Ranger, Wizard, Fighter, Thief

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2014
The four of them embark on an epic quest to defeat a mighty evil, as anyone can tell by looking at them. They are brave and true, as you’d assume. What might surprise you is how bloody annoying they are.

First

There were four of them, which is not at all unusual with this sort of gang. As is the custom, they were as diverse in appearance as any four people could be. An elf, a wizard, a knight and a barbarian. Daggers, staff, sword, hammer. The corners of the world. How these little groups meet and end up as friends quite so often is a mystery, but they do and these had.

The travellers ducked into a quaint old hay barn, following the wave of the kindly farmer who had lent them shelter. They saw dry, cracked muck, scrap wood and rusted equipment. Moonlight on a butcher table, maybe. Hardly a heroes’ welcome, but they felt it was better than another night outdoors with a little more gold in their pack.

The barbarian dumped their supplies and his weapon immediately and asked for more beer the moment he was seated. He wore the uniform of his people: long, fair hair, straps and buckles, furry pauldrons and greasy skin.

The pale elf with the blades and leather all over him leaned in, slightly as he could, and muttered, “There are two kinds of hospitality on the road, my friend: those where we get drunk and make allies, and those where something else happens. I fear this is one of the latter.”

Respectfully, “Aye, Swicewise.”

Swicewise, his name. Continue reading

Fresh Water Sea part 1: Prayers From Hira

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2014
One story in three times. A survivor of the Great Flood talks to herself as she starves, a girl lives through the Cold War in a hospital bed, and in the present day a man tries to make conversation with his depressed daughter.

Part 2 HERE and Part 3 HERE

1

I have no other family left and I hate the silence, so I must speak to You.

Are You ready for the waters to assuage now, or are You waiting for me?

No answer.

I said a prayer when my parents died, and then again when my brother gave me his food and joined them. Did you hear that? It was our old chant for the passage of the dead. There were no words of my own in there. I said it while I bound their hard bodies in the empty chickenfeed sacking and laid them in the rainwater– the flood, whatever it is. It’s still a puddle, isn’t it? Big one. No fish. Not reached the surface. My mama said it was Your tears but there isn’t any salt, so.

I know You haven’t ever spoken to me before, but I still hope You will. There were so many of Your children before, and I was only a girl. Now there’s only me and You, isn’t there? I thought I might be special at first. Thought You might have chosen me. To be saved. Hurts my stomach to think of that.

2

Is this a punishment, Lord?

My mother didn’t believe it was. She said You loved us all and that decent people like my family would be saved: that was why You had led us to the boat. Its owner was dead I suppose. Did You starve us because we were thieves, then? Are we like Eve and we failed Your test? Or were we meant to drown like all the rest and finding this thing only prolonged our suffering? What is meant by this? Is it because people eat pork and mate with mistresses?

Sometimes I still see the piles of cattle and peasants who didn’t sink. The birds of the air used to peck at them when it was still raining, but they’re all gone now. Did they displease You?

If You’re going to kill me might it please come quickly? I feel like I’m waiting for lightning.

Is this a punishment or could You just not think of a better way?

I’m sorry Father. It’s so hard to put what I mean into words. Please. Can you hear my thoughts?

3

Dear Father, forgive me for making You wait. I began to weep again. Did you hear that? It seems shameful to me. I am not a man, but I am not an infant either. You gave speech to men and their sons and daughters, yet sometimes I bleat like an ass. I hate it. But in a stupid way it does make me feel at peace.

This isn’t important.

I don’t know what it is that I want to say to You. Do you understand?

Lord God please give me a sign. Will you please just–

No, of course.

4

I nearly forget what the ground used to look like. I miss the colours mostly. Do You remember them? Grass and earth. I even miss the clouds.

Now all I see is blue, twice: two great big sheets of blue and the sun or the moon in one corner of them both. When I look up can You see my eyes, ah? Or if I look down can You see them on the water? Here–

I’m sorry. I know that doesn’t make any sense. Sometimes I say things and I laugh and I don’t know why. I might just be hungry. I’ve gnawed on these chickenbone splinters so much today, most of them are stuck in my teeth. Poor chickens.

Ha ha.

I wonder how many people are under the water.

It would hurt too much to climb over to the edge of the deck and look. If I put my head under, could I see them? Ha ha ha.

5

Can You hear me? It’s Kala-Hira-daughter-of-Lam. Can You hear me? I’m praying! I’ll wave at You, all right? I can’t shout any more. Do You see? Here on the little riverboat! It’s me!

Are You still up there or are you tired of watching?

No answer?

I don’t blame You. If I were in the Kingdom of Heaven I wouldn’t want to look down here either. Hmm. They always said it was beautiful. Is that why You drowned them all, Lord? Are they with You now? I haven’t seen any bodies in a long time.

I can’t remember what I was saying.

Are there any fish yet?

Dear God, it hurts to move now. Wait a minute. Don’t listen. I’m going to try to get up so I can look.

Don’t listen to this.

There. I’m sorry. I cursed. I didn’t mean it.

Another step now. Here we go. No–

I’m weeping again. Please, just ignore it. I fell. I need to pull myself across the deck. Fingertips in the cracks.

Almost.

God, my stomach hurts. Please help me.

Almost.

Two blues, reflections, deep and light. I want to look deeper. Lift me up.

Oh! There. Hold the– good. Wonderful. Can You see me? Are You up there, or down there? Here. Breathe. Let me look over the prow.

I

God hold me up!

Continue to part 2

Fresh Water Sea part 2: Beverley’s Diary, March 1971

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2014
One story in three times. A survivor of the Great Flood talks to herself as she starves, a girl lives through the Cold War in a hospital bed, and in the present day a man tries to make conversation with his depressed daughter.

Part 1 HERE and Part 3 HERE

1

Every night I dream silly little adventure films about earthquakes, comets, plagues, bombs of course, & a lot of floods. There are always lonely heroines, sometimes with my face, sometimes not. Sometimes I can look through their eyes & sometimes I’m like an American director, just trying to control what I see happening to them. I wake up feeling weak. Disappointed.

The nurses suggested I should keep a diary. They make me move around the room every day, try to get me to speak. This feels different though. Look at all this. They wouldn’t recognise the voice I’m writing with!! Already more words on this paper than I get through aloud in a week. This is actually quite nice. Plenty of paper – – maybe I could write down some of the dreams if my arm is up to it. Later.

The Doctor Carnegie book is not helping. I hope they don’t want to read this rubbish.

You would think I’d get sick of this ceiling, but no. 2 months.

Can hear someone putting his ear to the door. Scratch scratch scratch. Yes, still breathing. Please don’t come in.

2

I should never have read that bloody Bible! Started to go through it the other day when I felt a bit more active and went through drawers. Don’t know what else to do when I start looking for answers. I miss my records – – I could usually find something in them. Always go to sleep feeling like a failure. Bible – – got about halfway into Genesis. Looking again now. Surprisingly miserable stuff.

Lots of end-of-the-world. I remember when my Dad suddenly wanted to go to church during the Cuban crisis. I had no idea what was going on but I remember how frightened I was by the service. Him sat there on the pew, clenching it with his legs, looking at the ceiling like one of the struts was about to snap.

Could still happen, any day now. Could happen right now.

Right now. I know it’s not a good idea to think that.

I actually slept with the lights on last night, & worse, it helped.

3

I thought I was getting better. I was moving around and writing. I was talking to the nurses a bit, even thinking about talking to parents. Now it’s all sleep & tears. God I hate this. Don’t know what to write that won’t make me sound like a lovesick bloody thirteen-year-old. I wake up & cry.

I, I, I.

I will now humour the latest chapter of the self-help book.

Exercise – what would you like to see changed in your life?

Yes, everything. I want something to happen. Fall in love before the dust sticks me to the shelf. Get out of this bloody place before I end up here forever. My parents survived a world war but I’m the one hospitalised – – and by nerves. Like shell shock but no shell. Just fear. Bedsores. I know it’s not laziness, I know that, but I don’t get up. I just lie here & I don’t get up. I could do but then what? How do you start again after this kind of disgrace?

Honestly I wish somebody would read these!

I had a thought about sneaking out at night & doing it in the river. The old stones-sewn-into-the-dress routine. For a minute it seemed like a wonderful idea, but window is locked. It still comes & it fades away like that. Felt my mouth twitching at first – – a rush of air through my neck. Very easy breath. The sort of feeling I used to get when I was little & I had something nice to anticipate. Christmas morning.

Hey mum & dad, do me a favour and have the nurses sneak in and take these papers away – – and then read them.

I see a red door and I want to paint it black. No colours anymore I want
I don’t think this is helping at all.

4

I’ll tell you what I think (been in the Bible again). I think Heaven is under the sea. They said on the TV that most of the ocean has never been explored – – we don’t know what’s down there.

Now we know there’s no paradise above the clouds. We’ve been up there + there was only the moon so unless it’s on Mars or Jupiter or something then it must be underwater. I haven’t found the part of the Bible where it says Heaven is up in the sky and all the angels wear white dresses and play harps!

I think it’s undersea. When you’re dead you sink beneath the waves + everyone is there.

That’s why sailors in olden times used to come back to port with tales of mermaids. They had seen people’s immortal souls under the surface of the water. They’d seen ghosts that had made their way back to the water. Maybe when we die we drip away into the rivers + into the clouds + end up back where we belong.

Angels with fluffy pillow white wings in space!! We know that isn’t possible. But they could swim? Once the lungs are empty they could be graceful swimmers. Weightless + lithe. Rivers are the hands that carry us out there + til then we sit at the banks waiting for the water around us to grow. Wait to slip through the cracks / into the blue.

I hope that’s the way it is. I wonder if the City of Atlantis is at the bottom! You have to sink like a stone before you start swimming!!

Nurses / next of kin – – sorry for making you pore over all this lunatic shit.

5

I know it’s been a while. I’m not sure what to say. I feel very different. & too suddenly. Scared to put it on paper in case it turns out to be imagination.

Dad came in. Said he had been outside the door lots of times. Talked. Not sure what he said that was so important, but something apparently was. Got out of bed, walked to door.

I remember going to Starkey Pond when I was a child. I have a very fond memory of me & the parents making lots of little paper boats, dropping them in the brook and then running with them, watching them race down all as one, prodding them a bit if need be.

Seeing the pond with all of them on it, the slab of rock in the middle like an island & the bullrushes all round. Just a lovely memory. Dad must have brought all that paper with him specially. Always made me think it was my idea and I was talking him into it! Just noticed. When I’m home, would like to go back there.

Will talk to mum next time. Maybe call Sue after, talk to her. Not yet. Maybe a week. Don’t know. Never thought about this.

Been writing.

Continue to part 3

Fresh Water Sea part 3: Roy at King’s Cottage

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2014
One story in three times. A survivor of the Great Flood talks to herself as she starves, a girl lives through the Cold War in a hospital bed, and in the present day a man tries to make conversation with his depressed daughter.

Part 1 HERE and Part 2 HERE

1

Driving our Katie up to Edinburgh is a lot less of a treat than it used to be. When we took her up on holidays, it was special. Her eyes lighting up and that. I bet mine did too. I think secretly we both felt guilty for never taking her abroad, but money was tight and she loved the bagpipes and the castle. This time, the first time this century, the trip could hardly seem more different. Her in the back seat like always, but her mum’s not there. The dog’s not there. And our holiday home is mine now. Less special.
Of course there was no sun on the drive up, but the rain seemed to be actively following us up the motorway, usually a mile or so in front, sometimes dropping back for ten minutes when it really wanted to take the Michael.
I’d hoped it would stay in England and Wales. Some half-decent weather would do wonders for Katie. Evidently it’s not to be.

When we arrive at King’s there’s been no change, but at least we’re forced to animate ourselves for a sec. Seeing Katie shuffle about under the rain and meet my eyes, urging me to find the keys in my pocket, almost makes me not want to find them. She’s depending on me, eh. Sort of. Nice to see her irritated, not just vacant.

But the stuff’s seeping in at the back of my shirt. I open the door, let her in.

I think to tell her where to hang her coat, offer her a hot drink, but I’m distracted. I have to ask the question.
And I know from experience that there’s nothing worse a person can say to Katie now than, Have you had your pill today? I’ve never said it, but I’ve seen her face when her mother does. Christ alone knows what that face is supposed to convey, or to hide maybes. But whatever it is, it’s a bit fierce. The sort of thing you’re not supposed to see in your daughter’s eyes, I’m sure.

Sometimes when I drive South to visit them, I sneak a peek at her pills box to see if she’s had her dose. If there’s one more empty blister in the strip then I mutter it to her mum and the whole business doesn’t have to be brought up. I always think – am I doing her a favour, or just making her even more tense? Does she just spend her day wondering when the hammer’s going to drop?

But there’s none of that from today on. I’ve been told. And I’ve re-phrased the question twenty-odd times in the rear-view mirror. Katie love, you’ve had your pill now, aye? Easy going, you know. Good cop. Or, Don’t miss your pill now, girl. Voice of authority. Bit of trust.

Katie catches me by the kettle while I’m going on to myself, so I made a little gesture with my hands: the old shaky cup. She nods, so I make a letter C with the fingers of one hand, and then a capital T with them both. She almost laughs, I bet I smile too. Don’t say owt.

“Coffee,” she says. Softly. Helplessly. Like a kid again. Like Hamlet at the bloody wedding reception. I hate to think it, but that voice she’s learned doesn’t half annoy me. Maybe while she’s living with me I can knock that little habit out of her.

I find her in the living room, curled into a corner of the couch like the rest of the furniture’s giving her a funny look. She used to love this little house. We all did, back in the day. I never stopped. I give her the coffee, sit mine down by my armchair and sigh. She has her face on her still.

Her mam has kept me updated on Katie’s illness on the phone, and I’ve seen it get worse on my visits. It’s been going on for a good long while, since before she lost her job, and her flat and that bloke she liked so much. Slipping away. I’ve been watching, giving her a meaningful look every now and again while I try to think of something to say to her. Might never happen isn’t really going to cut it, as they say. Her face looks, sort of, baggy. She sleeps funny hours, doesn’t want to eat, doesn’t want to do anything except stare at a wall and sigh. And sometimes mutter things that go well and truly over my head. It was a case of, spend some time with me or back to hospital.

