It was our weekly routine. A ceremony practised every Friday at 4.30pm. We’d stand at the bus stop, me in my Armani suit, shoulders hunched against the rain, him in his tweed trousers and flat cap, ambivalent about the weather. He’d nod his head at me, and give me a gap-toothed smile from that ancient, craggy face.
“Friday again,” he’d say.
“Thank God,” I would grin.
“Out for a night on the town?”
I’d nod my head every time. “Takes more than a bit of rain in London to stop me.” Then I would gesture to his bottle of red wine and budget-brand microwavable shepherd’s pie. “You’re up late again tonight?”
“Yep. Can’t let them go the whole weekend without hearing my voice. Otherwise they might forget me.”
And I would nod again. His son had emigrated to Australia years ago, and eleven in the evening for us was nine o’clock in the morning for them. The kids had half an hour of Grandpa before their morning dose of Steve Irwin or Skippy, or whatever kids watched over there.
The bus would come thirty seconds later and I’d make sure he got a seat at the front, even if it meant evicting somebody else. His stop was two before mine and he’d turn to give me a little wave before disembarking.
Last week, he wasn’t there to greet me with a smile. I checked my watch. Asked the bus driver to hold on just a minute longer. Stood waiting in the rain, one foot on the bus, one foot on the pavement, trying to delay it just another few seconds. When he didn’t come, the people I normally evicted looked relieved. I told myself that he’d got an earlier bus, or perhaps a taxi. Maybe he had a cold and was staying home instead. Perhaps he’d gone shopping on Thursday, instead of Friday.
This week, he wasn’t there either. I waited until the bus pulled up, then shook my head at the driver. The bus pulled away, and I watched it go. My routine had been broken. It didn’t feel like a Friday anymore.
Tonight, I’m not going out on the town. I’ve just been to the Co-Op, to buy myself a microwavable shepherd’s pie and a bottle of red wine. Tonight I’m going to stay in, to see if I can find my Friday again.
You killed me.
Was it because of that time I passed you in the hallway without returning your smile? Was it because I argued with you in the last big meeting? Because I couldn’t see it your way? Because I questioned you, challenged you, made you feel threatened or unappreciated?
Was it because I snubbed you at the party that one time? Because I forgot your name after I’d had a few drinks? Because I didn’t acknowledge your input in my speeches? Because I never said ‘thank you’?
Killing me was bad enough, but the way you did it… you destroyed me. Everything I had. Everything I had worked for. The success I had sacrificed for. I died a thousand times, in the run up to my death.
You made me a sadist. A womaniser. A thug and a racist. You dropped my name in the dirt and dragged it through trash.
The people who had adored me now despised me. I saw disgust etched onto their faces, and when I looked into their eyes I saw your lies reflected. Believed. Repeated. Shared as nothing more than Monday morning office gossip. From hero to villain to dead. Just like that.
You killed me on Friday night. 9.30pm. Prime Time. You killed me in front of a million witnesses. They saw my body. They saw the knife sticking out of my back. They watched the autopsy. It was then that I knew; there would be no coming back from this. There would be no reprieve. This world isn’t governed by magic, and there was never any long-lost twin brother conveniently secreted away at birth. I’ll never come back like RoboCop, my mangled remains forced into a machine body. I can’t even return as a ghost.
I am dead. There is nothing for me but the next life. Perhaps next time I’ll be a better person. Perhaps I’ll be a father, or the President of the United States of America. Perhaps I’ll be a pirate, or a stormtrooper, or a zombie. Vampire. Yes, vampires are big right now. Perhaps I’ll find work as a vampire.
I’d planned to beg you to take me back. To bring me back to life in the way that only you know how. But even if you’d planned a loophole, I no longer want you to use it. You killed me, and now I’ll stay dead. There are better lives out there for me to live. But before I move on, I wanted to tell you one thing.
Message received. Lesson well learned. I’ll carry my death with me, into my next life. And I will always remember the last words you ever spoke to me. The words you whispered into my ear before you ended my life.
“Never fuck with the writer.”
It seems the humans of Earth are almost as interested in the subject of evolution as we are. Of course, being simple life-forms, they have a lot of hilarious misconceptions about the subject, but overall they are on the right track.
For the past few weeks I have been monitoring an evolutionary program called “BoxCar2D”, which is designed to study evolution through a mechanism they term, “survival of the fittest.”
This program is quite extraordinary. Not because of what it does, of course; the premise is rather simple and the results often predictable. No, this program is extraordinary because it seems to bend the laws of space-time whilst being observed. I started watching this particular generation of 2D boxcars four days ago, and it wasn’t until one of my ship’s proximity sensors alerted me to a nearby orbital bucket of bolts the humans term “space station” that I realised how long I had been sitting watching this thing.
For your entertainment and scientific perusal, the “box car” program can be found here: http://boxcar2d.com/
Should this signal not reach you intact, please adjust your quantum communicator by 0.2 microns off the horizontal plane. This should allow you to witness the BoxCar program in real-time.
-Mr Urban Spaceman
After a very long absence owing to extensive repairs of my spaceship following a particularly nasty run-in with some space pirates over a year ago, I return to earth ready to resume observing human beings in their natural environment.
As soon as I got here, I sensed a great disturbance in the Force — it was Chuck Wendig’s beard, calling me back to write something for another of his Flash Fiction Challenges.
This story is very much influenced by one of my favourite authors, Robert Holdstock, whose own characters spend a lot of time on chthonic journeys, and who incorporates masks (and other aspects of Jungian psychology) into many of his works. Would recommend you read him for some very beautiful but dark pieces of fantasy/fiction. Also, whilst I was gone, these WordPress people changed their entire layout of… basically everything. So apologies if this looks terrible until I figure out how to fix things. HTML wizardry may be involved.
