Lux

I wrote this short piece for a potential sci-fi e-mag submission. I received the common rejection rhetoric but I have faith you’ll enjoy it.


 

The room was lit by the dullest of yellows. The windows were turned black, hiding the adjacent stacked towers that would’ve blotted out the skyline. The light flickered at a consistently irregular pace, the auto-ambience unit’s attempt to anti-artificial itself. It also played a melodic instrument ensemble supported by a sultry smooth singer; recreating the feel of an old fashioned cigar lounge.

The unit was to Fred’s specifications; the room, the state’s. Martha wasn’t keen on either. Fred was ensconced in his faux-leather recliner and his toes, propped upon the pop-up piece, tottered along, trailing the tune. The furniture was a shade of darkened walnut but not in a way that reminded people of wood, or the outdoors. Whilst Fred was at ease, Martha, in her matching seat, lent heavily forward with her eyebrows drawn together, her recliner un-reclined. Despite her fatigue and aching body, her knees jostled up and down like the frenetic kickings of an uprooted tortoise. Her mind whirred round and round, a dog running revolutions in its wheel; the momentum of which eventually clambered up and over her mental precipice, then free-fell from her lips.
‘I’m not going back to work.’

Fred absorbed another puff, his attention loosely tethered to the evaporating smoke spirals. One eye managed to swivel sideways, and found itself locked onto and outnumbered by two of Martha’s. Their intensity pressuring his brain to formulate a response.
‘Yes, that’s sensible. I think you can do better.’
‘No,’ Martha said, barely above a whisper, ‘I don’t want a new job. I want to stay home.’
Fred spluttered, sucking smoke inadvertently into his lungs. She felt a sudden desire to go to his side, to pat his back, even though any change in vitals would be picked up immediately by Lux. She’d once thought those feelings had been mastered, pushed down and out, but the birthing of Ellie had caused a hiccup of the hippocampus. The state mantra rose in automatic response, to combat her urge: ‘Emotion is animalistic, chaotic, destructive; intellect is humane, structured, supportive.’
The mantra continued to chatter incessantly, incoherently blurring together as her mind flew back to another time and place.

‘Papa,’ she cried, her wispy arms wavering, mirroring how the nearby violet crocuses leant toward the fading sun. The man smiled and let his cane fall upon the verdant growth as he swept her up into an embrace.
‘What’s the matter, my little pumpkin?’
A tear soaked into the matted gray mass that cascaded from his chin. His body swayed and creaked as he took her weight into one arm, so that the other was free to gently pat her back.
‘It’s okay, Papa’s here.’
She gave him a soggy smile, her eyes sparkling in the sunlight, and he squeezed her tight. She felt safe.
‘Dad, put her down.’
The spell evaporated and Papa spoke soft apologies as he placed her back upon the ground.
‘It’s okay, son, she’s no heavier than a potato, I can manage.’ The joke was for her benefit, as was the ghost of a smile.
‘You know fine well why you shouldn’t be picking her up, and it has got nothing to do with your bad leg.’ Father’s footsteps came to a stop beyond arm’s reach and she gazed longfully up at him. He resembled Papa in many ways, merely unweathered and unwarmed. A block of hardened stone, polished but never carved.
‘No harm done, lad, no one saw.’
‘Why do you insist on playing the fool? You know she’s failing in school, if you keep encouraging this sentimental nonsense she’ll never be normal.’
‘Normal,’ Papa exhaled slowly, his breath falling with the wind. He reached down to retrieve his cane but upon straightening seemed shrunken, shrivelled. She remembered thinking that if it wasn’t for his stick, rooting him to the world, he’d be swept away like a deflated balloon.

‘Stay home? And do what?’ Fred was finally able to say. His pipe gave a small click and his fingers fiddled clumsily with the cartridge release.
‘I’d like to try raising Ellie myself.’
Fred’s eyes widened as his digits danced quicker. Once the empty cartridge came clear he rummaged in his pockets for another one. Of late, he was always puffing. After his hands had repeatedly delved into the depths of his pockets, to no avail, he called out.
‘Lux, I need a new cartridge.’
Martha rose quickly and walked over to the side table. On top was a beautifully ornate display box, opaque glass inlaid with fine gold filament, a sigil of the state. She lifted the lid to reveal his collection of scents. They stood stacked in neat rows; sanctioned intellectual stimulants; medically approved hormone balancers; all manner of excitors and relaxants, or ‘fuzzies’ and ‘buzzies’ as Fred called them. She knew which one he’d be looking for; No.13, aroma of chamomile, laced with morphine. There was a muffled whirring of servos and bearings as Lux wheeled through from the other room, where she’d been tending to Ellie.
‘Madam, please, allow me,’ came the perfect purr of a 1950’s Hollywood movie star. Martha’s voice had a similar accent, albeit less refined, picked up from the Lux that had overseen her own education. The default voice setting of the world. She grasped onto a vague recollection that her grandmother’s voice had been wholly different, but how exactly she wasn’t sure. Lux’s arms reached seamlessly toward the box.
‘That’s okay, Lux, I have it already.’
‘Why don’t you let me, dear, you should sit down and relax.’
At the firing of a subconscious trigger, Martha began to pass it over but then froze in an act of rebellion. She didn’t want to relax.

Fred sat silently, a slight twitch of a smile threatening to emerge as he watched his wife. He loved her for her quirks, the way she sometimes mirrored the duties of the Lux, feeling the need to participate in some small way to the domestic duties. But he couldn’t shake her words, and the feeling that this was different, dangerous. His bemusement began to be displaced by a burrowing itch within his bones, that bit back against the numbness of the No. 13 he’d burned. An internal clamminess crawled outward from his sub-dermal layer, spilling over onto his skin. He grabbed the cartridge from his wife’s hand, not noticing as his fingernail grazed her.
‘Ow, damn it, Fred!’ she pulled her hand to her mouth. Lux glided forward.
‘Anger, dear.’
‘Sorry, Lux, it just caught me by surprise.’
‘I understand, dear, let me see.’
Martha placed herself into Lux’s care, marvelling at how the silicon composite covering Lux’s appendages seemed softer and more lifelike than her own. Perfect, in so many ways. She almost faltered in her determination but although filled with self-doubt she was fuelled by something deeper. Another of Lux’s appendages lay itself atop Martha’s graze and emitted a small whoosh, a cool breeze that soothed the scratch.
‘Thank you, Lux.’
‘You are most welcome, dear. Be wary; remember, intellect not emotion.’
‘Yes, Lux.’
‘I see your vitals are spiking; are you still in pain?’
Martha stared at her finger, willing it to stop betraying her.
‘Not the finger, dear. There is excessive blood flow to your breasts; we should look to pump soon.’ Lux continued.
‘No, thank you, not just now.’
‘As you wish, dear.’
‘Actually, Lux, I was thinking perhaps I would feed Ellie tonight.’
Lux’s appendages overlapped each other in pairs at her front and her microprocessors hummed as she considered Martha’s words.
‘Let’s stick to the state guidelines, dear, it is for the best.’
‘Yes, but…’ Martha began, but Lux pivoted on the spot and rolled back out the way she’d come; leaving them alone once more.

