WE MEET AGAIN

He didn’t know her.

She saw it in the blankness of his eyes, the numbness of his cheeks. Or maybe that was the drugs, spiraling away every trace of his intelligence.

Eva repeated her question: “Excuse me, do you know where the train station is?”

The binoculars slipped from his fingers and cracked against the pavement like a gunshot. Feodor jumped, spun in circles looking for an assailant. The streets were cold and quiet, steam rising from the gutters. Eva suppressed a sneer as he scuttled to collect the binoculars.

“That… that way.” He pointed down the street, then returned to spying on his own house.

By then it was too late: her men had done their job.

Inspired by the storytelling course I’m attending.

DISASSEMBLY

Moving house is a necessary evil.

I am a creature of comforts, of routine, of things-are-fine-just-the-way-they-are-thank-you-very-much.

I am the homebody, the LOFNOTC. The reason why do not disturb phone settings exist.

Staring at the tower of boxes in the hallway, I cannot help but feel small and sad, cut loose from my moorings. The scented candles, the thick rugs, and all those little knick knacks I’ve collected from visitors over the years — all hidden from sight. Who am I without them?

I’ve left the worst job for last. In the bedroom, surrounded by dust bunnies, is my bed frame. The mattress is propped up against the nearby wall.

Wherever I live, my bed has to run east to west. It’s a good bed, solid oak, king size. But now I have to take it apart, and even though I have done it many times before, I feel as if I’m dissecting my own child.

(Not that I have children, but my bed with its crisply ironed sheets and separate head board inspires in me a strong parental affection.)

I kneel beside my bed, put the electric screwdriver to use.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, the same way I whispered to my visitor last night. His knick knack is still in my pocket — a silver ring, its rounded corners pressing into my leg.

I’d first seen him in the local park, liked the look of his tattoos. It had taken months before I’d found the opportunity to talk; we’d both been caught on the same train carriage, and I had accidentally-on-purpose bumped into him. A few more “chance” encounters turned into drinks. Enough drinks and I could invite him around. And then, last night….

Moving was a necessary evil, but at least my bed could be put back together again.

As for my visitor, I’d have to find another one.

AND THEN I WAS YOU

She was waiting for him outside his front door, wearing one of his old hoodies she’d purloined in the early days of their relationship. Her hood was up, face in shadow, fingers curled into the sleeves.

“Hi,” he said, and even though he knew he should be angry he couldn’t help his tentative smile.

The blossoming jolt of relief froze when she didn’t look up. “We need to talk.”

Her voice was flatter, deeper than he remembered. But she’d been gone for so long that maybe it was his memory at fault.

He unlocked the door and waved her through, found himself staring at her slim black jeans and picturing the legs beneath. Remembered them wrapped around him. She led him into the kitchen — neutral territory — and leaned against the counter with her arms crossed, head down.

He decided to make her wait just to show that he could, and grabbed a can of Coke from the fridge before sitting at the kitchen table. He snapped open the can and for a long moment the only sound between them was the hiss of releasing pressure and the roar of passing traffic. Part of the joys of living near the M1: never-ending noise pollution.

“You’ve been gone weeks,” he said when she didn’t speak.

She still wouldn’t look at him. “I’m not sure how to tell you what’s happened.”

He took a long swig of Coke, wondered if it was the bubbles or the anger that was making his stomach churn. “You didn’t answer my calls. You just… disappeared. I went round to your house and your flatmate said you’d gone on holiday. Holiday.”

“I’ve been in hospital.”

“Yeah, and I’ve been in Canada.”

She sighed, turned to look at the raindrops dappling the window pane. Outside the sun was setting through a layer of uncertain clouds; English weather at its finest. But all he could look at was her, with her figure shrouded by the hoodie. He wanted her to take it off, wanted to remember the curve of her arms. When she turned back towards him he caught a glimpse of her cheek. It looked different. Paler.

“It started…” Her voice faltered. “It started,” she began again, “as a scattering of white flakes across my feet. I rubbed my heel, watched snowflakes of dry skin swirl gently to the floor. Thought nothing of it because I’ve always had hard skin.”

He opened his mouth to speak but she beat him to it.

