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

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.

Stars

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2010

Dan welcomes his ex-wife to the horoscope segment of the BBC Radio Merseyside afternoon show. He does not care for horoscopes.

I was the funny host at Radio Merseyside. DJ’s there were divided into three distinct groups, as per BBC local broadcast policy. There were young lads who tried to be funny, old men who tried not to be, and me. That’s why I got the afternoon show so quickly, and how I kept it.

Don’t get me wrong, now: I was never anything special. I was never national quality, although I always suspected that if I was, then the accent would have held me back. Don’t hear too many Scousers in the top presenting jobs. But I didn’t belong up there by rights. I was right where I deserved, in the crumbly, understaffed halls of mediocrity, Paradise Street.

On the day of my last show, I remember staring at the clock until ten minutes before the end.

Jessica Jones finally mooched into the studio without anyone letting her in. She just hung up her very silly furry coat, sat down, pressed her knees together and made that stupid smile where it’s not really a smile so much as a deliberately bad impression of one. She thought it made her look innocent and sweet. It made her look like a liar, I had always thought. I smiled back. ‘Just in time,’ I mouthed. She pursed her lips in exaggerated confusion, then pretended to figure it out when I abandoned the charade and signalled to put her headphones on.

Simon and Garfunkel were faded-out prematurely and replaced by what was labelled ‘astrology ambiance medley’, but known in the building as ‘new age shite tape’. Pan pipes and chimes.

‘We say farewell to the wonderful Sound of Silence, there,’ I announced happily to the mic, ‘and welcome back to Miss Jessica Jones! Astrologer…’ and I paused there because she had written-in requesting me to, ‘to the stars.’

She hadn’t bothered with the make-up today, I noticed when she looked-up. It made a nice change. The milky, still glance she shot me was either to thank me for including her pun, or admonishing me for the little ‘silence’ gag, it was impossible to tell which. Even without them painted, I couldn’t read her eyes.

Come to think of it, she looked just about normal. No big ear-rings, no ten-years-too-young corset or anything. It was a black jumper and almost not-shiny trousers. She’d never been in the studio, not for the astrology anyway, looking like that. She looked nice. I did notice that.

‘Good afternoon, Daniel,’ she replied. Daniel. I didn’t know if I’d annoyed her or if we’d just become so formal that ‘Daniel’ seemed right to her. I suppose I wasn’t exactly calling her ‘Jess’ these days, so fair enough, but…

‘So what have you got for us this month?’

‘Well, it’s going to be a very busy time, at least for the next couple of weeks, for all of us. There are some very interesting… shifts, which I shall get to later.’ She sounded robotic when she recited her reports, as if she took no joy in the work. Like even she didn’t believe in what she was saying. I had to wonder about that. Shifts.

I nodded with the best dopiness I could muster. ‘Right,’ I said, ‘what kind of shifts are we talking about?’

‘Well we have a full moon starting tonight…’

Yes, much like every month. ‘Yikes. Is that unusual, Jessica?’ I grinned.

Boldly, she ignored it. ‘Now, you’re a Cancerian, of course.’

‘You remembered!’

‘I did. And the moon is your ruler, obviously.’ On the recording you can hear my chuckling at that point. It’s not me being spiteful; it was purely by accident. What I said afterwards was spite, but I thought I might as well after laughing at her.

‘Well, obviously, yeah. I never leave the house without consulting the moon. You can tell by looking at me. Funny thing is, whatever I ask, it always just gives me this sad face.’

‘Right…’

‘It’s depressing.’

‘The moon is your ruler, Cancer, and it will be full tonight and it will be in Taurus. Taurus is the part of your sign that deals with group activities, which seems lovely, but remember that the full moon is all about letting go. So, that’s maybe something you should think about now.’

Well how bloody specific. How nice of whoever created the universe to leave a complex system of stars and planets around the Earth in order to tell people born in June that they should maybe think about letting go around October.

Now before you start taking her side, thinking I was being a bit harsh, let me remind you that her last book was called The Venus Code, and that she bought a BMW with the profits. All right?

All right. ‘It could be anything,’ Jessica followed, still in her bored computer-voice, ‘a gathering of friends you no longer have time for, a work thing, or who knows, even your family. But you should say goodbye to whatever it is before it’s too late.’

Thoughts of gullible fools at home flitted through my mind. There must have been people at home who actually took her on, who sat at home with a pen and paper and based their lives around these random, vague platitudes she had strung together while waiting for a roast to cook.

She was vegetarian by then, actually, so no.

Some ‘Cancerian’ might just go and throw his family away, or something, because of this. Because the bloody moon was in bloody Taurus.