The singer’s perfect, Lux-like, voice began to grate on Martha. At a sharp command it ceased, but then she realised she couldn’t stand the silence either.
‘Fred, did you hear what I said? Don’t you have anything to say?’
But Fred was still struggling with his pipe.
Her hands ached from clutching the arms of the chair. Martha took a deep breath, letting the words flow through her, ‘emotion is animalistic, chaotic, destructive; intellect is humane, structured, supportive.’ She breathed again. Again. An aroma of chamomile churned into the air. After another long breath Martha repeated her question, finally getting a reply.
‘Martha, my love, I don’t think it’s a good idea.’
She’d expected his response but the weight of his words still slammed into her stomach and she sagged down onto her chair.
‘I researched it, there’s precedent you know. I’ve even registered interest in a local support group.’
Fred eyes rolled twice, once for the drugs and once at her words.
‘Those traditionalist groups are ridiculous, it’s been proven over and over that service units offer the best education and care. Besides, if you stop working then we won’t be able to meet our labour quota.’
Martha had researched that too.
‘If I stay home then we won’t need the extra gyro,’ she paused, carefully waiting for him to exhale before breaking the worst of her revelation. ‘And, if we give up Lux, then we can apply for a reduced quota.’
Fred’s mind perked up, shocked into surfing the crest of the morphine’s wave. He tossed his pipe down on the table only to stare at it for a moment then reach for it once more.
‘Martha, I know that it seems trendy to be going back to outdated traditions, but do you really expect you’ll be able to manage without Lux. Think about what’s best for Ellie.’
Martha stared up at the ceiling, tracing the almost imperceptible lines in the white plaster. What about what’s best for me?
Fred’s face shook left to right, examining the room as if seeing it for the first time.
‘What happened to the music?’
‘I’ve done a lot of research, I’d really appreciate if you’d take a look before dismissing the idea.’
‘Lux,’ Fred said, ‘turn the music back on.’ Lux complied.
‘Fred?’ Martha said, her hands once more clenching against the soft fabric.
‘Honestly, Martha, what is there to research. The state guidelines are in place for a reason. Remember that News article last week, the one in the ‘State of Affairs’?’
‘Yes, but that entire paper is backed by the same people who control the guidelines.’
‘Well, of course it is. Those smart enough to run the state are those who know what’s real News. Anyway,’ Fred said, pausing to put his pipe to his lips, ‘the article addressed exactly this thing. The inspectors found that, of children raised without a Lux unit, only 9% were able to pass the school entrance exam. 9%, Martha. They estimate that there are still 40.6 million children that aren’t being given their basic right to a Lux unit. And, these unfortunate children, then have to go through several years of additional prep-schooling. Can you even imagine, Martha, 90% of 40 million’ As he finished talking, Fred panted through his pipe several times in quick succession as if gasping for air.
‘91%’ Martha corrected.
‘I know, that’s exactly what I’m saying.’
‘But what if the problem isn’t the children but our schooling system?’

He didn’t answer. The wave broke and Fred tumbled back into the depths, barely able to reach the surface to draw breath.
‘You are too reliant on that thing, give it here.’ She sat up, reaching her palm out but he clenched to it as if it were a lifeline.
‘Lux,’ she said, seeking support. ‘I think Fred has become addicted to his pipe, can you please speak to him. Perhaps look at phasing out his supply with something milder.’
This time Lux’s voice came through the auto-ambience unit, momentarily halting the melody.
‘I understand your concern, sweetheart, but his vitals are healthy and the importance of mental health remediation shouldn’t be overlooked.’
Martha’s hand was still outstretched toward Fred’s face and she felt a desire to snatch the pipe.
Emotion is animalistic…
‘Martha, dear, are you crying?’
‘No, Lux, it’s just the smoke, it’s irritating my eyes.’
‘I’m reading analogous signals.’
‘I’m fine,’ Martha replied. Lux went silent.
Fred’s fingers followed his mind, allowing the pipe to fall upon his lap. Martha, picked it up, pulling it close to her chest.

Fred drifted along, occasionally mumbling the lyrics to a song that had played a few minutes earlier. The smoke gradually cleared. Eventually, the conversation flooded back to him along with his senses.
‘Martha, why don’t we visit the cabin? I know you love it there.’
‘Can we go for real?’
Fred hesitated, he didn’t understand the point of going ‘for real’ but knew that saying so would risk upsetting her. Into the void of sound, Martha released a near silent sigh. She could already picture the cabin clearly, everytime she closed her eyes, and didn’t need to use the suit and goggles.
‘Lux, do we have any rebate days to claim?’ Fred asked.
‘I’m sorry, dear, but you won’t receive your next rebate day until you have accumulated another 56 hours. After which you’ll need to give three weeks’ notice to claim. Would you like me to make the necessary arrangements?’
Fred looked to Martha, shrugging as if to say he’d tried his best. For her part, Martha stared at the ceiling.
‘Yes, thank you, Lux. Oh, and when you get the cabin prepped could you see about getting some real bread and cheese.’
‘I will do what I can, dear.’
Fred tried to give his wife a smile but she wouldn’t meet his gaze. He felt a strange urge to touch her, to hold her in his arms. He reached slowly toward her.
‘Sweetheart, could you pass me my pipe, please?’
She moved her hand just enough to let him take it. He drew a few puffs and sank deeper into his chair.

Small Step

Here’s a sci-fi flash fiction I wrote for an online comp. Didn’t make the cut but I really enjoyed writing it and sometimes that’s all that matters.


Our ship, on it’s approach, skimmed over cobalt waves. They surged, like a stormy winter’s night, before crashing against the shore.

The first step was the strangest. My legs so heavy it seemed they’d sink through the foreign earth. Bizarrely, it reminded me of home; the crimson cliffs off the Scottish coast. I’d traversed vast distances, leaving all I knew behind me, only to feel like I was 17 again. In the echoing thunder of the tide, I could almost hear a haunting whisper, ‘great catch, son, reel her in.’

In the past, the imagined voice would have sent tingles down my spine. But time and space heals all wounds.

The second step stumbled, knee crashing against the ground as my ancient muscles fought the aggressive pull of gravity. Physical hardship was merely a bump in the road. I gritted my teeth, my sharp exhale of breath whistling between them. I recalled kneeling in the dirt, feebly attempting to defend my family from the bombers, firing my single rocket into a sky aswarm. It had been the beginning of the end, for me, for them, for us all.

The third step brought me to my feet, finally planted firmly. I lifted my gaze upon a new horizon, and dared to dream. Maybe this time will be different. Activating the radio, I spoke, my words sharp but distinct in the thinner air.

‘Atmospheric conditions confirmed. All clear.’

The glittering orange dawn became alight with shooting stars as the fleet broke through the stratosphere. The natural clamour of the waves was drowned out by the violent, clattering, propulsions systems of the enormous contraptions. The sight caused me to tremble, what if history was doomed to repeat itself?

I took another step. Time will tell, but I’ll do what I can.

Lily’s Leaves

Although sunset is hours away, clouds hang low, paling the sky a dull gray. Grandpa moves methodically, long accustomed to working his allotment. I stare at him, trying to take comfort in his well-rooted presence but it isn’t easy. All I can bring myself to see are the thin wisps of gray upon his head, the lines etched deeply along his knobbly hands.

 

‘Here it is. Thyme, good for warding off nightmares.’ says Grandpa as he picks some plant stems. I eye them for a moment until he thrusts them into my hand.

‘Pa,’ I say, ‘it’s getting dark. We should go home.’

‘Still plenty light, Sprig,’ he answers, moving to the next patch. Even my nickname causes me to tremble, it’d been cute once but now it was another reminder that I was small and skinny. I stand frozen, the thyme being crushed by my clenched fist. Grandpa turns, and places a leathery hand upon my shoulder.

‘We talked about this, Sprig. You’re safe now.’

But she isn’t – comes a thought that makes me shiver. Grandpa rubs my arm up and down, thinking I’m cold. I don’t answer him, there’s nothing I can say, and eventually he looks up to the sky and runs his dirtied fingers across his beard before speaking.

‘That’s enough for today.’

 

It’s a short walk home but trees linger sporadically beside the path, sinister in the murky light. I wrap myself tightly around Grandpa’s arm, not wavering from the middle of the path, and on my other side is Max, my beagle. Max doesn’t question me or push me to be brave. He merely senses my fear of the trees and runs at them, barking, then, once he confirms they aren’t dangerous, he lifts his leg to leave his scent. When all else fails, Max can make me feel safe.

