MONKEY CLAP

“I swear to you, I’ve discovered the origin of clapping.”

Mike delivered this sentence with his usual awkward solemnity. His every word was vetted before he spoke, each syllable careful, precise. “After months of research, I’ve found it,” he continued. “History in the making.”

Jen glanced at her car, its red bonnet gleaming in the sunlight, then back to Mike. His tall, skinny frame filled the doorway. Sunglasses shrouded his eyes, and the black trilby perched on the back of his head added an element of geeky rakishness.

Maybe she should call off this social visit. She felt guilty, sure, but she’d expected to find Mike heartbroken and despondent, not completely off the rails.

For old time’s sake, she thought. Then, before she lost her courage: “Are you going to invite me in?”

“Of course!” He stepped back, beckoned her through. As Jen crossed the threshold, her nose wrinkled. The house smelled stale and earthy. The floor was littered with crumbs, and a trail of cashews led down the hallway towards the lounge.

Mike shut the door, shrugged self-consciously. “That’s Cal’s doing.” From his voice to his movements, every mannerism was fastidious — which made the state of his home all the more incongruous.

“Your new house mate?”

“Come meet him.”

Jen picked her way down the hallway towards the lounge, sidestepping food wrappers and a pile of unidentifiable brown pellets. She accidentally kicked a paper bag on the floor and almost gagged when a cloud of fruit flies drifted into the air. The smell was growing stronger with every step.

“Are you… okay, Mike?”

“I am MORE than okay.” He ushered her into the lounge, and pointed at a monkey curled up on the sofa the size of her forearm. The monkey was dark grey, and had a wrinkled, pink face surrounded by cotton white tufts of fur. His dark tail curved down the side of the sofa in a question mark.

“Meet Cal,” Mike said. “Short for Caligula.” He was grinning, shifting his weight side to side. In his excitment he’d forgotten that he wasn’t wearing his sunglasses. Jen had never seen his eyes before – not this closely, anyway. They were the pale, murky eyes of someone who spent far too much time in tiny science labs researching inane issues.

“He clapped,” Mike said. “Or does clap. Can clap. Not on command, but it’s a start. After months of research I’ve figured it out.”

Jen looked between Cal and Mike, didn’t know which was worse. How the animal spent so much time with Mike, she never knew. Clapping Cal the monkey. It had a ring to it, anyway.

“All my life,” Mike continued, “I’ve wondered why people clapped. When it started. It’s such a long-standing cross-cultural phenomenon and we know SO little about it! This could be important, Jen! History, made in this room!”

“Clapping. Important.” She nodded slowly. “Right.” A quick glance over at the monkey, whose mouth was hanging open. Sound asleep. Not in the least noteworthy.

She’d come here because she felt bad. Mike was a friend; or had been a friend until research had consumed his life. He’d been a socially well-adjusted (albeit geeky) guy, dating a beautiful woman who happened to be her other best friend. Until said girl best friend dumped guy friend, and she was left caught in the middle like melted cheese in a sandwich.

Her tummy grumbled. Well, not exactly like melted cheese. But she was hungry so the simile would have to do.

Mike had found his sunglasses and put them back on. He had the thin, contented smile of one who has found a secret treasure. He sat on the sofa beside Cal and beamed at Jen, waiting for her verdict.

“You’re not photophobic, are you?” Jen asked, all of a sudden. She nodded at the glasses. “You know…”

The lower half of Mike’s face looked confused. “I tell you about my ground breaking discovery and you ask that?”

She shrugged. “I’ve always wondered. You didn’t use to wear them all the time, before…”

Mike turned away, grabbing a small blanket from the sofa and lovingly tucking it around Cal. “They protect me,” he said. “It’s an extra layer between me and the world.” He turned his head to her but she couldn’t see anything past the dark glass. “Besides, it means I can spy on people. When I wear these no one knows where I’m looking.”

Jen looked at the v-neck of her top. “You’re not… perving on me, are you?”

