Red Bricks

It had been some kind of factory once, in the decades before the boy and his friend had found it. The grass and the weeds had moved in since then, bursting between the bricks and growing to cover the collapsed walls. The red bricks had once been home to some mysterious, mechanised creation and despite the weight and wear of time, some parts of the crumbling factory still stood. Almost three stories remained near it’s entrance, with an uneven, ever-decreasing sprawl stretching away behind.

The boy and his friend would race through the archways that leaped about the crumbling factory’s once-grand courtyard and they would explore the mouldering spaces within. Dank, red-bricked caves that shaded them from the summer sun and kept the wind from the fires that they set in the winter. There were shadows that moved in the corners of those damp, dark spaces. Shadows that sometimes whispered to them while the wind howled. Shadows that would frighten them back into the daylight, where they would pass the time by climbing the disembowelled heaps of bricks that had spilled from the crumbling factory. Loose piles of faded crimson, spreading low and uneven along the valley’s slope in squared and jagged dunes.

The boy and his friend learned to tell time by the shadow of the chimney that rose proud and straight a short way back from the crumbling factory. A home for birds now, roosting in the broken brickwork that towered precarious over where the boy and his friend played. They would occasionally harry the birds, hurling rocks high and clumsy towards the bird’s roosts, when boredom or the mood for violence took them. And the boy and his friend were harried in their turn by older ones, by Not-Yet-Men that would gather in that place as the daylight began to leave it. On some evenings, girls would join those older ones, after they’d dislodged the boy and his friend with their insults and threats. On those evenings, the crumbling factory would become home to awkward, adolescent fumblings. Excited, clumsy explorations that had a habit of becoming their own accidental acts of creation.

The boy and his friend were terribly afraid of those older ones. Afraid that the threats of terror and shame would be visited upon them, should their flight from the crumbling factory be too slow. But that fear eventually gave-way to curiosity. They set themselves to finding a place to hide, a vantage from which they could watch the mysterious goings-on in the crumbling factory at twilight. Searching the upper levels, around the old production floor, they eventually settled on a room that suited them, the wall and floor on one side of it having fallen away to provide a clear view of the space below. The cavernous room beneath was littered with old mattresses and abandoned car seats, beer bottles and cigarette butts, and all the collected detritus of bored adolescence. From the corner in their room, the boy and his friend would be able to survey, in secret, the site of the older-ones’ evening rituals.

The boy and his friend worked the day transporting piles of the old, red bricks up to their new hide-away and they worked the afternoon stacking them into a rough wall near the edge of the room’s fallen floor, leaving gaps here and there through which they could view evening’s activity. And as the sun fell, the older ones came. Shouting their threats and warnings while roaming the crumbling factory’s exterior, before making a lazy search of the spaces within. The boy and his friend held one another tight as the older-ones stalked and called out to them. But their reconnoiter was half-hearted and they soon quieted, settling into their appointed places. Before any activities began in earnest though, the boy, growing a little too curious and leaning a little too far forward, disturbed his makeshift bunker. The wall give out with a painfully-slow, grinding moan while the boy and his friend crouched, frozen as their world fell away before them, disappearing with a clatter into the room below.

In the short silence that followed, the boy and his friend did not wait. They turned and raced through the nearest broken doorway, scrambling together, deeper into the crumbling factory. They heard footfalls and threats from a corridor behind them as they spun wildly in the gloom, looking for an escape. The boy saw a staircase at the end of the hall. Rough concrete stairs with an iron scaffold railing spiralling down. The boy grasped his friend’s hand, rushing onward and down. Together they fled from the terror behind as the stairs twisted deep into the dark.

The boy lead his friend at random, desperate to put some distance between them and the older ones. The gloom soon grew too dark to see and they were forced to stop. The boy felt out a corner in which to settle and to soothe his crying friend. He held his friend in a tight embrace, both for comfort and to stifle the sobbing. Time passed slowly in the dark but the consistent silence assured them that the older ones had not braved the factory’s bowels. The boy grew bored and brave while his friend sobbed. He decided to scout out the darkness in search of a way out, promising to return and lead his friend to safety.

The boy fumbled at the walls, guiding himself away from the sound of his friend’s tears. Onward into the dark depths of that crumbling factory, he stumbled, turning this way and that, going forward then back, growing increasingly convinced that he was lost. Eventually, tired and afraid, he came to a stop, leaning back and sliding down the wet stone wall. The boy rocked back and forth, hugging his knees. And then he began to cry.