The River’s Mask
It was the first obstacle. The first trial she would face. The thought of being tested did not worry her, but the thought of failing did. So many people were counting on her. He was counting on her, even if he didn’t yet know it.
Stooping into a crouch, she opened her bag and pulled out a crude wooden mask, one she had fashioned only days earlier from the bark of an ash tree. The eyes were two dark holes through which only slivers of light could penetrate; slivers were enough. The mouth of the mask had lips, of a sort, but they remained closed, and the nose was little more than a stubby triangle. Over the face she had rubbed the ash from her last campfire, so that it was blackened as if in perpetual shadow and mourning.
The name of the mask. The sound of water tumbling over a fall and bubbling in the pool beneath. The beating drum of rain pounding against the roof of her childhood home. The whisper of the babbling spring where it gave birth to all the rivers of the world.
She slipped it over her face and tied the leather strings behind her head. Then she fastened her bag, ignoring the other masks which lay within; their time would come later. If she passed her first trial.
The minutes ticked by as she waited. The minutes became an hour, and then two. On the creaky wooden dock, she did not move. Fear and impatience were pushed away as easily as the aches in leg muscles which had been still for too long. She had waiting ten years for this; a few hours longer made little difference.
A breeze picked up, bringing with it the scent of damp wood and organic decay, accompanied by the gentle sound of the water lapping against something large. She turned her masked face and saw a figure emerge from the tenebrious mist, upon a boat which he guided with a long wooden pole.
Her heart beat rapidly as the boat approached, and she took a deep breath, to still her mind and calm her nerves. When it reached the dock, the boat stopped, and though its occupant did not move to moor it, it hung there unphased by the flow of the river. A chill caressed her skin, and she ignored that too.
“I seek passage.” Her words came out louder than she’d intended, but the river swallowed them. The shadowy figure nodded, and when it spoke, its voice was the sound of the wind rushing through the leaves of a tree on a blustery day.
“And to where do you wish to travel?”
“To the place where souls go, when they have fallen into darkness.”
“And what do you offer as payment?”
She stuck her hand into her pocket and brought out a coin clasped between her fingers. Its ancient surface was pitted and scarred, the likeness of some long-forgotten nobleman defaced by time itself. This she tossed at the figure, who caught it seemingly without moving.
He tilted his head to look at her, or she thought he did. “The customary payment is two coins.”
“I know. This is for the journey in. The second you will get after my journey out.”
He chuckled, a dry, raspy sound, and the smell of decay hit her more strongly. “Very well. You may board.”
She and her bag stepped down from the dock into the boat, her boots ringing out a hollow beat as she moved to the centre of the craft. When she was ready, she gave the figure a nod, and the boat began to move again, back up the river, carried by the flow of the current.
As she waited, she felt the scrutiny of the boat’s keeper upon her. Closing her eyes, she silently recited the words of wisdom she’d been given by the spirit-master.
You must go to him masked, otherwise he will see into your mind and learn all that he needs to about you. Whilst you’re with him, on the River, you must never remove your mask. If he engages you in conversation, tell him nothing about yourself. But do not lie; deception angers him. If he learns your name, he will claim your soul, and you shall forever be his. This is your first trial. Do not become one of the souls doomed to eternity in the River.
“What is your name?” the Ferryman asked, pulling her mind from its reverie.
“That is not your name.”
“It is how you will know me during our journey.”
“Whom do you seek in the realm of fallen souls, Sarasho?”
Behind the mask, she bit her lip, forcing herself to silence.
“A great general, perhaps? Some glorious leader of armies fallen in battle? Or a lover, somebody greatly missed during the cold, lonely nights?”
“A friend from my childhood, actually,” she replied. Then she mentally kicked herself.
“Ahh, I see.” Though she could not see his face, she had the distinct impression that he was smiling. “Tell me this friend’s name. Maybe I will remember carrying him—or her—to the Realm of Lost Souls.”
This time, she forced her lips together into a thin line. He let out a low, throaty chuckle like the sound of birds in flight.
“Very well, o’silent one! If you do not care for conversation, perhaps you would prefer entertainment. A song or two?”
Eerie voices rose up from the river, and every hair on her body stood on end. Leaning to look over one side, she saw shapes below the surface, moving along with the boat, emitting a soft light that soothed her fears away. They sang a melody of sadness and longing, wordless and beautiful as whalesong. It called to her, tugging at something inside her, something aching and desperate, and she knew that if she reached out and touched them, she would never be sad or lonely or tired or desperate ever again.
“Perhaps you would like to sing for me, Sarasho?” the Ferryman asked. “Take off your mask and sing, and I will tell you of what lies ahead for you on your journey.”
She snapped back, standing upright in the centre of the boat, and it wobbled very slightly. No. She could not give in to the music. If she took off her mask, she would fail. Failure was not an option.
“Perhaps,” she said, as a thought presented itself, “you could tell me all you know of what lies ahead, and I might consider taking off the mask after that.”
Again the chuckle. “Very well. Very well. You drive a hard bargain, but there is no harm in you knowing. Perhaps you will even succeed, and come back this way to leave the Realm, and offer me another chance at changing your mind.
“When we reach the far shore in the Realm of Lost Souls, you will find a forest with trees taller than you could ever imagine. It might seem pleasant at first, but the Lord of the Wild Hunt roams eternally in that place, his hounds eager for the chase.”
“What is it that he hunts?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
“Souls. He likes them fresh off the boat, when the smell of life still clings to them. Many souls make it through that forest; many, but not all. Perhaps this childhood friend of yours was pulled down there.”
She lifted her chin and frowned beneath the mask. “He made it through. I know he did. He is strong.”
“Then he would have arrived next at the Living Maze, which is an infinitely-changing maze of thorns and vines and all things prickly and painful. It is not a gauntlet easily run. But had he succeeded there too, he would have attempted to cross The Plain of Fire, and then come to Sky Lord’s land.”