“There’s more to life than THAT, Jen. Like, at least ten percent more.”

“And that ten percent includes monkeys clapping?”

Mike nodded. “This could be proof that we not only evolved genetically from monkeys – but also kept or developed their cultural traditions. Cal here could be recreating those first few moments in the history of clapping. He’s never met another monkey to learn that behaviour from, and has never seen a human clap. This is a brand new development… but what’s most important is that he does it with PURPOSE. A single, strong clap.”

He sensed her disinterest, his fingers flittering against his jeans. “I’ll show you, then you’ll know what I mean.” The monkey was stirring, his big dark eyes boring into Jen. He crawled into Mike’s lap, staring at Jen with the blatant curiosity of a child.

“Go on then,” Jen said. “Make him clap.”

“Do you just clap for no reason?” Mike shook his head. I can’t MAKE him clap. He has to be impressed by something.” He picked Cal up, swinging him onto his shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “So far Cal has done 100% of his clapping in the kitchen.”

“100%?”

Mike didn’t answer.

Jen followed Mike through the lounge and into the kitchen. Mike set Cal down on the counter, accidentally kicking the recycling bin as he did so. A few fruit flies danced into the air, swirling like dark dust motes.

“Well?” Jen said. “I haven’t got all day you know.”

“It won’t take long. I think.”

Jen put her hands on her hips. “How many times has he clapped?”

Mike looked sheepish now. “Once. Two days ago. I haven’t been able to get him to repeat it since. I’ve tried recreating the exact circumstances, creating new circumstances… anything. But I can’t seem to impress Cal anymore. See, the first time he clapped I had successfully flipped an omelette for the first time. But when I did it a second time, Cal didn’t think it was interesting anymore.”

The silence stretched between them. Everything Jen had wanted to say was burning within her: the condolences, the sympathy, even the reassurances that his ex-girlfriend was either heartbroken or doing just fine (she wasn’t quite sure which he wanted to hear). But when she looked at the monkey sitting on the counter, all the words dried up.

Mike kicked the recycling bin. “I’m an idiot, aren’t I?”

Cal clapped.

A single, purposeful clap.

He looked at Jen and Mike for a single moment of silence, then studied his hands.

“Did you SEE that?” Mike exclaimed with a woop. “I’m on to something, I told you! I’m on to something!”

Or maybe, Jen thought as she forced a smile and agreed, your monkey’s just killing fruit flies.

Cal lifted his head, looked straight at her, and clapped again.

GONE

It hit her, then.

When she was drunk she was happy in a way she never was when sober.

Even the smell of his embraces didn’t bother her anymore, and she would think: yes, I can make this marriage work.

But come morning the sound of his snores would drill into her skull like a woodpecker. Even his face would bother her; his slack jaw and the collection of shining spittle in the corner of his mouth instantly repulsive.

The pockmarks on his skin which had seemed so inconsequential at first were now gaping reminders of everything missing in their relationship. His receding hairline a reminder of her own age, of how little time she had to find another man and make things right.

She was lucky her husband was still handsome, her friends said, bemoaning the beer bellies and baldness and wrinkles. But they couldn’t see what she could.

The love was gone and it would never come back.

SHE STILL DREAMS OF HIM

She still dreams of him.

Of strong arms lowering her onto a table or pinning her up against the wall, his body looming over hers and exuding a dizzying maleness. She struggles deliciously against him, shivers at his hot breath in her ear. But before anything else can happen, she wakes up.

The logical side of her mind knows that he is gone. He is buried. He is dead. Yet she cannot erase the tattoo of sensation on her body, and a part of her is glad to have some piece of him still. She dreads the passing days, the minutes, the approaching seven-year mark when every single cell in her body has been replaced and his touch no longer remains.

A small, dark corner of her heart is fascinated by the prospect.