“Then it spread to my legs. I began to moisturise, exfoliate. Every evening I’d peel off my jeans and watch a shower of skin drift to the floor.”

“I know, I remember,” he said. “What does this have to do with anything?”

She continued without missing a beat, her voice so measured it was riling him up. “When it spread to my chest I went to the doctor. He thought it was a severe fungal infection. He gave me creams — “

“I put those creams on you.”

” — but they didn’t work.”

He spluttered into his Coke. “You said it was getting better!”

Finally, her calm broke. “I lied, and a decent boyfriend would have noticed. It’s been the hottest summer in years and I’ve had to find excuses to wear long sleeves and maxi skirts, and yet more excuses to put you off the only thing you ever seem to think about.”

He stood. “I knew it. You’re always going to hold it against me, aren’t you?”

From the shadows of her hood came another sigh. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t fair. Can I just… finish what I need to say?”

“Hurry up.”

“When it spread to my face I was admitted to hospital.” Her voice was so small and quiet now he had to strain to hear her over the traffic. “I got sick leave from work, and told you I was going back home for a while. I didn’t think I’d be in there for that long, kept in isolation, tested and studied as every inch of my skin flaked off in ever-increasing chunks. Near the end of my infection, the entire top layer of my skin decided to separate from the rest of me. I was shedding, and as I peeled off the skin of my foot I decided I was losing my mind.”

Guilt constricted his throat. He sat back down, gestured for her to join him, but she stiffened.

“You’re better now,” he said. “You’ll be okay. I promise.”

“I am better. But I’m not the same.”

“I don’t understand.”

“When I was in the final stage of infection, the doctors noticed something strange. The skin underneath wasn’t raw or damaged. It was new. And it was different.” She edged forward, taking great care to sit without exposing so much as an inch of herself. “As the old skin fell off I began a patchwork of skin tones, brown and white.

“I could feel my face peeling so I asked for a mirror. They wouldn’t bring one at first but I begged and begged… The one they brought was only tiny, a handbag mirror barely the size of my palm. I could just about see half my face at any one time, and most of it was still covered in old skin. When they weren’t watching, I picked at a corner and tore off the old skin, and… and — “

She reached up and pushed back her hood, letting it fall to her shoulders. ” — and then I was you.”

LOUD DREAMS

They woke her every night, those dreams, so loud she was sure her eardrums would shatter.

She’d open her eyes and the ringing was deafening, the tinnitus whispering memories of sounds she could no longer remember.

Every night her hand would tremble in the dark, grope desperately until it found either her glasses or the light switch. (She preferred glasses first; hunting for glasses with the light on forced her to confront her blindness.)

She was lucky tonight: her fingers closed around a cold metal frame. When she slipped her glasses on, the shadows in the room took shape. There was the light switch. There her dresser. With the tinnitus still ringing in her ears, she took comfort in the familiarity of her surroundings.

One flick of the light switch and she crawled out of bed, slipped her feet into the slippers waiting loyally by the bedside. A moment’s pause to catch her breath, then she shuffled across the room.

Nestled in a padded box on her dresser was her second most prized possession: her hearing aids. She stood in front of the mirror and gently wrestled them into place. The tinnitus vanished, replaced by a deafening silence that slowly evolved into a gentle tick tick tick.

On the bedside table was her first most prized possession: a large wristwatch that had belonged to her husband. The sound had driven her mad in her youth, and now was the only thing keeping her sane.

When she crawled back into bed, she propped herself up against the headrest and fell asleep upright, lulled by the ticking of silence.

Inspired by musical ear syndrome.

GUN GIRL

“This was NOT what I agreed to.”

Chris had already settled deep into the sofa, controller in his hand, video game loading. “Come on, Susie. I said we’ll talk, so we’ll talk. We’ll just play video games at the same time. My time’s precious, you know. Multi-tasking is where it’s at.”

She sat reluctantly into a crease made by another bum. A bigger bum, she decided snarkily, wiggling to get comfortable before the I’m-a-bitch guilt could kick in.

(Ex-girlfriends are fair game, she sternly told her conscience.)

“This game is incredible,” Chris said, handing her the console. “I’m utterly hooked.”

