Short Story: Insidious Demands

– Hey there pretty lady, are you sitting all alone? A beautiful lady like you shouldn’t be alone.

– Oh, erm, hello, I’m just waiting for my friends, they’ll be here soon. Any minute now.

– Why don’t I keep you company then, hmm? You look like you could do with some company, just until they get here.

– Well, um, I’m not sure… it’s a bit of a school reunion, you see? Not an official one, just the old gang getting together again. I’m really quite nervous, it’s been so long.

– That’s why you need me to talk to, make a new friend while you’re waiting for the old ones.

– Well maybe, I mean. Maybe they’ll think it’s rude if I’m talking to someone else…

– Hey now, you shouldn’t be worrying about that, when we’ve got this chance to get to know each other, hmm?

– Well, I suppose. And it’s the kind of thing that we used to do back then, just start chatting to some random stranger. Kirsty especially, I could tell you some crazy stories. Whenever we took the train we’d end up talking to some boys or making friends with an old tramp.

– Well that’s great, I think you and me already have a real connection, don’t you? How about I buy you a drink?

–  Oh I don’t want to start drinking yet. Once the others get here, then I imagine it will be a free-for-all. More alcohol than you can shake a stick at, you know? Not that we were alcoholics, but we did like a drink.

– You don’t need to be so uptight about it, just have a drink with me.

– Oh Kirsty would love you. She did like a pushy fella who’d buy her a drink, she liked to play with them, she wanted the risk. Oh, I can’t wait to see the old gang, I haven’t seen them in years, not that it should matter, I mean when you’re friends with someone, that’s it for life, isn’t it? They say your teenage friends are your greatest friends, right? Didn’t they say that in a film once? But we were all very different back then though, and there were reasons we stopped being friends…

– Right, well that’s interesting…

– Kirsty especially got out of hand, not violent exactly, but, well there were incidents. Not that it was her fault, if I’d had that man as my father I’d have done a lot more than throw bottles at a car. Of course it would be all different if we were kids now, we’d spend our whole lives on the phone chatting to paedophiles. And you know kids today, the only time they actually look at one another is when they need to take a selfie, or a we-lie, or is it an us-y? I don’t know why they need to keep making up new words, like there aren’t enough words to deal with already. I mean there’s a whole dictionary full of the things.

– How about I get us that drink..?

– Anyway, I was telling you about Kirsty, you’ll like her, all the boys did at school. It’s odd because she was never that fastidious about personal hygiene, but then they say attraction is all about pheromones, so maybe she just didn’t wash hers off as much. You’d think the feet smell would mask the pheromones though wouldn’t you?

– Mmm.

– Fastidious, now there’s an interesting word that kids today never use. They’re too busy with their OMGs and YOLOs. But anyway, Kirsty, apparently she’s a big shot consultant now, earning a fortune in the city. Well it’s not really surprising, she was always clever. Clever and bored, that was her problem, school just wasn’t enough to occupy her, she could pass exams without even studying, lucky cow.

– Well that’s great, but maybe…

– Anyway, we all found each other on Facebook, it’s amazing isn’t it? Modern technology? Fifteen years, all five of us scattered across the globe. All going about our business never expecting to see each other again. Then a few clicks of the mouse and there you are, the whole gang together. Kirsty, Jennifer, Archisha, little Sarah and big Sarah. Of course big Sarah is not so big now. She actually looks fantastic. Not that she didn’t when she was a teenager, but, well, you know what it’s like for larger girls, it’s tough. Except it’s probably fine now, now that obesity is so common. Big Sarah would probably be considered quite svelte. Quite svelte Sarah we’d have to call her. Although I expect we’d be arrested under the Political-Correctness-Gone-Mad Act for it. You know at my son’s school they actually have a points system for bullying? Like with driving, you get too many points for picking on other kids and you have to take an anti-bullying test. Well, I said to the teacher, that’s just another form of bullying isn’t it? You’re bullying my son now, how about you take a test? How about I set that damn test? And yes, I did swear, but you can’t let these teachers push you around, can you?

