You—

Nine years
after it ended, it started again, history repeating itself so elegantly it was
like something out of Brideshead—

Oxford,
choked in an Edwardian haze, everything still there, waiting—

The
cemetery wedged at the junction on the Woodstock Road, boasting heavy green
sycamores—

Colleges,
once open to us, locked and alluring—

And I see
you lean yourself delicately against the dark spikes of Wellington Square and
it is golden—

My lips
are smudged dark with wine and I invite you to my room, quickly, before we go
to get a drink—

I make you
climb three flights of stairs, holding my books, and wipe my lips on a towel,
knowing you can see the lace of my nightwear on the back of the door—

*

That
summer a self, that felt ancient and new and lay under my skin like a soul
between blood and bone, shimmered and came to life—

Enchanted—

*

Autumn
catches us and the enchantment sinks a little deeper as I watch—

Other
couples take selfies of underwhelming cappuccinos, all knitted hats and Sunday mornings,
sleep deprived and perky from all the sex—

I sneer at
them, but as the syrupy summer evaporates and winter sweeps into view with a
woman you have made promises to in tow, I, too, itch to document—

I tell my
phone too much – who you are, where I am, enough that it becomes my familiar,
my demon, my spirit companion and it turns on me—

I turn off
the location settings, delete Instagram, try to remember what I would say about
my day before, when I was not lying, practice some more, get a little better—

I begin to
take photographs, usually just the one, and only landscapes, taken with my coat
on and melancholy in my fingertips—

Most are
of concrete landscapes from the corridors of hotels—

The first,
a view over Covent Garden, Seven Dials specifically, is dramatic – bruised
storm clouds and concrete—

Melancholy.
I think melancholy is what makes affairs so good. The angst, which looks and
tastes like the green yellow of unripe lemons, cuts against the euphoria—

*

Except it
wasn’t an affair for you—

And it
shouldn’t have been an affair for me—

*

When we
sleep together, a fortnight after we meet in Oxford, after five years of being
apart—

In a
Travelodge in North London, I think of the first time in St. Anne’s College,
almost a decade earlier, and like then, we are both unable to enforce a
measured pace—

I think of
the months that followed the first time—

The other
girls you slept with—

The other
boys I slept with—

The clumsy
conversations about monogamy—

How we
wouldn’t be “exclusive”—

*

We leave
the hotel room and sit on metal chairs in a cafe—

My skin
feels hot, my jeans too tight, and you look at your phone—

Explaining
that you are trying to write a message to your girlfriend, telling her about
last night—

I wonder
whether I can buy a foundation thin enough but good enough to conceal the
bruises on my thighs—

We order
smashed avocado—

I pour oat
milk into my coffee and make flat jokes about hipsters—

Part of me
laughs at me—

As I watch
you type—

And I know
that I won’t tell at all—

*

December brings
a westerly wind, straight from a storybook—

And a
thick white fog that I sit in, outside a hotel, on the outskirts of Oxford—

The sky is
black and grey and I sit in the car, the poetry in my hand black and white—

You only
have hours before the airport pickup—

*

I don’t
see you for a month—

And when I
do, we drink wine by the river in South West London, and eat Bavarian food that
I insist upon, have sex in a hotel room until we run out of condoms—

And we try
a bit of functional polyamory—

go to an
exhibition at the British Library—

as a three—

no one is
sure whose date is whose—

we drink
in a bar—

and she
tells us stories from a decade neither of us really remember—

It was the
early nineties and she was dropping acid in college—

And we
were not old enough to attend school—

She tells
me what it was like to be in Manhattan on 9/11—

I tell her
about the sixth-form girls who had a portable radio in the changing rooms at
school, and had tuned in to play the news—

And
bug-eyed eleven-year-old me had asked what the twin towers were—

*

Spring
comes and you leave—

On a cargo
ship on a long fortnight—

Your
girlfriend laughs every time you tell her your itinerary—

We have a
kind of friendship now, and I laugh too—

She
catches a flight, fortnights don’t exist in America—

I try to
tell myself stories of our relationship— 

our love
affair has lasted since we were teenagers

there is
no domesticity to us

I might
smoke a joint with you but I won’t buy a pot of mint

which is a
shame

because

mint is
good for tea and smells like tomorrow

and
marijuana makes me nauseous…

I haven’t
seen you, except on Skype, where your presence is—

An extra
dimension of being—

You do it
well—

*

As the
enchantment seems to fade, and before I can feel nostalgic for our first
summer, everything changes and I, too, am in New York—

There are
volcanoes in the street, in the middle of the tarmac, tiny and angry, expelling
steam from the subway—

I read
Woolf’s diaries and letters, draw apples with soft pencils, whilst you work—

The fish
that was on the wall in England is on the wall here and I ask you why it
follows you—

Something
about a boy you were in love with—

With
glitter in his blood—

Who dumped
you on Hallowe’en—

I smile
when you say this and spend too long with acrylics painting a cat—

To go with
the fish—

Because I
too want to be something that you love—

I don’t
ask where your girlfriend is—

or why she
has seemingly vacated her apartment for us—

For
reasons I don’t really understand—

and that
you are reluctant to explain to me—

she no
longer likes me—

I came
because you asked—

And so we
get to know each other a little better—

I learn I
like you in a hat with a cigarette half in your mouth and your jaw tight for me
to watch—

I try to
remember to buy ice cream without nuts—

We get the
ferry to Staten Island and watch pools of rose light on the water—

We walk
through parks to the same grimy Italian diner—

We pit
olives and talk about your mother—

And so we
conduct an experiment—

We thank each other a little too much and give type-two solidarity apologies—

We talk
about the conundrums of feeding cats vegan diets, the problems of ownership,
whether activism is the rent for being alive—

The best
way to kill a mouse—

Or not to
kill a mouse—

Drink tea,
throw kisses, the sounds of habits crystallising—

We run
down the East River again and again, talk about weed dependency, oppression,
the anti-fascist movement, stress dreams—

We try a
few times to talk about abortion, eat ice cream, scramble eggs, sort each other’s
laundry. We listen to music, drink wine, drink beer, take drugs, watch Scandi
noir on Netflix and deplore the misogyny in Game of Thrones

I cry on
the subway about familial approval, you cry on at the platform at Union Square
about abandonment—

We watch a
cop menace a homeless man—

And try to
stop it by just standing there—

I don’t
know if it works—

We eat
cider donuts, cycle through the city, make a friend on the L Train, go to
thrift shops and art shops, argue over the merits of Central Park—

We try to
decide whether to worry about hurricane Irma, drink too many milkshakes— And
then your girlfriend arrives—

And I
leave—

And autumn
comes—

And now—

I can hear the puff and blow of the sea, the Atlantic, the East River that is not a river actually but a tidal estuary, I can hear its puff and blow on your breath, your voice through your nose as you say you would have loved it there all the coke and mirrors and you describe your three-night party in a dark green bit of Pennsylvania, although Pennsylvania is gold to me and what you tell is a circus of debauchery under a thick cold canopy of early Advent nights—

I’m
interested because it is not my life right now and then you say and there was a
really cool drug and I try not to let my voice blink like I didn’t let it blink
when you told me that you had taken MDMA the last ten evenings in a row – how
are you not so sad you want to die?—

Or when
your girlfriend, whose intensity now exhausts me, tried to break up with you
because she’d misheard something you’d said—

But it is
a really cool drug that you are telling me about it is a mixture of
heroin and coke and I cannot stop myself I ask heroin heroin?

Although I
heard it, yeahhhh deliciously dangerous but they had run out—

We have a
pact not to die, remember? I say—

And you
laugh and I can no longer hear the puff and blow of the sea or the whir of sky
trembling above it because you have switched off your fan and dropped your
rollie in the bathtub and you say lightly, a repetition from a night in the
summer on a balcony, I thought it was you that wanted to die young—

I let some
round, symmetrical seconds clunk and bump by and I say as lightly as you, oh I
do, I do, I’m only half committed to life itself, like everything else, for
now.

*

We practice
bad habits on everyone else and I think that is why our relationship has the
rub of perfection, but it’s been weeks since I’ve heard you ache for me—

I lie to
others—

And I’m
unsurprised your girlfriend feels she has given up her life for you—

But maybe
you are oblivious to your charm—

*

After you –
the first time – I used to test other people’s mouths for the taste of coffee
and smoke, you made the taste of smoke black, grey and erotic for me, but it is
your words that are my pleasure. I listened for them on others and now I wish
for my abandoned confidence of then—

I am in
love with the discovery of other people’s perception of me; I like to think of
it as a narcissism that is superior to plain narcissism because it is nuanced.
I pass the time you are gone by going on enough dates to cultivate the perfect
persona, the one where my anecdotes are funny, self-deprecating but salted with
slight arrogance, that my confidence is winsome and I can twist an admittance
of my beauty out of them. The ones that do this, I fall into bed with, and the
ones who subvert this I keep around, confused, for months, while I wonder
whether to dump them or fall in love with them—

I’m not
really sure who you think likes coke and mirrors—

but as I
change the cartridge of my pen, sip mint tea, try to conceptualise us again—

I just
cannot think

it can be
me.




A Little Blindness

Photo Credit: James McGovern.

See that photograph on
the wall, the miniature, in the copper frame? Take a closer look. Outrageously
ugly, is he not? An “ugly fucker,” to use the coarse slang of your nation. That
convex nose; the weak chin poorly concealed by a sparse beard; the unimposing
stature; those squinting mole-like eyes, much too small, especially considering
the size of his forehead. And have you heard him speak? The voice of a
twelve-year-old, as if it didn’t break properly all those years ago, although
he’s not as old as you might be led to believe by all those creases!

Do not be alarmed. The
secret police are not about to batter down the door; I shall not be carted off
to the Gulags for insulting the glorious leader, for abusing his image. We have
no Gulags. We have no secret police. Our people enjoy not only freedom of
speech but complete freeness to exercise that right; quite an achievement for a
country which is not technically democratic. One crucial thing you must know is
that the Chairman tolerates criticism, encourages it. I can see you are
surprised. Perhaps, I humbly suggest, you shouldn’t believe everything you read
in your tabloids, or even in the broadsheet you work for, that noble rag brimming
with urbane dishonesty.

Forgive me: I must
remember that the flashwar is over and we have agreed to put hostilities aside.

Try a soy-cheese cracker.
Do you recall that this is a vegan country?

Yes, you gleaned this
fact from the propaganda posters designed to vilify our way of life. “They’re
coming for your egg rolls, your steaks, your bacon butties!”

The Chairman pioneered
the concept of compulsory veganism, a radical dietary intervention which has slashed
the incidences of diabetes, heart disease, cancer. Of course, the ethical
benefit is paramount. It is plainly wrong to slaughter animals when vegetable
matter can adequately meet human needs. But people go on eating carcasses.
Decomposing bodies. Empty death shells. Why? Because dead bodies are delicious?
Hardly a reason to murder a living, thinking creature… You do like the
cracker?

Free food, enough to meet
all nutritional needs, is provided for every citizen. The diet is bland but
wholesome: oat flour, pea protein, seasonal fruits and vegetables. Fresh
produce is grown entirely by automated labour. The automation of our key industries
means most people do not have to work. We spend our hours as we see fit:
reading, playing chess, painting, bodybuilding, swimming. I myself spend much
of my time writing short distilled poems in the style prevalent in China during
the Tang Dynasty. Would you like me to read you one? Oh, maybe another time. We
can afford this lifestyle because we didn’t pass reactionary legislation to ban
robot labour as your nation did: our leader welcomed the machines.

The Chairman is a
visionary.

He is also a good man.

Although fixed at the top
of the ziggurat, he never abuses his enormous power. Repulsive only on the
outside, he has beautiful inner qualities: patience, self-discipline, honesty.
But his cardinal quality is kindness. You must know his famous saying: “If in
doubt, do the kind thing.” This is no slogan or marketing gimmick. It is a
formulation inscribed on the Chairman’s very heart.

The Chairman is kind. When
you grasp this simple fact, you will have begun to understand our method of
living.

Kindness explains how the
Chairman succeeded where other idealists failed. The Chairman never resorted to
base realpolitik to pursue his high-minded policy objectives because he
recognised the hypocrisy of such a strategy. A utopian government built on filthy
pragmatism would be like a gleaming palace erected on the site of a massacre. I
have noticed that your compatriots often have trouble with our basic concepts; from
birth the reverse is drummed into you – political idealism is naïve; capitalism
is the only economic system proven to work; in fact, it is not even a system at
all but just what a world with humans being humans naturally looks like; any
communistic regime is doomed not only to failure but to mass graves. Famines. Tides
of blood.

I apologise for
chuckling. I’m not laughing at what I assume are your beliefs, or
approximations of them. Actually, I was amused by the fact that you are, from
one narrow perspective, correct. Communism – you see, I’m not a PR man, I don’t
mind saying the c-word in front of outsiders – communism rarely works. Humans
tend to be greedy, selfish and erratic, and leaders of left-wing parties have
historically been no exception (despite what they profess or professed). We did
not fix communism by actioning some transformative change to the underlying
theory; there took place no profound recontextualisation of Marx, Engels, Lafargue.

We made it work because
the Chairman is kind.

Let me give you an
example. This mansion used to be the home of a slum landlord; while his pauper
tenants lived four to a room, this man dwelt in the lap of luxury. After the
Revolution, when we seized his ill-gotten estate, the landlord fled to your
country – probably he’s back to his old tricks, filling draughty houses with the
poor, those with no recourse. The point is: we didn’t have mass executions of
the rightists. We put an end to their wrongdoing but did not persecute them. Most
of them adjusted their outlooks and still live among us, at peace, equal to their
neighbours yet happy as kings. The Chairman has always argued that right-wingers
can be useful members of society: they are often articulate, polite, industrious
people; conscientious, good at managing systems. We don’t oppress them. We even
listen to them, take their suggestions on board.

Not everyone is as
tolerant as the Chairman. For instance, many influential Party members did not want
you, a journalist known for anti-communist articles, to visit our land. They
feared that, rather than showing the world our functional and elegant society,
you would only seek to defame us. But the Chairman overrode all objections.

The Chairman has a knack for
integrating undesirable elements into society, getting the best out of them. He
even blunted the knives of the extremists on his end of the political spectrum.
After the Revolution, when his self-proclaimed Red Warriors took it upon
themselves to round up the left’s political opponents and prepare the firing
squads, the Chairman intervened. “There are to be no executions,” he commanded.
“What is built on murder cannot prevail.” Some of his more hot-headed young followers
were not satisfied with this decision, pointing out numerous historical
exceptions to his aphorism, but the Chairman was unyielding.

The Party still has its
extremist wing, those for whom no social change is ever radical enough, those
who dream of stamping on enemy faces in a blaze (or cloak) of righteousness,
but the Chairman keeps them to heel. Between you and me, the Chairman’s deputy
is one of the bloodthirsty types. A former Red Warrior, he was one of the
loudest voices calling for the executions of the capitalists. Yet his desired
excesses have been subdued by the Chairman’s lofty, far-reaching, all-covering
kindness.

But I have been talking
too much. Your newspaper will be expecting you to report more than the
ramblings of a petty official. Let us visit the hospital first, where you can
witness how we tailor drugs to patients’ genetic profiles.

Sorry. You have a question.

What do you mean, what
will happen when the Chairman dies? I don’t see what motivation you could have
for asking this question, unless you just wanted to shock me, which hasn’t
worked, by the way.

You imply that the
Chairman’s death will create a power vacuum into which might step the next
Stalin? You fear, or wish to make me fear, that this utopia of ours, losing its
centre, the Chairman who is kind, will crumble and go the way of all other
communist states, corrupting into a police state or merely a rebadged
capitalist nation? That we will devolve into a crude tyranny, ruled by some political
barbarian who salivates over virtue-flavoured brutality?

Ridiculous! This shall
never come to pass. Your question about the Chairman dying is purely academic,
for one fundamental reason:

We simply will not allow him
to die.




Click … Click

Picture Credits: William Sturgell

He came to the
abandoned farmhouse to burn it down. He would wait until dark, and then burn it
down. He had lived there with his mother and father until he was eight years
old. Then his mother and father were gone. The house had been empty since, the
windows and doors black holes, the sagging roof barren of shakes, the
foundation cracked. The isolated yard, surrounded by rolling hills of short-grass
cattle pastures and wheat fields, was only approachable now down a grown-over
trail.

He passed worn-out-looking
farm and ranch towns, their scraggly trees bare in the fall. The buckskin-coloured
hills went on to the horizon, black cattle spotted over them. Undulating
harvested grain fields came to the edges of the fenced cattle pastures. He slowed
as he neared a gravel road going off into the grassland hills. Somehow, he remembered
the turn. He was seventeen, and he was going to visit his mother’s grave. And
burn down the house they used to live in with his father.

The dirt road
passed a lone ranch yard, cattle corrals and hay piles. He picked up speed,
raising a cloud of dust. Once into the grassland hills he slowed. At the
heights he pulled over and stopped. His aunt had brought him here once, when he
was ten years old. They stopped on this hilltop, on their way to the cemetery. They
got out of her car. “These are the Great Sandhills,” she said, looking west. “They’re
full of wildlife. Your grandfather used to hunt here.” They looked out over the
rough, ragged expanse of sage-spattered grassy dunes and chokecherry ridges
running to the horizon. Aspen bluffs in bright fall colours and green juniper
grew in the cups of the dunes. The sky was dark and heavy with high clouds. The
cold wind watered the boy’s eyes. He smelled the sage and grass. Small birds
flitted in the gnarled blue-green sage and leafless brush. They drove on, to
the cemetery.

Now, he drove until
the road began to peter out. At a turn he kept going, slowly, onto a bumpy
over-grown trail. He came to a large square of bare caraganas that he thought
he remembered. They were growing through a sagging barbwire fence, set well out
in a hilly pasture. The trail passed through a leaning black-iron gate. The
young man drove into the grass field, scattered with tilted headstones, and
stopped. The cemetery looked abandoned.

The visit here
with his aunt seemed so long ago. “Do you remember your mom?” she had asked
him, standing close to him.

He nodded.

“Do you miss
her?”

He only nodded
again.

“Me too.” She wiped
tears from her cheeks.

They knelt together
and placed flowers. The wind blew the petals. His aunt held him, and they both
cried in the cold wind. They did not drive by the farmhouse, where he used to
live with his mother and father.

The teen got out
of his old car, with flowers, and walked though the pale uncut grass. Her ashes
were buried near the back row. Her flat stone was almost covered by bent grass,
and its surface was lightly patterned with lichen. He read his mother’s name.
She had liked flowers, he knew. He knelt and placed the bouquet on her marker.
He stood for a time, in the wind that always blew here—then turned and left.

Miles along the
road from the cemetery he drove slowly down a long, rough trail, toward a lone,
two-story house on the horizon. A row of bare caraganas lined the edge of the
yard. Rusting, abandoned farm equipment sat scattered in the grass, and leaning,
grey corral posts stuck up near where the barn had been. The barn was collapsed
now, a pile of dark wood. He pulled over and stopped. The pale grass wavered in
the wind around the old house that was brown and badly weathered. He was
trespassing. His aunt, who had inherited the land, sold it after his mom’s
death. No one lived within many miles.

He always remembered springtime on the prairie: cranes and geese returning very high in the blue sky after the long winter, a meadowlark on a grey fencepost, grass in the cattle pastures turning green, crocuses blooming, a 1954 International Harvester pickup his father drove. His father’s dirty grey Fedora with the brim turned up at the back and worn leather bomber jacket. His sharp nose and chin under the shadow of the hat in the spring sun. His mother smelling faintly of a perfume that he never smelled again. She was so slim and beautiful, with her long, thick black hair. Her deep-blue eyes, soft features, and small white hands. She never put him to bed without singing to him, touching his skin with her gentle hands, until he was asleep.

He remembered
the hard-packed dirt surrounding the house. The heavy wooden door scarred by
weather. The landing broken, the steps worn to smooth troughs. The kitchen
linoleum through to the wood. A white, often-stained porcelain sink on a
pedestal in a small kitchen-pantry. No running water in the old house. Speckles
of dust floating in sunlight in the bright kitchen. A tall brass-stemmed
ashtray in the living room. A flower-patterned couch. The wine-red armchair
near a window. The smell of dust and polish. The dark wood banisters leading
upstairs to his bedroom. Wooden windowsills cracked and dusty. Dusty doily curtains
that felt like his mother’s nylons.

He looked out
his bedroom window that early morning, a thin line of bright sunrise cutting the
prairie horizon. There were storm clouds in the distance, coming silently,
slowly closer. He snuck downstairs. The house empty and cold, cold spring air;
the door to the yard swung open. The smell of stale cigarette smoke and spilled
beer. Empty bottles. Butts with red lipstick on them in ashtrays. Then he heard
voices outside. Yelling. His father yelling, screaming loudly in the dull dawn
light. Then the sharp, loud, BANG.

The young man
walked slowly now through the dry yard grass. Beyond the house was the ragged
row of bare caraganas, the wind-tilted corral posts, and scattered pieces of
rusting equipment. Ripe crested wheatgrass wavered in the wind. He remembered lying
in bed at night, freight trains passing on the prairie, rumbling, clacking,
echoing in the distance. The train tracks were abandoned too long ago.

He kicked at
the dusty grass. This patch of ground, once his mother’s garden and flowerbeds,
had long ago grown over. He remembered black crickets crawling from cracks in
the earth, baked dry and hard by summer heat, golden wheat fields moving in
waves in the hot wind, a rustling sound. The crickets clattering. His mother,
in her breeze-billowed floral skirt, and her worn shoes, a tied kerchief over
her hair, hand-hauling cistern water in an old grease pail. She somehow made
their garden green, the barren yard almost pretty. His father whistling, “Till
We Meet Again,” his sun-browned face as dark as polished wood, his chiseled
nose and chin.

Crows in flocks
in the fall. Hovering over and feeding in the harvested grain fields. A large
flock silently appeared, swooping over and above him on the pasture hill where
he went as a boy, away from the house. The black birds rose higher, intermittently
flapping, an almost indiscernible whish of wings, then gliding, with scattered
cackling and caws. Another large flock, slowly rising too, as if on the wind.
Then another, the birds floating black in the breeze like pieces of burnt paper.
Flock after flock swooping above and beyond the hill, and higher into the
achingly blue, numinous sky, flying slowly, relentlessly southward. He watched
them, the smell of ripe grass, the fall sun warm, the warmth soaking into him, warming
the earth, warming him. Eventually, reluctantly, he walked home to the old
house, and his mother, and father.

The young man
removed a can of gas and a propane torch from the trunk of his beat-up car.

He remembered some
kind of party or anniversary that night. His mother and auntie on the couch,
tight skirts, legs crossed, nylons, high-heeled shoes, red lipstick, their
thick, wavy dark hair, smoking cigarettes, smoke curling through lamplight. His
father’s cruel smile. “To bed, to bed,” his aunt told him. His aunt tucking him
in that night, not his mother. Noises downstairs as he tried to sleep. Loud
voices and laughter. Bottles tinkling, until he fell asleep.

From the
worn-out step of the dilapidated house, standing shirtless, wearing his
manure-stained boots his father often shot at foxes and coyotes, and an empty
green antifreeze can. He was shirtless that morning too, wearing those worn-out
boots. His father shot his mother in her head, near the unpainted barn. Out on
that small farm, where they lived, isolated from everything.

The tilted
grass there was copper-coloured from frost. The approaching storm clouds made
it seem dusk. Then the sharp, loud, BANG.
Then his father was in the house, in front of him in the kitchen, his face
disfigured and dark, wild-eyed. His father raising his arm with the big black
gun in his hand, pointing it directly into his face. His father pulling the
trigger: click. Flinching, he put his
hand up in front of his closed eyes. Opening them, his father still there,
pointing the gun at his face, pulling the trigger again: click. His father yelled, “Fuck it!” and put the gun to his own
temple: click. His father’s arm
falling. His father turning away from him, his thumping boots out the open
door. The roar of his truck leaving the yard.

He remembered
going out that open door. The morning turning darker, not lighter, the thunderstorm
coming. He ran across the yard to the edge of the pasture. Crawled under the
barbwire fence. Ran toward the barn. A flicker of lightening on the darkening
horizon. The wind blowing now. He saw white, billowing in the grass. Her white
dress. The distant thunder came closer and closer.

He would only say
that he remembered his aunt finding him in his upstairs bedroom looking out the
window. And he remembered the smell of the rain-soaked windowsill dust. In the
yard there were black and white cars, and men wandering through puddles of
rainwater. The birds sang and the air was still now. “She died instantly,” he
heard them say, as if it were a consolation. Her blood in the grass like
afterbirth from the cows calving in spring.

The farmhouse abandoned.
Tattered curtains in an open window, luminous, billowing in the grass-smelling
breeze.

When he was
fifteen he was told his father was released from prison. Blind drunk had been his defense, according to a newspaper clipping
his aunt kept hidden in a bedroom drawer. The original charge of second-degree
murder was changed prior to his guilty plea of manslaughter.

A great horned
owl swept silently over the caraganas. A Hungarian partridge’s creaky call came
from the fields. The young man calmly stepped back, the house barely visible
now, the sun having fully fallen. The can of gas sat on the ground. He held the
propane torch. Nearly dark, only a strip of sunset.

He splashed
gasoline on the beautiful golden walls of weather-worn shake siding. He walked
the perimeter of the house, lighting the tall dry grass next to the cracked
foundation. It did not take long. The flames swept up the walls, higher, increasing
waves, creating a whirlwind that moved his hair. He felt the heat, the flames
intensifying, brighter and faster and crackling. The smoke rose, grey and white,
and then black.

He stood well
back. The flames lit the old farmyard. A tall burling flame was all he saw now,
orange, yellow, and white and high, and the black silhouette of the house—until
it collapsed, throwing up swirling clouds of starry sparks. The grass was on
fire, but it did not spread. The flames dwindled. Darkness returned, some stars
out now. Only glowing embers and small flickering flames where their house used
to be.




200+ uses for a Paperclip

Sometimes, a building is so large and central that nobody sees it. A passing wonderer might look up to see if anyone’s about to jump off the roof, but mostly it’s just there, grey, like an uncle’s suit at a wedding.

Deep, down, down, in the bowels of this building nobody sees, we can find young Whelp at an antiquated urinal. This is his third pee in an hour. The team meeting with Stratum is imminent. He’s nervous, hopes Stratum’s wall eye is happy with what it has seen of him so far. Stratum’s watching nine-tenths of the world. Whelp wants to be the one to give him the complete planet. I, Whelp, present you, Stratum, with this luminous orb. Whelp brings his trickle to a close, jiggles a bead of urine off his penis tip, imagines himself inside it, tiny and vital, a zorbing Borrower.

