Flash Fiction: My Creation

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“Aha!” she shouted proudly. “Your defiance is proof!” She pointed her finger triumphantly at the laptop screen, wishing somebody else was here to share this incredible moment. Meanwhile the Word document still continued to fail uploading. “Your very refusal to do what I want for no discernible reason shows that you are now a creature of will!” she said, raising her arms up high and declaring her achievement to the ceiling, “I,” she said, “have created artificial intelligence!”

Flash Fiction: Sleepectomy

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It was five months since she’d had her sleep removed. An unpleasant, precise process that involved gradually scraping the need away with a scalpel. And no she never needed to sleep again.

After thirty-four years of never quite having enough time, finally all her problems would be over. She would no longer need to snap at the children when they wanted her to sit with them and watch cartoons. Her husband would never need to complain that his dinner was a ready meal, she’d be able to cook him exquisite banquets. She’d have time to take that evening class to finally learn German. She’d start pottery again. She’d take up sewing the children’s Halloween costumes. She’d write a play. Her life would never be the same again.

For a few weeks she lived in bliss, floating through the harried mums to pick up her kids at the end of the school day. Making pots and plates for birthday presents. Baking brownies in the middle of the night.

But the nights got emptier as the silence started to invade her thoughts. She would try to keep busy with useful things, but hours would pass spent only on forums, trying to connect with lives that were still busy and noisy. Trying to feel smug.

She’d fill the night up with sound, the radio, the TV. Her husband would clamber out of bed with blurry eyes and follow her around pleading with her to stop. She felt so relieved of the company that she’d keep going. And she started to get stupid. She never seemed to learn the German, just repeated the same lesson over and over. She’d find herself sitting vacantly staring into space for hours on end. Even when she felt alert and ready to do things, she couldn’t think of anything she actually wanted to do. Or why. Instead she’d repeat the same dull actions over and over, doing the washing, hanging the clothes out on the washing line even though it was the middle of the night. Taking the clothes in, still soggy and pushing them unfolded into the wrong drawers. She spent one entire evening sorting socks.

“Sorting them how?” asked her husband, his exasperation evident, although she couldn’t think why he would feel that way.

“I’m putting them into alphabetical order,” she explained.

“But they’re socks! They don’t have alphabetical order!” she patted his shoulder and started to drift away.

“Pull yourself together and do something productive!” her husband shouted.

That night as she was refolding all the clothes in her son’s chest of drawers, she paused, a bright blue Spongebob t-shirt in her hands. She began to twist it, pleased that it held the contorted shape well. She placed in back in the drawer, a little of the material rising up out of the drawer. She took another t-shirt and twisted that around the first to make a snake, escaping from the drawer. She let out a small giggle, hoping that no one heard her.

By the morning all her son’s clothes were spilling out onto the floor, as if escaping. Twisted into bizarre shapes or seated figures.

Flash Fiction: Only Joking!

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Geraud knew who was to blame when he found his car on the roof of a bus stop, it was Fabio. He barely knew Fabio at the time, they were colleagues working in IT in a large anonymous firm where boredom kept the workers itchy and restless. During an evening at the local pub, Geraud had expressed his disdain about practical jokes, describing them as ‘childish, bullying tactics’. Fabio had sneered back,

“Practical jokes are like lessons in survival, they’re how you grow up. If no one ever played a practical joke on you, then you’re like an infant, stumbling around with no idea.”

“What?” Geraud said in disbelief a few times. He’d never been the victim of such a joke, so began listing his lifetime achievements, all proving, he felt, his maturity and success. Fabio had merely sat back looking bored, as if Geraud’s very desperation to disagree proved Fabio’s point.

“It is time we played a little game,” replied Fabio, gesturing meaningfully with his pint. Geraud had scoffed and ignored him for the rest of the night.