After a time, between his sniffs and sobs, the boy heard a voice. It was a voice of many whispers and it seeped out from the shadows that wrapped themselves about him. The voice scared him at first but he soon calmed himself enough to listen, straining to understanding the hissing cacophony. And within that whispered static the boy heard promises. The darkness said it would show him, said it would open itself to him and lead the way out. The darkness would deliver him to the surface, but at a cost. He must give up his friend. That other must remain, a sacrifice to the darkness.

The boy knew his answer immediately. It had settled in his mind as soon as the offer was presented. But he pretended think. He made a show of wrestling with his conscience, set to building himself a more noble memory. So that, in time, when the boy might recall this moment, he would be able live with himself.

Advertisements

How many “B”s in Insomnia?

I’m laid out on the sofa, cursing the droning hum of the air conditioner, with my limbs wrapped in sandpaper. My every joint is gripped in coarse vices of fatigue and I’m stretched out on the sofa, almost in tears. I’m praying for sleep, I’m begging to be unconscious, when there’s a knock at the door.

I roll, dropping onto my hands and knees, then I’m zombie walking through the hallway. I’m padding along an icy, concrete floor that’s sending jolts up the backs of my ankles with every, single, heavy step. Then the texture of the floor changes and I’m slipping on one of the letters strewn about the hallway and I’m tumbling forward towards the door. I manage to reach out and get hold of the latch. I twist it and then I lean back and the door begins to swing open until it’s caught by the chain and clunks to a stop. My head jerks back. I pull myself upright and then I’m peering out at a thin, vertical slice of a woman.

It’s Joan from next door.

“Hello, Joan from next door” I mumble.

She looks me up and down and frowns at my bare feet, then she’s rearranging her face into a polite mask and fixing me a concerned stare.

“Hi there!” she beams, “How are you?”

“I’m ok, Joan,” I say, “I’m pretty tired.”

“Good, that’s good. That you’re ok, I mean.” She forces a cough while shifting her weight from one foot to the other, “We heard that we might have been making a bit of a racket last night.”

“Ok” I say.

“We might have unintentionally disturbed some people?”

She’s nodding expectantly and I feel as if I’m messing up some sort of call-and-response. As if I don’t know my part in this.

So, again I say “Ok.”

“Well,” she looks past me at the snow-drift of post against the banister, “we got a call from Environmental Health you see. Apparently someone was disturbed and decided to complain to the authorities, instead of being neighbourly and coming to speak to us personally.”

“I didn’t hear anything Joan.” I say, straightening up to block her view of the pile of windowed-envelopes, take-away menus and ignored correspondence.

“Oh good. That’s good. I’m glad you managed to sleep through the racket at least.” She pulls her cheeks and lips apart to show me as many of her teeth as she can.

“No,” I correct her, “no sleep for a while actually.”

“Oh dear, oh dear. We are so sorry.” She’s hiding her teeth again. “It’s the bees you see.”

“Bees?” I ask.

“Yes, the bees. All the bees that live with us, they need to fly when the nights get warm and the swarm was clamouring to be let out. The buzzing was quite loud apparently.”

This makes so little sense it hurts. What the hell is she talking about?

“What the hell are you talking about, Joan?”

“Our bees.” She repeats.

“Bees?” I‘m saying again, my head quickly filling with the gritty discomfort of confusion, “Like for honey?”

“And pollination!” She shouts. “It must have been what was keeping you awake. All the bees.”

She opens her face to show off her teeth again but she doesn’t stop speaking. She’s still saying Bees, forcing the word out at me from behind those pearly-whites. She’s hissing and buzzing through her clenched teeth and I feel a dull rumbling tremor growing in my chest.

I want to scream at her, to make her understand how crazy she’s being but the vibrations start to swell and I’m shaking, I’m heaving when the swarm starts to crawl from her ears, spilling from her eyes and her mouth, tumbling down her chest and over her shoulders and spreading into an undulating cloud in constant motion, drumming at the air.

Then, the opened hive that is Joan-from-next-door and all it’s bees say, “Knock, knock.”

And I’m lying on the sofa.

And there’s a knock at the door.

O.G.B.

We were just trying to innovate, you know? To push things. The place was full of these people; these dreamers, these space-heads, these geniuses. All of them with wild, out-there ideas and, thanks to Our Gracious Benefactor, the means to explore them. That’s how they liked to be addressed: Our Gracious Benefactor, each word capitalised. They could totally tell if you didn’t pronounce the caps, if you thought in lower case. That got to be a saying with the white-coats, thinking in lower case: if you weren’t going far enough; weren’t pushing things all the way out there. That wasn’t me, you understand. I wasn’t trying to mess with things or make anything. I’m not to blame, is what I’m saying. None of this was my fault. I was just there writing press releases; trying to make them sound less like off-brand Bond villains; to figure out marketing strategies for things that fucked with reality, that twisted humanity. Just a hired geek trying to sell the end of the world.

