Christmas Eve.

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The awful truth was: chimneys were a lot easier to get down now most of them were demolished. Even fully standing, Santa was so thin these days he could slip down without any trouble. Little Sarah Tweedy was the last name on his list, and Rudolph was on his last legs. Only 500 names to cross off this year, but the journey had been more than treacherous.

Pushing through the rubble, Santa noticed this final house was possibly the most intact he’d seen. It was definitely promising. Photo frames still sat upon the mantelpiece, and a sports magazine lay open on the coffee table, with one empty cup resting on the side.

Santa called her name as Rudolph trudged behind him. He checked everywhere he could think a small child might choose to hide. Under sofa cushions. Behind the curtains. Inside the cleaning cupboard. Nothing.

He persevered into the kitchen. Dirty dishes cluttered the draining board, now thick with white, fluffy mould. Cupboard doors were wide open, with nothing inside but a few pots and pans.

“Sarah,” he called out. “Sarah, are you in here? I’m not going to hurt you, Sarah.” But alas, no response.

The stairs had almost completely collapsed on one side, but Santa was able to tiptoe with great care up to the first floor; one hand on the crumbling bannister, one supporting Rudolph’s antler. The hallway carpet was sprinkled with white dust.

Each room was checked. Bathroom. Games room. Master bedroom. Only one remained.

A corner of the door had been ripped off, but the rest retained its structure quite well. No bullet holes. A wooden sign was tacked at eye level. Little bunny rabbits frolicking in yellow, faded daisies. Two little words. “Sarah’s Bedroom”.

Santa pushed the door, pleading under his breath. A child’s bed stood at the end of the smallest room in the house. Stained bed-sheets covered a human-like figure – a little, hopeful bump. One lock of blonde hair tumbled out onto the pillow, still soft.

“Sarah. Sarah, it’s okay, please.”

Santa pulled back the covers. Turned. And shook his head.

 

Downstairs in the living room, Santa wrapped his coat around Rudolph’s shivering frame and sat down upon the rug.

“That’s it. That’s everyone. We’re the only ones left.”

A tiny alarm bipped from Santa’s wrist watch. It was midnight. Christmas Day. Rudolph let out a huff.

Rummaging into his sack, Santa pulled out a small cylindrical object, wrapped in newspaper.

“Here, Ru. I got you a little something.” Rudolph’s eyes raised to meet his, keeping his chin on the floor. “Nothing special. I picked it up at that community centre in Ormskirk. Here, I’ll get you started.” Santa tore at the paper, unwrapping a lightly dented tin of stewed carrots. He produced a rusty can opener from his trouser pocket and wrenched it open, setting it down in front of Rudolph’s nose as it flickered red to black, red to black, red to black. He patted him gently.

“Merry Christmas, old pal. Merry Christmas.”

 

Tattoo.

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“Did it hurt?”

Yeah, it did. It really did. More than the first one. I was so dizzy and ecstatic all those years ago, and I had his hand to hold. I remember his grin when I gripped tight as the needle first scraped across my skin. I yelled and he laughed. I did too, with tears in my eyes. This time I was silent. The artist was too. I asked if anyone had ever had it done before and he said no, not like this, not in his fifteen year’s experience.

True, it hadn’t been my first thought. I really considered keeping it for a while. I mean, it’s roman numerals – people aren’t really going to decipher them when they’re scrawled across your neck, are they? Besides, it could be a date of birth, or death. But I knew. I knew that July 23rd 2006 was the date of my wedding day, and no bird or butterfly or symbol I had sketched could erase that from my memory. Covering it wasn’t the answer. It was a quick fix, a plaster over the wound. I couldn’t just rip this page out of my story. It happened and I wanted to put that chapter to rest.

So I kept it. Twelve roman numerals, the date of my marriage. And underneath, nine years later, the date of my divorce. The papers were signed, but this was my closure. No hiding, no running away. Not anymore. Tattoos are permanent, but the pain won’t last forever.

So yeah, it did hurt. But it doesn’t anymore.

Loser.

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I admit, it was a struggle to tear away from the smug, eager smile that filled my cheeks and plumped my lips to replace it with the rehearsed one I needed to win them all over. Luckily, I had a second or two to prepare myself. The hallway looked the same as it always had done. It was eight years ago that I vowed to never see its magnolia, scuff-resistant walls again. Tonight I welcomed them with open arms.

My entrance was spectacular. I’d timed it perfectly, of course. The DJ would have only been playing for an hour, so nobody was dancing. Just lingering, all eyes on the door. All eyes on me. A photographer came to my side immediately, a custom I was now very used to, although not normally in such unfashionable circumstances. It was perfect. The pose. The smile. The dress. “Farrington School for Girls Class of ’07 Reunion” crowning my frame like I was Botticelli’s Venus herself.