In her dreams, in that delicious moment of terror before she awakens, she is partially relieved that finally—finally!—she will have an excuse to go mad, to suffer, to sink into the numbing depths of depression. She experiences a guilty moment of pleasure at the thought that she can stop trying to be happy all the time, because it is something she is not very good at anyway. And how she hates to be bad at things.

That is why she has so few hobbies. Anything she picks up is eventually discarded when she discovers that she had no natural talent or skill, and that to be good would require work, work, and more work. She cannot understand the people who have the patience to keep trying when their first attempts are so dismal, so utterly depressing. Even though she realises that striving for perfection is impeding her from truly experiencing anything, she cannot change her standards.

Her standards have always been high; not only for herself but also for any potential partners. That is why she is lying here alone in bed, thinking about her odd dreams, her only companions two world-weary teddy bears. She is 32, and single. Her friends are all in relationships, engaged, married. Some even have kids. The thought of such commitment frightens her senseless because she knows that she will never find another man who, after days or weeks or years, will remain a mystery. All of her relationships have ended abruptly because of that growing complacency, the tedium of coupled life, how boring and predictable it becomes.

He was the only one who broke that tedium, and he is gone.

She rolls over to her side, curls into a protective ball. She is good at being depressed. Sometimes she thinks it is the only thing she is good at, and the thought depresses her further, an oddly satisfying circle of despair. She resigns herself to living alone the rest of her life, spending her time in bed, dreaming about happier things.

Eventually, she summons the effort to get out of bed and trudge to the bathroom. The shower makes her slightly more alive. She picks out flattering, feminine clothes, then discards them in favour of jeans and a t-shirt. Then she puts the dress back on. Indecision paralyses her until she chooses the jeans. As she slips the clothes on, the blanket of depression crumbles onto her bed to wait for her return.

She applies her makeup carefully, her lips parted as she stares at the dull-eyed girl in the mirror. The white eye shadow brightens her face, makes her look younger, cheerful. She smiles, tense, strained, but the girl in the mirror looks convinced.

* * *

Hours later, she shudders in bed, cold. Someone has left the heating off, so she takes the blanket and wraps it around her shoulders, huddling safely under its numbing swathe. The sorrow seeps back under her skin insistently and she welcomes the feeling with quiet relief: this is something she’s good at, the only thing she’s good at.

If only she had a reason, an excuse, she’d gladly disappear into her bed forever.

LIES

Liars!

The word pounded through her head as her sword slashed left and right in quick succession, blade gleaming in the moonlight.

They had tricked her into coming to this God-forsaken place, and here she was, battling against people that had called themselves her friends.

She sliced Mike’s stomach open. Felt the tip of a blade bite into her arm. Duck, weave, sidestep. Again her sword drank blood.

When she’d first found the ragtag group, they’d been living in the sewers, scavenging a living out of the city ruins. They’d welcomed her arrival, proclaimed her their protector. But the atmosphere had soured.

Only one left to go. She held her sword upright, ready.

He fell to his knees. “Please,” he breathed. “For our friendship….”

Could she blame him? What wasn’t a façade in this war-savaged world? Who didn’t hide behind several masks? Everyone lied now, because only the liars survived.

“Friends?” She spat. “A friend wouldn’t trade my life in for food.”

Now she was the one who was lying. It had happened before. Her own mother had abandoned her so that she would not have to feed another mouth.

The sword never wavered. She sliced open his throat.

When no one trusts, does it matter that everyone lies?

WOLF ON DEMAND

“Are you sure it’s safe?” The old woman pushed her glasses further up her nose and peered at the screen, her face so close to the monitor that Mark was afraid she’d leave smears across the glass.

“Sure,” he replied with a too-wide salesman smile. “It’s the latest technology. Everyone’s using it.” He eased the mouse out of the old woman’s hand, clicked back through the demo screens. “See? Every book you could want, ready to print on demand. It’s instant.” He clicked print. The machine started churning.

Instant Book Machine, it was called. An ugly black box no larger than a coffee maker, it perched on the edge of the old lady’s desk like a futuristic insect. One minute and forty-two seconds later, a book popped out of the side. Little Red Riding Hood. He handed it to the old woman.