The white-coats, they were the ones that actually did things. Your Emmett Browns, your Professor Morriartys, your Doctor Dooms. They’d been tempted away from studies and tenures, from cushy government jobs. These wannabe Einsteins, these Oppenheimers. From every discipline, from every industry, all living and working in Our Gracious Benefactor’s gleaming, futurist paradise. Far from government oversight, from petty protesters. No funding applications. No interference. No questions. Our Gracious Benefactor assured them they’d be free to explore their own unique brand of crazy, fully funded and unfettered. Most didn’t even care about money, not really. They just wanted the acclaim. So Our Gracious Benefactor got in people like me, creatives, to play yuppie-troubadour to the white-coat’s scientist-knight.

A few demanded their work wasn’t used in any military capacity. Your hippie type’s mostly, your pussies. So, complicated contracts were drawn up by lawyers, then checked by other lawyers, then chewed up and shat out by some all-powerful lawyer’s lawyer, by God’s lawyer. And finally these hippies and pussies, they’d sign on the line that was dotted, their worries soothed, their conscience absolved. A lock-stock, death-free, guarantee. Benevolent applications only! For their disintegrator ray, or their temporal compressor, or their (no word of a lie) mind-control suppository. Come to think of it, butt-hypnosis guy came on board without any stipulations. Dude just wanted to work.

It couldn’t last though. Things can only take so much fucking with before they turn to bullshit. You fold and unfold the world enough times and it’ll start to fray, start to tear. And that’s everything now. Loose and lawless and falling apart. The big-hitters managed to escape the bullshit in time, of course. With their ships or portals or pods. A few ascended into some higher state of bullshit, leaving the norms behind, neck deep in it. And now that’s us, stuck in the hot suite while the outside splits and twists and fractures. A bunch of pen-pushers, safe and sound watching the end of the world.

Terrible Opening Lines Challenge

After a long day at the Porn-O-Matic shop, the LittleGuy was tired. He stood with his shoulders and chest just visible over the counter, his palms flat against it’s polished steel surface. His face was still but his eyes followed Barb as she walked the edges of the shop, checking the cabinets and display cases, locking the wire mesh shutters and switching off the rotating displays. She was about to lock the shop’s entrance when the room filled with a blast of grinding static.

“Alright, alright,” Barb called out.

She went to the counter, dropping the keys onto the steel with a clatter as she lifted the flap. The LittleGuy leaned forward to allow Barb behind while continuing to emit his crackling, atonal buzz.

“It’s alright,” Barb cooed, “it’s been a big day for you, my darling. You’ve been quite the draw, haven’t you?”

The LittleGuy turned his head and smiled.

“I’m wiped,” his low growl buried in the blare of modulating static.

“That’s a poor choice of words, dear,” Barb said, frowning, “now look straight ahead for me.”

She began to work her fingers through the bristly black hairs at the base of his skull. After finding the round outline of the catch, she gripped his neck, pressed her thumbs into the soft tissue there and then lifted her hands away as the LittleGuy’s head split along the hairline. The back of his head opened, delorian-like, displaying a tangle of translucent, pulsing red wires over clusters of flickering golden lights.

“I’ll just pop you on a little snooze cycle, dear, let you get yourself together.”

She turned a dial, pressed a button and then closed up the LittleGuy’s head. He fell slowly forward, coming to rest on the counter top as the static wound down to a low, almost unnoticeable drone. Barb stepped out from behind the counter and picked up the keys as the bell above the shop’s entrance rang. Two men, one short, one tall, both in neat, black suits, walked in from the street. The tall man moved with a smooth liquidity, his upper body a gliding statue, while his legs flowed beneath. The short man shuffled and stooped, pressing his hands together, stroking and squeezing his plump fingers, as if working them though a series of permutations.

“I’m sorry gents but I’m about to close,” Barb said.

“Closed?” The short man looked at his watch, frowning, “so early? Well, miss, let me assure you, we shall be but a minute.”

He moved towards Barb, while his tall friend turned away, bending over to inspect the glass cabinets of bondage pieces along the back wall.

“I was just saying to my friend here what a singular establishment this is,” he said, massaging his hands as he spoke, “my friend is of the opinion that it should take quite the specialist to work in such a niche boutique. Isn’t that right, sir?” he called out while winking at Barb.