– Ok, um, I really need to go now…

– Oh sorry, sorry, I got totally side-tracked, I was telling you about the gang, wasn’t I? Well there was Jennifer, sweet, mousy Jennifer. All the boys who didn’t go for smelly Kirsty, went for Jen. I never really understood why, I mean, she was pretty in a bland, unthreatening way, but there was no spark to her. Maybe that’s what they liked, someone who’d make them feel sparky by comparison. Boys don’t like to try too hard do they?

– Lady, let go of my arm…

– But I haven’t told you about Archisha and she’ll be here any minute. And hers is such a lovely story. When she joined the gang she was much like Jennifer, mousy. She followed us around with those big eyes, trying to make jokes, but she wasn’t funny, just awful. Then one of the boys took a shine to her and then she started to take a shine to herself, you know? I mean, we helped her out with make-up, lent her clothes and so on, but it was a total transformation, she blossomed. Became a bit full of herself to be honest, and she didn’t stop cracking those awful jokes, but the boys would just laugh and laugh, trying to impress her. I suppose they thought she was exotic, or is that impolitically correct now too?

– I need to go, please let me go…

– Yes, that’s right, you run along now. Run right along.

 

Originally posted March 19th 2016

Flash Fiction: Sociopath

“Don’t blame me, it’s just who I am,” he says, and I want to punch his stupid chiselled face. He always makes statements like that with a little chuckle, as if the disaster he spreads throughout the world is a little joke we share between us. Seeing how furious I am, he tries to reason with me, cocks his head, wears a gentle smile that I know he copied off someone else.

“People like the drama,” he says, “it shakes their lives up.”

“Some of them don’t have lives to shake up now,” I hiss back, to me this is a truth that obliterates the power of his smug smile; for him, it isn’t.

“And that’s ok too, the world needs a cull, right? It’s overpopulated.” I can see he’s bored now, he can’t be bothered to placate me, he’ll be moving on and lives will be devastated somewhere else. He flashes me another diamond smile and strides away. I wonder if he’ll ever be stopped.

We Already Invented Pokemon Go

I expect you’ve heard of Pokemon Go. We invented it twenty years ago, with ghosts.

Growing up my twin sister and I were isolated by geography, we lived on a farm in Cornwall, in the middle of nothing and nowhere. Our dad was intent on going off-grid, becoming self-sufficient, and with his fervour, he took his new bride out to the arse end of oblivion and set up home. Piecing together his notes from the time (the ones he didn’t burn before he died) he believed that if he joined nature, it would welcome and enrich him. It didn’t; he got hayfever, he was bored (this was long before the Internet), most animals eluded him, his attempt at agriculture failed.

He gave up.

He quickly fell into a depression and it was up to our mum to take over. She turned a small corner of the farm into a vegetable plot. She had no idea what she was doing, but did a good enough job. Our vegetables were mostly edible; wonky and you had to pick out the grubs, but otherwise fine. She learned to fish, to bake bread. Smart woman our mum.

Anyway, all this meant that me and my sister looked after ourselves. We made our own entertainment and we searched for ghosts. And they were everywhere. Not the pale, flimsy wraiths that you get in horror stories, ours were all shapes and sizes. Some were fat, some had tentacles, some had many feet and others had none and slithered along the ground like snakes. There were colourful ghosts, solid ghosts, ghosts that span in circles and ghosts that could do tricks.

We’d be sitting at dinner, mum would be busy reading while she ate, dad would be staring at his dinner mournfully. We’d have to stay quiet, but we didn’t need words, we could signal with our eyes: look over there, by the sink! A lesser purple-splotched wriggling turkey ghost! And we’d point our ghost catching devices at the ghost (the devices were actually calculators, but the fancy kind with sin and cos) and press the right buttons and the ghost would be ours and we’d write it down in our notebooks.