“I don’t like instant coffee,” the old woman said tremulously, “and I like going to the bookshop, you know.”

He did know, but he wouldn’t get his weekly commission until the old biddy joined the twenty-second century. He was a salesman, sent forth like a wolf among lambs, determined to take them all.

“You can print birthday cards, Christmas cards. Whatever you want without leaving the house. And it’s cheaper than in the bookshops because you’re cutting out the middle men. No more pulping books, wasting trees; no more authors getting ripped off… Everything you’d need, on demand. ”

When she didn’t look convinced, he pulled out the big guns. “Your family don’t visit much, do they? You get one of these, guaranteed your grandkids will come visiting.”

She hesitated. “What’s it called again?”

“Instant Book Machine,” he said. His smile was sharp. The end was close. “And it’s print on demand.”

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“I see, I see,” the grandmother said, voice quavering. “But can it wolf on demand?”

Mark frowned. “Excuse me?”

“Wolf on demand,” she repeated. “Like so.”

And then the old woman turned into a wolf and ate him.

UNDERGROUND

It was only after death that I realised the London underground was modelled after Hell.

The air was stagnant with dust and the nostril-clenching tang of BO, everywhere a sea of unsmiling faces and bodies–every size, every age, every religion.

I joined the long queues of recently deceased and peered at the labyrinthine map on the wall, a spaghetti plate of coloured lines and odd names.

“The map’s useless,” a man beside me said, his hot breath sticky against my cheek. “Last updated a thousand years ago.”

The crowd carried us forward three miserly steps before coming to a standstill. “Some nitwit took the zones off the map,” he continued. “No way to tell what circle of hell each stop is in. Imagine, you’re meant to be in the first and end up in the very middle with old Luke for company.”

I turned my head just enough to see him. My neighbour was dour-faced, saggy-cheeked. His ears leaned away from his head in a bid for freedom.

“You’re new,” he said. “I can tell. Not miserable enough.”

“Yeah.” Somehow I’d expected my voice to sound different in death. Instead it was the same, disappointingly high-pitched. Another few steps forward, the crowd pressing in as the tunnel narrowed. The forced intimacy sustained our conversation. “Have you been queuing long?”

“Years.” He twitched his shoulder in a restricted shrug. “Feels like it, anyway. Hard to tell down here.” The crowd pushed us from behind. Through a gap in the bodies I saw the end of the queue, a row of burly ticket inspectors calling for tickets. “Every time I get to the barriers, I pretend I’ve lost my ticket,” my neighbour continued. “Then you’re sent to the main office–takes ages. Then to the back of the queue. Then do it all over again. This if my fourth time.”

I put my hand in my pocket. My fingers touched the familiar plastic edges of my travel card. In the dim light, it looked the same as ever.

“Break it,” he said, miming the action. “Get a paper ticket. Then you know where you’re going.” He flashed his ticket at me, obscuring the writing with his thumb. “I know where they’re sending me,” he said, “and I figure sticking around here in purgatory’s better than going there.”

Every ounce of English propriety in me rebelled. “Isn’t that illegal?”

“It’s straight to ninth if they catch you,” he said. “But that’s only if they catch you.” A sly wink. “Just the once. Get the paper ticket, find out where in Hell you’re going. Aren’t you tempted?”

We weren’t far from the barriers now. The ticket inspectors were calling people forward, asking for tickets, in all appearances normal men on the job. Then one of them looked up. His eyes were solid black, soulless pits that drained the last remnants of life out of me. For a moment my vision blurred. I saw scaled wings tear free, the skin of his face melting into a misshapen, inhuman blur, a forked tongue tasting the air. When I blinked the vision was gone.

“I’m… I think I’m in the wrong queue,” I said to my neighbour, swallowing bile. Only four people were ahead of me. “There’s been a mistake. I’m going to Heaven.”