“A mad dictator obsessed with building the tallest crystal spire in the Realm. He enslaves souls, forces them to mine crystal, to fashion it into bricks which are then used to make his spire bigger, and taller. His end goal is to pierce the Veil where he perceives it to be weakest and negate the need for my River; he does not like being reliant upon me.”
“Will he succeed?”
The Ferryman gave a soft snort. “Of course not. There is only one way into or out of the The Realm of Lost Souls. But he is mad, and there is no reasoning with a madman.”
“I see.” Her heart sank at the thought of all that lay before her. She would need more masks. “Tell me, Ferryman. If the souls here are dead, how can they be harmed by a hunter or thorns, or enslaved by a madman?”
“The dead have form, here. They may be mere souls, but here, souls are even more real than you.”
“Then… what is to stop them from attacking you? From overwhelming you and stealing your boat and taking it to escape down your river? The river seems so gentle that even a child could navigate it, and you are an unarmed Ferryman.”
He laughed, a sound that echoed across the surface of the river and sounded like an unstoppable avalanche. “Is that how you perceive the River and I, Sarasho?” He gave a shrug. “It is different, for everyone. But here, we have reached our destination. See the dock, just there? And beyond it, the border of the forest where the Wild Hunt roams without tiring.”
The boat pulled up beside the dock and she grabbed her bag and hopped off. But she did not remove the mask. If this was the only way out of the Realm, she would be forced to deal with the Ferryman again. He was still dangerous.
“Thank you for the information,” she said, and turned towards the forest.
“Sarasho.” He waited until she had turned back to face him. “I have no doubt that you will overcome every obstacle that you face. And perhaps you will be lucky, and find your childhood friend. If you do, remember one thing. Souls do not fall into darkness; they choose it. Just because you find your friend, does not mean he will want to come back with you. Sometimes it is easier for them to dwell here, in the darkness, than to return to the brightness and pain of their lives. I just hope that your friend is worth it.”
She nodded, and pulled her bag over her shoulder. It was something she shared with the Ferryman; the hope that her friend would remember the boy he had been. The hope that after all she was willing to go through, he would let her bring him back home.
Some guy on the internet said I had to write a short story about a superhero… by mashing it with another genre.
The genre I chose was Noir. Then I added a bit of Paranormal. And threw in a bit of Satire.
Let me know your thoughts! Or don’t let me know your thoughts!
His name was Grimner.
Everybody who passed his office knew his name was Grimner, because that’s what it said on his door.
Ulysses K. Grimner, P.I. of the Paranormal. Supernatural Superhero. Psychic Solutions.
He was still thinking of titles to adorn the door. But first, he needed a bigger door.
Word-of-mouth advertising was how he got most of his work. A good reputation, like a small bonsai tree, was a hard thing to cultivate. To ensure his reputation didn’t die a slow and parched death like the last bonsai tree he’d tried to grow, Grimner only accepted clients with cases he knew he could solve. Failure came in the form of verbal black marks against his otherwise sparkling name. Failure meant less clients. Less money. Less chance of Lolita accepting his dinner invitation.
It was a day just like any other when Benny Threefingers walked into Grimner’s office. From the moment he lay eyes on Benny, Grimner knew the Brooklyn thug was a man with a huge stinking pile of crap on his shoulders. The hat-wringing was a dead-give away. Men who came in wringing their hats had come as a measure of last resort. The thick smell of desperation rolled from Benny in palpable waves, amongst which Grimner wallowed happily.
Benny’s story unfolded like an origami swan set adrift on a lake. Grimner listened in silence as Benny described the job he’d accepted ten days ago, how he’d just gone along because two men wasn’t enough and four was one too many. They’d needed a third man and it was an easy job, they’d told him. Easy as taking candy from a baby.
“How was I supposed to know the house wasn’t empty?” Benny wailed. Grimner nodded along sympathtically. “I just thought the job was a quick smash-and-grab. It wasn’t my idea. I didn’t plan any of it. I was just there to be the third guy. Right?”
“Right,” Grimner agreed.
“So anyway, we smashed the window and grabbed everything on the list. Then this kid wanders out of the bedroom, still rubbin’ the sleep outta his eyes, and as soon as he clocks us his mouth opens. I can see he’s gonna scream, so I think ‘Shit, what do I do?’ Didn’t get chance to do anything, did I? Tommy Anaconda shot the kid in the head, point blank. As if that was going to make less noise than a screaming brat! Now I’m looking at a murder charge if the cops ever find out I was there. But that’s not the worst part. Do you want to know the worst part?”
“It would certainly help me with your case.”
Benny leant forward, shifty little eyes darting from side to side as if looking for someone to keep his secret from. His voice, when he spoke, was a hoarse whisper. “He follows me around. Has done ever since Tommy shot him. It ain’t fair! I was just the third guy! I didn’t shoot him! Why don’t he go haunt Tommy?”
Grimner nodded in understanding. He’d never met Tommy, but he knew the guy had no conscience. He was a cold-blooded killer. There was no hope for Tommy Anaconda. But Benny Threefingers, he saw the ghost of the little boy he hadn’t killed. There was hope for Benny. He just needed a push in the right direction.
“Benny, I’m going to help you,” he said.
“Good, good. Thank you. How much will it cost me?”
“My prices are negotiable. Wait here.”
He left Benny alone for a few moments, give the guy a chance to stew in desperation whilst Grimner collected a few things from his store-room. Table-cloth. Chalk. Dribbly candles. A few runestones, just for good measure. When he returned to his office, Benny was still wringing his hat.
“Um, are you sure I need to be here for this?” Benny asked, eyeing up the mystical items.
“Yes. It’s vital you stay.”
