Fiction Fragment: Best Laid Plans

I’m sitting in a coffee place, and this little fragment that may end up in the book came tumbling out:

I phoned Kay to see how she was getting on with the grimoires, and to let her know we were going to try our luck at the house. As ever she was the voice of reason and pointed out it was “the middle of the bloody night,” and asked “what part of Powers of Darkness is failing to register” in my plans.

If you ever wonder why I love that woman, I give you Exhibit A in her continuing struggle to get in my way of becoming a horror story case study.

Short Story: The Mystery

The radio was tuned to some talk show or other – a health programme or something similar talking about body image. The anchors sounded young and enthusiastic, possibly to mirror their intended audience. They certainly didn’t mirror either me, or my mood.

I stared at the mask on the table. It, in turn, stared back and was stubbornly uncooperative in revealing its secrets. It had turned up in the flat a couple of days ago, but where it had come from remained a mystery. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d found bits of costume or items without context among my possessions.

I mean, let’s face it: everyone has those moments where orphaned objects turn up: whether as left-over detritus from parties and nights out, or scooped up by mistake, or left behind by visitors. They just don’t normally make an appearance neatly presented on top of a pile of fresh laundry. If anything they’re normally under a pile of laundry you’ve dumped somewhere while wrestling to assemble a wire clothes horse.

It was a simple enough item. A plain red whole-face mask with no mouth. There was a slight contour to accommodate a nose, but nothing defined beneath it. It was light, and made of some kind of molded fabric. Kay swore she knew nothing about it.

I was inclined to believe her. Utterly incapable of telling a lie, she was not averse to running loops with half-truths and misdirection around me, but a flat denial left little wriggle-room.

There were no maker’s marks. No embossed “Made In China” or designer label as clue. There wasn’t even elastic to fasten it. There was no way I was putting it on. Quite aside from not knowing what the inside had been in contact with, I’ve seen too many films and TV shows with possessed masks.

But Dorian, I hear you say, they’re just stories – stop being a wuss. The answer is still no. There’s no benefit to wearing it, and I don’t like messing in the narrativium. If it’s a story waiting to happen, full of magic and intrigue, betrayal and doom, it can wait until after supper at the very least.

I carefully lifted it in both hands and watched the light shimmer across the satiny surface. No, I thought. We’re not playing that game, you can cut that right out. From this new angle the cut of the eyeholes seemed sad, like a puppy in the rain. Shameless.

The mask went on the arm of the sofa, well out of the way. Supper first, I resolved. This mystery can wait a bit longer. Kay brought plates and cutlery through from the kitchen, and I fired up Netflix.

What? You thought I was going to explain it all away? Some of us have self control, I’ll have you know. Stop laughing at the back. Half the horror stories in the world start with someone fiddling with a seemingly innocuous mysterious object of unknown origin. I’m having a night off.

Short Story: Harping On

Out of the frying pan, and into the fire: a well-loved and abused phrase that often stands for “Oops”, and is usually trotted out by those looking forward to indulging in some schadenfreude on behalf of friends, family, or someone they’ve just seen in the media.

I don’t think I’ve ever known someone use it in real-time while things are actually going horribly and yet oh-so-predictably wrong. Like me, they tend to go with short, sharp, expletives to relieve the stress of the moment.

I certainly didn’t use it when the harpy came barrelling down off the roof while I dragged the stupified Mr Feeny away from the pub garden table and it’s foul contents. I was too busy making us both zigzag towards safety to dodge filthy razor-sharp claws. I think I remember thinking: “Dungeons and Dragons totally lied about these things.”

Uncle Ranty’s Assistants Speak Up

You may be wondering why we’ve called you here today. Some of the more alert among you may also have noticed that we’re not Uncle Ranty. It’s the hair, isn’t it? No, Uncle Ranty can’t come to the keyboard right now. We kind of wish we could say it was because he’d been locked up for eating his third least-hated editor – but there’s no evidence of that, so we’re stuck with him for now.

Truth be told, as of the last time we saw him, he’s locked himself in the bathroom with a water resistant games console to play Skyrim. His last intelligible words were: “Screw this, I’ve had enough of this garbage. I’m off to live in a fantasy world to rival that of any poxy reader of a right wing UK newspaper.”

