!  I’m sure we can cut a deal.”

The figure in black didn’t move.

“If it’s not money, what would you like?  Anything at all!  Your heart’s desire!  I’m a very powerful man.  I can get you anything.”

The figure in black’s head tilted ever so slightly and then straightened.  The grip on the gun tightened.

Sweat was coursing down the president’s high forehead and into his eyes.  He squinted.  His hand moved to wipe his face but a whizz from the silencer exploded the nearby bust of a predecessor into smithereens.

The figure in black pulled an envelope from a back pocket and tossed it onto the desk.  The president glanced at it.

“What’s this?  A list of your demands.”

The figure in black indicated that the president should pick up the envelope and examine its contents.  A gun can be so eloquent.

The president snatched up the envelope and pulled out a single sheet of paper.  He frowned.

“What’s this?  A blank sheet.”

A voice filled the room, filled the president’s mind, although it did not seem to be emanating from the figure in black, but from everywhere.

“Write,” the voice was soft, deep, and yet feminine, “Write a presidential order, effective immediately.  You will renounce all use of fossil fuels.  You will convert and urge others to convert to a vegan lifestyle.  You will halt deforestation.  You will clean your filth from the oceans.  You will –”

The president sat down heavily and crossed his arms.  “You might as well just shoot me.  I’m not going along with your hippy-dippy bullshit.  I haven’t got time for this.  We are at war, in case you haven’t noticed.  The Easterners are encroaching on the borders of our allies.”

“Foolish mortal,” the voice intoned, harsher now.  “Unless you comply with my demands, you won’t have a planet to fight on.”

“Innocent people are being killed and you’re wasting my time with this garbage?”

“You must act now to prevent irreversible damage.  This cannot wait!”

“Oh, blah blah blah.  I’ve heard it all before from the science lobby.  That little Swedish girl.  Is that who sent you?”

“I am Gaia,” said the voice.  “And I’m just cleaning house.”

“Well, Miss Gaia, if that’s your real name, while you’ve been standing there all self-righteous, you did not notice I pressed a button under the desk.  In about three seconds this office is going to be awash with agents.”

The door was kicked open.

“Mr President?” a man in a sharp suit approached the desk, while others poured in, pointing guns in all directions.

“She was – she was right there!” the president gibbered. 

But there was no trace of the figure in black.  The shattered bust was in one piece, not a mark on it.

“Not my place to say, sir,” said the man in the sharp suit, “But I think you’ve been overdoing it.  Time to get some rest.”

The president picked up the blank sheet of paper.  He nodded.

“That’s the problem with burning the candle at both ends,” the man signalled his team to stand down, “It burns real bright but pretty soon you’re left with no candle at all.”

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Superfinger

“I’d like to return this, please.”  The woman placed a plastic bag on the Customer Services counter.

Jacqui behind the counter barely glanced at the bag.  “What is it?” she said.

“It was my husband’s.  Well, he bought it from here just a week ago.  So it’s still within warranty, or whatever you call it.  The receipt’s in the bag as well.”

Jacqui nodded.  She picked up the plastic bag and peered inside.  She shook her head.

“No, I’m sorry, love.  Can’t accept it.  Because it’s been used, you see.”

“Well, of course it has been used.  Why would he buy it if he wasn’t going to use it?”

“No, love.  There are certain things we can’t accept as returns if they’ve been opened.  Toothbrushes, underwear, you know.”

“But he only used it once!”

“Doesn’t matter.  You can see the thread at the end.  It’ll have his DNA all over it.”

“Well, of course.  That’s where he screwed it into his knuckle.  Look, I’ll be honest.  I need the money back.”

Tears sprang from the woman’s eyes.  Jacqui’s eyes darted in alarm.

“Okay, love, calm down.  Would you like to speak to my supervisor?”

She waved a manicured hand to beckon Tracy from the nearby hearing-enhancer section.

“Good day, modom,” Tracy oozed.  “How may I assist you this day?”

The woman handed the supervisor the plastic bag.  “It was my husband’s.  I don’t want it in the house any more.  I want a refund.”

Tracy the supervisor peered into the bag.  “As I’m sure my colleague has explained, we can’t accept items of this nature as returns.”

The woman let out an alarming wail.  Customers trying on the hearing-enhancers winced.

“Is the unit faulty?” Tracy struggled to maintain a smile.  “Would a replacement –?”

“No!  A replacement’s no good to me.  I need a refund.  I need the money!”

Well, at least the woman wasn’t wailing any more.