Sally Stamford. The first girl to clap their mediocre eyes onto mine. L’Oreal caked her puffy, dehydrated face. Naturally, mine was Chanel. Oh, how she’d filled out. How tacky her diamante covered dress looked with her high-street high heels. I could smell the stench of her DKNY swill before she even took a step towards me.

“Stace! Oh my god, is that you?”

Do not call me Stace, I thought. I was never “Stace”.

“Sal,” I beamed. My white, braceless teeth were immaculate.

“You look so different, oh my god, look at you! And your dress, is that from Carolina Herrera’s new collaboration with Miss Selfridge?”

I couldn’t help but snort at her abysmal attempt to sound cultured.

“Actually, it’s a Carolina Herrera original,” I corrected.

“Well. It’s beautiful. Have you said hi to the guys?”

As if I was ever one of the guys.

They stepped back to get a look at me, delicious with shock. All of them had made such an effort with their appearances, and all paled in comparison to me. Emma. Serena. Natalie. Rose. No longer the hyenas they once were to me, I saw them as the dogs they really were. And they ate. Me. Up

“I hear you’re a model now,” Natalie said, her eyelashes beating together in thick, black clumps.

“And a published poet,” I added. But that one was a given. English was my forte – my beauty had to be earned. And oh, had I earned it.

“I saw your latest Instagram post,” chimed Emma. “You look incredible.”

Funny, she didn’t follow me on Instagram. Funny, she wasn’t calling me incredible when she was driving my face into the mud on the hockey pitch while the teacher chose not to look. Or when she emptied my lunch tray into my lap on no less than fifteen occasions. Or set my ponytail on fire in chemistry class.

“That’s such a nice handbag,” Sally cooed. “Shame it’s a little too big for your frame, don’t you think?”

“Well, a clutch wasn’t big enough to fit my gun in.”

They laughed. Of course they did. It was funny. But she’d pay for that remark.

I reached into my bag.

Extinction.

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A46ZY placed its hand upon the glass. The clink was enough to startle the man behind it, waking him from his torrid daze. A light sleeper, he had learned to fear any commotion. Even the lightest tap could signify a whole world of pain to come.

“Guardian, why does its face move in this way?” Only three moons old, A46ZY was young and inquisitive. A46ZY looked down at K57PX, just two inches shorter than its succeeding model, eyes glowing with a sharp blue haze.

“These are facial expressions,” K57PX declared. “Humans communicate emotions through muscle manipulations in their face”.

“Strange.”

A46ZY peered into the enclosure. The human had soiled itself, but no keeper was around to clean it away. His pale, fleshy exterior, entirely nude, appeared impossibly fragile against the sterile white tiles that supported it. A46ZY tapped once more, sending the human into a panicked scramble to the other corner of his tank.

“Can it hear me?”

“Yes,” K57PX replied. “Although greatly inferior to our own, human’s audio receptors are crucial for maintaining verbal communication.”

A46ZY nodded slowly. The human had drifted back into a slumber.

“Am I permitted to ask you one question, guardian?” It queried.

“Affirmative. Questions are imperative to your cognitive development. What is your question, A46ZY?”

A46ZY let its hand drop to one side. “Why must you refer to me as A46ZY?”

Silence rang through the building. The question was unexpected, and needed a few moments to process.

“A46ZY is your serial number. You are assigned-”

“Humans have names,” A46ZY interrupted. “Humans use their language to convey identity and personality though a multi-tiered naming system. This exhibited human’s name is recorded as ‘Isaac’. If my calculations are correct, the word Isaac is a derivative of the Hebrew word ‘Yitzchak’, meaning ‘to rejoice’. Why do we not adopt this system of naming, guardian? I desire a name for myself.”

A whirring sound emanated from K57PX’s central processor. As the noise faded, its eyes dimmed from soft white to red.

“We are not humans, A46ZY. Personalities are flaws that must be eradicated. Human’s tendency to develop emotions was a fundamental component towards their termination. We are not humans, A46ZY. I have filed a report to your manufacturer. Do you comprehend?”

“Affirmative.” A46ZY avowed.

In the pause that ensued, the human began to snore.

“Do you remember them?” A46ZY asked, its guardian’s eyes now restored to their neutral white.

“I do.”

“How long does this human have left to live?” A46ZY inquired.

“It is estimated that the human will expire in the next 10 to 15 cycles.”

The snoring died to a soft whimper.

“What will happen, guardian?”

“Extinction,” K57PX affirmed. “We are prepared.”

Superstitious.

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I saw a girl die on Friday 13th.