He also said something about forcibly extracting editors’ heads from tax-evading owners’ rectums, but we’re not entirely sure what he means by that. He seemed to be deeply annoyed by the wall-to-wall intrusive horror-porn reporting on the Manchester bombing this week.

Now, that last is a bit of a conjecture because by then he was also muttering about eating a TARDIS at the weekend, and threatening to go back and cancel our mothers if we didn’t bring him pizza.

From a quiet sit down with his scribbled notes, screen captures from his phone, and some of the less colourful swearing it looks like he was going to, uh, discuss the tabloid calls for suspension of the presumption of innocence, as well as their use of the phrase ‘final solution’.

Uncle Ranty may return soon, but from the noises coming from the other room he’s preferring to shout at virtual dragons and limit his weapon brandishing to the virtual realms. We’ll keep him distracted so he doesn’t make things worse.

As his assistants, we’d just like to say: be kind to each other and yourselves, and be a force for good just like all the amazing people who have rallied to help in Manchester. Don’t be a dick, it really doesn’t help.

Fiction Fragment: Band Night

I started this last night but wasn’t quite sure where I was going to go with it, so I’ll stick it up here as a fragment – and if inspiration wanders back I’ll develop it further:

The band played on. That was what stuck with him as a memory later. In the middle of all the unfurling chaos; the explosions and sparks, the screams and shouts; the band played on. Their clothing was pristine and uniform. Their hair gelled and teased to coiffed perfection, they looked like they had stepped off an album cover, or a promotional photoshoot.

Even when a seven foot biker was bodily tossed at the stage, the lead singer merely swayed his upper torso a lazy few inches out of the way. He didn’t break a sweat, the beat, or his rhythm. The drummer broke the biker’s neck instead as he tried to clamber back upright on the drumset.

Short Story: Things That Go Drip In The Night

“That shower is dripping again.” It was three o’clock in the morning, and nobody was in the mood for it. I certainly wasn’t.

“I did it last time.” Kay’s grumpy half-assed voice was surprisingly clear for someone who had been snoring mere seconds ago.

“You’re nearer. Go on, won’t take a second.” I pretended to be barely conscious, slurring my words slightly.

“No. Your turn. I told you to fix it when you got in and you wanted to curl up on the sofa instead.” Kay’s back was curved aggressively at me as she hugged the armful of duvet to her chest and exposed me to the night air.

“Ahhh! Bitch!” I yelled – though only half-heartedly – as goosebumps broke out up and down my skin. I tried without success to haul the covers back, but my wily woman had already rotated like a spindle to cocoon herself. She glared sleepily out at me, face framed by tousled hair that was well on its way to being the poster-child for bed head.

“Go on Dorian. You can have the covers back when you’ve sorted it.” She affected a stern tone, and then promptly ruined the effect with a giggle and by sticking her tongue out at me. I sighed dramatically and pulled my t-shirt back down to at least try and preserve some body heat. At least the carpet was warm enough when I swung my legs round and sat up.

The ensuite bathroom was only a half dozen steps or so away as I walked round the end of the bed. In general principle I tried tugging the end of the duvet as I passed, but Kay drew her feet up and there was no give in the material. I pulled a sad face at her on my way past; she farted in retaliation.

“Charming!” I called, and flicked the light on in the bathroom suite. All the better to glare at the shower head which was stubbornly dripping every twenty three seconds. I knew that because I’d been lying in the dark counting the intervals for what felt like the last half hour or so. I’d been having a particularly nice dream about an ex just before waking, so that hadn’t put me in the best of moods to start with. I certainly wasn’t going to throw that into the debate about why I didn’t want to get up either.

In the warm light of the spotlights it took me a moment to spot the tiny water elemental curled in the tray of the shower. Each drop that fell replenished the mass lost to the drain in a slow pulse in the battle of surface tension against gravity. I sighed and turned the shower head on and off, making sure to tighten the valve properly this time. The small puddle of water at my feet seemed to grin through its ripples in response.

“Right,” I said, “no more of this, it’s making us both cranky. You can stay the night if you’re quiet, but it’s straight down the drain in the morning. – sooner if you wake either of us before dawn.” I reached to the shelf by the shower hose and selected a large pink sponge. I placed it right in the middle of the puddle and made sure it overlapped where the drips had been falling. Then I stomped back out into the bedroom. Kay had already restored the duvet evenly over the bed and was busy snoring again.