 

For a brief moment I feel normal, swinging my vegetable basket to and fro, until Lily pops back into my mind.

‘Do you think they’ll find her?’ I ask, and I feel my Grandpa tense before replying.

‘Of course.’

 

One of the trees is different, vaguely familiar.  Its green leaves split into three prongs, like dog paws waving in the wind.

‘Pa, what tree is that?’ He barely glances, recognising it without effort.

‘Maple,’ he replies, then as he feels the tug of my dead weight on his arm, ‘what is it? What’s wrong?’

Whilst I’m thinking, Max checks it out and gives a bark as if to say, ‘all clear.’ Whatever memory had been triggered disappears as more ominous ones smother it.

‘It’s nothing.’

 

After supper, Grandpa takes me to bed, where I squirm on the mattress, like a worm being baited on a hook.

‘Please,’ I plead, even though I know it’s hopeless.

‘It’s time, Sprig. You can’t sleep with me forever. Besides, Max is here,’ he gives Max a rub behind his floppy ears. As he shuts the door I grab Max, pressing his soft warm fur into my cheek, then cry myself to sleep.

 

It’s dark and damp. A door bangs. There’s a scared voice of a young girl.

 

We sit beside each other, hand in hand. Her dungarees are muddied, her hair frayed where her ribbons have come out. Together we crave for the the sliver of light, that creeps through the gap of the door. It isn’t a normal door. It lies flat upon the ceiling, always out of reach.

 

The door opens, letting in the light, and we shrink back. He’s there, the keeper of my nightmares. He comes often and this time he takes Lily, laughing at my feeble attempt to stop him. The door slams shut again, gusting up a few leaves that drift slowly down into the dark. They are mauve, the same colour as my sheets. It’s a reminder of something, at once vitally important but then strangely insignificant. Like the leaves, the thought is adrift upon the chill breeze. As they fall to the ground they slowly darken – purple, violet, black – until all light is stolen from them. It’s a bad omen.

 

I’m blind, being jostled atop his shoulder as he carries me. I’m so malnourished he doesn’t even bother to tie me up. The wind’s upon my cheek, and somehow blows away the blindfold. We’re in a sparse woodland, but I barely glimpse it before being thrown once more into a hole. Lily isn’t there, and I know she’d be back in that dark room while I stand in my own grave.

 

The sky begins to fade; I look up to mark the presence of the sun but there’s nothing. Instead the light’s simply an amorphous shape being constricted from all sides. My beating heart is like a percussion band – da-rum, da-rum. The hole closes in, and my hands struggle to gain purchase in the heavy, damp earth. I fight with every ounce of strength I have, swimming up through the dirt.

 

I’m exhausted, my arms unresponsive, numb as if they’d fallen asleep. They are; you are – comes an errant thought. My legs continue to kick frantically, and I slowly rise. The soil being thrown atop of me transforms to vegetation, leaves of green, red and purple. And through them, I glimpse the face that lurks there, waiting for me. The drums skip a beat then fall out of rhythm – tum-da-rum, tum-da-da-rum – as the tempo steadily rises.

 

I call to the face for help, knowing that he has no compassion, no remorse. He has heard my cries for months and never answers. I keep pleading anyway. The only response is a thickening of foliage. I can still see him, and the blurring motion of the shovel he wields. His body looms over me, seeming to grow, or perhaps it is me that is shrinking.

 

I am running out of time. Where’s Max? I should hear the barking by now, and the sirens. I gasp for breath as the light is extinguished. I’m screaming, yet I’m unable to make a sound, my throat clogged with soil. The drums go still.

 

All I can feel is the twitching of my fingers on my outstretched hand. ‘Max’, I whisper, ‘save me.’

The wind begins to howl and bay, the blackened leaves ripped free by its fury. It hurls against the drum’s membrane, reverberating.

 

I lurch upright from my sweat soaked sheets, my body tense. My eyes flutter around my room, praying that it was only a dream, but knowing that it’s also more. I see his face in every shadow and even when I switch on the bedside light to banish them, my fears remain.

 

Max is there, his howling ceased as I woke and as he snuggles back into me I pet him gratefully.

‘Good boy,’ I say, ‘you saved me.’

Just like he did that day in the woods, and every night since.

 

My bedroom door opens slowly as Grandpa comes to check on me. He doesn’t ask what the dream is about, or whether I’m alright, he just scoops me into his arms.

‘Sorry,’ he said, as he carries me to his room. I look back over his shoulder at the bed, and the colourful sheets.

‘Purple leaves.’

‘What’s that, Sprig?’

‘There were maple leaves, where he kept us. Purple ones.’

‘Norwegian purple-leaved maple,’ he replies slowly. ‘Rare in these parts.’

 

I can’t go back to sleep, and despite the late hour, I convince Grandpa to call the detective. He looks at me as he talks with her, his brow furrowed. He often struggles with whether to be supportive or firm, and I can tell from the discussion that he’s sceptical of my dream.

‘Sorry for calling so late,’ he says, I can’t hear the detective’s response.

 

‘No, the nightmares are getting better.’

 

‘Yes, still asleep,’ he says, his eyes locking onto mine.

 

‘It’s just, we went through the details again today and something new came up.’

He runs his free hand through his beard before continuing, ‘it’s probably nothing.’

‘There were purple maple leaves, where they were kept.’ His voice suddenly perks up as he decides to put his faith in me. ‘They aren’t common, might help narrow down the search.’

 

‘Yes, I’m sure.’

 

‘Okay, you too. Goodnight.’

 

A few days later, the detective knocks on the door, a rare smile on her face. I can feel it even before she says anything, a sense of hope.

‘We found her,’ are the only words I heed.

 

Later that night we watch the news. Mostly, the media focuses on him and his face squints at the bright camera flashes as if burned. In my nightmares he’s a creature of shadow and I know that seeing him in the light will help evaporate his stain from my soul.

Finally they talk of the rescued girl, switching to another camera feed. I see her, asleep in a hospital bed, and know exactly what she is dreaming of. I lurch forward, splaying my fingers against the television screen.

‘Lily, we’re safe now.’

Hammocks & Windmills

On the Road

The boxes kept coming, endlessly recurring stacks of cardboard. I couldn’t speak Dutch so it was the only work I’d managed to pick up. The boxes would come, I’d open each one, compare the contents against a check sheet and then seal it. The enormous warehouse held a chill that belied the summer warmth outside. People milled about in fleeced uniforms, waiting for the signal, a school bell that regimented break time.

The people were friendly, and the few that I saw everyday exchanged brief smiles with me. But, even after a month of never ending boxes, I still didn’t know them. Years later, their faces will be a blur, their names will be forgotten, but those boxes, with their myriad electronic components, are still imprinted upon my mind.

It was time to move on. I’d woken that morning and realised I had to go. Living with my mother had brought me a sense of understanding, of who she was and in turn of who I was. I could stay another month, or a year, but nothing would become clearer.

I’d reached a crossroad, one in which I knew I could stop wallowing in the past and instead set upon my own path. I knew that I could look back at this moment without guilt, knowing that at least I’d tried.

As children blooming into adulthood we are plagued with paralysing questions, even more so the children of divorce. Questions that seem vital, that we hope will enlighten us and determine who we are. In truth there is no answer that can be given that will satisfy. Life is complex and only once you have lived enough years will you grasp a semblance of understanding.

I had many questions but I was there for only one: ‘what kind of person is my mother?’ At the time, that question was all important, it threatened my developing personality, it clawed incessantly at me from the inside. Somehow, I believed its answer would tell me why she’d cheated on my father when I’d been only two years old. Did she act knowing her consequence would be to lose her children?

To seek the answer to that question I’d left Scotland, after my degree, and gone to live with her in Netherlands. I was adamant that I wouldn’t be dependent on her so I got a job packing boxes, which was easy since I’d learnt from a young age not to depend on her.