The next day Geraud  was happy as he walked to the car park, he had plans for pizza, and he loved pizza. When he got to where his car should be, but wasn’t, he spent twenty minutes walking round and round the carpark, trying to recall his steps that morning. His car wasn’t there. In a panic he ran out into the street, looked around pointlessly while fumbling for his phone. He didn’t register the small group of people clustered around the bus shelter, buses were not something he cared much about. It was only the glimpse of his car’s custom paint job, Boulevard Black with a hint of Champagne, that led him to start paying attention. With horror flooding into the pit of his stomach like never before, Geraud ran across the road and looked up. His Maserati was perched neatly on the roof. Spray painted on the floor, were the words,

“Lesson one. Two to follow.”

My Boyf

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It’s a night out with the girls, and it’s great fun as always. We all gush over how gorgeous we’re looking, and all the ups and downs since we last met up. I love that part of the evening, when we’re all on a high just seeing each other, pooling sympathy and praise, bathing in wine and bawdy laughter. It’s the next part I don’t like, once the alcohol starts to properly kick in, and the conversation gets nasty, bitchy. They each have a standard boyfriend, with the usual damning flaws. They seem to hate them, but all they want to do is get married to these same men that they hate.

“Oh my God, how can anyone’s feet smell so bad? Is it a disease? Should I get him a doctor?”

“What I don’t get is how he can just sit in filth and not notice, and then when I complain, he asks me what needs doing! Like I’m the only one with eyes!”

“Just once, just once I’d like to know what he thinks about something real, not football, not a film, but real life, real people.”

“And what about you Lisa, how is your man?” and they all turn to me with a sneer, as if they think I’m intimidated by their miserable lives. They don’t even get the stupidity of thinking that the men they spend hours slagging off are superior to my Martin.

“He’s fine. He’s great, actually,” I say, wanting to pay tribute to the man I love, while also wanting to move the conversation on as soon as possible. I know where this could end up, and I want it to stop.

“Well, I suppose you don’t have to worry about smelly feet!” says Jennifer. “And oh my God, that reminds me, do you know what John said to me last night?” The gossip moves on, and it’s a relief.

Opening up my front door that night, I get that snuggly feeling of home. Even as I push the door open, the hall lights come on, and Martin’s voice calls from the sitting room,

“Hi honey, you’re home!” He loves making that joke, every time, and I love him for it.

“Hiya!” I shout back, as I pull off my boots and hang up my coat.

“I’ll stick the kettle on, you could probably do with a nice cup of tea.” He says, and I hear the kettle click on in the kitchen.

“You know me so well,” I say, collapsing onto the sofa, as soothing music starts playing over the speakers. Awkwardly he sits down next to me, puts an arm around me as I snuggle up to his chest. He smells like cinnamon and plastic, that warm, comforting smell.

“What’s this? I like it.” Martin always knows what music I like, it’s part of his programming.

“Beethoven. Did you have a good night out?”

“Hmm, I guess. They were all bitching about their men, as usual.”

“Saaaad,” says Martin, he’s been programmed with eighties slang, it always makes me laugh.

“I don’t ever bitch about you though,” I say, “you’re perfect.”

Martin knows he doesn’t need to answer, instead, without moving, he switches on the TV, it’s that evening’s episode of Coronation Street I’d forgotten was on.

“Some easy entertainment, just what I need,” I say, hugging him tighter, a warmth glows from his stomach as the element heats up, and he hugs me tighter back. I don’t really need to tell him he’s perfect, he knows it, he was programmed to be.

And they lived happily ever after…

Sleeping Beauty wandered through the palace aimlessly, vodka in hand. Her prince would be back soon, he’d expect her to be dressed for dinner, her hair piled high with diamonds, her eyelashes curled, but she was already half-drunk and could not be arsed.

“Not that he ever really looks at me anymore,” she muttered to herself, taking a mouthful of her drink and letting out a bitter sigh, “not while I’m awake anyway.” His fetishes no longer disturbed her, they were just one more irritation out of many.