“Yeah, real special,” the tall man said without turning.

Barb threw up a pained smile, “I am the proprietor of this establishment, Mr..?”

The short man held up his hands, waving in exaggerated apology.

“Oh! I’m so very sorry, Miss. Allow me-”

“It’s Ms,” Barb corrected, “Ms Garrett. And again, who are you gentlemen?”

“Of course, of course. I,” the short man squashed himself into a bow, holding one hand to his chest, “am Mr Quick-”

“I’m sure you are,” Barb interrupted, “and your compatriot?”

“Oh!” Quick smiled wide, displaying neat rows of small, yellow teeth, “compatriot! Very fine. Very fine indeed. Well? Do introduce yourself, sir!”

The tall man straightened stiffly, as if hinged at the waist; pivoting away from the cabinet in a graceful arc as he rose.

“I’m Sharp, me. Mr Sharp.”

He spun away again, folding over as he did.

“There you are Mzzz Garrett. Now, as I was saying, it must take someone very…” he paused, pursing his lips, “affable to work in such a specialised market, yes?”

With his face pressed against the glass of the display, Sharp let out a low, rhythmic chuckle.

“Gentlemen,” Barb sighed, “I collect and sell historical objects of a sexual nature. These pieces,” she gestured to the cabinets and displays, “have facilitated generations of sexual activity, ensuring the perpetuation of our species,” she looked from Quick to Sharp and back again, “and not only through simple reproduction. They have allowed people to satisfy compulsions and desires that may have otherwise driven them to who-knows-what. People who, thanks to such works, have been able to live rich, full lives.”

“Indeed, indeed, it’s all very admirable,” Quick chimed, his hands wrestling one another all the while.

“The history of sex is the history of the most powerful drive in humanity,” Barb continued. “This is a repository of antique sexual objects, not some neon pink, kink-tech emporium. My collections capture the interest of many an upstanding and distinguished-”

“Oh, I don’t doubt it Mzzz Garrett,” Quick interrupted, flashing his yellow smile, “it’s all very impressive.”

“Quite,” Barb seethed, “now, as I’ve already told you. We. Are. Closed. You gentlemen will have to come back another time.”

We?” Quick, shot back, “we are closed? Do you have some compatriot of your own hidden away somewhere?

“That really is none of your-”

“Or perhaps you include the little gent behind the counter, there?” Quick said, stretching out to look over Barb’s shoulder.

“LittleGuy,” Barb corrected.

“What?” Sharp spat, spinning around once more to face Barb.

“That,” Barb pointed a finger over her shoulder, “is a LittleGuy. It’s a one-on-one fuckbot of diminutive stature with a substantial penis,” she paused relishing the men’s discomfort. “A LittleGent is a statuesque model with, I’m afraid, rather lacklustre equipment. LittleGents are designed for straight, cis couples experimenting with multiple partners,” her voice fell to a slow whisper, “men tend not to want the guest-star to show them up.”

“That’s it! You kink-tech fuck,” Quick shouted, reaching into his jacket.

Barb flinched, squeezing her eyes shut while turning and dropping into a crouch. But instead of a gunshot she heard a series of loud clicks, layered over one another, followed by a high pitched whine. She eased open one eye and turned her head to see Sharp bent over, almost double. His one hand flopped to the floor, while the other laid still cradled in his jacket. His head nodded jerkily and as Barb stared, it began to smoke. Black curls seeped from his ears gradually pouring out into greater flapping ribbons. As the smoke began to billow upwards, Sharp’s head creaked open, the back falling forward with a clunk to reveal the charred remnants of an artificial brain.

The sound of a cough dragged Barb’s attention to the left and she saw Quick standing with his fidgeting hands raised above his head, folds of black smoke wrapping about him. His face was turned away from Sharp, his eyes screwed shut as he juddered and shook, letting out blunt, rattling coughs, expelling the smouldering mind of his late partner.

Barb turned to the counter, surprise stretching the length of her face. The LittleGuy stood with his right arm extended ahead of him. The hand hung, dismantled; fingers dangling elongate, the palm split along the metacarpals to the wrist, revealing a gleaming, chrome cannon. A red glow pulsed at the point where the weapon emerged from the LittleGuy’s arm and crackling blue sparks arced over it’s barrel. Barb noticed the sharp tang of ozone in the air behind the smoke. The LittleGuy ran his still-assembled hand through his hair and scratched at his neck. He turned slightly towards Barb while keeping his eyes fixed on Quick.

