the First of May

It was nearly half eleven before she noticed the time; the house still echoed as if empty, despite the piles of boxes. Maybe it was because most of them were still unpacked, she thought with dismay. Faux dismay, it turned out. Real dismay set in when she noticed Benji was missing. Cautious callings accompanied a genteel stroll around her new house became firmer shouts, punctuated now and then with ‘come on, you silly dog.’
It was nearly midnight when she finally accepted that Benji as no longer in the house. Missing. Outside somewhere, she had dragged a city dog out to a countryside village and let him loose. Her dismay was a shard of ice in her chest, sharp and precise, it altered her breathing, made her dizzy. Running from the warm, lit house out into the cold, dark night only had her head swim more. But it also shocked her. She was panicking, and that wasn’t going to help. Pause, focus, think. She took in the scene from the end of her cottage path. A surge of wooziness swept her. the village looked so different. no street lights, and a genuine darkness. The village she’d fallen in love with just six months ago look horrid and unusual. She was out of her depth. But her eyes adjusted to the darkness faster than she expected, and she caught a glimpse, a dash of movement, across the road. Something dog shaped had just ran along the wall and into the church grounds.
She dashed recklessly across the road, almost falling with her sudden acceleration. She stopped short of entering, her hand on the cold stone of the litch gate, and its ominous shadow. Blacker than the black night. the yew tree lined path beyond still a grey fuzzy outline. Had it even been Benji, she doubted. She looked down the road. The main high street for the village. It was quiet. the shops, punctuated with cottages, all were dark. Everyone seemed to be sleeping. Everyone in the world, it felt like. She shivered. There was nothing moving, to either side of her, but something, probably Benji, had run into the church yard. Why didn’t she want to go in? She called him, tentatively, from the gate. Nothing but a soft sweep of wind that moved the yews. You’re being silly, she thought. The churchyard -well, graveyard- she interrupted herself. Right, that’s it. Anger at her fear and reluctance made her step, nay, stride into the grave CHURCH yard. The yews bowed to brush her hair, but she didn’t notice, Benji was sat, bobbing as he wagged his tail, on the steps of the church door.
“Benji” She said, relived and excited. A she got to him, before she could reach down and stroke him, grab his collar, keep him safe, the old woman ran into her.
“No! Not you!” She yelled, and rammed her so hard she fell to the ground, the damp, cold grass. The Church had just struck twelve, and the twelfth bong sounded, low and resonating as her head cleared. Benji had gone. The old woman was stood over her, at the door of the church. And there were people. People lining up to come into the graveyard. They huddled with solemn faces, under the litch gate.
“No. No. No” said the old woman. “I can’t see them. You. You. You, interloper. Can you see them?”
She wanted to shout, to fight back, hit the old woman, but, well, she was a woman. And old. And the scene before her was surreal, and mesmerizing.
The people started to slowly walk up the path. Single file, perfectly in step with one another, a perfect distance of respect between them. They were all dressed as if for church. presentable. Sunday best, without a doubt. Suits, perfectly cut and trim. Immaculate. Dresses neatly pressed and ironed smooth. A man, a woman, a child, another woman, a man. Then an old woman. The old woman who had pushed her. She wore what seemed to be a white robe, almost a night dress, but one made of heavy, thick cotton. it swayed as she walked, so thick it had its own momentum, it’s own weight.
Then the old woman who wasn’t wearing white Grabbed her, a hand on each side of her head, and screeched in a voice that cracked and broke
She meant to say ‘they’re right there!’ as they were almost at the old woman now. Could she not see them? But as they approached, as the closed in, all she could managed was a weak click sound from her throat. As the first, the precession leader, a tubby short man with an oddly flamboyant tie, walked past. He didn’t look at them, the old woman, furious and clinging to the village newbie. When he got to the church door, he simply put one hand up, as if to open it, then vanished, a swirl of vaguely blue smoke dispersing as if it had only ever been the memory of a man, never a man itself. Then the woman, the girl. The other woman. The other man. All did the same. Then the old woman. The same, only peaceful. Not like the old woman holding her, yelling at her (When had she stopped hearing her?) The old woman in the white dress didn’t disappear at the door, she turned, came over, and leant in close. The woman’s vision was filled with a bizarre mirror image. One shouting and angry, the other serene and calm. The calm one raised a finger to her lips, and whispered
“Don’t tell her you saw me, saw her. Don’t.” And then stood straight and faced the church door. She reached out for it, turning one final time.
“I’m sorry about your dog.” She said as she faded to smoke.
The old woman, the other, angry one, started shaking her. That and Benji’s barking snapped her out of whatever odd perceptive mode she had been in. She shrugged the old woman off, Benji her priority. She grabbed his collar, pulled him tight, hugged him.
“Thought I’d lost you boy.”
The old woman seemed humbled by this display of compassion, of love. She calmed, her whole body seeming to change, a stoop appearing, a fragility that wasn’t here before.
“Forgive me. I had worked had, waiting for the first of May.”
She coughed into the cold night.
“Tell me, of the people who walked into the church, was I among them?”
The woman still held Benji, and thought of the other, calmer old woman telling her to shush.
“No.” She lied.
“Well. That’s something. Did you know any of them?”
“No. two women, two men, and a girl. What was that?”
“A girl. that is sad. It’s a shame you’re new to the village.”
The old woman moved to help her up, but she stayed sat awkwardly, holding Benji.
“If you meet any of the people you saw tonight, you should find me, tell me. I might be able to help.”
“What was that? Were they ghosts?”
“No. Well, ghosts of the living. Of the soon called. It is said, in the lore, that a person stood on the steps of the church at midnight on the first of May will see everyone from the village who will die in the coming year. That they walk the path of their coffin. I waited for this. Needed to know. Why were you here?”
“My dog – he got out. He was sat on the steps.”
“Before midnight, or at midnight?”
“I don’t know, I just… I don’t know. I can’t remember.”
“Shame” the old woman said, leaving her on the wet grass of the graveyard, hugging Benji in the cold dark night.