Grimner swept everything off his desk with one swipe of his arm, sending piles of paperwork he’d placed there just for that purpose crashing to the floor. With practised expertise he flourished the black table-cloth and lay it over his desk, then used the chalk to draw a pentacle upon it. After lighting the pre-dribbled candles he picked up the handful of runes and cast them across the cloth, making the appropriate ‘Hmm’ sounds as he pretended to study those which had landed within the boundaries of chalk.
“Gimme your hands,” he said, resuming his seat and offering both hands. It was a measure of Benny’s desperation that he didn’t balk at the request.
Grimner closed his eyes. His hummed a long, low note, and swayed from side to side a bit. Whilst he was waiting for Benny to be suitably cowed, he glanced ahead through the Astral Plane and watched the outcome of the Knicks match at the end of the week, then made himself a mental note to place his bet at the bookies as soon as he’d finished with Benny.
“Ahh, yes, yes, I see!” he said at last. Benny’s hands gripped more tightly. “The boy is with us. Here, in the room. He says… he says…”
“What does he say?” Benny squeaked.
Grimner opened his eyes, examined Benny’s sweaty countenance. “Alright, here’s how it’s gotta be, Benny. The kid wants you to atone for what you didn’t do. He said you gotta do charity work.”
“Yeah, you know. Helping orphans, feeding the homeless, picking up litter… that sorta thing. He’s gonna follow you for a bit, to make sure you really have turned over a new leaf. But he says if you get out of crime and start helping your community and whatnot, he’ll leave you alone.”
“But… I don’t know how to do charity work! Crime’s all I’ve ever done.”
“Here.” Grimner jotted down a name and an address on a piece of paper and gave it to Benny. Father Grant would get him started. “Once you’ve got yourself on your feet, I’ll send you my bill.”
“You mean… I don’t have to pay you now?”
“Nope. Payment comes later.”
“Er, thanks! Thanks, Mr Grimner, I really appreciate your help. I swear, I’m done with crime. From now on I’m going to lead a good life. One where I’m not haunted by dead kids!”
Benny left, his heavy footsteps fading away as he clomped down the wooden staircase. When he was gone, Grimner picked up the pile of paperwork and put it back on his desk. Then he pulled a diary out of his drawer, and added a mark to his running tally. One more job successfully completed. One more soul put back on the right path.
“Ghosts,” he scoffed, shaking his head. “What a laugh. Can you believe that he actually thought he was being haunted by the ghost of a dead kid?”
He glanced at the chair in front of his desk, where the silvery-blue ethereal outline of a woman shimmered as it crossed from the Astral Plane to the Material, becoming flesh.
“Yeah,” Lolita agreed, a conspiratorial smile gracing her sanguine lips. “What an idiot.”
Thank Chuck Wendig for tonight’s “flash fiction”. I’m loathe to call it fiction, because each piece is somebody’s truth. I could have written more, but decided to end it here.
I Had Bad Parents
I had bad parents.
My mom was a drunk and a whore. She fucked other men while my dad was at work. She gave me two brothers and a sister, all of them bastards.
My dad was weak. He slaved for a family that wasn’t truly his. To hide his own inadequacies, he got drunk every Friday then came home and beat the shattered memory of the woman he’d married.
Then, he beat us.
I had bad parents.
Mother was ever so successful at her job. A charming woman, always on the go. I saw her three or four times each year, around the major events; Birthday. Christmas. Mothering Sunday. Easter. She gave birth to me, and I was raised by a succession of nannies.
Father had died many years earlier; terrible bi-plane crash. But to me, that didn’t matter. I had the finest education money could buy. I excelled at piano; top of my class (of one) at the sciences. Of course, I went to university.
I died a bachelor at 97. The money I had inherited… gone to waste.
I had bad parents.
Mam ran off after the birth of her sixth child. Nobody knows where she went. Nobody cares.
Papa worked the docks, hauling in the day’s catch. He’d come home, stinking of fish and salt, his knuckles raw, his patience endless as he cooked the same broth over and over again.
He made me work the docks, too. The stink of fish and salt… I was never clean again.
I had bad parents.
Mummy didn’t understand me. When she found me dissecting a pigeon, she called for the quack. He thought my behaviour quite normal, until she told him the pigeon was still alive. But how else am I to learn about how a living body works, than to take it apart piece by piece?
Daddy doesn’t care about me. He looks at me and sees something broken, which reflects badly upon him. For who will he leave his estate to, now? If suddenly he should die of some acute poisoning, he has no other children to bear the family name.
I sit in my room, caged by their narrow-mindedness, and I plot.
I had bad parents.
When I was eight, teacher said I was dumb. Mom cried. Cried a lot. I tried to tell her it was okay, that I still loved her even though I was dumb. She hugged me, and told me everything would be okay.
Dad didn’t like dumb kids. He and mom argued a lot. He asked how she’d cope, just her and me. I didn’t understand. Was he going somewhere? But no… there’s a lady at the door. She’s smiling. Friendly. She’s here to take me away.
I don’t like my new mom very much.
I had bad parents.
They raised me in absentia. Memories of their faces haunted my dreams. A photograph… that’s all I had of them. Why had they abandoned me? Why had they handed me over to the orphanage, without even imparting the knowledge of my name? Why aren’t they here, to sing lullabies to me? To comfort me when I’m lonely, and hold me when I’m sad?
The weeping of a dozen other orphans drowns out my tears of self-pity.
I had bad parents.
Mother didn’t know how to say ‘no.’
Father was afraid to say it.
I learnt about consequences too late. Now, I sit in this chair, my last meal weighing heavy in my belly.
I had bad parents.
It was all the rage, Mum said. Her eyes. Her hair colour. The mouth of a singer. The nose of a supermodel. The physical build of the finest athlete money could buy. The agility of a gymnast. The hand-eye co-ordination of a neurosurgeon. The IQ of MENSA alumni. Her very own designer baby.
