Dockyard Press

ShortStory

The Honesty Stall — 25 April 2021

by Gerard Brennan

“I was watching out for you.” His voice, a sudden intrusion, blotted out the traffic hubbub for an instant. “To tell you a truth.”

Jeanine almost knocked a batch of traybakes off the chestnut sideboard. She’d dragged it out of her café that morning, onto the still busy Upper Ormeau Road footpath. Her first attempt at a socially distanced business diversion since panicked government restrictions forced her to close her doors to the clutch of semi-regulars she’d managed to net. Bent over the remaining wares, sunlight warmed the back of her neck. She resisted the urge to turn and face the source of the voice. To squint at a mystery silhouette framed by a sky full of pink clouds.

The man’s voice crackled, like it needed more time to warm up. “I saw the wee ‘Honesty Stall’ sign and wondered if it was some sort of God thing.”

“I don’t pay much attention to religion,” Jeanine said; Belfast-speak for, Let’s not make this an us-and-them thing.

Her face reddened, but still she didn’t look away from her task of gathering little Tupperware boxes, mostly empty, into a larger Tupperware box. She just wanted to carry them inside, get the empty ones washed, and hole up in her bedroom, directly above the shopfront of her halted business.

“Pity.” This time he tried to clear his throat; the noise muffled by a tissue or sleeve. A cough disguised. “The Godly things ’round here are usually free.”

Jeanine wanted to go indoors and wash her hands. She considered leaving the boxes behind, to be coughed on and touched by strangers. Maybe stolen by bored kids with no school to go to. Then she could tell herself that her modest business model couldn’t possibly work in this climate. She was too scared of catching the virus anyway. Refused to believe that hand sanitiser and polite coughing techniques could save the world.

Her interim business idea was inspired by a news article about a young man living with Down’s Syndrome who sold baked goods in the country. People drove to the entrance of his family’s farm and collected a bag of cookies from a pillar-mounted wooden box, shaped like a barn. They completed the transaction by squeezing a donation into a padlocked moneybox bolted to the bottom of the miniature barn. The suggested donation was a measly quid. Janine would get a lift out there someday and stuff a fiver into the moneybox to thank him for the inspiration. She just hadn’t gotten around to it before the lockdown.

But she’d come up with her own version of an Honesty Stall. The sideboard had a few traybakes on the upper surface, and the donation tin was in the drawer on the righthand side, glued down rather than bolted. The drawer on the left had tissues and plastic knives, for anybody that wanted to cut their sugary treat in half. Both drawers were left open to reduce the need to touch the handles, since they were deep enough to stop the napkins sailing down the road in a gentle breeze.

The previous week, Jeanine’s nephew, Jason, designed a poster based on her vague outline. He printed out and posted a colourful A4 sign for the price of a few caramel squares.

“How does it work?” the man asked.

The instructions were written on the sign. She should have listened to young Jason when he said she needed a bigger page with clearer instructions. But she’d liked his first effort and didn’t want to torture him with extra work just because he had a computer and printer in his bedroom.

Jeanine looked over her shoulder to see how close the stranger was. The volume of his voice suggested mere inches, but she could see he’d heard the news about standing two metres from strangers. If anything, he’d overcompensated his distancing as much as he had cranked the volume of the crackled enunciation of his speech. The man was younger than she’d first thought. Was his voice deepened and gravelled by a throat infection? A virus? The virus? Her palms slickened under disposable rubber gloves. She wished she’d worn a mask or a visor or something. They still hadn’t decided if face coverings made a difference, so far as she knew. Certainly, there weren’t many to be seen around Belfast right then.​

“What do you mean?” Jeanine asked, and wished she hadn’t.

“The sign says, ‘Honesty Stall,’ but I can’t see the small print from two metres away.” He nodded towards the inadequate instructions. “Do I tell you something, then get a wee treat?”

Jeanine couldn’t figure out if he was trying to be funny. Winding, as her generation put it, or banting, as young Jason had taken to saying since he’d started big school. The maturing sunlight behind the man made it harder to read the creases in his face. She decided to play it straight rather than risk angering him with a misunderstanding.

“No, it just means that I have to trust you to pay what’s fair, because I can’t stand outside and serve you.”

He tilted his head. “Oh. Well I have money. Just not on me. How long before you close? I’ll go get some.”

“I’m closing up now.”

“Will them ones go in the bin?” He nodded at the remainders.

Jeanine needed the loo. She didn’t want to be outside any longer. The risks were higher than ever. Used to be she’d be worried about getting mugged on her way to the bank with much needed takings. Found her breath quickening every time she passed a soul. Now her anxiety could be triggered by somebody attempting friendliness with a passing ‘hello.’ She wanted to shout at people to be quiet, irony be damned. That’s how she knew she wasn’t in great form. How she knew she was only a breakdown or two from homelessness. From begging in the street. Or relying on ‘Godly stuff’ to get by.