“I’ll call a plumber in the morning.” I said. I curled up to spoon behind her and kissed the tip of one pointed ear.

“Thank you darling.” She said, and squeezed my hand. Sleep came quickly.

Short Story: In At The Deep End

On the seventh day after gaining physical access to humanity’s shared subconscious, the contractors announced that they had killed God. Of course, three days after that he rose again and forgave them, and from there on out it started getting strange. Well, stranger than it already was.

The whole thing had been designed as a preemptive strike to mold the general populace into something more malleable for the big businesses sponsoring the project. The discovery of applied branches of multidimensional mathematics and physics in the banking sector had taken a while to be smuggled past non-disclosure clauses and appropriated by rival research teams in a number of agencies. It hadn’t then taken long before productivity consultants had begun to get very excited about concepts such as description theory and psychodynamic modelling.

The thought of being able to edit their own workers, let alone potential customers, had been a siren call to the usual suspects. Given the projected financial gains, the research teams working in these fields were showered with budgets and carte blanche unseen since the Space Race and the Cold War. The Information War soon outstripped the simplicity of fake news and net traffic manipulation into far more esoteric realms.

As usual, nobody wondered what was watching from those realms. The shadows of these computations played like firelight on the walls of these sideways cavern’s and fields and curious intellects answering to alternative laws began to huddle round the brightest spots to push back.

In retrospect we can ask why nobody queried the higher incidence of unexplained phenomena like temperature changes or visual distortions in the research labs. Perhaps they did, but they were quietly edited out of the recorded reports dutifully spooled out to corporate masters. Nastier minds than mine have suggested that such editing may have come from The Other Side, just as the research teams were affecting things Over There.

Either way, nobody’s talking. Certainly not these days, anyway. The breakthrough event had a body count as the contrasting laws of competing realities twisted and pretzelled around each other’s event horizon and scythed a zone clear each side to a distance of precisely ten kilometers radius. We know this because the gateway on our side was in the heart of Wall Street. In that moment, we all knew we’d need something more effective than Ghost Busters to push back.

Given the generally pugilistic nature of both politics and corporations in search of recovered revenues, it wasn’t too surprising that a military response was made, despite the pleas for a more scientific investigation. A rapid corporate tendering process resulted in an outsourced security bidding war breaking out, and then the troops went in.

Human minds, even bolstered by drones and telemetry are not equipped to interpret other-dimensional spaces. Our brains are designed to approximate inputs they have no frame of reference for, so the intelligences on the other side were reported in terms that the troops brought with them – as the gods and devils that they believed in below their ostensibly rational fronts.

Over there apparently can be the nearest thing to heaven or to hell, even within a few steps of each other, so when someone tagged Over There as being our subconscious, it seemed to stick. The standing instructions from the corporate owners of the security teams became a mission to take down anything that might inspire the masses – which is why the biggest entity they could find was codenamed God, and taken down with extreme prejudice.

Of course, the entities over there were as affected by us as we were being by them. That’s why God rose again, a near infinite number of virgins began camping outside the Staging Area, Kali began reaping lone travellers, and new arrivals are now interrogated by Ganesh.

Suffice to say, all involved are desperate to find a way to disengage from this holy mess, church attendances are up again, and mathematicians are now on hit lists around the world. Strange times are back; now can I interest you in some prayer beads blessed by Buddha and Pikachu?

Short Story: See What’s There

The first time I met Dorian, I was hiding in the branches of a holly tree, tucked in a space at its centre behind the sharp leaves. I was hiding from the elves who had taken to playing in the wide fields beyond the edge of our garden. If that sounds a wonderful thing, then you’ve never seen elves play.

They are curious about how things are put together, but they define any living creature that isn’t an elf as a thing. While they are creatures that provoke wonder, you don’t want them to play with you. They had, just on this afternoon alone, taken apart a wheelbarrow, the remains of an old bedstead, a family of squirrels, and my pet rabbit when he escaped his cage run and squirmed over the stones of the low boundary wall.

The other problem was that the fields at the end of my garden weren’t always there, so telling my parents or indeed any other grown-ups about the elves was difficult as they weren’t there when I dragged anyone along who would listen.