“Father”? I’m sorry, I don’t know what word.
Another Friday(ish), another flash fiction challenge courtesy of Chuck Wendig. This week’s challenge is to pick the name of a cocktail from a list, and use it as a title for a story. Since my story is a continuation of some previous fics, and I already knew where it was going, I picked the cocktail/title ‘French 75’ which was the only one which (very vaguely) fit the story.
Fine white alabaster sand cushioned Ardillo’s feet as he walked along the pristine beach. He could feel the heat of the sun tanning his olive skin an even darker shade, and for a moment he let his thoughts unravel, merely enjoying the warmth of the sun, the shifting of the sand, and the relaxing sound of the gentle waves dancing up the beach.
As she called his name, his thoughts knotted themselves again. For two days he’d avoided her, knowing that she wanted an answer; not knowing which one to give her.
“Buenos dias, Isabella,” he said.
She smiled at him, a gesture which made her natural beauty shine and made his breath catch in his throat. “Do you mind if I walk with you, señor?”
“I do not mind.”
Taking up position beside him, she closed her eyes as she walked, letting herself be guided by her own intuition. Every so often she would err, and bump into his arm, and he wasn’t entirely sure if she was doing it by accident. Still, she did not speak, which was a welcome relief, and they’d walked almost the whole stretch of the beach before she finally opened her eyes and turned her face to his.
“You are troubled.”
“You can tell that, beneath this?” He fingered the lower section of his luchador mask which covered his whole head.
“You have the bearing of a man who carries a great weight upon his shoulders. I regret that I’m the one who put it there.”
He sighed. “I brought my own weight with me, as you know. You have merely added to it.”
“Have you given my request any thought?”
“That’s all I’ve done for the past two days.” He stopped, and waited for her to do the same. A little further down the beach, a group of young men and women played volleyball, the normalcy of their laughter a mockery of how very abnormal Ardillo’s situation was. “To be honest, I’m not even sure what it is you’re asking me to do.”
“I thought I’d made that clear, Ardillo. I want you to help me kill my father. Not just his physical body, but the non-corporeal being he is at his core.”
“And that is what I do not understand!” he said, throwing his arms up in defeat. “I thought you had already killed him, weeks ago, when he was your brother?”
“I did. But only the human body he was inhabiting. His soul will be reborn. It’s only a matter of time before he comes back.
“Then you could find him and kill him again. Keep him trapped here forever. What is the problem?”
“The problem is, I’ve changed the rules,” she said. “I was supposed to kill myself, after killing him. This has always happened. But because I haven’t killed myself, because my host body was advanced enough to hear me, I have broken the cycle. My father will be reborn, but I will not be a part of that life. Before I can kill him, I must do two things. I must first find a way to kill the entity that he is… and I must also find which body he has been reborn into. This world has billions of people on it, so it is a search which could take me many years.”
“I still don’t understand where I come in. If your father is reborn, won’t he be in the body of an infant? I don’t think I could kill a child, even knowing what he might one day become.”
Isabella was silent for a moment, her green eyes scanning the watery horizon as if searching for answers she did not have. She sank down onto the sand, and patted the space beside her. Ardillo, with no better idea of how to escape this madness, sat beside her.
“The night after I killed my father,” she said quietly, “I had a dream. A dream about a man with two faces. He had blood on his hands that only I could see. That man was you, Ardillo. You were not the only one in my dream, but you were there, and you were crucial in helping me to kill my father. That is why I came to Cancun. I was looking for you.”
He let the weight of her words sink in before adding them to the pile on his shoulders. How very different would his holiday have been, if he hadn’t let Isabella sit with him that day beside the pool? If he’d just said, ‘Lo siento, señorita, but I simply wish to be alone.’
“You’ve said a lot,” he told her, “but explained very little. I can’t kill a child. I won’t kill a child. But if what you say is true, then it is not the child you need to kill, but the powerful entity which lives inside it. How am I to kill something like that? I, a mere man?”
She smiled, leaving him with the impression she’d been expecting this question. “Mine is not the only body to have advanced to the point of hearing me. Humanity stands on a precipice, a point which all sentient species reach during their evolution. The next few decades of life on this planet will determine one thing; whether mankind continues, progesses, evolves into something beyond itself… or whether it dies in its infancy, never to fledge and leave the nest.”
“Mi cabeza… I am no philosopher, Isabella. Such thoughts are wasted on me.”
“Not as wasted as you might think, Ardillo.” She lay a slender hand on his bare arm, and he felt heat emanate from her palm. “There is so much potential in humanity… and some people have more potential than others. Now that I am aware of who and what I am, I have the power to unlock that potential. Written in your genetic code, in what your people conceive as ‘junk DNA’, are possibilities. Songs which have not yet be sung. I can help you to sing those songs. I can help you to become what you have always longed to be.”
He laughed, unable to help himself, feeling genuine mirth for the first time since he had killed a man and fallen into a pit of self-inflicted melancholy.
“Oh, Isabella, you have read too many comics and watched too many cartoons. Are you trying to tell me you can turn me in to some sort of… super-human?”
She looked at him, her face entirely serious. “Not just you. And I wouldn’t call it ‘super-human.’ It is merely the natural evolution of your species. Mankind will get there on its own, if it does not destroy itself through war, or over-population, or ecological disaster. I can merely speed the process up.” The heat flowing from her hand into his arm muscles grew more intense. “You have always wanted to be a hero, Ardillo. That is why you first started taking off the mask, is it not?”
Standing up, she brushed away the sand which clung to her legs. His arm now felt cold, where her hand had been, as if bereft of something vital. She held out her hand, an invitation to join her, but he held back. He could end all of this craziness. He could go home, continue fighting as a luchador, and on his days off he could do his work as a vigilante, protecting the innocent people of his city from the petty and dangerous criminals who preyed on them.