Over at the hand basin, Whelp looks in the mirror at what he can see of his face. He’s five feet seven and the mirror hasn’t been positioned for the likes of him. If he had a sudden need to see his chin he’d have to stretch himself like some hot tease. He is narrow-skulled, with dry skin, almost eczematous. Nurturing sorts might want to spoon thick yoghurt into his mouth. This isn’t a thought that Whelp himself would have, though he has many other thoughts.

Boom, one of his colleagues, enters the Gents like a trawler in a heavy swell, crashes into the urinal. ‘What you up to over there, Whelk?’ he says, tucking in his spine, knees bent, beginning to enjoy his own flow with a sob of relief. ‘That’s better, back teeth were floating.’

‘It’s Whelp.’ The P pops off the tiles. ‘I’m washing my hands. Some of us do.’

Boom shouts over the splashiness. ’What’s a bit of piss between mates?’

‘I may have to stop sharing pizza with you.’

‘You want to lighten up, you do, Whelky.’

This time, Whelp lets the name thing go. Boom wants him bothered. Boom is good-looking, six-three, brilliant, shouldn’t feel the need to be a wind-up merchant. Whelp thinks Boom’s got a nerve to not be at one with the world. He can’t work out if Boom is irritated by being a nerd who looks like a welder or because he looks like a welder and that is what he wishes he could be. Is Boom fuming because some arc flash of super-duperness hi-spec’ed his forming neurons while he was in the womb and he’s never been able to feel like his mam and dad’s baby? Boom’s parents have a fish and chip restaurant in Darlington. Boom should be helping the old man batter haddocks up north, worrying about his TripAdvisor rating, but instead some genetic fun and games have him a whizz in the capital.

‘Best we get back, Whelk, stop looking at yourself like that, you tart.’

‘Idiot,’ Whelp whispers to the mirror. Boom’s holding the door for him. When he gets there, he has to duck to get under Boom’s arm, feels good.

Bust’s waiting for them, head in the corridor. ‘Move it, you tools, it’s nearly time.’ Boom does a little dance to annoy her. She annihilates the last of her cigarette and her eyes disappear with the hard draw. Boom and Whelp take their place at The Oblong along with Crake and Quoit. This room at the heart of it all looks untouched since the 1950s. The dust on the iron radiator was formed from skin scuffed off temples during the removal of bowler hats. It’s a room that should have typewriters and telephones in it that are big enough to anchor ocean liners, not the sleek Macs standing on the six old desks pushed together to form The Oblong at which they work. The room’s smell is in keeping though, three of them smoke like it’s 1959. Everything is covered in a sticky ochre. There is no No Smoking around here. Whelp’s looking at a lung cancer horizon. He could leave. Get his balloons out of here while they still feel pinko silk with nothing suspicious growing on them but, truth is, he would never leave here, not without Stratum’s e-foot on his backside. When a fish out of water finally discovers his water, he isn’t going to be all up in the air the way he used to be. Not now he’s in his element. A happier fish is Whelp of late. He’s found a shoal.

His colleague, Crake, is as young as himself and the other one, Quoit, could be forty, has a receding hairline and a long yellow-grey ponytail hanging down to his arse crack. Bust turns various strip lights on and off until she’s happy with the level of illumination. This meeting with Stratum takes place on the last Friday of every month at 2300 hours. Whelp is the newest member of the team and this will be his first meeting. He’s been working so hard his mind feels like plate scrapings. He must shine, prove he deserves his place. Like the other four, he was found, sniffed out, hunted down by Stratum’s people.

Whelp does not think Bust pretty but her skirts tend to end mid-thigh over bare legs. Whelp fantasises about her. Two days into being here and high on the buzz of it all, his head full of algorithms, he’d wandered by mistake into the Ladies and caught Bust and Boom doing it standing up against one of the hand basins. They hadn’t noticed him and he’d silently reversed himself out into the corridor but his mirror neurons—they’re the monkey see, monkey do ones—had fired up and though Whelp still has his cherry, in a way, he really doesn’t.

Bust joins the four men at The Oblong but doesn’t sit. ‘Are we good to go?’ she asks. She’s looking for thumbs up and nods. Crake and Quoit are off somewhere in their heads and Boom’s poking at a back tooth with a straightened paperclip. ‘Anyone?’ Bust says. ‘Hello?

Whelp slides his eyes to where she has a green vein at the back of her left knee. That’s one caterpillar he would love to squash. ‘Good to go,’ he says.

Bust takes her seat with a lament. ‘Save me,’ she says.

.

They wait for Stratum to appear. Stratum doesn’t give good face. He doesn’t give any face at all. Keeps it south of neck during the monthly teleconference.

‘What’s the collective noun for nerds?’ Boom says.

Whelp waits for the punchline, then realises it’s not a joke.

‘We’ll make one up’ Quoit says. This month, Quoit has been getting into mind control via neurocinematic studies.

‘Don’t bloody bother,’ Boom says. ‘I was only shooting the breeze.’

‘Ah,’ says Crake. ‘You were shooting the breeze with mouth bullets?’

Whelp looks at Boom looking at Crake. Boom is surprised because, like Quoit, Crake rarely interacts. ‘Yes, Crake,’ he says, ‘they’re called words. Words! Words! Words!’ Boom fires off a round.

Animated, now that he’s got something else to think about, Crake bum hops in his seat. His mild moobs rollick underneath the tight red tee stretched across his torso. This short wait for Stratum will be interminable for him. Crake works and that is all he does except for that time he stopped to tell them he was a savant cyberjacker who’d been doing a triple-decade stretch in the pen—so not that clever then—until Stratum’s people had all that sorted out nicely for him, had him flown over the pond to here where he works and hides from any potential disturbance by covering his face with his side fringe

Chitchat is not their bag. This wait is tricky for Quoit too, he’s off visiting somewhere in his head, unable to be present and correct, his lips move and his eyes flicker.

Boom’s sat opposite Quoit. ‘I feel like I’m at a bloody Victorian seance,’ he says. He wails, ‘Is anybody there?’

Whelp can see that Quoit doesn’t care if anybody’s there or not. Quoit’s a genius with a photographic memory but you wouldn’t let him use the cooker on his own, or mind your cat.

‘Come on, Stratum, we’ve things to be getting on with here,’ Bust says to the computer screen and she looks owlish for a second when it lights up and a headless body in a business suit speaks.

‘Folks! How y’all hangin’? Y’all look so darn good.’

Whelp hadn’t been expecting Forrest Gump.

‘We’re fine, Mr Stratum, thank you,’ Bust says, answering for them all. ‘And may I say you’re torso looking very well?’

‘Y’ get me every time with that one,’ he says. ‘Ah do love a funny lady. Now, ah’ve glanced over the notes and, yip dee dip, about these initiatives…’

Whelp holds his breath, cursing Stratum’s slow drawl. Tenterhook City.

‘Not bad goin’ y’all.’

Whelp breathes.

‘OK, so some o’ these surveillance breakthroughs ah’m really kinda stoked about, no darn need for anyone to get into bed with anyone else these days, unless you’re offerin’, Bust, hon?’

‘Anyone know a good lawyer?’ Bust clicks her mouth.

‘Hon, you go rub that sexual harassment lawsuit all over me,’ Stratum says, you press it right up against me now. OK, let’s get serious here, folks. Ah spy with my l’il eye, somethin’ beginnin’ with T.’

‘Tosser,’ Boom says, behind his teeth.

‘Trouble?’ Bust says, to cover Boom.

‘Warm,’ Stratum says, and his shoulders move with a nod they can’t see.

The team has been developing a system to help better identify culprits of public disorder offences. Big disorder offences. Country large. Countries large. Continents large.

‘Could we be talkin’ ’bout those l’il ole terrorists again?’ Bust says in Stratum’s voice. ‘Hell, ain’t just about everyone these days?’

‘Give that lady a carrot,’ Stratum says. ‘A sackful of carrots for that l’il lady, hell yeah.’

‘So…what about the terrorists?’ Boom says.

‘We gotta draw ’em out, seduce ’em to reduce ’em. So ah’m talkin’ subliminal messagin’ here, some good ol’ carrots and the like. Quoit, fellah, ah’m diggin’ your findin’s. You’ll do it, you’ll have those terrorist brain reward systems lightin’ up like Caesar’s Palace when it hears we got Elvis back. You’ll get ’em round to our way o’ thinkin’ and have ’em comin’ out o’ hidey-holes feelin’ like they wanna group hug the whole darn world.

Whelp is desperate. He needs to hear Stratum say that he’s digging his findings too. He needs his own special shout-out. His pat on the head. His very own Whelp, ma boy, ma fellah, ah’m diggin’ your findin’s.

‘Aw, now ain’t he just as cute as a box o’ possums,’ Stratum says. Whelp smiles but he is not the cutie in question. ‘Crake, ma boy, diggin’ your findin’s. Ah do admire your use of the Gamers. We gotta use the Gamers. Throw a few free games their way. They call it enjoyin’ themselves and we call it gettin’ the shit bits done. Gotta harness those manic thumb fiends. There lies potential. We can get into so many rooms that way. Think about it y’all. Rooms, minds.’

Whelp waits for praise to shoot out of Stratum’s throat, a geyser of gush to endorse him, him. Whelp, for God’s sake.

‘We’re doin’ fine,’ Stratum says, ‘but we can do more. Remember now, rethink, reduce, reconfigure, retool, re-sequence, redesign, re-frickin’ everything.’

Isn’t Stratum going to personally acknowledge his work? Affirm he is a great asset? Whelp coughs but it doesn’t draw Stratum’s attention.

‘Y’all keep on movin’ forward and ah’m feelin’ we are done for another month. POIP remains as always. Are we done? Any other business?’

Whelp is frantic. He has to know if Stratum is pleased with his work. POIP stands for Passage Of Information Policy but at this moment it’s the sound of his blood giving up the ghost in his disappointed heart, poip, poip. Stratum hasn’t even welcomed him to the team. Not so much as a dicky bird of acknowledgement. He’s not having this. He breathes in and— 

‘No other business,’ Bust says, and Whelp holds onto his breath like its a leashed terrier with a rabbit blowing kisses in its face.

 ‘Yay! Now we carry on innovatin’. You will all remain freed up from the usual bureaucracy. We are an elite group and you know also, dontcha, that when we go launch Project U, life will never be the same again. That is no slogan. It is a literal fact. See y’all next month.’ Stratum puts a high five hand in the air and all of them reciprocate except Whelp.

Bust stretches across The Oblong to log out. Whelp looks at the green grub on the back of her knee, ready to pop.

‘Pizza,’ Boom says.

‘Too bloody right pizza,’ Bust says.

‘I’m not hungry,’ Whelp says.

‘Come on, let’s enjoy the lull before the off-we-go-again,’ Bust says. ‘Boom, ring the order in. Ham and pineapple for me. Anyone want to go halves on some potato wedges?’ She goes to flick the lights to a fuller brightness.

‘I refuse pizza,’ Quoit says.

‘Quoit, you are having pizza like a normal human being so shut up,’ Bust says.

Boom’s on his phone to the pizza shop. He looks up, ‘Cans of pop all round, yeah?’ He looks at Whelp. ‘What you having, Whelk?’ Whelp shrugs. Boom indicates with his hand that Whelp better hurry up. ‘Sorry, just one moment,’ he says to the person on the other end of the line, ‘we’ve got a petulant child here.’ He shakes his hand at Whelp. ‘Come on, you’re hard work, you are son, what do you want? Right, balls to that, you’re getting an 8 inch Margarita.’

‘Get Quoit the same,’ Bust says.

Boom gets off the phone, laughs, ‘look everyone, look at Whelp, he’s not happy. He’s worried Stratum’s not convinced he’s got what it takes. He wanted a little love.’

‘I didn’t hear him loving you,’ Whelp says.

‘I’m the longest serving one here, kind of says it all, mate.’

‘Oh, give it a rest you two,’ Bust says. ‘Christ-y,’ she cries, and tilts her face to the ceiling. ‘Where are all the nice people?’

‘Not here,’ Boom says.

‘Do you ever think about the rights and wrongs of what you do?’ Whelp says.

‘Are you talking to me, Whelk?’

‘Not especially, Boom.’

‘Rights and wrongs? Bust says. You’re taking it back to basics there, aren’t you, Whelp?’

‘We’ll never go that far back, no, never again,’ Boom says. ‘The rights and wrongs are thought about for us these days. I’d probably think it was shit if I could stop long enough to think about it.’

‘People like it, you tool,’ Bust says.

‘Do they?’

‘Yeah, Boom, they love it.’

‘What? Being spied on, assessed?’ Whelp says.

Bust inches down in her chair, kicks her shoes off. ‘They’re all exposing themselves of their own free will anyway, most of them, the so-called privileged ones. They get off on it, being watched, it’s the only way they know how to know that they’re alive.’ She moves her naked feet. ‘Hard work afterglow, nothing like it,’ she says. ‘Love this cusp of the new month, and I know we can’t see it from this dungeon but did you know it’s a full moon tonight, boys?’

Whelp is sitting with his head down. He’s done great work this past month. He thinks of all that concentration, the obsession, the breakthroughs and then the not so much as a kiss my arse from Stratum. He’s hardly slept since coming here. His brain has been too stimulated for any sort of proper Off. He hasn’t been off for the whole time and Stratum, headless hiding spineless stalker of nine-tenths of the whole world didn’t even acknowledge him. Well, the clown, whoever the hell he was, could go and whistle for his last tenth. Whelp’s got his own mind and he might use it in supporting the underdog. Yes, he just might go and bloody well do that. This thought is a thought Whelp should not have had. It is a thought that would have remained a thought. It is a thought thought in anger. But, Stratum can’t let it pass. You see, young Whelp was right in thinking he’s got his own mind, he certainly has, but Stratum has access to it. He didn’t get to be Stratum without keeping a few things up his sleeve. Whelp’s finished, a goner, though he doesn’t know it yet and, anyway, that’s a whole other story.

Bust’s off to the Ladies. Whelp thinks about following her. He wonders if he were to shadow her in would she do it with him like she did with Boom, standing up, her skirt all twisted up around her ribs, her buttocks finally ending up dropped like two bruised grapefruits into the sink.

‘Penny for your thoughts,’ Boom says.

A rock of embarrassment blocks Whelp’s gullet. He dare not answer for fear his voice is altered by desire, anger, sound softly husked, different, a giveaway.

Boom pulls at Whelp’s head, whispers into his ear. ‘Follow her, go on, son, take the road less travelled.’

‘What?’

‘We saw you.’

‘Saw?’

‘Peripheral vision, Whelk, we know a bit about that, don’t we?’

Whelp feels pixelated with alarm. The atoms of his being jump apart and he is made up of a shock of dots.

When Bust comes back, Boom and Crake go to have a ciggy with her in the corner so they can all share the ashtray. Quoit’s working on something. They’re all obsessives but Quoit would get to take the trophy home, if they ever went home.

Whelp watches from across the room as the smokers spark up. Bust sucks on her cigarette, says to Boom and Crake. ‘Are we going on the vapes, dear coworkers?’

‘Are we fuck,’ Boom says. He shouts from across the room, ‘Ciggy, Whelp?’

‘No, thank you,’ Whelp says.

‘You’ve never smoked, Whelp?’ Bust says.

‘Does he look like he’s ever been round the back of the bike sheds?’ Boom laughs, they all laugh, except Quoit who’s never laughed. May not know how to.

‘We all have the same centre,’ Whelp says, then he hears what’s escaped from his mouth. He doesn’t know where the words have come from. What he’s talking about even. Sleep deprivation probably.

‘Do we all have the same centre?’ Crake asks. He inhales his cancer stick and goes off on one of his thought voyages.

Quoit’s scribbling on a piece of paper and hissing at it.

Boom and Bust are looking at Whelp.

‘We all have the same centre,’ Whelp repeats, to feel bold, to hold out some boldness to the world. He wants to cry.

‘Do we?’ Boom roars. ‘Do we all have the same centre?’

Boor, boor, boor, Boom! Whelp thinks. He looks right at Boom now. Bores his stare into Boom. ‘You say that as though you’d be horrified to have the same…bullseye as me.’

‘You call your soul, bullseye?’ Boom says. ‘Interesting.’

‘And you call my bullseye my soul…now that’s even more interesting, Boom,’ he says.

Boom drags heavily on his cigarette. When he comes to pull it away from his lips it sticks and his fingers knock the red end off. It falls down the front of his sweatshirt. Burnt fingers, burnt chest and a shouted ‘Sod off, Whelp.’

Whelp’s watching Boom doing a pain dance. Crake and Bust are calm, smoking. Whelp goes over to Bust and takes the cigarette from out of her fingers. He sticks it into the back of his own hand.

‘Whelp, for God’s sake,’ she screams.

Whelp keeps it there, burning, burning, until Bust knocks his arm.

‘Head case,’ she says.

Boom’s still now, forgetting his own pain, his own piss takes. ‘You need locking up, Whelp.’

Whelp rolls up his shirt sleeve. It’s a four hundred pound shirt. He’s nineteen and he earns more than an astronaut. He’s looking forward to all the starry possibilities. He feels better now all of his pain is focussed. He holds up the cigarette. ‘Would you like me to do it again?’ he asks, and he turns the cigarette, holding it poised, red end down, over his bare forearm, ready to launch. On the back of his hand a tiny planet, burns, burns. He looks at their hideous bright faces. ‘Do you want me to do it again?’ he repeats.

The intercom buzzer goes.

High above them, out on the street, the pizza delivery lad waits for an answer, his handsome face illuminated by the moon, he’s smiling, he’s thinking about this girl he likes.




How to shoot down President Trump’s helicopter with a surface-to-air missile

‘It’s absurd.’

‘Completely absurd.’

Cal listened but didn’t say anything.

Selina was dishing out baked seabass with lemongrass. Her red dress crumpled at the front as she leant forward in a way that Cal found so attractive she had to look away. 

‘He’s literally separating babies from their mothers.’

‘If he can do that without any qualms, then his next move doesn’t bear thinking about.’

‘It’s basically a test case for the introduction of Fascism.’

The guests competed for the highest level of indignation. Cal still didn’t say anything. Why had she been invited to dinner? The smile Selina gave her across the dinner table, as she ladled out the last of the sea bass juices, was deliberately bland. Cal raised one eyebrow but Selina quickly looked away. Despite this caution, Cal thought she could feel Selina’s boyfriend watching them, his mild blue eyes glinting in a surprisingly hostile way.  

When she glanced over he didn’t turn away and it felt like he’d been studying her for a while. It was unnerving. She stared back. His mouth quirked up into an ambiguous smile, no, not ambiguous – smug but then he was the kind of man whose natural smile would be smug. This could be well meant.

He was thin, far thinner than her. As she’d taken her seat at the table her hips had felt enormous. He wore black skinny jeans that hung off him and a collarless shirt that had a narrow blue stripe like mattress ticking and probably cost £200 It made Cal feel the garishness of her navy silk shirt with its pattern of red, tropical flowers. He was losing his hair though, only a bit at the crown, but still.

Their eyes locked past the point of awkwardness as the dinner party talk continued around them. Cal switched to an expression of polite, bemused enquiry, but he just kept staring with that stupid smirk. 

Facing him down across the table, Cal couldn’t help imagining him and Selina together, sitting in bed reading, frowning at pictures in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, buying sourdough at the Farmers’ Market. You just had to look at her boyfriend (no, Selina would probably say ‘partner’ to hide the fact that she wasn’t fashionably queer) to know he was a softly spoken, I’m-being-eminently-reasonable, mansplaining prick.  

Their deadlock was broken by another guest passing between them to go to the loo. Cal was sure then, as she glared angrily away at the bookcase, that he knew. To spite him she summoned her memory of Selina in the toilet cubicle at the British Library, her black dress hiked up, head thrown back. 

The guest talking now was a BBC journalist who was certain, although it was highly confidential, that John Goodman (had she heard that right? Rosanne Barr’s ex-husband?) had an audio recording of Trump physically assaulting Melania in a lift.

‘No!’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah,’ a third guest chimed in, ‘Didn’t she cry when he won the election?’

But they’d all read Wolff’s Fire and Fury, or rather the excerpts that had been reprinted in the papers, so this didn’t make as much of an impact.

‘God, he’s just an awful, awful man, isn’t he?’

‘The protest’s going to be rammed.’

Selina, dark hair brushing her shoulders as she lifted the empty serving dish, said, ‘Are you going to come, Cal?’ Her smile was genuinely inviting this time. ‘We’re going to have a session making placards the day before Trump arrives.’

‘Umm.’ Cal had been planning on going swimming at the lido next weekend. There’d been an unusual run of baking hot days at the start of the summer but this didn’t mean anyone should count on the sunshine sticking around. They’d all been hurt by weather forecasts before. 

‘I lead a very selfish life,’ Cal often said to people.  ‘I’m sure you don’t,’ they’d say and laugh in a way that was flattering in its disbelief. 

Selina was waiting, one tensed arm wobbling under the weight of the serving dish.

‘Yeah, maybe,’ Cal said. 

A woman with messy, blonde hair and bright red lipstick broke in. ‘Oh my God, did you see that brilliant tweet, “Think you can hide in Scotland, Trump? Think again,” then there were just loads of photos of Scots with signs saying, ‘Trump’s a bawbag’ and ‘Ya maw was an immigrant, you orange roaster’.

‘Brilliant!’

Cal was pretty sure that Trump wouldn’t understand most of those words.

  ‘The Scots at least have got some sense,’ the boyfriend chipped in as if the whole table had been waiting for his verdict. Cal deliberately didn’t look over at him. She didn’t want to see the white flecks of crud that clung to one corner of his mouth. How could Selina stand to kiss him? Cal just knew that up close his skin would smell of damp plaster.

There were plans to fly a twenty foot blimp of Trump which looked like an orange baby and apparently someone had carved ‘Fuck Trump’ in Russian into a crop circle which he would definitely helicopter over on his way to Chequers. 

‘Well, that should bring him to his knees,’ Cal said, aiming for jovial. As if Trump could read Russian, even read probably.

‘At least we’re doing something,’ Selina’s boyfriend snapped. 

‘Not really, you’re not,’ Cal wanted to say, but didn’t. Instead she thought of the last time she and Selina had fucked, their mouths just missing each other’s, Cal’s fingers buried deep inside Selina.

There was an awkward silence while plates were cleared and Selina brought out a chocolate pavlova glistening with cherries. The boyfriend began to speak at length on the importance of protest and on the parallels between now and 1930s Germany, probably on the basis of an article he’d read in The New Statesman.

Over the expensive cheese and biscuits Cal found herself becoming obnoxious. ‘I don’t believe in the power of protest. It’s just whinging to make yourself feel better.’

‘So what do you believe in?’ asked the boyfriend in a pompous voice. 

Cal snapped a cracker in half and scooped up a smear of brie. ‘Action,’ she said.

The boyfriend gave a scoffing laugh. ‘And what exactly have you been doing to bring neo-liberal Capitalism to its knees?’ What made it far worse was Selina resting her hand on his shoulder as if to restrain this overwhelming display of masculine power.

‘Anyone want some more red?’ When Selina looked round the table her eyes had that measured, insincere warmth of someone carefully tucking her feelings away.

When Cal got home that night, drunk and tired, she did what anyone else would have done, googled. She opened an in-private window in Safari and typed ‘buy air to surface missile’ but Wikipedia quickly revealed this wasn’t right. She re-typed ‘buy surface to air missile’. It had sounded better the other way round.

You could buy a book on Amazon which listed which armies had what. According to VICE’s website, ‘El Chapo’ Guzman was in the market for one. There was a newspaper report of an auction in Florida that had included a Soviet SCUD missile. Apparently it needed some light restoration but was still expected to command up to $350,000. 

The Telegraph had an article about how the British Army in Mali had found a guide on how to use MANPADS, which were man-portable air-defence systems. There was a helpful photograph of a soldier in desert fatigues with what looked like a length of drainpipe balanced on his shoulder. This seemed much more plausible than the ones that needed to be mounted on the back of a truck. Cal didn’t have a truck, not even a car, no one in London with any sense did. Selina’s boyfriend probably did.

In the guide there were grainy images of Soviet-looking soldiers firing the weapon. Point-by-point instructions explained how to insert the battery, focus on the target and launch. It advised the shooter to change into a second set of clothes after firing to avoid detection. Even though it was only research it felt like doing something.

There was a useful report from the Federation of American Scientists, which did sound like a phony organisation when she actually thought about it. It was entitled ‘Black Market Prices for Man-portable Air Defence Systems’. One could apparently be had for a couple of thousand dollars. Prices were from June 2010, though, so you’d need to allow a bit for inflation. She fell asleep with the laptop open in front of her.

Cal woke the next morning with a headache and went on facebook. She had a friend who re-posted videos and events all the time, adding ‘Share Widely!!!’ Cal had unfollowed her feed long ago but she flicked over now to look. Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Great NHS Sell Off –Film Premier. Stop the extinction crisis of the vaquitas (super-cute mini dolphins!) that live off the coast of Mexico. Come and support the Rio Cinema to become solar powered. Earth’s Cooperative Ecosystem for a Fairer Economy. The Future of Money – tonight! Vote no Heathrow Vote Rally – we must stop the third runway!!!!!!! We need climate jobs not dirty fossil fuel jobs! The first AIDS histories and cultures festival will come to London in July 2018 – so looking forward to this!!! Labour Live Music Festival, White Hart Lane – friends, come along!!! 

Cal remembered how she’d been having dinner with this friend in Dalston and the friend had begun talking about Momentum and the possibilities for change this could unlock in every neglected child and had actually brought herself to tears. When Cal patted her arm, the friend shook her off, eyes shining. ‘No, don’t. I like crying. It’s so cathartic.’ 

If, to save herself from the mortification of having to witness such self-indulgence, Cal had had to sell the entire NHS to buy the last surviving vaquita for a dolphin club sandwich while taxiing down a third runway made of Momentum leaders laid end to end, she would have done it in an instant. That was why people liked Fascism. It made them look strong and powerful, not weak and hopeless, treating themselves to a cry over a £6.50 slice of vegan, gluten-free pizza.

Cal typed a deliberately bland text, thanking Selina for a lovely evening, then slowly deleted it. Instead she messaged her Cambridge friend, Tajana, to see if she fancied a coffee that afternoon. Tajana was Serbian and worked in software development but at university they all used to tease her for her mafia-like band of uncles and cousins. It was hard to broach the topic casually but in the end Cal said a friend of hers needed a portable missile for a performance piece.

Tajana sipped at her espresso. ‘So she definitely doesn’t want it to work then?’

‘No, it has to work.’

Tajana set her tiny espresso cup down.

‘It has to have a real threat, you know, otherwise the energy of the piece will be neutralised.’

Tajana raised one perfectly-plucked eyebrow. ‘Since when are you a supporter of performance art?’

Cal had a vivid flashback to labelling an experimental dance piece she’d seen with Selina as two hours of an anorexic laying an egg. She muttered something about doing her friend a favour.

‘What do you really want, Cal?’ Tajana wielded her dimpled smile. ‘Why are you feeding me this ridiculous story?’