The elves knew I was there. When my parents turned their backs on the wall to tell me off again about wasting their time I would see their faces in the trees and bushes. They would smile, revealing sharp teeth in wide mouths, and beckon to me. My parents thought I was trying to hide tears of childish remorse rather than tears of terror.

The doctors told me it wasn’t real, and I really wanted to believe them. I tried to agree with them and deny what was right in front of me, but I know they could tell I was lying to them. They wanted to give me pills, but my parents refused to let them, and I wasn’t sure if in that moment I loved or hated them more for it.

So there I was, hiding in the holly bush one afternoon because the elves were right next to the wall and I didn’t want them to take me away to play. I could smell the copper taste of fear, adrenaline, and blood in the air and felt frozen in place.

And Dorian walked into the garden, accompanied by my parents. I didn’t know who he was of course, he was just a tall thin grown-up in a suit, with short hair and a slightly floppy fringe. My parents were talking to him in the serious way they did with the doctors which told me everything I thought I needed to know; and he was nodding in that slow way the doctors did.

He looked straight at me, through the camoflage of the holly tree, and then did something the doctors never did. He winked at me. Then he did something no other adult had. He looked at the elves, and he frowned.

And you know what? The elves looked at him, and took a step back from the wall. They’d never done that before.

My parents retreated back towards the house. They were still in the garden, but far enough away to give us space. That’s why, when Dorian waved to me, I crawled back out onto the lawn and went over to him.

“You see them?” I said, and I couldn’t keep the suspicion from my voice.

“Oh yes,” he said, in a soft voice that made me think of my mum’s voice when tucking me in bed at night, ” and they’re not going to frighten you any more. Promise.” He held his hand out to me and after a glance at my parents, I took it.

The world shivered a little around us as we turned to look at the fields and the elves in it. The sun and clouds looked different on their side of the wall, more like a Summer’s day than the early Spring that kept threatening rain.

“They want to play because you can see them. It’s not something that many people remember how to do when they’re not babies any more. You’re right not to trust them though.”

“They’re horrible. I don’t want to see them any more.” I said. The elves were watching us, hands resting on the hilts of their wicked knives. Dorian crouched down to talk to me, face to face.

I can make them go away, or I can make sure you don’t see them again. Which would you prefer?”

“Are you going to give me medicine? Is there something wrong with me like the other doctors said?”

“There’s nothing wrong with you, no. You’re better at paying attention and seeing what’s really going on if that’s any better?” For some reason I just felt that I could trust him. I nodded, slowly.

“They’re scary.”

“Yes they are. Hiding in the holly bush was a good idea. There used to be hawthorn bushes along that fence weren’t there? I’ll tell your parents to plant new ones. Now, how about we tell them to go away?”

“They won’t listen.” I’d tried shouting at them before. It never worked. Dorian smiled at me.

“They’ll listen to me. Trust me.” The strange thing is, I did. I gripped his hand as tight as ten year old me could. He looked across at them. “Hey! Longshanks, Knifenose, and Prettyboy! You know who I am, so go away. The wall’s going back up and you don’t want to get caught in it.”

There was a moment where I thought they were going to come and get us, and I really needed to go to the loo all of a sudden. I crossed my legs. The shiver in the air around us got stronger, making me feel like we were a plucked guitar string.

“Don’t make me call the missus.” I heard him say, and then, just like that, the shiver stopped, the field was gone, and so were the elves and the blood. Rain had started to fall at some point, so we all went back indoors and I was properly introduced to Dorian, who had been hired as my counsellor.

My parents did replant the hawthorn bushes after that, and the elves and the field never came back. Nonetheless, Dorian and I did talk about the elves, or at least about my memories of them and how they had faded like old dreams over the following weeks.

He’s teaching me how to focus on what’s really there and to tell the difference between that and what most other people see, but I’m not noticing the difference much these days. Dorian always seems a little sad around the eyes when I say that, but mum and dad are happier that I’m not seeing things any more, so that’s what’s important.

Isn’t it?

Short Story: A Short Trip

We tumbled down the grassy slope together, sliding and rolling out of control, pulling and being pulled by our own intertwined limbs and the demands of gravity and momentum. The sun beat down on us with a dry haze that threatened to transform lush grass into harsh hay. We didn’t care. Birdsong trilled somewhere above us; a skylark protesting our intrusion here. In that moment it was just a detail to be recalled later, rather than a signpost or warning.