I stopped listening. My guest continued reading her fortunes as if they were shipping forecasts, while I slowly closed my eyes and smiled, tried to rise above the scene. Her droning and twittering dulled, leaving only the panpipes audible. The ill-fated listener in my thoughts was replaced by an image of stars against black. Five stars that apparently someone once thought looked a bit like a crab. They don’t. They look like the tips of great, shimmering mountains. Every one of those five is all we can see of a system of planets, like our own, or maybe different. We don’t know. Couldn’t possibly. Every one is unique, gorgeous, alone, except for that glassy, emotionless white dot that made it to our eyes. After all that time and space. Five of them.

‘Now, the Sun is changing signs now, moving to Mercury. This is veryexciting for Cancerians because…’

‘Awww, Jessica Jones, will you shut the fuck up?’

The astrologer frowned and creased her face at me, helplessly registering a mixture of caring and disgust. Honestly, it was wonderful for me to see that face again. That was Jessica Jones’ face. I’d missed it badly. I almost didn’t mind when I realised what I’d said on air.

‘Do you actually–’ I was sputtering now, but no plan of action came to me no matter how much time I bought myself. ‘Do you believe this stuff? That’s what I want to know. Are you in on the con, or did you somehow get sucked into this? Because the last time I knew you well enough, you were much, much smarter than this!’

I had known her well for seven years. I like to think I knew her better than anyone else ever did, but she’s changed so much that I suppose it doesn’t matter. And I understand she found a new fella the week after the divorce, anyway, so maybe I am just second-fiddle now. They’re still together, at time of writing. I certainly don’t know what the astrology was all about. We never talked about it, anyway. She wasn’t the type, back then.

I knew her well. Seven years. It was my fault she got interested in fame, and I’ll take the blame for that. I let her help on the show, made up the occasional comedy character for her to play. She loved it when I introduced her by her full name on the radio. It made her feel like a celebrity, I think. But I just haven’t got a clue why she went the way she did. Whether she believed in the horoscopes, or she just liked the celebrity. In our day she was brilliant. She used to wonder at everything she saw. Used to forgive too easily.

I swore some more while she watched, blank and empty. When I had clearly run out of steam Jessica walked out, very dignified. A few minutes later, Joe – Joe McCoy that is, producer at the time – politely asked me to do the same. Next time I saw her was on a street corner. She was shopping, I was looking for work. The conversation was awkward. We both kept our hands in our pockets.

But Jessica smiled a bit as we talked, a nice smile, like she used to, and even laughed at a few of my jokes. She always said she thought I was funny.

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.

Empty House

by Chris Buchanan
Flash fiction, 2012

The ghost looked more like a drawing of a woman; not a breathing body but just a collection of dry ink lines or etched cuts, setting into the walls and furniture. Everything she touched was marked with her thin, sharp lines. Everything became part of her.

The walls and the floor seemed as though they were tilting upwards, like a silent and gentle earth-quake, like someone was holding the house very carefully between finger and thumb and watching through the window. The ghost, even blacker as the light sled away from her and into the corners, the ghost stretched. The movement of what she had marked gave the illusion that she was coming to me, and a shadow made it look as though her eyes were moving.

More than anything I had ever wanted, I wanted to get out of the house. I chastised myself, the way my mother used to do, for ever wanting anything else. For ever worrying or being afraid, when this was the only moment that would actually require these emotions, these wishes. I felt as though I had nothing left now, that I had wasted my life.

The ghost seemed to shriek, like a mad animal who thought it was marking its territory. The mouth gaped unnaturally downwards as the house kept tilting. The spidery mass that looked like the trunk of her body grew longer and blacker. There was a bitter taste in the air, like rust and water.

I wanted to get out of the house. I didn’t want to believe it was real. And I wanted so badly to forget this.

The Vampire of Three Acres

by Chris Buchanan
Flash fiction, 2012

It was late September when Michael slipped away from his family’s house and ran to the woods. With cold hands in his hoodie pockets he jogged down the main road, under the watch of street lights who looked as though their thin metal poles were drooping under the weight of their orangey heads and the white-yellow fog they emitted. In minutes he reached a little turn-off with a little second-hand car in it and a little handmade sign advertising it for sale. The Three Acres wood was not accurately named, for over the years it had shrunk to accommodate more roads like this, and more cars, but it was deep enough to satisfy the strange urge that had overcome our young hero.

He had burst out of the silence of his bedroom all of a sudden, and never really had the time or interest afterwards to explain why. But at that moment he was sure that he wanted to go to the woods and be alone, and perhaps to die. He had no plans for this death, but he felt that he would have welcomed it, were it to take him, and he thought it might dwell some place dark and unfamiliar. This mood held until he was deep enough that the lamplight fully faded. There was moonlight in fits and spurts, when the pinkish, purplish clouds passing overhead were thin.