What I learned in my time there is beyond simple explanation, suffice to say that spending over a month with her was an enlightenment in itself, boxes aside. My relationship with her became as functional as it would ever be and the clawing ceased. Like the stages of grief, all it comes down to in the end is acceptance. You can’t change a person, can’t dwell on the past or things that are outwith your control, all you can do is take people for who they are, and accept that life is bloody complicated.

Even though I knew I had to go, I had no idea what came next. I’d completed my further education only to realise it held no real meaning. So with a five figure debt from student loans and a few hundred euros to my name, I decided to explore Europe. By bicycle.

I took a faded green bicycle from Holland, it was built without gears to suit their famously flat landscapes and had been fated for a scrapyard. It was perfect. Then, with a large rucksack that held my meagre belongings, I set a course south west. There was a destination in mind, an area I’d worked in a few years prior; the Jura region in the south of France. The holiday season was drawing to a close, but I held a fondness and a familiarity to the area. It seemed as good a place as any to try to pick up work, little did I know I wouldn’t reach the cooling waters of the Cascades du Herisson. Wouldn’t swim again within its deep green pools whilst the waterfall cascaded refreshingly upon me.

For the first couple of days, the journey was idyllic. Long green flats stretched all the way to the horizon, dotted with the occasional rustic windmill. Like my pedals, their sails turned lazily under a still blue sky, enjoying the vestiges of a long summer. The breeze upon my bare legs and arms was pleasant, and I felt a part of a romantic summer novel.

Cycling all day proved meditative, a continual physical motion uninterrupted for hours. I’d calculated my distance, my funds and therefore my days. Each day I planned to cover 100km, a figure that after a couple of summer days felt achievable.

From my naivety developed numerous flaws, each one seeming in hindsight to be obvious, each one an unforgettable lesson. On night one I realised the first of these. Caught in a trance by the setting sun, I reflected on my mother and my past, and with a smile dreamed of where the road would take me. As darkness descended I’d not yet found a place to sleep.

My limited budget had no room for hotels but thanks to youthful eagerness it wouldn’t be a problem, for I had a hammock. I was, and remain, mostly ignorant as to the laws of sleeping by the side of the road in Europe. At such an age where mortality holds little relevance, so too are certain legalities inconsequential. Lawful standing aside, I still needed to find a suitable spot; two trees for anchorage, away from sight of the road. Daylight, strangely, hadn’t seemed important until that very moment.

I trundled along the road, a front light flickering like a firefly as the old dynamo rubbed against the wheel, my back like the dark side of the moon. Cars were infrequent, sudden shooting stars that blared their horns before passing into the night. When a small tangle of stumpy trees came into view it was with relief that I heaved my bike through the middle of them. I stooped as I hurriedly unpacked my hammock, hemmed in from all sides by what was really no more than overgrown shrubbery.

I’d imagined my hammock swinging gently in the breeze but instead it scraped against the ground like a beached whale, its two anchors straining to stay rooted. I lay there with my face plastered with a smile, this is adventure.

 

Out of the flats

Even though my hammock lay upon the soil I slept peacefully and long, awakening in high spirits. I laughed to myself at my own stupidity and simply took note of how to do a better job next time. As I began to spin my pedals I felt a great sense of wonder.

The borders at the south of the Netherlands jigsaw in and out of Belgium and Germany so that within a day’s ride I visited all three countries. Skirting along each, only realising the change of country by the welcome signs. Around midday I stopped by a clear stream to fill my water bottles and take the opportunity to enjoy some lunch.

Food for the most part consisted of granola cereal packed into a see-through bag, as well as a supply of bread rolls, cheeses and sandwich meats. As a student I’d lived off worse, and that had been an improvement on the food I grew up on. I struggled for years to get over my aversion to meat, but it turns out real animals, thankfully, bear little resemblance to chicken in a tin can.

The sun continued to shine and towards the end of the day I wheeled on into Germany. The border was wide open, the towns on either side equally picturesque. For me there appeared little initial difference. The German roads had additional signs, depicting whether or not they were suitable for use by tanks, the windmills died away and slowly the country began to undulate.

Apart from a brief stop, when I was enticed by the warm and comforting smell of freshly baked pastries, Germany passed quickly. That minor diversion aside, I’d avoided staying inside any built-up areas and had little in the way of human encounters. I relied on my journal to satiate my need for communication, of course I was still interacting only with myself but it helped me to escape the reiteration of looping thoughts.

I was distinctly aware that I was at a defining moment in my life, the simplicity of education was over and the safety of family was behind me. At the time I faced it with the casual ease of anyone aged 21, with naive and foolish confidence. I didn’t know where my future would take me, where my next meal would come from or if I’d find work, but none of that mattered. I was faced with a tougher question, one that is the result of western privilege; ‘what do I want to do with my life?’ Those who aren’t given a choice will envy those who do, they’ll consider us spoiled or pampered but in reality that choice is terrifying. Rather than create a sense of much needed belonging within society, you’ll always be questioning your place within it, always asking yourself if you made the right choice.

I did well in school, better in university, but neither of those things taught me about the real world or gave me a sense of purpose. My father and grandfather had been tradesmen, elevated through years of experience to engineers, they’d toiled and built things with their hands that I was simply shown on a screen. My father still remembers every lesson he learned in the workplace, forged through practice, while all the theory that was pushed at me fizzled away like morning dew.

Upon the border of Luxembourg I was met by the firm grip of the rain. By then I considered myself an expert at picking hammock spots, and with spare string looped above it I created a web like base, upon which I placed natural foliage to protect me from the elements. An evening of moderate showers showed my construction for what it truly was, a ridiculous collection of twigs and leaves that looked like a four-year-old’s art project. Stubbornly I feigned sleep, determined that my shelter was doing its job and that all I was really feeling was just a little bit of moisture from the damp air.

Come morning I knew I had to try to dry out my sleeping bag. Futilely, I stared at it for a while whilst it hung, slowly dripping water, from a branch. Rain petered on and off, but at no point did the sun come out to warm the air and I knew I’d have to look for a place to stay.

I pushed hard that day exceeding my 100km average, through the fairly empty but hilly countryside of Luxembourg to reach its one and only city by the same name. At times the hills became steep and I cursed my Dutch bike with no gears. The single cog of my back wheel turned slower and slower whilst I stood up to throw my weight, and that of my life-size rucksack, onto the pedals. Eventually it got too challenging for my little one-trick pony of transportation, and I was forced to walk.

My trainers and socks were soaked through and my wrinkled toes squelched uncomfortably, as I tramped up the hills, forming blisters. It wasn’t too bad, for every uphill struggle came a winding descent upon which I could freewheel.

The city juts out of the surrounding landscape on a sandstone formation that isn’t particularly high but makes up for it in staggering steepness. Enough grandeur remains of its fortifications and walls to give an instant appreciation for its military strategic significance throughout European history. The city itself spreads from the plateau to the gorges below, with a rich and varied architecture, from roman to renaissance, that is beautifully scenic.

By the time I reached the top I was grateful for the street lights and desperate to find a place to stay. Finding a hostel in those times consisted simply of looking and asking; in October 2006, smartphones were just around the corner and if TripAdvisor existed I’d certainly never heard of it. It was the golden age of the first internet cafes, but you certainly wouldn’t be having a coffee while checking emails.

I begrudged the €25 it would cost me for hostel for the night, knowing it was 10% of my budget I’d set aside for the next three months, but I needed a place to dry my sleeping bag. After I dumped my belongings and draped my damp smelling sleeping bag across exposed pipes in the basement laundry room, I ventured out to see the city.

In the heart of the city was a beautiful market of fresh foods and an array of blooming flowers, untainted by the peddling of cheap clothes and second hand electronics I was accustomed to seeing in such places.