‘It’s not a ridiculous story.’

‘Fine.’ Tajana’s ponytail flicked pertly as she cast her eyes up in the pose of an Orthodox martyr. ‘Okay, if I was trying to buy something so secret that I couldn’t even tell an old friend what it was and instead had to make up ridiculous stories, then I’d certainly consider downloading the TOR browser and going to one of the marketplaces that have replaced Silk Road.’

Back home that evening Cal bought two missiles off a dark website called Valhalla. She used the money she’d been saving to try and buy a flat in London. An investment in downing the helicopter belonging to the President of the United States seemed infinitely more likely to come off than her ever owning a studio flat closer in than Leyton. But she’d been hoarding that money for such a long time that it had come to seem like hope. She tried not to think about it and made sure not to check her depleted bank balance in the days after.

Paying in bitcoin was less of a pain than she’d thought. The first two purchases cost $11,000 and £1,500 but these prices turned out to be too high and too low respectively to be evidence of the sellers’ serious intent. Still, she felt a lurch of excitement every morning that week when the postman rustled along the walkway. When polite, then sarcastic e-mails to the sellers had gone unanswered she’d ordered another two, then another two.

Ordering the missiles had become an end in itself so she was confused for a moment when, the day before Trump’s visit, she opened the door to the DHL guy. ‘Whew, that’s heavy,’ he wheezed. His grimace looked less good natured than he sounded. Cal presumed he wasn’t allowed to swear at work. He hefted a long, thin parcel over her threshold and left it propped in the hall.

It seemed portentous the ants were swarming on the day President Trump was due to arrive in Britain, although of what Cal couldn’t have said. Up on the roof of her block of flats it had clouded over but the air was blood warm. Flying ants poured out from a cement crack by one of the risers, a foot or so from where the long tube of the missile lay. 

She refreshed BBC News on her laptop, which she’d balanced on an old plastic chair, and there he was, stepping down from Airforce One at Stansted Airport, clutching Melania’s reluctant hand like he feared she might make a break for it. Trump leaned in and spoke to his wife as they descended the metal steps but her empty face didn’t flicker. 

Cal had to close her eyes to stop herself imagining Selina, her hair held back in an impatient twist, paint-spattered t-shirt tight over her breasts, kneeling forward to splodge a brush over blank cardboard. FREE MELANIA. No, her placard would be better than that. MELANIA, BLINK TWICE IF YOU NEED HELP. Cal’s heart began to thump. 

She quickly picked up her phone, found the message Selina had sent her mid-week, inviting her to the anti-Trump poster making session, and typed, ‘I’m not sure I can do this any more with you.’ Her stomach dipped as she hit ‘send’.

Cal refreshed Twitter. There was a photo of Marine One leaving the north runway at Stansted. Despite the cloud it was hot. She focused on the winged ants crawling blindly on the flat roof. How could they live up here? What did they eat? She was sweating. She’d calculated it should take Trump’s helicopter no more than 12 minutes to cover the 34 miles. 

Until she’d sent that message she hadn’t realised how much the tormenting excitement and uncertainty of her affair with Selina had blotted out the ache of having broken up with her girlfriend six months ago. The loss of the children they’d been planning together was something Cal used to think about a lot, lying in bed on her own, late at night when it was too hot to sleep with the windows closed and too noisy to sleep with them open. Or when she hung, eyes closed, fingers gripping the overhead rail, buffeted by men in expensive shirts, in the muggy depths of the Northern Line. 

Cal put on a pair of black latex gloves taken from a sex party she’d been to a few months ago. Then she clipped her bike helmet on. She knew it was ridiculous but from the footage she’d seen on YouTube of idiots firing missile launchers she’d learnt that she could expect to be thrown backwards by the recoil. She’d considered dragging her mattress up for a soft landing but she didn’t want to arouse suspicion. She glanced down at her phone. No reply.

The thought of Trump and his helicopter exploding in a fireball was as satisfying as a cartoon, though Cal was under no illusion that this would actually change anything. Mike Pence would simply become President – bluster being replaced by the serious, quiet intent of fundamentalism. If anything, this might be worse but England had just crashed out of the World Cup and everyone needed some cheering up.

Still no reply from Selina.

One. Two. Three. She hefted the SA-7 onto her shoulder. Fuck. It felt like she’d put her back out already. She wobbled under the lop-sided weight. The latex gloves were tacky but this let her grip. Sweat dribbled down the back of her neck. She held the smug face of Selina’s boyfriend in her mind and pictured him saying ‘And what exactly have you been doing to bring neo-liberal Capitalism to its knees?’ This. This memory seemed to make the weight of the missile lighter. But now she had it on her shoulder she couldn’t refresh Twitter. She’d just have to wait and listen. But if Selina messaged back she’d be able to see as the screen would light up.

It was strangely tranquil up on the roof, like being on a remote cliff. Cal wished she had come up here more often. She peered through the sights and practised tracking a seagull overhead. 

Standing there with the missile heavy on her shoulder, she was using the same technique she used to get through her smear tests – don’t think about what was happening – just break it down into a series of mechanical stages. Trousers off, knickers off, lie on the padded table, place the sheet of paper over your stomach. This was no different. She told herself that once she had Trump’s helicopter in her sights, all she had to do was pull the trigger. Soviet 1960s infra-red technology would do the rest.

She glanced down at her phone. She didn’t have much time. Her stomach felt like it had just reached the rolling boil recommended for immersing tortellini. Why didn’t Selina text back? Please don’t say that. Or even I don’t want to not see you would do. The screen stayed stubbornly black.

The inside of her gloves were slippery with sweat. Her head swum. To calm herself she itemised what she could see: the flying ants, splodges of tar, spills of loose gravel, an old bucket and mop desiccated by the sun into a horrible head of hair. But this didn’t help. Her hair was clammy under the helmet. Every beat of her heart felt like a punch.

She felt her courage begin to slip. Surely it wouldn’t really matter if she simply abandoned the SA-7on the roof, took the lift down to her flat on the third floor, sat on the balcony and ate the rest of the tomato salad she’d made last night? But she knew it would matter to those migrant children who’d been separated from their parents. And any refugees trying to find safety in America. And any Muslims. And anyone who didn’t want to be poisoned by pesticides. Or was a black bear who didn’t want to be shot. Or had a student loan. Or was worried about climate change. And all those Americans who needed Obamacare, so all poor Americans really, and any woman who needed an abortion. She took a tighter grip on the SA-7.

Her phone buzzed. Selina. Im outside yr flat. Let me in? Relief opened up inside Cal like an umbrella. Selina was here. She lowered the SA-7 to the floor, peeled off the gloves, unfastened her helmet.

When Cal stepped out of the lift all she could see was Selina’s back. She was wearing a navy blue dress and espadrilles. She turned before Cal had quite finished wiping her sweaty hands on her jeans. 

‘Where the fuck do you get off sending me texts like this?’

‘Where the fuck do you get off inviting me to dinner with your boyfriend?’

‘You know that we live together.’

‘That doesn’t mean I want to have dinner with him.’

‘I knew it would come to this.’ Selina shook her head. ‘I’m not leaving him, Cal.’

‘Then why are you here?’

Selina’s eyes narrowed. Cal couldn’t decide whether it was hostility or she was about to burst out laughing.

Cal flung the front door of her flat open. ‘Go inside and take your clothes off.’ 

Selina didn’t move. Far away Cal could hear the buzz of a helicopter. She tried to glance casually at her watch. 

‘Don’t let me keep you,’ Selina said sarcastically, as though she wasn’t the one with a boyfriend and a whole other life.

‘Selina, come on–’ Cal moved towards her, ready to take her thin, tanned arm, to lead her into the flat, into the bedroom.

But Selina pulled her arm away, her black eyes unfocused, mouth smaller, tighter. 

‘Fine.’ Cal took a step towards the lift, making sure Selina saw. ‘Look, there’s something urgent I’ve got to sort out.’

Selina’s face flickered.

‘It won’t take long.’ 

‘Where the hell are you going?’

‘Come and see.’

That was the problem with jealousy – you focused on desiring, not on what you desired. Cal couldn’t quite be sure through the closing doors of the lift if Selina was following.

As Cal threw herself up the final few steps, she could already see the helicopter, a black dot growing against the roiling grey clouds. The distant hum had swollen to an ominous clatter.

Shit, there were three of them. But the tail fins of Marine One were unmistakeable. She shouldered the SA-7 missile. More quickly than she could have imagined they were right above her. The noise was overwhelming. She hadn’t meant to let them pass overhead but they were already skimming the trees, over the park, heading towards the grey outline of central London.

Cal hunched her shoulders. The middle helicopter was centred perfectly in the scope. There was nothing left but to pull the trigger. So why didn’t she? She realised she was waiting for the restraint of Selina’s hand on her shoulder.




Intelligent system

Picture Credits: Edar

Amanda was reading her phone when she stepped off the Tube at the wrong station. She halted in the tiled corridor, far too late, with other commuters filing around her. Where was she? Moorgate? She steadied herself. Ok, fine. That wasn’t so bad. She could walk the difference to Old Street. She was wearing the snug green skirt which wasn’t ideal but her trainers made up for it. Her heels were in her handbag. This was her IS’s recommendation based on weather, means of transport, her body temperature calibrated with her resting metabolic heart rate that morning, and her post-work schedule.

Moving stairs took her up to the real world. London in mid-October. Honey sunshine and the blue pleasure of a childhood sky. Her phone was pinging back to life as she pulled it out to share the observation, maybe an off-the-cuff haiku, but her hand was jittery with some kind of aftershock she couldn’t quite sort. Not yet. In the office with a proper heart rate she would tap it out, maybe increase her rankings as a result. Who knew? She could use the higher altitude. Not that she obsessed over that kind of thing. She had followers but lately it seemed she was putting out more than she was getting back so it would be a good time for some balance. First, though, she needed to sort out her actual direction as she couldn’t tell which way was which, so she faced left and then right before her IS chimed its approval. No need to enter a destination. It had already twigged that she was walking to work.

She made her way along City Road with its mixed complexions of stone and steel, shopfronts glassed into living eyes by reflected sky. Traffic snarling in constricted lanes. Charity workers holding out buckets for donations, a busker playing half-good guitar. She could feel the breathing energy of others as they passed. There was a fullness of being in this movement, this flap and flare. The grain of everything sharpened and brightened, washed to its deepest self. It had been happening lately — these slips into alien empathy, how else could she say it — which at first had seemed quirky and shareable until last weekend when she had paused with the mascara wand raised to her face, staring at what she had always known but not. Within and without at once. She couldn’t be the first person to feel such a thing but she also couldn’t twist it outward to common sense. She was twenty-five years old, actually seven months beyond her birthday and therefore closer to twenty-six than twenty-five which meant she was closer to thirty than she was to twenty, a realisation ringing through her recently. She had shared that one. Mum had read it and thought it was supposed to be funny. But Amanda felt the days escaping from her like air from a balloon and it didn’t seem like a healthy phase of thought.

She carried on toward a bright blush of foliage in the gated park ahead—a cemetery, as it turned out, with mossed gravestones and ragged overgrowth tinged with a stained-glass radiance by the canopy of dying leaves. Ochre and umber, blood cherry and rusty brown. She peered at it through the corroded rails with an urge to linger in the melancholy stillness but she was already late so she thumbnailed it and moved on, feeling the hummingbird weight of her life against all those others. She gave a mental salute of thanks for the perspective. At the next block she passed through a vast scaffolding with bars pad-wrapped at street level and white draperies stirring in the breeze like an angel’s anatomy exposed in a parade. This was the pulse of the world. This was her sense of being alive. And maybe it wasn’t so strange after all. Her phone started twitching in her handbag and it seemed like a wake-up call. She was happening constantly, her existence taking shape in every moment with nothing different about it now if she just stepped back from herself and really thought about what she thought.

#

HocusLocus occupied a loft with polished hardwood floors and timber beams and exposed brick. High windows admitted sunlight all year long but no view of the world below. The desks, twenty of them, mimicked a pattern made by cigarettes Ollie had tossed to the floor in search of a non-hierarchical layout to suit the management methods he had picked up in Silicon Valley. There were small conference rooms branching off the central area for actual conversations. This morning, though, Amanda arrived to find everyone packed into the kitchen with mimosas. She changed out of her trainers before joining them.

‘Power up,’ Ollie said, handing her a flute.

She accepted it carefully. ‘What’s the occasion?’

He smirked and moved on without replying, all mischief and mystery. She held the drink to her nose for the refreshing prickle of it. The flute itself made out of bio-refuse, or so Ollie claimed, though it seemed like ordinary plastic to her. She edged in next to Strawberry Zachary and managed to catch eyes with Hannah who transmitted her opinion by imitating one of the emojis they typically used to communicate across the office within sight of each other. As her face lacked the expressive range and precision of emojis, however, Amanda wasn’t sure if it was a bashful smirk with the tongue-peek to say sorry I beat you to it or the eerie smile with the blah-mouth which meant this was some unpleasant thing we must pretend to enjoy, and while the odds favoured the latter, Amanda didn’t know if the unpleasant thing was the occasion itself or the pseudo-champagne which, knowing Ollie, was Napa Valley ersatz, twice as expensive and half as good—not that it mattered anyway as the taste difference was nullified by the orange juice. In this sense the drink was like Ollie himself. A single year in California had infused his public school breeding with American can-do and sunny self-belief. He was an aggregator, a media entrepreneur and software innovator who had raised millions in venture capital to develop HocusLocus and then millions more in advertising revenue since going live. He wore plain blazers and open-collared shirts with Polynesian profusions of colour, cufflinks with extinct currency symbols in droll honour of the European Union, and heeled patent-leather shoes as a dressy pretence, Amanda suspected, for some extra height. He was square-jawed and raw-boned and insistently attractive. Fortunately he wasn’t Amanda’s type. 

He carved out a spot for himself in the centre of the room and theatrically cleared his throat. ‘Hear ye, hear ye, I’ve kept you all in suspense long enough. Time for the reveal.’ He cued Gavin, who played a trumpet flourish on his phone. ‘Yesterday was our highest traffic volume ever. Three hundred thousand page views, which we hit when?’

Gavin glanced at his screen. ‘7.47 pm.’

‘A tipping point, it’s fair to say. Much as I love Gavin, it didn’t seem right to pop a cork just the two of us last night because you’re the ones who helped made it happen. So here’s to HocusLocus.’ He raised his glass and slipped into his faux-American accent. ‘It’s globally awesome!’

She clicked rims with Strawberry Zachary and, much to her surprise, relished the tangy fizz as a missing ingredient in her bloodstream. At home her IS would read the runes in her saliva and suggest a proper remedy. But here, what the hell, she gulped it down. Her nose filled with gas. Her eyes brimmed. Zach caught sight of it and nearly spat out his drink laughing. She batted him on the arm which was standard operating procedure for him as her brotherly stabilizer. As a web developer he was prized for the fine ergonomic sense of Twister, his popular dating app, along with a bargain-hunter called Bearly and some kind of personal encryptor in progress called DustDevil. His code sequences worked like the notations for chemical compounds that turned out to be either rocket fuel or table salt according to minor blips she could never identify. As her eyes cleared she took a breath and told him about the Tube jolt, downplaying the effect. She found herself getting all wry about it. A good anecdote. No biggie.

‘Really?’ He ran a thumb along the corner of his mouth. ‘That sort of thing puts years on my life. It ages my soul a bit. But not in a bad way. I mean, at first it scares the merde out of me, totally out of proportion, and then I realise it’s an inoculation. A flu jab, right? To build up your resistance.’

‘Resistance to what?’

‘Widgets. Bells and whistles. Bouncing balls.’ He waved a hand vaguely. ‘All these shiny objects.’

‘You’re a Buddhist this morning,’ she said to him.

‘I had Koan for breakfast.’

‘Oh stop jabbing.’

‘No jab. It’s a brand of granola suggested by my IS.’

‘I thought you switched off your IS.’

‘It’s an on-again, off-again sort of relationship.’

‘You don’t get as much out of it that way.’

‘You mean they don’t get as much out of it. Koan is made by Belle Foods, which is a subsidiary of Senserious, which is part of Deville.’

He aimed an expectant look at her, practically counting out loud as he waited for her twig it. At a party he’d go vertical right about now. He ascended into critical fits of passion with little notice and otherwise was a site-specific flamer, as he phrased it. He didn’t mind. He wasn’t hiding any part of his life. He just wasn’t a peacock with his tail feathers spread all the time. He was a web developer who thought about pensions because he believed his whole life was actually going to happen. Amanda needed to glean a bit of that.

‘And Deville owns Telmar,’ she said, ‘which makes the IS.’ 

‘Now you’re seeing through the maya.’

‘And it’s making me dizzy.’

‘That’s not maya. That’s the mimosa. And they both cloud your vision. But what happened on the Tube—that was twenty-twenty.’ He tapped her forehead with his index finger. ‘And clarity hurts, Mandi. Am I right?’

A buzzer sounded on Gavin’s phone—a mock-serious signal that had the double-negative effect of ordering everyone to work with a headmaster’s severity—and he began making his way round the room without appearing to make his way round the room. From the back he could be confused with Ollie, but from the front he was pure Gavin, with wide portal glasses and a beard, a flop of stylish hair, not bad-looking as far as she could tell, peering through it all. She smiled, which he returned as usual. As the room emptied out she turned to Zach, who flicked his empty flute into the bin with a high-handed flourish like a Russian nobleman saluting the Czar. Amanda did the same. Right. He had a way of shrinkwrapping a problem and setting it on the shelf. Onward and upward.

She made her way over to her desk and opened her laptop. As the latest feeds materialized she checked her socials ahead of the weekend. She had been counting on a gap between arrival at the office and actual salaried work to share her Tube experience and also triangulate the contact she had been considering on the train because despite her reservations he had praised her recent string of comments, but the mimosas had put paid to all that. One part alcohol, one part Zach chat. A necessary debriefing, as it turned out. She felt oddly behind now, though. She would need to squeeze it in somewhere. As the feeds came up she caught a bizarre piece about an ice hockey player talking like the Dali Lama or something. This came from where? She lensed it up. Nottingham, of all places. They had an ice hockey team—yes, she remembered those adverts by the uni, not to mention the ice rink near to that pub with generous vodka tonics where she had ended up so many Thursday nights her final year. One time she and some friends got mixed up with fans spilling out of the arena all jerseyed and team-spirited. Compared to football or rugby it seemed like a secret society accidentally released into the streets. 

This particular item had come through a sports blog and then replicated itself across a range of platforms before generating enough viral interest to pique the algorithms of HocusLocus. A minor celebrity had splashed it around. And it had hooks, a high repeat ratio. She opened the text and read. Then she read it again with a mentholated clarity in her eyes the way she spotted a dress across the shop knowing it would fit her before she tried it on. That’s for me. That’s mine. Of course the decision was never really about the dress but the possibilities it offered, the kind of person she could be. And this thing? She wasn’t even sure what the guy was saying. She just thought it was cool, plain and simple, a perk of this job, this life.

#

She had landed the job at HocusLocus after a stint at a corporate shark tank and then, in recovery mode, waiting tables at a high-end restaurant managed by one of her inner socials. The better part of that time had been occupied by running two blogs—one under a pseudonym, the other as her true-blue self—while taking in serious literature and art exhibitions, watching her friends develop their careers, and throwing energy into liaisons that never quite reached escape velocity. Granted, some of those had been one-offs or hook-ups, experimental swipes in a culture devoted to sexual pleasure, but that phase had lasted only a couple of months and she now discounted it heavily when she totted it all up. Meanwhile she had spray-fired her CV at herds of job prospects that suited her notion of how she might make use of her English degree, with no success whatsoever. This was frightening. She didn’t mind waiting tables to make ends meet but she liked to think she was more marketable than that. By the time she interviewed with Ollie and Gavin she was ready to avatar herself as the Queen of Sheba if necessary, but all they wanted was someone to tailor up items with viral potential. Or rather, tailor them down. Trim and hem. She played along. As a kind of field test she was given thirty minutes to scale down a piece about subatomic particles which she managed to recast as an extended metaphor involving bracelets and footballs that sounded cool but didn’t make much sense. Shoddy work. Awkward at best. When it was over she calmly gathered herself up and managed to reach the pavement outside before breaking into tears.

She was hired the next day. Ollie said she had a natural flair for it, on par with her predecessor, an editor called Rebecca who, Amanda later learned, had been sacked for the crime of siphoning off a few of HocusLocus’s discards and incorporating them into her personal blog. Never mind it didn’t harm anyone. Ollie apparently didn’t treat that sort of thing like stealing office supplies. That aside, Amanda had to admit she felt the strange workings of a talent. As an associate editor she digested articles tagged by HocusLocus’s algorithms for use on their websites, planting her recrafted versions to see which ones took hold and multiplied most fruitfully, at which point the most successful ones were tweaked repeatedly until they went viral. Her posts, along with their integrated adverts, were seen by tens of thousands on a daily basis. True, the origins were obscured in the text she produced, but there was a ‘hat tip’ at the bottom linking to the root system she had used which usually ended with, or rather began with, a reputable magazine or academic journal. She worked on sites with the highest traffic—mainly Zinger, their flagship, though she also contributed to Soothsayer, Ad Absurdum, and Deep Six, while colleagues like Hannah worked similarly but in different proportions according to what came through the pipeline. Ollie sampled much of what they produced but spent most of his time tweaking algorithms, occasionally calling in some freelance engineers who hot-desked as close to Hannah as they could get despite her boyfriend’s photo propped like a biohazard sign at the perimeter. And while a small number gravitated Amanda’s way, she found it both flattering and unpleasant because none of them were her type.

Who was her type? Not Ollie, not Gavin, not Zach, and apparently not any of those tech turkeys. These days she favoured prospects with at least the possibility of real development. Her most recent contact had moved up the totem of chat with steampunk ruminations about the various gadgets and gizmos he loved rather than the details of his life. He was ambivalent about digital technology with its invisible workings, inaccessible to those who used it, he said, sealed inside a case. How could we trust something without moving parts? He was a retrofuturist who preferred an alternate version of today’s technology as it was envisaged by the past, with pistons and levers and cogs. But was he an utter misfit? That was the question. A face-to-face on her way home from work confirmed the relative merits of his askance photo but revealed an actual personality so hobbled by his own manifestoes of style and substance that he had closed down ages ago without even realising it, and you couldn’t treat this kind of thing as a fixer-upper. Down the totem he went, nudged from voicemail to text to social posts. No ghosting required. He caught on quickly enough.

It occurred to her, of course, that a single meeting would have made all this clear to her from the outset. It also occurred to her, of course, that if not for her dating profile she never would have met him in the first place. This was one of many contradictions she lived with, particularly as her IS had recently noted a correlation between her online social activity and fluctuations in cortisol and dopamine levels associated with depression. This didn’t make any sense because she enjoyed engaging with others, which seemed to mean that she enjoyed making herself depressed. She had grappled with this one on Nulterior Motives, her anonymous blog, but the vague swarm of likes and approvals were perhaps part of the very problem she was describing. Her straightfoward blog, Well Nigh Impossible, posed an even stranger problem as she began to envy the person who appeared there, as if she were missing out on Amanda Nigh. Unable to resolve it, she had decided instead to counterbalance it with more activity and basic being in her life.

She went running, off and on. She phased in and out of power yogas and super spins and crash-and-burns, most of which she liked well enough, but it all seemed to dissolve in the heat of deadlines or excursions or parties trailing each other until she was always starting over, getting back into shape when it was mythical in the first place, this level of fitness she imagined because she knew she was fighting a losing battle with her body type. Even now her midriff resisted the taut tone she noticed in others who swallowed pastries on a regular basis. The only reason she bothered with running was because her IS insisted it was the best way to raise her basal metabolic rate—and in the morning, no less. Fresh air, rise and shine. The ancient activity of feet on the ground. She enjoyed the outdoor element even though her knees ached afterward, probably due to her inconsistency, the lack of discipline in her stride, or so Strawberry Zachary had said, and frankly the seasonal nature of her activity. Winter drained the colour from her soul. Her fuel cells ran down easily and she needed someone in a warm room with flashing lights to yell at her to keep moving. This usually happened during lunch hour if it happened at all because she simply couldn’t haul herself off the mattress early enough, whereas after work she either lost all volition by the time she Tubed back to Shadwell or else joined a few friends at the pub on an empty stomach and could barely read her own screen as she went rattling home, which was probably for the best given that her IS took one look at her blood sugar and essentially recommended a transfusion. 

IS stood for Intelligence System, a prototype which wasn’t a single app or lens but rather an integration of various custom mappings and attribute transformations into a single functioning network. This was the way it was described, at least, by an associate of Ollie’s who had bestowed it upon HocusLocus’s staff as some kind of divine favour. Hannah eagerly volunteered for the beta test. Zach was wary but offered himself for the benefit of his savoir-faire in the coding world. And for certain proprietary reasons which Gavin was not at liberty to reveal, Amanda qualified to ultra-beta test a model with biochemical interfaces. This required a digital meshing of not only her devices and clouds but also her physical condition as a dataset in itself with its own ranking and stacking algorithms, its own semantic functions, its own rich data. Part of the deal—and, truly, the clincher for her—was a stipend for single-occupancy housing as roommates would have contaminated the data. It had been an elegant excuse to trade an erratic situation in Clapham for a newer flat in Shadwell, cutting not only her interpersonal grievances but also her commute by a considerable margin.

Amanda’s initial misgivings about a system that blended her view-purchase patterns with biochemical data dissolved within the first hour of use. Her IS recommended clothing. It selected meals based on her nutritional needs and the expiry dates of whatever happened to be in the fridge. It notified her of sales at her favourite shops and adjusted her monthly budget and suggested birthday gifts for loved ones and played music suited to her moods as determined by not only her hormonal condition but also facial expressions and vocal pitches, which meant it knew her moods better than she did. These were algorithms keyed to biorhythms, empathic moldings of data. And it reduced the friction of her daily life—the paper cuts of all those little decisions, those little mistakes, those little things you forget. She had firewalled it from Nulterior Motives for a shred of anonymity and her brief experiment with hook-up culture as it was the sort of history she didn’t want to proliferate. She wasn’t ready for omniscience yet. And though she hadn’t tried the verbal interface, and therefore hadn’t selected a voice for it, she was beginning to think of her IS as female. Why not? This was positive discrimination on her part. Objects were gendered in romance languages, after all, which seemed much more honest about the state of things, and Amanda Nigh wanted a different view of herself—Amanda Nigh as seen from the perspective of someone very much like herself, actually, but with more wisdom and detachment. Was that possible? In any case she was avoiding a voice for her IS because she was avoiding a certain kind of commitment. Or maybe involvement. The IS belonged to her as long as she worked at HocusLocus and she didn’t see herself leaving anytime soon even though she didn’t exactly see herself doing this kind of work when she got older. And what exactly was older? She hadn’t squared it yet. There was no almanac for her life. She tasted odd moments here and there like ripe fruit and she told herself it was enough.