Poor Beverley’s looking at this as a break for herself, and that’s not hard for me to understand. I feel lousy for thinking it, but this is hard work.

She says Katie just needs her dad. I trust her, anyway.

“I hope the rain isn’t getting worse for mum,” the lass mutters to a cushion.

That’s the longest sentence I’ve heard from her in a long while. I’m proud. I nod.

“She’ll be all right, yeah.”

Then after a moment I put in, “It’ll be fine”. She just closes her eyes.

2

The evening trundles, like they do, and we watch the news. They’re running vox-pops to fill the time between updates. Every channel seems to have been allotted extra news breaks to stay up to date with the weather, even though to my mind there’s never really anything to say except it’s getting worse. Today it’s Birmingham, because the water is still only ankle-deep and presumably the BBC’s budget for hiring ‘amphibious vehicles’ is running out. They won’t stay there long: city’ll be flooded in a day or so. They don’t show us much of Europe but apparently they’re having the worst of it. Amsterdam’s basically just gone now.

Our Katie’s staring dead ahead at the screen as the reporter asks some bloke on the high street, “What do you think the future holds for the city?” Bloody stupid question to ask. The weather men don’t know, so why should this fella?

He says something sensible about the sandbag shortage, so they move to a frightened lass with a baby.

The last one is an old lady – probably just a bit older than me, but dressed like a proper old lady. “It’s the beginning of the end, isn’t it?” she says, not joking, bless her, glancing at the sky with a stern look on her face like Terry Jones in his old woman get-up. “God’s punishing us, isn’t He?” Tone of voice makes it sound matter of fact.

Katie’s nodding. I see her from my armchair but I don’t know what to say to this. She’s never been a religious type. We didn’t even made her go to Sunday school.

I snort a bit. Katie moves her head towards me, but her eyes stay where they are.

“Daft,” I say. And the newsman is asking other people about the end times, most of whom laugh.

Katie looks at me properly, a bit hurt. As though I’ve just insulted her.

“…ridiculous,” I say. I thought I said Don’t be first, but I think I only mouthed it.

The girl – the woman, she is now, despite the way she’s acting – wraps her arms around her legs and pushes her knees into the tops of her cheeks. Looks like a little Basset hound alone in its owner’s house, up against a window.

Probably too late now, but perhaps she shouldn’t be watching this. The news about the rain is a little bit disturbing, it has to be said. It can’t be good for her behaviour. Illness. For her illness. I’m still coming round to that – but there is medication for it, and I believe she is trying. It’s depression, and it’s an illness.

She’s sat right next to a big wet bloody window so I can’t exactly get her to forget about the news altogether, but I suppose I can switch off this hysteria.

“Some more people drowned in Cornwall,” she says, the moment it goes quiet. And her voice is a bit less helpless, a bit like she used to be. Just a bit. “Dad?”

I’m saying something like, “Shall we see if there’s a film on, eh? Or put on a DVD or something if you, you know. You brought some with you.”

“There were photos of missing children. Ten-to-twelve year-olds, their school photos. It’s not right.”

Well of course it isn’t.

“Honestly, I–” she starts to say it, then lets her voice drift off, curls up a bit more into the chair. “Wish I could–” she’s starting again. I can see where it’s going but I won’t think about it. She says it: “Wish it could be me instead of them.”

Right.

Why would she even think of that? What a stupid thing to say. It’s not like there’s some sort of bloody choice! Who is she trying to bargain with? And does she honestly not know how that makes me feel, to hear my daughter saying that? It’s disrespectful to the people who are dead, even.

Cheeks are getting hot. I’m just angry. I could have slapped some sense into her, in another time. My dad would have. Certainly you can’t do that sort of thing to your kids now. I don’t really want to. But what’s making her say that?

It’s just some bleedin’ rain! How are you supposed to make someone like this understand that everything’s going to be fine?

She’s looking at me. Looks upset.

I’m not going to listen to this. So I’m out the room. The door to my art studio actually slams, but I don’t think I meant it to.

3

That night I’m asleep and then, bit by bit, a funny sound gets me up. Takes a good ten minutes to make my eyes open, and another five or so before my brain is actually getting in gear and I can pay attention to this noise. Shrill, it is.

My old arms and legs aren’t for moving just yet. They’re like lines of bricks. I like ‘em that way. It’s muggy under the covers but there’s enough cold air on my face. The noise is coming through the wall to the spare room.

Crying. Whimpering, more like.

Blink. Someone’s crying. Katie’s crying. Spare room.

I feel my knees lock up.

And this isn’t the sort of crying you’d expect from a twenty-six year-old woman. I haven’t ever heard someone cry like that on television, even. She’s just making noises. Throaty, long, wet noises, weird groans. And no evidence of her trying to stop herself. Louder every time.

I know I’m supposed to get up, but, well. I’m not ready. I haven’t moved my tongue yet.

Louder, until it’s ridiculous. She must know this is going to wake me up. Silence.

A minute goes by. I’m swishing my tongue about, blinking more. Breathing very deeply. Twitching my toes. Think I might rub my eyes.

It starts again. Quiet but rising every time. Horrible noise.

She’s doing it deliberately, I think. She wants me to go to her.

And this is how she asks for it? By lying there and making noises like a sea lion?

Some words get thrown in. Why, No and Can’t. She’s shrieking them, distorting her voice like she’s trying to sound like the bloody Exorcist.

Why can’t she just get up and knock on the door? Ask me, like a civilised – like a person if she wants me for something?

My face is itching. I pull off my bedclothes and lay there in my scrunched-up boxer shorts for a moment and let her build to another crescendo.

So how long was doing this before she got me up? In the middle of the night. Honestly. It’s pathetic, I think.

And that word makes me feel a little bit better. She’s being pathetic. It’s beneath her. A year ago, Katie was a teacher. Is this how she called for attention at work? What do I do, indulge her? I don’t want her to make a habit of this. She was supposed to be improving.

Just can’t do it!” As loud as she dares.

This is not the way I raised her.

Obviously I have to go to her. I know that. What if she tries to do something terrible again and I ignore it? Is there anything sharp in that room? Nothing suspicious in her luggage, anyway. No stockpiles of medicine in the cottage, just half a packet of ibuprofen.

I have to go, I know.

But I wait through another round of her braying. I have to get dressed, for one thing. I imagine myself stomping about and her hearing it, waiting for me. Am I supposed to pretend she hasn’t woke me, or that I was just passing when I suddenly noticed her, or what? Surely she’d be embarrassed.

She’s off again.

She’s getting louder, giving out more pathetic, ugly noises. I’m tiptoeing. Wondering what to say first when I get to her door.

She just wants attention, I think. If I were properly awake I could scream at myself.

A new noise and then the sound of blowing snot. A bit of a whimper while she, presumably, wipes her nose.

She doesn’t start again. Goes quiet. I unclench my hands, lie back down, facing the door, all my weight on my arm, and I wait there until I hear her snore. My eyes don’t close all night.

4

The morning comes and we get the day going. She sort of staggers out to the kitchen at one point and then comes back, water dripping off her chin and two lumps of her hair wetted together. Her eyes are red and her skin is shining. I’m thinking there’s days of wax and muck on her and she’s agitated the surface of it.

For the sake of something to say I try, “Been washing your face?” Sounds stupid. She just says yes and wipes herself with a sleeve. Then she slowly, slowly gets back in the chair, back into position.

She seems to have taken to staring at her laptop instead of the telly. It makes a welcome break and it’s nice to see her moving more than once every three hours, even if it’s just the fingers. But the look on her face – she’s staring right into that screen. Little furrow above her nose, just sat there all unattended to. Staring. Christ alone knows what she’s looking for.

I make us both a hot drink, give her a coffee, and she looks daggers at it. Then it happens: she just puts the cup down hard and starts yelling, or rather croaking, loud as she can manage. I don’t know what to do. I’m so fucked up and I don’t know what to do.

She’s never swore at me before. It shocks me, honestly. I sometimes swear privately or with mates, and I’ve always assumed she must do the same, a young woman in this day and age. But I never thought to hear her swearing atme.

She keeps saying it. That she’s ‘fucked up’.

I get up, don’t go over to her but I give her a look. “No you aren’t!” I say. “Why would you say that?”

“I don’t feel safe here. Let’s go out.”

I’m gazing at her, trying to work out what that means. She isn’t meeting my eyes.

Well, there’s just nothing I have to say. She’s hardly fit for it and she’d catch her death out there before we reached the car.

I ask what she’s on about, but whatever spark was in her is all gone. Now I do potter over. As soon as I’m close enough, her fist flops out from the lump of her and lands on my chest. This is the meekest punch I’ve ever seen, let alone taken. I don’t know how to describe her face.

She mewls, and she punches me, again and again. Every one of them pushes her backwards an inch, and she’s whimpering at me. I don’t say anything. I don’t move. And then she says something very quiet, along the lines of, You only care about me when I’m fucked up.

Eventually, she goes quiet. I take the phone to my studio and call Beverley. I’m shaking here.

There’s the pick-up-muffling; she hasn’t replaced our old phone. “Hello?”

“Hiya,” I say, not thinking. And there’s that awkward pause that we’ve had to deal with for nigh on a decade now. “It’s Roy.”

There’s something very sad about ringing what used to be my home number, my marital home, and having to do that.

We get talking. Bev sounds pretty upbeat, which is nice to hear. “How are things there?” That’s a big question.

I look through the window of my studio, suspiciously, as though Katie might be outside with a glass against the door. “A lot like you said,” I tell Beverley. “It’s not easy, you know, seeing her like this.”

“No, it’s not,” she says. Voice of God. “I know.” I don’t get that, but she does seem to understand the girl’s behaviour as well as anyone can. Her illness.

“Right. I’m only ringing because, well, she’s throwing a bit of a wobbler.” Suddenly it seems like a silly word to use, but neither of us is laughing. “This morning, she’s been acting a bit strange. She hit me. Not hard, you know, but.” I cringe at my drawing table while I try to describe the fucked-up bit to her mother.

“Is she still agitated like that?”

I tell her no. “She lost all her energy. I stuck it out.” Immediately I think about last night. I should have gone to her and let her cry all she wanted, shouldn’t I? Seems very obvious all of a sudden. But the girl couldn’t have heard me fidgeting, so she couldn’t have known I was awake. I didn’t make a sound.

“Yesterday she said she wished she had drowned, or something like that.”

“Try not to be angry at her,” Bev says. She’s not at all shocked. “Honestly, I think the thing with Katie is that she’s angry enough at herself. She doesn’t likebeing like this, you understand?” I think about it. “Drowned, ah. It’s all quite normal.”

“What is?”

She says, “What you’re describing.”

I say, “Oh.”

“Has she had bad dreams?”

“I don’t bloody know.”

We make small talk for a couple of minutes but neither of us tries to keep it going too long. I should go back and have a look at Katie. Beverley tells me not to worry too much. Our girl needs some time with her dad at the moment, she says, she’s sure. She needs to be close to me. It will come in time. And make sure she has her pills every day.

As the receiver comes down it strikes me again. My belly feels light, sickly.

You only care when I’m fucked up.

Where did that one even come from?

I’ve never thought she resented me for the divorce. Not for a minute.

I have a little memory of taking little Katie down to Starkey’s to tell her. She was sixteen. The place had always been special to the three of us, but that day I noticed how overgrown is had gotten. Probably still is. And all of a sudden it just seemed like a bad place to bring it up. So I took her home and Bev broke the news in the kitchen.

Anyway. Getting a bit wet on the few steps from the studio to the kitchen. I shake my grey old hair like a dog as I come in and get straight back to the living room. There’s the patient: same jumper as yesterday, maybe the same trousers, it’s hard to say. Hair still a mess. Just staring at that laptop. I take a few steps, put a hand on her chair.

Ask if she’s all right.

“Yes,” she says, glancing at me, but she doesn’t sound it. She has that pathetic little girl voice on. The dying swan act. After a second, “Sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

My hand goes to her shoulder. It’s bigger than I remember.

And she stinks. She isn’t bathing, then? Is that normal now too? Hm.

“No problem,” I say. And since I already feel like I’m lying to her, I might as well throw in, “I understand.”

“They’re evacuating Birmingham,” she tells me. “Lots of missing people.”

I rub her shoulder, turn away.

Then I hear the chair creak.

5

She stands up, or tries to, in a heartbeat. I can see her skinny, skewed little legs – they’re weak from her months sat on chairs – giving way before she even puts her weight down. I’m moving as quick as I can but it’s not quite fast enough. I have to watch her fall, knowing exactly how it’s going to happen. There. Face first, her feet slamming up into the table, her right arm squashed under her and the left knocking her laptop over on top of her. It all plays out while my arms are stretching out. When I get my hand to her head, she’s crying again. Loud.

She wails something high-pitched that might be I can’t even get up in between her odd, sort-of-angry mewls. I think, there’s going to be a nasty lump on that forehead.

And I pull her up with as much gentle encouragement as I can, doing all the work, back onto her chair. The laptop’s still resting on its side, where it landed with a bang. Crying, slumped into herself. I have to hold her chin up just to see her bruising.

When I’m ready I try holding her hand. And yes, she meets my eyes and squeezes back, barely enough power to press into the folds of my skin. You can imagine how I feel.

The tears are still coming, and she says daft things about the floods, at first with my hand holding onto hers, and then with an arm all the way around and her head on my chest. I actually lose track of time.

I’m stroking her straw-coloured hair and thinking about kissing it, then I ask her, “Have you been having your pills?” There.

Said it. I’m actually shaking now. I could laugh.

I’d like to say that the words just came to me or that now I’m surprised to hear them aloud in my voice, but it’d be bull. I had to try to say it, and I said it. I saidit. She nods, slowly, in her way, and I believe her. I say, “It looks like they aren’t helping very much, love,” and she holds me a bit tighter.

I barely remember what it felt like to enjoy Katie’s company. This isn’t that, but it’s close. I lift her head so I can see the green in the middle of her mum’s chocolatey eyes.