Or we’d be out on the hill behind our house. Staring up at the clouds and then we’d hear a rustle in the bushes, we’d whisper so we wouldn’t scare it away,

“A jumping, three-eyed lumpy sprat ghost, quick!”

Me and my twin don’t talk anymore, we’ve already said everything there is to say, but still when Pokemon came out I sent her a postcard, on it I said: hey, didn’t we do Pokemon already?

I thought about adding a smiley face or putting a couple of exes, but we’re not that kind of family. She hasn’t replied.

A Life Caught in Rain

“Listen out for the rain, I don’t want the washing getting wet,” she says.

“Sure mum, don’t worry; just keep watching the film. Look, this is your favourite bit, isn’t it?” my mum’s eyes flick back to the TV, where Richard Gere is lifting Debra Winger into his arms and for a moment her face lights up, the old glint of joy in her eyes. While she’s distracted I get up to tidy away a few plates, pull back the curtains, check that she hasn’t unplugged the fridge.

“Listen out for rain,” she says, her face fretful again, disturbed by my movement.

“It’s alright mum, there are clear blue skies, look,” I point out the window where the sky is more of drab grey than blue, but she only glances vaguely, then sinks her thoughts back to the TV.

I turn my back to pick up a few cushions that have fallen on the floor, dust them off, plump them up so that it will feel more like home. I want her to feel safe here, that the room fits around her and she’s where she’s meant to be.

“Listen out for rain, I don’t want the washing to get wet,” she says. It’s what she’s been saying for years, latching onto the thought that makes sense, something to remember in a murky sea of confusion.

I don’t tell her there’s no washing out. I like that she has a focus, a small tie to this world, keeping my mum tethered with this thin thread of worry. I want her to feel safe in this room, but I’m scared I might lose her to it altogether.

Coulda Shoulda Woulda

“They told me I wouldn’t regret if I followed their rules,” whispered my uncle; his body was shrivelled and hunched, but his eyes were burning with indignation. “They said, these are the things people regret on their death beds, and they listed them. As if you could sum up all human experience in a list. As if we’re all the same.”

“I know Uncle Andy,” I said, gingerly patting his hand, scared to break the fragile skin. But I didn’t understand, I had no idea what the problem was. Uncle Andy had had a great life. He had six kids and a loving wife. At thirty-seven he’d abandoned his lucrative accountancy business to go off-grid. He took his family to Italy to live on the beach, he had spent ten years selling his paintings to tourists. Most people would do anything to live Uncle Andy’s life, even Andy himself had liked it at the time. However, now he was nearing the end, as cancer claimed one cell after the other and chemo scrunched him up like a piece of paper, Andy was talking as if his life had been a waste.

“You know what they said? In their lists and articles? They said people regret not spending more time with their family, not pursuing creativity, people regret working too much. That’s why I did it, why I moved to the Amalfi coast, out of the rat-race, painting and playing with the kids.”

“Yes. And that was good, wasn’t it Uncle? That was a good time?”

“No! Ten years painting the same beach scene over and over again, to tourists with no imagination!” His rage was giving him strength as he stretched forward in the chair. Numb blue nails dug into the chair arms, wisps of hair clung to his forehead with sweat. “Nobody wanted my picture of the apocalyptic desert, or the dragon dressed as Biggles. And don’t let anyone tell you that growing your own vegetables is better than buying them in a supermarket, the number of hours I spent digging the ground for potatoes, if only I could have those hours back now. I’d use them right, if I could do it all again.” I knew this was one of stages of death. My mum, ever the pragmatist, had told me he might go through this, the emotional stages: anger, resentment.

“What would you do instead?” I asked. He had the twitch of smile, it affected his ears more than his mouth.

“Video games. They looked like fun. Who wants to pick caterpillars off cabbages when you can race cars through a war zone.”
“But time you spent with your family, that was good, wasn’t it? That was worth it?” Uncle Andy sighed as the fight drained from him, and he shrivelled a little more.

“I’m not saying it was bad, but there are seven billion people in the world and I spent it most of it with seven of them. I just keep thinking, what if there was someone better?”