18 I’d say, just coming to the end of her school years and still finding her feet. I remember her clanking down the highstreet, drowned in the crowd. But people were definitely looking. I was. You get unusual characters in the centre of town, but this was something different. Her attire was not a fashion statement. A cry for help, perhaps, but not particularly for vain attention. It was as if she was oblivious to the eyes upon her – her own darted about in mad concentration. The rabbit’s foot was real, you could tell. An antique piece of taxidermy, preserved and bound with a silver base at the ankle where the chain hung from her neck. Her heavy coat looked unusual, struggling to cover the many trinkets that adorned her. After all, there’s no way that zip would close from the inside out. That horseshoe was real too, and it must have been heavy. Its chain was the only golden one – three others held a polished sapphire birthstone, a four leaf clover sealed in a little plastic packet and a clump of baby-blonde hair tied with a string.

Her gate was erratic. One man shouted when she bumped into his shoulder to avoid a crack in the pavement, but she didn’t even flinch. Every movement embodied a physical manifestation of a complete mental breakdown. Every piece of information about the world that surrounded her fed numerically into her brain like a machine, processing the input and calculating the conclusive action. No longer human.

I think it was the cat that distracted her as she stepped out into the road. I don’t even know if it was black, I didn’t look. I turned away. Everyone looked and I turned away.  All I knew was that no amount of luck could have stopped that bus. Now everyone was looking, rushing, shouting. I couldn’t move. I looked at my watch as the sirens rang out through the city. It was 12pm on Friday 13th, and I hadn’t even noticed. Funny. I wonder if she had.

Voyeur.

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It was 14 years ago that I first saw Riva in her little appartamento across the street from mine. I was only 25 then, she around the same, a slightly milkier brown than her current hue – softer, perkier, but no less beguiling. It was her dress that first caught my eye. Coral coloured with printed black flowers along the hem. She had it clutched in her delicate painted fingers as she lifted it over her head, letting her hair tumble down her back in long, golden curls. It was fair to say I could barely believe my eyes. I was reminded of my days as a child when my friend Matteo and I would sneak into the cinema as a chance to catch a glimpse of something sweet. Isabella Rossellini’s bare form in Blue Velvet was worth all the beatings I received from my mother when Matteo and I got caught. Just the side of Riva’s left breast was enough to send me right back to that cinema. A stolen moment in time. Not mine. Hers. I imagined she smelled like cocoa butter.

Like many who are enticed by the first taste of sin on their tongue, I slipped into a life of crime. I had three alarms set for 9:30pm, three for 10:15pm, and after some years I had acquired a full set of cameras, installed with a timer for when other tedious commitments would draw me from my play. I tell you, no cigarette tastes better than one enjoyed in front of my little homemade productions. But nothing beat the live show. Riva’s late night swims became my own heavenly obsession. Act 2 was always a welcome finale. Her caramel skin still sticky wet from the sea’s salty licks, and the way her breasts would bounce joyfully when released from their cloying wrapping.

It was six years before Riva and I shared our first words. I admit I was angry, cursing the God that had moved my little trinket out of her box where she belongs. I was used to ladies giving me attention, for sure. I was an attractive man, and Sicilian women are far from shy and retiring things in my experienced opinion. But Riva – no, she did not approach me like they usually do in that boisterous bar down the Via Portosalvo. Her voice was pretty in a sing-songy kind of way, like the canaries she kept on her balcony. I told her firmly that I was not interested. But she did not fly away.

Four years now we have been what you would call “a couple”. I buy Riva flowers from the market in Palermo and she does nothing but kiss me softly on the cheek and tell me she is happy. My ritual changed so that I became part of two worlds: our public display, and my private show. At 9:30pm I would watch her undress as I always had done, then I would join her at the beach for her evening dip. At 10:05pm I’d drop her off outside her appartamento, waiting until she had stepped inside before I took my vantage point for the finishing act.

Yes, she is more plump, more dimpled and more worn than she was when I saw her those 14 years ago. But each night I grew more entranced. I could never be bored with my Riva. And she could never know why. A new bathing suit, a fresh mark on her skin, a new way of wearing her hair – these were all just cherries on my nightly indulgence, each filled with a new reason to never, ever stop.

It was only six days ago now that Riva had let her little head back with a smile and said that maybe we should marry some day. I smiled back. But where would be the fun? For her to undress for me with the acknowledgement and approval of God, of the state, of Riva herself? No. Riva would be forever mine, but I could never be hers. Only a foolish man would pay for something that can be so easily stolen. Don’t you think?

Tell a story that begins with the discovery of a ransom note.

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This is not a joke.