“Birmingham’s gone for good,” she says, distant all of a sudden, and she lets go, shrinks right back into a ball. I was prepared for that; Bev told me that sometimes there are moments when she seems better, but then she’ll be ‘gone’ again. But those moments all count, she says. They’ll come.

I shouldn’t have let her watch the news.

Ey. As usual, there’s a gap in the conversation here that I have to fill. “Don’t be daft,” I tell her, in the kindest possible way. It’s all I could think to say, really, but Christ I meant it. More crying. I say, “I don’t really know what to do.” She goes very still. I try a bit more: “Sometimes when you’re talking to me now,” I say, “I haven’t got a clue what you mean.” Seems to like that.

And she says, “We’ll all be underwater– ”

“Ssh.”

Katie lifts her head like it’s an anvil and looks at the wall instead of my shirt. I don’t try to meet her eyes. She says, “I need a bath,” and her leg twitches. Slowly slowly. Catchy monkey.

She’s not wrong, bless her. She probably needs a lot more than a bath, but it’s a decent start.

For a second I wonder if I ought to actually help her into the tub. I mean it’d be awkward for us both, but manageable, surely. Maybe I should even stay inside and watch her, just in case she slips under– or eh, maybe I’m just panicking.

I help her up, piece by piece, slow as she goes. I even fancy that the more I help, the harder she pushes herself. First the one leg on the floor, pressing the toes down to stop her socks slipping, then an elbow bent, and a hand, levering her. The other leg, there, a bit shaky. Her expression looks as empty as ever, but there’s a sort of determination here. I want to smile but the moment hardly seems right.

The corridor then. “Short steps,” I say, hoping that’s good advice, the right thing to say. And I stand behind her with my hands ready. There’s actually something weirdly satisfying about watching over a grown woman to make sure she puts one mucky foot in front of the other – and seeing that she does, every time.

Next step. Not too quick. Good.

Aye, aye. Breathe for a second.

And I follow my daughter to the bathroom, hold her shoulder while she drags the handle with all her might, looking at it with her mouth half-open. If there’s a way to communicate I’m proud of you by holding someone’s shoulder in a particular way, or to let go in a way that says Everything’s all right then believe me, no-one has put more effort into finding it.

She’s in. The door bats at the frame and then the handle squeezes even more softly from the other side. I push it down with a finger, just a bit of pressure, so as to not make her feel weak, until it’s closed. After a little while I hear the tap turn and start pouring. There’s some sniffling, some low sound from her throat, a moment of sobbing.

For a second I’m even looking forward to the future. Once spring finally gets going, well, maybe that’ll cheer her up. The weather does things to you, they always say. And eventually one of her doctors is going to find the right kind of therapy for her and she’ll start really working hard, and I’ll see her get back to her old self.

I hear her splashing a finger to test the temperature, then sinking in. Then nothing at all.

Out of nowhere, my eyes are stinging and my neck is tight, smasming, as though I’m stifling a yawn. Come to think of it, I’ve not slept. I almost forgot I was retired for a minute! And I haven’t painted or sketched a dot since she arrived.

And now I’m thinking, would she want me waiting outside like this? Perhaps I should give her a bit of time alone. Maybe make some of those raisin buns she used to like. It’ll be nice for her to smell something sweet when she’s finished.

Sob Story

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2013
The winner of Pop Hero, Britain’s first reality TV singing show, now collects tram tickets. When she bumps into former head judge Bastard Bryan, she is silent.

The night time outer-city tram passengers are the usual mix for a Friday. In every carriage there are a few smart men looking worse for wear after a long day, more and more uncomfortable in their suits. At the front there are a few silent young lads, in the middle there are one or two huddled middle-aged women, and the footie fans are boarding now at the back. All big men, those. They didn’t win, which is great because it means they might just keep their gobs shut and save all that pent-up energy for the next match day.

Max Stein is collecting tickets. She has been doing for a few years now. She enjoys it. And then she sees: Bryan Hollister is there. Bastard Bryan. Right at the end of the last carriage, on the last tram of the night, reading the free paper. He hasn’t changed a bit. He must dye it.

Max feels the roof of her mouth complain about how hard her tongue is pressing it, and when she pulls away the ache is still there. The people in the last carriage can go without getting their tickets checked. He’s never going as far as Bury. And if he is, then she can keep busy in the other carriages.

She’s still watching him.

Besses station, coming up in a minute or so. It’s too dark outside to see how far the tram has gone since Prestwich, but Max doesn’t need to look nowadays. She can feel the way the floor moves under her feet. When the tram is fast it’s taught, pulling one way hard, but when it starts to slow there’s that jolt just before they start swaying, that most people never notice and the regulars don’t notice that they notice. But Max always sees their heads point forwards and their eyes blink fast, as though the jolt has loosened the joints holding-in their necks and faces. Or else their books close, phones get lowered. And after that, as they approach, the people who are getting off always go with the sway.

No-one is swaying now, but it feels like they’re nearly ready. Normally by now she would have finished checking the–

The jolt. There we go.

Bastard still isn’t moving. Maybe he’s just one of those people who thinks they’re too cool for the jolt and waits for the tram to stop before they get moving. Or maybe he’s going all the way to Bury after all.

Max looks at him, remembers the old times and forgets about the sway for a moment.

She’ll be fucked if any of those footie lads get away without paying their fare. She hits a button, steps through the doors and calls, “Tickets please.”

A young bloke in the corner who Max hadn’t noticed raises his ticket immediately, and she inspects it, nods. The guys in the baby blue Man City shirts take a bit longer to find theirs, but Max spends the time staring at the front page of that free paper. When she reaches it she has to ask again. A little firmer. “Tickets please.”

Bastard drops the Metro below his eye-level and raises his eyebrows a tiny bit. He sees Max’s hair first, then her face, then her name badge. He just says, “Maxine?

A breath. “They made me use the full name, yeah.” For a moment she just looks at him. Bryan’s face is unreadable. There is a familiar long squeak of brakes as the carriage comes to a close. The doors open and nobody boards.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the Pop Hero herself,” Bastard jokes, remembering the moment when she had won: when Channel 5 had topped the ratings for the first and last time, and Saturday night television first fell in love with its life partner, the phone-vote talent show. Max had been slimmer, tighter and softer, pretty in an odd way with a punky, shocking-blue haircut and a powerful voice. That night, she was incredible. Didn’t cry, didn’t scream, just belted out her debut single for the first time. Bastard seems to be laughing at her now. The grey bristles around his mouth are lighting up. The tram is in motion again.

“Ticket?”

Bastard is looking at the bulky, scuffed steel printer hanging by a florescent strap from Max’s shoulder. His gentle Edinburgh lilt mutters, “Oh, eh. I don’t have one. You’ve got me!” and he raises his hands, still chuckling.

For a second Max doesn’t react and she notices her fingers tapping too lightly on buttons, pretending to do something. “The standard fare is a hundred pounds for passengers without a valid ticket,” she says. The words are not her own, but the tone of voice is. She’s not worried about sounding silly. She has had this conversation many times and she always comes out on top. “It will be automatically reduced to fifty pounds if you pay within fourteen days.”

Bastard’s hands are down. “You know,” he says, “I never really wondered what happened to you. This is about right though. Trolley dolley.” It’s actually Passenger Service Representative.

“I wondered about you,” Max replies. “Didn’t see you judging on Pop Stars, or Pop Idol or X-Factor, any of that. I saw Nasty Nick, Scary Simon, Gary Barlow, whatever they call him. I don’t watch it.”

“But no Bullyboy Bryan, eh, not after the first series. You still think of me like that, do you? Bullyboy?” He looks as if he’s trying to intimidate, but then again he always did.

Max holds his gaze and privately notices that he blinks more than she does. “Something like that, yeah,” she says. He never knew what the contestants had called him off-camera. “What have you been doing since then?”

Bryan’s answer is dismissive. “Ten years of publishing. But let me guess about you! I reckon youuuu,” and he holds the last syllable, gleefully cocking his head, surveying Max’s face, “made a second album with a smaller studio, refused to promote it because you thought the music would sell itself, then when it went under you refused to leave London ‘til your money was slowly pissed away with nothing to show for it,” he pauses, “came back a nobody again, took this gig, stopped singing altogether. Nice little terrace, civil partner who lets you be the butch one so long as you buy her flowers sometimes? Something like that?”

Max had been a kid when Pop Hero was broadcast. Barely out of school. “I won,” she replies, in a voice that seems to warn of impending disaster. “And I won because I was the best, despite everything you tried to do to discredit me.”

“I just voted against you, love. ‘S all I did.”

The same voice. “The fuck it is.” He seems to be chuckling to himself again but the sway beneath her shoes distracts her. The tram will be pulling into Whitefield now. She hasn’t checked anybody since the last stop, but that’s fine. She’s dealing with an abusive passenger. An abusive passenger without a ticket. Something is stopping her just charging him the maximum fine right now. It would be a bit weird, she thinks. He’s a celebrity. Used to be.

Bastard has been waiting for her to finish thinking. The way his thin lips are ratcheted up on one side asks, ready yet? “It isn’t actually my fault that nobody bought your record, Maxine,” he says quietly. “Me and Pete Waterman didn’t have that much power. I could work miracles, but I couldn’t actually force people to pay top price for nine tracks of–”

Max interrupts, far too loud. “It’s your fault it was so fucking short! You and your Christmas number-fucking-one!”

“Nine tracks,” he continues patiently while the doors open to Whitefield’s cold air and black sky, closing just as quickly, “of a throaty-voiced angry teenage girl scratching out folksy songs with no hook that she’d written in her mum’s garage and refused to change.”

Max’s fingers are pretending to type again, but this time she doesn’t notice it. “And I suppose it wasn’t your fault the company dropped me in February?” Bastard just snickers at that one.

The ongoing drama between Pop Hero‘s head judge and its most unusual contestant had brought in a lot of viewers and helped a great deal to popularise the show through tabloid gossip sand word of mouth. Max Stein, the plucky young girl with the sharp eyes and the stuck-up short hair, had refused to be put down or patronised by Bullyboy Bryan. Where the other young contestants had cried, buckled and walked away from the show one by one, Max had always, always argued back. The audience loved her. They loved her quirky style, the effortless strength of her singing, and her insistence on playing piano, acoustic guitar and banjo on the show. And that classic moment in the semi-finals when the Bullyboy had pointed his finger and told her how this sort of stuff would never sell on the high street so why was she here, and she had just shrugged and left the stage to a monsoon of applause.

They’d loved that.

A thought occurs to Max. She hasn’t ever been this close to him. Back in the day they hadn’t spoken face to face unless they were being filmed and one was on stage and the other was behind his desk.

There’s a sound behind her ear now. Jeering. Max’s head spins before she can think and sees exactly what she expected: more big men from the football, just boarded and having a go. Slurred grunts that are halfway between a threat and a laugh. The victim is either a Preston North End fan who shouldn’t be travelling alone, or just some idiot wearing red. But she blinks and realises the meaty faces are pointed right at her. It’s Bastard they’re jeering at.

They recognise him? Or else they just don’t like Scots? Max thinks about it for longer than she should, wondering if Bastard is scared, wondering if it was okay to like that, until she gets hold of herself. She has only wasted a second, but she knows how pink her cheeks are.

As always it doesn’t take much to scatter the lads. Max knows very well that if you scream “Oy!”, get the voice right, lurch forward all confident and stare them right down with your eyes steady, you can put the frighteners on any old bunch of dickheads, no matter how short and plump and female you are. On the way back they’ll tell themselves that they would have shouted her back or slapped her down but they’re too honourable to hit a woman or whatever, and then they’ll hope to run into an Asian bloke on the way home. In any case, they’re moving back. The new arrivals are migrating to the next carriage and the others are murmuring amongst themselves.

Max’s eyes don’t meet Bastard’s again when she looks over to him. He’s looking out of the window at the rows of orange dots that make up Greater Manchester by night. “Will Young the Pop Idol does musicals or something,” he offers half-heartedly. “You could do that. You won before him.”

“I was the first,” Max replies immediately, then, “I don’t do musicals.”

“Oh yeah. I remember you getting very stroppy when we did Abba Week on the show. Everyone loved Abba. I thought you’d get voted out for sure.” Max says nothing. She remembers it being a tough one. But she had gotten through to Queen Week, and Swing Week, and made the best of those too.

But there’s no time to argue about any of that now. Max is expecting to feel the tram slowing for Radcliffe station any time now, and then Bury is the end of the line. Still watching him, she decides to just open her mouth and see if she’ll feel any less pissed off when it’s closed. “I was a bit up myself in those days, yeah?” she hears herself say, and she’s not sure she agrees with it. “But I could have had a career.” And there’s the jolt. And the sway. “And it would have been decent.” Sway forward. Slower. “If you had just given me a fucking chance,” sway back, “and let me play some decent stuff,” and forward again, “I could have been a singer for a bit.”

Bastard still isn’t looking and still isn’t swaying. “Oh don’t give me that, sweetheart,” he says. “The one good thing about you was that you never wasted the judges’ time with any crap about poor-me or please-give-me-my-shot. That’s why I voted against the kid in the bloody wheelchair.”

“Fuck off.”

The swaying just goes on. The driver has hit the brake too early. Max hates that. Now everyone will be restless.

Bastard is still though. After a moment he says, “What about my hundred pound joyriding fee, eh? Going to get that over and done with, Frumpty-fucking-Dumpty, or are you just going to tell me off all night?”

She has to think about it, but in the end she tells him no. It feels cheap. Beneath her. And he would win if she did. “You probably can’t afford it anyway,” she says absently.

“No.” Bastard’s voice is strange but familiar. Cold. Max can barely remember when she’s heard him talk like that before, but she has. “No I probably can’t. Very good, aye. Might be a reason I’m skipping the Metrolink fare on my way back from a meeting in fucking Salford, mightn’t there?”

He turns and gives her a look, with the corners of his mouth all slack and hanging down, giving him the slightest of double chins. His suit is a bit crumpled.