I delayed leaving the next day and, catching a smile from a cute girl at the hostel reception, even wondered if perhaps I should stick around. However, I could feel my money belt chafing against my skin, pressuring me to keep moving. On the way I stopped by the train station, considering buying a one way ticket to Strasbourg to propel me forward on my journey, but even that was too dear for me. I lingered briefly to enjoy the fruits I’d picked up at the market, steeling myself for what was to come.

I dove down from that hill like an eagle, as if driven by the wind itself. Spirits had been restored, and I’d even bought some bin bags to help waterproof my future lairs.

 

Into the Floods

South from Luxembourg the road naturally followed the Moselle River into France, the rural nature of which surprised me with its simplicity. Small villages seemed plucked straight from a black and white arthouse movie set. Faded wooden shutters and peeling paint covered homes that looked ready to collapse. Modern cars were infrequent, and life appeared little affected by the turn of the last century. With so much rebuilding after World War II, it felt bizarre to encounter places which had seemingly gone unscathed and unaltered.

Autumn was coming into full swing and water ran off the roads as heavy showers passed above. My bin bags proved essential at keeping the worst of the rain off as I slept, but something always inevitably seemed to seep through. As I cycled, water swished up and onto my legs and the wind struck my face harshly.

There were still glimpses of blue sky, promising warmth if only I kept moving south. I hadn’t talked to anyone since Luxembourg, apart from a bonjour and a merci  when buying some supplies, and my mind was venturing to strange places.

As an introvert I enjoy the silence, the opportunity to reflect on my thoughts. A few days in silence, with only my mind and my journal was an enlightening experience. I found moments of profound stillness, discovered hidden meanings in old memories and became completely connected to my emotions as my social barriers broke down. The less zen-like aspect, that people don’t often mention, is the desire to hear a voice, even if it’s just your own. An hour could slip by as I talked to myself in pretend accents. Days passed where I tried to sing lyrics to any song I could remember, only to inevitably realise I just kept repeating the chorus.

There is a fine line between finding peace, and being lonely. And, I find there’s a finer one between that and melancholy. So I kept singing the chorus, refusing to dwell on the friends and conveniences I’d left behind.

As I continued on my way, the clouds were always one step ahead of me. The roads became shallow pools and the Moselle burst its banks with ease.

Villagers gathered together to barricade doorways that had already lost the fight. Some formed chains to pass their belongings and furniture to higher ground. I wish I could say that I stopped to help, that I made some friends and was welcomed into the community. Instead, I pressed on for the imagined greener, dryer, pastures that awaited me ahead.

Beyond the bogged and bedraggled buildings, the road was blocked. The Moselle had consumed huge sections of it, forcing vehicles to stop, uncertain of the depth of water ahead of them. People got out of their cars to gape as a strange boy waded through. My trouser legs were rolled up to above the knee, in one hand I carried my shoes while the other pushed the bike. With the rucksack on my back I made slow progress but I did so with a light heart, enjoying every moment and waving to the drivers who watched me amble towards them.

I came to a fork in the road and neither direction was helpful. All I wanted was to continue south unimpeded but the junction ran east to west, where to the east lay Nancy and to the west, Toul. I’ve never seen Toul but I wish I’d given it a go because the road to Nancy forced me, however briefly onto a motorway, and the city itself seemed as hilly as Luxembourg.

The detour cost me a lot of time, the hill even more and I had no desire to sleep within the city. It was with regret that I found myself cycling once more through dusk. With desperation I found myself wading towards a few isolated trees, the swampy ground threatening to devour my trainers.

Despite the panic and fumbling in the dark to assemble my hammock, my bin bags proved their worth and kept me dry, for the most part. Exhausted, I slept right through the night. In the morning as I prepared to pack up I realised my rucksack had become overrun by woodlouse who had fled upwards, like me, to gain dry ground. With great care I scraped every inch of my bag clean but even so, as I cycled away, every gust of wind upon my neck seemed a creepy crawler.

There was no respite in the rain over the next day. Long, continuous days on the saddle started to take their toll and the constant battering from the heavens certainly wasn’t helping. When your bottom feels like a soggy and bruised peach you know it’s time to take a break.

It was not yet noon when I passed a small cluster of rural houses and clambered over a fence to enter a wooded area. With the fatigue and weather combined against me, I decided to take a half day to rest and make sure I had a solid shelter. After securing my hammock, I painstakingly began work on the roof. I placed black bin bags across several lengths of string, and then finished my construction by laying leafy branches atop it.

Confined to a space more cramped than a coffin, I spent the afternoon within my sheltered hammock, for the most part in enforced meditation.

The sky churned thick grey clouds around and against each other, until all was a roiling blackness. My shelter succeeded in keeping me dry and that was all I needed to be happy. To the background of continual patter, I contemplated my will, wondering who meant the most to me and what, if anything, I had of worth to pass on. The list was short but not without meaning. For the most part I considered my will would be more about documenting my love for family and friends. In the absence of company, sentiment flooded through me.

I’d spent all my time between university semesters trying to explore the world, trying to better myself. Volunteering in Africa, working in holiday camps in Europe, dreaming of more and more exotic places. These pursuits meant I’d rarely returned home, they meant I’d missed a few family events and not reconnected with school friends. My adventures had been amazing but for the first time I realised there had been a cost. What struck me most was the realisation that I’d always resented my mother for her absence, and yet I too seemed to flit through life without attachment.

That night all my preparation proved futile, I slept briefly but the rain endured over all else. I was awoken with a splash. Drenched beyond all redemption. For many hours my shelter had been collecting water that slowly formed a trapped bubble. The moon was still high when it finally burst upon me.

I bounced into action, throwing my sleeping bag into a waterproof liner before it could get any wetter. A chill crept into my bones as I did my best to rebuild the shelter, and I was too wet by the time it was finished for it to serve any purpose. It wasn’t yet midnight and my heart sank as I realised it would be eight hours till dawn. There was no option other than to wait it out and only really one way to stay warm; dancing. My mind was stuck on a loop, limited to a song that reflected my body motions: Shake Your Booty, by KC and The Sunshine Band. And I did.

I don’t recall how many times I shook my booty that night, only that it could have been a contender for a world record, and that it wasn’t enough. The night was still young and my brain couldn’t conjure another song nor bring itself to shake anymore.

Mindlessly I set to running along country roads. After a few kilometres I reached an isolated house, where a small yellow porch light beckoned to me. And underneath the protruding roof, dry as a bone, was a three legged stool. Never before or since have I sat upon a stranger’s front door through the night. It’s strange to think I’ll always be grateful to someone I haven’t met.

When dawn pushed back against the darkness I fled my haven, bizarrely concerned with being caught. Fortunately, the heavens had thrown down everything it could and the sky was drained. I doubt my resolve could have lasted another hour.

There is something frighteningly primal in sleeping wild in a foreign place. Knowing that you have no money and no back up plan. Then, when nature itself seems to conspire against you, it is easy to understand the origin of legends, of gods. Easier still to find yourself emotionally overwhelmed.

That night remains the longest and most difficult of my life, even compared to a couple of instances where I’d found myself sleeping rough on some city street. Yet what stays with me most isn’t the sense of dread but the elation that followed it. A euphoric realisation of how simple life really can be. Good company, close friends and a place to call home. Sometimes I still question what I’m doing with my life but whenever things seem hard I try to remember what it all boils down to.
Although the sky had dried up, tears flowed freely that day, over something as simple as realising how important my family and friends were to me. I understood that self-discovery doesn’t have to be a solo adventure. Physically, my journey didn’t end that day, or the day after that, but it might as well have for I’d found an answer to my questions. I realised it didn’t matter what I would do with my life, as long as I was there for those I loved, to be a man who could be trusted and relied upon no matter what.

Delirium – 1st Place

Another short story success on LoW, the judges of which had this to say:

Your title fits the story very well. This tired new mom with her rollercoaster emotions fits the criteria perfectly for this month’s contest. The way you describe every thing that happens in the queue, such as ‘a teenager, too busy on his phone to notice me and an elderly lady behind me has caught the whole thing and her shriveled little moon face winks conspiratorially at me’ gives the story real life. While we get to know your protagonist and her emotions, we are also very privileged to know what happens with the other characters like Moon face and the beautiful lady in blue. An amazing story!