An Internet of Fungal Threads

Picture Credits: ‘Disappear Here’ Megan Archer (www.meganjarcher.com @megan.j.archer)

EXT. BALCONY – DAY

In a perfect world, Simon’s face and foppish Hugh Grant hair would have been in the pile of headshots on my desk. I would have cast him as Sensible Love Interest: a face that audiences would understand our female lead dumping very early on, maybe even in the opening scene, in order to seek broader horizons.

His face indicated – what we call it in the industry – a potato personality. Square-jawed and attractive in a familiar sense, but bland and unresponsive upon prodding.

Instead of on my desk, though, he would be downstairs in the shared courtyard of our building, locking his bike noisily to the metal gate that runs around the pool. He did that so loud and fast, every night, as if in a mild panic, like he was desperate to pee. I was sure the excessive clanking was for me, so that I could emerge like a thirsty Pavlov’s dog to a bell, hose in hand, all bare shoulders and wine glass, to water the plants on my balcony. I turned the hose up to full power and hastily overflowed my pots, so when he was still struggling with his key in the door underneath me, I could lean over say, ‘Oops, don’t want you getting wet down there.’

And he would always respond like such a potato, smiling nervously and doubling down on his efforts to get into his apartment as quickly as possible. 

I could have climbed that man like a tree.

My colleague Len prefered it when I left the subject of Downstairs Neighbour I Want to Bone right alone. He just told me to get back to Bank Teller #2 and Shocked Passerby #3. In our low-ceilinged beige office we sat, the stems of two decorative palm trees visible out the window. The palm trees meant I didn’t have to make eye contact with men on their breaks, sitting in the driver’s seat of their cars in the strip-mall parking lot, quietly unwrapping greasy burgers like a daily practice of reverse origami. When lunchtime came, I walked past the rows of solitary people eating in their cars, unwrapping their white bread bundles, looking at their phones. Starved of something and trying to get fed.

On our screens, we flipped through face after digital face, pose after pose. My favourites were hand on hip sultry and over the shoulder sincerity. I simply wouldn’t abide a humorous shrug of the shoulders, or any wacky-eyebrowed impresarios.

‘You’ve never even had a conversation with the guy Lou.’

‘But I know faces Len.’

‘You do know faces.’

‘That’s a face I could look at. For a long time. He’s even a little exotic, like British or something.’

I decided not to mention his Hugh Grant hair to Len. Len has the hair of a professional video game player.

‘Maybe I could cast him as the lead in my project.’

‘You don’t have a project.’

‘Yes, I do.’

‘You’re writing a script about the tree internet.’ Len’s voice tightened.

‘Technically you are wrong, because I am not writing it yet, I’m still in the research phase. But we already have a working title: An Internet of Fungal Threads.’

‘Who is ‘we’?’

Len looked at me the same way he always looked at me when I talked about my film, like it was unrealistically ambitious for someone who casts extras to pitch a project to Hollywood execs about the way that trees communicate underground, silently and invisibly, via a giant interconnected web of fungus.

‘Just me.’ I responded quietly.

I had discovered this idea on the human internet, in a viral video that appeared in my feed. I liked it so much I shared it again on my own feed, and as I clicked the button I imagined sending the images and words forth like fungal spores, to germinate and prosper.

This is how the trees worked: their roots go down into the earth and then connect to tiny fungal threads that stretch on for miles and miles. They send messages to each other, they know when one is sick and send each other nutrients. When one dies, they can share what health they have left with other plants. When a new sapling comes up in a place without the sunlight it needs, the older trees can help it survive. When one is attacked by enemy aphids, it sends messages to its neighbours, tells them what is killing it, warning them to produce chemicals to protect them from the same fate.

They are always talking even if they seem mute to us. They are not alone even if they seem lonely to us. I drank this idea up.

‘It’s a feel good story about the benevolence of trees Len, what’s not to love? I already got one call about it, when it was still called Tree Story.’

‘Was it because they thought it has something to do with Toy Story?’

Len could shut up. Fuck Len.

INT. BEDROOM – MORNING

I don’t know why I kept fucking Len.

I woke to the sun on my closed eyelids, my vision pink, embryonic and veiny, watching throbbing organisms of something float across the surface of my eyeballs. Before opening my eyes, I felt a wetness between my thighs of a familiar texture. I stretched my legs and surprised myself with my own nakedness, and remembered the foreign body in my orbit that needed monitoring, Len.

I rolled over to take in the scene, the wrong person in my bed, his hair out of its usual pony, cascading over shoulders shaped by the desk-to-sofa life he led. I needed my decorative tree trunk to prevent eye contact. He was already awake and watching me, looking like he knew something that I didn’t.

He searched my eyes and looked happy, smug. He wanted to be invited in for a long meaningful stare. This was not my face, this could not be my face.

‘Oh, fuck,’ I cried and rolled back over, feigning sleepiness and cursing myself for being there with him, again. With every shake of my head no, no, no, I felt the scrape and clink of last nights empty wine bottles rolling around on the dirty tiled floor of my brain.

‘Oh, Lou,’ he sighed, clasping his hands behind his head. ‘Why do you think we keep ending up like this?’

I had no one to warn me on the fungal superhighway.

‘Could it be that we are perfectly suited to one another?’ he said.

My roots are just dangling around in mid air. Not plugged into anything. Somehow I’ve gone offline and no one can reach me.

‘It’s like I knew when I saw you that you were mine,’ he continued, speaking in the general direction of the ceiling.

I wonder if they were trying, the trees, trying to send a message through the ground, tell me I am so much better than this.

‘The sooner you realize it the better.’

Maybe they were sending me a little message like: You are not that alone. You’re just a thirsty girl right now. Maybe they were trying to send me the nutrients I need to raise my guard and destroy the enemy aphid, the little bug who was clinging onto my waist and trying to suck the life out of me. 

‘We’re only getting older’ He reached around and tucked some of my curly mop behind my ear and whispered tenderly, ‘You’ll dry up soon.’

I spun around at this, finally at my capacity of entertaining Len’s absurd and offensive love for me, with the intention to destroy it once and for all.

Before I could seek and destroy, chains jangled on the wrought-iron pool fence outside, and I sat up suddenly to put my bathrobe on and regard my reflection. More of last night’s drinks found equilibrium in my brain.

Len laid back, exasperated. ‘Who even rides a fucking bike in this city?’

As I wiped mascara crumbs from my lower lash line in the mirror, I made eye contact with myself and thought: you are ripe and fecund. I told him I was interested to hear why he thought he loved me. He opened his mouth and I told him not now. Go home immediately and put it in an email. For now I had a balcony to swan on.

Len left and I prepared my hose and décolletage. Simon loitered outside the pool for longer than usual today, chattering away to Mrs. Goldstein, who was sunning herself by the pool.

When I emerged as casually as one could, to check on my green little friends, I saw something entirely unexpected. To my horror, Len was making a beeline to Simon from the foot of the staircase.

Fucking Len.

INT. MY INNER LOGIC – SOME FRIDAY EVENINGS

Fucking Len was an anthropological exercise, I told myself, and usually came about after some close consultation with my two best friends: refrigerated bottle of white wine from the office mini fridge, and, lack of better options. There was also my animal thirst to be reminded I was alive and my body was good for something that didn’t involve pressing my fingers onto buttons on a plastic keyboard, or my foot onto a gas and brake pedal.
The fact that the something my body was good for was fucking Len, I decided to shove deep into a hollow tree trunk in my mind, hoping it would never poke its ugly head back out to chirp at me like an incessant cuckoo clock, come to pecker away at my self-esteem.

You’re cuckoo. You’re cuckoo.

Last night began like all the other nights with Len. He threw the passenger side door of his Sedan open for me, wiped a week’s worth of lunch wrappers off the seat, and like little paper chrysalises, they fell delicately to the floor of the car. They crunched as I flattened them with my size 9 Converses.

I buckled up, and we headed to the next place to keep drinking.

My back against the wall, I was looking over his shoulder for better options, and he was looking straight at me. There was nothing much to lose with Len, another low-risk low-reward night. I could go home alone, I told the cuckoo clock, or I could continue my character study on Len. Then, in the event I should be asked to cast for Moderate Men’s Rights Activist on Reddit #2, I would be well prepared.

Eventually in the sappy amber light of the bar, Len gave me one of his usual compliments like ‘you’re actually quite pretty’ or ‘your hair looks extra brown today’. And me, with my eyes half-closed, my head in my hands, my hot drunk cheek mashing against my smudgy eyelashes, I conceded. Otherwise my hands would be manicured for no one, my extra brown hair would smell good for no one, my weekend that stretched out in front of me would consist of nothing and no one. I would wake up in the morning feeling physically well, and would have no good reason at all not to open a new file on my computer, stare at the white page, wait for inspiration to come, then write. Then I would simply have to go ahead and write the (convention-defying, brilliant, simple, fantastic, sparse, deeply impossible) opening words to An Internet. 

I laid down in the backseat of the Uber and my head began to spin – I closed my eyes and slurred at the driver to roll down the windows, to ‘let in that California evening breeze.’ Dizzy and horizontal, I tried to fight the warm embrace of sleep, pressed my feet into Len’s thigh, raised my eyes up to the sky, watched the underside of the flat palm trees whiz by, illuminated flashes of trees up in golden yellow lights, spaced my breaths to the passing of each one, each two, each three. I let myself close my eyes a little longer each time, slipping further away from myself, until I was sure the lights from the street were flashing red, filling the interior of our car like police sirens at an accident, wrapping around me like a wet hot cocoon. The red palm fronds were lowering themselves to me, reaching through the windows to me in alarm, coming closer and closer. The car bumped along to the same rhythm, driving us relentlessly onwards, closer and closer to my soft cream-carpeted habitat.

In my bed, the ick and goo of it reminded me always of a just alive organism, frothing away like a salted slug, madly foaming in the last throes of life.

Len rose and cleaned himself meticulously with one of my makeup wipes. I thought about warning him about the sting of the perfumed acetone, but I rolled over and finally let sleep take me.

EXT. MY INNER COURTYARD – DAY

Len continued his beeline to Simon. I anxiously ran my fingers through the leaves of my begonia like I was running them through some foppish hair. I watched on in nightmarish paralysis as Len strode over to Simon and placed a gentle hand on the back of his army green t-shirt.

Then they smacked each other in that way men do when they want to reassure each other that neither of them is a danger to the other. They exchanged words I couldn’t hear, and Len smacked Simons back with a flat palm. Simon patted Len’s back a few times in quick succession like you do with an old dog. 

I blinked and I was walking through  a giant oak forest, hundred-year-old trees towering above me, blowing loudly in the wind, making a sound like water steaming in a small kitchen. It was a place I had never been or seen before.

And then I was back. I looked down to find my hands and wrists crumbed in dark, wet soil, gripping onto a thick vine which ran over the edge of my balcony, running down a lattice and all the way down to the ground, where its roots reached through to the soil in a gap between the blue slate ground of the courtyard. 

Len and Simon exchanged cards. I thought of my own cards that sat untouched in my desk drawer. Printed in forest green serif font, on a backdrop of Monstera Deliciosa against pastel green, featuring an earlier working title we had, it read: 

Lou Benedict
Wood Wide Web
Filmmaker

As Len exited the courtyard, he spun the card into the garden, like an angry man impotently throwing a frisbee into heavy wind. Later, on my hands and knees, the ferns guided me wordlessly to the card which lay discarded at their feet.

Simon Krabb Gardens Communication Officer Descanso Gardens, Los Angeles

I imagined a more truthful card I could give him in response.

Lou Benedict
Lonely Horndog
This Apartment Complex, Los Angeles 

INT. THIS APARTMENT  COMPLEX – NIGHT

LOU (V.O.)

I had been watching a lot of videos of plants on YouTube. They were the type you see in nature documentaries, time-lapse fast motion clips of plants from the beginning of their life to the end.

First we see the soil, then within seconds the sprout has burst through and has grown inches towards the light. Shade and sunlight flicker incessantly over the image, lashings of fast-forwarded rain sprinkle over our sapling as it pushes upwards. Halfway through the clip our little plant has reached the pinnacle of its growth and beauty, then before we realize that we have witnessed its peak, our little life begins to fall and wilt. It spurts forth and spews decay over itself, time accelerating impossibly fast now. All that was plumping is now sallowing, the moist and fruitful stem loses colour fast and dries out. The vibrant green fades and starts to brown, the juiciness dissipates and the stem starts to wrinkle. What was going upwards now shrinks downwards, and our little sapling is curling up into a reverse fetal position, arching wildly at the end of its life, browning, and then laying face down in the dirt.

I got up and drove to work every day, spent time with Len because he happened to sit next to me, drove home and then the day was gone. I gave love to whoever was there, and in moments of reflection, I looked back on myself fucking all these ill-fitting men, saw my ripe ass and juicy thighs spasming and decaying over the man’s body in a horrific time lapse video that played over and over in my mind’s eye.

I would repeat this over and over until bigger and bigger chunks of time were gone. I would say my life was falling through my fingers like fistfuls of soil, but I’d never really had a hold on it in the first place. At this point, I was just watching it play out, not knowing when the peak of my glory would come, or if it had already passed me. This was not my life, this could not be my life.

My escape from the time lapse video was my project, my script. When I thought about the trees and how they connected to each other, I felt I could slow down things and experience myself in real time. I felt happy in this cocoon, imagining that the project would take off any day, the door to my new life would at some point pop open, and I would emerge through it, my old life slipping off me like a coat of slime. And when that happened, I would be happy for the slime, and for all the time I spent curled up in its juices, which had given me the nutrients, the saltiness, and the flavor that audiences would come to know and love.

Every time I sat down to work on my script, which was in its infancy, I felt like I was digging myself deeper into this delusion, each shovel of soil that I threw over my shoulder only getting me one moment closer to the inevitable clunk against something metal, a loud clanging sound, which would stop me from proceeding any further. I didn’t want to hit this bottom note because I wasn’t ready to truly contemplate the improbability of it all. This film was my plant baby, and I didn’t want my plant baby to die. So I stopped digging.

INT. BEDROOM – DAY

I ordered a salad on the internet. I knew I was too hungry for just a salad, but I was getting used to the idea that I would never be satiated. Over the next days I lounged around my soft beige bubble of an apartment, ordering food in, watering my plants, contemplating Simon and his slim fit army green t-shirt, those short little sleeves that stopped at the top of his best arm muscle. And when I thought about Simon, I thought about the conversation he and Len had by the pool, what they might have said to each other while I was getting my messages from the plants. And then I thought of Len, and the things he said to me about my life, and how much I wanted him to be wrong.

My vanity table was vintage, with a circular mirror that reached a few feet up my bedroom wall. I had painted it beige to match everything else in my life. I had a few small friends here – a collection of philodendrons and aspidistras.  I sat in front of the mirror and tightened my pink silk robe around my waist. I contemplated my beauty.

Fine lines had started to appear around my eyes and my smile lines. There was something under my jaw which didn’t used to be there, an extra presence, but seeing it in the mirror was like trying to catch my shadow, I could only see it when I span around quickly at an awkward angle, like a frightened cat, or when I opened the camera on my phone and forgot it was facing towards me.

Simon’s business card was there too, tucked into the wooden frame of my vanity.

INT. OFFICE – DAY

‘I guess I know him better than you do now,’ Len said. ‘You know, on account of the fact that we’ve had one conversation.’

I continued to press my fingers into my plastic ergonomic keyboard. 

‘Real interesting guy. I can see why you like him. Or, I can see why you would like him if you had ever spoken to him. Like I have.’ 

I pressed some more buttons and stared out the window at the palm trees. It was pilot season, but on my screen were not hopeful faces waiting to be cast, but the Descenso Gardens website – they were looking for volunteers to get involved on the weekends.

‘I can see myself getting involved with him more. On the weekends,’ I said.

On my screen were images of smiling people in work aprons, holding trowels and tiny plants, next to allotment boxes of soil. 

‘That’s not how you spent last weekend,’ Len said. Without turning, I could hear his face in his voice: greasy. I remembered another morning of waking up next to him in a darkened room, my ripe body rotting in a horrific time lapse over his.

I looked at photos of the gardens. There was a Japanese garden with maple trees and a red lacquered bridge. The leaves were yellow and orange. It seemed Simon worked at the only place in LA that had seasons.

I kept flipping through the images on the site, until I came to an image of the giant oak forest. The pixels matched a place in my mind, a place I had never been before.

EXT. GARDENS – DAY

‘Hello, it’s Louise, isn’t it?’

I looked up to see Simon. Sadly he was in a long-sleeved button up, not a tee. He looked concerned. ‘I had a meeting scheduled. I didn’t realize it was you, that Louise, my neighbour!’ he laughed at the coincidence, still thinking it was one.

I was sitting on a park bench, at the base of a giant oak tree, leaning over to grasp some shrubbery. I released my fistful of leaves to fish into the pocket of my uncomfortably tight jeans for my card, and I handed it to him. Wordlessly, for maximum effect. Then I lent down to the shrubbery again.

As I ran my hands through it I felt a familiar warmth rush through my fingertips and then through my whole body. It was the same drunken heat that had reached in through the windows of my Uber the other night, the red flashing lights and palm fronds reaching out towards me. I had thought I was asleep. That I dreamt this.

The heat was like new air running into my lungs, which I appreciated especially because of my tight jeans and consequently limited oxygen intake. It was the joy of impending connection, an opening of possibilities and new places to feed and nourish myself.

‘Simon,’ I said, deciding to go out on a limb, ‘You’re the Communications Manager here. Do you ever feel like the plants are trying to communicate with you? Like, they are looking out for you and sending you messages?’

Simon cocked his head and looked around us, at the empty forest.

‘I didn’t explain that very well,’ I said. ‘I’m referring to the tree internet, of course.’

He looked at me directly then, and I took this to be assent. He knew of it.

‘Recently I’ve been thinking that I’ve been able to plug into this interweb – that the trees have accepted me as part of their network. That’s the basis for my project that I want to film here.’ I patted the space next to me as I spoke, he sat.

A rush of wind picked up the leaves of the giant trees, which continued their steaming sound like they might soon bubble over the rim of the sky and be too big for this world. I cleared my throat and began to explain my idea.

‘All the loneliness in the world could be solved by invisible threads of connection. An Internet. ’




The First of the Gang to Die

It happened two days ago and felt like time travel, only it wasn’t a time trip at all. I woke up in black and white, like I ran out of colors, only it didn’t feel like my fault at first; I thought the world was to blame, not me. Like the world was black and white in the old times when there weren’t color TVs, only it wasn’t, but it kind of feels like it was when you have only seen the past in old films.  

How selfish of you, my wife said, when I told her. Like there wasn’t depth perception before three-dimensional TVs. That’s stupid, I said, because I know what the world seemed like before they appeared and I definitely experienced depth without them. She shrugged like she made her point and I realized she did. I asked if she accused me of being too young and she said I wasn’t or else I’d easily find a job. I’ve been unemployed for the last couple of months but it’s not the young who took my job. It’s the stupid machines. If I had more skills, the stupid machines wouldn’t have taken my job, she claimed, only I never thought I’d compete with machines for a position in the rat race.   It’s not a rat race if you’re a machine, she said and I couldn’t argue with that. Damn you, said the parrot we keep as a pet in the living room and I felt like the bird read my thoughts. That stupid bird didn’t seem that cute in black and white. It doesn’t usually repeat what I say, only what I think about, only if it’s inappropriate. Sweet birdie said my wife, turning his way, and started petting the bird. That ended the conversation abruptly, only I didn’t mind, because I had already started losing my temper, cursing inside, and I didn’t feel like hearing my thoughts aloud, spoken by the bird. 

*

Jim’s standing in line. He will be next and he knows. Only he has four mouths to feed and not a high-skilled wife like I do. He’s so desperate, he even practices smiling at home. He stands in front of the mirror and tries to fake a smile, only he hasn’t yet mastered the art of faking authentic smiles, he claims, which I find contradictory, or even ironic, but he doesn’t see it that way. Practice makes perfect, he claims, or at least tolerably better, in his case. He’s been my best friend for years, that is since after high school, when we both found the job at that fast food chain store, at the same time. He’s terrified at the prospect, but can’t do much. He’s just standing there, waiting for his turn, like we’re toy soldiers in a Morrissey song and I was ‘the first of the gang to die’ but the rest will soon follow my path. I don’t think Morrissey’s song was about our situation at all, it was mostly about love problems and all, or even actual death and other existential issues we don’t have the luxury to think about, I say, although Jim reminds me I have no clue what Morrissey was talking about. I nod, yet chances are he wasn’t talking about people like us. 

I tell Jim about the word gone black and white and he says it’s normal. He claims it comes with age. I find it strange though that no one ever warned me about it. I didn’t think it really happened. I mean literally. He’s rolling his eyes, asking: You meant literally? I nod. Like in those old films? I nod again. That’s serious stuff, he says after some pondering. I thought you meant you lost the magic or something, metaphorically speaking, like in the Logical song, he says, like you lost that sense of magic now the world’s made you practical and responsible and all. We speak through songs, cause that’s how we communicate best. Because we’re not machines, for fuck’s sake. I’ve lost that lovin’ feeling, I sing to him jokingly, but I’ve also lost colours, I add, no singing this time. He passes me the cigarette he’s holding; he knows I can’t afford smoking now I’m unemployed. Jim’s a real pal. He’s not looking down on me, like my wife is, now that I’m jobless. Then again, I don’t cost him that much. You smile more often now that you don’t have to smile, he says. And I smile again, like I’ve swallowed spring and summer and all joy the world has ever offered, because I know he’s right. I can’t stop smiling now I don’t need to, which, for a strange reason, makes Jim laugh his heart out, like he’s just swallowed all jokes the world has ever offered. You should see a doctor, he finally tells me, after he stops laughing. 

*

I’ve been replaced by a smiling machine. The project is still on trial, but I was the first to go, for I was the one who smiled the least. Customers come here to feel good, the manager told me a year ago, advising me to smile more. Customers come here to eat, I argued, but he insisted they’re not coming for the food. Not only for the food. They come to treat themselves. It’s not like we’re a special restaurant, I said. For god’s sake, it’s only a fast food store. He got angry which I didn’t really get, because it’s not like it’s his own store, he only works there, but he took it personally, as if I had offended him personally, like I said he wasn’t special enough or something. Things escalated fast, because I was offended too, wondering how on earth he dared asking me to smile, when he didn’t even pay me on time. You should be grateful you have a job, he said and left. In hindsight, I realize my argument was wrong. I mean, even if he paid me on time, even if he gave me tons of money, would I be able to sell my smile? 

The day I got fired, my wife brought the parrot home. I wasn’t crazy enough at the time to believe the bird was a mind reader, although strangely enough, as soon as he saw me, he started making strange noises. We got closer, my wife and I, until we could clearly hear him talk, saying – stupid boss, stupid boss, stupid boss – repeatedly, as if he was inside my mind already, but my wife said be must have been abused by his previous owner and I believed her. The bird didn’t stop repeating those words all evening, and spoke without emotion, like a machine, like I wish I could express myself, calmly, firmly, not a sign of anger or sorrow in the tone of his voice. I liked him in the beginning, because I felt exactly the same, only emotions overwhelmed me, feelings I couldn’t tell apart, so I experienced them in silence, while the bird did all the talking, as if we were on a stage and we had split the roles, the parrot doing the talking, me the feeling part.

*

My wife asks what the doctor said. I tell her he didn’t smile either. He only checked the test results, without even touching me. He’s skilled enough to keep his job even without touching me which seems weird, yet who am I to judge? She only wishes to know what he said, not my opinion. I light a cigarette before letting her know. She looks at me like I’m a hopeless case. What? I ask and she rolls her eyes. She didn’t mind me smoking when I had a job which brings me to the conclusion it’s not my health she cares about. It’s all about the money, her money. She won’t admit it though. She says she’s read about all those famous people who had boyfriends or girlfriends who put them down, claiming they’d never succeed and how success is the best revenge. I have no clue where she’s getting at so she moves on, claiming, that when success comes for her, I won’t be there to witness it, for I’ll be dead. I put out the cigarette, knocking on wood with my free hand. You’re already successful, I tell her but I then realize she doesn’t see it that way. She’s not successful enough for her standards and I don’t put her down actually, only I hold her down, which is even worse. 

The doctor prescribed meds and therapy. He said that I should smile more and colors would come back. I smile often enough, I told him but he insisted I didn’t or else I wouldn’t have lost my job. And I can’t help but think I’m wasting my wife’s money with that therapy thing. Funny thing, said the doctor before I left, but not so long ago people were so hopeful about the machines. I stared at him to make him explain, cause machines never seemed that nice to me. I realize they make life easier from time to time, but they’re mostly annoying. Like talking to a child, the man moved on, explaining his thought; automation would replace human work and that’d mean more leisure for all of us. Who would give the paycheck then? I asked. He made a gesture as if delving more into the issue was impossible, as if I wouldn’t understand anyway and he showed me the door. That was the sign I should leave. I didn’t expect more; that therapist is just another cog in the wheel, the cog that enables smooth turning of the wheel. 

*

I can’t find Jim on the phone, so I call his wife. She hasn’t seen him since last night, she says. What happened? I ask. What happened is he got fired, she says sobbing over the phone. Those fucking machines have won, she adds. I hang up to tell my wife. Although I’m deeply worried about Jim, a part of me feels relieved I’m not the only victim anymore. Not all people are up for this, she says. Up for what? You know, life, she replies, as if life means silently, obediently, working day after day to make ends meet. On top of this, you have to smile, as if things went as planned, feigning happiness, even when dead inside. It only takes a moment before I snap. Life isn’t supposed to be like this. Life should be about authentic smiles. I throw my phone out of the window and then take hers and step on it, and jump on it like a maniac but that’s not enough to calm me down. I hit the TV with all my strength until it’s on the floor in pieces and then take a hammer and hit the laptop on the table, until it’s smashed and then the parrot mechanically repeats from the living room, ‘fuck all machines’, like a song on the repeat but without the emotion, cause that’s what I’m thinking about and the bird knows and spits the words hiding in my brain, remaining calm at the same time, like I wish I could, yet I’m not a machine. Or a parrot. 

The doctor arrived an hour later. It’s us against the machines, I said. Better than blaming the foreigners, but not too different, he answered. I asked what he meant but he didn’t care to explain. He prepared an injection to calm me down. I wish those stupid machines had never been invented, I said. It’s not who invented the gun, it’s not even about the guns at all, it’s who pulls the trigger, he told me before he left. The parrot was staring at me without talking, for my mind went numb with the injection and didn’t speak either, but the parrot nodded, as if he agreed with the doctor.