“I’m so very sorry about all this Barb,” he said, in his pleasant, low growl.

“Well aren’t you just full of surprises.” Barb cooed.

Chandler is a Girl’s Name

My mind was filled with the mess of papers stuffed inside the filing cabinet. Brace had called from the phone-box downstairs just moments ago and wouldn’t be dissuaded from coming up. There was barely time for me to scrape together my clippings and notes, to get my less-than-sane looking research out of sight before he made it up the stairs. I’d been pouring over my investigations into, let’s call it my condition, when Brace, with the telephone’s rattling dance, had interrupted me. Now that part of me sat in a crumpled wad at the bottom of that dull, steel tower in the corner. Years of asking and looking and digging and hunting, cowering in the dark because of this impatient, entitled prick.

Brace’s panicked footfalls barely slowed as he hit the door, flinging it into the bookcase behind. My bookcase, though, does not take any guff, especially from the likes of Brace, and it gave him the door right back. He took a good hit to the leg, cursed under his breath, and closed the door with a hard smack. The door did not respond.

Brace brought in the smell of too many cigarettes and too little soap. His was the beaten, washed-out look of a failing salesman. A man who sold carpets or vacuum-cleaners. A man who told himself he was doing just fine, that good days were round the corner, while he remortgaged a rat-hole shop and worked seven-day weeks. A man under-slept and overweight. A man with haemorrhoids and a stomach ulcer and, perhaps, a gambling problem. His shoes were polished but his suit, tight around the paunch, fit badly. His hat, with its water stains and crumpled brim, topped off an ensemble that looked as if it owed a little money to a lot of people.

“Well?” his voice, panic stirred with accusation.

“Well what, Mr Brace?”

“You said you’d found her!”

The poor bastard. I felt pity creeping up my chest before I remembered the time I’d have to wade though with the mess in the filing cabinet. I took my feet off the corner of the desk and turned squarely to face him.

I have completed my investigations and you will have a full report by Monday,” I rattled off the message I’d left in a flat monotone, “does that sound like demand to see me immediately and don’t take no for an answer to you, Mr Brace?”

“Less of the cheek, lady. You’ve done what you were hired for. Just tell me what you found.”

We stared at one another and I felt a thrilling wave of heat and static wriggling up my neck just thinking of things I could do with him. This pathetic collection of meat and bone just waiting to be useful. Visceral delights that could buy my days, maybe months. A precession of crimson danced through my mind, bright flashes of tender dismantling. But, in the end Brace did not blink. I let out a grudging breath, deciding to play the professional.

“I’m going to need my fee before that, Mr Brace.”

“You’ll get your money, woman! Just tell me!”

His palm slapping at the desk.

“Now, normally I wouldn’t demand payment like this,” I continued, ignoring him, “but you strike me as a fairly hot-headed individual and there’s a concern that you won’t want to part with money in exchange for bad news.”

“It’s bad news?” he blurted, his hand flayed on he desk, sweaty condensation growing between his pale fingers.

“My fee, Mr Brace,” I said, reaching behind and fishing an invoice from the tray on top of the filing cabinet.

I placed it on the desk and his hand slid over to take the slip of paper.

“£165, Mr Brace.”

His jaw tightened as his hand turned the paper, his eyes falling to the bottom line.

“You’ll see that’s including expenses.”

Brace grunted and shifted in the chair, his hand working it’s way between the seat-back and his arse. It extracted his wallet and began thumbing at the leather and notes. Once it had selected an appropriate assortment, it pulled out the currency, folded it once and held it out over the desk. As I leaned forward to take my money, Brace’s hand lifted it out of my reach while our eyes paired off.

“Where is my wife?” his voice quieter now, calmer.

I stood, Brace’s eyes still held in mine, and relieved his hand of it’s burden. My desk drawer squealed open and I swapped out the notes for a stack of photographs. The drawer closed, a dull groan this time, and I tossed the photos at Brace.

“I tracked her spiritual adviser to a farm in the dales,” I said, sitting back down as he reached for the photographs, “he’s some kind of priest now, charitable tax status and everything. Runs a commune with a bunch of strays. Some missing kids, that sort of thing, but they and your wife appear to be there of their own accord. No kidnapping.”

Brace’s hands had been busy flipping through the photographs, his eyes soaking up the leaves of flat truth, but now they’d stalled at a particular picture. I knew just the one. A small room. One bed. Two people. A frame filled with sheets, skin and sweat. The kind of picture you don’t want to get caught looking at, let alone taking. People talk about free-love and liberation, but most still want it in the dark, behind a locked door and away from prying eyes. I do find parts of my job distasteful. The stacks of filth I’ve squirrelled away, piles of fermenting transgression, but I’m afraid private lives and dirty secrets are my bread and butter. I can’t afford much by way of a conscience.