The Comeback

Darren sweated under the studio lights. It was not going well. He stood on the end of the stage, his immaculate suit ceaseless, but his shirt collar beginning to show his sweat. His hand was extended out, to the audience. He had stopped mid-sentence. Cursing, he dearly wished he could shout at the idiot on the other end of his ear piece. When he got off stage, he’d ring her neck, he decided. Make no mistake. Composing himself, he took a handkerchief from his suits top pocket, and padded dry his forehead. He then inhaled heavily, as theatrically as he could, and staggered back.
“I’m sorry” Darren said. “Samuel left me just then. A moment, please”
Darren saw the stage manager, motioning the sign for stop. He would have to at this point. Over an hour in, and not a single reliable hit.
“The Spirits” He said, projecting his voice as if he had just tapped some inner strength, “The spirits are…”
“Section four, fat lady in blue, wanting to contact her husband, dead two years, name is Chris Wilkinson. Working on the cause of death now.” Darren didn’t miss a beat.
“…Here with me again. I have someone here with me now, William? No, Wilkinson, Christopher – he didn’t like that, he liked Chris – does that make sense to anyone here?” Darren hovered his hand over section four, and waited, trying very hard not to crack a broad smile as Janet came back over his ear piece
“Work accident. He was crushed in a steel mill. Spent three hours with both legs trapped below the knees before dying as they tried to free him. And there’s a Benny in section seven, after his mother, Nora. Queuing up the info now”
She finished just as a fat lady in blue stood up. The camera angle from behind Darren made it look like she was in his grip. Darren wasted no time, walking slowly across the stage, lurching, over exaggerating every step as he bent his knees.
“Chris had a problem with his knees? No, it’s like a weight, a crushing weight.” The lady in the blue dress burst into tears, and sat down sobbing.
“He’s fine, my love. He didn’t suffer for long, and he’s now in a happy place. He’s worried about you though, says you shouldn’t keep cancelling that doctors appointment – does that make sense, love?”
The lady wailed a long yes, and Darren asked the studio staff to ‘help her out, make sure she’s okay’. He loved that. Nothing like a good solid hit. As the helpers guided her through the narrow seating, Darren took a quick swig of water. Janet was already giving him the details for another three marks. Back on track, another awesome edition of the Darren Anchor show.
“Norma, Nora? Anyone know a Nora?” He said, finishing his drink in front of section seven.
“Darren?” It took him a moment to place the voice. He couldn’t help himself.
“Mother?” he tried to say it under his breath, but the mic picked it up. A man in a shabby sweatshirt stood up
“Nora was my mother” said the man.
“Darren. What in the name of high hell do you think you’re doing my boy?”
“Er… Mother? But, but. You’re dead!”
“yes, she died eight…” The man in the audience started
“Not you, you imbecile!” Darren shouted at the man
“How dare you speak to that poor man like that. You’ve been a very naughty boy, Darren! Say sorry immediately!”
“I… Mother? NO! I don’t believe! I won’t”
“You’d better” Darren’s mother shimmered and appeared in front of him.
“You, my boy, are a terrible disappointment to me.” Darren fell to his knees, in front of his mother. It was her, but she wasn’t quite solid, she was transparent, and looked as if she had a light blue sheen all around her.
“How dare you defraud all these people? What were you thinking? I know for a fact I taught you right from wrong, boy!” Darren couldn’t take it in, and the audience didn’t know what to do, they sat there staring at the ghost on stage, berating the medium. Then more. Norma shimmered into view on the stage, and glided up to her son. Chris appeared, nothing from the knees down, and glided off behind the audience to find his wife. Then more, many more, all with the same light blue hue, all transparent. Dozens, some by looks modern, some world war two soldiers, some were Tudors, some dressed only in rough animal furs. All kinds of human life, from every historical era. Darren clasped his hands over his ears and screamed. And when he uncurled himself, the studio was still brimming with ghosts. The dead, talking excitedly with the living, loved ones reconnecting.

“Well. I suppose I should have expected something like this. You always were too much like your father.” Darren’s mother was still stood beside him.
“GO AWAY!” He yelled at her, and ran, pushing through the crowd. Every time he touched a ghost, he felt cold, and a icy, translucent, light blue gel was left on him. He struggled on. The audience were either too busy with a ghost to notice, or else desperately tried to than thank him as he barged past.
“It’s not me, you idiots” Darren said. “It’s not me!”
He ran down the empty backstage corridor, and slammed his dressing room door shut. He pressed his ear piece.
“Janet? Are you still there? What’s going on?”
“Darren. It’s my cousin. She drowned when we were six, she… she doesn’t hate me. Says it wasn’t my fault.” Then she started to cry.
“Useless” said Darren, tearing out his earpiece.
“Temper.” His mother said as she emerged through the door “At least I don’t need to tell you to stop. Now, Darren, you’re not needed. Now, the dead have come back.”

A Sharks Tale

The camp fire was almost out. Only two people were left, staring at the waning fire, the glowing embers.
“I enjoyed all of the stories tonight”
The words danced around the trees and tents. No response came.
She coughed, and repeated the line, staring intently at his face.
“Mmn. I think it was irresponsible, all those stories. Just spewed out into the night air. Stories can kill.”
“Hah. Don’t be silly. you saying you’ve saved the best scary story for last?”
“I have a story about a story. I don’t know if it’s scary; that’s up to you. Imagine, if you will, that there are two large swimming pools…
In the first is a white pointer shark, Carcharodon carcharias, the biggest mackerel in the ocean, aka the Great White Shark.
In the other is a Tiger Shark, Galeocerdo cuvier, a requiem shark, alone in its own genus.
Now here’s the thing, you have to get into one of the tanks. This isn’t a trick question, there is a right and a wrong answer. And it starts here, you have to get into one of the tanks. With one of the sharks. Oh, and by the way, both the sharks are, for our last story of the night purposes, both hungry.”
“That’s insane. there can’t be a right answer. They’re both hungry sharks. I’ll get eaten.”
“But it’s your choice. and you can get it right. You have a fifty fifty chance.”
“I choose the Tiger Shark.”

