Summer 2020

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2021

Two former friends meet up for brunch after everything has changed. They sit and watch the divide.

“Yeah,” I sigh, “Yeah all right, obviously all lives matter.” She throws a little shrug as if to graciously accept my surrender. I hold up a forefinger – let me finish. Her limbs give way. “But all lives aren’t being snuffed out by cops kneeling on their goddamn necks!”

Katie’s expression dismisses me immediately. She raises her own forefinger when a waitress comes over, smiles and takes our coffee cups.

The waitress is Mexican. We’re silent. I pretend to fix my hair and glance at the protesters outside. Katie sees someone get out of the elevators.

Could she hear us? And fuck, why am I embarrassed? Plus she’s not even black. Still.

When she’s gone –

“You know that man was resisting arrest. Amy, he was intoxicated, he was talking back top the –”

“Jesus Christ, shut up! Christ. I don’t want to hear – just shut up!

Katie shuts up. She looks as exhausted as I am, and my raised voice has shaken us both out of it. We hold eye contact but after a little while it’s too much. I hope no-one’s listening.

The bar staff look either Asian or Indian or something. There was a white lady at the front desk, she had an accent. I guess hotels don’t pay too good. The restaurant staff are all super polite. This is why you have to tip.

I suddenly feel a little ill, being served. It was a mistake coming here.

It’s just – they serve real good brunch. Katie and I used to make our dates come along because the place was ours. Safe. We never rented a room, hell I don’t think we ever made reservations for dinner, but we had the place for brunch. Even when we moved out of town and it wasn’t practical, we kept coming back. Right until college.

The front of the ground floor restaurant is just a clean wall of glass, curling around to meet the concrete in five flat sheets at each end, like a geodesic dome. We used to people-watch from here.

I glance outside again. It’s really filling up out there. Young black folks, some whites among them – allies – cool-looking people. I should be there. I didn’t know about the protest. I knew they were going on across the country, I’ve seen the news. I didn’t know there’d be one here, today. Maybe I should get out there. Can you just show up and start chanting?

Lots of signs that look like ripped cardboard – the sides of packing boxes, stuff like that. Slogans on them in Sharpie or poster paint.

Black Lives Matter, obviously. I Can’t Breathe. He Mattered. Silence = Complicity. White Silence is White Violence. Let Me Breathe. Say Their Names. And the names.

George Floyd. David McAtee. Joy Gardner. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Kalief Browder. Ahmaud Arbery. Tamir Rice. Breonna Taylor. Laquan McDonald. Atatiana Jefferson. Mark Duggan. Sheku Bayoh. How Many More.

I hear Katie’s hands in her purse. I open the plastic wrapper of my biscotti, rather than say anything.

She mumbles, “Terrorists,” to herself, loud enough for me to hear. I just close my eyes.

This was a huge mistake. I knew our friendship had suffered. I knew it was my fault. And I knew that it was too late to get it all back once Trump had happened and we had gone our separate ways. Why did we bother meeting up?

We didn’t used to care about politics.

If Katie’s mom were still alive she’d slap her silly for that confederate statue shit on Facebook. What a night that was, reading that god-damn diatribe that just showed up on my phone. I had read a lot of it before I unfollowed. It sounded like someone else. There was so much glee in there. This was a high school bully asserting herself over younger kids, holding heads in toilets and laughing – getting off on the power as she out-argued friends and strangers, winning rightness by superior logic. Maybe she always had that inside her, waiting for the confidence to help it out, but I never saw it.

It’s not the woman who’s sitting across from me, who reached out to me to have brunch again and hugged me an hour ago, before it all started outside. We were just girls in our day. I don’t recognise her hair either. Or the heels.

There’s a loud thud from outside and everyone looks, tenses. There are so many people out there now. And cops. Someone is getting up off the floor – just tripped I think. So many protesters now you can hardly see the street. Should they be social distancing, with coronavirus and all? I don’t know. Maybe this is more important. I don’t know.

As if to mock me Katie speaks up. “Where did all this liberal shit come from, Ames?”