There came a point, sooner than Michael would have liked, when he found he had no direction. He was surrounded thoroughly by trees. His fingers and nose were still cold. He was growing tired. He did not know the woods’ layout but he suspected that if he went deeper he would only encounter paths, stiles, coke cans and faded crisp packets. One of the trees ahead was short and full-black. Guided by curiosity alone he strode toward it. In five paces he realised that it was not a tree and he stopped.

The vampire’s teeth were less like a serpent’s thin needle-fangs and more like sharpened tusks, like a saber-toothed tiger’s. Its mouth was wide and angular and its ears were slight and pressed-back. The skin was off in more small ways than it is worth getting into, but these accumulated into an altogether inhuman appearance. The creature, all in all, looked more like some prehistoric cousin of mankind than any vampire Michael might have imagined or seen in films or pictures, and yet without doubt he knew that a vampire is what it was. It is impossible to say what clothes the creature wore, except that they were black and still. It never spoke but it moved decisively and strangely. It met and held the young man’s eyes from somewhere in its own face, and the lips moved briefly over the teeth.

Michael became aware of the sound of a distant stream he had not noticed, and he thought it was pleasant. He mused that during the day, or alone, he would not have noticed this, or if he had he would not have enjoyed it. But it sounded lovely.

The vampire approached, now, and howled. By all reports the sound was not especially like any animal howl we know, but it was loud and shrill. Michael’s body froze. He heard his own fast breathing, too fast to let him speak, and he thought that perhaps he smelled blood.

The monster’s eyes were visible in the moment before poor Michael lost either his consciousness or his memory; it is hard to say which it was. They were brown, the eyes, like anybody’s. They were round and unremarkable, and blunk when they needed to and had lashes. Michael watched them screw up in a snarl, and he thought of the eyes of school bullies and angry parents and excited soldiers.

He thought of how angry his father would be at the next parent’s evening. He thought of the new end-of-year exam that had been established in place of the old ones, and how frightening and important the newsreader had made it sound. He wondered what he would do at the weekend and who with, and what everyone else would think of him for it. He panicked about other things that were more private and which he would not have liked to see repeated here, the thought of which made a spreading, watery heat rise up from his bottom lip to the bridge of his nose and all across his cheeks.

He felt ashamed that he couldn’t stop that heat, and he felt paralysing anger toward the vampire’s brown eyes. He wanted to shout and swear at them.

That howl again. Michael collapsed, hitting his head and landing heavily on one arm.

He awoke in a uniform-designed, antiseptic-smelling hospital; the same one where he had been born, so he was told, and where he had stayed when his ankle snapped in that rugby match the previous year. The same place where he had always been driven by some frightened or miserable adult, whenever some friend or relative had been taken ill, and usually recovered shortly after their arrival. A nurse had noticed him waking before he had seen her, and as she towered over his bed she smiled.

Rescue Mission

by Chris Buchanan
Flash fiction, 2012

Mark sits on the sofa in what looks like an uncomfortable position. He’s online. Playing a VRS. He smells terrible and his boxers and hockey jersey are not so clean.

‘Don’t worry, Bel’iia,’ he says to a character who only exists inside his head. ‘Stay down and take a medpac. I’ll protect you.’ From the look on his face I can tell something serious is going on here. I’ve never played the game, you understand, but he’s swallowing his fear, there. I know that. He’s not confident.

There’s a little fizzly sound from his headset. ‘Mthou, ththmt! Taeewlnnnou DO THIS!’

He waves his arm, miming a laser gun. The first time I saw him do this I laughed. This time I just lean my head and study him. His body is taught and held in place. It looks like it hurts. His chin juts out a touch, too, a little Neanderthal. He’s hiding something from Bel’iia. I think she’s some sort of wizard princess. From space.

‘Trust me,’ he says. ‘I love you.’

I say I love him too and shuffle up to him. He doesn’t notice, which is good. I don’t want to spoil his immersion. Very slowly, over the course of the ensuing gun-battle, I wrap my arm around his shoulder and edge him backwards, trying to tilt him. Suddenly I hear some sort of explosion and he jumps up off the sofa. Without thinking or breathing I throw my left arm behind me, lean out and yank the cushion I was using. It flies out in the wrong direction but I grab it with my other hand and slam it in place behind Mark’s arched, sore back.

He lands on the edge of the seat, teeters dramatically and finally collapses backwards. There’s a familiar sigh and he looks very proud.