“Might be a reason I haven’t been on telly since you fucked up the pop star product we spent a year trying to build,” he says, and then turns back to the window. “All so you could play your bloody banjo. I hope you really enjoyed your moment and all your blessed artistic integrity, you know?” he trails off, swaying a tiny bit now. Max is too. She has nothing to say, but she certainly doesn’t feel any better.

Bastard’s voice doesn’t regain its lustre. There’s no joy in there now when he insults her. “If you don’t charge me the hundred,” he’s saying, “then you’re wasting a nice little opportunity, lovey. Sell this one to The Sun. Tell ‘em how you of all people got me bang to rights and then scared off some Manc thugs and all. Has-Been Hero punches Bullyboy’s ticket, something like that? Little boost for you. It’ll get you a shot at I’m a Celebrity if you want it. I’d vote for you to eat a kangaroo’s balls, for sure.”

The sway is almost done. Max has to lean in to stay steady and Bryan has his hand on the window.

“What, are you trying to bribe me?” she asks, not sure exactly how it would work if he was.

Bryan laughs and pulls his coat around him. “No,” he says. “It’s a tip. Yours if you want to sell it to the tab of your choice and have a go. I won’t comment.”

Max looks at his eyes, gets nothing.

“So, am I getting fined or what?”

And the tram stops. Screeches, hisses. He hops off and into the black. Max Stein’s fingers are tapping too hard on the buttons of her ticket printer and when she accidentally makes it bleep she nearly jumps.

Nobody boards from Radcliffe’s freezing little concrete platform, but when the doors close Max remembers there are a few people up top who haven’t been checked and she only has one stop left to do it. You get a lot of troublemakers at this time of night.

Firmament

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2013
At a point in time when we no longer even count the date, a couple set out to visit the very edge of all things. They had nothing better to do.

The Observation Room of the space ship Ithacan 9 is white, rectangular and almost empty. There is a little furniture, there is a man named Joel and there is a window wall. Joel sits on a smooth white seat, made of a material you wouldn’t have heard of yet, and stares into space.

The view is obscured by what they call ‘shimmer’: just an optical illusion caused by Perfect Speed. It is possible to remove the effect in any of fifteen ways, from adjusting the shape of the windows, to adding buffers to the exterior hull, to tweaking the tiny panels implanted into Joel’s retinas, but the shimmer is still there. Most astronauts tend to leave it there, saying that they simply think it’s pretty. Joel is bored of it now, but then he got bored of motionless black years ago.

From outside the ship the shimmer is invisible, but to Joel the hull appears to be enveloped by a deep, layered purple substance, flapping about as if in the wind. It looks a little like there is a velvet theatre curtain behind the window, with stage hands bustling about behind it, disturbing it.

There is no emotion showing on Joel’s face, no particular thought going through his head. He’s just waiting.

In about thirty minutes the ship will drop back below Perfect and the shimmer will vanish. In the next few seconds it will drop below light speed, and then come to a stop. And Joel will be looking out of the window. There will be absolutely nothing to see, though, and the thought amuses him a little. He’s waiting, rapt, for the opportunity to look at nothing. He doesn’t smile, but he feels like he could if he wanted to. He’s almost in a trance here, just watching the shimmer and listening to his own thoughts. It’s actually not unpleasant.

There is a novelty to boredom. In any other place, any other situation, Joel could just access some form of entertainment and play it directly into his brain stem and hypothalamus. But right now he is remotely synched-up to recording equipment and it would be a little embarrassing to interrupt this historical document with a quick movie.

For him, for now, there are only white surfaces and the window wall. And the shimmer, while it lasts.

In half an hour there will be nothing to see behind that window, because the Ithacan is traveling to the absolute Edge of the Universe.

This will be the last great voyage of discovery. But to be perfectly honest, it probably won’t be so great.

*


The Universe is shaped much like early assumptions had it, but not quite: like a big, vinyl long-play record. As songs are heard on an expanding spiral groove, so too are people’s lives, for a few minutes of the play, and so too are planets’ orbits, and stars’ journeys around the centres of their galaxies. All of these galaxies move slowly around and away from a central point: an immense ring of burning and flying matter at the heart, which of course has its own heart in turn. Finally, at the very middle of that there is a large, large empty space, surrounded on all sides by a dense field of stars.

Reasonably-fast space travel was finally established at the start of the twenty-sixth century, the rest of which was spent in pursuit of the big empty space at the very centre of the Universe. Finally a pioneering woman named Ellen Dallas flew a massively expensive and barely-held-together shuttle into it in the year 2592. Viewing her recording, the people of Earth cooed and shook their heads, and wondered if there was anything inside the big LP’s hole that might tell us more about the Universe and the nature of things – the papers called it the search for a needle. Sadly a few hours later it became apparent that there was nothing there. It was a large, empty space. Humanity, as one, felt a bit silly and asked one-another what they had expected to see in all this time. Dallas retired the same day she returned and all production of spacefaring vessels was shut down by the end of the week.

In time there came the necessity for planets other than the Earth to be colonised, and the shipyards were rebuilt. People began landing on other planets in the Milky Way galaxy. Border disputes raged. Lives were lost. Technology improved. Robots became flawless, food became infinitely plentiful and the idea of a human workforce became archaic. One day the exploratory scientists formally estimated there was a 0.0001% chance of intelligent lifeforms existing on other worlds. The human species was alone and perfectly comfortable.

One day, so many centuries later that people barely counted the years any more, when everything in the Universe had been surveyed by the robots and nothing more interesting than a strange species of fish had been discovered, there was a big announcement.

A research group, essentially a group of hobbyists, was building a space ship. This ship would travel to the absolute Edge of the Universe: the farthest point from home of the farthest ring of the LP. The mission brief was extremely simple. The ship would travel out there and somebody would look out of a window, and that would be that. Mankind would officially have been everywhere and seen everything. For the sake of publicity they asked for volunteers.

One man answered. He had nothing better to do.

He didn’t even bring a flag.

*

Joel turns away from the shimmer just in time to see the door dematerialise, so that when Ash comes in, Joel is already facing him.

Good…” Ash is a little surprised, “…morning.”

Hey,” Joel replies, and he smiles. It’s the kind of smile that has no feeling behind it but it’s not false. It looks like a salute. It serves its purpose and Ash smiles back.

Y’okay?”

Yep yep.”

Ready for the big moment?”

Sure.”

A’ight then.”

Ash strolls over and kisses Joel, rests his hand on the white chair and feels the surface shift its shape slightly to keep him steady and as comfortable as is physically possible. “I am gonna fix you some eggs,” he says.

Eggs don’t need fixing, hon,” says Joel. “They’re supposed to break.”

Ash leaves and the door reappears. “Still funny,” he says, but Joel doesn’t hear.

The trip has taken only taken two days, but already Ash is starting to think he should have stayed home. It’s not that he doesn’t want to be there, or that he hasn’t been looking forward to seeing the Edge. It’s just that Joel probably wouldn’t have invited him. He knew that right away. That’s why he invited himself. It just seemed like a much better idea at the time. He reasoned that Joel would get lonely if he went out by himself.

Ash likes to cook and as such he has converted one of the empty spaces of the ship into a kitchen. It is unorthodox to have perishable foods and manual tools on-board a ship, but the Space Administration didn’t seem to mind him bringing himself along, so he assumed they wouldn’t mind him bringing a bag of fresh food, a preserver and a flatstove either. Now he enjoys the involuntary creasing of his face as he feels the rough, charred pan-handle and smells the burning fat in the pan. These are unpleasant feelings but he likes them. The novelty of fresh cooking, of creating, has not yet worn off for him. It’s his pastime.

Yanking his involuntary grimace upwards into a wonky smile, he grabs an egg, selecting the brownest one even though he knows the colour of the shell makes no difference to flavour, and cracks it on the stove’s edge. The eggmeat, suddenly acquainted with gravity, starts to drop but Ash gives it a little lift and drops it square in the middle of the pan in one disgusting, mucus dollop. His grin gets wider as he hears it sizzle. Eggs are fun. He cracks another in and throws some toast on the heater, enjoying himself.

When he returns to the Obs Room with the eggs and toast and some orange juice on a tray, he sees Joel turned toward the window again. The shimmer is kind of nice, Ash thinks. They both like it.

You’re not eating?” Joel asks before he’s turned around.

I had cereal,” Ash replies.

You cooked for me?” Joel touches his husband’s hand for a second. “Thanks.”

I like to cook.”

Then how come you never like to eat?”

Ash rolls his eyes. After fifteen years of marriage they know each other well enough that questions like this aren’t worth answering.

For a minute there is an awkwardness between the two that neither of them is able to diagnose and fix before it dissipates.

Joel probably should have been allowed to take this vacation by himself, Ash thinks. But then again he probably should have said so. Ash did ask after all. At this moment, Joel is thinking about the same thing. Their eyes meet.

They nod at each other a couple of times, to save themselves the bother of going over it all. Joel frowns, like a warning, then looks guilty and grabs some orange juice.

Joel eats, Ash drinks and watches absently, they wash up and talk about their families and then kiss again. Ash’s bristle moustache is dry and pushes into Joel’s face before bending back. They meander over to the window wall and don’t bother with arms around each other.

Are you excited for the thing?” Ash asks. “The grand unveiling?” He guesses the answer will be ‘Not really’.

Not really.”

Yeah.”

Are you looking forward to being the last great explorer?”

The Final Frontier.”

They laugh. The shimmer carries on shimmering over their pale clothes and eyes.

*

The two men had first met on a space ship with invisible walls which flew around and around the centre of a quasar. When it was built, two hundred and thirty years prior, the Disk Runner had been a popular tourist attraction: nobody at the time had even seen a quasar up close without being immediately crushed, let alone experienced the thrill of flying into one. To them it was an amazing and unique ride, an exciting educational tool, something to simulate danger and make their adrenaline pump the old-fashioned way. But by the time Ash and Joel got there, it was old news. Kids sometimes visited the ship and took a spin on its endless voyage through apparent chaos, usually just to say they had been. Ash and Joel were just about young enough to call themselves kids, still at a point in their lives when there were mysteries to be figured-out and hardships to be endured.

Love was one of these mysteries, to them at least, and so both of them had an eye open for pretty or handsome faces.

Ash noticed the back of Joel’s head first, and approved of the haircut and clothes, which led him to wonder what the young man was doing, standing alone in the ship’s Great Hall and just looking at the quasar. He pointed this curious behaviour out to his friends, who offered simple answers: he’s lonely, he’s one of those sheltered types who hasn’t travelled much, he’s waiting for somebody. Ash wondered if he should invite the guy over to join them, and then decided to just go and talk to him.

His footsteps seemed too loud, which made him look down at the transparent floor. For a second he was distracted by the vast sea of fiery colours and energies beneath his feet and thought about the Greek myth of the Kingdom of Hades. What would the ancients have made of this sight?

Never been into space before?” the young man said.

Wh–?”

Ash looked up again. The immense red and gold light show surrounding them once again became a mere distraction in his mind. A parlour trick. The guy was kind of cute, in a grumpy sort of way. They exchanged names.

Space? Yeah, I mean, of course! I just thought I saw something down there.” Immediately this seemed like a terribly jerky thing to say. Ash tried not to look embarrassed.

Joel surprised him by not reacting except to look down. Between his feet the red moved almost too quickly for his eyes to focus, but he tried to see if there was anything remarkable in the sight.

Sometimes I think I see faces in there,” he said happily, smiling a shameless smile. “Do you ever get that?”

Wow.” Ash was not good at guarding his emotions. This guy was very cute. After thinking for a moment he said, “You’re very cute,” which thankfully made them both laugh.

Through the laughter, they decided to get a drink and watch the quasar together for a little while longer. Ash forgot to say goodbye to his friends, forgot to be nervous on a first date and finally forgot to catch his flight home. Instead he spent the evening as one half of the only couple dancing, on a rotating dance floor at the edge of a supermassive black hole.

*

Now they are both in their late forties, and like everyone in their late forties they feel as though they have become different people without even noticing it and they wish they had possessed their current wisdom when they still had time to change things. They sit together in Ithacan 9, staring, thinking about their day and planning the next one. After they are done looking at the Edge, they will transmit the full experience to the Administration base’s receivers, and then turn the ship around.

For a minute they both think about going to bed, and then see the doubt in each other’s eyes and abandon the idea. The entire experience of their flight will be downloadable to anyone who cares to view it. Although there is little modesty or ignorance about human emotion and sexual activity in this day and age, they still feel that they would prefer privacy. And anyway, Joel is tired.

He never would have guessed that sitting in a perfectly comfortable chair and doing nothing at all could be tiring.

Ten minutes,” he says to Ash.

Yessir.”

They smile.

The quiet that follows is easy for a couple of minutes, but there comes a point when both men notice every time the other breathes. They find themselves trying to breathe more quietly, or less often, and failing to do so without sounding ridiculous.

Just gonna go wash my face,” Joel says, and Ash nods.

The door dematerialises when Joel approaches, letting him step through without breaking his stride. The wide, white corridor he enters looks a lot like the wide, white room he just left, albeit a touch more claustrophobic. Claustrophobia shouldn’t exist any more, he thinks. This is a badly-designed ship.

The Obs Room is located at the head of the flat, oblong tube of the vessel. He now passes Manual Control, the little spare room which Ash has made into a kitchen, and the Sleeping Bay, which seemed a bit lavish considering it would only see one or two more uses on this simple back-and-forth trip. At the very end is a storage bay and a small shower-room, which adorably has an actual shower in it. Rather than bother using that, he merely reflects his image off the wall and opens his mouth to ask the ship for water.

Immediately, Ash’s voice shouts down the hallway, cutting him off. “Let me synch-up with you so I can get some of that water!” Before opening the synch, Joel groans very quietly and very deeply.

An instant later, nothing at all has changed for Joel but he knows that his husband now shares his consciousness. “Cold water,” he says to the wall, and some appears in his cupped hands. As he drops it over his face, he knows that Ash is feeling the effect as well. After he has dried his hands and neck on pieces of his shirt, Joel closes the synch and rubs his forehead.

When he passes through the Obs Room door once more, he lets out an involuntary sigh. His walk back to the chair by the window is measured and straight, like a supervised march. He sits, sinking into the seat and not noticing the way it adjusts itself to fit his shape, his posture, his weight and its own prediction of his future movement patterns.