Hell, where did it come from? New friends, I guess. New talk show hosts. New tweets, new channels. Or whatever.

In a moment, the slow-marching river of people outside surges. Suddenly it’s not a march, it’s running, yelling, we can hear muffled voices. Cops on two sides, closing, shields.

And now the cops are running too. Mouths open. Some of them with arms out – trying to say something. Faster when no-one hears.

I wonder if my car is safe out back.

In the chaos, there’s a moment when a woman is shoved into the glass, hard enough to shake it in its translucent fixtures. Her skin is real dark, a varnish of sweat bringing out a kind of hot maroon in the glass, between her cornrows. Inside our hotel lobby, there’s a silence. This woman has a shield pressed into her back and her arms are sticking out at painful angles. She looks dazed – her head is what shook the glass – but she’s scanning all of our eyes.

I only notice that my body has frozen stiff when I try to move my neck. As I sit there with my biscotti between thumb and forefinger, wobbling a touch, I panic.

Everyone in the restaurant is fixed on this, but backing up. There’s a lot of murmuring, people getting scared.

I should –

The shield relents. The woman gets up and throws herself like a doll, between a white couple with a big sign – wood, not cardboard. They instinctively let her through the gap and brandish the sign like a shield of their own. She’s gone. Someone else is yelling something a few feet further up, but I can’t see them. By now the protesters are moving off of the high street and splitting up, spilling randomly into side streets. Faster and faster.

It just goes on, like the news, while we watch.

And then it eases. It’s passed us.

I relax my fingers once enough people have dispersed. The police are calming; they’re no longer giving chase.

Katie says my name.

“You wanna go home?”

True Love

by Chris Buchanan
Flash fiction, 2015

Cupid lined up the sights of a crossbow that was wider than his body and almost as long, hearing the resistance from the wire against the metal and loving it. He felt that wire pushing the polish aside and gripping it, twanging off it like tiny guitar licks. Felt it right in his neck bones. He was like a part of it, squidged on to the end, the life hidden behind the trigger.

He loaded one bolt: ratcheted it up like a handbrake, like he could make it as tense as he wanted, like it would never stop getting tighter until he stopped.

Before it hit the back of the John’s head, the bolt got away from him.

Pasties

by Chris Buchanan
Flash fiction, 2015

She told me they were called pasties. Paste-ies. I’d been pronouncing it wrong.

It made me think of paste in my mouth. I couldn’t kiss her. I made up some excuse.

I say ‘some excuse’.

I actually remember the excuse perfectly. And the way she laughed, and put her hands on her hips like a mom in a sitcom, and how her mouth went from a soft, red, firm jello Betty Boop hillock to a big, creased, open hangar. Not who I’d wanted her to be.

I’ll never be able to forget what I’d said to cause it, or how I saw her jaw loosening. Or that feeling of helplessness. Trying to think of a way to stop it all. Next time I saw her she was brushing her teeth.

I Told Charon

by Chris Buchanan
Flash fiction, 2015

I told Charon when the ferry ride turned out to be longer than I expected, I told him – it’s not the voices that make the Sirens attractive. None of us appreciate good singing that much. And it’s not just because we’re sailors. Men might be closer to beasts than the rest, but we’re not dogs. We don’t just spend some time on a boat and then throw our pants off and lunge into the sea the moment we hear a high voice. There’s more to it than that, I told him. He had a skull for a head; he just looked at me for a second while his fingers silently rotated the coin I’d given him.

See I dived in before I’d heard their voices. I saw them there on the rock. And I won’t pretend I hadn’t seen their long hair. Good hair. And after a few strokes it became obvious that they were naked, and after a few strokes more they were swaying. I was doing the front crawl; apart from those few glances, I had nothing to go on. All I was sensing was salt, cold, seaweed.

I jammed my fingers in my ears, right, breathed, opened the eyes and shook my head. Took one look at the tits, the hips, then I dived underwater to see the horrorshow underneath. I wanted to know what was there, didn’t I?