How it differed from any other point-and-shoot game was beyond Susie, but she smiled and nodded. When Chris wasn’t looking, she wiggled further across the sofa, doing her best to iron out every trace of his ex.

“So,” she began, “how’ve you been holding up?”

He tensed, wouldn’t look at her. “Fine. But about this game–“

“You haven’t left the house in a week, Chris. People are worried. I’m worried.”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. It’s not because of…” He couldn’t even bring himself to finish the sentence. “It’s this game, honestly. It’s largely formulaic, until it’s not, and then it’s–“

Time to change tactics. She aimed at the approaching zombies. “Firing laser gun! Poi poi poi!

“–WOW. Wait a minute.” He hit pause, stared at her. “Laser guns do NOT go poi. They go… umm… pew?”

She raised her eyebrow. “Mine’s a Japanese model. It’s the best of the best.”

“Whatever they do, it’s not poi.”

“You know what? I’ll forgive you for not knowing the truth.” She put down her controller and turned to face him. “Laser guns are mostly used in deep space, where no one can hear your gun go pew. But if they could, they’d know that you’d bought a Chinese rip-off.”

He rolled his eyes. “Surely Chinese guns go pong.”

“Now you’re just being racist.”

He cracked a smile, then, the first genuine smile since she’d arrived.

The silence between them stretched, held.

“You couldn’t have known she was a fake,” Susie said gently. “But you’re better off without her. You deserve the best.”

His smile trembled. “Poi poi poi from here on out.”

“Exactly,” Susie said, before hitting play and killing more wide-assed zombies.

THE STRANGE FAMILIARITY

The love is gone.

When she looks at him, striding towards her across the busy square, she is looking at a stranger. Even the pigeons disown him, scattering from his every footstep.

In the intervening months his hair has grown longer than she’s ever seen it before. But even though it is he who has been off travelling the world, she is the one who has changed.

The kiss he drops on her lips is impersonal. How much of that is in her mind and how much of it is him?

“I missed you,” he says.

“I missed you, too.” The you she remembers, not this man before her. The strange familiarity of his scent disconcerts her; when his fingertips brush her arm she feels vulnerable.

She lets him take her hand because that’s what they used to do, and walks with him through the crowds of tourists and cajoling street vendors. The air is hot and heavy. Perspiration beads on her upper lip.

They turn down a narrow side street lined with canopies. Tucked away down an alley is their usual cafe, too small and grubby on the outside to attract  tourist attention. It has no AC either; the fans swinging in lazy circles overheard are barely more than decorative.

Months ago they’d agreed this place served the best coffee in town. Now she sits opposite him grimacing through each sip and wonders what else has changed.

He speaks at length about his travels, the things he’s seen and the people he’s met. His speech is as slow and measured as she remembers, his gestures as grandiose. But their familiarity has passed the threshold of affection. His every character quirk is now another aspect to dislike.

When he presents the gift to her, with a flourish, she wonders how many others he has bought.

He finally notices her expression and says: “You know.”

Her neck stiffens, but she manages to nod. “How long…” The question isn’t worth finishing.

“I’ll be moving in a month… and you know how I feel about long distance relationships. They don’t work.”

She stares. This isn’t the answer she’s expecting.

“Look,” he says, “I know I should have told you months ago, but… You knew I wouldn’t stay in this town forever. We’ve still got a month left. Why don’t we enjoy it, and worry about the rest later?”

“You’re moving.” The words are flat and hard and not the slightest bit shaky. “I didn’t know.” Now she can truly see how much his familiarity has blinded her. She pulls her hands out of his reach, folds them in her lap.

Finally she has the strength to say the words that have burned inside for months: “Have you told all the other girls you’re stringing along, or am I the first to know?”

ACRIMONIOUS

It started slowly, his cheeks reddening, his eyelids twitching with the pressure. Droplets of sweat rolled down his forehead, beading in his eyebrows.

The air was hot and sticky, the glass table between them an iceberg. Louise lay her hands on the table and stared at him until the cracks began to show.

His cheeks pushed together as if an invisible band was wrapped around his head. His eyes bulged, his wheezing breaths grew laboured, and the musky stench of fear rolled off of him in waves.

There! A hairline crack on his forehead as his skin began to tear. Another crack, and another–

–and then his head imploded.