“ECH-EHU. And the right answer? The right answer is Jaws. That’s right, the great white shark is the safest. And it seems wrong, it feels, wrong, but it’s right. Counter intuitive, but right. Here’s why.
The Great White attacks man. No doubt, plenty of records (even when you filter out misidentifications -most people attacked near shore or at the mouth of rivers are more likely mauled by a bull shark, which looks very similar, and has a range that overlaps the great whites.
Even ruling that out, there are first hand accounts and video evidence of great whites having a go at humans. So there’s no doubt, great whites attack humans. But there is a subtle difference. Great whites don’t eat humans. Tigers do.
It breaks down like this. You are out, swimming and get attacked by a great white. You get attacked because the white has mistaken you for prey. But the absolute very second it bites you, the shark realises it’s mistake, and lets go, leaves you alone. You aren’t a prey item. Trust me, great whites attack seals, and scavenge whale carcases. Even the fattest, blubberiest, twenty stone human does not rate highly on the kinds of fat a white is used to. You get spat out as unappetising. Imagine spending your whole life eating blocks of the best butter, then one day biting down hard on low fat margarine. Now, of course, being bitten by an animal anywhere between seven and nineteen foot long, with three rows of jagged, razor sharp teeth and a biting pressure of around three thousand pounds per square inch, is going to impact your day in a negative way (ask Rodney Fox) but the point is, the devastating wound, the high chance that you’ve lost a limb, and the certainty of massive blood loss aside, it is survivable (Ask Rodney Fox). The point to remember here is, it is survivable. You have a chance. Devastating injuries, sure, but you have a chance. A high chance that you’ll make it back to the beach, get to tell everyone ‘it was a great white that did this’. A slimmer chance to live past it, maybe, but still, there is hope that you will be able to tell the tale of your attack many years later. And that’s the key. You live to tell the story, you aren’t a prey item. The time you survived a Great white attack. A good story, right?
Everyone loves that story. so it spreads, people hear it, love it, retell it. Great Whites became feared. ‘Look at what they can do’.
Now, the tiger shark, however, eats. Eats you, all up. Yum yum. Humans are a prey item. It doesn’t spit you out. It likes ya. You have no chance to make it back to the beach, you don’t get to tell everyone that it was a Tiger shark that bit you, as you’ve been eaten bit by bit, and are too busy being turned into fish pooh. While your friends on the beech just think you went home early. At best, you’re a missing person.
So the stories are set. The great white is feared, and the Tiger is a relatively obscure animal, worried about, as any large shark is, but comes off with a better, less dangerous reputation than the white.

Because stories are kinder to it.

Those are the kind of stories that kill.”

Comic Book Boy

It was old Jim Weathers that started it. He didn’t even notice, either. Sat on the gate one damp September night, in his little hut, watching Wheel of Fortune on a tiny TV with washed out colours and cursing his thermos flask that never kept his tea warm past three am, he didn’t notice that he’d signed in the wrong column on the form. The truck that should have gone to the biohazard dump rolled out for the regular city dump instead.
But just one mistake wasn’t enough. Like a perfectly choreographed ballet, the driver got confused at his next stop, and left behind the Army bases trash cart, thinking he was taking a full one and leaving an empty one. But he left the dumpster that should have gone to the biohazard dump in a quiet little alley downtown.
It sat there for a few days, quietly bubbling to itself, a faint green glow pulsing out from under the lid throughout the dark autumn nights. On the third day, a woman screeched her car into the side alley, and tearfully slammed her door shut, opened the boot, and emptied everything that was in it into the dumpster. It splashed and fizzled as it ate her meal, not quiet digesting them, but mushing them up and making them hum with light.
The crying woman didn’t notice. She simply snarled “that will show you, you arrogant cheater. Say goodbye to your collection” before slamming the car door and squealing away, leaving exactly as she had arrived.
It was a week later when the trash got its next meal. Buddy Simons was about to get his lunch money taken. Again. He’d tried fighting back, but all he got was slapped about. It was always three on one. So this day, he decided to run. He’d done fine for a while, but they just weren’t giving up. Even with the rain, the storm. He ran until his feet stung and his breath was like sharp, cold needles in his chest. He was all the way downtown, and he was lost. He didn’t recognise anywhere. The rain pounded down and the low, thick clouds coiled about themselves, rumbling like a thousand angry rhinos. He leant against the dumpster, the one that wasn’t supposed to be there, and bent forward as he gulped in huge mouthfuls of air, trying not to drink in the rain. When it happened, it wasn’t like the movies. They didn’t say anything, didn’t speak. They just grabbed him, banged his head against the dumpster, pulled his jeans off, opened the lid and tossed him in. Buddy hit the glowing liquid that felt warm and tickled his bare legs. But the comics that sloshed around in there stuck to him, covered him. They stung. Like clinging, needy things, they covered him and he struggled to peel them off. The liquid was like warm soda; and just as sticky. The comics had been marinating in it, and they attached to him in layers, gaudy four colour print leaves of heroic deeds. The boys slammed the lid shut, and were shouting, calling him names, as they rocked the dumpster, spreading the comics all over him. He couldn’t catch his breath, it seemed so hot in here. The comics covered him, over his face, and he couldn’t breathe. It was too hot. He tried to scream, but only swallowed some of the liquid instead. It ticked his skin, but burnt his throat, and he would have spat blood if the comics weren’t over his face. Instead, he inhaled it, and gulped as he lost his breath. He thought for sure he was going to die, when the lightning bolt hit the dumpster.