“She’s with that goddamned hippie?” he stammered, “but I loved her! I gave her everything she ever wanted. She wouldn’t have anything if it wasn’t for me!” shouting at the photograph now.

“As you say, Mr Brace, she’s conducting an affair.”

He didn’t look up.

“That, along with your separation over the past few months, should see to a quick, inexpensive divorce.”

“Divorce?” he echoed, eyes still on the photograph.

“I did tell you to prepare yourself for this very eventuality, Mr Brace,” my best attempt at a conciliatory tone.

“But,” he finally looked up, “that’s just something you say to everyone, surely?” his voice now equal parts desperation and defeat.

It could still go either way.

“I do, Mr Brace, and do you know why?”

He eyes were still on me. Looking out over his wife and her hippie lover.

“I say it because, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that’s the way it is.”

I turned away from the wet eyes, just to check if the filing cabinet was still there. I remembered the bottle I’d put in it, and then remembered the stuff that made the bottle necessary. When I looked back, all of Brace was still there, salty and pathetic.

“At least now, you know,” I added.

Brace’s eyes avoided catching sight of his wife as his head fell, the other photographs flapping their way to the floor along with his gaze.

“I’ll have the completed file posted out to you,” I said, standing, “I suggest you pass it on to your solicitor.”

Brace was defeat piled in a chair, bent over himself like a beaten question mark. He had now ceased to move or speak. I had come to the decision that it was far past time he should leave. I stomped around the desk, slamming my fist on the filing cabinet for punctuation as I went. No reaction. I rattled the door knob and flung the door open, the bookcase knocking it back with a clatter into my hand. Still the sad heap in the chair. I kicked the chair-back gently and then again, hard. The third kick nearly spilled Brace out onto the floor and his head finally jerked up with a start.

“Good evening, Mr Brace.”

He exit was slow but, thankfully, without fuss and with the wretch gone, I could at last liberate my mess of papers from the filing cabinet, along with the blessed bottle. With any luck, he’d be sad and broken for the rest of his days; better that than show him what they did with her afterwards. The drawer squealed before giving up a tumbler which I quickly filled, emptied and filled again. With the alcohol’s jagged, soothing chill both calming and jump-starting my mind, I set about, once more, to make sense of my crumpled life.

Which Stupid Bastard Gave Charlie Manson Another Drink?

Slow nights are the worst. Don't get me wrong, I hate work as much as the next guy but if you're going to be somewhere for 12 hours, it's nice to have a little something to do. Nights like this, you're stuck at the bar serving whatever sad weirdo lays claim to a barstool. You're topping them up with cheap swill. You're listening to their bullshit. You're marvelling at how anyone can lack such a basic understanding of human interaction, ignore your screaming disinterest, be socially dyslexic. Most people, even half-crazies, they'll piss off once they realise you'll only give back monosyllables and grunts. No matter how inspired they consider their tedious observations on life to be. Barflies though, they just keep on. And tonight's is lord of the fucking flies.

He looks like Charles Manson, if Manson was a Russian used car salesman. That's Manson who's Russian, you understand. His cars are from wherever. Mexico. Fucking Delhi. Mr Manson, he's real intense. He's got too much hair and wears too much cologne. He's way too loud and way too close, practically mounting the bar to get near me. A real personal space invader. Breath like an abattoir next-door to a brewery. A smell that hangs around like a beaten dog. His accent is a blanket European. Greek, Italian. Maybe Romany or whatever. And he just keeps on talking. He segues from politics to TV to musicians to actors to parenting to work-shy youth, and most recently, to fucking street performers.

"So they just stand there! How is that work?"

I sigh and Charlie nods eagerly.

"Am I right? I'm right! If you are going to be a performer, you must perform! Not just dress like a crazy and stay still."

"Another?" I say.

He empties his glass, nodding again. Flat beer spills out, soaking into his stupid, twitching rug-face. On a good night I'd cut him off, kick him out and get some room at the bar but it's been a shitty week and if I'm going to make rent, I've got to squeeze as much as I can out of Mr Manson. As I pour his beer I imagine those freaky human statues staring me down. All dead eyes and stiff limbs. Jerking around whenever no one's watching. Folding themselves in the dark. Glassy and still when there's eyes on them. Haggard, paint-peeled fingers that crack and splinter and claw at your back as soon as you turn.