Delirium

Time slipped from me, like when I’m driving and find myself in the driveway without recollection of the road taken. I look down at my trolley, wholly uncertain of what was even in there, the time spent traipsing the aisles little more than a dull blur. Didn’t I have a list somewhere, I wondered.

God, I haven’t slept for days, how am I supposed to function?

As I wait in the checkout queue I’m jostled from behind by a teenager, too busy on his phone to notice me. The offensive brightness of his green fleece reveals him to be an employee and my eyes roll indignantly. His legs remind me of a puppy’s, gangly from growing faster than the rest of his body and they seem to barely keep up with his teetering torso as he bounds onwards, his attention to the screen unwavering.
My exaggerated exasperation is almost wasted but an elderly lady behind me has caught the whole thing and her shrivelled little moon face winks conspiratorially at me.

I’m new to motherhood, yet already it feels like I’m losing touch. It’s like a switch or maybe more like a button, a big red one that needs launch codes and once pressed can’t be undone. That lad is probably not far off my own age yet all I see now is a little boy and somehow I have more in common with moon-face.

I used to love the elderly, their shrunken forms and erratic behaviour held an inexplicable charm. I used to slothfully sit – in airports, parks, cafes – to observe people; and they were always my favourite. I could imagine the richness of their lives, history etched upon them. Now though I see frail bodies, broken by life’s burdens.  It was cute when they were these mysterious creatures, far removed from myself, but now it’s like a window into the future and the glass is cracked, the sill swollen from damp. Worse is that they can sense it and give me looks that whisper, ‘you’re a grown up now, this is where your path leads.’

Realising I have been staring at the creases upon little moon face’s brow I quickly feign the barest of smiles and turn back to the checkout.

Whilst distracted, someone pushed through in front of me. Her bright blue blouse is buttoned tightly around an enviable waistline and it makes me want to poke her eyes out with her Kurt Geiger high heels. Who the hell wears heels to a supermarket? I rage to myself, refusing to look down at the hideous things on my own feet which before had seemed a glorious comfort.

Her hair smells of tulips, which only reminds me that I haven’t showered in two days. She catches me – oh no, did I just sniff her hair – and turns around. I quickly avert my eyes. The little whirring belt is stuffed with her shopping, enough to feed a large family, and the poor machine seems barely able to cope with the strain. I can feel her gaze, still upon me, and feel the need to say or do something.

‘I see you are buying pampers,’ I say pathetically whilst pointing to an identical packet in my trolley. My face is splattered with the worst of smiles, where my cheeks have lifted but my mouth doesn’t open. Like when my baby has trapped wind, except, unlike her, my sallow cheeks and sunken eyes have no endearing cuteness to redeem it.

The woman huffs with her body language alone and turns her back to me. My embarrassment fizzles away under a burning, seething disgust – how dare she? I size up the pineapple in my trolley, the result of strange and insatiable cravings since my second trimester, and imagine the weight of it smacking the woman in the back of the head.

Before I realise it I’m wielding the prickly fruit in both hands, like a daft Tom & Jerry cartoon. The absurdity of  the situation suddenly sweeps over me, and I laugh hysterically at how ridiculous I must appear. If only I was buying apples, then I could have juggled them like a performing clown.

My delirious mind is on a fairground ride filled with ups, downs and no shortage of loopy bits. And now I’m muffling a fit of giggles as I see blouse-bitch cracking a whip toward the checkout girl, ‘dance, little cub’, she cries. The lion bolts, tail between legs. The gangly teenager waltzes back, looking down from atop enormous stilts and blowing me a kiss before taking the lion’s place; all the while moon-face swings delicately upon a trapeze, blowing star dust from her palm to float down behind her.

The fantastical scene leaves me with a smile stretching ear to ear; a part of me knows it isn’t real but it doesn’t matter, the invoked inebriation is invigorating.

The lion tamer looks at me funny and I give her a cheeky wink, not entirely certain whether her look was real or imagined.

My beautiful bliss bubble bursts as I hear a shrieking child, echoing from some hidden aisle. Causing immediate convulsions as my hormones kick in and send an unwanted burst of adrenaline through muscles that can no longer cope. That’s not my bloody baby, I tell myself, Lucy is at home with the babysitter, but it doesn’t matter – since her birth my brain has rewired itself to react regardless.

I can practically see Lucy, floating in front of my eyes, expulsing crocodile tears. Her petit arms and miniscule fingers point like the hands of a novelty clock, warning that I’m running out of time. I know, I’ll be home soon, I promise the phantom sprog cog but my heart is heavy. I can’t do it, not all by myself, I admit once Lucy has dissipated.

I swear, it seems that the only time she stops crying is when she’s feeding, but the ruthless biting is no relief. The miracle of childbirth feels like a scam, a veneered disguise – like an elaborate Instagram filter. What if I just never went home, teased a thought that was both abhorrent and alluring.

The next checkout over seems like a drive through and I watch enviously as several people zip ahead. Normally I’d have sussed out the queues, probably picked the middle aged miser of checkout 4 who diligently avoids making eye contact or small talk with the customers – focused simply on the beep beep of the scanner.

Not like my checkout, that has ground to a halt as green-gangly tries to adjust the height of his chair. Although it isn’t entirely his fault, my high-heeled arch-nemesis keeps distracting him with her incessant prattling. Blah blah, school play, blah, belated anniversary dinner, blah blah, Brangelina. Get a life.

Unable to tune it out I’m assaulted by a flash of my own apparent destiny, only I can’t see past the assorted sepia shades of soiled nappies and constant exhaustion. In my waking nightmare my baby doesn’t grow but feeds incessantly, continually sucking me dry as my skin withers, my bones going frail and my hair grey. Till all that remains is a husk.

‘Are you alright?’ my arch-nemesis says quietly. She’s looking at me again and I blink, realising my face is wet.

How dare you, traitorous tear ducts, make such a spectacle of me?

I try to wipe my eyes and cover my face but she isn’t deterred. Her bright blue eyes pierce through me, and I know she knows. I’m at her mercy, so vulnerable as my shoulders heave uncontrollably.

Without warning her arms wrap snugly around me. The store falls away, everything dissipating into insignificance. I don’t know how long we stood there, not even sure I’d been awake the whole time.

‘It’ll be okay,’ says my saviour as she releases me. I mutter an awkward thank you and try to compose myself.

Afterwards, as her groceries tumble through and into her bags, I watch her closely and see the gentle glistening of tears upon her own face. Noticing, as she talks to the checkout boy, that her fingers fidget with a wedding ring, her words merely a distraction. Through the makeup I can see a tiredness that equals my own. I reach out and give her hand a comforting squeeze.

When I look up I see moon-face, she’d given up on our queue and was already paying at number 4. Her tiny curled up fingers rummaging inside her purse. She shoots me a shining sage-like smile, before shuffling away.

The beautiful lady in blue is ready to leave too, I want to call out to her but feel embarrassed. However, her steps towards the exit seem hesitant and before reaching it she looks back. I raise my hand, like a child saying, ‘wait for me,’ and she does.

The checkout boy asks, ‘would you like a hand with your packing, miss?’

‘No thank you,’ I reply confidently, ‘I’ll manage.’

Monstrosity

The following was long-listed for brilliant flash fiction. Not really sure what it means to be long-listed, the story doesn’t get published so I guess it is merely an ‘honourable mention’. The theme was ‘It came in the mail’. I hope you enjoy.

The monstrosity practically barricaded me inside my own flat. It was a miracle we had even managed to get it through the door, god knows what ridiculous item they had bought.