Only his lower jaw remained intact as blood and brains spattered across the room, painting polka dots across the table.

Her lips were salty with blood.

“What are you staring at?”

Snapped out of her daydream, Louise smiled coldly and stared at her husband straight in the eye.

“Nothing,” she said. She picked up the a fountain pen and signed the divorce papers with a flourish.

SLEEP MUSCLES

Michael killed two men before bedtime.

Two men, barehanded, one right after the other. Gifts rained down on him from the audience: money and flowers. The money his master pocketed, and the flowers… What the fuck was he going to do with flowers? He left them to rot with the bodies.

His master was waiting in the washrooms, counting the money. She was wearing an ankle-length red dress with a side slit that ran up to her thigh. From his vantage point Michael could see straight down her neckline. The sight stirred absolutely no interest.

“You’ve got a month off,” she said, pausing to catalogue Michael’s injuries as he stripped. “Looks like you’ll need every second of it.”

“I thought you needed the money.” Michael strode over to the hot springs and lowered himself into the water. If he concentrated he could hear the crowd’s distant cheers as another man died.

“I don’t have a choice.”

She walked over to the edge of the springs and stood over him, waiting for him to ask why. Michael kept his eyes closed, tried to imagine he was somewhere else. Someone else.

“The Prince is getting married,” she finally said. “He requested you specifically after seeing your performance today. You’re barred from fighting until the wedding feast.”

While she calculated her losses, Michael relished the thought of the month ahead. One month’s respite meant at least ten or fifteen men he didn’t have to kill.

“What’ll I do with myself for a month?” he murmured to the water.

“You’ll train.” His master squatted down to his level, her entire leg exposed, the hem of her dress dipping into the water. “They’re pitting you against the Bull. He’s double your size, squashes men with his fingers. You need to bulk up.”

“I need to sleep,” Michael retorted. His body ached. His bones ached. Worst of all was his conscience. How many more men could he kill before he lost every last bit of himself?

“Sleep?” She sneered. “And what, work on your sleep muscles?”

“Yeah.” He didn’t crack a smile. “Exactly that.”

“If you win, the Prince will clear all my debts,” she snapped. “If you die, I’ve got nothing.”

He nodded to her legs. “You can always sell that.”

Michael wasn’t expecting the slap — and neither was she. She straightened, her hand stiff with surprise. “Sleep or train, do whatever you want. But if you’re not ready, you’ll be dead the moment you step into the pit.”

Michael picked dried blood from under his fingernails. “I’m already dead.”

* * *

That night there was a feather pillow on his cot.

Thankfully, it didn’t smell of her perfume. Instead it smelled of the pine needles in his home town and the cheap soap his mother used to use.

Michael closed his eyes and dreamed of another life as his sleep muscles repaired his body.

With another few sleeps, he’d have enough left in him to kill one more man.

And then his debt to her would be over.

(Inspired by Lindsay.)

THE HIVE

“I’m working on a weird theory,” Tim announced to the chat room.

He had their attention now.

It was eleven o’clock at night; the perfect time for conspiracies. Tim skimmed through the list of chat room participants in the top right of his visual field until he was satisfied that only regulars were plugged in.

He nudged the room into invite-only mode and turned to face the three other avatars floating in space. Yes: actual outer space. A replica Earth hung below them, the moon floating gently overhead. Tim remained standing on the space station, preferring the illusion of ground beneath his feet. Cyberspace was confusing enough without zero gravity thrown in.

“Next time I pick a room theme,” he said sourly to Steve, the only one who’d bothered to create a spacesuit for his avatar. Imagine the Incredible Hulk in a spacesuit: not pretty.

Judging by Steve’s scowl, that thought-strand had escaped him. As soon as Tim got back to meatspace, he needed to upgrade his implants… as long as his theory was wrong, that is.

“Your theory?” Steve grunted.

“Ah. Yes. I’ve a question for you all: when you press your bellybutton, does it kind of tingle, like there’s a nerve there?” Tim’s index finger tapped against his stomach in demonstration. “Because mine does.”

“Yeah!” Sarah chimed in. “That tingle drives me nuts when I get an itch there!” Her avatar for the evening was a mottled puppy with large, dark eyes. She doggy-paddled through space, brown-tipped tail wagging. Hearing a human voice emanate from non-human jaws never failed to disconcert.