People who go to sea say ‘indescribable’ a lot when they don’t want to describe something. It was mostly black, lots of parts to it, a lot of thickness, a lot of tendrils, something round and flat that it was all trailing away from at the surface. Something like wide muscles. No sound. No faces on it.

Their faces were up top. I went up, don’t know if I breathed even, just went back up. Their faces were up there. Just women’s faces, is all they were. Like the Cyclops is just a big ugly man. Just women matted together here, at the tails, like rat kings.

One of them saw me emerging: the brunette. I caught her eye.

You Have

by Chris Buchanan
Flash fiction, 2015

Ian was at the door looking like an old man all of a sudden. Slip-ons, elbow patches, perfect creases, and when I looked again, his skin. He was watching me look at him, waiting for me to get used to it. I had to help him in.

“You might not believe my story, but I have one. So just listen,” he said, hurried. I prodded at him, laughing, looking for the rubber mask or the makeup. He laughed back and let me, at one point trying to touch my face in return. He laid down on the sofa when I let him. His voice was close enough to Ian’s, but not. What he had said sounded like a wheeze that he was trying to fashion into words.

“I’m just tired,” he said. “I’ve just travelled back in time.” He gave me an exaggerated look, like he was scolding a child.

I had a lot of questions that I couldn’t quite get out of my mouth, as though they were too large, had ends and prongs that were trapping them in there. Ian answered all of them by saying, “Really.”

He muttered that it was good to see me, almost snoring when he breathed afterwards, though his arm juddered up at me, like some sort of reflex. I felt like I ought to grab his hand and squeeze it, but I wouldn’t. I was indignant somehow. I wasn’t ready for that. Not ready to accept this man. “I have to-” he wheezed. The next breath came easier through his nose. The third time, his lip twitched and he tried speaking again. “Listen. You have-”

I patted his shoulder and let him fall asleep with a frown. Shut up, old man.

I got up and paced the room, realised that this hadn’t changed anything, knealt down by his side again. I thought about calling Ian’s mobile but I knew I might freak out if he answered. So I just looked, refusing to go any faster than I had to, until I was used to it. Time travel had happened. This was Ian.

Ian. All right.

Right.

I got him a blanket and a pillow, which slowed the wheezing down a bit, carefully carried a dining room chair over to the sofa and stayed in the room, thinking I’d watch him until he woke. He didn’t wake. It took me another long while to accept that he was dead. I shook him for hours.

Blinks

by Chris Buchanan
Flash fiction, 2014

The hand comes up on my shoulder and grips with a purpose. That purpose. He’s not trying to get my attention, or remind me he’s behind me, or make some point about intimacy; he’s gripping my shoulder. He presses with every segment of his fingers, in sequence. No deeper meaning here, no code: he just wants me to know he’s gripped my shoulder. All right. No doubts about it.

And he says, “It’s what she would have wanted.”

Oh is it? Oh, well, glad you let me in on that. So now not only is she dead but it turns out my brother knew her better than I did. Awesome, thank you for that. What else would she have wanted, Jay? Maybe I would have done it.

He says “It’s okay” and I can picture him making a face. I don’t spend the energy to tell him that it’s not actually okay and that she is in fact dead. I might get mad, get teary, start running, anything. And he could do whatever he wanted with any of those things. I feel like I’m trying to argue with the designated driver at the end of a long night out. I know I’m right, I know he’s being a dick, I know none of this is really my fault and in the morning I’ll still suspect it, but I can’t say anything in case I throw up.

He takes my hand and pulls the cables I’m holding, forces my knuckles. So he’s doing it, but we can pretend I’m doing it. That certainly is the ideal solution right there, Jay. It’s kind of conspiratorial, yeah? Good then. You do it.

The house lights up. He’s done a good job arranging them into a little scene. It looks like the Santa in his weird little yellow car – we loved that one – is about to fall off the blue gingerbread house onto the ski slope. The reindeer are scattered about the house at various points, as though chasing each other. Good work. It all blinks right – no piece of wall stays dark for too long. Silent. He doesn’t click for the ‘ho ho ho’.