“An alternative, then?” Tracy offered.  “Something for yourself.  One of our hair-alterers, perhaps?  Or eye-changers?  You could have a different colour for every outfit.”

“No!” the woman snapped.  “Just the refund.  Oh, I told him not to buy the bloody thing, but he never listened to me.  Look, he said when he’d got it, when he’d attached it, I won’t need another power tool ever again.  You’re always complaining about me cluttering the place with my drills and saws and sanders and what-not.  Well, this superfinger will do the job of all of those.  I can hammer in nails, screw in screws, drill holes, you name it.  Oh, he went on and on about it.”

“It sounds as though he was happy with it.”

“Oh, he was.”

“So why is he returning it?”

“He’s not returning it, I am,” said the woman with a sniff.  “He’s dead.”

Jacqui and Tracy adopted suitable expressions according to their corporate training.

“I see,” said Tracy.  “Well, then of course.  Jacqui, put through this lady’s refund at once.”

She turned on her heels and strode away.

Jacqui’s manicured fingernails danced on the register, tapping in codes and overrides.

“Can I ask, love?  What happened?  To your husband?  If you don’t mind.”

The woman rolled her eyes.  “The daft twat was so chuffed to have his superfinger fitted.  He wasn’t thinking straight, you see.  Time and time again I’ve told him not to pick his nose.”

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Meanwhile, at the School Reunion…

“My God!  You haven’t aged a day.  What’s your secret, you absolute cow?”

Alex and Belinda screeched like tickled parrots. They hugged, pecking at the air inches from each other’s cheeks.

“You’re the cow,” Belinda countered. “I bet you could still fit into your old school uniform.”

Alex smirked. “It’s not that kind of party.”

They gazed around the function room.  The DJ was playing the Top Twenty from their last year at school two decades ago.  It was strange to be there, back among people they hadn’t even thought about for twenty years.  And it was kind of sad, to see the ravages of age on what had been taut young bodies.  The thinning hair.  The thickening stomachs.  The stoops, the wrinkles, the crows’ feet…

“Here we go!” Melissa returned from the bar, bearing three glasses of sparkling wine.  “Cheers!”

They raised their glasses and then took hefty swigs.  They pulled faces.

“Doesn’t get any better,” Melissa observed.  “Remember when we used to sneak in here when we were supposed to be on study periods?”

The other two nodded.  They crossed to a table in a comparatively quiet corner.

“Come on, then,” Alex nudged Belinda.  “Out with it.  The secret of your unfading youth.”

Belinda shook her head.  She kept her gaze fixed on the tiny bubbles rising in her glass.

“Well…” she began.  “If I tell you, it must go no further.”

Alex and Melissa crossed their hearts and adopted solemn expressions.

“It’s a glamour,” Belinda’s hand circled her face.   “I can change my appearance, or at least get you to see what I want you to see.”

“I don’t get it,” frowned Melissa.

Belinda leant over the table and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper.  “Can I trust you?  Well, I suppose if I can’t, I can always cast a spell of forgetfulness and it will be like this conversation never happened.”

“Binny, what the hell are you going on about?”

Belinda told them.  She spoke of her adventures after leaving school  How she stumbled across a secret society running in parallel to our own, a society of magicians, and how, through a strange quirk of fate, it transpired that she, Belinda, was the Chosen One, and it was up to her to defeat the ultimate enemy and save the world.  Both of them.

Her story told, Belinda sat back to judge the effect it was having on her former classmates.

They seemed to be taking it all rather in their stride.

“Something similar happened to me,” said Alex.  “Only it wasn’t magicians.  It was a secret society of alien hunters, running parallel to our own.  Through some strange quirk of fate, I turned out to be the Chosen One, the one who could crack the code, deter the fleet of extra-terrestrial destroyers, and face down the ultimate enemy, and save the world.  Possibly the universe too.”

Belinda pouted sourly.  She despised one-upmanship.  Unless she was the one doing the one-upping.

They turned their attention to Melissa, who got to her feet.

“Excuse me,” she said, nipping into the crowd of disco-dancing revellers.

She returned a couple of moments later, a little dishevelled and breathless.  She gulped her sparkling wine, then became aware the others were staring at her.

“Sorry, sorry,” Melissa blushed.  “Had to be done.  One of the barmen.  Bloodsucker.”

Two pairs of eyebrows raised.

“You may as well know,” Melissa shrugged.  “When I left school I stumbled into a secret world of vampire hunters that runs parallel to our own.  It turns out I’m the Chosen One, blah, blah.  You know how it goes.”