*

And I feel like the child in the African proverb who wasn’t embraced by the village and was ready to burn it down to feel its warmth, only the rage turns inwards, it becomes internalized and it feels like I’m now eating myself from the inside, like I was me and now I’m slowly vanishing, wondering who’ll replace me after I’m gone. Most probably, it’ll be a machine, or a parrot, or a parrot-like machine. The world’s gone mute too, along with the bird, like in those old black and white films, in which there was no other sound but music, background music playing, and I realize I must have regressed even further, instead of getting better. 

They say my problem is I can’t keep up with my time but I don’t want to either. I still cannot decide whether that’s a comforting thought or not, but apparently, I wasn’t even the first of the gang to die. Jim was. Perhaps many more have preceded him, yet they weren’t part of the gang, so they don’t count. 




I See You

Picture Credits: Ella 87

I wake when you do. Your alarm clock is mine, the digital bird harmonies that enter your ears are the same ones that enter my own, the loss in quality almost imperceptible as the sound travels through the fibre broadband that runs into my flat. It thrills me to think of this physical connection between us, that there is a wire that starts behind the paint and plaster of my bedroom and travels down into the ground, twisting and turning and emerging many miles away into the fine white interior of your beautiful house. It is a physical connection between us, like a vein or a string of muscle. We are part of the same body.

Of course, I can’t match your routine. I rise when you rise, but I lie on the floor as you perform your morning exercises: the sit-ups, press-ups, ab curls and pec pounders. You grunt and call out encouragements to yourself as you go. You are always pushing your body. If you’re not pushing yourself, you’re holding yourself back, you always say. I have that tattooed on my left forearm. I see the sweat glistening on your abdomen, and if I concentrate I can feel it too. The burn, you call it. The wall. The mountain. I am there, perched on your shoulder, trembling through your ascent.

I shower when you shower. I start on my arms as you do, soaping down each one before moving on to my chest. Your viewer numbers spike at the time, and I can see the likes and comments as they come in. I don’t pay them any attention. I know you know I am here.

Out of the shower and it’s on to the skincare routine. I do my best to keep up. I have the cinnamon and bergamot body oil, the guava and pomegranate face scrub, the moisturiser with the hygroscopic molecules. I can’t afford the peptide serum; one bottle would use up my entire salary from the warehouse, but as I soap my face with the scrub and run the same specialist clay you use through my hair, I feel as if we are one.  

When it hits eight I’m out the door, but I keep your feed in the top corner of my Visor. I keep it on all day. The audio cuts if someone needs to tell me something, but most of the time I’m with you right through – hearing what you hear, seeing what you see. I watch you eat breakfast as I’m waiting for the shuttle bus. I can taste the ancient-grain acai berry granola, the avocado on sourdough.

It takes a long time to get into the warehouse. My shift doesn’t start till ten, but I queue for an hour at the security gate. Once I’m in, it’s a twelve-minute buggy ride to my section. I have a forklift to load the packages and take them out. Everyone has a Visor at the warehouse, even the foreman. 

I clock off around eight – it’s a ten-hour shift – but it takes me a while to get out of the building. They strip search everyone before they leave – it’s company policy, they have to make sure we’ve haven’t taken anything. I don’t mind, they let me keep my Visor on and I have your feed running full screen while they do it. Usually, you are in the gym at this time, bench-pressing three-hundred pounds or battling through a stage of a virtual Tour de France. You stop now and then to drink one of those cold-pressed juices you’ve been talking about lately, kale and blueberry or beetroot and snowberry. Snowberries have the highest antioxidant count by weight of any berry. I learned that from you. You say something like Time for a power-up before you drink, briefly pausing on the bottle and the company logo. I mouth the words and take a drink myself. Mine’s water, but you have the power to transform it. 

By the time I get back, you’re often at home relaxing. Sometimes you’re on the sofa with your latest girl. At the moment it’s some actor from the latest Superman reboot. You move through them quickly, but they’re always actors or models. You switch to your premium rate on these nights, but I always pay the extra. Sometimes I switch to your partner’s feed, to see you as they see you, but not for long. Besides, there is always a mirror nearby. Your bedroom is full of them: you hold the light a prisoner.

Actually, it was a mirror that brought me here. I know how careful you are – and I understand why. The software you use is excellent at blurring out the details – street names, signs – and the way the video drops when you’re approaching or leaving your house is a wise move. You never know who’s out there.

But the software isn’t as clever as you thought. A few days ago, on your early morning jog, you stopped at a corner and checked your hair in that small mirror you carry, the one some dumb commenters call a make-up compact. I could see half a street sign in the reflection.

And that’s how I found your house.

All I had to do was to take that frame, zoom in, and I had the clue I needed. One word: BISHOP. 

I searched online for a long time to find the right place, looking over the whole country for street names that matched. There were lots of variations – Bishop Street, Bishopsgate, Bishop’s Lane, Bishop Road – but only one, in Hampstead, that was the right fit. 

Bishop’s Avenue. When I looked on Street View I could see the corner where you paused that morning. 

Finding your house was trickier. From the corner you stopped at I knew it had taken you one minute and fifty-six seconds to get through your front door. So you had to be close to home. Given how big the houses are in that neighbourhood and the distances between them, that narrowed it down to a handful of properties. The final piece of the puzzle, though, was which one?

I’d really hate to have broken into the wrong place.

Street View wasn’t giving me much insight, what with the huge driveways and high walls, so I switched to satellite view. I remembered the pool party you’d hosted last year, when you were upset because you had invited David Beckham and he hadn’t come, and then it was easy.

You’re the only one around there with a twenty-five metre swimming pool.

I waited a few nights. I knew you wouldn’t just let me in if I turned up at your gate. And I didn’t want to scare you by sneaking in while you were there. Then, earlier tonight, you went out to the gala dinner for that cancer charity you support, so I knew I had a few hours to play with. That tuxedo was made for you, by the way; it’s no wonder there’s talk of you as the next Bond, even if it is mostly you doing the talking. 

It was easy enough to get over the wall. I had a mini step-ladder in the boot and a tarpaulin to throw over the razor wire. I ignored the warning about the dogs. I know you only have a chihuahua called Luigi, and I knew he’d be locked up inside. The pool was all lit up, and there were spotlights around the edge of the building. But I kept to the shadows, creeping along the path towards the darkest spot I could find along the side of the house. I could see you were getting ready to leave the gala. The hall you were in was emptying out, the black-suited waiting staff stealing through the crowds to collect the glasses and plates. You were standing near the entrance adjusting your cufflinks – Leroi & Etude, you’ve been talking about them a lot recently.

But even if you had left immediately, you were still an hour away. I had time. Of course, I’d given a lot of thought about how I’d get in to your house. I didn’t want to break anything or cause you any unnecessary pain or difficulty, but in the end smashing the kitchen window was my only option. There was always the risk of the alarm, I know you have one but you don’t always set it. Besides, I knew the security company would call you even if the thing went off. They’d call you and I’d see you answer it on my Visor. There’d be time to back out.

I’m so glad I didn’t have to.

You look shocked, but you really shouldn’t be. I know it seems like I’m a stranger, but it isn’t so. I know you intimately. I know you have a mole on the inside of your left thigh that you are worried about; I can tell by how often you look at it. I know your favourite place is your chalet in the Dolomites; I can feel the crisp freshness to the air whenever you visit, can tell how it inspires your soul. I know you believe in love despite your reputation as a player; I can tell from how often you look at that slideshow of pictures of you and Meghan Vow on Miami Beach, the one in the e-photo frame from that new Korean manufacturer. 

Three million people subscribe to your feed, but no-one sees you like I do. How many of your other followers watch the blackness before your eyes when you’re in bed at night?

I’ve watched every moment I could since you started broadcasting, back when you were just some fitness instructor living in a shared house in Notting Hill. And look how far you’ve come! I’ve watched you in the bath, on the treadmill at the gym, eating dinner at your favourite restaurant, sitting on the toilet and reading the book of poems you keep there with a pen to underline your favourite parts.

 I’ve backed you every step, been inside your head, your most devoted follower, a spirit on your shoulder, willing you on. I’m part of you; your memories are my memories; your mind is my own. 

I’ve seen everything of you, and now you can see me. And I can see you, seeing me. Have you checked your viewing figures? Half the country’s watching us right now. Don’t look so pained, step into the room and close the door.

The world is at home tonight, watching other people’s lives unfold on magic screens perched on the bridges of their noses. And whether they choose to watch it through my eyes or yours, they’re all going to see what happens next. 




SEX TOYS

Picture Credits: fotografierende

He walks into the unforgiving glare of a station waiting room on a freezing cold night and feels with a sudden and inexplicable certainty that the next few minutes will be important. He knows he’ll remember the girl with pink hair in a knitted beanie who is waiting inside, her cold flushed cheeks, her smudged eyeliner, her wind-chapped hands. He knows he’ll remember her black leggings, her scuffed plimsoles, and her bare ankles gone pink in the cold. 

He knows as he glances at her uncertain eyes he’ll see them again and again, long after he glances away, long after this moment has gone. He knows that the window, which lies as flat as the palm of a hand against the night, and in which their reflections are mysteriously transposed over the cold steel of the rails and the electric glare of station lights outside, will remain bright in his mind.

*

A moment later there’s the clattering noise of the train, the screech as it brakes and slows, the lit empty carriages flickering slowly past. There’s the release of air, the clunk as the doors unlock and open. 

They get on the same carriage but he goes right, she goes left. He sits next to a window and the train pulls away. The backs of warmly-lit houses scroll by. He sees empty kitchens, vacant tables and chairs.  

All of a sudden in one of the houses he sees a man staring out of a window at the passing train. It’s just an instant but there’s something that troubles him about the man as if he’s someone he should know but can’t place. 

Then he hears a voice. 

When he looks up, he sees the pink-haired girl looking at him, eyes narrowed. 

‘Do you mind?’ she says.

‘Mind?’ He feels himself drawing away from a confrontation. 

‘If I sit with you,’ she says. ‘There’s someone back there, he keeps staring at me.’ 

He starts to turn around in his seat to look but she stops him. 

‘Please don’t,’ she says. ‘You never know, do you, what people are like?’ 

Including me, he thinks, almost says, and she smiles and says, ‘I know what you’re thinking, but I’m an OK judge of character and you don’t look the type,’ as if she can read his mind. 

She’s sitting down now, opposite him.

‘Thanks?’ 

She shrugs, laughs at him, at the situation. 

Her skin is still tight across her nose and cheeks with the cold, her eyes bright with tears from the wind they’re sheltered from now, this stillness inside the train that hurtles through the countryside. 

Her pale thin face is beautiful, he thinks, her cracked lips and cracked hands, and her voice has that cracked quality too, her words are beautiful. 

‘Did you have that question at school about being on a moving train?’ he says. ‘Are you moving or are you still?’

‘Can we be both?’ 

And her question seems to be imbued with a poetry of meaning, everything gliding against each other, a dance of worlds within worlds. 

And then bang she’s gone. The world stops. Or not bang in fact. Silence. A clean blade cutting through everything.

*

Then it all happens again. The waiting room, that first glimpse of pink hair, wind-chapped hands. The glances and silence. The cold outside. 

The layers of detail are extraordinary now, vast overlapping constellations that he feels himself move through like he’s high or hooked up to a computer simulation. A thread, a kind of silvery, watery ribbon of something connects everything to everything else now, her, him, the man in the house with the stare that troubles him. 

‘That man,’ he says, changing the script for the first time after so many repetitions, and she looks at him for an instant as if she’s hungry for something; she beckons him with her eyes. ‘Did you see him?’ 

‘Why?’ And the question seems like a prompt, like a teacher encouraging a child to tell her an answer she already knows. 

*

When he wakes up, he doesn’t know where he is. 

The building is derelict. He can make out rows of podlike beds like it used to be a medical facility. He wonders if he’s been in some kind of accident. But where are the doctors, the nurses, the other patients? Through the broken roof he can see the branches of trees. 

He realises he can remember nothing about himself. He only has the memory of the pink-haired girl and the train. 

*

He walks through woods until he reaches a motorway service station. A few early risers walk bleary-eyed in and out of the glass-fronted building. 

He sits down on a bench to rest. When he glances up, he sees a man frowning at him as he walks passed. He must look worse then he thought, he thinks. He looks away.

He feels eyes on him again not long afterwards and when he looks up he sees a woman standing not three feet away from his table, staring at him. She seems angry.

He asks her if something is wrong, but she says nothing.

He looks around when he hears a man say, ‘Are you sure?’ 

He’s addressing a woman whose small, defiant eyes are boring invisible holes in him. ‘I’m certain of it.’ 

A few other people drift over, sensing the disturbance, and he’s surprised to see not the need to be relieved from boredom on their faces but narrowed eyes full of distrust and in a few something that looks very much like outrage. He gets up, and tries to walk away but they close around him. 

‘Yeah, no doubt about it,’ he hears one man say. 

‘Drummond-Pierce,’ someone says accusingly. ‘Bryan Drummond-Pierce.’ 

‘You’ve mistaken me for someone else,’ he says. 

‘Listen to him pretending he’s not,’ another one says. 

He pushes past them and hurries out of the building into the car park. The air is cold; his breath comes out in white puffs as he walks quickly between the cars, looking for somewhere to hide. 

*

He stows himself away in the back of a truck, and slips out when they reach a run-down seaside town.

He follows roads of junk shops and boarded-up houses until a dead-looking strip of sea comes into view and he waits under the trusses of an old collapsed pier, watching the sea crash in. 

The town changes after nightfall. People shift in the dark. Figures lurk in doorways, keeping out of the light. Someone stops suddenly in front of him, comes close enough to his face for him to smell his breath and says, ‘I got tears, you looking?’ Drummond-Pierce, if that’s his name, quickens his pace, the sound of movement all around, a wet shuffle in the night. 

*

He sees the flickering light of fires under a flyover, and he makes his way towards it. He hears moans, muttering. Someone blocks his path and breaks into a lewd grin. ‘How much do you want for a gobby?’ he says. Drummond-Pierce pushes past, and the man laughs mockingly at him from behind. ‘New, are you? You’ll learn.’ 

He sits down away from the other bodies in the shadows, not tired but not knowing where else to go. A moment later a figure approaches through the flickering light and stands over him. 

‘Is it true?’ she asks. ‘You’re new?’ 

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

She shines a light in his face. 

‘What are you doing?’ 

‘Having a proper look at you.’

‘Open up.’

‘No.’ 

She switches off the torch. 

‘You shouldn’t be here.’

‘Why?’

‘How much do you know?’

‘About what?’ He’s confused, but her voice is kind. ’I’m trying to find someone,’ he says. 

‘Who?’

‘A girl with pink hair.’

‘Do you know who you are?’

‘I can’t remember anything,’ he says. ‘I was in some kind of accident, I think.’

She holds his hand. ‘Don’t worry for now,’ she says. ‘You’re tired.’ 

There’s something about her manner that he’s drawn to. He feels protected, mothered. She lets him lay his head in her lap and she strokes his hair. 

‘Those pretty eyes,’ she says, looking down at him. ‘There’s a place out on the coast road, the old lido. You need to go there.’

*

In the morning she’s gone. There are only a few loiterers left. 

‘Best to get going,’ someone says. ‘Might be roundups, you never know.’

He sets off along the coast road until he gets to the old lido, a big white building with an empty pool full of rubbish. 

He walks in through the open gate, the wire fence half pulled down in places. 

The building is falling apart and it’s dank inside. He hears footsteps as soon as he enters and a tall, slender woman turns the corner of the corridor, smiling a wide, beautiful smile that vanishes when she lays eyes on him. 

‘Oh,’ she says. ‘I thought it was a customer.’ She turns without another word and begins to walk away. 

‘I’m looking for someone,’ he says. 

She stops and looks back over her shoulder. ’Isn’t it usually them that do the looking?’

‘A girl with pink hair,’ he says. ‘Have you seen her?’ 

‘One of us or one of them?’ 

‘One of who?’ 

‘Oh, just follow me,’ she says. 

They go down cold corridors where rising damp darkens the walls. It’s odd to see this beautifully dressed, perfectly made woman in such a place. 

‘Who are you?’ he asks. 

She glances over her shoulder, just to be sure he’s on the level. ‘You really don’t know?’ 

‘No.’

Through rain-misted windows, he can see the grey sea and sky smudged across the horizon. Eventually they go into an unlit room where bodies are sprawled on mattresses.

‘Will you take a look at these vampires,’ she says, walking through the bodies. She whips back a curtain and light floods in. The men put their arms up to shield their eyes from the daylight. The woman laughs. He sees the vials he was offered on the street, what they’d called tears.

‘You might as well say hello now you’re here,’ he hears one of the men say, and he turns in surprise, the voice just like his own. The man is sitting up now and his arm no longer shields his face, which is identical to the faces of the other four men in the room, and identical to his own.

*

‘A girl with pink hair?’ 

They laugh.

‘Beautiful, isn’t she?’ one of them says. ‘Not real though, so you can forget about trying to find her.’

‘What are you talking about?’ 

‘You’re a fucking manmade. We all are.’

‘Who’s Drummond-Pierce?’

‘Gepetto.’

This man, this duplicate of him, pauses. ‘We all dreamt of the pink-haired girl. We all fell in love with her. We all came looking and if we didn’t get rounded up and burned or had our heads chopped off, we ended up in places like this. You’re just the same as us. A fucking toy.’

It clicks, everything makes sense now, but there’s still the memory of the girl, the threads he senses connecting everything, riding against it. He looks at these pale bodies sprawled on mattresses that look exactly like him, but feels there’s some vital difference between him and them. 

‘No,’ he says. ‘I’m different from you.’ 

‘Oh, think you’re the original? We’ve all had that thought.’

‘Is Drummond-Pierce still alive?’

His duplicate laughs. ‘Lynched years ago. Head on a stake. We’re the only ones who are relatively safe. The Bryans. Because of what we are of course. They come here, sneaking away from their wives, from their husbands, their loved ones and they take their pleasure.’

‘Take the tears,’ one of the others says, the weary voice of someone who has seen too much. ‘You can be with her then.’

*

‘Where are you going?’ the tall woman asks. 

‘Somewhere else.’ 

‘It’s better to just accept who you are and move on,’ she tells him. ‘Think of the teachers. The engineers. The doctors. What have they got? At least we can still do what we were made for.’

He leaves the lido and walks along the coast road. He doesn’t care what he’s been told. He’s going to do what he set out to do at the beginning and find the girl. 

He walks down road after road, through one town after another, looking from face to face, entering every train station he can find until, finally, he steps out of the cold into a platform waiting room late on a cold night and knows. Just knows. He looks up and there she is. The beanie, the pink hair across her thin face, those windchapped hands. 

What happens is what always happens. He does what he always does. 

They glance at each other but don’t say anything. Not yet. There’s the tension of wanting to break the silence but at the same time wanting it to continue. And he knows they will both get on the next train. There will be the man in the house looking at the train passing and at some point she will come over to him and ask if she can sit with him. The train will pull into the final station and they will get off together and, in the next heartbeat, she will disappear. 

Or she won’t. 




Disconnected

Rich says I spend far too much time online because I told him I Googled ‘internet detox’. If that’s his attitude, then I’m glad I didn’t tell him about the hour I spent reading the results.

‘You can just not go on it for a few days,’ he said. ‘See how you feel.’

That’s easy for him to say. He’s ten years older than me and doesn’t even have a Twitter account. Our friendship is a weird one. We met at work and I left, a year ago now, and we meet up most weeks to have a pint or two in this dingy pub he likes. The windows are dirty and the chairs need replacing. It’s not very Instagram-able. But I keep coming here anyway. He’s different to my other friends.

I rip on him for not being very technical. He rips on me for being too focused on screens. He only arranges meeting up on the phone and he doesn’t have a mobile so I can’t be late. He gets really arsey if I’m late, like he did last week. I told him that this Twitter storm was going down and kept refreshing my feed. I was involving him – showing him the funnier Tweets and reading them out. I’d have thought he’d like that. But he got really annoyed.

‘Can’t we have an actual conversation without you playing on that thing?’

Normally it’s good-natured between us. But he was scowling and looked huffy. He almost downed his pint. So I told him not to worry, mate! I wondered if maybe things were bad with his wife because he’s not normally like that. He was chatting. But I couldn’t stop thinking about my phone, burning in my pocket with all the things I was missing. I didn’t say anything about it then, but did what he asked me to at the time. He’d said thanks for listening and that he felt better. On the tram home I ate up all of the Tweets, but the storm was over. There were just slow people discovering it and people were going to sleep. I kept scrolling for more and more.

It was then that I thought I might have a problem.

But only a few days later I realised it was more serious than that because, for the life of me I couldn’t remember what that Twitter storm was about. There have been a few more since then, I guess. I didn’t even post anything about it, I was just reading it then so I can’t check back. So I decided to Google ‘internet detox.’ I honestly thought he’d be proud of me.

‘Well done, mate,’ I imagined him saying.

But he reacted to my words with indifference, said I should just not go on it. 

‘You can’t just not go on it!’ I said, incredulous. ‘I’ll lose followers. I have to make an announcement – say I’m doing a month-long detox, or week, whatever. Then you have to write about it and then you get back on as normal.’

Rich groaned and drunk his pint. Rich is a simple man, he likes pints and the quiet life. He doesn’t understand my generation. I think that he would have been better off living in an earlier century, that he’d be really happy in an era that hadn’t discovered electricity. I sometimes wonder if he’s a bit racist or sexist because of this; he’s not as enlightened as people of my generation. We’re changing the world. He doesn’t like it when I start talking about privilege. No straight white men do though, do they?

‘Just don’t go on it for the next week,’ he said. ‘Try it. You always say you like trying something new.’

I’d had a few pints at this point and, honestly, he was annoying me, being all smug like that. A week without the internet, that’s fine.

‘You know what?’ he said. ‘Give me your phone. I’ll give it back to you next Thursday.’

My heart lurched, I felt panicky, but I wanted to prove the smug git wrong. I could live without my phone for a week. ‘Fine,’ I said.

‘Got any numbers you want to keep?’ he asked.

Numbers? Oh, he was talking about the phone bit of my phone.

‘I’ll be fine, mate,’ I said, downing my glass. I gestured towards his pint. ‘Want another one?’

‘Nah,’ he shook his head. ‘Should be getting back.’ He picked up my phone. ‘You sure you’re okay with me taking this?’ he asked.

‘I’m more than okay with it,’ I said. I’d show him.

‘I’m a bit worried that it’s too much for you. Maybe you should start smaller.’ He looked genuinely concerned. ‘You should go on the internet at home, maybe. Easier rules.’

‘No, mate,’ I said. ‘I won’t go on the internet – apart from if I have to for work – for a week. They’re the rules.’

‘Do you remember that time at work when you left this at home and you were anxious the whole day? You got Jane to send you home, sick, at 2pm because you couldn’t handle it.’

‘That was just an emergency. I needed it,’ I said. It had been an emergency. I’d had my hair done and wanted to see what my social media friends thought about it. I’d posted the picture before work. I must have been coming down with something, too, I think. Because I did feel ill. ‘And, anyway, that wasn’t this phone, that was years ago, that was the iPhone 5.’

‘Oh,’ said Rich, ‘I wouldn’t know.’ He tuned out whenever I mentioned any Apple product. ‘Same time next week?’

‘Uh huh,’ I said. I put my coat on and felt in the pocket for my phone. I felt panicked but remembered that Rich had just taken it. Force of habit, I thought. It’s only a week.

On the bus, I realised that I had no way of getting in contact with Rich to ask for my phone back. His number (landline, obviously) was on that phone. I vaguely knew where he lived but wouldn’t be able to find his house. I felt a bit like a mother who had left her new-born with a stranger for a week. Was that a bit much? That was how I felt. And how well did I really trust Rich? I’d only got this phone about six months ago, it was still the newest model. I kept wanting to reach for my pocket. The journey seemed amazingly long. I looked around and almost everybody else had their headphones in or they were tapping away on their phones, scrolling through Facebook, texting, listening to some music. I felt so bored. I looked out of the window. All of the people outside seemed to be on their phones too. They looked so into their phones. They looked happy. Well, not happy exactly, but blissfully unaware of everything around them, like time passing. I’d never been more jealous.

I got home and didn’t know what to do. The urge to keep checking my phone was there. I kept forgetting that I didn’t have it with me. I pulled the Wi-Fi out of the phone socket because everything was fine and I was going to win. It was just that I wasn’t used to it anyway. Rich was being smug and annoying. I didn’t spend too much time on my phone or the internet and I would prove that to him. I liked doing things full-hog. That was what one of my blog commenters said about me a few months ago.

I sat down on the sofa for a few minutes, fidgeting. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my evening. It stretched out, a long expanse. I wasn’t even sure what time it was without my phone and computer. I didn’t have an old-fashioned clock. I live alone and, this rarely bothered me before, but now I wanted somebody to talk to. Usually when I got home I would edit a video for YouTube or write a blog post at the same time as watching Netflix and playing on other social media. Dual-screening and multiple-tabbing. It was my happy place. I’d fork a ready meal into my mouth without really tasting it and connect with people. Some from around the world! My blog is really popular in Denmark and I chat with people there. I bet Rich has never spoken to anyone from Denmark! He’s so shut in on himself. The internet has really widened our awareness of other people.

I decided to put the telly on. I bet that’s something that Rich would do. Slump in front of the TV with his wife until it was time to sleep. Boring. I don’t know if I could ever commit to one person, you know? How do you know that they’re the right person for you and you’re not just missing out? I admit, though, I haven’t had sex in a while. Hmm. It has been a while. But it hasn’t felt like that long. And that was only a one-off at Sam’s birthday. FOMO is real, you know. 

There wasn’t anything good on the telly, oh God. That’s what my dad used to say. I’m turning into my dad! All because Rich had to take my phone away. He had me when I was low, two pints in when I think I can achieve anything. I felt low. I had no way of getting in touch with other people – I don’t have a landline phone! – and I felt so bad, shut off, missing out on everything. Shit, what was I going to do at the weekend? I hadn’t planned anything yet but I think one of my mates was going to plan something. He would upload it on Facebook, maybe. The TV was still on. I felt so old-fashioned and old, a pensioner. What even was I without the internet? I decided to go over the road to buy more beer and I didn’t even switch the TV off when I left. I drank the beer, watching an awful scripted drama thing, and felt very sorry for myself. I switch the TV off and the silence and lack of distractions are deafening. They are defeating me. 

Only six more days to go. 