I say something I’d rather not repeat, he says something I didn’t even understand, and he hits me on the back with a careful aim.

He’s out of there very quickly after the lights go up, when the headlamps of their car jump in and we turn away from the colours. Annie’s bobble hat is behind the light and it looks like she sees me looking at her. She must be proud. Jay certainly is. He swivels halfway back to me and nods at something he didn’t share with me, then slowly spins back away.

The decorations blinking to one side, to distract me from his exit and the awkward scene change. APPLAUSE.

See more of my flash-fiction in my new Amazon e-book! Please.

The Hundred Things — e-book now on sale

My first e-book is now available on Amazon for e-readers and PC!

The Hundred Things is a collection of flash-fiction I’ve been working on here and there for a few years. 100 stories with exactly 100 words each. For just under 100 pennies! See what I did there.

Tiny pieces telling a hundred stories. Love, parenting, comets, the Gunpowder Plot, playing D&D after the apocalypse and ninety-five more.

Coversuggestion

Cover art by Eleni Tsami of Planewalk.net

Amber’s Ward

by Chris Buchanan
Flash fiction, 2010

The stockroom is faded and blurred at the edges, like her. I don’t exactly know if it’s too dark in here or if I just need to blink. I don’t want to close my eyes so I try not to think about it.

She’s just sat here, barely glancing at me but holding me still with her silent shuffling. If I could concentrate I might be able to identify the specks across her cheek. It’s either mud or blood. It’s dark and it’s dry, so I can’t say, even at this distance. She keeps scraping off the spots, usually cracking or crumbling them when her nail hits their edges. Now she has gotten better at lifting them off in one piece. Whenever she successfully pries one away, she flicks it at me and mimes chuckling. They’re on my face now, too, but I don’t mind.

I had decided the stories about the A&E at night must be an outlet for the stress the doctors go through. They call it ‘the grey lady’s ward’ sometimes. I didn’t want to think that Preston Royal was staffed by crazy people, so I made excuses for them. In some jobs, maybe you just need to believe in an afterlife. Only the doctors and nurses ever claim to see her. Never the hired help, even those who have been here longer than me. Just those people who come to work each day knowing that they might fail to save someone’s life.

But now she’s right here, with me, next to an aluminium cabinet, smiling with her head cocked. How have I never noticed her? When she smiles at me like that, I don’t know what she means by it and my feet feel light. Sometimes I twitch and she turns her face as if to laugh. Maybe she just finds me funny.

She would have caught my attention even in life. Her hair is blonde, I suppose. I might be able to tell if I could just rub the sleep from my eyes or splash some water across them. I have to wonder what all this ‘grey lady’ stuff is about; she’s wearing a football shirt and I never heard of any Newcastle player named ‘Amber’. Has nobody spent enough time in her presence to look at her back?

They’re too busy, eh. I would have made a terrible doctor. I took the time to learn her name. And I’m staying with her. They’ll just have to run their own errands tonight. This is important. I wonder what happens to her during the daytime. I’ll stay and watch. I think she wants me to stay with her.

Another dot of mud-or-blood hits me, on the nose this time, but I don’t react. She stares at me and I try to read her expression.

The dots are on her shirt, too, only visible on the white stripes. They merge into a black splash on her legs, beneath the shorts. Finally I work it out; she’s been playing football. It’s just mud. With relief I move to cradle my head in my hands. There is more of the mud on my sleeves.

Of course it’s mud. She snapped the bones playing football. That’s why she came in. That’s why they needed me to hurry down here and fetch Doctor Hay. It was an emergency. She wasn’t here and I looked in the stockroom. But I never left. I couldn’t find her and I panicked.

After a while, I relaxed. It didn’t matter. She was with me. I was too careful, too nervous to save her, but she’s here with me now. Smiling.

There is a harshness to that smile now. The more I remember, the closer her face seems to come to mine. I am reminded of how small the room is. I think I hear the studs of her boots squeak a little against the floor.