She reminded herself that it was often a good idea to be kind. And the man still hadn’t made a move to go fetch his money, despite the silence between them swelling towards infinity. Jeanine made a snap decision before doubts could start prickling her scalp.

“I’ll tell you what,” she said. “I’m going to leave these tubs inside. You help yourself to what’s left and next time you’re passing you can drop a wee bit of money in the box.”

“But what if I don’t pass by here again?”

“Are you not local?”

“Aye, I am. But like…”

​The man started to mutter. Jeanine couldn’t make out what he’d said under his breath, and she didn’t want to lean in to spitting range.

Be kind.

“Well, don’t worry about it, then. Just have them.”

“I don’t want to owe you.”

“It’s grand. You owe me nothing. Just enjoy them and tell your friends about the wee stall. We’ll call it advertising.”

She stopped just short of winking at him.

“I don’t have friends anymore.”

“Sorry to hear that.” Jeanine started to feel like she was being sucked into a sob story. One that might end up costing her more than some leftover traybakes. It was time to bail. “It was nice talking to you. Goodbye.”

“I should probably die,” he swatted at his ear. “I miss my old friends.”

Jeanine bumped her backside into the front door of her café and swung it open too hard. She stumbled backwards across the threshold and dropped her Tupperware. A swift kick sent the nested boxes across the café floor and she slammed the door shut. Turned the lock. Took a breath. The man had come closer to the door. She felt safer with a pane of glass between them but briefly considered rolling down the metal shutters for good measure. They’d be too slow, though. If this man wanted to put a brick through the window, she couldn’t stop him.

The man raised his arm. Jeanine flinched, expecting him to hammer-fist his way in. But he hadn’t curled his hand into a weapon. He touched the tip of his index finger to the tip of his thumb and fanned out the other three fingers. Then doglike, he tilted his head and pushed out his lower lip, turning the okay sign into a question.

“I’m fine,” Jeanine said, so loud she hurt her own ears. “Don’t worry about it. Just help yourself.”

“Not unless I can give you something for them.”

Jeanine no longer felt the urge to be kind.

“Then could you just go away, please? I’m finished working, right?”

Now that his face was close enough to mist up the other side of the glass Jeanine could see he was younger than she first estimated. She could also see that he was scared. Maybe more scared than she was herself.

“I don’t want to go home. Barney’s dead and I don’t know what to do with him. And if I die tonight, there’ll be two messes to be cleaned up instead of one. But maybe Barney could be my ghost friend then.”

It was time to lower the shutter. Thank God she’d put the extra money into fitting an electric one. She turned the key from her side of the door and watched its maddeningly slow descent.

The man breathed more mist onto his side of the windowpane. He used the tip of his finger to draw a simple sad face. Two dots for eyes and a downturned slash of a mouth.

“Barney was my last friend. My best friend. I don’t know what to do with him.”

“Try phoning the police.”

“What if they think I killed him?”

The shutter stopped in its tracks. Jeanine turned the key left and then right. She pressed the button again. More movement, but not far enough to end their encounter.

“I’ll phone the police,” Jeanine said.

“Then they’ll definitely think I killed him. Don’t worry about it. He’ll probably fit in the wheely bin.”

Jeanine had heard the bins wouldn’t be emptied for a few weeks. Jesus wept. Should she tell him?

“That was the truth I wanted to tell you,” the man said. “Barney’s dead, but I didn’t kill him. I was trying to keep him safe. That’s all.”

“I believe you,” she said.

Neither of them believed that.

The man knocked on the window, three slow beats. “I wish I could come in there and tell you stuff. Tell you the truths. But I know I’m not allowed.”

Jeanine thought about her mobile phone. The one Jason had chosen for her. It had a touch screen and loads of gigabytes and Facebook for her café and it counted her steps and she sometimes felt guilty about clicking into Daily Mail articles about women older than her who looked twenty years younger and she could use it to phone the police if she could remember where she’d last left it.

The till.

She’d left her phone beside the till. Everything would be okay. The police would come and take this poor, sick man away and they could deal with dead Barney. Everything would be okay. They shouldn’t even need to talk to her in person. Not during a pandemic. She just wanted to make sure this man got taken care of. Or investigated. Maybe arrested if he’d hurt somebody.

The man knocked at the window again, still polite, and yet Jeanine almost loosed her bladder. The bloody shutter needed a service or something. She decided to give up on it.

“I think I’ll take one traybake,” he said. “Would I owe you anything for one?”

Jeanine pretended she couldn’t hear the question. She turned her back on the man and hoped that he wouldn’t smash his way in.

“Did I tell you enough truth for one traybake, missus?”

She walked past the till, decided in the split second it took her to spot her phone that a knife would be a better option, and continued on into the café kitchen.