A local barber, who didn’t see Buddy go in, but had heard the boys shouting, and saw them rocking the dumpster called the police. Patrol car 47 was nearby, on the way back from a minor call. The car pulled up and Officer Hendricks got out, just in time to see the boys rocking the dumpster, then a bright blue flash blinded him, and a wave of force rocked him, making him lift his arm above his head, threatening to knock him down. He steadied himself as his vision came back from black to blurry, and at first, he thought he must be imagining it, what he saw when his eyes did clear up enough to only be fuzzy at the edges. The three boys were sprawled out in the alley, all of them bent and twisted, all three of them with trainers that released gentle wisps of smoke from their soles. The smoke was fighting to rise against the downpour, and loosing. But that wasn’t the weird thing. The weird thing was hovering above the dumpster. It glowed, faintly, green. And it rustled like dry leaves, despite the rain. It was human shaped, but small. About the size of a boy. But it looked like it was made of comics. They stuck to a rough shape, an outline, but at the same time swirled and bobbed loosely, as if a stack of comics had the idea that they could be a boy, if only they worked hard enough at it. The thing had two bright green eyes, that burnt with flames escaping recessed sockets. And it had a mouth, open and mushy, glistening like fresh papier-mâché. It screamed, once, sounding like a boy choking at the start, but ending sounding like nothing human. Then it extended its arms, and paper that was at once dry yet moved like fluid shot out in streams, covering the two of the boys faces. The flying thing poured bits of itself at their heads until they stopped moving, Officer Hendricks imagining them trying to scream but unable to, and he watched as they scraped their still smoking trainers along the ground frantically, clawing hopelessly at the paper streams that plastered and stuck them to the wall, before they twitched and stopped moving altogether. The third boy, largest, was closest to Hendricks. He was un-holstering his gun as the boy, sobbing, panicking, ran toward him. As he drew level, Hendricks tried to say “get behind me” to him, but the rain drowned it out, and he only got as far as ‘guh’ before the thing from the dumpster coated the running boy’s head in a torrent of slick, flowing paper. Pages from comics, Hendricks noticed, almost absent mindedly, a panel showing the Hawk gliding, silhouetted by the full moon. Then that panel, that page was gone, as the stream of paper unrelentingly poured on to the running kids head. He had stopped running now, of course, and had fallen to his knees, trying to peel the pages that clung to his head off, clearly weak and numb, his fingers struggling to work and his arms heavy and uncoordinated.
“st… Stop! Or I shoot!” commanded Hendricks, aiming his pistol at the flying, swirling mass of boy shaped comics. The teen next to him fell over silently, and was still. The thing that used to be Buddy but now wasn’t looked at the cop and laughed, flying off up into the storm.

It started small, a tiny lump in the middle of his forehead. A few days later, it was large. exactly as if he’d banged his head, and caused a swelling. He thought back, but had no recollection of knocking his head. No-one at the office said anything, but he often heard them whispering and laughing as they pointed at him. He put up with it, figuring that it’d only be there for a few days. It wasn’t until the second and third lumps appeared, and he noticed that the first lump had a fingernail at the end that he went to the doctors.

His GP was Doctor Gregson. He said “How usual. Looks like a finger tip. Does it hurt?”

Tony replied no. “Nothing to worry about then.” Tony left his doctors office, pausing after closing the door. He felt angry and upset, as if the doc hadn’t really listened to him. And he felt his finger (the one on his forehead) wriggle. So that was new.

A week later, there were four fingers. Stuck together, and cupped upward. Tony bought a hooded top with a peak at the front to cover it. People at the office now stopped and stared, openly fascinated. No-one ever asked him about it.

By the end of the third week, it had stopped growing. It was a hand. All the way to the wrist. He’d been back to the Doctor several times, had some blood tests, given a skin sample from one of the fingers. Nothing malignant. He was healthy, apparently, so healthy he now had extra bits. Work had just about become bearable. He was all but able to ignore the reactions. Until Steve.

Steve was Tony’s supervisor. Steve liked Tony, but Tony couldn’t stand Steve. He hated him. Steve popped into Tony’s cubical for one of his little chats. He’d often give Tony some work, then spend a while excitedly showing him pictures of girls on tinder who had replied to him the once. Just as Tony thought ‘I wish he’d go away’, the hand on his forehead started to wriggle. There was a sound like tearing paper as the fingers split apart. Tony felt it. It didn’t hurt. Then the hand clenched. All but the middle finger. Crap! He was giving his boss the finger. El Birdo. He pulled up his hood, just as Steve looked up from ‘kelly’. “Hot yeah?” he offered. Just as the hand wriggled, threw off the hood, and once again, proudly gave the finger. Steve didn’t say anything, but his eyes wandered up to Tony’s forehead, and lingered. Tony felt the hand loosen then clench. It knew Steve was looking at it, and wanted to emphasize the bird. They stayed like that for a good, long, eternal ten seconds. Steve looking at the hand on Tony’s forehead insulting him. “Uh, so how do you feel about working from home?” he asked.

Months passed. Tony got used to his new routine. The hand seemed to only have four gestures; a side to side slap. A fist, the finger, and a first and second fingers ‘a-okay’ thing. He was never completely sure what set it off. Sometimes, he was convinced that the hand was a different person sticking out of his head. Other times, yeah, he pretty much agreed with it, but it was nothing he’d ever dare comment on out loud. He tried putting up mirrors near his work station, so he could see the hand. But anytime he went near them the hand attacked them. He’d smashed a good dozen before realizing the way forward. His webcam. The hand didn’t seem to mind at all, in fact, it seemed to like it, often posing and preening itself when the camera was turned on. Then, after a hard session, working all the way to a tough deadline, Tony fell asleep at his desk. He awoke, in a puddle of drool, to discover he’d become an internet sensation. While he’d been sleeping, the hand had uploaded all the footage of it gesturing as Tony went about his day. the first video had been up for six hours, and had close to a million hits. The hand had uploaded twenty videos in all. The most popular ones were the hand reacting to news reports, or Tony posting replies on facebook. That was it, Tony went back to the doctors, and pleaded to have the hand removed. The Doctor had a counter proposal; Dr Gregson wanted to study the hand and write a paper about it. The hand clearly liked that idea, so Tony left and never went back. He gave up, and started sleeping at his computer desk. It didn’t take long, a few weeks, all told. He had an income from the videos, t-shirts, mugs, mousemats. Baseball caps with hands on the front. Hell, the hand had managed to write and publish an e-book about ‘living with a coward: tactics and strategies”, And had its own website, facehand dot com. Tony became a shell. His life seemed to only be happening while he slept. His sole purpose seemed to be to put himself into online situations so the hand could react. Tony never liked waking up, but he started to like sleeping.