He looked up at Isabella’s face. She merely watched him, waiting in silence for his decision to be made. So, he made it. If Isabella could do what she claimed, then wouldn’t that make him a better hero? Taking her hand, he stood and faced her.
“Could you give me super-strength, or the ability to fly?”
A wide smile split her face. “It does not work like that. All I can do is unlock your potential. What gifts slumber within you, ready to be released, depends upon your genetic code.”
“Very well. When shall we do this?”
“Tonight. My room.”
“And then? We find your father?”
She shook her head, brown curls fanning around her tanned face. “We can not do it alone. There were others, in my dream. Other people we must find, and whose potential I must also unlock. Tell me Ardillo, have you brought your passport with you?”
“Yes. Why? Where are we going?”
“We’re going to France.”
This week, Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge revolved around the mythological Phoenix. My entry for this week’s challenge links my story from 2 weeks ago, The Man Behind The Mask, to my last week’s story, Scarlett’s Worlds. I hadn’t originally intended for these stories to be linked, but the Phoenix prompt gives me a natural line of progression (and helps me avoid what otherwise would have been a story about Marvel’s guardian of the M’Kraan Crystal).
(As a side note, an alternative ending to The Man Behind the Mask can be found at Mark Gardner’s site, Article 94, and he really does justice to the characters).
Anyhoo, I hope you enjoy this. 980 words.
Time and Time Again
“I killed my father.”
“It wasn’t the first time I killed him. We’ve been locked in this deadly dance for thousands of years. But the last time I killed him… it was eight weeks ago.”
I watched and waited. I could tell by the stillness of his hard, muscled body that my masked confidant was carefully considering what I had told him. When no accusation of lies came, I continued my story.
“Many thousands of years ago, my people lived in a distant corner of the galaxy. When humans think of aliens, they think of little grey men in spaceships. But we are far more than that, and far less. We exist as cosmic entities, born from the spontaneous act of creation which caused this universe to come into being. In our natural form, we have no corporeal bodies. We are like boulders in the great river of time. The river flows around us, gradually wearing us down, but it cannot move us, and we do not feel its flow time as your kind does.
“But in other ways, we are not so different. We live, and we love, and we create new life from our unions of thought and substance. And it is here, amongst my family, that my story technically begins.
“My father was counted a great leader amongst my people. He was an explorer. An inventor. He dreamt up new ways of doing old things. He had many children, and encouraged us to follow his ideals.
“One day, he… well, I don’t know how to explain this so that you will understand. Sometimes, even I barely understand it. He found a way to divert the course of time. He bent it, very slightly, to give himself a glimpse of the future.”
I paused, remembering the ripple of fear that had passed through my people when they realised what my father had done, the debate that had raged across thousands of lightyears of space. El Ardillo seemed to consider my pause nothing more than dramatic tension. From his seat on the edge of the bed, he leant forwards.
“What did he glimpse?” my new friend asked.
“Something he did not like. My father caught an echo of his own future self. He felt himself killed. By one of his own children. And so he set out to prevent that from happening.”
When I paused to sip the white wine Ardillo had thoughtfully poured for me, I could sense the emotions whirling through his heart and mind. Confusion and fear, disbelief and concern. Half of him did not believe my tale; the other half silently begged me to continue.
“It isn’t easy to kill one of my people, but my father found a way. One by one, my brothers and sisters died, and he slew my mother when she tried to protect us. His actions shocked and horrified the rest of my people, for never before had one of us killed another. They feared that after he had killed all of his offspring, he might use his killing-method to exert power over the rest, to dominate the galaxy through fear.
“The brightest minds came together, and they found a way to stop him. They sent him here, to Earth, and forced him into the body of a human, trapping him in mortal form. Then they sent me, to find a way to kill my father once and for all.”
I felt a sad smile tug at the corner of my lips.
“Every generation he is born, and I am born, and I kill him without remembering who he is or what he’s done. I kill him to protect myself, my mother, my brothers or sisters… the minutiae are different each life, but it always ends the same.”
Ardillo took a deep breath, his impressive chest rising to the motion. “Has there been no life in which your father has never… well… fathered you?”
“You do not have to take my words so literally,” I replied. “He’s not always my biological father. Sometimes he is my mentor. My uncle. My pimp. But always a father-figure to me.”
“If you don’t mind me asking… what was he this time?”
“My elder brother.”
The words fell, bringing with them a weight which saturated the air. I knew Ardillo wanted more, so I obliged.
“Our father was a US marine who died in the Gulf. My ‘brother’ became like a father to me. Until, high on a cocktail of drink and drugs, he came home one night, put a gun to my mother’s head, and pulled the trigger. I heard the shot. Saw the blood. I leapt at my brother, and we wrestled for the weapon.”
“Were you afraid?”
“No. I’m never afraid, though until now, I have never known why. I’m never scared because he has never killed me. In every life I have bested him, and that is how it will be until I find a way to kill him permanently.”
“You speak as if something has changed.”
I nodded, and sipped the wine. “Always, before, I turned the weapon on myself after killing him. A cycle of reincarnation that has continued uninterrupted for generations, because my human host has never been… advanced enough to hear me. But now, this host… I was able to stop her from killing herself. For the first time in millennia, the cycle has been halted. And now, I know, this is the beginning of the end.”
“This…” I could see Ardillo struggling to find the right words. His glass of wine was untouched in his hand. “It sounds completely loco, Isabella. Like some science-fiction movie. But… I believe you.”
I smiled, knowing my prophetic dream had been accurate.
“I’m glad to hear that, Ardillo,” I said, stepping forward to rest my hand on the taut muscles of his shoulder. “Because now I need your help.”