Hey, do you suppose there might be more Universes than one?” Ash mutters. “That ours is just one of many?”

Joel cranes his neck a little to see his husband’s face. It’s rare that Ash surprises him these days. “No,” he says. “It’s been confirmed. Couple of years back.”

Oh.”

Yeah.”

Just one?”

Just us.”

Ash grunts acknowledgement.

Joel says, “That’s it.”

And then, earlier than they had expected, the shimmer stops. It seems to drop downwards, but that’s just the way it looks from inside. There never really was any shimmer, of course. Joel and Ash stand together at the window wall and stare at sheer black.

*

Fourteen billion years ago, every single piece of matter and energy that exists and has ever existed was packed together into an object the size of a needle’s point. At some point, it began to expand. This whole business was called the big bang when it was first discovered, but the nickname was abandoned when synch devices and backward-facing causality models allowed us to watch the event. It was actually silent and quite small.

It began when the pinhead diluted into empty space, like the contents of a burst balloon, and flew in all directions and at a greater speed than has ever been seen.

The Universe scattered into pieces, each of them was flung from its siblings all at once, and these pieces expanded and scattered themselves, again and again. They swirled around themselves and cooled, and flew ever onward, and slowed, and swirled, and shattered and scattered, and cooled some more, and flew. They now form an immense tapestry mounted against black: as thin, delicate and shimmering as a spider’s web on a cold night. One that was perfectly round, anyway, with a hole in the middle.

One of the specks of light within this tapestry cooled and calmed and became the Milky Way galaxy. Inside it, a smaller piece became the star we once called ‘the Sun’. Orbiting around this, a far smaller piece still became a blue-green ball of rock and metal and water.

The moving objects who grew from that water became sophisticated. Eventually they came to understand what they were, and that they had once been connected in the most intimate way to absolutely everything else in existence.

They wanted to see it again. All of it.

A group of researchers decided to finish that work. They asked for a volunteer to take the last ‘small step’. Say a few words.

*

Huh,” says Joel, looking over the Edge.

The space ship has now passed the most distant star in the most distant galaxy. It has travelled to the very limits of the immense pattern of lights and stones that forms the cosmos. It’s the end of everything.

Long ago, long enough ago that it sounds like a fable, humans used to imagine that the world was a flat discus with a literal end that you could walk off of. Thousands of years later, Joel and Ash stare blankly and confirm for themselves that this was basically true all along.

There it is,” says Ash, but that doesn’t really make any sense because there is, quite literally, nothing there.

Yeah.”

And for no reason at all they are immensely sad. Joel stands, breathes and puts an arm around Ash.

Now leaving the Universe,” Joel says. “Home of Da Vinci, the Rings of Saturn… some weird fish…”

Black holes.”

Black holes, yeah. Binary star systems. Pulsars. Mozart.”

Shakespeare.”

And then they list some other, more recent great artists who you haven’t heard of yet.

Alenko’s Spire,” says Ash. It is a very large mountain on a cold planet in Andromeda.

For some reason Joel asks the ship to switch off all the lights in the Observation Room. The ship complies and they just stand there a while longer. There is no starlight, of course, so they can’t see a thing. Ash thinks he can still smell the eggs.

A’ight,” Joel says after a few seconds, talking to the ship. “Turn around please, and head home.” In the perfect darkness, he gently feels for the chair and grabs its arm. The white material moulds itself to give his hand purchase, and it feels for all the world like another hand gripping his. This time he doesn’t sigh or groan or close his eyes. He just gets his balance.

The ship, very slowly, starts to turn around. Ash can’t even be sure that they are moving until the first star slides into view at the edge of the window. The little white dot puts him off his train of thought. The light from it hits the edge of the window wall, makes him aware of the physical world again. The star looks very small, very simple. Like a little hole punched into the black, like a spyhole.

And Ash is suddenly not satisfied that Joel knows what he’s talking about. He wonders if this might not be the Edge after all. Just us, he had said. That’s it.

Joel has been getting awfully distant for a good year, now. Ash knows it’s partly his fault but he’s still angry. He’s sick of ‘That’s it’.

Hello, ship?” Ash says, too loudly. Louder than he meant to.

The ship, of course, says nothing.

Yes, a little further please. Straight ahead.”

Ash just looks out of the window while Joel stares at his own feet. This goes on for a few empty minutes while the single star drifts back out of view.

Finally Joel blinks, groans and starts to stand again. As he gets to his feet, he feels Ash crashing into him, elbow and heel sawing back and forth, panicked. They almost fall onto the floor but Joel manages to lift them back. The ship stops, to save the astronauts giving the order.

The black suddenly no longer looks black, to him. To us.

But we can’t describe it.

We just can’t describe it yet. It’s sort of like an illusion. The sort of thing you have to squint at to make out.

It’s like drowning. Like getting lost for the first time and not knowing how to get home and not knowing–

Joel grabs his husband’s arm, softly.

Stay course,” Ash says, dramatic and broody. He isn’t blinking.

The hell did you see?”

I love you,” says Ash. They’ve both heard that so many times before. And then Ash tells Joel what he saw beyond the stars.

*

Inside the Space Administration Centre I open my mouth and mutter things, but I can’t hear myself because I’m still synched-up to their experience. I’m seeing what Ash sees. And then the connection starts to break.

After a moment it is gone altogether and I watch their ship, stopped dead, from the perspective of a nearby monitor beacon. I don’t say anything. I only have questions. How are we going to explain this to people?

What was that?” I ask aloud, turning to my left, but there’s nobody here.

Of course nobody’s here. Nobody else wanted to watch this live from the lab. I was curious about the Edge and I thought somebody should be here. Like mission control, you know, when space travel was new. When there were things to discover. Just a touch of romantic nostalgia, really.

The Ithacan 9 is small and mostly rectangular and white. It looks like something a child would make out of spare plastic blocks just to occupy his hands during cartoons. The propulsion system is dormant, leaving the ship drifting gently forward at its skewed angle. But when it starts up again, much later, it heads back to our own galaxy along a new course. Our monitors try to follow the route but eventually the shuttle gets lost in a quasar and cannot be seen.

Slowly its white walls turn grey and then black. The propulsion glows a pale blue, but eventually that too fades into a starbeam.

Venturous

by Chris Buchanan
Fantasy novella, 2013
You open your eyes and roll into an inn. Before the sun is up you hope to make reality of your dreams. The dragonslayer’s axe shines above. Is that what you wanted?

It begins the way it always begins. You push your shoulder against the hard wooden door of the inn and buckle under its weight. Your cheeks get hot and it makes you angry. You dare not spit.

You push harder until you feel the old iron hinges relent and swing away behind you. There is so much smoke and beer-froth and heat and thick, candle-burnt air that it gets into your eyes and makes them sting. Hoping that nobody inside has seen you, you rub your face against your small knuckles and breathe.

It’s muggy in this room and your head is swimming. You don’t remember how long you have walked. Perhaps you are just weary, or perhaps it’s the overpowering smell of rotten, spirit-soaked wood, but you struggle to remember why you came here.

You remember that a hero is in this place.

You remember that you want to travel.

You remember that you will face great danger, and this makes you smile.

Your arm is still sore. You open your eyes.

This is the first time you have set foot in a tavern. As you glance about, your back still facing the door, you hope that you don’t look as lost as you feel. The patrons who fill-out the hall are large, sweaty and long-haired. There are a lot of braids and knotted beards, and this seems strange to you, because you are from another place. Your hair is smooth and simple.

A woman’s skirt brushes your face and you look up, startled. She seems to notice, and clutches at the thick material as though you were a dog or a mouse getting caught up in her clothes. She shuffles away with a confused look that stays on her face until a young man hands her a tall cup of drink.

Now the innkeeper is looking at you from behind the bar at the back of the room. You have not known many grown-ups so you don’t trust your first impressions of them, but this man looks friendly. He has large blue eyes, a little too close together, and a layer of thin red hairs covering his arms and cheeks the way dust covers shelves. Making your way through the crowds, you decide it would be best to speak to him first.

He never takes his eyes off you as you approach. “Good evenin’… youngster,” he says, then frowns and looks uncomfortable. Maybe he is wondering if you are a boy or a girl. It might be hard to tell, since you are wearing a hood and coat. “I don’t recognise you,” he says, “but I know a tired traveller when I see one. What’s your name?”

You tell him. He nods.

“Are you alone?”

You nod back.

“Well then. We don’t normally have children in the inn, but that’s by the by. Welcome to the Bowman’s Bird.” He looks very upset, this man. He’s thinking about saying something and he’s probably going to say it. You look at him and wait quietly.

Finally he asks, “Where are you parents?” and you tell him that you don’t know. It’s strange, but right now you can’t remember their faces. You have come here without them.

“I see. Well, make yourself comfortable for now. Will you be staying the night?”

You admit that you don’t know that either. For a moment, you can’t think at all. Everything goes fuzzy.

“I’ll get you a drink,” the barman says, turning around. There is a kindness in his voice which seems too genuine for you to doubt him. His bar is neat and tidy, more so than the tables occupied by his customers. “My name’s Alferd,” he says. “I’ve be–”

“I’m looking for the hero who lives here,” you say, interrupting him by mistake.

Alferd turns around to look at you. He seems to relax in that moment, and he dips a small metal cup into a pail of milk. He puts it neatly on the bar in front of you and wipes the side facing away from you.

“You’re looking for Talmir Dragonkiller?” he says.

You smile. That sounds heroic, all right. “When was the last time you saw a dragon?” you ask Alferd.

“I never have, I’m happy to say. No-one has! And that’s all thanks to Talmir.”

You interrupt him again. “Where is Talmir?” You pause. “Please.”

Alferd smiles and pushes the milk toward you. You reach up and grip it and this makes him happy. “Upstairs,” he says, motioning with his eyes and a jerk of his chin. “On the balcony there. He’ll be the gentleman with the axe.”

You sip some of the milk and take it with you as you turn around to follow the man’s eyes. Above the floor of the inn is a long balcony with sturdy doors leading to four bedrooms, but there are a few tables up there too. Some of the townspeople seem to have pushed them all together to make one long table, at the head of which sits a muscular man. His brown beard is split down the middle and knotted in such a complicated way that it looks like it is tied behind his ears. By his side is a solid slab of steel: the cleanest, boldest steel you have ever seen and it shines particularly brightly at the points. A battle-axe. Its silvery light stands out against the browns, reds and blonds of every other object in the room, as though it does not belong. You have to wonder how heavy it is. Probably heavier than you.

Talmir is talking with friends when you reach him and they don’t notice you. Unsure how to get the great man’s attention, you just sip your milk and look at him. The axe is even shinier up close, and his beard is even sillier. You think that trimming and arranging it must take a lot of his time in the mornings.

The big men are excited, talking about a kidnapping that has taken place in town and the villainous bandits who are responsible. The dragon killer is nodding and frowning distantly. It is hard to make-out exactly what has happened, since they are all speaking at once and trying to be heard over one-another, but the word Princess is mentioned at least once. They have worked themselves into a fever, swinging tankards and swapping boasts about how strong they are, or how many heads they will cut off, which ranges from five (from the youngest and thinnest man) to a thousand (the second-youngest and most drunk). Talmir pretends to laugh. Finally he says, “Tomorrow, my friends,” and they calm down. It is obvious that they revere him.

It is now that one of the men bumps into you, and all at once they see you and fall quiet. Five of them stagger backwards, one trips over. You feel their eyes on your face and you wonder what you look like.

“They don’t normally allow children in the Bowman’s…” someone says quietly.

“Speak, child,” says Talmir, but he does not act or sound like a warrior. He is still and bored and unhappy, like a grandfather.

“I have come to see Talmir Dragonkiller,” you say.

“Well done. You’re seeing him now,” says Talmir, and there is laughter. “You aren’t from town. Why are you looking for me?”

It is hard to answer without either seeming stupid or lying. After a moment you just open your mouth and hope that it produces an answer. “I have heard that you are a hero,” you say. No-one laughs.

“Yes.” That’s all he says. The way he forms the word suggests that he has a lot more to say but he has decided not to.

“This man,” says a fellow in a coat of chain mail, slapping his hand on Talmir’s wide shoulder, “is the saviour and protector of the town!”

You nod to show respect.

“He was the last survivor of an expedition to slay the great dragon who threatened the land, ten years ago.”

“Yes,” says Talmir again.

“What say you, boys? Shall we tell the story, aye?”

At this, the men roar and laugh. Out of the corner of your eye you see Talmir whisper something, but only for a second. The man in the mail sits you down and spills a little of your milk.

But before they can begin, Alferd emerges through the crowd behind you and delivers a plate of fresh meat and fruit with a wink. You are grateful and hungry. This seems like a good inn. A good town. It’s nice.

And so you eat while the crowd tell Talmir’s story. Each man recites a verse and you are excited to hear such an epic story told by those people who are closest to the hero himself. His silence, as they speak, makes him seem grand and above you. Not rude, but above you. It is hard not to smile.

“Talmir the Bold was the champion of his village, far to the West,” says an older man with a wispy voice and grey tips to his moustache. A few eyes turn to him. Others still watch you with an assured grin. “His home was like ours: a town that was so far from the Royal Castle that it was only barely under the King’s rule, and very rarely saw anyone from the court. So, like us, his people were simple and fair.”

“And honest, and poor!” says a heavy man. There is loud laughter.

A young member of the group then speaks up and leans on the table. “One day Talmir is out hunting, as the task was often left to him, y’see. And as he spears his last beast of the day he hears the sound of thunder. Of course the thunder doesn’t bother a man like this, so he shrugs it off. But he realises there was no lightning. And then suddenly the thunder sounds again, louder, and again, louder, and the whole sky is suddenly dark as night!”

The tale is gripping you so much that you almost forget about the food you’ve been given. Without looking, you grab some of the meat and shove the whole piece into your mouth, chewing as fast as you can.

“It’s the dragon!” the young man says. “It has arrived from the Heavens in order to destroy us all!”