But the hand was its own undoing. The book became a best seller, and the hand had a print run of a few thousand made up. But as the books were being delivered, the truck driver overloaded the crate, and it fell. The hand urged Tony forward, and he tried to catch it. It landed on his arm, crushing his left hand completely. The pain was terrible. He woke in hospital, with a team of Doctors around him. “Very pleased to meet you, Tony” Said one of them, comically shaking the hand on his forehead. “Good job you’ve got a spare!”.

So that was that. His forehead hand became his left hand. It no longer held sway over his life. He went back to the office, and life was easier. It still popped the bird, tried to hit people, but it was just a hand, in the right place. And even if he wasn’t in full control of it, he felt as if he was.

And that’s an important distinction.

Winter comes for everybody

She folds up the tissue carefully, and places it with slow deliberate motion into the napkin, folding this over on itself and then putting the whole thing into a shoe box that has been lined rocks covered with cotton wool. When this is done, she looks to her father, and he nods solemnly, before saying a few words of comfort and producing the shoe box lid. He wraps a line of electrical tape along the join of box and lid, and picks it up, crouching down onto one knee before offering it to her. She pauses, and he has to tell her that this is best for Goldie, before she will take it.
He stands, and then puts his arm around her shoulder as they walk out of the house together. They walk across the road, and into the park, the park so close that she considers it her own garden. It is a mix of neatly kept grass and large rhododendron bushes, and she knows all of it very well, having crawled, run or climbed through and over every single inch of it this summer alone. The park is on a hill, with three paths. Once central path goes to a middle, circular monument, a great slab of stone, with many words etched into it. Words she has never read. Just before the slab, the path forks, both paths heading steeply down to a gate, and both bottom gates joined by a gravel strip that scrunches when you walk on it. She likes that one better than the tarmac ones.
Father and daughter walk down through the park familiar to one of them and unknown to the other, to the reservoir at the bottom. There are three bodies of water here, the first two are split by a footbridge, and have wrought iron railings all around them. She doesn’t want Goldie in one of them. All along perfectly straight lined banks are small breaks in the reeds and weeds, patches of concrete. And on most days, men, alone, and grey sit there, hunkered down under large umbrellas, long rods cast into the water, maggots writhing in tubs, sandwiches curling in either sun or drizzle. No. She wants Goldie to go into the third reservoir. Edgeley Pond. So, head bowed, she is steered by her father’s hand on the shoulder as they leave the park by the bottom right exit, and cross another road, onto not really another park, but an open field with a path through it. Here, there are only one or two anglers. No iron railings. The grass goes to the water, and along the water’s edge are dotted the occasional weeping willow. She likes them, they seem to bow respectfully to the water. And that makes this water seem freer than the other two, not bounded and caged, endlessly examined by men in galoshes. Her father picks what seems to be the least muddy section, and stops as the grass slopes down to the water, his hand falling away from her shoulder the only indication he gives to her that this bit, this bit she needs to do on her own.
She walks to the water’s edge, never once taking her eyes off the shoebox. Not until her toes get wet, and she hears a stifled gasp from her father, who now seems to be many miles behind her, does she stop and look around at where she is. She kneels down, ignoring the lapping water that wets her, and sits for a moment, shoebox perched awkwardly on lap, as she cries. She remembers getting Goldie from the fair, Uncle Jack getting three prefect bulls eye’s with the BB gun, getting him in a clear plastic bag, and her mother and father both agreeing that Goldie wouldn’t make it home. She remembers going with her father and Uncle Jack to buy a round, open topped tank, and choosing the multicoloured pebbles for the tank, saying it was like where a rainbow lands. She remembers carefully feeding Goldie, obsessing about not giving him too little or too much, but also just enough, and the day she took him to school and told her class about how she had to change his water, and the difficulty of feeding him. She remembers telling Goldie all about her days, and being careful to include him in her play whenever she could. Her dolls house sitting open and neglected, as another round of tea with giant Rupert and Goldie was had.
And coming home today, all excited to be back at school, and up a year, and finding Goldie on his side, not moving. Then she simply pushes the shoebox away from her. It floats, briefly, as it travels out into the pond, but it sinks as it does so, and as it tips up and disappears with a gentle shloop sound, giving a last burp of air to mark its location, she stops crying, wiping her eyes on the short sleeves of her summer dress. She stands, now cold and wet, and eager to get home. She says nothing at first, silently slipping her hand into her father’s as they walk home. It’s not until they are about the cross the final road, until after they have left the parks and reservoirs behind them, that she speaks. She hasn’t really thought about it until now, and, in all truth, she is forming the thought as she says it out loud. “It’s good, isn’t it, really, that he went now, Dad. I mean, Autumn. The trees are dropping leaves, everything is brown and red, like getting ready for winter. Like Winter is death. It feels alright that he died now.”
Her father pauses and looks at her, and she looks at him, silently finishing off the thought to herself, realising as she looks up to him that her father will die. That she will die. That winter comes for everybody.
He father hugs her, horrified by her sudden maturity. he does the only thing he can think of, and hopes aloud that they can find some cartoons to watch when they get back home.