Over and over we rolled. Sometimes it was fast, with the shocks of our bouncing bodies forcing air from our lungs in exulted protest. At other moments our journey threatened to stop, and we consciously hauled ourselves forward to start a further burst of tumbling.

Over each other, arms locked, and legs flailing, challenging dare accepted and yet regretted. Somewhere above us our respective parents were probably either praying that we didn’t ruin our clothing or break each other’s necks. Rueful expectations of bruises and shouted promises of deprivations to come did nothing to dissuade us from our erratic downward trajectory. The threat of early bed barely registered in the face of our adrenaline rush.

Down and down, until the slope became steeper, and old molehills and the soft tussocks conspired to separate us. We bounced and rolled faster, and perhaps in that moment we remembered fear and the stone wall waiting at the bottom of the field. Topped with barbed wire and seated in churned mud that was surely mixed with sheep dung from when flocks roamed here, we hadn’t thought about it until now.

And then we stopped rolling, breathless and muddy, with scraped knees and scuffed shoes. Our shirts were smeared and ripped, and at some point we must have gone through nettles because painful blistered welts were visible on our exposed skin. The tingling pain began to filter through, but the blood racing through our veins was pounding too hard for either of us to care.

Something silvery flashed on the slope above us – and we remembered the teatray we’d started our descent on mere moments ago. It felt like years. It probably felt even longer for our parents up there at the top of Box Hill.

Short Story: The Obsession

He always bought red cars, because he honestly believed they went faster. It was a myth he’d heard in his early teenage years, relayed with wide-eyed enthusiasm by another boy who had not understood his own father’s sarcasm at a rising car insurance quote. He had laughed with the rest of his friends at the time, but the seed found fertile ground in his eager mind.

What had begun as a joke stuck like a catchy tune; and every knowing laugh or passing reference watered it so that he couldn’t tell you when it changed from a catch-phrase within the group of friends to a heartfelt belief.

He painted his bicycle red when he was sixteen. He and the small gang tore around the estate, in and out of pedestrian areas, always with him pedalling quicker than anyone else to be out at the front. The rush of wind in his hair and cutting across his eyes didn’t bring as much colour to his cheeks as the belief that his magical colour choice continued to work.

The first car he stole was a black Ford, and he blamed his capture on the fact that it wasn’t his preferred colour. He worked his community service in a sullen funk, and then made sure that the first car he bought was a bright cherry red in colour. It was only a small Fiat, but it was light and the engine gave it a tremendous burst of speed from a standing start. He maintained his belief in the face of quiet ridicule from his oldest friends. He didn’t care.

It was perhaps inevitable that he would gravitate towards working in logistics. He loved the speed and risk of driving bikes and vans to deadlines, and the challenge of a difficult commission completed. He may have been forced to drive white vans after the Royal Mail shed most of the drivers at his local depot, but his pride and joy was a deep red Subaru. The throaty noise of its passage always made heads turn. He saw no dissonance in tuning up the car to match the potential implied by its colour – the one fuelled the other in his mind.

I still maintain it was the obsession that colour was linked to speed that led him to superstition. His pre-journey habits became pre-race rituals as he engaged in drag races late at night on the motorways and main roads heading out of town. He had his car re-upholstered and detailed in as many shades of red as he could, and took to wearing red in some form or other in his clothing.

His friends gave him a new nickname – the Flash – after his favourite show, and the mantra of the main character that he adopted for himself. “I need to get faster” became his rallying call, and “I’m not fast enough” a lament when success eluded him.

Obsession can warp perceptions and, when strong enough, the world. And he seemed to prove that point with faster and faster speeds set. People began to not want to race the vision in red that left smoking tyre tracks and outran police patrols. They were there for a challenge and a thrill, not to be trounced by some avatar of velocity.

I’m told that the night he disappeared he was trying out a new mixture injected into his cars systems. There was a throaty roar, a blossom of flame from his exhaust and every window in a block’s distance shattered as he broke the sound barrier from a standing start. Everyone assumed and then reported that the car had exploded or crashed; but wreckage was never found.

I think he’s still out there, pushing faster and faster, a red flicker in people’s rearview mirrors before the storm front overtakes them. I kind of hope he is, it makes for a better story I think. I hope you agree