There is some mumbling around the table, and the greying man mutters, “It was not from the Heavens. Dragons are not from Heaven.”

“Well then it was from a mountain, or the pits of the Earth or a far off continent, or something…” says the other. “Anyway, it was a dragon. Talmir gathered eleven of his most trusted kinsmen, see, and he charged them to follow him into battle. They marched outside the village walls and screamed as one to get the dragon’s attention, then fought it with bow and sword, until it fled. He saved his village!”

“That’s amazing!” you start to say, but you are interrupted by the man in the chain mail.

“Talmir is too much of a hero to let it go, of course!” he says. “So he and his fellowship steeled themselves, packed supplies for a great journey, and set forth to hunt the beast. They follow the trail of flattened trees and burning grassland, and every time they catch up to the filth, it turns to attack them. Every time, they lose a man to its jaws. And every time, they cut a fresh wound through the animal’s scales. In the end, they are exhausted, having battled and withstood the dragon more than any group of warriors ever could, and they lose the rest of their men to wolves and murderers, and a witch. Talmir alone survives, and he slays all these foes by himself even as he keeps up the chase.”

“Finally he…” says a new speaker, a man with a blond beard, but the old man pipes up again.

Finally, he and the dragon met once again, and found that they were both too fatigued to run any longer. The monster flew straight upwards, as high as the Sun itself, and them slammed its body right back down into the ground, hoping to land on Talmir and pulverise him.”

“But of course…” the man in mail is grinning very deeply and you smell his breath. “Talmir leaps out of the way just in time. He falls helplessly down the great crater that has formed in the ground, no-doubt thinking that he’ll die when he reaches the bottom.”

“And what did you do then, Talmir?” you ask

Talmir does not seem to hear the question, but after a moment of anticipation the blond man hammers the table with his fist and cries, “He grabs hold of its neck and slices it in two with his hunting axe!”

There is a cheer so loud that everyone down below looks up to see what the noise is about. A lot of them smile or even join in.

“Alferd the innkeeper found me,” Talmir finally says, quietly, “on his way back from a visit to a merchant caravan. He dressed my wounds and gave me water, and then he carried me down the path of the Red River, to this, his home town.”

The man in the mail coat asks what you think and you tell the truth. You enjoyed it very much. He is pleased and grasps your shoulder. As you finish your fruit and milk, the men slowly begin to calm down. Their conversation moves to small bragging, and then to mutterings about you, and finally to ordinary town chit-chat. Talmir says very little and does not look at you, so you just finish your meal. When you are done, you hurry downstairs with Alferd’s tray.

As you are climbing down you see him talking to a group of customers at a table in the corner. He has a jug of something, with which he fills their mugs, and they seem to share a joke as one of them kicks the thin skirting board at the bottom of the wall and scratches his shin. You decide to wait by the bar and leave the tray on it.

The bartender breaks away and returns to you almost immediately, and takes the tray gladly. You thank him and he smiles. “You must have travelled a long way, little ‘un,” he says. It makes you laugh out loud when he calls you that, and you worry that you have insulted him, but he just smiles back warmly.

“I think I have,” you say.

He doesn’t pry, but sits down on a stool he has behind the bar and looks at you. “We do have a spare room, little ‘un,” he says. “You can stay there as long as you need to.”

You tell him that you don’t have any gold coins, but he calmly tells you that you won’t need any. You thank him again.

“No need for that, either,” he says, and offers you another drink. You shake your head.

“How long have you known Talmir?” you ask.

Alferd pours some milk for himself as he answers. “Since he arrived,” he says. “He stays here. I had three rooms to rent before the dragon killer arrived. Now I have two rooms, and the honour and safety that only a hero’s presence can offer.”

You ask what Talmir is like.

“Like you see,” Alferd says, simply. “He’s grand and he’s quiet. Respectable.”

“Did he really save the land from the dragon?”

“The dragon’s skeleton is still out there to the North, where it cracked the Earth and made its last stand,” he says. The innkeeper’s eyes drop to the bar and he starts wiping at a stain you can’t see.

“He must be brave,” you say.

Alferd’s smile widens and he steps away from the bar, walks out into the middle of the inn. Pointing back up at the balcony, he tells you that your room will be the one right at the end. He says it is small, but then so are you, little’un. And you laugh politely. With a chuckle he wanders off toward a hand, waving at him from another table.

Upstairs you see Talmir shuffle back and forth in his chair. Nobody else seems to be watching him right now so he keeps shuffling for almost a minute. When he is tired of this, he gets up. He slowly wanders over to the window at the end of the balcony and then rests his head against the glass. Without thinking you jump up the stairs and go over to talk to him. There are little bits of bread in that beard of his, and his eyes seem larger now.

“Talmir, what happened next?” you ask.

He looks at you, frowning a little, the way an ordinary person would look at a piece of fruit in a market. “They have… embellished the story a bit,” he mutters. “What happened after that was that I recovered here, and I sat in that chair over there and told my story to the townsfolk. And then they told me I was their hero. A lot.”

“Yes,” you agree.

“And I said nothing, and they gave me food and a ceremonial axe to replace the old, blunted one I used to carry. They do not ask me to work.”

You move a little closer to hear him better, and ask, “When will you return to your village?”

After a long pause he sighs and says, “There are other wolves out there. There are other witches. And dragons, perhaps. My little friend, I cannot go home.” He sounds weary and has begun to slur his words.

“You have eleven new companions!” you tell him, looking at the others.

“Yes, but who’s to say that on the way back, I will be the one who survives, hm?”

You don’t have an answer, so the two of you just stare at each other for a while. Eventually he coughs.

“I have never used this axe,” he says. “I ran a long way, and I survived.”

You nod, but you feel strangely empty. “What about the kidnapped Princess?”

Talmir breathes through his nose and says, “There are knights in the kingdom, child. They can do the job better. And these men here will be sober tomorrow. I will not remind them of their boasting.”

“You’re… you’re not going to fight the bandits?”

Talmir doesn’t move at all and just says, “A hero can be any man, little one. Whichever man is left at the end of a journey. The only one who didn’t make the ultimate sacrifice.”

“Oh,” you reply.

The man who killed the dragon nods and closes his eyes. You slink away, climb down the stairs and pass the empty bar, forgetting all about the room you were offered. Hurrying away from this place you push the inn doors open again. They seem even heavier this time.

** ** Continue reading

Alfred and the Flies

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2012
A young volunteer at a suicide hotline listens to an old hand.

There are always two Samaritans working, on four hour shifts. Depending on the time of day and circumstance, the two might spend this time hunched over in the two booths, occasionally looking through glass to nod and smile at each other but otherwise listening intently, or they might be on two comfortable armchairs, eating free biscuits and trying to make conversation.

Today is Wednesday afternoon. There aren’t many calls and neither of us feels like taking them. Stewart took the last one, but it only lasted a few minutes. Every time the phones ring, I wonder if this is a real call. A call where a person is about to violently commit suicide and needs somebody caring and brave to talk it out with them and save their life. But most of the calls are short and not very important.

I hear Stewart replace the old, white plastic receiver now, and waddle back to the armchairs. I finish chewing. “That,” he says, “was a gentleman asking me to tell him my height, as a masturbatory aid.” This is normal. Even I am no longer surprised or even amused by these calls. I just nod.

Stewart has been a Samaritan for a long time, long enough that there is little excitement or drama in it for him any more. His face is always slack, at peace, either satisfied with or indifferent to everything he witnesses, like a man at the end of a good meal. He has a permanent smile on one side of his mouth and slightly harsh blue eyes, as though he has no difficulty with anything he does, leaving at least half of his mental capacity free to reminisce. I hope I’m that way when I’m his age.

The sound of my swallowing the biscuit is loud in this deliberately silent, cozy room. Stewart doesn’t look at me or anything but I feel a little self-conscious, so I get a glass of water.

“Are you making tea?” he says.

“Just water.”

Stewart has gotten into his chair now, and he lets his back fall into it. “Very good,” he says, smiling to himself as if something very amusing has happened but he doesn’t want to share it. “Very good.” After a short silence he picks up one of the celebrity gossip magazines, opens it and gives a slight, almost cartoonish sneer. He gets bored of this and puts it back down.

After a moment he starts laughing and murmuring. He wants me to ask him why.

“What are you thinking about?” I’m friendly. Everyone here is.

He cleans his glasses against his cardigan, straightens the tie beneath and tilts himself towards me.

“Well,” he says, and I sense he’s preparing something. Choosing his words.

“Well. I knew a great man, once. A compassionate and thoughtful man. One who did his best, when it came to people. Alfred, his name.”

I’m drinking my water, but I put it down for a minute. “Oh?” I murmur. It’s always a bit awkward getting to know someone, especially in this room for some reason. We call it The Office. I fold my hands.

Stewart continues. “Alfred’s life brought him to a state where he was capable of viewing every living organism just the same as any other: as an individual. And one worth knowing. If he saw a dog turn its neck, he shared its wonder. When he saw a bird suddenly flapping into the air, he turned to see what was wrong, as if he were afraid. He was kind. I called it a higher plane of thought, but he didn’t like that. Great people always lie about their greatness, don’t they? I just sort-of trusted that he had a good reason for that. Because he didn’t like liars.”

This story sounds rehearsed, I think, but I narrow my eyes, showing that I’m paying attention. He nods once more and carries on.

“One day he was at home and he saw a fly on his window. Its tiny legs, each one as thin as a human hair (you know how small they are) flicking back and forth as its body just stood there on the glass. Like an anchor with… snakes tied to it. It’s perfectly alert, this fly, but it has nowhere to go. The fly has come into Alfred’s house, seen the window and thought ‘Ah! This is the way out!’ Because he can’t see the glass, you see.”

I laugh a little. “Yeah,” I say. “I get it.” And Stewart laughs back, approvingly.

“Alfred saw the fly there. And in his wisdom and intelligence he understood why it couldn’t escape. And of course he could not allow the creature to suffer this way. So he scooped it up with a little tumbler and a paperback and he let it out of the door. Problem solved. The only trouble is that later (this was summer, by the way) there was another fly on the window. Again, he moved it away with his tumbler, which he had to sterilise again, and released it to his garden. But later on, when he got back from his dinner he saw three more flies.

“He chastised himself, of course. How could he have relaxed and eaten when three souls were struggling for their lives, confused out of their tiny minds, in his home? You see, to him, the flies were no less valuable than people. The only difference between them and us, as he saw it, was intelligence. And you don’t let somebody suffer for an hour, trapped and confused in what they perceive as an impossible maze, just because they’re too stupid not to know what glass is. Do you?”

I don’t know if Stewart wants me to agree with him or question him, so I just tilt my head and let him finish his story.

“So Alfred stood around the window for a bit, helping the flies get back to their lives. When he was finished he locked the door, obviously, and he went to my house next door, to see if there were any flies there. And there were, so he asked if he could come in to get rid of them. And this went on, every day, until he disappeared. And he probably spent the rest of his life staring at glass, concentrating with his eyes all screwed up like yours are now, quickly tapping his little cup against the windows, over and over again, and walking over to the door.”

I don’t know what to say. I can’t help feeling like I’m being patronised, but I have no idea how. I begin to hope the phone will ring again. It doesn’t. Stewart keeps looking at me, waiting for my reaction.

“What happened to him?” I ask.

“I don’t know. He disappeared. He’s probably died by now.”

“Oh,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

“I didn’t know him very well. I just thought he was fascinating.”

There is so little to do in this little room, I think. I could nod, which wouldn’t satisfy him. I could look at the phone booths, which would be rude. I could get another glass of water, perhaps? Something occurs to me and he seems to see the recognition on my face. He smiles widely this time.

“Is there a hidden meaning in that story for me?” I ask. “Did Alfred volunteer at the Samaritans?”

Stewart raises his eyebrows for a second and looks for the magazine. After a second he answers. “No. Not at all.”

“Oh. I thought you meant… because of what we do here. Helping people.”

“Did you?” He sounds a little bit annoyed now. “If you go around thinking the people we talk to on the phone are comparable to flies, then you’re in the wrong job, believe you me.”

“I’ll make you a cup of tea.”

Very good. One sugar, no milk.”

I get up and make it. As I return to The Office, I see that Stewart has answered another phone call. From the sound of his replies and his tone, I guess that the conversation might go on for a while. He’s asking serious questions, you know. I leave his tea by his side, to which he mouths a ‘thank you’, and take my seat again.

And immediately there is a familiar sound, one that makes my head dart upwards. A fly’s buzz.

It zig-zags through the open door to our empty little hallway, makes a couple of circles around the room, and then hits the window hard. There is that sudden THOCK sound that I always think is somehow too loud. An animal so small and delicate as a fly can’t make a noise like that. The whole animal is the size of a crumb, made in miniature out of thin, barely-glued-together black wire that crunches if you touch it, like sugar-glass, and those wings look like a good wind could rip them in half. But when this tiny crisp of a creature collides with a window, you get this dull, heavy note.

Something that size, I think, can’t make a THOCK. It sounds like a cricket ball hitting clay.

Our window is thick, wavy and heavy, so that it lets in natural light but keeps our little office secretive. The fly just sits there for a moment, dead still, then crawls about, looking for a way through. I look around for a glass or a dry tea cup, but I don’t get up. The room strikes me again, and I notice how artificial it is, in an odd way. The chairs are very nice, very soft. The place is spotless, not that I’ve ever seen anyone cleaning, and that biscuit tin is always full somehow. But the top half of the room is just old white walls, almost completely covered by notices and letters and lists of rules and important information, and warnings and requests and timetables. They’re messy.

Stewart must have heard the fly’s buzzing and he must have noticed the coincidence. He probably smiled, but he doesn’t turn away from his phone call to smile at you or anything like that. He seems to be engrossed, which is odd for him. Maybe this is a serious call. A real call.

I haven’t had any of those yet.

This Grand Forever

by Chris Buchanan
Short story (2013)
A handsome man strolls through the perfectly-preserved city of Paris. But good looks are deceiving nowadays and they certainly don’t come cheap.