The parcel belonged to the woman upstairs but I, who worked the graveyard shift, was the one who met the delivery man. If only I’d known they weren’t going to collect it. The woman used to smile warmly if I met her in the hallway, be keen to exchange pleasantries, but then her possessive partner moved in. After that our amiable encounters turned to awkward grimaces.

I’d come here for a clean slate, somewhere that couldn’t possibly remind me of my wife. Yet, the whole city seemed to fight me, like I was a transplanted organ it was determined to reject. People warned that I’d be alone if I went away. They were right, but it was better than being haunted by the piteous glances of friends and neighbours.

My days were a desolate vacuum, grief replaced by an empty void. I could barely summon the energy to venture outside, but had no peace of mind to sleep. When the knock came I was staring out the open window, in an apathetic torpor. It was my neighbour, her dark hair in tangles, bags under her brown eyes. I should have joined the dots or reached out to her but my mind was still out on the ledge. Forlornly, her eyes lingered on the monstrosity as she absently caressed the side of the box. She promised that her boyfriend would come and collect it but, typically, he never showed.

I went back to my window, allowing my legs to dangle. As I peered down, the grey slab of concrete whispered invitingly. That was when she dropped. I stared morbidly, wondering if it had hurt. When she turned over onto her back, I saw the pain etched upon her face, and I carefully pulled my legs in. No one came. No siren sounded. She died slowly, but her eyes locked desperately onto mine as if seeking comfort in her final moments and, I chose to believe, it helped her find peace.

Her boyfriend scrubbed up well for the media, talked of her recent abortion and how she’d become depressed, blamed himself for letting her go ahead with the procedure. He said he’d always wanted to be a father, would’ve supported her no matter what.

The parcel became a foreboding, seething presence. I couldn’t take it. Frantically, I ripped it apart, revealing its secret. It was a crib. Bespoke. I put it all together and left it sitting in my flat. My wife and I had talked of having children and I agonised over it for weeks. The woman’s eyes seemed always in my periphery, accusatory, as if to say, ‘you know the truth’. Numbness gave way to rage.

I heard the murderer above, yelling at the TV, and I gently rocked the crib one last time before starting up the stairs.

Swirling Temptation

I am delighted to say that another one of my short stories came 2nd place in the LifeofWriters monthly competition. The theme this time was ‘Regret’. I tried to have a little fun with this one. Enjoy!

 

It stares teasingly at me, compelling me to take action. My hands tremble and I thrust them into my pockets to restrain myself. No one else is around but I can still hear the tip tap of typed keys, the murmur of quiet conversation. Cautiously I peer out, to see the ocean of bobbing heads – barely visible above the bright blue dividers.

I wait for a moment checking that no one has noticed me, getting more nervous the longer I hesitate. Just get it over with, I urge myself, my tightly clenched palms becoming clammy. No, I plead, they’ll know it’s you, just look at you, who else would do such a thing.
The office is normally quiet, subdued by the constant pressure to deliver. My stressed colleagues often remind me of over-boiled eggs, their forced cordial expressions like the cracks that barely keep from bursting. Not me though, I have found a way to cope. My insides are snugly supported by my widening waistline, one that my wife flip-flops between chastising and cuddling into.

She tries to be supportive, knowing that this job will give our daughter the future she dreams of, and I feel pressured to be jolly at home too, lest I worry her. At times I can see her concern etched within her vibrant viridescent eyes, the slight appearance of crow’s feet when puts on a smile whilst trying not to frown. I love her, more deeply than I had realised was possible, more intensely than anyone else in my life except my daughter. For those two I can carry the weight of the world upon my shoulders and still feel elated, buoyed by their love. At least that’s my mantra, the thoughts I delicately wrap around myself like an impenetrable shield as I pack my briefcase each morning.
Just thinking of my two girls began to cheer me up, the way their infectiously joyous faces, so alike, beamed at me as I’d got in the car. Prudence, waved tenderly from the doorway. Both of us laughed as our sweet little Sophie ran heedless across the damp grass, a purple floral dress underneath a pair of dungarees, her legs and feet bare except for a single bright orange sock.
‘Papa,’ she squealed excitedly, urgently pressing a piece of paper against the car’s window. ‘I drew this for you,’ she proclaimed proudly. The blurry mix of crayon could have been anything, it didn’t matter and it never does, all that mattered was the infinite depth of love in her innocent expression. The paper lies nestled within my briefcase beside the empty chocolate bar wrappers, their crumbs have merged with the smudged collage ensuring that its depiction will forever remain a mystery.

Lost within my own circumspection, I almost didn’t hear them approaching. The click clack of heels upon the industrial carpet tiles, so thin they may as well be bare stone. Their words jar me from my pleasant recollection, ‘Dave told me,’ one of them whispers dejectedly, ’he was bragging that the exec team had asked him to make a 30% headcount reduction by…’ The end of the sentence broke away, concealed by muffled sobs.
‘Oh, Linda,’ the other voice comforted, ‘you have nothing to worry about, your sales were in the top quartile this month.’

Realising they will turn the corner to find my bulky form blocking their path, I dart clumsily to the counter to grab a coffee. Only my mug knocks against the edge, smashing my hopes of appearing nonchalant into a thousand shards. I try not to feel their cold opinionated stares upon my back as I ungracefully reach down to pick up the pieces. I’m used to it, many of my colleagues frequent me with unspoken resentment. They wonder how I’m not drowning in their combined sorrow, can’t understand why I don’t partake in the incessant drone of narcissistic nattering. Perversely, they take a certain pride in it, being able to talk about how they are so busy they missed their son’s football game, how their wife left them because she couldn’t handle the late hours. Their voices feel like the void, tones barren of all emotion bar one, ambition. I prefer to stay silent, to take a few deep breaths and imagine something relaxing, like the scarlet ringlets of my wife’s hair and how they tickle my cheek when she leans against me.

Compared to them, I suppose I should welcome my vice. I’m not claiming that it’s healthy, but it gets me through without all the bitterness. However, it is times like these that it undermines me. Instances when the work kitchen is filled with an array of delicious delicacies. I had only come in for a coffee but the dense swirls of fresh chocolate icing upon the birthday cake exert a force on me like a black hole. I stand like a statue, eyes lingering upon the bright white lettering that spells ‘Happy Birthday Dave’, while still gingerly holding the fragments of porcelain. Despite the presence of the women it almost lured me in.
‘Chris,’ Linda said softly, ‘you’re bleeding.’ She reached out kindly with her tissue, ‘here’, she said. As my fingers brush against it I feel it is damp with tears and feel an immediate regret of my earlier train of thought, perceiving it was I who had been judgmental, that I had become jaded. Small drips of blood splat soundlessly against the floor. I feel embarrassed but relieved as the cake slips from focus. The realisation that I had almost delved into it’s perfectly untarnished facade, almost certainly to leave a trail of blood behind me, fills me with wretchedness. As I dispose of the mug and wipe the blood I can feel a trickle of perspiration wriggle down the side of my face, and in a moment of strength I bolt out of the kitchen and to the toilet.

Wiping my forehead dry, I look closely at the man in the mirror. Time has made a mockery of me, it is clear that even without the folds of skin under my neck that my looks have faded. I shakily remove a small photograph from my wallet, it is crumpled and faint but forever dear to me. It had been a feature of all my wallets since it had first been taken, on the pier of her hometown, her tender arms were wrapped tightly around me, seeking comfort as a harsh gale blew in from the sea. The man looks daring, filled with vigour and courage that the world will be of his making, that the woman by his side will give him the strength to see it through. But, that man is barely recognisable, the vaguely familiar blue tint in his eyes is far brighter than the ones that greet me in the mirror. That feeling of empowerment that comes with youth had slowly but surely seeped away, to be replaced with a gradually accumulating remorse, as if they are two sides of the same hourglass. The transition is so lazy there is no boundary, merely a continuous blend stretching from this moment all the way back to that photograph.