“Heaven?” He cackled, his laughter so loud it sent ripples of unease through the waiting crowd. “Heaven?” he repeated, shaking his head. “You sure?”

“Of course. I’ve been baptised, christened… even got my last rites.” I was now third in the queue, close to hyperventilating. Did I dare to snap my travel card? I turned to my neighbour, held up the card. “Please, help – what do I do?”

“Hm.” He scratched his cheek, running his fingers over a scar at the corner of his eye. “Even if you’re not going to Heaven, it’s bound to be better than where I’m going.”

“Tickets, please!” the inspectors called. Only one person ahead of me.

“Tell you what,” my neighbour said. “Let’s do swapsies.”

He grabbed my travel card, pushed his paper ticket into my hand, and then shoved me, hard, before I could react.

“Tickets, please,” the inspector said to me, pulling the ticket from my numb fingertips. He handed it back with a sharp, fanged smile. “Straight ahead,” he said. “The ninth circle.”

LONDON COLD SNAP KILLS 42 ZOMBIES

Brrrrr!

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LONDON, United Kingdom – A bout of severe, snowy weather has left at least 42 zombies dead as the second snowfall of the year hits the capital. Officials are taking extra precautions to protect the zombies, dozens of whom froze to death on the streets of London during last week alone.

Nearly 300 zombies sought defrosting procedures from University College London Hospital, with scores of hospitals overrun by the heat-seeking undead.

Emergency officials have said many of the zombies are homeless, and desperate for heat and nourishment. 800 shelters have been opened to provide shelter and brain-substitute burgers, but authorities are struggling to communicate with the zombies, whose cognitively impairments are exacerbated by the cold.

Unable to locate the shelters, many zombies are seeking protection in phone booths and tube stations. Oxford Circus and Bond Street stations were indefinitely closed after twelve commuters were injured in a zombie incident. All twelve have been inoculated and will be under quarantine for 72 hours.

The extreme weather comes at a bad time for undead rights group ZombieAid, who are currently lobbying Parliament to classify zombies as ‘non-human persons’ in order to accord them with basic human rights.

Police are appealing the public to keep zombie relatives indoors and to take care when travelling through the city.

THE LONG LINE

Fur-trimmed coat, dyed blonde hair that brushed her elbows. Legs closeted in tight leather and denim, slyly parted in invitation. The girl was leaning against a motorbike — his motorbike — with such casual indifference that he almost smiled.

Almost.

He let the diner door close behind him with a loud jangle of bells. The streets were empty, but they often were in this small town. He walked over, asked where she was headed. A faint breeze breathed life into the drying puddles at their feet.

“Anywhere but here,” she drawled. Perfect voice, low and smoky. Must have taken weeks of practice.

His tongue traced the outline of his teeth. “Anywhere at all?”

The shrug gave her away. Too innocent for those clothes.

He couldn’t resist playing her game. Leant forward, arms on either side of those long, long legs. Let his breath draw a line across her cheek. “You think you’re ready?”

The shiver said no. Her mouth said yes.

This was how he loved her: nervous, indecisive, a flower on the cusp of bloom. If she came with him that frailty would be lost forever.

He leant closer still. Stubble grazed her delicate cheekbone. “You get those clothes in a brothel?” he whispered.

The heat of her blush warmed his cheek. “I… I thought you’d like them.”

He drew back, let the cold wind seep back into her bones. “Not on you,” he said. She deserved better. One last long look. He breathed in the curve of her jaw, the honey-warm eyes. He should have left town weeks ago.

“Take me with you,” she begged.

He shook his head, gently pulled her off the motorbike. Slung a leg over, got the engine rumbling. “You don’t have what I want,” he said, wistful. “Not any more.”

And then, because he had to be harsh, because he had to be cruel lest she spend the rest of her life pining for him, he lied: “I only sleep with virgins.”

By the time he left town she was just a name, another name on a long list of heartbreaks.

RED HERRINGS

His beard is a disguise.