It is good to see you again, Monsieur!” said the watchmaker, smiling the emotionless but reassuring smile of the successful career salesman. The look told Robert that although both of them knew the sentiment was for show, there was no game being played. No sales pitch, no clever platitudes. Just veneer. The watches at Armand’s were good enough to sell themselves and the customers were wealthy enough to be greeted politely.

There was a look in the man’s eyes, though, even now. Like everyone did, he had stopped short when Robert entered the building and stared for just a moment.

He was used to it by now. Something about him, everything about him, looked wonderful. His face was large and rugged enough to quietly intimidate, but then it was smooth, easy and blue-eyed enough to ensure that nobody noticed. His hair naturally fell into loose, deep-blond waves that held their shape at all times, and his pale grey suit and open-collared shirt fit him as well as his skin.

And for some silly reason, seeing a handsome guy around just seemed to make people happy. Even those who seemed more jealous than pleased, like the watchmaker did now, automatically lightened their mood.
Armand, who held his own boyish, sleek features with an odd stoop, turned away from his client and retrieved a gold and bronze wristwatch from under the counter.

“Oh, wow,” said Robert, and this made the watchmaker’s smile much wider.

“I told you it would not disappoint, ah?”

“Well, you know, I believed you! But that really is something.”

As he carefully took the watch and turned it around to admire the tiny etched hallmark at the centre of the velvet-fold where the two metals blended together, Robert breathed an easy breath.

Of course, all of his breaths were easy.

“I have been hand-making these watches for sixty years, you know.”

“Time well spent, evidently,” Robert added, still admiring the fold.

“Always, Monsieur.”

Responding with a polite and warm glance, Robert tried his watch on. He went about this with sincere care, making sure to lower the piece without bending any of the uniform, half-inch hairs on his wrist backwards or turning them askew. This done, and the clasp sealed, he ran the edge of a finger across the curve of the face. It would stay this grand forever.

“It’s wonderful. Merci beaucoup.”

Armand relaxed then, waiting for the conversation to end, though neither was in any hurry. The payment had been dealt with upfront, days ago, when the gentleman had placed his order. And you only had to look at the man to see that he meant business.

“I am sure I will see it on your wrist again someday!”

“I’m just on vacation,” Robert answered happily, but the other man was not boasting. Workmanship like this meant a lot more than a souvenir. It was designed to be with him for as long as his arm. “Thanks a lot, really,” he repeated, shaking the salesman’s hand and strolling through the empty, sleek-looking shop and into the evening sunlight of the Marais.

The air was still fresh even though the day was coming to an end. He wasn’t too warm in his light suit, or too uncomfortable in his soft, carved-leather shoes, or too worried or too tired. In fact he was starting to forget what it felt like to be too much of anything. Paris was just always nice. So he walked.

It was an amusing coincidence that one of the world’s oldest cities was so full of youth. Nobody he met displayed a wrinkle, everyone was neatly turned-out, and they held themselves as if it were impossible to be any other way. It was as though hardship was a concept that had never become fashionable here. Most of all, he noticed how much they all looked like him. Like him, but not quite as good. Except for the occasional passer-by who even he had to stop and stare at, no-one quite matched him.

This smug feeling stayed with Robert only for a moment, before he realised how strange and silly his thoughts sounded to him, and he laughed. A pretty girl in a lovely yellow hat noticed him laughing at himself and reflexively smiled back at him, as if sharing the joke.

His hands in his pockets but his head high, he strolled past an antique lamp-post with its original black iron finish painstakingly reinforced with an invisible weave of Cilrex, ensuring that it would remain undamaged by weather or collision for as long as the neighbourhood wanted it. The thing must have been there for centuries, he reasoned, and it would be around longer still, considering the city’s dedicated effort for preservation. He checked his watch.

It had already been fifteen minutes since he had picked it up. That was one thing about Paris, or about this trip in general: the time really flew. With no weight in his legs, no particular plans in his head beyond getting back to his hotel, and nothing remotely ugly meeting his eyes, it was just hard to count the seconds.

Ducking into a side-street to make what he hoped was a short-cut, Robert quickly found himself in a cute little square of pale oblong paving stones. Every other one had become an impromptu canvas for a street artist, covered with everything from challenging abstracts to recreated Renaissance masterpieces, and all of them were exquisite. At the moment only one man was working, putting the finishing touches to The Girl With a Pearl Earring. It would be impolite not to say anything, so Robert admired it for a long moment and gave a heart-felt ‘bravo’.

Of course, the artist was happy to hear it. And of course, he was gracious. A moment later he returned to his details.

Robert looked at his watch again. God, it would be dark soon. He felt as though he had wandered to the top floor of the world’s most lovely museum and now could barely bring himself to find the exit. With a little more spring in his step he headed along a new route made of smaller and smaller side-streets, almost unsure of his direction, and found himself among more homely boutiques and little cafés. Outside a post office he saw what looked like an old woman. He was almost taken aback, having forgotten that Paris was home to anyone over forty, but she saw him too and seemed pleased to be noticed. She had a crooked nose. In times gone by, you might have called it charming.

Of course, she might not have been as old as she looked. He might have been older than her, even. Nobody really talked about actual age these days. It seemed irrelevant.

Brushing the thought away from his mind, he carried on gliding through the streets, between pair after pair of those adorable lamp-posts, standing guard on either side of every road, all of them clean and straight, strong and storied.

They quickly brought him to the bank of the Seine, the same way he had come this morning, and Robert was glad to have quickened his return. For the rest of the walk his view was caught between the natural grandeur of the river and the statues and structure of Tuileries garden. The road was quiet and gentle too, with only the occasional car swishing by and only a handful of people on either side. The Tower guided him then, and the rest of the walk was a pleasure.

When he saw the tan, carved walls of the hotel, his home for the week, he glanced again at the watch. Again he was surprised by how long it had been since last time; how many minutes had come along and then gotten away from him. But it wasn’t very important. The restaurant and bar were open at all times, and he wasn’t hungry anyway.

Of course, he was never hungry. Nobody in the developed world had been hungry for a good sixty years, now. Eating was just something you did for nostalgia or irony. Or comfort.

Old habits were hard to shake off.

Of course.

He had spent most of his life in an artificial body. When they were new he had certainly not been able to afford one, but in time the technology became commonplace, and then there were the protests and the riots. There came a point when allowing people to live and die in their birth bodies became either ridiculous or barbaric, depending on who you talked to. They were given away by almost all Western governments in early childhood now, and then replaced or custom-built at regular intervals. Government issue models were far from perfect, obviously. There were still debates on the news about that.

But what did they expect to be given for free? Their brains rested easily in hardened skulls, connected to sensory apparatus which worked better than nature’s own, and carried about by limbs and trunks which would last forever, with proper maintenance. Those with no jobs or no sense wore the models with asymmetrical features and knobbled knees, or short legs and shrunken skin. Somebody had to. That’s just economics. Everywhere couldn’t be Paris, could it?

“Welcome back, Monsieur,” said a pretty concierge, distracting him. She had deep red hair and skin like cream-caramel. At first she seemed too good-looking to be working in service, even at the best hotel in the city, but then Robert noticed the malformed thumb on her left hand. That explained it: a factory imperfection.

Every now and again you saw somebody who seemed way too pretty for their job and then you wondered what their deal was, until you saw the missing piece or damaged skin or badly-programmed ‘allergy’. It was a trade-off.

“Nice to be back,” he replied absently. That gentle, innocent and assured smile of his made her crease her forehead for him.

“And how was your day?”

“Great. Just a little shopping, you know. Saw the sights I guess. It’s just nice to relax.”

“Oui. You are in the right place. Would you like to stop for a drink at La Lucien, or return to your room?”

Robert mulled it over while she waited, then laughed in slight embarrassment. “Well I guess I could go for a drink!” he said as if he were being cheeky, and she chuckled with him as she led him to the bar.

“Champagne, sir?”

“Ah, sure,” he offered in reply. “Please. I’ll take the bottle upstairs myself.”

The girl poured him a glass of their best from an old, odd-looking bottle and left both of them on the bar. She stood attentively, impassively watching ahead while he sipped.

The fine wine fell over highly responsive sensors on his tongue and the roof of his mouth, which looked just like taste buds but ran a little better, a little more agreeably. The reflexive sigh he gave was coded-in just for habit; without any purpose at all, a reflex whose evolutionary purpose had long-since died away. It was one of the ‘kinks’ that the manufacturers had unanimously agreed to keep. People still slept, because it was nice to sleep together. The good models didn’t snore, or yawn, or get bad breath or any gross thing like that. Bathing was still possible but toilets were unnecessary. People still had two eyes and two hands, and the consensus among technicians seemed to be that this was how it would stay.

Body-design had reached its peak. This was as good as they would ever get. Robert, right here in this bar, drinking his complimentary champagne while the girl with the weird thumb waited, was as good as it would get.

He finished the glass quickly and nodded a goodbye to her. It would have been insulting to tip, he figured. Would have made her feel ugly.

It was a short walk over an antique Persian carpet past the front desk and to the elevator, but a strikingly bald man in his thirties with undamaged Nubian features and striking cheek bones – a manager perhaps? – stopped him.

“A letter for you, Monsieur,” the man said in a flawlessly old-French accent. Robert stopped looking at him.
In the gentleman’s hand was a fancy paper envelope. It was the only way they could reach him now. He had disconnected his call number before he set off from home and while in Paris he had made a point of only using systems with a new, anonymous username.

Smiling a reassuring smile beneath his gently down-turned eyes, Robert reached out his free hand to take the letter with a simple ‘thanks’. Holding it casually between thumb and forefinger, he strolled over to the elevator and looked deep in thought while he waited a long moment for the carriage.

He was inside and pressing for his suite at the top floor before the doors were half-way open. The car responded right away and he was at his floor in less than ten seconds.

In that time, without really being aware of what he was doing, he thumbed-open the envelope, stopped breathing, and read. The glow of the interior lights and the softening touch of the velvet-lined walls gave an amber sheen to the paper. He had to squint.

URGENT

From the offices of Warburton, Llewellyn and Mamet

Dear Mr Ross,

Further to our correspondence on April 5th, April 9th and April 12th, we write with strongest urgency to follow-up the issue of outstanding debt. As we informed you following the first two successful instalments on March 25th and March 29th, your account(s) have declined payment without explanation.

Please contact the company’s private debt-collection agency (contact info is repeated overleaf) immediately to ensure an amicable resolution. Failure to do this may result in repossession of your body and / or legal action if agreed funds cannot be transferred within five days of time of writing.

Signed in absence— John Warburton, chief executive

DO NOT IGNORE THIS LETTER

Robert didn’t actually read the whole thing. It was too hard to look. He saw the word ‘urgent’ and skimmed the rest. He was certain he had seen ‘payment’ in there somewhere, and a bunch of dates for when he should have been in touch with them. And he thought he saw ‘legal action’ and ‘failure’ too. Most painful of all, the most paralysing piece of this horror, the cruellest blow, were the words ‘five days’.

Well.

Fuck.

But all right. At least it wasn’t from the bailiffs. Or worse.

But fuck. Jesus fuck.

Already? They hadn’t even waited until his vacation was over?

In the space of a few seconds he went from feigned-outrage to complete terror, to wild imagination, to meek attempts to calm himself, to wilful ignorance, to resignation. It was a cycle he was familiar with.

They were onto him. It was all over. In five days.

The letter had found its way safely back inside its envelope and now Robert was at the door to his room, shoving his cool blue eyes toward the retinal scanner and muttering at it to hurry up. He fidgeted and ground his teeth while the door took an eternity to recognise him and slide open.

He would have sweated, but this body didn’t sweat. He would have shaken and cried and felt his cheeks burn and redden in shame and blind panic, but his body didn’t do those things either. It seemed only to casually observe the door and give it a studious, thoughtful expression, before athletically jogging inside.

Now that he had holidayed for a few days, he barely noticed the majesty of the suite. It was large but designed to be cosy, with sloping sofas and antique book-cases hugging its many corners and soft drapes covering or framing everything in simple but imaginative ways. The bed was an enormous, impossibly comfortable geometric puzzle of velvet and silk in various subtly-mixing shades of amber. The whole place looked best at dawn and twilight and then spent the rest of the time keeping just the right amount of light inside so that it barely changed.

It was nice just looking at it, Robert thought as he set down the champagne in an ice-bucket. It made him forget about his troubles.

Made him forget about the vast amounts of money he had all but robbed. The stupidity of what he had done, just to spend a week in Paris. The ridiculous loan application. How he had closed his eyes and tried to sing to quieten his mind when he had clicked ‘confirm’. People would laugh so hard their backups would kick in to save their embarrassment. It would make every news outlet, when it was all said and done. When somebody walked in here and asked him what he had done and how he thought he was going to get away with it. And what the hell was wrong with him, and did he even know how much trouble he was in? In five days.

It was six-fifteen now. How long did he have left, in hours? Less than a hundred before it all came crashing down? Before every one of his credits bounced and he would have a tailor, a travel agent, an artisan watchmaker and of course a palatial hotel to contend with, as well as the world’s most exclusive body-manufacturer?

And he just knew he wouldn’t enjoy one more second of his stay. It was over. His old ways had set in.

Suddenly he wanted to sweat. His old model sweated all the damn time! It was one of the many reasons it had been so affordable. He wanted to howl like a mangy dog in its death throes. He wanted to curl up and choke in sheer panic, gasp for air and hyperventilate until his ears popped and his heart threatened arrest. Anything that would let him stop thinking about the next five days.

But he just stood there: the most handsome mannequin in the most knockout suit, standing in the middle of a billion-dollar furniture showroom and looking at its watch.

Why couldn’t they have just let him alone for another day?

Well. At least until now, this had been a good day.

Just once, a good day. He hadn’t thought about the money today, or about who he used to be. Not once since he slept last night. He had enjoyed it.

Maybe he ought to get some sleep now, he wondered. He could make himself sleep if he wished it, and this model certainly wouldn’t give him bad dreams. He would wake up eight hours later, completely refreshed and relaxed.

But that would be another eight hours gone, right there. How many times does eight hours go into five days?
“If only that letter could have arrived in the morning,” he said to himself. Robert’s new voice was smooth and deep, but pleasant and tinged with a self-deprecating humour. Just hearing the words aloud slowed his mind for a few seconds.