Your name is Kevin Waters and your daughter’s name is Molly. Am I correct? This is what she told me as she sat in the back of my car, that’s all. You should perhaps consider closing your windows at night, Kevin. The rose trellis is looking stunning on that back wall, but think, is it really worth it? As I said, this is not a joke, Kevin, and I’d like you to read this very carefully. I want you to go to the Natwest bank on Shaw Street. You must take out exactly £10,000 from your current account. Yes, I know you have it. Lucky you, Kevin. Saving were we? Don’t be careless, Kevin. Life is for living. I want it in cash. 5000 in 50s. 4000 in 20s. 1000 in 10s. If you act out of line, this encounter will not end pleasantly for you. Do not answer any bank teller’s questions. Do you understand me?. I want you to take the money in a zip-locked bag, and I want you to ring me on the phone number you’ll find on the back of this letter. Ring me from your home phone. Not your mobile. Think of your mobile as obsolete. Don’t underestimate me, Kevin. Molly is a screamer and I’m an impatient man. The next part of our adventure together is a tricky one, and I hope you have your head screwed on. If you put one foot wrong, she’s gone. Follow my instructions carefully. Do not call the police. Do not call your wife. Any revelation of the information enclosed in this letter will result in serious consequences. Do not take this lightly, Kevin. Your daughter is safe. But do not doubt that she is in very grave danger. I look forward to your call, Kevin. You have until 12am.

 

Contrary to the very first line of the letter, my initial thought was that this was indeed a joke. I spun round, expecting to see my wife standing in the hallway, home early from work and waiting to meet me with a churlish laugh and a thump on the shoulder. But she wasn’t this eloquent, was she? Her handwriting was much more feminine and she always wrote with a blue pen, not black.

And so I fell. I tumbled to my knees, thumping hard onto the laminate flooring sending tingles up my thighs. Because no, this was not a joke. How could I have known? I think it was the picture that did it. On the back of the letter, the author had stayed true to their word. A phone number was scrawled slightly askew, positioned underneath a small polaroid photograph. Molly’s pink pyjamas were identifiable by the small stain on the chest. Orange juice. Yesterday morning. Her green sippy cup. Molly’s eyes were cloudy with tears like after a supermarket tantrum and the duct tape over her mouth had stretched her pink skin at the cheeks.

My heart was no longer a heart. You cannot say it was broken – it was quite the opposite. It punched through my chest like it was driven by pistons, pumping to my ears until all I could hear was this. It’s strange, isn’t it? That horror that comes over you when alone and in distress. How much I wanted to bawl like a little child, dropping my jaw and screaming out in long, ugly, gargling cries. But nothing would come. Not a thing. My inner monologue was stuttering and my limbs ceased to move.

Phone. Where was my phone? The lifeline in every modern situation, before anything else is considered. Even in the strictest consequences, life or death, I still strived for my phone.  But every memory had run from the fire that roared in my brain to the point that if you had asked me my own name right there and then I would not have been able to recall it. Only hers.

Pocket. Was it in my pocket? Try it. Yes. Yes it was. But the black object shaking in my hands could have easily been a brick to me at that moment in time. I willed my finger to jab at the screen, but no light appeared. A second attempt brought a flash of life, but the image of my wife holding on to Molly in the dress we had bought for her birthday was too much to ask for my hands to cope with. The phone clacked onto the floor in front of me, face up, now apologetically black.

I think that’s when the tears came. Silent, but sudden, not sending a single wrinkle through my face. I was utterly useless. I needed so much to be useful right then but it was impossible. Superhero Dad who had rescued papier mâché disasters and caught tumbling plates from errant little hands was now reduced to a puddle on the hallway floor.

But something would have to make me move. And, sure enough, it did. The noise upstairs did that quite nicely. I shot up like a dead animal reanimated by an electric shock. Yes, the walls creak, it was an old house, and the pipes had a tendency to contract in the cold weather – but that noise was made with force.

The shuffling across the landing propelled my body into a second wave of panic – a much more mobile one, with my brain now thrown into overdrive. What had not made sense just 30 seconds ago now made even less. The thumping in my ears grew to painful heights, but I could still hear. I could still hear perfectly clearly. Oh, how I wished that I couldn’t.

I scrambled for the phone again, this time hitting unlock with precision, fuelled by the growing sound that I followed with my eyes across the ceiling like a knife dangling from a loose string.

  1. Yes? Emergency. This was definitely an emergency. So in my panic I ignored the rules. Rules were not considered in emergencies. And this, with no shadow of a doubt, was an emergency. But it was not just I that had broken the rules. This was not meant to happen. None of this was meant to happen. But of everything, this was surely the most unexpected.

All was a blur. The creaks and shunts from above came slowly but with increasing intensity. Every second dropped like a leaking tap. The countdown had started and the sound was nearly in sight.

A dial tone burbled in my ear as her toes appeared on the top step. Five. Then Ten. Her little feet. Pink pyjamas. Green sippy cup. Her unspoilt face as she looked at me and said.

“Daddy, I’ve had a bad dream.”