The two that got away

“But it’s raining”
“Just another hour. He comes out in the rain.”
“I’m not sitting next to a pond in the rain for an hour.”
Julia got up, struggling to walk on the mud at the water’s edge with her heavy bag. The high heels didn’t help. She sliped her way back to the park. David watched her briefly, but the sounds of splashing water quickly brought his attention back to the pond. Julia shouted something before she was out of sight, but if David did hear, he didn’t let it distract him from his vigil.
Nothing happened for two hours.
David had started to reel in, wanting to check his bait. It was still quite far out, when he saw the wake. As he was pulling it in, something was chasing. Something big. Maybe the goldfish. He stood, adrenalin rushing through his already excited slender frame. He tried to steady his shaking rod, to keep the reel at a constant pace. Keeping it slow was the problem. Could he be about to catch it? He looked around the ponds edge. There was only one other fisherman, across on the far side. He seemed to be sleeping, slumped in his fishing chair. David wanted to shout, to wave his arms. “Hey, watch this! Watch what I’m about to do!” But then the bait was bitten. A single, strong, grasp and tug. It almost pulled the rod from his hands. This thing was big. People had been saying it was eating dogs, but no-one but David had thought those stories could possibly be true. He had a fight now, whatever had the bait was large. He struggled to control his rod. He had to stop reeling in, using both hands to pull on the rod, before straining to get a hand back to the reel winder. This was going to be a fight. He pulled the rod high, and then went back to winding. The closer he brought it to shore, the more the rod bent, a dangerous and angry ‘n’ shape over the water. Then it slackened, and David saw what he was up against, as the fish broke the surface, only part of the lamb’s leg visible out of its huge mouth. The Fish was a monster. A goldfish, but not really golden anymore, it was a deep, burnt orange. Its mouth was lined with deep green and black algae that made it look as if it was smiling through crooked teeth. Only the fins were recognizably goldfish, bright orange to golden yellow. Overall, the fish was about as large as a bulldog. Oddly squat, the only shape David could liken it to would be a puffer fish, or an angry suitcase. The fish hit the water. How long had this thing been in the pond? He pulled the rod tight again, desperate to get a hand free to wind, but not having the chance. Now it was close to shore, the fish was fighting madly. And it truth, David’s resolve had wavered after seeing the monster first hand. Doubt entered his head; maybe he wasn’t good enough to land this creature. Maybe no-one was. It wasn’t a fish anymore; it was some kind of God of the pond. A force of nature. The rod eased, and David focused on reeling. Damn it, he was going to get it to shore at least. He had it. Maybe the fish had weakened. Maybe it was toying with him, but David felt a surge of hope, and reeled madly, yanking the rod high as he did. The Goldfish flopped out into the shallows, only its belly wet, flapping madly. Even out of the water, it wasn’t letting go of the meat. David tried to get his catch net with his right foot.
“No, you know, I’ve had enough of this. You come home right now, or I’m leaving you.” Julia said. David slipped, falling hard with a sloochk into the mud. He held the rod aloft, his right foot kicked the catch net into the water. The fish flopped and jumped, swallowing the lamb’s leg. Now just the line came from its mouth. It was going to win.
“Little busy! Help me”
“No. We’ll be over. Do you understand? It’s just a fish, David. It’s…” she paused, looking at the scene before her. David thought she would see the monster, the huge, unusual giant goldfish, and understand, all that he had been talking about for moths, all of his hopes, they had come down to this, and now she would see, his struggle, his sacrifice, all worth it. But unlike in the fairy tales, his princess would be by his side, no mere damsel, she would help him to slay the beast. Then he would commit, they could marry, settle down, and he could tell his children – his grandchildren – the tale of how he caught the killer goldfish of Edgeley pond, before showing them the beast itself, mounted on a fine oak board above a roaring fireplace in the front room.
“No. damn it, is this ugly thing more important than me?” She ran towards it, and kicked it hard on the nose. She pulled her foot back to kick it again. David shouted, the goldfish jumped, the line in its mouth snapped, and Julia kicked out again. But she slipped as she did, and her heel swiped across the fish, cutting up from below its eye to the top of its head. Her shoe came off and spiraled through the air as blood gushed from the wound, and the eye rolled up, punctured and useless. But then the fish landed, jumped once, ate the shoe that had injured it, Jumped again, and was gone back to the deep water. “Nooo!” David yelled, still on his back. Julia struggled up, and kicked David with her now bare foot. “Those were Jimmy Choos, you IDIOT! We’re through. I’m sick of stuff like this, I’m sick of you!” She stomped off, as best she could with one shoe through water sodden soil. David lay there, in the cold mud, both of his dreams dead; the only though he had in his head was sadness at his failure to catch the fish, and a vague puzzlement over why Julia had been wearing a pair of shoes that belonged to some Jimmy guy.