"Man, they creep me out." I mutter.

I instantly regret it.

He almost jumps over the bar.

"You see! You get it my friend! It's no good, this statue act. It's boring and like you say it's…ah! Unsettling!"

He's shouting, punctuating the last word by slamming his hand on the bar top, so proud to have understood and labelled another human's emotions. Well done Mr Charlie fucking Manson.

He sits there till closing. He keeps on talking. He's back the next night and the one after that. Fucking great. Fucking perfect. Now I'm Charles Manson's favourite bartender.

Sometimes it’s Hell Just Getting Out of Bed

It’s the second clock that wakes the thing. A slant, warped box of thirteen crimson letters set about a chipped, slate face. Infernal, arrhythmic punctures, steel striking bone, dancing between the pendulum’s metered silences. The manic, staggered metronome somehow resonating, layering tick over stop over tick over tock over is over not.

A breath crawls up the thing’s shrivelled throat. Ribbons of rotting tissue flutter between the jagged ivory jutting from its maw. A mob of sleep-stuck eyes writhe under tallow skin. Misfiring piston coughs shake the meat of it and rattle the iron bed. Tender flesh snags against the rust-peppered springs, galvanising the putrid mass into full waking. Its flank of crust-glued eyelids strain and, oozing, tear themselves open to the gloom; goat/squid pupils snapping at the thin, grey morning, edged flame by the streetlight that peers through the barricaded window.

Then the thing begins its screaming.

Trudge

The wanderer's pack cut a ragged line through the dessert. Dragged by the cracked fingers locked about its rough loop. The sack's broken straps trailing and gently stroking either side of the growing trench. Their staggered clawings at the furrow's edges agitating the sands; a pathetic attempt to hide the wanderer's progress. Though progress was an all too optimistic label for his trudging.

Just onward, forward and away.

He imagines a purpose to this journey, lost somewhere back down the line; a necessity or desire that gropes at him from his beginnings. His whys and becauses are now all but dried up. Reason cracked and crumbled and trampled into the sands behind. Whether his was pilgrimage or flight, he can no longer remember. Only sure that he has to keep on, toward the constantly setting sun. On he walks, away from the dark. His mouth raving and his mind reeling. His skins empty and his face peeling. He walks on. Dragging himself into that ever-dying light.

Cold Statues

It’s too early and too cold. Pins and needles twinkle on the frosty ground as I try to stomp some feeling into my numb feet. The sodium street lamps pour out a flat, heavy light, dotting bile-yellow pools throughout the morning darkness. Half-dead but almost awake, I’ve wrapped myself up as best I can, the layers of thin clothes now somehow less than the sum of their parts. I’ll have to raid the lost-property at the bar if I’m to survive winter. At least one of my eyes is open but I haven’t gathered enough energy to lift my head, tucking it instead into the folds of scarf tied around my neck, thin streams of smoky breath crawling out through the folds and trailing behind me. Fortunately the walk to the bar is not a long one. Very convenient, especially for my boss who calls me whenever she needs someone last minute. Busy night. Low on beer. Emergency delivery. So in I go. Way too early and way too fucking cold.

The bar’s just off the main strip, tucked into a back street behind a glitzy cartoon of a hotel. I’m across the street from the hotel’s entrance when I see the brewery truck pulling out onto the main road. The fiend is trying to leave. I make a break for it, sprinting across the street and waving my arms to get the driver’s attention. Frigid air creeps up under my clothes and wraps around my chest. Something collides with my leg and clatters behind me. My breath catches as my legs slip out from under me and I almost stack it face-first into the road, only managing to stay upright thanks to my flailing arms. The bastard driver laughs. I give him the finger through a cloud of relieved breath, then point down the ally. He nods and begins to back the truck up.

Behind me stretches a trail of scrap metal, wires and springs. And there’s somebody stood at the far end of it. A clockwork somebody. It’s staring at me from behind a pair of small mirrored sunglasses, wearing a suit of cogs and wires and metal plates. Stretching out behind it’s left shoulder is one gleaming copper and brass wing, dense overlaid shards of twisted metal feathers and a series of gears and cogs set about it’s joint. The thing’s face is gold with a bulky lower jaw hanging from it’s bolt ears. A tarnished machine underbite and a human nose looking out over the jagged parapet of cruel metal teeth. There are wires and cables in place of hair, parted in the centre and hanging straight in the still, clear morning. It must be some street performer getting set up. One of the human statues. It’s just staring like they always do, but there’s just it and me in the cold yellow dark. I realise I’m staring right back, panting. Clouds of my hot breath tumbling through the crisp air. Not a hint of movement from the clockwork thing.