No matter how my mum had prepared me, I left Uncle Andy with my heart dragging. I didn’t understand how someone with a life so well lived could feel such sorrow. Are we all doomed to lie on our death bed agonising about all the things we could have done, no matter what we did? I slouched out of the hospital, feeling the shrivelling of my own body, suddenly even my dreams weren’t enough. What if I did make that round the world boat trip? What if I did marry Jessica from Maths? I would still regret.

I was in the wood and half the way home before I worked it out. I was kicking my way through the leaves, at first in a moody manner, then with increasing glee. At one point a dog had abandoned his owner to join me and leapt around barking with delight. And I got it.  Because if you’re going to regret whatever you do, then there’s no point in planning for it. Uncle Andy was sad now, but when he was living his life, he had loved it. So you can’t live life for your death bed, you can’t live trying to defy the Death Bed Regret List. Screw it, you just have to live for whatever joy you can get.

D. Bayer’s Blog: Toons and Little Worm

If you are looking for an intense story to take you out of your life for a little while, try this. It’s by D. Bayer, and about a child starting out in a hopeless situation and how she survives, and a father doing his best despite the odds. I’m not usually affected by sad tales, but this is gripping and heartfelt and it deserves to be read.

 

Here’s the first paragraph:

The way the story was passed down to me, when I was born I weighed four pounds seven ounces and was addicted to heroin. My mother gave birth in a crackhouse on Bedford, but it wasn’t clear if she went into labor while shooting up or if she just crawled into the first place she could find once her water broke. A junkie ran out and got a cop, and the fiends and chickenheads all cleared out while the ambulance crew tried to muscle in past them.

I’m not sure how to do the reblog thing, so here’s a link:

Toons and Little Worm

Short Story: Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches

“You know me and my love of Madagascan hissing cockroaches.” Fabian was right, I did, he had told me about it in depth. He didn’t tell me about his seventy-eight sibilant pets when I answered the ad for a room to rent, he must have hidden the glass cage when I had a viewing. It was only as I was carrying boxes in from the taxi that I heard the noise: a frantic hissing, I assumed he had stuck the kettle on for a welcome coffee, but then he said,

“Don’t worry about that. That’s just my Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches, seventy-eight of them! I counted this morning. Of course, the numbers change as they breed. Or eat each other.” I’ve been alive a while, I’ve perfected the nervous smile, and I used it then. I’ve used it many times since I moved in with Fabian.

I liked Fabian from the moment I met him; he moved liked an uncoordinated child, jerky, lumbering movements topped with too much curly hair and a shy smile. I thought he was delightful. Then he started to grate a little. Like a vicar’s sermon dragging all topics back to Jesus, Fabian would return all conversation to cockroaches, hissing ones. A few days after I moved in, my aunt died. He explained to me that he knew just how that felt because his favourite roach had hissed its last,

“I knew it was him, because I put a little blob of red paint on his back. It’s obviously just a really bad day for death.” He said.

“Hmm,” I replied.

I’d never met anyone quite like Fabian before. Filth and muddle seemed to spill out from him. Crumbs scattered from his jumper and mud from his boots. I discovered the erratic lurch was because one of his feet was a size 6 the other a size nine, but his problems went way beyond his feet. His mind  was always adrift elsewhere, thinking through facts and figures that he would share with the world just when the time was wrong. Usually when I was trying to concentrate, or when the phone rang.

Once he clomped into our lounge and thumped himself down on the sofa with the elegance of a walrus, not noticing that I was already sitting in that same spot. I yelped; it took a few moments for him to work out he had to move, then he shuffled awkwardly into a chair, huffing, already telling me that Madagascan hissing cockroaches liked to bury their dead, with a little ritual,

“They only eat each other when they need to assert dominance,” he said, “I read that in my new book,” he said, while I rubbed my bruised legs pointedly.