People see the dark skin, the thick hair, the traditional clothing, and come to all the wrong conclusions. But it is his beard they notice first, the thickness of it, its length. It is the first of many red herrings in his appearance.

Hiding behind its thick, curled tangle are gentle cheeks, a sad smile, soft lips that mouth poetry on the underground.

He’s clutching two open notebooks, one on top of the other. His nails are rough-ridged and cracked but he holds the pen delicately, copying words from one notebook into the other.

The words themselves are another red herring: words of pain and suffering, of loneliness and anger, carefully misspelled to feign ignorance.

He needs these — the beard, the words, the disguise — because without them, he is nothing, no one. Just another man on the tube, another forgettable face.

THE GIANT BUTTERFLY

Once upon a time there was a butterfly named Bonnie.

Now Bonnie was no ordinary butterfly, she was a GIANT butterfly. She was bigger than all the other butterflies. She was bigger than the dragonflies. She was even bigger than your two hands put together!

Bonnie was so big that when she landed on a flower, the flower would break. When she drank from a puddle, water would splash everywhere. And when she flew through the fields, the wind from her wings would knock all the other butterflies off-course.

None of the other butterflies wanted to play with Bonnie.

Bonnie was lonely.

One day a zebra arrived in the forest.

Now this was no ordinary zebra, this was a KILLER zebra. His tail was thin and whip-like. His hooves were sharp and strong. And his teeth were very large, and very white.

The zebra trotted into Bonnie’s field. He hit all the butterflies with his tail. He squashed all the flowers with his hooves. And he ripped up the grass in great chunks with his teeth.

“Help, help!” cried the other butterflies, watching their home get destroyed.

And Bonnie, because she was big and because she was brave, went to the rescue.

She flew right up to the zebra and landed right between his ears, where he couldn’t see her. Then she leaned over and shouted into his ear: “LEAVE THIS FIELD, ZEBRA!”

The zebra jumped. “Who’s that? Who’s there?” He turned round and round on the spot, but couldn’t see anyone. The field was empty. He shook his head nervously, and Bonnie had to hold on tight so as not to fall off.

“I AM THE MIGHTY LION!” roared Bonnie into his ear.

Oh, how the zebra jumped now! “L-l-l-lion?” he stuttered, his hooves knocking together in fright, because zebras and lions were mortal enemies. He galloped to the edge of the field and hid behind a tree.

The zebra shook his head again, and again Bonnie had to hold on tight.

“THAT’S NOT FAR ENOUGH!” she shouted, growling angrily.

“Eep!” yelped the zebra. He ran even further from the butterfly field, and hid behind a large rock.

Bonnie took a deep breath and said: “NO, THAT’S NOT FAR ENOU–“

But as Bonnie was speaking, the zebra shook his head again, and she fell splat onto the rock!

“You’re not a lion!” the zebra said angrily. “You liar!”

He lifted up a hoof to squash her, but Bonnie cried out, “I had to lie! You were destroying our home! You squashed all the flowers and ripped up all the grass and hit my friends with your tail!”

The zebra was shocked. “I did? I… I didn’t realise. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Bonnie said. “Just don’t do it again.”

And she gave the zebra directions to Africa, so that he could travel there and hang out with all the other zebras, where he belonged.

As soon as the zebra left, all the butterflies gathered around the rock, fluttering their beautiful wings. “Oh, Bonnie! You saved our home! Thank you, thank you!”

“It was nothing,” Bonnie said modestly, embarrassed by the attention.

She tried to flap her wings, to join them in the air, but nothing happened. Her wing was broken!

“Come on Bonnie,” said the butterflies. “Let’s go home!”

“I can’t!” she cried, trying to flap her wings again, wincing at the pain. “I can’t fly! I must have broken my wing when I fell on to the rock,” she said sadly.

And then all the other butterflies went away, because they knew Bonnie couldn’t be a butterfly anymore.

Inspired by and written for Bonnie Sparks.