Today’s flash fiction challenge, courtesy of Chuck “He Of The Luxurious Beardedness” Wendig, was… interesting. Use a RNG to combine two words into a title. The two words I RNG’d were “Scarlett” and “World.”
Two weeks ago, I wrote a flash-fic about death. This week, I did more of the same.
This story may be difficult to read if you’ve ever suffered domestic abuse. Consider this fair warning, and continue at your own discretion.
I killed my father.
I was six years old, and he beat my mother to death. I watched, my three-month-old baby sister cradled in my arms, as he hit her again and again, the sound of the cast-iron skillet ringing hollow each time it met her head.
I watched, and held my sister, because I was six years old, and I did not know what else to do.
My father left, and the sour miasma of stale alcohol left with him. When I was sure he was gone, I crept out from under the sofa, where I had wormed out a den for myself, and carried my sister to my mother. Gina was crying, her gummy mouth wide as she demanded milk long overdue. I tried to rouse my mother, but there was a pool of liquid beneath her; it looked like the red wine my father drank from time to time, but it was thicker, and sticky, and it did not smell like sweet fermented grapes.
After three long, painful days of starvation and thirst, during which even Gina ceased to cry, my father returned. He no longer smelt bad, and he seemed to have no memory of his actions. When he found my mother, cold on the grey tile floor, he sank down beside her and wept. Gina made some sound, then, and he found me half-dead from dehydration in my private den. He took us out and cradled us in his arms, and whispered that everything would be okay, that he would take care of us.
Then he called the police.
My father had been away on a business trip. He’d come back to this macabre scene. He’d found my sister and I cowering beneath the sofa. To corroborate his story, the police officers asked me what I had observed.
I should have told them. The nice men with the blue hats and sad-smiling faces, who gave me cocoa and chocolate, and found a carer for my tiny sister… I should have told them what I had seen. But I remembered my father holding us in his arms, telling me that he would take care of us. I kept silent. I was six years old, and convinced I had been mistaken.
In the years that followed, I discovered a terrible truth. A demon lived inside my father. He kept it caged most of the time; he walked and talked like a man. He smiled like a man. He laughed like a man. He taught me how to ride a bike. He taught Gina her ABCs. He bathed us and sang songs about rubber duckies with us.
But there was a key for the demon’s cell, and that key was alcohol. My father would go for weeks without a drink, and I would tell myself that all would be well. I’d whisper down to the lower bunk, in which Gina slept, and tell her that we were a real family, and that mother had been killed by an intruder.
Only, every so often, after a bad day at work, my father would stop off at the liquor store on his way home. Whisky. Rum. Vodka. Cointreau. Gin. These were the mistresses he brought home. Any other widower might have eased his way into them, pouring small measures, savouring their tastes, letting them caress his tongue. But not my father. For him, there was no point in using a glass. Where was the use in small measures when he intended to drink the entire bottle?
During those turbulent times, Gina and I would crawl beneath the sofa, practically hollow now that we were larger, and hug each other, making ourselves as small and as quiet as possible. For as long as we remained silent, the demon that took over my father remained oblivious to our presence, and we were safe.
I was seventeen, preparing for my final year in high school, readying myself for exhausting exams before finally escaping to college. One night I was upstairs in the bedroom I still shared with my sister, when I heard the screech of tyres on the driveway.
It was the only prompting I needed. My father was always a careful driver… unless he was in a hurry to get home, and reunite with one of his mistresses.
I dashed from the room, shouting for Gina. Her reply came from the kitchen, too quiet and too late. I heard my father crash through the back door, could see in my mind’s eye the half-empty bottle of gin in his hand. Gina’s screams started before I’d even reached the bottom of the stairs. Her cries of ‘please, no!’ ripped through my heart, made my own eyes fill up with tears. They were the same cries I’d heard on that night eleven years ago, when an intruder had killed my mother.
I was an animal. I did not think; I just reacted. As the demon raised the cast-iron skillet, I grabbed a carving knife from the drainer and lunged. Some tiny voice prompted me to aim for the throat. The heart is a hard target to hit, it said, protected as it is by the rib-cage.
The demon sank to the cold tile floor, blood spurting from a severed artery. And as the spark of life died away in its eyes, I was hit with a powerful realisation.
This was not the first time I had killed my father.
I’d killed him before, in the sub-Saharan deserts of Africa, when our tribe were nomadic wanderers. I’d killed him in modern-day Slovakia, when our clan lived in caves. I’d killed him on the Iberian Peninsula, and in some filthy Elizabethan alley, and on the plains where our fellow Sioux hunted bison.
We had lived these lives a thousand times, my father, the demon and I. We were born and reborn, old souls in new bodies, in an endless cycle of death.
I was seventeen, and I turned the knife on myself.
There was a time when I was the centre of the universe. Even though I lived on the Earth, it revolved around me, much like it now revolves around the sun. And the sun, too, orbited the celestial body known as I, as did the rest of the solar system, the galaxy which contained it, and the cluster of galaxies of which the Milky Way was only one insignificant speck.
I owned the Earth. I lived on it, and it belonged to me.
I lived in a house.
Not everybody is that fortunate.
The house was old, and draughty, and parts of it leaked. But it was a place with walls, and stairs, and a roof. It had a bathroom, and bedrooms, and old cupboards with creaky doors. There are worse places to be a child.
When I was little—and was the centre of the universe—reality did not apply to me. The rest of the world existed, yes, but at the same time, I was creating it.
I made the trees and the fields; sometimes I made them in other worlds, too. Trees and fields exist everywhere, so it wasn’t a huge stretch of the imagination to create them in worlds only dreamed of, or those glimpsed amongst the words of books about girls with necklaces of raindrops and boys with giant peaches.