But those roaches, I knew they’d be trouble. It was only a few weeks later, I was sitting on my bed, reading, and I heard the distinctive hissing sound. I dropped my phone in panic and ran from the room calling Fabian’s name, pointing wildly to my door.

“Oh you’ve got one have you? Just giving them an airing. It’s important for Madagascan hissing cockroaches to get out and about sometimes.”

Still, I liked my new home, I was settling nicely into my new town. Learning where the best shops were, visiting the local park. And it wasn’t long before I got a job interview to work at the small accountancy firm in town. The interview was going well, I had impressed my potential employer, Gerry, with my knowledge of the company (Googled the night before), and with my friendly professional manner. It was all going well, when I heard, very quietly, that hissing sound. It came from just below my ear, I could feel the faint tickle under my collar. I tried to suppress the look of panic as Gerry looked up from his notes. I smiled politely as if all was normal.

“Now you say you can start anytime, is that right? No notice to work out?”

The tickling had become a scratching as small black legs climbed the few stubbly hairs on my neck, it wasn’t easy to keep my voice level.

“Yes, I could start tomorrow if you wanted,” I was trying to say it with a light chuckle, but it came out a little more like a supressed shriek. Gerry gave a nervous laugh of his own and looked down at his notes, saying,

“Now we’ve got both your references, haven’t-” he looked up as he was speaking and stopped, eyes wide beneath furrowed brow and I knew what was wrong. I could feel it, the sharp scrambling as the Madagascan hissing cockroach clambered out of the neck of my shirt, hissing frantically.

That’s My Face!

“But you don’t understand, they’re using my face!” I shrieked down the phone. The ever soothing voice on the other end crooned,

“That must be very distressing for you sir. Perhaps you could clarify.”

And that’s when I realise I’m speaking to a program, a program written to placate and calm irate callers, but not to fix anything. I angrily put my phone in my pocket (I want to slam it down, but its expensive) and look again at the advert on the Tube station wall: A sunny beach, a happy couple on a sun lounger, and a spotty geeky twat leering in the background. And that twat is me. It’s not the first time this has happened either. I’ve appeared in adverts for toothpaste, shoes; this one is for an alcopop. And I’m always the goofy fool, the comic foil. Maybe if I was portrayed as the sexy one I wouldn’t complain, but still it is my face, it should belong to me alone.

So how did it happen? Well, let me tell you a few secrets. Adverts don’t use real people anymore. They haven’t done for some time, you see real people are expensive and computer programs can do the same job as effectively, more cheaply and without all the fuss of going on location. But the faces that computers create are an amalgam of features, generic representations of personality, age, gender. That’s why they all look more or less the same, even people of different races conform to a generic appearance – you’ll see Chinese people, but not too Chinese. African, but African with just enough Caucasian blended in. They play with the different possible components of face and body and come up with some whole new being. Supposedly.

But it seems like whoever wrote the algorithm is as lazy as the rest of us and instead of inventing properly new faces, they just repeat the same generic stereotypes. And one of those stereotypes is me. And how do you think that feels? To know that I am the spotty generic sad-case?

It makes me feel angry. Not like the kind of angry when you get tricked into watching a ten minute video that promises to tell you Five Foods that are Making YOU Fat, but doesn’t; the anger goes deeper than that. It makes me feel slighted and the rage gets right into my blood. It makes me want to fight back. Because they never expect the spotty sad-case to fight back. They think fighting back is for the generic, tough, good looking ones. They think that people like me haven’t the gumption, they think that I am going to behave within the confines of their stereotype. Well, gumption is borne of rage, and now all I need is a plan.

Flash Fiction: The Supernice

Joelly was supernice. Everybody said so, Joelly made certain of it. With her blonde curls, big eyes and squeaky voice, who could ever call her anything but nice? She sat in the college canteen, twirling her hair around her finger and sharing her understanding of the world as seen through the eyes of nice.

“You know what? There should be a place for nice people. A village. Keep all the nasties out,” she declared to her classmates. Her shyness always vanished when she didn’t need it. “And we’ll keep that Andrew out, he doesn’t deserve to be with nice people.”