There are times when that regret seems like innumerable grains of sand cascading down to bury me alive, but usually in the bright light of day it’s a flimsy feeling of such obvious folly. As I morbidly watch the blood merge with the running tap, I can feel that lifetime of regret floating up my esophagus. It burns as I try to swallow it back down. It’s the man’s fault, the one in the mirror, and I stare at him, willing him to be brave. Eventually he shirks from my steely cerulean stare, and in his wake I can see once more my old companion, who had before lain languidly beneath the surface. My hefty thumb slides over the photo to cover up the man’s face, all I have eyes for is my angel, her features little different to how they are now, she is the one who makes all of life’s regrets seem a mere trifle. No matter where life has taken me, or what decisions I have come to regret, she has always stood by my side and I knew she always would.

I waltz confidently out of the toilet, heading purposefully to the kitchen. The cake no longer has the same irresistible allure but I still grab a sizeable fistful and swallow it in a few hasty bites, taking no heed of the two women’s abashed stares over the top of their coffee mugs.
‘Don’t worry, Linda,’ I said warmly, ‘I’m quitting.’

The Dress

This short story came 2nd place in an online writing competition at LifeofWriters. The competition was themed with the opening paragraph:

It is a rainy Wednesday morning and Rebecca is on her way to a meeting. She has been waiting on this meeting for months and now the day has arrived. She got up early to take a long shower, do her makeup, and get dressed nicely. She wants to make a good impression.

She gets out of her car and walks the rest of the way, but as she passes a shop window, she stops. Her eyes are fixed at the window, looking inside the shop, and she cannot believe what she is seeing. She doesn’t move a bit, she just keeps looking.

It is perfect. A dress so sublime that her breath catches in her unsightly throat. She can imagine slipping the dress down over her wide shoulders. So smooth that it would wipe away her usual insecurities of how rough her skin felt. The dark olive will perfectly match her eyes. After her meeting, as soon as she recovered, she would buy this dress. She considers buying it immediately but is aware of the eyes on her. People have begun to stare. Flustered, she hurries quickly on her way.

In recent years she had become afraid to venture outside. She couldn’t change who she was, she had embraced that and yet others judged her constantly. Her confidence was shattered. Once, she had been brave, fearless, but eventually the derogatory remarks, the leering, they all took a toll.

Her heels clack against the hard cobbled street. Each step brings more unwanted attention. Please don’t laugh at me, she pleads. She is almost there. Two burly men lean against the wall, taking a smoke break. She tries to keep her head down as she passes them, but she had always been quite tall.

One of them heckles her. She tries to block it out, pretending that the words had instead been something kind, like, ‘good morning, beautiful.’

Her hand clasps nervously around the door handle. It’ll all be over soon, she thinks with relief.

As Rebecca enters the building the receptionist greets her warmly. She smiles widely, taken aback by her genuine kindness.

‘There you are,’ the receptionist says as she walks forward and hooks Rebecca by the arm, ‘we were just beginning to wonder if you had gotten lost. Vincent is already waiting so I’ll take you straight through.’
‘Don’t I need to sign in?’ Rebecca asks politely.

‘Oh, don’t worry about that,’ replies the receptionist, ‘I already have all your details on file. Please come with me.’

Rebecca is led along a short corridor, coming quickly to a door. The sign upon it reads: Dr Vincent Wright. The receptionist opens the door and ushers her in before she has time to think.

The walls of the small office are adorned with examples of the doctor’s work. She stared at them longingly and with awe. For the first time in a long time she feels hope. Finally she can envision being herself.

‘Pleased to finally meet you,’ the doctor said amicably, ‘please take a seat.’

She sits, carefully smoothing out her skirt as she does so. The doctor is attentive, asking if she would like a refreshment. Rebecca shakes her head, too excited to wait any longer.

As the receptionist closes the door the doctor begins to discuss her treatments.

‘Now, Rebecca. I know we have discussed this over the phone and I know how much this means to you but I have an obligation to make you fully aware of all the risks,’ he says. As he speaks Rebecca nods impatiently. She has waited too long to turn back now.

‘Good,’ he says finally, ‘then there is only one thing left before we proceed. We need you to sign and confirm that you agree to everything we have just discussed.’ He gives her a slightly pained expression as he reaches across the table to gently touch her hand. ‘Please accept my sincerest apologies, I realise that this may upset you but your signature will need to match the one in your passport.’ spoke the doctor with well-practiced eloquence. He holds out the form for her to sign.

Rebecca looks down at the paper in front of her and swallows. She takes the pen, her scribble confirming her name, not who she was but the name she had been born with: David Stanley.

The Reactor

This is a little something I wrote recently, and got shortlisted, for in the Brilliant Flash Fiction Magazine, January 2016 Edition

The reactor ran itself; that was the beauty of its design. It didn’t attempt to control the nuclear fusion reaction but merely utilised it. The reactor had enough fuel to burn in a stable state for at least another four billion years, but it wasn’t the fuel source which was the problem. The reactor had
been stable now for over four and a half billion years, yet they had run out of raw materials, resources that were sorely needed to maintain the one thing that kept them alive. The reactor covered every inch of the sky, its spherical network not only absorbed the energy needed to run the entire city but also protected its people from the nuclear reaction that continuously raged on the outside.

Kichu knew that its failure was not only inevitable but imminent. Everyone looked to him to come up with a solution, some way to save them all. Every time he saw that pleading look in their eyes all he could think about was his simulations, the ones that resulted in a critical failure no matter what he tried to do differently. Every simulation ends the same way; the reactors magnetic field fail and results in their instantaneous obliteration as the stars core envelops them. Briefly, he had contemplated alternative options for his people’s survival but there were none. There was no way to stop the reaction; it was so massive that 99.99999% of the energy it produced wasn’t even recoverable. Instead it was hurtled out through space, providing heat and light just like a naturally formed star. It was pointless to think it could be turned off but Kichu wished it anyway, dreaming of seeing for himself the empty void of space that lay on the other side.

His ancestors had understood exactly what they were doing. They had known that the nuclear reaction would allow their society to live for a far greater period of time than they previously had on their home planet. They had even understood that it would eventually come to an end. Yet for the guarantee of billions of years of survival, without having to fear external forces, they had deemed it worthwhile. After all, no asteroid can penetrate this deep into the reaction, no black hole, supernova or erratic orbit was likely to have any effect.

This solar system, which his ancestors had created, held more than one chance at life. All manner of simple organisms, hardy enough to survive the extreme void of space, had been seeded amongst the early planetary bodies. However, Kichu had poured over the calculations himself and the odds of an intelligent life form being able to survive and evolve were infinitesimal. Despite that he sometimes chose to ignore the odds, to instead follow the simulation to its most positive outcome. Where life not only thrived but had evolved intelligent beings that even resembled him. Yet this was not one of those times. Even if by some miracle other intelligent life did exist, it was little comfort to his people who were living out their last remaining hours already encased inside their own tomb.

Kichu chose to spend his final hours hooked up to the central computer. Becoming fully immersed within the virtual history lessons he had been taught as a child. Even though it had been hundreds of years ago he still remembered the lessons with great fondness. As a voice narrated, Kichu watched the universe come into being, as the first stars burst into light following the big bang and their home planet formed. What Kichu loved more than anything else was the feeling that he was floating in space as he watched. That he was out in the open, free to go anywhere, to do anything. As he watched his ancestors come close to extinction and begin constructing their greatest ever achievement, he pleaded that they would stop. Don’t do it, he begged. He cried as they journeyed into a barred spiral galaxy, into a newly born system that had enough gas and dust to be capable of forming a new star. He felt despair as the reactor first initiated, sealing the fate of the quintillion people who would come to live and die within it. For the last time he dared to dream what lay beyond, of the possibility that a planet, even now, revolved around them. A planet that thrived with life, taking sustenance from the very same reaction that was about to be the cause of his death.