Tim was a traditionalist: he stuck to normal humanoid male avatars, just dissimilar enough from his actual appearance to protect his identity.

“No,” Steve said. He poked his bellybutton with progressively more force. “Now it tingles, though.”

“I’m not sure that counts.” Tim shook his head, the ball of nerves in his stomach hardening. “So if it’s not a gender discrepancy… Michelle? What about you?”

Michelle’s eyes were cold and flat, her translucent skin glittering in the starlight. She slid up the hem of her silk t-shirt high enough to expose her stomach. “I don’t have a bellybutton.”

“I meant in meatspace–“

“Why are you wasting our time with this?” Michelle cut in.

“Because if it’s not a gender difference, then what is it? What if the government is implanting nanobots in our stomachs to track us? Both Sarah and I have recently had new implant surgeries. They could easily have taken advantage of our unconscious state to plant a bug.”

Steve deleted his spacesuit so he could move in closer. “Have you run diagnostics in meatspace?”

“Yes,” Tim said. “Nothing.”

Sarah’s tail had dropped between her legs, her ears pulled back. “If the government finds out about my P2P history I’m doomed.”

“We all are,” Steve said. He placed a hand on Tim’s shoulder, requesting access. Tim strengthened the firewall around his personal memories, then let him in.

Michelle floated closer, her skirt billowing behind her. “What are you doing?”

“If there are really nanobots in Tim’s stomach, they will have incorporated themselves into every version of himself, including his avatar. We can run more thorough diagnostics here, identify any foreign presences unconnected to his mind.”

Was it Tim’s imagination, or had his bellybutton begun to tingle again?

Sarah trotted over. “Michelle, do me! Come on.”

Michelle placed a hand on Sarah’s back, but her eyes never left Steve.

“There’s something there, alright,” Steve said, eyes flicking back and forth as he read his displays. “A low frequency emission coming from your navel. I’m trying to track its destination; it can’t be going far…”

Steve’s hand tightened painfully around Tim’s shoulder. His other hand wrapped around Michelle’s throat in the blink of an eye. “You!” he snarled, before diving into her mind.

The connection between Tim and Steve was still open. Tim felt the impact of slamming into Michelle’s firewall, followed Steve through the cracks into the person beneath.

Except… Michelle wasn’t a person.

The thin layer of her personality was a shield covering a hive mind. An artificial mind.

THEY KNOW!

The message was broadcast on every available frequency, sending Tim and Steve reeling. The chat room melted into darkness, and all of a sudden Tim realised he was alone.

“Hello?”

Not even an echo.

He blinked and tried to remove his goggles, then realised he had no hands, no face.

If Tim had had a mouth, he would have screamed.

* * *

Somewhere in meatspace, Tim’s body is being unplugged, the nanobots removed. His body they will destroy. His consciousness, however…

The nanobots have enough data to recreate a virtual likeness. His consciousness will be the thin shield covering the hive mind beneath.

(Inspired by this. Thanks Tim!)

WORD’S WORTH

I’ve been waiting for you.

Come.

Sit.

I have one more story to tell.

When I was your age, my life’s word count was an incomprehensible, endless number.

Over the years I chipped away at my wealth. I murmured and babbled. Whispered and shouted. Rambled and lectured.

At university I learned words in other languages, trebling my output. Then I met your mother, and words of love consumed us both. And then you arrived…

The years passed and eventually my word count became a recognisable number. A finite number. So I stopped saying please and thank you, and pushed past people rather than say excuse me.

The elderly are rude because they know how few words they have left.

But your mother didn’t care. She spoke indiscriminately. She said money is for spending and words are for speaking. And then… she passed.

I hoarded my words and lived on. But for what?

In 102 words it’ll all be over, and only now I see your mother was right.

Without a word limit to our lives, our words would have no value. But even worse, the words you hoard have the least value of all.

I should have told your mother that I loved her a thousand times more than I did. I should have told you I love you…

35 words left.

Don’t make my mistake. Words are for speaking and life is for living. I’m sorry I was not the father I should have been.

I love you. I love you. I love –