“Andrew’s ok, isn’t he?” Tim spoke up as all the faces swivelled his way with accusing eyes: was he questioning Joelly? and Joelly spat back,

“He’s a horrid little boy. You know he asked me out? Me! As if I’d want to look at his spotty face for a moment longer than I have to.”

“That doesn’t make him horrid. Misguided maybe,” tried Tim, a little desperately . “I mean, people ask each other out, right? That’s what people do.”

Joelly pulled back a little as if he had struck her, then she tipped her head to one side, opened her eyes wide and adopted an expression like a kitten abandoned in the rain. Tears started to well up. Nobody ever disagreed with her, and the shock felt almost violent. Quickly the others started to cluck and soothe her as she choked out the words through her tears,

“And you’re a horrid little boy too!” she gasped, and ran from the room, leaving Tim to the judgement of his peers. He glanced around in panic, suddenly knowing what kind of Hell Joelly’s village of niceness would be.

“You made her cry!” they hissed, and Tim knew he didn’t stand a chance.

The Polite Girl

These walls shall run red with your blood and echo with your screams. Not as revenge, but as a smoothing of fate, a coercion with destiny. Your horror will finally satiate me, your end will be my beginning.

Clare shyly raised her hand and Mrs Devonshire turned instantly towards her,

“Yes, Clare?”

“Is the answer Slovenia, miss?” asked Clare.

“Yes, excellent work,” Mrs Devonshire smiled with a tip of her head, wanting Clare to feel warmth radiating out from her. Clare looked down at her hands.

Of course it is excellent, cretin. I can toss you meaningless facts while your future is sealed.

Mrs Devonshire turned back to the board and started speaking, but was interrupted by the bell. Twenty-seven identically dressed children filed towards the door, Clare moving with them, trying to lose herself in the flow. Mrs Devonshire stepped forwards, blocking her; she spoke discreetly,

“Now, Clare, you know you have your meeting with the therapist now?” Clare responded with a duck of her head and an embarrassed shrug. It was lies, she wasn’t embarrassed, but it was what they wanted.

“I know you don’t like it, but it’s important for someone who’s been through…well, what you’ve been through.” Mrs Devonshire’s voice was dripping with pity and Clare smiled a wan, long suffering smile, before quickly escaping out of the door.

You know nothing of what I have been through, how dare you presume! With mediocrity stunting your growth, you cannot conceive of my experiences. You believe because you have stolen my life, that you can define it? Idiot!

Clare’s therapist was called Tom, he spoke slowly, with a tone that rose and fell with the regularity of a ticking clock.

“Now, I think that last time we met we were making some real progress talking about the abuse you suffered…”

Clare had quickly zoned out. She had no difficulty keeping an interested look on her face, while her thoughts swooped and danced. Her face was mild, but her thoughts boomed.

You would call the creation of a God, abuse? You would rather grovel in your mentally healthy cage, so clean and empty of glory? That was not abuse, it was a release from the bone cage.

Clare wasn’t allowed contact with her parents, they were considered a toxic presence, but it didn’t matter, they had taught her what she needed to know. They had given her strength and knowledge that dwarfed anything these scurrying ants had ever known. So she attended the therapy sessions, she sat through school, she kept her expression neat. She kept the raging vengeful God inside, all her power and fury waiting, just like she had been taught.

“You’re probably experiencing many emotions that are difficult to process: guilt, anger, feelings of abandonment…”

Clare did not feel abandoned. Her parents had set her free. They had made the ultimate sacrifice, having trained her, empowered her, they had thrown themselves into the jaws of the system, so that she might escape.

But like all good parents, they would never leave her on her own without giving her instructions on how to survive, how to evolve, and how to smash her way through the world leaving bloody, wailing destruction in her wake. It just wasn’t her time quite yet. She folded one hand in the other and looked dreamily out of the window, while the therapist droned on. This fool would be the first to die, she would make sure of it.