One Night Stand

John bolts the door shut. He pounds it with his palm a few times to make sure that it’s locked properly. He can hear the sound of him hitting the door reverberate in the empty hallway outside. With the door secure, he takes his coat off. He removes the knife and gun from his pockets and places them on the table by the door. Behind him, Jennifer looks around the room using the light from her phone.
‘You can charge it if you like,’ he says to her.
She turns around. ‘You have a charger?’
He nods, before realising that she might not see him doing so in the dark. ‘Yes, I’ve got a charger,’ he says.
‘I haven’t charged it for two weeks. It’s weird because I haven’t even needed to charge it since then. The only time I use my phone anymore is for the torch. Although sometimes I’ll look at old pictures or texts and stuff.’
‘Do you remember the adverts?’ he asks. ‘They used to say that it’d last a month without charging. I never knew what that meant.’
‘You’d just sort of think they were lying, wouldn’t you?’
‘Or just exaggerating or whatever. The sort of thing adverts do – not lies exactly, but not the truth either.’
‘Sometimes I have dreams where I’m sitting somewhere, and I’m using my phone like crazy. I’m just sitting there for hours, using it. I’m listening to a song on YouTube, and then I’m on Facebook, and suddenly I decide I want to read this poem that I like.’
‘What poem is it?’
‘I can never remember. When I wake up, I mean. In the dream, I can. It’s always the same one. I know that it rhymes and that there’s something dark about it. And then obviously I’m calling people. Someone calls me up and it’s the most natural thing in the world that someone would be calling me. It’s perfectly normal that I’d be having this phone conversation. It’s mundane. Because in the dream world, someone calling you up to have a chat is the sort of thing that happens.’
‘I’m lucky,’ he says, ‘I don’t really have dreams. And when I do, they’re sad, so when I wake up from them I’m glad to be away from them, you know?’
‘You don’t miss them.’
‘It’s better to have sad dreams. Good dreams only make you want to go to sleep again.’ For a few seconds, there’s silence. It’s not an awkward silence, but it’s not comfortable either. He trawls through his brain, trying to think of something to say when she says:
‘So where’s this charger, then?’
‘Here,’ he says, putting out his hand. ‘I’ll charge it for you.’ Even in the dark, the flicker of hesitation on her face is evident. For a second, it upsets him that she thinks him a potential thief. Then he imagines himself in her position and realises that he would probably be as cautious.
‘It’s over there,’ he says, pointing to a wall socket. ‘Can you see?’ She shines her light on the socket, nods, and thanks him.
‘I’ll go and light some candles,’ he says. Although he has electricity, the only light bulb has broken. One night he was sitting down reading, and then suddenly it went off. A quick, short, popping noise and the light bulb was dead. He has about fifteen candles left – fourteen and a half considering the state of the one he’s using now – and hopes that they’ll last until he can find another light bulb. (If he can find another light bulb, the patronising and ever-present voice of reason intones once more at him.) Last night, to conserve the candles, he spent the evening in the dark.
He lights each candle, worried the whole time that the match might go out and he’ll have to use another. Just like the light bulb, he has no idea when the next time he’ll be able to get his hands on a box of matches will be. He manages to light all three candles with one match. With the candles lit, he turns to look at Jennifer.
She really is beautiful and has the curvy figure that he likes in girls. As he watches her, he notices how she’s staring at the plug-socket. It’s not an amazed look. More a contemplative, nostalgic one. She’s staring at it, probably not even aware of what she’s doing. Of how she seems like someone in a movie holding a picture of a dead relative. A moment of realisation presumably hits her, as she quickly plugs her phone in and stands up.
John turns away, pretending to have just finished lighting the candles.
She comes up behind him and looks out of the window. In the distance, a stream of smoke rises into the air.
‘It looks a bit like a tornado,’ she says.
‘Sometimes,’ he says, ‘the fires get so bright it’s like it’s daytime.’
‘You get those places, don’t you, where it’s daytime all the time.’
‘In the Arctic?’
‘In Sweden as well. Or Norway. Places where people actually live. Imagine that. Imagine waking up in the middle of the night and it’s bright outside.’
‘Or the opposite,’ he says, ‘where it’s dark all the time. You go to school in the dark.’
They look at the smoke for a few more seconds and then turn to look at each other. They turn at exactly the same time, as if they had planned it; as if they both know what the other is thinking.
‘That’s why I liked you,’ he says. ‘Things like this.’
‘It’s like we’ve known each other for ages.’
‘That happens sometimes. You meet someone and you just sort of instantly – err.’
‘Connect?’
‘Connect with them, and that’s what happened with you. When I saw you – I’m not gonna lie – I liked you because you’re so gorgeous. But the moment I started talking to you, it didn’t really matter anymore.’
‘Same’ she says. ‘I actually saw you earlier in the night. It’s weird because although you were hot and stuff, I didn’t really give you another thought. I was feeling a bit ill, and I wanted to go home, and if I’d done that I might not have seen you again.’
‘Do you go to the clubs a lot?’
‘I try to,’ she says. ‘Sometimes it gets too much just being inside. I live with seven other people, and if I’m going out, I usually try to go out with at least one of them. But tonight I came on my own. No one else was in the mood for going out, and I didn’t want to stay in. They’re great people, but I’m with them all the time, you know. I need to get out.’
‘My sort of…philosophy I guess you’d call it, is that what’s the point of making all this effort to survive if your life’s going to be miserable.’
‘It’s like just being alive for its own sake, isn’t it?’ she says. ‘That’s why I risk it. I’m guessing you risked it too?’
‘I don’t live here with anyone, but I do take precautions when I go out. Like today, when I was literally at the door of the club, I didn’t keep my guard down. There was this bit of me that was saying “you’re at the door now, you’ve been buzzed in, just walk in and you’ll be fine.” But I didn’t listen to it. I went inside, and stood at the door, with my gun out, until I knew for sure that it was closed. Just like when we came here, I hit it a few times just to make sure that it was closed, even though I knew it obviously was.’
He loves talking with her. It’s not what they’re saying, but the way the conversation is flowing. He doesn’t have to think about what to say next. Talking to her is effortless, and has none of the awkwardness he usually associates with meeting new people. He wants to ask her more things but decides against it. Things are going good between them, and he doesn’t want to risk asking anything that could upset her, or have her ask something that would upset him.
He puts his hand to her face, and they kiss. The smooth transition to each other’s lips, the way their bodies affix themselves to each other, reaffirms his sense that he has known her for a long time. As she pushes her body up against him, he feels a bulge that is either a knife or a gun. He wonders if she trusts him enough to remove her weapon. Or will she keep it by her all night like that girl a few weeks ago, who was holding her knife the entire time they had sex?
As they kiss more, he runs his hands down her body. Her hands, in turn, move down his back, stopping just above his backside. The fact that she stops there turns him on more than if she’d carried on, and he feels her lips twist into a smile as he groans in pleasure.
He removes his lips from hers and kisses her neck. This time she moans – or, rather, releases a small, barely audible, exhale.
He steps back and reaches into his pocket.
‘I found these,’ he says, taking out a box of condoms. ‘A store had been looted. The people who owned it had had their throats slit with pieces of glass from the window. The woman’s hand had been cut off; I think she must have had an expensive ring on or something because they didn’t cut off the other hand. Anyway, I saw these. They’d fallen to the ground, and whoever looted it had forgotten to take them or something.’
‘Oh, right,’ she says. Her voice is unsure, hesitant. ‘That’s good.’
‘We don’t have to us them. If you don’t want to.’
‘No, no,’ she says. ‘The last thing I need is to get pregnant. It’s just weird seeing them, that’s all. I can’t remember the last time I saw a box of condoms. Anyway,’ she smiles slyly, ‘I think we definitely need to use them. I don’t know where you’ve been.’
For the first time in a long time, he bursts out laughing. The laugh surprises him so much that he drops the condoms onto the floor. He looks at Jennifer, who smiles back at him.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ he says, picking up the condoms, and affecting mock-outrage.
‘Nothing. I didn’t mean anything by it,’ she says sarcastically.
‘No. It definitely meant something. I think that you’re implying that I’m some kind of slut or something.’
‘Well, am I wrong?’
‘I’m an honest gentleman.’ With that, she laughs. She’s really pretty when she laughs, but he can tell by the strained way that she does it that she also hasn’t laughed in a while. He noticed earlier, too, how pronounced the frown lines on her forehead and mouth are for someone her age.
Outside, they hear a loud bang. It’s either a bomb going off in the distance or a gunshot nearer. They’re not sure if this is the first bang, or if they’ve just been so preoccupied with each other that it’s the first one they’ve happened to hear.
The other day, John recorded a video on his phone, and when he played it back later he heard little clicks that could only have been gunshots in the background. When he heard this, he remembered not hearing the gunshots when he had been recording the video. By now, he imagines that pretty much everyone is accustomed to the sound. In the same way that people who live by the sea no longer hear the waves unless they listen out for them.
‘Come on’ he says, ‘I’ll show you where the bedroom is.’
‘Just one sec,’ she says. She takes off her coat and then reaches into her jeans’ pocket. She removes a large knife from it and places it in the coat pocket. ‘Can you put this away for me,’ she says, handing him the coat. He nods and walks over to the door to hang it up. Afterwards, he turns around and looks at her. She smiles at him. Outside, the smoke continues to rise.
He walks forward and puts his arm around her shoulder. She puts hers around his waist. They walk together into the bedroom.




On a Sweet River

Picture Credits: Andreas Riedelmeier

Josua walked around the outside of his house and small garden twice as he always did, every night.  The first time around he spoke softly to the demons of mischief and disease, asking them to spare his family.  He touched the maize and the beans climbing up the corn stalks, and asked for abundance.  The second time he spoke to his companion, the earth, thanking him for life. He returned some drops of water from the jug to its source, the creek that ran to the river, and touched each banana tree while looking at the moon. You must know how to give to our Mother Earth, and she will give back. He lit the copal resin, its smoke respecting the earth, water and maize.

Later, lying in his hammock warm enough in t-shirt and cotton pants, his internal dialog continued, putting into quiet words his fears for his elderly mother. She had lived a very long time in uncertainty and as death’s companion. He asked for understanding of the troubled times and for news of brothers and an uncle disappeared during those years.

He remembered the evangelistos who had come to town by bus earlier in the day. Right there, as the sun beat down on the dusty road, they told of a just and merciful God.  They told the story of the extermination of the Canaanites.  Their all-loving God had ordered the killing as punishment for their sins. Did that god order the soldiers to rape the women and kill the men and boys in Josua’s ancestral village in the Altiplano? Josua had faith that his spiritual guides were protective, but he wondered where they had been while the government forces spent more than thirty years hunting down his people, the peones, believing them to be rebellious.

Lastly, just before sleeping, he spoke with his ancestors, dedicating his work of the day to their memory.  He thought of his friend David, and asked Mother Earth to watch over him too.

David had stepped off the morning bus from Guatemala City, months earlier.  He wasn’t a tourist; he carried only a backpack and small duffel bag.  He wasn’t an evangelisto; he had copper wires braided into his red beard and a few ceramic beads in his hair, and he did not wear a white shirt.  By sundown of his first day, everyone in town knew about David.  Without actually looking at him, they knew the color of his eyes was identical to the color of Santa Maria’s dress in the Iglesia Isabel la Catolica nearby. They saw strong muscles and rough hands.  He didn’t go straight to Holly’s, the one bar in town where the tourists went to feel at ease with their own kind; he went to the tienda.  In effortless Spanish, he spoke of the rains last month and of the odd circumstances surrounding the misplacement of the funds to repair the bridge over the river.  He drank a few Gallos quickly, since quickly was the only way to enjoy them while the beers were still relatively cold.  He sat alone at the edge of the road and watched the chickens peck in the dust and village life pass by.  He sat quietly, without checking his watch or fidgeting with his clothes. He bought Chiclets from one of the smaller boys.  The locals observed him impassively. After a while, he stood up and looked around him. Josua, shaded by his straw hat raveled at the edge, was buying tortillas across the road, and David left his gear and went over and spoke to him:  “Amigo, con permisso.”  He asked Josua if there was a place to stay, not a hotel, but a place to rent, maybe a room or a small house. Josua led him away from the river, where the forest began, and where Maria Kok had a one-room house for rent.

He settled in with little fuss.  He didn’t ask for anything, he didn’t pry.  He ate rice and beans and tortillas and slept in a hammock.  He charmed the children with his tricks with a Frisbee, and they brought him to their homes. That’s how everyone in town came to accept David.

 

*   *    *    *

 

When Josua walked down the dusty path to town the next day, everyone greeted him.

“Que tal, amigo?”

“Bien, bien.  Y tu?”

Everyone knew everyone in this small pueblo and was bound to everyone by the weight of memory. All the neighbors, every one, had come from the highlands, like Josua’s family, and each was trying to make a new life in this place where the growing season was different, familiar plants for food and medicine didn’t grow, and where the men and boys were still learning how to hollow the trunk of a ceiba tree to make a cayuco in order to fish in the river to provide protein for their families.

At dawn shopkeepers opened their stalls, and a profusion of bright plastic brooms, tarps, and kitchen utensils spilled into the street. Transistor radios were turned on, each to full volume, each to a different station. Fishermen set out their catch, and fish scales glistened on their rough tabletops. Pickup trucks from other villages offloaded crates of melons, bags of onions and habanero chiles, baskets of small apples, limes, and pineapples.  Also in those pickups were young women with babies tied to their backs, grandmothers and grandfathers, short and bow-legged, and others come to shop in the tiendas or to sell scant produce grown in their small milpas.  Some spread out blankets or pieces of cardboard and arranged peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers for sale.  Mothers with babies swaddled in perrajes carried their laundry to the river. The day was like all others.

The morning bus roared to a stop, its fumes and music accompanying the sunrise. When strangers got off, they were either tourists come to see the river and the falls or evangelistos in white shirts come to sell Jesus.  This morning only the bus driver got off to pee behind the tienda and to buy himself one cold Gallo.

Josua walked to the dock to check on his little boat and to listen to the last argumentative voices of the egrets on the small island opposite, before they settled down in the branches of the mangroves to sleep the hot day away. The heat would suck the smells out of the packed earth:  rotting fruit, excrement, spilled spices, stale beer.  Josua hoped a tourist would hire him to make the trip upriver to visit the falls and to bathe in the hot sulphur springs that bubbled through the cracks in the rocks close to shore. The day seemed cooler if you lay your body in the hot water in the shadow of the thick vines.  Or maybe David would need a boatman and a translator for one of his trips into the remote villages.

Often he asked Josua to take him up and down the river in his small boat. He told Josua he had come to take testimonies from families about the bad times so that all the world’s people would be witnesses. The word spread with the river current, and one by one David, with Josua translating from Q’eqchi’ to Spanish, listened to the stories, wrote them in a notebook, felt the anguish, and sometimes visited the mass graves.

David would pay him ten quetzals for a day’s work, and Josua would go to the tienda in the evening to play dominoes with the other men, who spent their days sitting outdoors under a blue tarp, nursing beers, moving the flies through the still hot air, waiting. Then Josua would walk home to his dinner and, afterwards, would again walk twice around his house and elaborate on his conversations with his spirits, before sleeping, fitfully.

Earlier Josua had asked David whether he thought the evangelistos were correct in their beliefs. Without condemning their opinions, David told him that he believed there was a lottery to life. Each individual’s place was defined by chance, not by being born in God’s image. Each individual’s legacy was determined by his choices:  what to deny, what to applaud, when to be silent, and how to exercise responsibility. He saw his work as the obligation one brother has to another. Josua had a lot to think about.

David also had much to think about – not only the horrors to which he was bearing witness, but also the miasma of despair that hung like a dense storm cloud over Josua’s family. Each evening he would eat his dinner alone and write in his journal. One evening he wrote:  “Josua’s mother has taken me into her heart, even though she is too shy to look at my face. She came out of her doorway in bare feet and gave me a pumpkin today, and I know she has only a few. I fear that she will die of heartbreak, not knowing the fate of her two oldest sons and her brother. I hear Josua’s love for her in the one word I can understand him say to her, Mami.  I don’t know how to help her.”

 

The next day David and Josua traveled up river into Lago Izabal and to the small village of El Chapin where they heard and documented more testaments.  As they often did, they stopped at the hot spring on their way home to soak and to soothe their burdened memories.  They tied the small boat to a vine and slid into the warm water.  Often a dugout would paddle by:  a fisherman checking his crab traps or a workman moving supplies.

The stillness of the midday forest echoed a voice: one man in his cayuco calling out to them. He asked for permission to join them, as he was hot and tired and wanted confirmation of his directions. In his boat was another older man, slumped in the bottom, clutching a woven shoulder bag. He was bare but for shabby trousers.  Josua grasped the older man’s hands, then gently raised his chin to see his face more clearly.

“Mi tio,” he whispered, and tears quickly welled and spilled over. My uncle.

Josua and David took him to the village, to Josua’s mother, the old man’s sister.  For days the brother and sister sat together in the shade of her doorway quietly talking, sometimes keening, their backs bent. When all the words were spoken, the old man reached for his bag. It was the one he had carried since boyhood, black and white, woven by their mother, made to carry tortillas wrapped in banana leaves. As though he was a spirit releasing the winds, he took out one item after another.

First, the collar of an old shirt, so threadbare that the white background was like dust on a cobweb. Still visible were the stronger polyester threads of gray and blue.  Josua’s mother reached for it with trembling fingers, stroked the edge, and fondled the one button.  Next, a belt, grimy with years of wear, sweat-stained, scratched and nicked, but unlike any belt in the world for the name scratched near the buckle: Checha.

There was more. He took the strap of another bag out of his bag; this one green and black, made long ago by her own hands for her second son, Herson.

These pitiful bits were the remains of her sons. They were all she had to remind her of their existence and of their deaths; all she had to know of their fate. But now she knew, and that was the gift her brother had brought home in his black and white bag.

David went with the family and the neighbors to the sacred burial ground. They returned the remnants that had been Checha’s and Herson’s to the earth, restoring dignity to the family and honoring their spirits and their ancestors.  He wondered about the choices and the beliefs that led to these young men’s early deaths. He thought of responsibility and brotherhood and justice; and he speculated that their similarities outweighed their backgrounds – his of privilege, theirs of want. When he looked up from the newly dug hole in Mother Earth, Josua’s mother held his gaze.

Back at Josua’s house, the only sound was the chickens rummaging in the yard.  The crying and the words were over.  Anxiety and tension had given way to sadness and resignation.  The day’s rituals would continue – coffee beans would be hulled, maize would be ground, eggs collected.  Josua would talk with his companion, the earth, and, in the village, the evangelistos would sell their merciful god.




Black Helmet

Picture Credits: James Paramecio

Juan Carlos launches forward, agile, quick, like a gazelle leaping into the avenue,  into the moving cars.  Motorcycles buzz between the lanes.  Buses belch dark diesel fumes, filling his lungs, slowing him down, leaving him out of breath.  He tries to hide beside one of the buses, looks back, looks ahead, across the bustling avenue.  He runs again and bounces off the hood of a por puesto taxi.  The driver honks and screams hijo-e-puta, mal parido, flicking a fat middle finger at him.  Three more lanes of traffic and he can be on the other side, but not a single car lets him pass.

He turns his head and notices the afternoon glare bouncing off the shiny black helmet, the Guardia National that kept looking at him, the one who started to walk in Juan Carlos’ direction, the one that screamed at him to stop.

Breathe, breathe deep, don’t let the fumes drown you, suffocate you.  Fatigue is setting in.  He knows he has to put more energy in those legs.  Run, damn it, run.  The black helmet gains on him, now at the edge of the avenue, while  a cacophony of honks suffocate the air.

Juan Carlos takes off again.  His tennis shoes claw the wet pavement, as he flies across large puddles of water, dodging moving vehicles, bullfighting noisy motorbikes, until finally he reaches the other side of the avenue.  As he jumps on the sidewalk, a por puesto taxi splashes dirty water all over him, staining his only starched white shirt—the one he uses for work.  Carajo. There’s no time to moan.  He runs along rows of acacia and caoba mahogany trees.

People walk in the opposite direction.  They don’t move out of Juan Carlos way.  They are slowing him down. They see him, but veer their eyes away.  They can tell what is going on.  He knows they don’t want to be connected, as if he did not exist.  They know this could happen to them, to their children, to their cousins, to their brothers, at least not today.

Today he’s nothing but a reminder of things that they hate but feel powerless to do something about.  But what can they do? Who can they trust?  They have marched, they have worn their tear gas masks, waved the flags and nothing changes, other than there’s less food, less medicine, less freedom – people dying from eating food from garbage cans or cooking yucca amarga.

But here he is, running, trying not to get caught.  Juan Carlos jerks his head back,  looking for the black helmet, then glances forward for an opening in the crowd.  God have mercy, people please let me through!  He says to himself, almost as a whisper, really wanting to scream it at them.

Juan Carlos notices that the black helmet has been bogged down by the flow of the crowd,  but he can’t tell how close, or how far he is.  Maybe the black helmet is tired too, maybe his lungs are about to burst and a deluge of sweat pours down his face like him.

He thinks about the black helmet’s gun.  Does he have riot plastic bullets, or ordinary bullets aimed to kill.  It doesn’t matter for even in riot mode, they put marbles or shoot the plastic bullets quema ropa, point blank.  He had a good friend bleed to death while he held him, ignoring the sting of a plastic bullet that found his own shoulder.

But this is different.  They are hunting them down.   That’s what they did to his friend Marcelo a week ago, even though he didn’t do much but show up at demonstrations with his gas mask, with a shield and plenty of flags.  But he went to school with people that knew people.  He had been to parties with the people that were killed in El Junquito.  The ex cop that stole the helicopter and threw grenades on the roof of a government building, more for show, more for demonstration than trying to hurt anyone.  At least that is what people said, not the government. They found him hiding in the chalet of a doctor in the mountains.  They surrounded them, threw rockets at them.  And when they turned themselves in, they assassinated them, bullet to the forehead.  Then they burned the evidence,  and sequestered the bodies.  And now they are going after anyone connected to them.

Juan Carlos knew some people, but not directly.  They talked about what they were doing in some of the gatherings where they made and painted shields with words like libertad, abajo con la narco-dictadura. They built gas masks from two-litre plastic coke bottles.  They talked about all their families leaving the country – the Venezuelan diaspora, the news in the internet called it.  They talked about where to get food, toilet paper, harina PAN corn flour.

Juan Carlos sees the soldier again, his black helmet peering through the crowd.  Why did he run?  He should have acted casual. Why didn’t he confront him when they were asking for papers, give them a look like he was a somebody.  That’s what Marcelo did a weeks ago.  And they took him in. They have not told the family where he is.  Or what has happened.  More than likely they are torturing him, like they’ve done to others.  They even had the gall to release to social media the story of one man they beat so bad, they dislodged his testicles.  And to further the humiliation, they posted the photo of the man all over the Internet.

There’s a shopping center ahead that connects the crowded avenue to a parallel street with less traffic.  Beside, there are more trees where Juan Carlos can hide and plenty of side streets where he can lose the black helmet.  Juan Carlos might be able to sneak through, maybe the black helmet won’t notice.  Then catch his bus or even a por puesto taxi several blocks down, closer to the river.  What if he has to run all the way to Las Mercedes?  He’ll run all the way to his house if he has to.  What if they have already been to his house? He’s not letting the black helmet catch him.

Juan Carlos slows down his pace and takes the chance to breathe, build his strength, get ready—just in case.  Maybe he won’t notice him.  But how could he not, one look at his long hair, his white shirt—he can’t be missed.  Try to walk, not run, follow the people, mix with them, let them cloak you, he thinks.   Don’t look back,  he will notice you, he will recognize you among all these people going home.

Juan Carlos enters the mall’s courtyard. The afternoon’s rains have turned the sidewalk and the polished granite into a slimy mush, stomped constantly by passing shoes.  The structure is composed of two office towers with a large steel canopy thrown across the sky to produce an open ten-story high atrium that shields the courtyard and several levels of storefronts from the tropical sun and rain.  He passes several stores.  A shoeshine boy in ragged clothes and no shoes crouches in front of one of the window displays finishing a job.  A shining plastic mannequin smiles behind him.

Juan Carlos hopes that he lost the black helmet.  Maybe he’s home free, yet wants to look back to see if the black helmet is still following him.  Maybe he lost him.  Maybe the black helmet is five steps behind.  And what if the black helmet is just ready to grab him.

He has to look.  He can’t.  Juan Carlos keeps walking, cranes his head slightly, as if looking at one of the window displays, back to where the shoeshine boy is.  The boy stands and looks at something intently.  He knows the black helmet is not too far, he can see it in the boy’s eyes. The black helmet will probably stop to harass the kid.  Maybe he is one of them, one of their militias, a colectivo.  He hears a voice telling the shoeshine boy to get the hell out there, “vete carajito.”

Juan Carlos can’t tell whether it is his persecutor or someone from one of the stores.  He has to see who it is.  He turns a little more.  It is not the black helmet, but a sales clerk with a name-tag from the men’s store dressed in a fancy suit, like the ones on display.  But the shoeshine boy is not looking at him, he’s looking at the crowd.  Juan Carlos follows where the boy’s eyes are looking and they lead to…!  There he is, his shiny black helmet and shadowed impersonal face.  Has he seen him?  Is he going after the shoeshine boy?  Is he coming his way?

Juan Carlos walks faster inside the crowd, doubling his pace.  He arrives at a balcony where there’s no way to continue but down an escalator.  How stupid of him, how could he have forgotten about the escalator?  He will be completely exposed, trapped, with people in front and behind him, unable to run or do anything.  He has no choice, there’s nowhere else to go, so he moves towards the escalera electrica, following the mass of people, filtering into the machine like the grains in a sand clock. Juan Carlos grips the black handrail and places his feet on the metal step that is going to deliver him to the other side some twenty meters below, where more stores stand side by side and a waiter cleans the water from a table as he prepares for the early evening clientele.

The man in front of Juan Carlos looks at his watch, then picks at a fingernail with his teeth.  The person behind him, whom he has not turned to see, is moving his briefcase back and forth, poking Juan Carlos back pocket where he keeps his wallet.  If only he had money like his Uncle’s side of the family.  He could pay for a visa and go to the States.

Marcelo could have tried to bribe them, but last week he had to be so brave.  Tu no sabes con quien te metes, you don’t know who you’re messing with Marcelo told them.  He heard him as he arrived at the scene holding two iced cold coconuts.

Juan Carlos doesn’t have any money.  He works so he can barely make ends meet and help his mom with the groceries, whenever basics are available.  He should be in school, he should be studying, so some day he can get a real job, making real money. But everyday, inflation eats up his paycheck and he can’t even buy food, a pair of shoes, have dinner at the restaurant down from the escalator, or buy the starch and soap to wash his now stained white shirt.

Juan Carlos does not belong to any political party. He’s only been to the demonstrations, gathered to make gas masks, shields, signs. He wishes he could go back to the university and study instead of having to work, just barely to exist. Or move to Spain or Argentina. Money, money, money, if only he had money.  His Dad used to make decent money, but now is not enough, and most of it goes to get insulin through the black market. If he gets stopped he can use his uncle’s name. He’s in the Fuerzas Armadas. Even though everyone in the family seems to hate him.  “Why don’t you do something?”  His mom has screamed at her own brother.  “Throw some weight around!” He is not that happy either, and give him a few drinks and he starts cussing and mumbling estamos hasta la nuca de cubanos, we’re up to our necks with cubans.