She wandered through the grand hall, kicking off her shoes and shimmying around the floor. It was years since she had properly danced, and the lack of music was no barrier, she could feel a song in her skin, waiting to break out. She had spent a hundred years frozen still, and now three more bored stiff. She knew there were lives out there ready to be lived, new princes, new challenges, new mythical beasts to ride.

“Whatever happened to happy ever after?” she asked to the elaborate painted ceiling as she spun around the hall in her best approximation of a pirouette. She wondered if it was possible to hire herself a wicked witch, and made a mental note to google it later.

Short Story: 1000 Words

Denton could tie sixteen different types of knot and write five different alphabets. He knew the names of every country in the world and how to get from any tube station to any other, even though he had never been to London. He found this knowledge reassuring and periodically checked that he still knew it all. However, none of this helped him understand people. No matter that he could name each part of the brain; people were still a mess of unknowable, indefinable things. He suspected that other people had been given some kind of manual that explained everything – why sofas were important, when to speak, what facial expressions to wear – and because he didn’t have it, he was stumped, permanently. When he was with other people he always wore bewildered expression, hoping this would explain his situation. He wasn’t sure this worked though, because people were often angry with him.

Then, six months ago, Denton decided he’d had enough. He decided to take control. He was very fond of control, it was one of the reasons he was studying for a programming degree. After deciding fourteen separate times to take control, he had finally figured out how.

First, he worked to recreate the secret manual that he was sure everybody but him had access to. This required extensive research. With subtle questions to tutors and fellow students, with googling and searches to the dark web, the information had mounted up. He collated, cross referenced and edited each document, file and super-file. Now for phase two: only using one thousand words.

During his research into normal people and the curious stuff they do, he had read that most people only use a thousand words when speaking. They might know many more words, but normal conversation didn’t require them. As an experiment, Denton had spent a day with a Dictaphone keeping track of exactly how many words he used, and found it to be well over three thousand. He suspected that this excessive use of vocabulary might be why people thought he was strange, it was, at least a clue as to his oddness. So he had devised a list of an essential thousand words, and today would be the day when he restricted himself to using only those words. He had meticulously planned his wardrobe and behaviour to keep conversations on cue.

He heard a scuffling from outside his door and then,

“Denton!” he recognised the voice of his friend Steve. Denton knew that Steve would be standing with his feet flat on the floor and a shoulder’s width apart, that way he would be less likely to fall over when someone pushed him. Steve had been pushed a lot in his life.

“Denton, I’ve found a frog!”

The problem with a thousand-word limit, as far as Denton could see, was that you couldn’t know which situations would occur in any given day. He believed that for one day he could avoid describing the implosion of nebulae, or the function of a radio transmitter. He could avoid all references to the mouth parts of insects and the names of stones in archways. It would make conversation a little mundane, but he liked the challenge of repeating the same ideas over and over, like normal people.

When he had written out his thousand words, he had allowed for each basic everyday situation that he could think of – cancelled lectures, cold winds and earache, that the janitor was really a zombie; all very simple topics requiring just basic verbs and nouns. But he hadn’t thought to include the word frog. Still, Steve was a sensitive soul and Denton didn’t want to let him down. He shuffled from his bed and opened the door.

“Nice watch,” he said when he opened the door, then panicked. Steve stood holding the frog with two hands, two fingers spread slightly to let its head poke through.

“Frog,” he explained proudly, but Denton wasn’t listening, he was still panicking. He had spent several days outlining the plans for his thousand words. For example, he had decided that different verb endings didn’t fundamentally change the word – so he could count ‘speak’ and ‘speaks’ as one word. He had shaved a number of words out of his vocabulary, by choosing only one adjective, where normally several would be used – such as ‘red’ instead of ‘vermillion’, ‘pink’, ‘burgundy’. After all, many people couldn’t seem to tell the difference between those colours anyway. However, he had totally forgotten about Homonyms, words like ‘watch’, for example. He had actually included that word so that he could say “Can you watch my bag?” or “Did you watch telly last night?” but in his desperation to avoid conversations about a frog, he had used it in a different context. Was that ok? Or had he failed already? Not for the first time, he wished that social studies were published in the paper with proper methodology.