Toast – Part 4

There’s never any dreams. I don’t know if I miss them or not. Most of the time, I’m glad not to have them, my grasp of the day to day is so weak. If I had to work out what was a dream, and what had actually happened, as well as working out where I was and if I was safe or not…
Well, then. Its best I don’t dream. You know that feeling you get, when you wake up, but you don’t know where you are, then you remember, as your memory rushes in like the tide to soak all the dry sand? Yeah, I don’t have that. I just have the waking up, not knowing where I am or what is around me. Now, though, I have a passenger. One who has only made things worse. Now, if I believe her, I have to work out when I am along with everything else.
And I open my eyes. The dog stares back at me, teeth bared and snarling. I try to roll from my side to by back and then jump up, but it’s on me just as I stand, teeth locked around my forearm, the thick, muscular animal pulling me down, falling on top of me. Which works to my advantage; it has to let go to literally save its own neck as we fall. Freed from the dog, I hunch, low to the ground, grabbing the first thing near to me, a short but thick tube of hardened cardboard. I swing it left and right, and yell, my throat not really working, croaking and cracking rather than booming and menacing. The dog thinks better of it, though, and backs away. Still growling, but clearly accepting its loss.
“Yeah, that’s right” I yell, resisting the urge to throw my cardboard tube after it. I might need it. I rest, kneeling, catching my breath.
I really have to stop waking up like this.
It’s a while before I look around. A ruined city. Is it the same ruined city? The one where I found magicat? Once I think about her, I realise I can’t see her. I feel a stab of anxiety. Did the dog get her before I woke up? I stand, and scan for her. Nothing. I call her name. Only the wind answers me, whispering as it whips clouds of dust and debris into mini cyclones. I move some rubble from where I’m stood, using the tube to help. Nothing. If I am where I first found her, have I dropped her off? Returned her?
“I’m afraid not” She says. I look around me, but can’t see her.
“I’m not near you” she says. “Do you remember how to get to the shopping centre? I’m there.”
“And we can still talk? Even far apart?” I ask, embarrassed as I finish, because I’ve just asked a very empty sky a question I could have just thought. ‘Never mind’ I think. ‘I’m on my way’.
It’s slow progress, getting back there. It takes time to clamber over the mountains of rubble, and I’m very wary of meeting anymore dogs. When I do get to the pedestrian shopping centre, I find Magicat sitting quietly on one of the shops verandas, well above my head. Her tail flicking slowly as she concentrates on something in the distance.
“Glad you’re here” she says. Thinks. You know. She doesn’t look at me, but she gets up and walks along the edge of the veranda. “There’s something here; I’m not sure what it is. It might have something to do with how we got stuck together. More importantly, I have a piece of the puzzle for you” She stops and looks at me.
“Your timeline. I had a glimpse of it as you slept. I was awake as we travelled. I don’t know when exactly we are, but I know this. It’s the past.”
“the past? So the bombing is even further back?”
“I don’t think so. I don’t think it can be, You are only travelling between three distinct points in your own history, past present and future. If this is the past, then it can’t have anything to do with the blitz – That happens later.”
“later than this?” I gesture to the ruined city about us. “So what did this; more importantly, when we travelled, what was it like? What did you see?”
“Just lights, blurry lights. The rest of it was impressions, feelings with images. I’m afraid to say, I wasn’t paying that much attention. I was trying to find my friend.”
I stop walking alongside her, and stare up to her on her lofty perch. I’ve been so happy to have someone. Something? Someone. To talk to, I’d never considered that she might not want to be with me. I’d just accepted it as my new equilibrium, never once considering her feelings.
“Your friend?” I want to sound concerned, interested, but emotion has my throat, and I sound resentful.
“I was travelling, much like you, never really knowing where I’d end up, until I found him. We were only together a short while, all I ever really knew about him was the sadness of his past and the detail that he had a acorn for a heart.” She jumps down, and slinks in front of me. “he was looking for someone he’d lost.” She stops, and looks at me for the first time.
”It’s like a long chain, isn’t it, the lost, the seekers, all intertwined, but never with the right partners.”
I feel scared by the intimacy of the truth in her words, and break her gaze. That’s when I see it. A swirling, purple blue – something. I don’t know what. A swirly thing, turning slowly, churning up rocks and dirt, sucking them towards it. Looks just like water going down a plug hole; but it’s horizontal, just above the ground, and about six feet high, top to bottom.
“Yeah. That” she says, not missing a beat. “Weird, huh? I mean, I’ve seen odd, and weird – but this is weird, right?” She smiles at me, and we both decide we were getting too uncomfortable with the conversation, and we should now focus on the weird thing.
I walk around it. It tapers to a point at the back, and as close as I dare get, has a pull from the front. I want to jump in.
“Me too” Magicat says. I don’t have time to think ‘should we?’ before she has leaped onto my shoulder. I look into her eyes, and we gently touch foreheads. “Hopefully home” We say to each other, and leap into the vortex.

Toast – Part 3

Toast 3
Before me, in the strange sea, I can see three of the creatures playfully splashing about. Their skin changes colour, rippling and shimmering. Maybe a form of communication? I decide that I must have somehow brought them here, and that this pleases them. One seems to wave at me, which I take as thanks, before they sink beneath the water, leaving me alone on the beach. Well, the cat is still here.
I look down at her. The black cat. How can she talk? And how does she know what’s going on? She looks up at me and purrs.
“I’m just a cat. And I’m not talking, I’m thinking. You can hear, is all, silly.”
She nudges my leg, and walks off to the line of palm trees lining the beach.
“And I’ve no idea what’s going on, any more than you do. I see people in trouble and I help them. At least” she pauses “I always try.”
I open my mouth to speak, but she cuts me off.
“The octopus creatures are people. Well, at least, they have a society, a shared language, a culture, which is, I assume, the kinds of things you mean when you say people. We just brought them home.”
Great. So she can answer questions I’ve thought of as soon as I think of them.

The palms are sparse, with wide gaps between each tree. There is no grass, or soil, just sand and the occasional tuft of dune grass. I’m pretty sure this cat is not in my imagination, that this is, somehow, actually happening. It’s been so long since I’ve had anything like company, I just start asking questions. She smiles gently, and we talk as we walk.

She knows some things about me. Knows I’m lost. But nothing beyond that; apart from one important detail, which wasn’t one of my questions, just something she drops in there.
“But you know when you are?”
My head swims. I stare, dumbfounded for a while, before asking her to repeat her question. Even then, it takes a while for the implications of what she’s asking sinks in.
“When? Why should when matter?”
“Very important, for you – and me, at the moment.”
“When? When is now, it’s the day after yesterday.”
“Are you sure? Sometimes people get lost. Fall through the cracks.”
“Cat, I’m so lost I wouldn’t even recognise my home if I saw it.”
“I know, you were just there. You’re not just lost, but fragmented. I don’t know why, or how, but you exist three times over – and not at all.”
What she is saying to me makes no logical sense, but it feels true.
“How can I not exist at all?”
“How many conversations have you had?”
“I can’t remember any, except this one”
“But you must have had others. Look, I can see things – things other people can’t. One of them is a person’s timeline. I can see people as a kind of conga line, all their past choices, all their previous days, all laid out as if they are still going on, all dancing their old mistakes, their current victories.”
“So you know where I came from, what led me here? How to get back?!”
She shakes her head, slowly, apologetically.
“Not you. I’ve never know it before. You don’t have any past, or future. You just exist here and now. It’s as if you haven’t done anything. As if you have no history, no temporal signature.”
“But I have done things; helped people in the blitz, saved those octopus things!”
“What was the blitz like?”
“Flying ships dropping bombs. Fire and death.”
“Who did you help?”
“People. Look – wherever I end up, animals can see me, but people – people are frozen.” I pause, I hate this, and saying it out loud makes it all the more real.
“like statues, they don’t move, or talk.” I finish.
“So in the blitz?” She pushes
“It was like walking around a photograph. Some were just… I couldn’t help them. But others. I did what I could. Moved them out of harms way, pulled them from fire, from a collapsing building. I saved them”
“I wonder.” Magicat says, jumping onto my shoulder.
And despite being excited to not only be talking, but to be maybe getting answers, I feel fatigue. The thought that I should sleep pops into my head.
“We’ll travel if you sleep.” Magicat says.
I laugh, short and snorty.
“For a while, I tried not sleeping. But it always catches up with you, sleep. Now I just lie down at the first sign of being tired.”
So I do. I lie down, and curl up, my long coat covering most of me. Magicat nuzzles my forehead, and as I drift off, a question flashes though my mind. I don’t get chance to ask it.

