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.

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.

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.”

via Bubbels on stock.xchng

“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.

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.

SPEECH RECOGNITION

I wake up in a bed I do not recognize. My left temple is throbbing unnaturally and the shining white ceiling only makes it more difficult to see.

I bring the duvet up to my nose, contemplate going back to sleep. But when I close my eyes my head begins spinning wildly, and I have to choke back the nausea.

Awake it is, then. I turn my head to the side. There is another pillow next to mine, the centre still indented from the weight of another’s head.

The memories return: a flash of black hair, green eyes. I’d met him at the bar when I’d gone up to order a round. All of a sudden I can remember kissing him in the streetlight, but for the life of me I cannot remember his name.

I glance under the blankets. Still wearing yesterday’s clothes, although that could mean anything.

So where is he, then? I turn my head to either side, searching for clues. It’s a luxurious room, but impersonal; the duvet I’m clutching is goose down, but the painting above the bed is a mass-produced print. I’m definitely in an upper scale hotel. That’s right, wasn’t he a tourist?

That’s when I spot the small black box installed on the ceiling, and realize just how upper class this hotel is. If I’m not mistake, that box is an AI. This room had its own AI! Despite the clenching of my stomach and the vile taste in my mouth, I cannot contain the sudden surge of excitement. I have a vague recollection of talking to the AI last night; let’s see if I can remember how it works.

“Computer?” I say tentatively.

As soon as I speak, the AI powers out of snooze and comes to full attention, brightening the lamps in the room up to daylight levels.

I cringe, shield my head. “Dim lights!”

When it’s safe to look, I poke my head back out from under the blankets and push myself up to a sitting position, leaning back against the wall to catch my breath. In the corner of the room is a kitchenette, separated from the bedroom by a breakfast bar.

I sit up properly, now, eyeing the distance. It’s about twenty steps: far too far in my condition.

“Computer,” I say smugly, “make tea.”

A smooth, cultured female voice replies, the source of the sound impossible to pinpoint: “What did you say?”

Ah, yes. One has to enunciate things carefully for computers. I clear my throat. “Make. Tea.”

“What did you say?”

“Tea. Make tea. T. E. A.”

“What did you say?”

Okay. I rub my forehead. This requires some lateral thinking. “Boil water,” I then say.

No response.

“Kettle, on!”

“Command not found.”

I scream in frustration and flop back down onto the bed. That black box is laughing at me, I know it. I glare up at the ceiling, crawl over to the foot of the bed to better scowl at it. “What’s a girl got to do to get breakfast around here, huh?”

Finally, the AI seems to pick up on my words. “You would like breakfast, is that right? Just say yes or no.”

“Yes!”

“What did you say?”

“Yesssssssssssssss.” I probably look like a complete idiot, crouched on hands and knees on the bed, hissing at the ceiling. Oh well.

The light in the kitchenette brightens. Success! Something is happening! I wait for the AI magic to begin, ready to be impressed. Everyone talks about these miracles of science, these must-have gadgets that simplify even the hardest of tasks.

“Kitchen is fully stocked,” the AI says. “Please proceed to the kitchen to prepare your breakfast.”

To prepare my—?

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I tell the black box, shaking my fist at it. “You can’t even make tea? What’s the use of an AI if it can’t make tea?!”

A door behind me opens. I look over my shoulder, watch my mystery man walk into the room with a towel around his waist, fresh out of the shower.

He takes in the scene: me crouched on the bed, hand in middair, as the AI says for the umpteenth time: “What did you say?”

“Not this again,” he says.

TUESDAY, WITH SPIDERS

The spiders on the ceiling were hungry.

Rich huddled over the counter, whisking his pancake batter to smooth out the few remaining lumps of flour. Keeping one eye on the ceiling to track the spiders’ movements, he dipped a finger into the bowl, then licked it clean. Mmmm; it was ready.

Bowl still in hand, he walked over to the hob, took out a pan and turned on the heat. He placed the pan on the gas, dropped in a thick wodge of butter, then glanced up again. The spiders were gone.

He panicked, hugged the mixing bowl closer. There they were! Three black spiders scurrying across the ceiling towards him. One of them—skinny, malnourished—lagged behind the others, as if it could not quite keep up. Rick scowled at them warningly. His wife would have hoovered them up by now, but she was out for dinner and he did not know where the hoover was.

The spiders came to a halt directly above his head. Rich squinted up at them, then grabbed a tea towel and waved it ineffectually in their direction. The spiders did not move. He glanced down, noticed the butter had melted and begun to foam. The spiders could wait; his pancakes were more important.

Rich set the mixing bowl down by the hob, then paused. No ladles. He hadn’t thought that far ahead. He shrugged, grabbed a mug from the cupboard and dipped it into the bowl, filling it to the very brim.

The batter barely sizzled as it hit the pan, creeping out towards the edges slowly but inexorably. Damn, he’d forgotten to check the pan temperature first. Rich raised the heat a notch, tilting the pan back and forth to spread the batter evenly, but there was too much liquid and his supposed delicate crepe was turning into a cake. Exasperated, Rich tried to flip the pancake with a jerky wrist movement. It was a half-hearted flip at best: the pancake folded in half and proceeded to stick together.

“Double damn!” Rich tried to prise the two halves apart, but it was too late. Defeated, he tipped the pancake onto his plate. The half-moon of dough smiled winningly back at him. He munched on a corner thoughtfully and ignored the spiders. They were mocking him; he was sure of it.

Take 2. Pan at the right temperature, check. Enough oil, check. Mug half-full of batter, check. And pour.

This time it sizzled, it spread thinly and evenly, and when the top began to bubble, Rich lifted up the pan and flicked his wrist with extra flourish. The pancake soared into the air, then back down, landing neatly in the pan. Victory!

He flipped the pancake again, higher this time, letting out a cheer when he caught it. And again, higher! And again! Rich completely forgot about the spiders, so intent was he on his newly discovered manly talent.

Then it happened: his golf club swing sent the pancake soaring up, and up, and up, until SPLAT! It came to a rest on the ceiling, and did not come back down. Rich waved the pan enticingly, but the pancake did not move.

The spiders huddled together, conferring. Then, as the seconds passed and the pancake remained securely on the ceiling, they began their advance, circling the pancake, drawing in for the kill. The skinny one struck first, scurrying straight across the dough to the centre.

Later, when his wife came back home, all that remained was a circle of grease.

She stared up at it, incredulous. “Darling, what on earth happened?”

Rich shrugged. “The spiders on the ceiling were hungry.”