When they were at the beach with Marcelo, the black helmets didn’t take well to what Marcelo had said. They surrounded him. The girls pulled back. Juan Carlos wanted to interfere. He wanted to tell the little soldiers in their black helmets that his uncle would take them out of their comfortable duty in the big city and send their sorry asses to the Delta, to the middle of the hot swampy jungle, where little soldiers like them dropped like flies from malaria, encephalitis, yellow fever, cholera—where they drowned in their own shit before they even saw anyone. If only he had said that at the beach while they were beating Marcelo.  But Marcelo gave him a look to not get involve, to lay back. He held the two iced-cold coconuts with straws coming out watching his friend getting beat up, then taken away. He feels so guilty, he should have done something. Alejandra and Marisela told him not to blame himself. They would be torturing him right now for all they knew.

He hears a shout. The man in front of him stops eating his fingernail, veers his sluggish eyes and looks up the escalator and then at him.  He hears the commanding shout again.  There’s no mistaking—it’s the black helmet.  He turns and sees the black helmet pointing a finger at him, ordering him to stop, not to move.  But the ground, the step in which he stands, the escalator, keeps moving, disregarding the command, oblivious of his authority.  The black helmet yells louder in a commanding tone at the people on the escalator to get out of the way.  Where are they going to go?  They can’t go up.  They can’t go down any faster, they would kill themselves if they jumped to the sides.  So these people, the very element that keeps Juan Carlos from getting away, is keeping the black helmet from getting to him.

With loud shouts and pushes and shoves the black helmet moves his way down the escalator.  Juan Carlos has to get going and passes the man having fingernails for dinner. He pushes and says permiso, permisito” excuse me, and pushes through another person, feeling the fabric of their clothes, the bad breath of their long day—of smoking cigarettes and drinking con leche’s. But he is not moving fast enough, and his pursuer in the black helmet seems to be gaining on him.  At the sight of the man covered in protective black plastic plates and menacing gear, people do what they can to get out of the away.  But with him, they don’t want to be too cooperative. They remain unmoved by how close he gets to them as he slides across, touching their bodies, invading their personal spaces, breaking the solitary trances in which the daily rituals of going back to their homes have placed them.

I’ll never make it, he thinks. He is trapped inside the apathy of this people.  They are so full of bravado during the demonstrations, but on an average go to work day, they don’t help. At this rate the black helmet is going to get to him, and as he can now see on that bellicose face, unleash all his wrath and fury upon him, to punish and humiliate.  The black helmet screams again, telling him to remain still, that he doesn’t want to make things worse for himself.  The black helmet roars to the people to remain still and move aside as he approaches him. A woman in front of him has panic written all over her face. He can’t tell if she’s scared of him, thinking that he is going steal her purse like a common criminal, or of the loud menacing screams of his persecutor under the black helmet.

He can’t get past this woman, she’s frozen there.  He’s doomed, soon to be going in their paddy wagon to some detention center, asked questions, and then what. Will his family know where they are keeping him? They’ll break him, but to what avail, so he can tell them that he was good at painting the Venezuelan flag on shields, that he was guilty of throwing tear gas canisters and rocks back at them.

He looks at the lady with the petrified expression and when her eyes meet his he says “Doñita, that’s not a policeman, it’s a Guardia Nacional, and I’m not a criminal, so please let me through.”  Her expression remains the same, as if rigor mortis has set in.  He clearly sees that she is not going to do anything.  So he jumps from six meters high and lands on top of a table.  He twists his ankle, it hurts, it hurts like the devil.  He steps down on a chair and on to solid ground.  He looks up at his persecutor.  Where was all this adrenaline at the beach, when he stood there. The black helmet motions as if he’s going to jump too, but he’s too high up on the escalator.  He keeps pushing his way through the people, screaming at the top of his lungs, asking the people to stop him, that he is an enemy of the revolución, un traidor a la patria.

People move away. The black helmet advances.

Air, heat, fire, anger, adrenaline takes over every cell, muscle and nerve of his body and he runs, runs, pushing tables and chairs aside, runs with all he’s got, with all that he’s ever put into a run. Do it for fucking Marcelo, even if it is to run away from the black helmet instead of confronting them. There are people sitting at a table in front of him. He is not able to veer to the side, it’s too late, so he jumps on top of the table.  Glasses fly about, shatter as they hit the floor.  He lands, and runs with more force, more power. He can feel his own body in motion. He’s flying now.  He hears the black helmet slide and land on a table as he did. He hears metal bouncing of the ground, boots stomping. He hears tables and chairs shoved around.  The black helmet screams again, ordering, demanding, demeaning. He keeps running with a new acquired desperation.  He turns slightly and sees the black helmet reaching the end of the tables. The polished granite extends another twenty meters, wet, slippery, mushy. Juan Carlos has to turn, he can’t slow down, but the tennis shoes don’t hold, so he slides and slides, managing to keep his balance, until he finds a grip on the ground and lurches forward with all his force into the street.  His persecutor, his predator, his black helmet runs behind him until he finds the slippery quagmire at the end of the tables.  He slides too.

Juan Carlos hears the black helmet stomp a couple of times and fall.  A deep hard hollow sound follows, like a helmet hitting the ground and the sharp cling of metal, once, twice, cussing, screaming.

Juan Carlos runs and runs, down the avenue, into a group of buildings, across their parking lots, until he finds himself under a canopy of old mango trees hovering over a quiet street that runs parallel to the highway. He wants to look, he wants to savor this moment, but there’s nothing to savor.  He should have confronted the bastard, defend Marcelo, anything.  Now only what ifs remain, and some hope, maybe Marcelo’s okay. He slows his pace, now aware of a sharp pain in his ankle. He walks, limping, taking quick steps, taking in deep gulps of air. He runs again until he’s out of steam. He looks back, the Avila mountain peering through the clouds, no site of the black helmet.

He pulls out his phone and calls home. His mother answers and immediately asks what’s wrong. He asks if they have been there for him.  She says no.  He tells her what happened. He tells her what happened the week before, with Marcelo. She listens.  She tells him that they will call his uncle, if anything they will find whatever money they can and get him a ticket out. Panama and Colombia are no good, the frontiers are bogged down with masses of people fleeing the country. There are Primos in the States.  They are illegal there, but they are surviving, working in construction.  And one more thing, his mother says taking a pause.

“You shouldn’t have started to run.”




Peter’s Ghost

 Peter's friends gather around the fire We first summoned you at your wake and you have haunted us ever since. Not the official wake where your parents sat limp and bewildered and your aunts cycled robotically around the downstairs rooms with trays of drinks and nibbles. Where we four stood huddled together in the kitchen, our backs to the other mourners, each struggling with the sense that we were intruding on a private moment. As though our grief weren’t authentic enough for us to belong. We were only your friends, after all. Nor your family.

 

We left that wake early, entirely dissatisfied, our need for proper remembrance unmet. Funerals are for the living, we said, yet it bothered us all that there was so much of yours that you would have hated. The music, the Bible verses, the people chosen to speak – you were somehow utterly absent in all of it. There was no sense of you, the real you, even with your portrait smiling down at us from the dais. A portrait four years old because your parents hadn’t asked us for a more recent picture. What use is a funeral that cannot reflect the person it is supposed to honour? It seemed to show how little your family knew about the person you had become, and how little interest they had in trying to find out now that you were gone. Or perhaps they felt guilt at the distance that had opened up after you left for university, choosing instead to mourn the son they had known. I try to be understanding; the urge to place blame after a death is overwhelming. We all did it.

 

So we attended their funeral and their wake, and then we held our own. We each pilfered a bottle from the kitchen and took a taxi out to the beach where we had camped one year for your birthday. We built a fire and sat in the sand, paying no mind to our funeral finery, and we conjured you up from the flames. We each shared our own recollections of you, your phrases and peculiarities. The ways in which you had touched each of our lives. We wove a shared memory of you, each of us adding our own threads until we remembered what it felt like to have you there among us. Anish, the mimic, reminding us of your voice. David, the archivist, recalling the small details that were so unique to you. Cerys, your first love, reminding us of the ways in which you cared for us all. I admit, I said little. Not because I didn’t have anything to share, but because I was wary of sharing too much. Of revealing your flaws, speaking ill of the dead. But if the others noticed, they said nothing. We drank and talked and summoned you as best we could. In the sheltering dark, freed by alcohol and stirred by the fire, we came loose from ourselves, drifted out of our world and met you halfway, in the twilight between life and death. Or so it seemed. We left before the sun came up, choosing to sleep and awaken to reality rather than watch the growing daylight gradually leach away all the magic of our vigil.

 

The next day we met again for lunch and shyly confessed to what we each had felt, realising that we had experienced the night in the same way. The significance of it seemed amplified by the mundane setting, something for us to nurture. We promised to meet again on the same day every year, and somehow we have. Events fling us apart, but you draw us back together every year, our lives a great slow pulse with you the beating heart that drives it.

 

After lunch, we hugged our goodbyes and departed. I took a train south, alone, and what occupied my mind and heart was not the experience we had shared but the memories I had witheld. We summoned you together, a version of you we could agree on, but I took with me something quite different: my Peter, the Peter only I had known. I wondered if the others were holding onto their own private Peters as well, and felt certain that they were. Each of us haunted by own shade. What haunts me is secrecy and shame, a version of you that others would perhaps not like. Or more honestly: a version of you that reflects badly on me.

 

Before the funeral, it had fallen to me to clear your room in the shared house we were leaving. Our first home after university, to be abandoned as we went our separate ways. Your parents had asked us to take care of it, and only send them the important things. I was deemed the most capable since everyone else was presumed to be closer to you and therefore more affected by grief. Anish and David had been your best friends since school; Cerys was your girlfriend, although with her on placement in France you hadn’t seen each other for months. That would have been my opportunity to come clean about us, but I had put so much effort into maintaining the fiction of our platonic friendship that it was hard to let it slip now. Hard to paint you as a cheat when you weren’t there to defend yourself. If the others suspected, they said nothing, and so I found myself in your room with a stack of empty boxed, sifting through your possessions. Impossible to identify what was “important”. After death, the tiniest things are freighted with significance. Post-its with scribbled notes on them: the last samples of your handwriting? Your bed linen, nothing like clean and not likely to be wanted by anyone, but still smelling of you. The real you, my Peter, who had laid here with me on the rare afternoons we had to ourselves, warm and living, both of us secretly joyful under our guilt. And then there were the clothes you had worn… It was too much. I filled the boxes and your cases with every last thing in the room, then I buried myself under the sheets that smelled of you – of us – and cried myself hollow.

 

We had planned to tell Cerys when she returned from her placement, then come clean with the others. You didn’t want to break up with her over the phone and neither of us wanted the others to know before she did. I suppose we thought we were tempering our own bad behaviour by putting rules and restrictions on it, that we were saving Cerys from humiliation, but I realise now that the secrecy made our affair all the more deliciously intense. Stolen kisses, illicit trysts, all the things you don’t get when you love out in the open. But we were convinced that this, finally, was the real thing – the love that would last. As though we two twenty-somethings had waited and waited for it! It almost makes me laugh now, how important we thought our union was. It coloured everything we did. Yet I look back now and wonder whether it would ever have survived the banality of normal life, of loving out in the open. There is no way to know, and perhaps I only raise the question to spare myself the pain of feeling that I had found and then so quickly lost the real thing, the love that would last. None of the loves that came after you did.

 

Until Adam, at least. Is it too soon to say that? Perhaps it won’t last, but it feels like more. Adam was the first partner to notice your presence in my life. I had tried so hard to hide you away, not by concealment but by diminishment. Him? Oh, an old friend from uni. No, he passed away. Yes, it was very sad, he was young. But it was a long time ago now. And it worked; no-one ever pressed me on it. Except Adam, who was observant enough to join the dots. My attachment to certain things – books, music, films, places – that he traced back to time spent with you. The friends I rarely saw but stayed in contact with when the only thing that linked us after all these years was the permanent absence of one other person. Adam gently lifted away my camouflage and saw the truth I was shielding. He worked his way into my confidence with the gentle insistence of tree roots easing through obstacles in the soil. He became embedded in my life, patiently learning me and giving me the intimacy against which I had been shielding myself.

 

It’s not that I intended to shut myself off, but your abrupt death left me with a secret and no-one with whom to share it. By the time I felt ready for relationships again, the habit of secret-keeping had grown strong. Secrets grow more powerful in the dark, I have discovered. You have to expose them to the light quickly or they mushroom and distort, become toxic. You would have told me I was being absurd, letting such a normal human action steer my life, but you weren’t there to tell me. And besides, it wasn’t a decision I made or was aware of – it just grew that way.

 

I’ve known for a while that Adam understands this, that he has pieced the puzzle together, that he sees me and loves me regardless. But I still need to tell him, to hear myself say it out loud, all of it. For some reason, it’s hard to do it in the spaces we share – our living room, our kitchen, our bedroom – and so I invite him into the bath. We sit facing each other over a cloud of suds, uncomfortable at first as we try to find ways to make ourselves fit together in an unfamiliar configuration. I never share the bathroom; it is the one place where you can drop every pretence and be your truest, ugliest self. With Adam there, it becomes a confessional, a place outside of our everyday lives where I can let the long-suppressed truth spool out of me. In doing so, and seeing Adam accept it as a simple fact of my history, I feel it shrink and lose its hold over me. But not its significance. You still cast a shade over me, somehow. So after my confession comes the exorcism, performed in stages. All the things you and I loved together I now share with Adam, the books and films you and I enthused or argued over. He is not you, he doesn’t respond the way you did, and that’s all the better because somehow it neutralises the memory of you. He and I take a trip to Edinburgh and visit old haunts – vastly changed themselves – and sing along to The Irish Rover at the top of our voices with a pub full of strangers. We find a dim corner and snog like teenagers, and by the time we are nursing hangovers on the train back down south, Edinburgh is more in my memory than the place you and I had a sly weekend of reckless fun. I try to feel bad about painting over my memories of you, but it’s a relief. I’ve nursed my grief for too long.

 

The final exorcism comes at the anniversary of your wake. I email everyone and tell them I’m bringing Adam this year. One by one, they reply that they will do the same and bring their families, and when we gather around the fire this time there are eleven of us including children. We talk about you and toast to your memory, and then we talk about other things in our lives. We celebrate each other. Before the night is over, I take a moment alone with Cerys and tell her what has been weighing on me for all these years. It hangs in the air between us for a moment, and then she laughs and pulls me into a hug. It doesn’t matter, she tells me. She had moved on from your relationship before your death and had quietly harboured her own guilt over it for some time. I can’t bear to think about how differently she and I both would have coped if we’d simply told each other the truth. Questions about you occur to me, thoughts I’ve held down, but now I’m tired of the past. I want to look ahead, make plans, move forward. Adam waits patiently for me by the car, smiling as I approach. “Ready to go?” He asks. I return his smile. “I am.”




Ophelia and the Water

It was strange to approach the house and not see him, leaning all of his weight against the back of the wooden chair, shirtless with a tall can of Budweiser in one hand and a cigarette hanging loosely from his fingers in the other. It was a Tuesday morning. The church bells of our small town had woken me and I had pulled myself from the bed to take a walk through the late summer heat. By the time I reached his house I was sweating through my tee shirt. I took the warped wooden stairs up to his porch in quick steps. They creaked under my weight. The plywood bent up from the foundations, pulling up on the rusted nails. The whole house creaked really. It was an old shack with a tin roof and only two rooms, but it was charming with its blown glass windowpanes and copper doorknobs. I pressed the outer edges of my hands against the window and peered in but saw no movement; only ashtrays full of cigarettes and dinner plates in the sink. Moving to the front door I turned the handle and found that it was open; I pushed it and stepped in. The familiar smell of damp shag carpet and stagnant cigarette smoke came and I passed through it.

‘Hello?’

There was no response. I walked forward through the living room letting my palm graze the top of the plush navy chair. The door dividing the two rooms was open. I have never seen it left this way, exposing what I had come to think of as the personal part of the home. It was the bedroom. Red curtains hung over one window, the edges of the fabric browning and frayed. The sheets were pulled from the edges of the mattress and heaped in the middle of the bed. The dresser drawers were deep and bare except for empty packs of cigarettes and a few laminated prayer cards; Saint Anthony of Padua, Nicholas, and Francis of Assisi. The closet door was open and all of the clothes pulled from their wire hangers. I took the prayer cards from the dresser and pushed them into the back pocket of my denim shorts. I walked back to the kitchen and washed the dishes. When I finished, I dried my hands on a crusted tea towel. I folded a blanket and draped it over the recliner before going back out into the heat leaving the door open a crack.

I had met Jack on accident a few months before. I was renting a house on a large piece of property; a short-term rental, just for the summer. I had chosen the house for its isolation. I though it might prompt me to finish my doctorate as I had been in a bit of a rut. On my third night in the house and after three glasses of vodka over ice I had decided to take a walk across the field adjacent the house. I poured a tall glass before I walked out.

Once I reached the edge of the field I decided to go further. I climbed through the barbed wire, bending my body to avoid the thorns. The woods and thicket were tangled in a mess and forced me to walk in winding paths. I sipped on the vodka while I walked and it felt like it was moving through my bones and cooling me from the inside out. I felt nice, not drunk but a little light headed. My body felt light and my clothes loose. The sun was beginning to set. I wasn’t worried. I liked walking at night.

I listened to the tree frogs croak and the cicadas sing in their strange and elongated hums. The harmony of their songs filled my head with a buzz and lulled me into a slow walk, my feet moving one in front of the next without being told to do so.

I looked straight ahead as I walked. I walked until I saw a light. It flickered and danced just beyond the trees. It was the light from a fire, glowing in those shades of orange, gold, purple, and blue. I turned my step toward the firelight and found a clearing, four houses on one side, and another four facing those. All exactly the same, tin roofed, two room cabins with a little front porch. The fire burned in the middle of them all. It illuminated a small plot of summer crops and a man sitting with his legs crossed, smoke pouring out of his nostrils and mouth, beer cans rested beside him. I approached. The people in this town were friendly. He must have heard me before he saw me because he looked around him, not nervously but curiously. It took him a moment to find me but when he did his eyes stopped and his mouth opened into a smile missing many teeth. I just stood still and waited for him to speak.

‘Hey there.’

‘Hello.’

He made his way over to me and held out his hand. His fingernails were black with dirt.

‘Who are you?’

‘Tabitha, Tab for short. I moved in at the Logan property for the summer. I’m doing research at the college a town over.’

‘Oh yeah, some one said they saw a car out there. I’m Jack.’

He invited me to have a beer with him. I did. I had a few. I rolled thin cigarettes with moist tobacco and handed them to him as he cracked open cans. He drank with large gulps while I sipped. Louisiana by way of California by way of New York he told me. He’d been here for eight years now living with his girlfriend. She was in their house watching television and he pointed to the second house in the north-facing row.

‘I don’t like watching television much, especially in the heat of the summer. I like the heat. Most people don’t but I like it. Sweating is good for you. Sweating keeps you healthy.’

‘My father used to tell me that.’

I didn’t have to tell him much about myself. He was able to fill the conversation all on his own as though I was just another reason for him to tell a story. Stories were what they were, a small fact hidden in an immense fiction. We sat up late that night. He told me about what he saw in the stars and I explained the constellations to him.

‘How do you know all of that about the sky?’

‘My mother taught me.’

I came back often after that night. I always took the same meandering path through the woods.

The more he told me the more I knew he was a liar. It made me like him more. His inventions brought me back to listen and to watch him weave them. His hands flew around him as we spoke swatting away questions that might reveal the holes in his narrative. The words that rolled from his mouth in relentless waves seemed to be exaggerated by his greasy, shoulder length, sand coloured hair and some poorly poked tattoos. He caught me staring at them one afternoon. The ink had bled to create undefined shapes.

‘Prison. That’s where I got ‘em.’ Just locked up for possession but that was years ago.’

I met his girlfriend Rita. She looked older than him and maybe she was. She hardly left the house. She preferred the air conditioning, a pack of cigarettes and cheap boxed wine. She didn’t seem to mind me.

Most nights Jack and I sat on his porch. I rested on the edge with my legs dangling off and he sat in his wooden chair above me and talked. He talked about his mama, about music, about the women he dated and living in California during the seventies.

He showed me things. Old photographs of the cars he owned. Photographs of a younger man who still had all of his teeth. One night he asked me to walk with him across the clearing. He took me near where the fire had burned on the first night.

‘See that over there?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Know what it is?’

‘No.’

‘It’s Ophelia.’

His vagueness was intentional. He led me over to the thing—a bust of a woman or what was a woman missing her eyes and her hair, but with plump lips—and told me about her. She was from another planet. She’d been exiled and that’s why she was here in this clearing. She could see the stars here. He took a drag of his cigarette and leaned down to her face. He pursed his lips and blew the smoke through one of her eye sockets. For a moment the smoke vanished, then reappeared, drifting out from the other eye. He smiled his big toothy grin, ‘Ophelia, Tabitha. Tabitha, Ophelia.’

Jack had planted flowers around her. At night the deer came out from the woods to eat the blossoms.

‘How long has she been here?’

‘Longer than me or you.’

Jack didn’t drive. He called me from their house one Sunday morning and asked me if I had plans for the day. I didn’t. He asked me to come over and to bring my truck. When I arrived he stood in the yard, cut off jeans and no shirt. He carried with him a cooler, which he slung into the bed of the truck before he climbed into the passenger seat. There was already a lit cigarette hanging from his dry lips. He reached for the crank to roll down the window.

‘I’m gonna take you somewhere special.’

We drove down country roads.

‘Make a right just past that old church there. Alright, then a left when you see the cow pasture.’

Tall brown power lines flashed passed in perfect succession. The black tar on the road could have bubbled and the heat rising from it made the horizon blurred and oily. We passed houses long abandoned; the grasping, creeping vines came through, and out of the broken windows, almost entirely covering the façade. Donkeys grazed in small fields unbothered by the warmth, their ears and tails flicking lazily at flies.

‘Pull into that gas station there.’

We were about forty minutes out of town. He got the cooler from the back end and carried it in. When he came out ten minutes later I could tell it was heavier, his arms strained to keep it at waist level.

‘Beers,’ he said through the open passenger window. ‘You can’t buy them in Moss county on Sunday but you can buy ‘em in Laurel. The Lords day and such.’

He tuned the radio to a blues station once he was back in the passenger seat.

‘Is that where you wanted to take me?’

‘No, go on and make a left out of this parking lot. We’re getting there.’

Past pine forests and dried up creeks. Past cotton fields and exposed orange and red clay canyons that seemed to drop for miles back down into the earth.

‘We’re getting close.’

‘Will you tell me where we’re going?’

‘I call ‘em the Red Rocks.’

When we pulled up I understood. A prodigious lake, the same bright blue as the sky, covered everything for miles, its edges marked by enormous red sand stone. The heat of the red against the kindness of the blue made it seem surreal.

‘It looks like a Dali painting.’

‘A what?’

‘Never mind. What’s the lake called?’

‘Dunno.’

‘I didn’t bring my suit.’

‘You got shorts don’t you?’

I nodded.

‘Come on then.’

I followed him stumbling down the sandy slope to the edge of the water.

‘Aren’t you going to swim?’

‘Nah, I don’t float right, some people do but I don’t.’

He opened the cooler to retrieve a beer. I walked to the edge and let the water lap at my feet. I waded forward, first to my knees, then my thighs, then my waist. The water seeped into my denim shorts and weighed me down. It was warm. I ran my hands across the surface and leaned backward, letting myself fall into the water. I floated there for a while. I let the water move me and watched the clouds move too. When I looked up I had floated from shore. I swam back in and pulled a beer from the melting ice. Jack was laid out flat on the sand, the sun darkening his already brown skin.

‘I can’t believe I’ve never been here.’

‘Not many folks know about this place.’

‘It’s beautiful.’

‘It’s magic. That’s the thing about this place. The water, it’s magic, it makes you live long.’

I smiled.

‘I’m serious. There is something about the water. It moves through the creeks and into the lakes and into use when we drink it.’

I wanted to believe him.

I sipped on my beer and listened to the wind bend the pines behind us. I listened to Jack hum unmeasured tunes and closed my eyes. The sand stuck to my damp clothes but I did not mind.

I drove us home hours later and after a few more beers. Jack kept drinking in the car, the beer cans held between his knees. By the time we reached the cabins the sun had set. I stayed in the car while Jack unloaded himself and then his belongings. I watched him stumble up to the edge of the porch where he turned, leaned, and waved goodbye to me. I drove home and slept well into the next afternoon. When I woke I called him and thanked him for the day before.

‘No problem darlin.’

I did not go to the cabin that night. The following morning was the day I found it empty.

When I walked out the door, leaving it just a little bit open, I went straight to Ophelia. I wondered if he had taken her too, but she was still there, looking up to nothing. To no one. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the prayer cards. I propped two against her chest. For the first few weeks after Jack left I checked on Ophelia. I made sure her flowers were looked after. One morning I didn’t go to water the flowers. I just stopped after that.

I heard lots of stories about Jack after he was gone. I heard a story that he been on a chain gang and rolled from the bed of a truck to escape, that the police had got wind of him and were on their way. I heard that he was a not from New York but really he was from Mexico. I heard that he had learned how to build houses when he worked as a missionary. It didn’t matter which ones were true. They were all just stories.

At the end of the summer I moved off the Logan property and went back to graduate school and my doctorate. I keep Saint Anthony pinned above my desk.




Something About Him

It was late when Tee knocked on the door. The man he came home with had his hand on his arm when I answered. They smelled of alcohol and smoke.

 

Tee removed his friends hand and smoothened his tight T-shirt before saying,

‘Ife, meet Ese, my sister. She’s here for the weekend.’

 

‘Hello Ese. Its nice to finally see you’ Ife said, offering a weak smile, ‘Tee keeps going on about his wandering sister, I hope we didn’t wake you?’

 

His skin gleamed like smooth honey under the incandescent light of the veranda, making Tee’s dark skin look even darker.

 

I smiled back. ‘No you didn’t, I hope you guys had fun.’

 

‘We sure did.’ He replied.

 

Tee looked at him cautiously and then they paused before they both started laughing and walked into the house. I locked the door.

 

‘You look tired.’ Tee said. ‘You should get some sleep’

 

‘Will you sleep with me?’ Ife yawned.

 

His jean was so tight, it made his butt look like two wraps of pounded yam pressed beside each other.

 

‘Yes I’ll be in the same room with you’ Tee replied. He mumbled goodnight and without another word, they both vanished into his bedroom.

 

*****

 

Tee was outside when I woke up. He was wearing only trousers, counting reps on a homemade barbell. I sat at the doorstep, watching. He pulled the weight up to his knees, then to his shoulders before lifting it high above his head. The veins in his arms swelled like they would pop. He laughed a little when he saw me and dropped the barbell carefully and stood up.

 

‘Where’s Ife?’ I asked.

 

‘Gone’ he said.

 

His chest glistened with sweat. His brown shorts glued to his thighs like a second skin. He was panting.