“Every time I start to get up,” he almost whispered, “something has to knock me down.”

As profound and heartfelt as the words came out, courtesy of the finest voice box money could buy, tuned to a specially-tweaked variant of the ideal Californian speech template, Robert didn’t believe them.

Warburton, Llewellyn and Mamet weren’t screwing him over. They weren’t being rude, interrupting him, harassing their social better. They were just asking for their money. They didn’t owe him another few days.

Nobody was knocking him down. He just forgot that down is where he was.

Beauty was for those who had earned it. Immortality on the other hand was for all registered U.S. citizens, even screwed-up, pathetic crooks like Robert Ross. He knew that and he respected it, but he just kinda wished it was the other way around. He had lived a long, long time now in a broken-down fat guy’s body, with a bad back, bad teeth and track marks from the morphine addiction he had given himself and finally had removed ten years back. And the memories of all the other shameful shit he had done, just to get through the days. It had been a long time working as a parking attendant and part-time pill dealer in Des Moines, which is all he’d managed in his long stretch on the Earth. He didn’t want to do it any more. He wanted a fucking ending. It was enough. And now that he had been someone better for a little while, the thought of going back was intolerable.

There would be a long stay in prison soon, and then there would be an infinity after he got out, but before both of those he would have to face somebody or other – a debt-collector maybe, or a detective, and then a judge, even some of the people he knew – and explain all of this. And look them in the eye and sweat. And before that there would be a moment where they got his brain back to his old body and re-installed it, and he’d have to look at himself again.

Robert carefully straightened his cuffs and ran his pre-manicured fingertips across his chin and down his tough, long neck. With another sigh he dropped his head a touch and leaned down to the bedside cabinet. In the top drawer was a cheap, ugly, loud pistol. He had brought it and stashed it here without ever really letting himself acknowledge the fact that he had always planned to use it. This was it, though, any minute now. Time to get it done. The five days would simply not happen, not like this. The hour of his death had arrived so much faster than he thought, and maybe that was the letter’s fault or maybe it was his own. Definitely his own. It was his own mess and always had been. It was what he had earned.

But right now it hardly seemed worthwhile beating himself up over the whole thing. He ran a firm hand through his hair and felt it slink back to place. That was a nice feeling. It almost felt like the afternoon again.

He moved toward the glass door to the balcony, then stopped and placed the letter on the cabinet. The door slid open at his approach and he stepped outside, breathing fresh, cool air.

Of course, the view was great.

It was just starting to get dark and Paris was subtly making its nightly transformation. The screens came out at night, always blinking into existence when your back was turned and then advertising tourist spots or prestigious companies, or just displaying artworks on the side of every building and the corner of every street. Warm, natural-looking lights bathed everything in sight with comfortably-familiar painting and sculpture, and works of commerce. Frame by frame the city dropped from white and silver to black and gold.

The Eiffel Tower, which Robert’s room was situated to face, was not yet lit. For a little while he considered waiting for it, but not for long. He had seen the Tower by night a few times now.

Glancing back to the room, looking for some comfort or distraction, he caught sight of his reflection in the glass panel wall separating the balcony.

He looked so good.

How many people could say they looked this good, he wondered? Even for a week? Most celebrities, most vid-actors, would stare with envy at this sight. He looked like a secret agent or something with this gun in his hand, on his way to save the world or whatever.

How many people could just turn around and casually remember that they looked like this?

Robert could, right then.

That new watch of his would never be as new again, and it would never look quite as good as it did on him. It would never match anybody’s hair and skin tones as wonderfully as it did his.

He’d had that.

The corpse he would leave tonight, the one that would bare his name at the hospital and then the police station, that would smile reassuringly next to his face in the newsfeeds tonight, that would always, in some way, be his –

The corpse would be beautiful.

He had thought about jumping, several times, but he always changed his mind. As grand and attention-grabbing as such a thing would surely be, it would have been far too risky. Bodies were tough and easily repairable. He needed to damage the only part of himself that he had been born with. And, God, he was scared.

Robert turned back to his city rooftop view and opened his mouth, shoving the gun’s barrel up against his skull and frowning awkwardly.

Before he was ready, he fired. The body dropped to the floor.

And Robert couldn’t concentrate but he thought he saw a blue box flash in front of his eyes, obscuring everything, panicking him. Something about a report and some numbers. Something about damaged nervous processors and a temporary shut down and emergency call-out. It was gone a moment later.

The next thing he saw was a cheap, white-painted ceiling. There were faded and peeled spots all along and replacement wood panels to cover damage and stains. He could move but his back hurt like hell and all he could see were the tops of Formica tables and a few clunky old screens and sensors, mostly with mains-connection wires and flat displays. A hospital ward or a workshop floor, he couldn’t tell, but it wasn’t built for luxury.

He tried as hard as he could to relax and pretend it wasn’t happening, but he knew it was a waste of time. The steady, rhythmic beeping of a stem monitor was driving him crazy.

Tuesday Morning Visitors

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2012
A young woman goes to church to speak to God. Someone hears.

The ceiling is gorgeous. It’s not that it has some great artwork painted on it, or even that the wood is beautiful. It’s that it’s so high. I can barely see it and that makes all the difference somehow. It looks nearly black from here.

Swallow. Hm. It looks lovely.

Breathe. Nobody can hear. Breathe easier. God, why have I never come here before? I mean, ahh, ‘gosh’. Yeah. Sorry. If you’re, ah, listening. Ha.

Eva was unaware of her pupils expanding, didn’t realise how adorable it looked. Her hands were held together in an unconscious if right-spirited imitation of prayer, and the angle of her head made her straight mouth look like a perfectly innocent frown. She wore heels, a soft red overcoat and black tights. Had there been someone in the rafters to stare back at her, he would have smiled: she looked like a very sad cartoon puppy. Some footsteps from the street outside shook her concentration and made her notice the floor-tiles instead. They were good too.

She stood beneath the cathedral’s Lantern Window, although she never learned the name of it. To her mind it was ‘the big candelabra near the gift shop’, which was actually not a shop, but just a few leaflet-racks and a desk for conversation. Ahead of her lay twenty polished wooden pews leading to the Sanctuary.

It’s all very pretty.

To Eva’s right was the open doorway to Church Street. The city shopping district was the same as any in England, maybe a little greener and quieter than most, but here inside was a beautifully-made hall she had never gotten around to seeing. An older chap sat a few yards ahead, very still and reverent in a way that Eva felt her own generation were never quite able to replicate.

Something to do with attention spans.

It had nothing to do with attention spans. And although she would never realise, Eva was reverential enough, in her own way. She listened carefully when people spoke to her and she worried herself with it. In a roundabout way, she had learned this strength from her mother, who had been just the opposite. The standard rebellious stage people go through in their teens and early twenties had ended very neatly for Eva, leaving her strong and humble, and comfortable if a bit nervous. Her first dalliance with true love, via an excitable research student named Craig, had come to a more untidy end. This had all happened years ago, and Sheffield had grown on her, but often when annoyed she would think of Craig, sometimes without even noticing. She had a habit of giving the ‘silent treatment’ to her dog.

After a few minutes, just admiring the church hall didn’t entertain her anymore. She took a few steps forward and sat down, three rows behind the old man. Without noticing, she held one eye on the slab of sunlight laid by the door. Since stepping inside, she had carried herself like a newly-qualified teacher looking for a staff room, or someone proud asking for a bank loan. A little jumping nerve irritated the back of her neck very slightly, which she scratched absently, enjoying the satisfaction whilst thinking of other things.

I don’t want to be here after twelve and get caught up in the service. I have to cook today, and I’ll need to look around for bath towels. I need to do what I came here to do. Swallow.

Don’t breathe too loud. Don’t disturb that man.

And now I’m just looking at a stained-glass window. Jesus looks kinda weird here.

It was true. In the window the Messiah appeared silver-skinned, with his wavy hair and halo both dyed the same kind of off-yellow. The toga he wore was a bright, heavy red and he had a big sausage-hand stretching out to somebody invisible. To Eva, He looked grumpy, sick and alien. She was not alone, but a few people loved that window.

I don’t know what that facial expression is supposed to represent.

Ten minutes passed as Eva mused about ancient Rome, and then mentally replayed scenes from Ben Hur and Spartacus, confusing herself with the twisted plotlines. There was a weary kind of smile on her lips as she snapped out of it.

Okay. I want to talk to you. If you are there.

I haven’t prayed in years, and I’m not sure I believe in you. So, sorry. But for whatever it’s worth, I want to talk to you.

Ahead of Eva were three little altars. One was all but empty, just a pedestal. One was a mess of candles and the other held more stained glass. There was no need to light candles at this time of day.

The whole building is full of little bloody symbols I don’t understand. As if I’m visiting a little boy’s den. Ehhh…

The air feels cleaner in here, easier to breathe. Someone works hard to keep this place so austere.

As a matter of fact, the upkeep of the Cathedral was divided into three fairly simple shifts and shared gamely by friends of the building. It was a self-perpetuating thing: such was the cold beauty of the hall that visitors tended not to bring much dirt in, and were careful to leave no mess.

I want to ask what I have to live for.

Every morning I force myself to get up early…

Eva worked in the evenings, at the restaurant attached to a small theatre that used to be a cotton mill. There were no real demands, from engagements, conscience or social life: nothing to justify her getting up early.

…and I feel like I should take pride in it, in having some control, but I hate the mornings.

I don’t like my job anymore. I don’t exactly like the flat, but I don’t want to move. I’m not happy being single but I do not want to go on dates with strangers. I don’t enjoy myself anymore.

There was silence, as always, and unfortunately the Reverend Cowling, some way away by the Hunter’s room, chose this moment to cough. The sound immediately shamed Eva. She felt as if she ought to blush, but did not.

That’s all. I sound like a spoiled child who has to finish her homework. ‘I don’t enjoy myself any more’.

For a second she wished someone she knew had died. That she were grieving. She would have been more comfortable that way, for this moment at least.

Her mother used to say that God is everywhere and time and culture have no meaning for Him, but if you’re going to ask Him favours then you should go to His own house and dress up a bit.

This is a terrible prayer. I’m not used to begging. I don’t know how to do this.

I want to know if life is worth living, and if it is then why I don’t agree. It’s not that I’m complaining about my life… exactly. I feel as if I just don’t know how to use it.

I have a dry throat now. I should have had some coffee, but I didn’t know if there was a toilet near here. Swallow. Again.

And I hate what I’m doing here. These gaudy window-pictures of Christ don’t show him being crucified, but they remind me of it anyway.

‘A man who let himself be tortured to save strangers, and then spent two thousand years making them feel guilty and having them surround themselves with pictures of it.’ This is the description of Christ she would think of later that day and tell an atheist co-worker the next morning. When she did, she would think of this picture and get lost in thought.

I’m sorry. If you’re actually hearing this, I’m sorry. I just don’t feel like I should be here. I don’t really have anything specific to ask.

Ah… How is my brother?

He was fine. Lately he had reconsidered joining the military to ‘make something of himself’, and though their mother had neglected to mention this to Eva during Skype calls or email correspondence, her concern showed through. He still felt bad about the last argument he and Eva had before she left home. He was interested in a girl who he thought was too good for him, and this had made him spend more time alone.

Or… I guess… or how are, ah… I don’t know. I can’t concentrate. It’s one thing to walk into a church and start demanding answers, but another thing to walk out in a huff.

How’s Craig?

Craig was, exactly as she suspected, very happy with another woman. He was working a small office job which left him dissatisfied but he was able to delude himself very well, and when this didn’t work found joy in other things. He occasionally thought of Eva, but did not truly miss her anymore.

What am I supposed to live for?

The old man is leaving. He looks exactly like the people who sit in front of me on the bus. I think he just noticed me looking and smiled at me, and I missed it. Never mind. He looked happy. Probably got whatever he came here for. Whatever it is that people do come for.

It took a while, but the man (Bill)’s footsteps got quieter. She found his footsteps heavy, awkwardly-placed, careless, and didn’t know whether to be slightly annoyed or feel a little sorry for him. When she lost patience thinking about that, Eva trotted over to the candles in the right-hand chapel. This, more than any area of the Cathedral, looked untidy. There were rows of lit candles, some at slight angles and some straight but melted-down, all supported by a short wooden test-tube rack and all made into funny shapes by the way the wax had slid down and cooled at the bottom. There was a row of fresh ones, separated from the others. One was upside down, for reasons no-one knew.

And what’s the point of this? What do they mean?

They were a way to make visitors feel at home. As well, the light was symbolic of God’s presence. It was that simple.

I’m going to light one of the candles. Good.

She picked one of average length from the left and held it against the brightest flame, centre-second row. The look on her face and the slow breath through her nose challenged the act to mean something, to change something. As if she were threatening it not to.

Swallow. And put it back. In her grip the candle rattled against the wood, but the frictionless wax made it silent. She felt it.

What’s the point, here?

The point was very hard to explain.

I suppose there are just some things that people want to know.

Even when you won’t tell them.

 

Eva lost her interest in the display quickly but glanced at the top of the chapel archway before she left. Now that she had a good view of the old stonework, she lingered for a moment, frowning. And just like that, she was done thinking.

It took her a minute to reach the street again, during which she distracted herself by frowning until it hurt just a little and pushing her thumbs against her palms. Once she was off Church street and in a quiet spot outside a bar, she spat at the floor.

Michael, a nineteen-year-old boy with a large camera around his neck, briefly admired her figure before stepping into the cathedral himself. For a minute he stood and nodded, wondering if he would be allowed to take pictures, and then simply wondering if anyone would stop him.

The camera was expensive and new. At the time, Michael had an idea about pursuing photography as a career, and had already livened-up a few of his days wandering the city and finding unusual shots. He lacked skill but was at least serious enough to recognise that fact, and understood that he had a knack. In his way, he wondered if he might finally be able to impress his dad if one of his little hobbies turned out to be a bit more serious, and maybe even made him some money down the line.

Reverend Cowling shooed him out five minutes before time so that he could prepare for the afternoon service. Michael didn’t manage to take any photographs, but the fresh air was nice.