“Wait. How can you come with me?”


Toast – part 2


I’ve tried not sleeping; I thought it might help. But sleep is so all persuasive; you always surrender to it sooner or later. And even a brief second of true sleep is enough to shunt me someplace else, it seems.
Still, I’ve certainly never been on a spaceship before. And I seem to have made a friend. I look down to Magicat. It, or he (or she) must be some kind of illusion, an imagined familiar that will fade away if I stare at her (or him) for too long.
Magicat swishes her (or his) tail against my shin, then gently pads away from me. I can’t help myself, and stare intently at him (or her) as she (or he) walks away from me.
“I’m a girl” she softly purrs, before walking away and out of sight around the corner of the corridor.
At least now, I know she wasn’t real. Hah! A talking cat. I’ve witnessed horrors, seen unbelievable sights, on my travels. But a talking cat. If she was real, I think I’d really begin to lose my grip on reality.
Magicat pokes her head around the corner.
“Are you coming or not?” she asks, before slinking out of sight again.
So I’ve finally gone mad.

I limp after my imaginary cat, and when I turn the corner, my fears are confirmed. Magicat is nowhere to be seen. But there, in the corridor, is a man. He is obviously a crew member for this ship. Giddy, I run to him. He is posing as if for a photograph, his stance in mid walk, one foot in front of him, firmly on the floor, his other behind him, just the toes touching the floor. His arms are by his sides. He looks calm and focused.
I try to speak, but it’s been so long, and my voice sounds thin and wispy, even to me. For so long, I’ve just wanted to find another Human. He may not be, for all I know, but he’s immobile, ignorant to my presence.
I wave in his face, and he does not blink. He does not register, or acknowledge my presence.
My frustration at his lack of awareness grows, builds into anger, and I punch him, hard, in the face, screaming loudly as I connect. It’s a powerful right hook, and he almost lifts off the floor, before tumbling and bouncing off the wall to come to rest in a heap. His expression does not change, and his limbs are someway stuck between where they should be after the blow, and how they were before it.

I am over come with a feeling of futility.

No matter where I go, what I do, I will be alone. The helplessness becomes a mild guilt, and I try to stand him back up, in a similar pose to how I found him. It’s not easy, but I do my best. I sit down, cradling my knees in my arms. That’s twice. Twice lately I’ve lashed out. And this time I could have hurt someone. Or have. Everything is so uncertain in my world.
Just one conversation, even if I knew it would be my last one ever. Is that too much to ask? I bury my head in my knees, and try to sleep. For the first time since this all began, I want the sleep to come. I focus, call to it. Come on then, little death, come and take me. Next place, any place, I’ll sleep for a thousand years, I’ll wear out whatever it is that is causing this.
I feel the prickly stickiness of a cat’s tongue on my fingers. And I hear her again
“Not yet.” She says. I look up, and Magicat is back. Not yet. I wonder what she means. Since I’m now, without a doubt, mad, Magicat must represent some corner of my unconsciousness that until now didn’t have any outlet for…
“You really are too self involved, aren’t you? C’mon, follow me” She says, walking slowly away, beyond the frozen man. OK, so I’m harsh on myself. It only proves that maybe…
“Will you get off your ego-maniacal bum? Come ON.” She calls back to me, before walking on. Madness is all about being bossed around, apparently. I follow her.

As I walk, following my imaginary if somewhat harsh friend, it occurs to me that I’m not alone; I have myself to talk to, hah! If only I were real.
Magicat leads me through the ships corridors. We see many people, all dressed the same, all frozen in the middle of something. Walking, typing, sitting. At one point, the corridor opens out to some kind of communal area, and there is a large group, in what I imagine as an animated discussion, all unmoving, still, all as if they are unaware of time.
Magicat leads me to a closed door. It’s a big, heavy set door. I touch a panel near it, and it opens, to reveal another door. I open that, and another, and another. Then the last, and I enter a large room with little in it, save for what appears to be a large fish tank on the far wall. In it is some kind of octopus, but not one I’ve ever seen. The Octopus is large, and its skin gently shimmers dozens of different purples as I look at it.
“You have to help” Magicat urges me. I don’t know what she means. I lean forward, and touch the glass. I can’t tell how thick it is, but it’s cold, very cold. I pull my hand up the glass, until it is level with one of the octopus’s large eyes. I stare, focusing on it, and the octopus blinks. I stagger back, and feel sick to my stomach for a brief second, before falling back, falling into warm sand.
Before me is an amazing, unfolding sea, perched on the shore of a picture perfect palm tree lined beach. It’s heaven, paradise, perfection.

I cannot say “I really have to stop waking up like this.” Because I wasn’t asleep. How did that happen?
Just when I gain some foot hold, some tenuous finger tip hold on my world, it crumbles, fades, distorts and re-invents itself, leaving me unknowing and vulnerable again. Magicat looks up at me “you have to help” she repeats. She is still with me, and I am still alone with myself.