The door opens above us, momentarily stealing my attention. When I glance back, she’s gone. A nurse is here and she looks frightened by something. She must have seen Amber vanish. I hate myself for missing it and I hate the nurse for disturbing me. She has to drag me out as I scrabble and try to flick the mud onto her. I feel myself grappling against her, determined to stay here and wait. She gets me out and I am still.

I have never seen Casualty this busy. As the night ends, the corridor is full of patients, each one’s image as colourless and undefined as the girl I have been watching. Each one grey in their own way. When the nurse finally sees them she loosens her grip and stares into the corridor, unblinking. Maybe she recognises somebody too.

The ghosts are everywhere, silently shifting into the rooms and into reception. Amber is by the vending machine, giggling. I run.

Smiler

by Chris Buchanan
Flash fiction, 2013

I got lucky straight off the bat. Third day on the job. Let me tell you though, those first two days were the stuff of adventure books: angst, falling in love, rising to challenges, making amazing discoveries, secret identity and learning all the beginners’ lessons about responsibility and stuff. All the stuff that they make the movies out of, before the capes’ lives start to get boring and the relationships beak up and after a while nobody thinks their powers are exactly ‘super’, just kinda cool. And they get their sponsorship deals fixed and everything. All the romance is gone and they’re just getting the job done.

We have three names. Not everyone knows that. There’s the name we got before we got lucky, you know, Whatever Man, Incredible Gal, The Human, you know, rhino or whatever. Then there’s our real, actual names, which even though they’re out in the open now we still only really use with girlfriends and so on, and nobody ever seems to remember them. And then there’s the names that we call one another. I guess we still like the idea of little secret names and underworlds, you know, like to pretend that we’re still disconnected from the public. Does any other profession still have this problem? It seems very adolescent, doesn’t it? Firemen, they’re heroic, right? As much as we are. They don’t have secret names.

My name among the fraternity is ‘the smiler’. The idea is that because I started in the seventies and I got lucky nice and quick, I’m some sort of wise old man who knows everything and watches over the other capes with a wry, old man smile, you know. You know. I’m not sure why they want to think of me that way. Back in the day the name was Captain Amazing of course. Seventies, like I said. Ha ha. Golden Age. That’s what we call the, uh, early days. Nowadays you’re not allowed to call yourself Captain-something if you’re not in the military or the police. Can’t complain about that.

They don’t call us super-heroes anymore, do they? Again, I don’t think I can disagree with that. I mean I’d like to say I was outraged and that nobody remembers what wonderful things we did for them and the world is such a miserable place these days, but that would be bull. Super-heroes was always stretching it a bit, and we always knew that. What we are is people born with birth defects or with very odd childhoods and exceptional skills who work on an independent basis as either vigilantes or an emergency service. Super, not really. Plus it’s not really a good attitude to describe people with strange abilities as super, is it? That’s one step away from special. Ha ha, poor old Ladybug Man used to complain a lot – said it was like being in a Victorian freak show, being called that. But he was the one who drew a little ladybug on his jumpsuit! I was always trying to paint spots on his, uh, ha ha ha. I don’t do that anymore.

And as for heroes, well pal, you hang out with some of these people, you know? Huh. You hang out with The… well I won’t embarrass him, but we call him Mister Stretch! They’ll all know what I mean. They’ll all know what I’m saying. And it’s not who you’re thinking, by the way. You don’t have to be heroic to get into the business. But I don’t even want to get into the whole issue of what heroes are, or aren’t. If you see people doing what they can instead of working regular jobs as heroes, then sure.

Maybe we were heroes when we had the secret identities, i.e. when we worked another job and had to juggle between the two. Is that what makes a hero – his financial situation? Back when we were constantly getting dumped for failing to show up to dates and not paying enough attention to our families. Heroic? I said I didn’t want to get into this. We certainly were different back then, when we wore the costumes under a shirt and tie. Some of them still do: I have no idea why. Naming no names, again. Let’s just say there’s a certain cape who never wears short sleeves and goes around pretending to be a newspaper editor and leave it at that! Let’s just say… nah, his name is kind of obvious, so. He’s a weird guy though.