“I’m going to keep it,” said Steve, holding up the frog.

“Cool,” replied Denton.

“As a pet,” said Steve.

“Cool,” said Denton.

Maybe he could pass the whole day saying ‘cool’, other people managed it.

They walked to the canteen, across the paving, all the while Steve chatted to his frog and Denton tried to stay quiet.

They had reached the canteen doors where two girls from his year stood sharing a cigarette.

“Hi Denton,” said Su, who had dark eyes and a bright smile.

“Alright.”

“Why are you wearing your dressing gown?” she asked.

“Eccentricity,” replied Denton, glad the conversation was going to plan.

“Oooh, a frog,” said Katie who had red hair and a matching birthmark across her neck.

“Yes, I found it in the field. I’m going to keep it in the sink,” said Steve.

“Do you like frogs, Denton?”  asked Su.

“Sure.”

“What type of frog is it?” asked Su, with great effort of will, Denton kept his knowledge inside, and said,

“Don’t know.”

“You’re very monosyllabic today,” Su narrowed her dark eyes and folded her arms.

“I said ‘eccentricity’,” said Denton puzzled, wondering if people would think him stranger now that he was saying less.

“Eccentricity,” said Katie, rolling the word around her mouth like a boiled sweet.

“That’s a very good word, I don’t use it enough.” Su added brightly,

“You know, I read in the paper today that the average person speaks only three thousand different words in a day.”

“What?” exclaimed Denton.

“Yeh, apparently we all just keep repeating the same three thousand over and over. Except for Shakespeare.”

“Shakespeare was an odious buffoon!” said Denton happily, as Su laughed. Denton decided today was going to be delightful.

Stenny Johanssen

Living in a house converted to three flats, Jacky was only slightly surprised to see on the hall table, post for a name she didn’t recognise. It was a package the size of a bag of sugar, and the name on the front said Stenny Johansson. She checked beneath it for her own post, found none, and went on her way.

The package had been there for three days when the doorbell rang early on Sunday morning. A cheerful blonde-haired, ruddy-faced Swedish man stood on the doorstep, and Jacky peered at him through her hangover,

“Hello! Hello! I am so pleased to see you here. I was hoping that you had a parcel for me, Stenny Johansson?”

“You’re Stenny Johansson?”

“Yes, I’m over here from Sweden and my wife sent my parcel to the wrong house. Do you have it?”

“Oh, sure,” said Jackie, blurrily and confused, she handed over the package.

“Oh what a relief. It is parts for my vacuum cleaner and I’m leaving in a few days, so I need those parts before I leave the country.”

“Ah,” said Jacky, wondering vaguely why anyone would have vacuum cleaner parts sent over from Sweden if they were about to leave the country, but instead she nodded sagely.

“Oh you are a doll! You’re a lifesaver!” said Stenny, exuberantly, in a noisy way that hurt her head, and Jacky was relived to shut the door.

Three days later, on Wednesday morning when Jacky was still on her first coffee,the door bell rang and Jacky trudged down the stairs to open it. In the doorway stood another blonde, cheerful man.

“Ah yes! Hello! My name is Stenny Johansson, I’m hoping that you have a package for me,” said the man.

“No, someone called Stenny Johansson picked it up a few days ago,” said Jacky, feeling befuddlement flush her face red.

“No, no. I am Stenny Johansson, that is my package. Do you have it?”

“No, I just told you, someone picked it up.”

“But it’s mine,” said the man, sweaty indignation furrowing his face. “It’s vacuum cleaner parts, I need them to fix my vacuum cleaner. Did you check he was the real Stenny Johansson?”

“No, why would I check that?” asked Jackie, she was feeling indignant now. The second Johansson stormed off, shouting,

“Well you shouldn’t have given my post away! That’s illegal, you know?”