“Sorry.” I say, pointing at the scattered machine parts, then the street behind me. “I had to stop the guy. The truck. Emergency delivery.”

It just stares back, unmoving. Slices of street light reflecting from it’s clean contours and dissecting the thin air. It’s head is hung low, so that it’s Frankenstein bolt ears are level with its shoulders. Like it’s waiting to charge.

I take a step towards it to help pick up the scattered junk when a blast of noise clamps around my head. I jump, nearly spilling into the road again. The truck’s horn. He’s getting impatient. The clockwork thing doesn’t react.

“I gotta go.” I tell it, taking a step back. “Sorry again.”

As I back away, it’s head begins to turn, following me down the street. There’s a terrible noise like twisting, tearing metal that minces the inside of my head. I turn and sprint to the ally, the shrill, metallic scream rising as I run. A wave of relief hits when I round the corner and the noise stops. I don’t look back.

Now That It’s Over

The birch trees lining the drive were throwing fits in the drenched night. Their writhing limbs excited the security lamps into action and the lawn was doused in a stark, clinical light. Sheets of crashing rain caught and reflected the harsh glare, throwing a haze of static back at the house, through air filled with crackling, wet white-noise.

Alice sat in the large bay window that overlooked the driveway and gardens, a small figure dwarfed by that cavernous shell of glass and wood. She was still and quiet, watching the rain smeared against the window by the relentless wind. Quivering rivers of inky night flowing sideways, like fingers of the storm feeling for a way in. Pulling a cigarette from her lips, she stretched out two smoking fingers to the glass and traced along the water's course until she reached the edge of the frame. Alice's hand settled on the latch. The security lamps clicked off and the scene ahead of her was replaced with her own gloomy reflection. She stared into her own eyes, dark circles in dark circles, and then turned the latch, opening the room to the storm. She pulled her legs up onto the sill, crouched and pressed her face into the liquid wind. Her hair whipped about her, the rain striking her one cheek while cold fresh streams ran down the other. There was an iron tang to the rain as it crept into her mouth, minerals and ozone on her tongue. Her cigarette, soaked and battered, broke apart, spilling it's innards. Loose shreds of tobacco crawling down her hand whilst the tatters of paper clung to her fingers.

"What the hell are you doing?"

Alice let her head drop, looking back into the room from under the arm that still gripped the latch. Abe filled the doorway to the hall, lit from behind by a warm yellow glow. She rocked back, closing the window, sat and wiped her hand on the sodden cushions beneath her.

"Nothing," she replied, "I just wanted to feel the rain, that's all"

Abe stepped into the room, leaning his over-stuffed suitcase against the door frame with some effort.

"Look, if you don't want me to go, you just have to ask. You don't have to act out like this," his voice dripping with that oh-so-understanding salesman tone.

"I want you to go Abe, I thought I'd been pretty clear?"

She was going to stay calm.

"Well I still think you're overreacting. Everyone makes mistakes. I just-"

"It wasn't a mistake," she interrupted, "not what you did and definitely not me kicking you out."

She waited to see if he'd argue the point but he just stared. So she carried on.

"You're a soulless creep, Abe, masquerading as person. But even though you're a parasite, I don't hold it against you. It's on me for not calling you on your bullshit earlier. You were just doing what came naturally, leeching off a healthy host, worming your way into my life. But you got complacent and you got caught and now we're done. So you can get the fuck out of my house."

Calm, calm, calm.

Abe's face attempted an impression of a person with hurt feelings, his head lilting to one side as his eyebrows tried to work out the optimum angle for sympathy. It was like watching a dog try to walk on it's hind legs.

"That's unfair Alice. I understand why you're hurt, I really do. I mean, what I did was shitty but I'm not a bad person. You're going to regret saying those things once you calm down."

"Out, Abe. Now."

"Ok, ok. I'm gone," he said, picked up the suitcase and turned toward to the door. "I just want you to know that I'm sorry. I mean that. I really didn't mean to hurt you."

A hell of a time for a first apology. Did he really think she was going to call his name and forgive all that shit? It was all she could do to not hurl everything in reach at the back of his head as he left the room.

Alice heard the front door close and let out a breath that she hadn't noticed she'd been holding. She picked out another cigarette, lit it and breathed in one long measured drag. Then let her head drop back, lolling between her shoulder blades.

"Fuck your sorry, Abe," she whispered to the room in bitter smoke.