I got lucky early. Third day of flying around and fighting crime on the streets of New York. I thought I was invincible and I thought I was brave. Yadda yadda yadda, a city block destroyed completely by what used to be called a super-villain. I fail to stop it, I fail to save my girlfriend’s life, I fail to save anybody’s life, and yes, I make it that much worse by floundering around feeling sorry for myself and getting in the way. Entirely my fault. Headline writers can’t quite bring themselves to call me Captain Amazing, not even in a sarcastic way. And why did I fuck it up? Because I was in a phone booth, getting changed, and I was late. I didn’t want people to know my real name. I was worried about the people close to me.

And every day since then has been quite dull, by comparison. Now that I know my limits, know what I’m doing, and prize doing a good job over any sort of sense of adventure. We all do a better job nowadays. We’re on call, all day every day, with sensible shifts and sensibly-structured teams and management, you know? Police protection for family and loved ones. And no secret identities. Names are all police checked. Nobody goes rogue any more and turns ‘villain’, in fact when was the last time you even heard of a villain? I guess we’re no fun to fight any more. Good.

Two days of high adventure and melodrama, one catastrophe, and a lifetime of solid work. Lot of lives saved. Very lucky, I’d say. There are a lot of youngsters still doing the job, and one or two still have the urge to come into the office and make out like there’s some huge emergency or impossible choice they have to make. We have counsellors and stuff. And we’re five days on, two weeks off now, too. They’re even talking about government funding! Which, honestly, would be a really nice relief. Just between you and me, here, I hate wearing ‘Duracell’ and ‘Vodafone’ and ‘Shell’ all over my uniform, you know? So even if there was a serious pay cut, I’ll be voting for that.

Yeah, it’s okay now. It’s all okay for us.

The Last Two

by Chris Buchanan
Flash fiction, 2013

It doesn’t matter when it happened for now. It happened. It will never matter whose fault it was, and it doesn’t matter if it could have been prevented. It was not. There were billions of survivor stories and all of them would have broken your heart or re-affirmed it and those stories meant everything to the people involved. But they don’t matter now. They are all dead and none of you have time or a special purpose to hear any of it.

If there really must be a eulogy, the ending was a nice story and fairly representative of how they all lived. The very last two human beings were a man and a woman. They had only known one another for a few days. Both of them were experiencing severe shock from their loved ones’ deaths, which made them appear calmer than they were. They had gotten themselves trapped in a collapsing building in what had been one of the first cities ever built, and they had lost the other people they were with. They had no energy left. They might have survived longer if they had found some.

What was nice was that neither one of them held any sort of illusion that their reasons for not running were anything other than exhaustion. They slumped down against a white wall covered in scuff marks that looked like a pattern, then they fell into place like discarded dolls in a toybox. They held eye contact but not because they were in love or holing onto hope, or telling themselves that they were having some sort of beautiful epiphany in the final moment: something that made it all worth while.

Nothing like that. They just slumped and looked at the most interesting thing in the room, which in both cases was another human, and thought about whatever they had to think about. No pressure, no urgency to say something important, no need to communicate. It was no great thing, but if the two people had been slightly more lucid, they would have thought that was quite good. They would have enjoyed something about the position they were in.

They never knew that they were the last two. There was so much they didn’t know, now that there were so few of them. The species had lost more than it understood with every set of lungs that stopped. Two didn’t do much.

It doesn’t matter what their names were, less still what they looked like or how old they were, what particular places they had fitted into and how. No-one would know the differences now, and they made very little difference to what happened.

Amid the familiar sounds of crashing glass and slamming concrete and metal, in a moment there was something harsher, some noise. Both of them jumped a bit and held their shoulders tense. it was the beginning of an electrical fire but they would never know it. For no reason other than that it seemed true, one of them said, “You have beautiful eyes”. That was the last piece of language. The ceiling caved in. The power went out and then, as though there was a consideration for modesty, we lost our last eye.