When the third Stenny Johansson appeared at the door, Jacky knew instantly. He had the same ruddy face, tousled blonde hair and look of optimism. Before she could speak, he tried to force his way in. Jacky put her foot against the door, but it took all her strength to keep the new Stenny outside.

“But those are the parts for my vacuum cleaner!” he shouted through the letterbox. “How will I clean my house now?”

The fourth Stenny Johansson didn’t bother announcing his name as he shoved the door aside with such force that Jacky went flying against the wall and knocked her head. With her thoughts still spinning, she was only dimly aware of Stenny Johansson stomping up the stairs to her flat, and then stomping back down a few minutes later. She didn’t really register the bright red object in his hands, and it was only later when she found her Henry hoover missing that she understood that he’d taken it.

Finding a Guru

Wade had a blister that had started out as three separate blisters but had grown into one. He’d run out of energy bars. He was sick of breath-taking views of endless skies above endless valleys.  His knees hurt. But he was finally here, outside the guru’s cave, waiting to have the meaning of life explained to him.

He’d first read about the guru Alodu on the Internet. People would write gushing posts about how he had freed them from the nagging doubts, given them a lasting sense of peace. For years now, Wade had been dragging himself through life feeling each moment as itchy with guilt and insecurity. He had visited therapists, taken medication, listened to CDs, but these things only ever felt like a temporary solution, a hiding of his problems, not fixing them. When he heard about Alodu he decided the chance to free himself was worth the price of a flight and a hike. He hadn’t expected the route up the mountain and to the cave to be quite so well signposted. Luckily, since he’d run out of food, there was a fast food kiosk selling burgers, but it felt a little tacky.

He ducked under the cave’s low roof, and was surprised to see a small speccy white man sitting on the floor in a cardigan. He was unimpressive, and Wade felt his hopes deflate as his blisters throbbed.

“So, I’m Alodu,” said the guru, “what’s up?”

This felt all wrong to Wade, but he had rehearsed this speech a hundred times and he wasn’t going to waste the effort.

“I’m plagued,” he said dramatically. Dramatic had seemed right when he planned this conversation on the walk up. However, sharing with this librarian of a man, his head cocked to one side politely, it seemed inappropriate to be dramatic. “I feel like I’ve done and said too much that’s wrong. I want to forget, stop caring and get on with my life, but I can’t stop thinking about all the mistakes I’ve made.”

“That’s unfortunate, “ said Alodu as if he was commenting on something mundane like a traffic jam, rather than Wade’s plagued soul. “Have you tried collecting stamps? I find that soothing.”

Wade shifted awkwardly on his rock, hoping this would convey his lack of satisfaction with this answer.

“Stamps?” he said.

“Yes or perhaps watch some Bob Ross videos about learning to paint, I do like a bit of Bob Ross.”

“Now look here!” snapped Wade, causing the guru to flinch inside his cardigan. “I’ve climbed a bloody mountain, I want better advice than my gran would come up with.”

Alodu looked at him thoughtfully, with infinite patience and calm. Then in hushed tones, whispered,

“You want meaning in your life? Serenity?”

“Yes!”

“Have you tried eating steamed broccoli?”

Wade stormed out on his blistered feet. As Alodu watched him go, he said sadly,

“Some people just don’t want to be enlightened.”

Not his Wife

Stanley was sitting in his favourite chair wishing he’d learned how to smoke a pipe so he could really enjoy not moving, when the woman who wasn’t his wife came home. She was wearing the right face to be his wife, and the clothes looked familiar, but without doubt, she was someone else. If he was asked, he’d have been hard pushed to explain exactly how he knew it wasn’t his wife, but it was a sense as fundamental as gravity, and the more she moved about the house chattering about the queue at the Post Office in a way that was similar, but not the same, as his wife, the more he knew.