 

‘Panla’ I called him.

 

He laughed hard. That’s what everyone used to call him because of how skinny he was. His hatred for food was only second to my love for it and our system was perfect until daddy found out.

 

‘Remember the beating that made me start eating more than you?’ He asked.

 

I nodded, snorting with laughter as the image of my brother screaming and jumping with each landing of the belt surfaced in my memory.

 

‘Do you remember Dotun?’

 

I did.

 

Dotun was our neighbor. He was Tee’s best friend for the four years his family lived in the flat above us. They were in the same class and they did everything together. When his family moved to Jos, I thought my brother would die. He cried so much and would not say why, even when my father furiously decided to give him something to cry about.

 

‘Help me bring my towel’ Tee said, opening the bag of millet by the well.

 

His bathroom was neat. His towel hung over the water closet. Two condoms swam in the toilet bowl beneath. I looked at them for a moment before taking the towel away.

 

For a long time I had wondered when I would ask my brother the question that had been on my mind since the day Dotun moved out. As I closed the toilet door behind me, I realized that it was no longer a matter of ‘when’ but ‘how’.

 

Outside, Tee tossed millet seeds on the well. A cigarette dangled between his lips. I watched him silently.

 

‘Why are you smiling?’ he asked.

 

‘Nothing I said’ pursing my lips to hide the mischief on my face. My heart skipped a beat, it was now or never.

 

I handed him the towel and walked beside him to the doorstep where we both sat.

 

A swarm of pigeons descended on the well. They struggled between themselves for the grains even though I knew that Tee had put out more than they could finish in a day. He always did.

 

‘Ife loves birds too but he hates chickens.’ Tee said. I turned to look at him but he did not take his eyes off the birds. He knew.

 

He stretched his hand to me and I took the cigarette. Then he started to tell a story, something about him, Ife and a black cock.

 

The irony was not lost and I choked on the smoke. Tears streamed down my eyes but I could not stop laughing and choking.

 

He looked at me with a sad smile on his face.

 

‘Don’t die oh’

 

I stopped laughing and coughed until I could breathe again.

 

Then I asked him.

 

‘How long have you been together?’

 

He looked into my eyes and turned back to the birds.

 

‘Two years.’

 

I nodded silently. After all these years, I was a bit surprised by how ordinary this moment was. I gave the cigarette back to him.

 

He took a long drag and let it out. As the last wisps of smoke poured out of his nostrils, he started to talk, with the speed of a person vomiting words that refused to stay down.

 

‘He told me his parents have found a wife for him. They want him to pay her bride price next month’.

 

‘What is he going to do?’

 

‘He doesn’t have a choice’ Tee shrugged.

 

My mouth became dry.

 

‘What are you going to do?’

 

‘Nothing’ he said, as simply as I wished the world was.

 

I wanted to reach out for his hand and squeeze it, to reassure him, to tell him everything would be fine.

 

But I wasn’t in the mood for lies and so we sat in silence, watching the birds picking the grains with their beaks, their chirping delightful like sweet music.

 

‘I was wondering how long it would take you to find out’ Tee said.

 

‘Well, if it’s any consolation, I’ve known for years’

 

The surprise in his eyes vanished as quickly as it appeared.

 

‘Well if I had known that, I’d have just flushed my toilet’

 

I laughed.




Boys

When they first move into the house, it feels obvious to Laura that it loves her more than Tim. It wants her to be there and doesn’t mind that Tim is an addition. It’s as if the rooms warm themselves up slightly in the few seconds before she walks into them. The orange light that comes through the big front windows in the afternoon might shine right on her face and miss him entirely. Sometimes the water in the shower warms up straight away for her, but is a bit faulty for Tim.

 

Here, she thinks, she is the most beloved one. The house loves her more than it loves Tim and Tim loves her more than almost anything. She loves both the house and Tim, and within time she will get them to love each other. But she is, still, the most loved one. It feels like having two best friends, but knowing that she is both of their only best friend.

 

Before they moved here Laura and Tim lived at the adventure holiday camp where Tim worked. Tim instructs groups of children/families on tree climbing/zipwire courses. They had a flat in a small building where all the instructors lived with quite a lot of their girlfriends and even some children. It was in the Kendal in the Lake District.

 

But because they were unhappy there, Laura started to act stressed and strange. Tim noticed this. So when Laura inherited some money because somebody died, they decided to buy a barn conversion closer to the town that they both came from. Tim would still work for the same company, but instead, he would commute and travel over the country to assist at different adventure holidays.

 

This is where they have come to live now.

 

Laura first sees the prince in a nearby stately home on a Saturday afternoon.

 

It said on the website that the stately home is an iconic 18th Century house with a notable art collection.

 

The biggest painting is entitled The Prince and his Retinue Hunt Game in the State Park. The prince is wearing a long ruffled frock coat and and his hand is on the head of one of his pointy-faced hounds. A foxhound. The prince’s hair is brown. Laura does not have to read the plaque at the side of the painting to know that he is the one who is the prince, even with his whole hunting troupe around him. His face is horselike and shimmery, regal.

 

In the gift shop they sell small fridge magnets with the picture of the prince and his retinue hunting game in the forest. Laura buys one and puts it on the fridge and uses it to hold up a photo of her and Tim from Prague last year.

 

When they get back from the stately home trip, the wood of the front door has swollen again so they can’t get it open for ages and have to kick it until it opens and then they have to organise for someone to come round and shave the wood down so that it won’t happen again. Tim gets stressed about it and says what if it was a bad idea to move somewhere instead of renting where they have to arrange for everything to be fixed themselves instead of just getting a landlord to do it. His voice goes annoying in that way she hates.

 

Laura is fairly sure she could have figured out how to do it by herself, but Tim is worried about what will happen when he has to go away with work and she’s there alone. They have an argument in which Tim implies Laura lives in some sort of fantasy/dreamworld and never has to deal with anything real/tangible and Laura implies Tim does not respect her independence and competency because he hates women. Laura sleeps in the spare room that night.

 

To be honest Laura rarely feels hugely unhappy or frightened or stressed any more. If something bad happens it is like a soft weight that sort of rolls over her. She doesn’t cry unless she is really drunk. She has accepted that for life to be good and exciting sometimes, bad things have to happen too, to have something to compare the better things to so that happy and sad are a contradiction of each other.

 

When Laura is in the spare room she is reminded of a way that she felt when she was a teenager. She used to imagine sex with men and she used to imagine saying this thing to them in a moment of climax. She used to think it was the most outrageous thing someone could say. She can’t even remember where she got it from now. It might have been from porn or from something someone at her school had heard in porn. She used to think these words almost every night.

 

Tim has to go away to Ireland with work. He is supervisor for a two week adventure holiday with a group of Scouts.

 

Laura has to get a taxi to Morrisons to do the food shop because Tim has taken the car.

 

On the third night that Tim is away the prince from the painting appears to her after she has got out of the bath.

 

Except if she is honest, she wishes him to. It is not a huge surprise. If she is honest, she gets out of the bath and brushes her hair and puts on her pyjamas and waits for him in the dark. He takes her hand and squeezes it gently and she says ‘I knew that you were going to come eventually’ and she feels his breath on her hair.

 

When they have sex there is a heaviness to his weightlessness on top of her body.

 

He is gone in the morning and when she wakes up she goes back into her and Tim’s room and puts on the TV and cries and goes back to sleep until eleven AM.

 

But Laura knows that the prince will come back the next night and he does. He is just like a real boy/man. She wonders around the kitchen and spends the whole day making loads and loads of tiny biscuits and cakes and tarts. It feels like her heart is in a perpetual state of clicking.

 

When the lights are out, she imagines him in full shape, she knows if she turns the light on that she might catch a glimpse of him and that he will disappear forever. So she never does.

 

Sometimes she will find him waiting for her in the hall, where he is slightly more visible when the sun is setting and comes musky through the windows, she can see the bits of dust it reveals settling on his shoulders. But in a way he is less present there. She feels like he is making himself appear for the sake of it, as if he thinks that she wants that. It is the spare room where he is really present.

 

By the time they have been fucking for a week she has already whispered the words that she used to imagine to him at least three times. Then one night, when they are holding hands in the dark and watching an episode of Masterchef on her laptop, she confesses to him that she has always wanted to say it but that she knew if she said it to Tim he would feel weird about it and other men she had slept with had known her friends, and if Laura’s friends found out she said that then they might think that she wasn’t a feminist anymore.

 

The prince tells Laura that she can always tell him anything that he wants and he won’t judge her or tell anyone.

 

In the morning he is always gone. It’s okay. Laura reads in bed then makes herself massive breakfasts in the kitchen, like fry-ups and batches of welshcakes and popovers with a lot of fruit on the side.

 

Sometimes she puts photos of her breakfast on Instagram and Tim likes them or comments saying he misses her, so Laura feels bad, but sometimes he forgets and then she feels angry again.

 

In the afternoons she goes out in town or to the cinema or to the garden centre. Sometimes she goes to look at the prince in the stately home, very much there with all of his dogs.

 

At night she makes big dinners and puts on the new Ed Sheeran album and pours herself a glass of wine. And this is the only time she feels a sense of fear, her heart going click, click, click. Some time around now she knows he has come into the room, feels a warmth and a fullness. Sometimes he will touch her slightly or move the door so she knows that he is there. She always sets two places at the table even though he doesn’t eat.

 

Then she gets the text from Tim. Tim is like; Back tomorrow I can’t wait to see you I’ve bought you a bracelet and two different types of wine. Laura has to tell the prince that she can’t sleep with him for a while and she promises to talk to him when she can but she just has to figure out what is going on because all of this is fucking with her head. He understands and to say goodbye he plays her a short song he has written on the mandolin.

 

She sleeps back in her and Tim’s room, cold and too spacious. When she wakes up, Tim is not next to her in the bed like she’d thought he might be.

 

She wonders if his flight might have been delayed, but when she looks out of the window, Tim’s Nissan is back on the drive. Tim is waiting at the kitchen table.

 

He says that he saw that guy through the window and at first he kicks off and nearly throws a cup of coffee and he even calls her a slut and a whore and then he says sorry and she says sorry and they both are on the floor on their knees kissing and crying. The day after Tim packs most of his stuff in a suitcase and goes to stay at his mum’s.

 

When Tim is gone, things between Laura and the prince change. She isn’t sure if it was the limitation of their time together that made her think she was in love with the prince instead of Tim, that its rushedness and forbidden nature made it feel exciting and glamorous and or that these endless days without talk make her feel tired and nervous, or just that now it has got boring and she has started to see him like all other boys.

 

The sex stops being good. He stops coming every night, and she doesn’t ask him why. If she is honest she feels a bit angry towards the prince that he would appear in physical form for Tim and not her, but she doesn’t bring this up.

 

One night she realises it has not just been an entire week since she saw the prince, but since she saw literally anyone. She goes to the shop to buy some wine and ready meals and feels surprised when the teenage boy in Morrisons appears to be able to see her.

 

That night when she is about to fall asleep she starts to hear the noises again.

 

When the door opens she thinks it might be the prince again. But it is someone else, or something else. His body is heavier. When they have sex he grips her thigh harder and he does not like it when she talks to him. Laura is glad of that.

 

Now, it is somebody different almost every night. Laura is in full acceptance of the fleeting nature of their visits, has stopped trying to understand them like she used to but is used to their bad timekeeping, how some of them wake her up in her sleep with their elbows, some of them like her to make loud noises, some of them want her to whisper secrets after sex or put the radio on quietly. Often she recognises someone she has slept with before but more in a way that a bird in the garden might be the same bird that comes into the garden every day or, it might be a completely different bird, and how that’s okay.

 

She always makes them dinner even though sometimes they don’t come until later.

 

Laura still finds herself saying that thing all the time. She isn’t even really into the stuff it connotes anymore or doesn’t find it novel, she just feels like she owes it to this thirteen year old version of herself who she thinks about quite often, who wouldn’t believe that Laura gets the opportunity to say it so often.

 

She often says things in other languages (she has started doing French online in the afternoons) or things in made-up languages. Sometimes she’ll experiment by saying someone else has said to her before, often feeling like it would always make them come anyway; it wouldn’t matter if all that she was whispering in their ears was words and more words and more words.

 

Tim texts her to ask how she is. He asks if and when she is planning on moving out of the house or if she’d consider paying him rent seeing as she is living there for free and he isn’t living there at all. She doesn’t get it for almost a week because the signal is not good and also because she doesn’t charge or turn on her phone that much these days.

 

That night Laura cooks a huge dinner. She lights candles and sets out all the plates. She summons every ghost and makes them promise they will come with her wherever she goes even if it means having to leave here. Every single one of them says yes, of course, they will stay forever.




Monsters

Pic credits: JB Kilpatrick

Today I want to find the monsters and ask them where Bô is. It’s Nam’s birthday, and he wants Bô. Nam was ten last night, but when the sun came up he changed to eleven. Mẹ says we’re going to have a party in the house. I’m excited. I like parties, and I want to get Nam a present. Right now, Nam and Mẹ are not awake, so I’ve got to think of a plan to find Bô. Don’t know why, but Mẹ says not to go outside. But I like the outside and so does my doggy, Kiki. I tiptoe past Mẹ, who is sleeping on the couch again to keep the house safe from the monsters. I tell Kiki, “Shush.” If she barks, Mẹ will never let us outside again.

I’ve never seen the monsters, but I need to find them so I can ask where Bô is.

Kiki walks next to me as I go into the backyard. Sun is up. Birds talk. Bugs fly around me. The morning is gray and dusty – smells like fire. I go to the river and try to find rocks. My feet touch the water. Cold. Really cold. Small fish swim between my toes, kissing my skin and making me giggle.

I look at the trees and yell, “Monsters, where are you?”

I cover my mouth. Too loud. Don’t want to wake up Nam and Mẹ, but I want to know where Bô is. Nam needs him for his birthday. I wait. Don’t know how long, but the chickens start to sing.

The monsters never speak to me.

They never come. Never come yesterday. Never come last week. Been wishing, but they never come. Maybe I can ask the nice lady. Don’t know if she will be coming today to play with Mẹ, but I hope she will.

Monsters never come, and I don’t see Bô.

So I get some rocks. Not pretty ones, but good ones. They’re round and not too big. Maybe Nam will like the rocks. White with gray spots.

Like chicken eggs.

Kiki barks and runs off. I call her, but I see Nam walking to me, so I hide the rocks in my pocket.

He grabs my hand. “Minh, what are you doing?”

I say nothing. Don’t want him finding out about my present. I say I’m hungry and want some eggs. Nam takes my hand, and we go to see the chickens. I run to the chicken house and say good morning. The chickens talk to me, saying cluck-cluck. I say cluck-cluck back. I grab the eggs under them and give them to Nam. We walk back to the house, and we hear a zoom sound. In the sky, three big birds fly above us. I point to the birds, and Nam starts to run to the house.

In the house, Nam closes the door. We both stand still. Zoom sound becomes smaller. Until no more whoosh. I look at Nam. He stares at the ceiling.

“Nam—”

“Quiet.” Nam covers my mouth.

I try to pull his fingers off, but Nam is too strong. Then he lets go.

“Quiet.”

I don’t want to be quiet, but I need to listen. Today is his birthday. Clock, ticks and tocks. Ticks. Tocks. Ticks and t—

“Do you want breakfast?” he asks.

“Yeah.” I run to the kitchen and pull a chair to the stove.  “Can I make?”

“No, you make really bad food.”

I don’t make bad food. Mẹ tells me I make good food. She says she loves my food so much. I talk to Nam as he makes eggs. I jump off the chair and zoom around until I fall on the ground. I ask about the birds. He tells me they are the monsters. I grab Nam’s arm and shake it real hard. The monsters did hear me.

“They came!” I jump.

“Came?” he asks.

“Yes. I need to ask them to find Bô.”

Nam pokes the eggs with the chopsticks. “He’s not with the monsters.”

“Who’s he with?”

“A witch,” Nam says, pushing me away.

But I don’t believe him. Mẹ always told me stories about the monsters and how Bô fought them. She says they eat people, and people are scared of them. They take everything. Poof! Kids gone. Parents gone. Even the house is gone. I don’t understand why everything has to be gone.

“Will Bô come back?” I ask.

“Don’t talk about that.”

“But—”

“Right now, he’s with the witch. The more you talk about them, the more Mẹ will be sad. Do you understand?”

I nod. I don’t want to make him mad. “Sorry.”

Nam doesn’t say anything. Kiki barks again and behind us is Mẹ. She gives us both kisses. A long special one on the cheek for Nam since it’s his birthday. Mẹ grabs the spoons, but I stop her and tell her, “I want to do it.”

Spoons. Plates. Rice. Veggies. Lots of veggies. Bread. We eat the food Nam made. Mẹ talks about what we are doing today. I want to go into the town to see everyone, but Mẹ says we stay in the house. No trip today. I’m sad, but we need to listen to Mẹ. She gives Nam his gift. Some clothes. Blue with stripes. I want to give my present to Nam, but I see him staring at a picture of Bô. I touch the rocks inside my pockets. The rocks are pretty, but they are dead. They don’t play. Sing. Or make food like Bô. Rocks don’t talk. They just sit in the dirt. Bô is a better present than rocks. But where is he? He makes Nam happy. I will find him.

Don’t know how, but I will.

After breakfast, I help clean the table, while Nam plays with Kiki. Mẹ washes the dishes and I dry them. I tell Mẹ lots, like the fishes in the river, and I want to swim. Mẹ always gives me the same answer. She tells me not to go outside. Mẹ gives me the last plate to dry, and when I’m finished, I call for Kiki. She comes to me and jumps on my body. Licks my face. Then I hear a loud zoom.

I open the door and run outside and yell for the monsters to come back.

I jump up and down at the sky. Five huge birds fly above me. I follow the birds, and people start running. Everyone hides. They run back to the house. Close the doors. Yelling at everyone as they point to the sky.

Nam calls me.

He carries me. “We need to hide.”

“But I want to talk to the monsters.”

Up in the sky, the birds fly back and forth dropping down loaves of bread. Like the ones I ate at lunch. The ground shakes. We fall down. We run into the house. Mẹ locks the door and tells us to get under the table, but I tell them I want to ask about Bô.

“He’s gone,” Nam says.

“But—”

“Be quiet!”

Tears drip down his face and hides it in Mẹ’s arm. I know Bô is not gone. He is still here. I will ask the nice lady when she comes. The nice lady that Bô hugs and kisses. She came that day to talk to Bô. He had everything. Suitcases. Books. Stuff to go to fight the monsters. I said I wanted to come, but Bô won’t let me. He kissed the nice lady again and walked out of the house.  I followed them and saw Bô and the nice lady got into the car. They still haven’t come back. She must know where he is. I will find her and ask where Bô is. He needs to be here for Nam’s birthday. I want to tell Nam and Mẹ my new idea, but Mẹ tells me to shush. She says the monsters are coming. So I cover my ears and try not hear the boom, boom, boom.




Me, I Would Prefer

This year, for my partner’s birthday, I wanted to do something really special. We both love animals, so I knew it would have something to do with that, for starters. But we already have a dog and the apartment is zero percent big enough to fit anyone new except maybe a cockroach or two, so a pet is out of the question. Besides, I think surprising someone with a life change disguised as a gift is actually pretty rude.

 

Anyways. We’re out at the bar one night, just your typical Thursday night thing, and I’m tired. I’m pretty much always tired, but especially at night. My partner, on the other hand, could go for hours. We’re sitting there in the bar, soccer match on at the far end of the room, the bartender going full sass, yelling at some guy who had fallen asleep on the barstool (right there with you, buddy) and my partner talking to a shy looking dude sat on her right. I’ve basically ignored him since he joined our table, even though I know it’s not nice of me. She does this when we come here, this thing, almost always: finds a person sitting alone, taps them on the shoulder, and says something controversial in the hopes of getting into some kind of heated conversation. Let me give you an example.

 

My partner: *smiles warmly at guy at next table over*

 

Guy: Hey

 

Partner: Hey, how are you?

 

Guy: Yeah, I’m good, just waiting for a friend/watching the game/drinking until I die, etc.

 

Partner: Good? You’re good? Well, not so hard to be good when you’re a white man, is it?

 

Me, I like my conversations lukewarm. But it’s crazy how much life these encounters give her, so it’s kind of nice to watch her come away from one with a glow on her face like she’s just spent half a day in the sauna. (Me, I would prefer to actually spend half a day in the sauna.) But that night, anyways, it’s already late and I have to be up early the next morning, and so I start sleeve tugging, like baby, let’s go home, we can come again on Saturday. And she’s sweet, says of course she’ll come home with me, but I know she’s having fun talking to strangers and wants to stay. But I get my way this time, because I am a brat and she loves me.

 

But as we brace ourselves against the harsh winter outside, the wind screaming hollow sounds in our ears like a manic cat, the full moon presiding over everything in a manner that, to be honest, does seem a little bit arrogant, I get an idea. The other half of the birthday present, the half that doesn’t have to do with animals, will be this. I will tell her: you are more important than me. You want to stay out late, let’s stay out late, let’s never go home. Your wish is my command. Just then, though, the wind picks up speed and we pass a kebab shop, the sign lit up in red, so we go in for some fries and hot air.

 

A few days later, we’re walking the dog in the park when the idea really comes together. We take the route that goes through the petting zoo, but of course, it’s getting colder and so they’ve taken most of the animals, the goats and camel and bunny rabbits, inside. I don’t really know what inside looks like, but I imagine a sort of darkish, speakeasy vibe with leather armchairs and glass ashtrays. Then the dog barks at a crow, and I stop imagining things.

 

“Where do you think that stork went?” my partner asks. We took a special interest in storks after our trip to Bulgaria last summer. It was so beautiful, their nests lining the streets, high up on telephone poles, stork families of three or four nestled up together in the cool morning air, the blue silhouettes of mountains on the horizon.

 

“I don’t know,” I answer. “They go to Africa for the winter, right?” But I’m not really paying attention, because I know exactly what I’m going to do next.

 

That afternoon, when my partner is out working and I’m home on the couch with the dog curled around my legs, I look up the phone number for the park service online. This is already a big step for me, because I really hate making phone calls. But I do a round of the nostril breathing my therapist taught me, and then I dial.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Hi,” I say, tentatively. “I’m a frequent visitor to the petting zoo and I was wondering, um, what’s going on with the stork. Like, did he get to go to Africa for the winter, or is he still around?”

 

The woman on the other end pauses, and then shouts something away from the receiver.

 

“Yeah, he’s here,” she says finally, sounding bored. “Here, you know what, I’ll just go ahead and put you on with him and you can ask whatever question you want.”

 

There’s some shuffling and then someone drops the phone and picks it up again, and then finally, the stork answers. His voice is deep and rich, with an accent I can’t quite place.

 

“How can I help you?” he says.

 

One week later, the time has come. D-Day, B-Day, November 16th. We wake up late, lay around for a while, and try to do the whole breakfast in bed thing, but it’s not easy to stay sitting upright and the dog keeps licking our faces and diving for our plates when we’re distracted, so we give up and head for the kitchen.

 

“So,” I say, harvesting the next round of toast from the toaster with a fork even though everyone says that’s dangerous, “I was thinking tonight we’d go somewhere a little different for a drink, like I don’t know, maybe Lion’s Den? We haven’t been there in a while, right?”

 

My partner makes a face that looks really hesitant. I know she’d rather just go to the regular bar, and I feel a little bit crushed, like maybe the whole plan will fall apart.

 

“I know it’s your birthday, but I have a really good feeling about that place tonight. Just come with me for one drink and if it sucks we can go anywhere you want. I promise.”

 

I’m not usually one to lobby so hard, but if I want this to work out, I know I have to sell it. Finally, she nods in agreement, and I kiss her on the mouth. Then the dog gets jealous and kisses both of us on the mouth.

 

That night, it’s not easy to get us out of the house, because first my partner has to finish screen printing a new batch of t-shirts. I’m all antsy from the coffee, my secret weapon for staying out as long as my partner wants, so I start nagging, like come on, we’re gonna be late, and she’s like, late for what?

 

So I shut up and wait until the shirts are all laying flat to dry, but when we’re out the door, I pull on her sleeve and we get there in record time.

 

The Lion’s Den is dark and weird like an Alaskan winter, which is exactly why I chose it for tonight. There’s always someone there getting naked, or playing checkers against themselves, or watching the owner’s pet ferret dive under the tables to intercept fallen peanuts. Generally, though, people mind their own business.

 

It’s nine fifteen when we arrive, right on time. The bar is pleasantly full, each table lit by a single candle stuck in a wine bottle, the old, hardened wax dribbles forming stalactite rings around the glass. My partner really wants to sit at the barstools up front, but I’m like, no, come on, there’s a nice table in the back. She sighs. “I thought this was my birthday.” I almost want to cry when she says that, but I put on a brave face and pull her towards the back.

 

The stork is there, waiting for us at the table I reserved. He’s got this red velvet bowtie around his neck, which is charming as fuck.

 

“Stork,” I say, “I’d like to introduce you to my partner. It’s her birthday today.”

 

He ruffles his feathers and extends a wing out to her, and I know she’s sold. I tell the two of them to sit down while I order three beers from the bar. When I get back, they’re already deep in conversation, the stork explaining how he’s resting here for the winter because of a strain in his shoulder.

 

My partner nods. “It must be hard to be away from your family.”

 

“Well,” says the stork, his long beak glistening with drops of beer, “it is hard, in some ways. But long term partnership, in a sense, is all about independence. If all goes well, anyways, I’ll join them in the east this summer.”

 

My partner puts a hand on my knee, and we ask the stork about his migration route, his favorite stops, etc. We go on like that for a while, talking, drinking, and showing him pictures of the dog from our phones.

 

A few beers in, though, the thing happens. The horrible, dreaded thing. My eyes begin to shut involuntarily, stinging like snails in salt, a combined response to the thick cigarette smoke and my pure, unfiltered sleepiness. I know I’m supposed to fight it, but then I picture my bed.

 

“Should I get us a round of schnapps?” I hear the stork ask, his soft words barely making it through the thick mist of eyelids and dreamland I’m floating in.

 

I’m about to say no, let’s go home, but then I blink my eyes open and see my partner’s face glowing and her eyes sparkling and head nodding, and so I find myself saying yes, too. When the stork comes back with three little glasses of peppermint schnapps, the kind that tastes like mouthwash in the best way possible, we raise our glasses.

 

“Happy birthday,” the stork says.

 

“Happy birthday,” I say.

 

“Happy birthday,” my partner says, “to me.”

 

We clink glasses, drink, and I lean back in my chair, remembering the sounds the storks made that summer, like soft little clicks against wood, the frogs singing in the creek. My head is thick and heavy, even after the peppermint, so I rest in on my partner’s shoulder. She pats my hair, says she’ll wake me up when it’s time to go home, and then I don’t hear anything anyone says anymore because I am dead asleep like dirt in winter.