I made the sky, and the stars which twinkled within it, but my favourite things to make were the clouds. Some I made white and wispy, others I formed heavy and grey. The sky was my canvas, and the clouds my paint. I made horses up there, and rabbits, and sharks, myriad creatures to fill the empty void above me.
I made people, too. I made them all to be Good and Kind; my mother’s warnings of what to do if I was ever separated from her (find a lady who has children and tell her you are lost) and the our address which she made me repeat until I had it memorised, were nothing more than a fairy story and a nursery rhyme. For what bad thing could ever happen to a child who had created all of the people in the world to be as Good as themselves?
Reality did not apply to me, but sometimes it was inconvenient. Though I had created the sky, I couldn’t stop it from raining, so I made the most of the situation by enjoying the wonderful shows of light and sound that the sky was orchestrating just for me. And when the symphony stopped and the rain persisted, I went away in my head to other worlds where it wasn’t raining.
I had companions in those worlds. Dolls and cars and teddy bears. They came with me, and together we explored these strange new lands, roaming from bedroom wall to bedroom wall, traversing the thin blue carpet, scaling the impassable mountain of the bunk-beds and toy-boxes.
Then, a terrible thing happened to me.
I started to get older.
As I aged, it became harder and harder to ignore reality. The News didn’t help, telling stories of War, and of Death, and of children murdered by children. Suddenly, some of the people I had created broke away from my control. They were no longer Good and Kind, but cruel, and mean, and greedy.
The revelation came as a shock, but further atrocities occurred soon after.
The world on which I lived stopped revolving around me. The centre of the universe was no longer wherever I happened to be. The care and attention that had been lavished on me began to diminish and, with horror, I realised that there were certain Expectations I had to meet. Foremost, I had to be able to take care of myself.
Reality made its ugly presence known in other ways, some more subtle than others. As I grew, becoming taller, increasing in mass, the harsh mistress known as Gravity increased her hold on me. When I fell, it hurt more.
So I tried not to fall.
I had to give up the worlds I had created. There comes a time in every child’s life when they are (one way or another) forced to give up the very things which kept them young; things like dolls and cars and teddy bears. These things which had once shared my place at the centre of the universe were scattered into the wind, like fluffy white dandelion seeds on a summer breeze, pieces of my childhood littering the proverbial highway, visible only in my rear-view mirror.
Now that I was no longer at the centre of the universe, and bereft of the tools I had used to create fields and trees and clouds and worlds and all the Good People that should have inhabited those lands, I grew increasingly angry. At the time, I did not know why.
I was not aware of Jung’s concept of Individuation. And even if I had known about it, I would not have understood it.
I spent a lot of time being angry, and almost as much time listening to The Sex Pistols, and I also spent a lot of time drinking, which helped, because when I drank a lot, it seemed to bring the universe back into focus. For a short while, I was the centre of everything again. The world did not pass me by; it moved with me as I travelled through it.
As happens with alcohol, I often fell. And gravity hurt me. Reality’s way of reminding me that even when I was the centre of everything, I was not untouchable. It would catch up with me, a tortoise plodding after the hare, and twenty four hours later I would feel the pain of my falls.
Eventually, I learnt my lessons, and as I became a little wiser, I found my way back to being a creator. To being the little God I had been during my formative years.
I began to write.
At first, the need to be creative manifested as poetry; grey, maudlin rhyme about how bleak and dull everything was. But slowly, little by little, colour began to creep back in. The poetry phase passed (mostly) and I began to create worlds again.
I had no toys to help me this time, because adults aren’t supposed to play with toys (unless they’re a certain kind of toy, but that’s a mental image for another day), so I did the next best thing; I wrote imaginary people in imaginary worlds. And as much as I wanted to make all those people Good, I knew that it couldn’t be so, for such a world would be a pale reflection of reality, and despite all the tragedy which stems from it, that subjective illusionary concept we call ‘evil’ is a bitter necessity. Without poverty, and greed, and murder, and war, and torture, and death, we would have no reason to strive to improve ourselves.
So I wrote these things into my worlds, loving and hating myself for being so honest and giving reality its due.
For a long time, I struggled to understand why I wrote stories. At first I thought it was because I was a Genius, but I soon outgrew my hubris. Then I thought that I wrote because of an overwhelming desire to entertain and amuse people. It could very well be partially true, but it wasn’t the entire reason. Finally, I settled on something that seemed more poetic. I wrote because I was driven to do so. Because I was cursed with an overactive imagination and a wicked creative streak, and if I didn’t write, I would go crazy. I dutifully wrote down the stories which fell into my head to keep myself sane.
For many years, that reason and logic sufficed. But I can remember the precise moment that I realised my folly. I can remember clearly the instant when I realised exactly why I write.
It was two day ago, as I was driving my newly-fixed car home from the garage.
It was warm, sunny and dry. A beautiful day (especially for here, in May).
I drove past a group of children on their way home from school. They were laughing, and joking, and enjoying the fine weather. And I realised, then, that each one of them was the centre of the universe. This world I was driving my car (which was as old as most of those children) through, was their world. They were making it, as I had once made it.
They were creating me.
This, I now realise, is why I write. Because my turn at creating the Earth is over. The task now falls to the next generation, to make of this world what they will.
But I can still create things. By writing, I am looking to take myself back. Back to that time when I made the world, and everything in it. Each time I pick up a pen, or open my computer’s word-processor, I am travelling further and further back into my own past. I am trying to cast off the false illusions of this world which have been forced on me, and become as I was in the instant I was conceived; a dream. An idea. Hope.
I am trying to make myself and the world in which I live, both tabula and rasa. I am trying to go back to the childhood that is inaccessible to me in every way except memory.
Sitting here, with my curtains closed, living in my own little pool of light, oblivious to the world which is being created around me, I am trying to go back to the time when, as the centre of the whole universe, I defied physics.