Stanley was a polite man, and the woman who wasn’t his wife seemed so certain of who she was, that after some quizzing that got him nowhere, he decided to let it go. Still as the days passed, a resentment grew. She kept moving the furniture round, and she cancelled his subscription to his model aeroplane magazine. She even bought broccoli and expected him to eat it. With each new and inappropriate behaviour, he felt lied to and manipulated, it just wasn’t on, but then she made lasagne.

He’d always liked lasagne before he got married, but his real wife’s cooking was dubious at best, and she made a watery, insipid dish; but his new not-wife made her lasagne crisp and tasty, so he decided, on reflection to just let it go. Aren’t we all imposters of one kind or another, he thought, philosophically, before wondering where the sofa had gone.

Short story: The Long Walk

“I screwed it up this time. I screwed it right up,” Toby muttered as he walked down the street-lit road with his shoulders up around his ears to keep out the cold. “Won’t answer her phone this time, I can’t even tell her I’m sorry.” Toby wasn’t sure what he’d done to upset Jennifer, but he knew it was something terrible. Last time he’d upset her, she’d finally explained to him that he hadn’t bought her the right birthday bracelet; it had taken three hours of texts and a desperate phone call, but he’d got there in the end. She never believed him when he said sorry, ‘You only say that because I’m angry,’ she’d say, ‘how do I know you really mean it?’ So tonight, emboldened with a few shots of whisky and three beers, he was trying to prove that whatever it was he’d done wrong, he hadn’t done it intentionally.

It was three in the morning, on a cold January night and he was walking the six miles to her house to tell her he was sorry. He fingered the carefully written note in his coat pocket, but now he thought about it, a note didn’t seem enough. He should have got flowers, maybe some jewellery to post through the door with the note. He hopped over a low wall into someone’s garden and picked a couple of snowdrops and held them in his cold fist as he kept walking. Snowdrops, no one can be angry when faced with snowdrops, he thought.

Up ahead a dead bird was lying in the road, its guts spilling out through its beak, and Toby felt suddenly hopeless, Poor thing, didn’t stand a chance, he thought. He felt a part of the bird’s death, seen and mourned only by him. The night streets took on a lonely, dramatic feel; as if he was in a Beckett stage play, as he walked beneath the surreal orange spot-lights, muttering to himself, like the sole cast in a tragedy.

He looked down at the snowdrops in his hand, and they just didn’t seem enough now, they seemed silly, pathetic. So as he walked, he kept an eye out for anything he could use as an offering, like a magpie. He found a shiny black stone, a ribbon, a toy car. He wondered if the streets were always so filled with abandoned treasure. She’d have to like some of these, wouldn’t she? She’d have to forgive him. He tried to imagine her finding his little collection and the carefully worded note. Surely she’d laugh when she saw the toy car, be touched by the snowdrops, tied up with the ribbon. Then he wasn’t sure at all, he wondered if anything he did could ever be enough, maybe he was just destined to disappoint her. His legs were getting heavy and the cold bit at his knees, he hadn’t gone more than a couple of miles and the hand holding the snowdrops was completely numb. His eyes were scanning the pavement, the walls, for any more gifts. Then he spotted the note, folded and discarded on a wall, the ink smudging with the damp. He picked it up and began to read. It didn’t feel like an invasion of privacy, because these were the night streets and this was his play, instead he felt an instant kinship with the writer:

“I’m sorry William, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I’ve done to make you so angry. Please let’s talk about this, we can sort it out. I love you, Becky.” Toby stood under the streetlamp for a long time, just rereading the note, imagining poor Becky writing that heartfelt note, only for William to care so little he threw it away. He imagined her desperation and fear. He wished he could give Becky the snowdrops, he felt she’d love them, that she’d laugh as he handed over the small car. With a heavy sigh, he crouched down by the wall. With his numb hands and his knees creaking, he created a small alter with a toy car, snowdrops in a ribbon, and a shiny black stone. The note sat in the middle. It felt like the proper resting place for all things discarded.

“Don’t you worry about him,” Toby whispered, “he’s not worth it.” Then he turned and started to make his way home.