“Impressive,” said Belinda.

“Cool,” said Alex.

“Does your world have a council of elders?” Belinda ventured.

The other two nodded.

“They love their hierarchies,” Melissa nodded.  “The bloodsuckers, I mean.”

“So do the alien fighters,” said Alex.  “Bureaucracy like you wouldn’t believe.”

“It’s the same in the magical world,” Belinda sighed.  “You’d think magicians, alien hunters, and vampire killers would do things differently.”

“Hey up, ladies!” A male voice intruded.  The beaming face and ballooning beer belly of Barry Shelton loomed over the table.  “It’s mad, isn’t it, this?  All these old faces.  Listen, I’m compiling a newsletter we can send out to those who couldn’t make it tonight.”

He produced a pen and notepad and stood poised.  The three women avoided his gaze.

“Just a few words,” Barry prompted.  “Even if you’re just at home, bringing up the kids.  Which is a full-time job, I appreciate that.  Probably the most important job, if you ask me.  So come on, who’s going to get the ball rolling?  Binny?  Surely you’ve made something of yourself, of all people.”

“No, but I could make something out of you.”  Belinda’s hand twisted in an arcane gesture but Alex and Melissa bundled her away to the Ladies.

“Nice to see you again, Barry,” Melissa called over her shoulder.

They shut themselves into a cubicle and laughed.  It was like being back at school, bunking off Maths for a cheeky cigarette.  Back before they had responsibilities, before they were Chosen, before they were clichés.

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Malcolm goes home

Malcolm waved Brian’s hand away and downed the last of his pint.  “No, not for me,” he shook his head.  “Better make a move.”

Brian waved his own empty glass.  “Just one more for the road.”

“Sorry.”  Malcolm pulled on his coat.  “Early start tomorrow.”

Despite the protestations of Brian and his other co-workers, Malcolm left the pub and headed to the bus stop.  He was glad to get away from their incessant football chat, their ogling of the bar staff and female clientele, their off-colour jokes, and nasty-minded political views.

On the top deck of the bus, youths were playing competing hip-hop tracks out loud on their phones.  Malcolm tried to shut his ears to the tinny, monotonous tss-tss-tss of the beat and the aggressive boasting of the vocalists.

Walking down the street where he lived, Malcolm was splashed by a passing car.  He couldn’t be bothered to make an obscene gesture for the benefit of the driver’s rear-view mirror.  Malcolm stamped his way up his front steps and let himself in.

In his hallway, he shrugged off his coat, dropping his briefcase next to the umbrella stand and ignoring the growing stack of fast food leaflets and special offers on conservatories that was building up on the floor.  He kicked off his shoes and waddled to the kitchen to put the kettle on.

While he waited for the water to boil, he moved through to the living room.  He grabbed the remote control from the coffee table and aimed it at the television.  The news channel winked into life.  More bad weather, more toxic patriotism, more lying politicians.  Malcolm flicked through the channels until he found some cartoons.

Back in the kitchen, he made tea and thought about food.  Brian and the others would no doubt be planning kebabs about now.  Malcolm’s stomach flipped.

From the fridge he withdrew a couple of protein packs.  He tore the foil wrapper from one and bit off a chunk as though it was a bar of chocolate.  Instantly, he felt better.  He put the protein onto a tray and put the tray into the oven.  While it was cooking, he went upstairs to change.

In the bathroom, Malcolm’s fleshy exterior dropped into the bath tub in wet clumps.  His skeleton dissolved under the shower.  Malcolm sighed in relief.  The likes of Brian complained about having to wear a tie.  They didn’t know the half of it!

Able to relax at last, Malcolm oozed down the stairs.  One tentacle opened the oven door to check on his dinner.  Another snaked into the living room, seeking the remote control.

His calculations told him he need only work at his thankless job for another forty Earth years.  By then, he would have saved up enough human currency to be able to afford the supplies he needed to repair the communication device.  Then, at long last, others of his kind would come and collect him.

How do Brian and the others do it?  Malcolm liquefied, spreading to cover the entire living room floor.  How do humans tolerate it, surrendering the best years of their short lives to such slavery and exploitation, and then when they grow too old to work, they just wait for death?

There are other ways to live.  Malcolm knew this for sure.  And as soon as his kind came to pick him up, he’d go back home and live one.

And that was a more satisfying prospect than any post-pub kebab.

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Filed under science fiction, Short story