Chef knife. Psycho blade. She could barely grasp the handle tight enough to draw it from the wooden block it resided in. When she managed to wiggle it free it felt unwieldy. She laid it on its side by the blade block and snatched at a paring knife instead. It looked nasty enough to scare someone but wasn’t so top heavy that it would slide through a shaking, sweat-slicked hand.

Jeanine tucked her right hand behind her back and started a breathing exercise. She closed her eyes and sucked in air for four seconds, held it for five, then blew it out again for six seconds. Once, twice, three times.

When she opened her eyes, she saw that the man was gone. Or maybe he had moved a few paces to the left or right, just to get out of her line of sight. It didn’t matter. A few more rounds of measured breathing, only this time with her eyes opened and fixed on the ghost of a sad face drawn on the other side of the door glass, and she felt brave enough to venture forward.

“Relax yourself,” she said. The sound of her own voice made her feel foolish, but she continued to talk. “Just make sure he’s gone, try the shutter one more time, and don’t panic. It’s going to be fine.”

Baby steps turned to a disjointed shuffle. She got to the door before she could figure out how she usually walked.

And he was gone.

Jeanine giggled a little and called herself stupid. She tried the shutter again, this time raising it slightly before trying to lower it. Something fell out of the track closest to the door. A little wedge of wood. Jeanine squinted at it until the shutter rumbled to her eye level. She blinked and moved backwards, her movements still a little alien to her.

Somebody must have put that wedge high up in the shutter track to stop it from closing. But when and how? Even a tall man would struggle to place it high up enough to stick. Her creepy visitor hadn’t seemed particularly big. And it wasn’t like there would be much point breaking into her wee café to rob her. She hadn’t had a customer in a few weeks and the Honesty Stall had barely made enough to cover her ingredients since she’d started.

Maybe somebody wanted more than money from her. Something physical?

“Stop thinking like that.” Jeanine shook her head. “And for the love of Christ, stop talking to yourself before you end up in the same care home as Barney’s mate.”

Her wee jibe made her feel guilty, but she couldn’t suppress a sneaky smirk.

She halted the shutter at waist height. Relief flooded her body, and she took a second to think. Her Honesty Stall was still outside. It would need to be dragged in if she wanted to try again in the morning. Otherwise some scumbag would lift the whole thing. Either an opportunistic thug hoping to make a couple of quid, or some drunk students thinking petty theft was hilarious.

Although, if somebody did steal it, she could give up and admit that she shouldn’t have taken redundancy from the civil service last year. She should have kept that dull job for the rest of her life and not taken any chances on her wee retirement dream. Maybe she could get another job. Just not in an office or a café.

Before she could decide, her mobile phone rang. She almost stabbed herself in the face with her paring knife when she automatically raised her hands to her mouth. Jeanine dropped her weapon and kicked it towards the dropped Tupperware. She bustled to the till and snatched up her handset. A video chat from Jason. Such a good boy. Her world began to feel more normal.

“Hiya, Jason. Ach, I’m so glad you called.” She squinted at her screen. “Are you all right? You look worried.”

“I saw your café on Snapchat. Where’d that weird guy go?”

“Snapchat? Why would one of your friends…?”

“They aren’t friend-friends. We have a streak, just.”

“Streak?”

Jason looked away from his phone then back at the screen. “Mum’s making faces at me here. Never mind why I saw it, but I did.”

“Put your mum on.”

“I can’t. She’s trying to phone the police.”

“What for?”

“She’s worried about you. That man got beat up after he tried to break into your place. Some kids dragged him away.”

“He’s only been gone for a minute.” She checked her watch. “Maybe five minutes.”

“Mum says you have to come stay with us.”

“But the virus. The lockdown.”

“She says it doesn’t matter. They’ll only fine us if somebody touts on her, but nobody’s like that ’round our way. Dad went out in the car and mum doesn’t know when he’ll be back. Pack an overnight bag, phone a taxi and come on.”

“That poor man.”

“He was trying to rob you. There’s been burglaries all over Belfast since this whole thing started. And they’re targeting people who live on their own.”

Jeanine thought about her visitor, and her reaction to him. How the little wooden wedge had fallen out of her shutters. The man had scared her, but logic started to whisper in her ear. He didn’t seem capable of planning a robbery. He didn’t even look like he’d have been strong enough to break through her window, now that she really thought about it. She had been anxious, scared of the virus. Odder people had come into her café and left without incident. It wasn’t the man, it was the situation. For all she knew, Barney was the guy’s pet dog. Barney seemed like a common pet name. The weird guy just needed to talk to somebody.

And because of her, and her overreaction, he’d been hurt.

“I have to go out there. See if I can help him.”

“It’s not your responsibility, Auntie Jeanine. Wait, I think Mum’s got talking to someone. Uh-oh, she doesn’t look impressed.”

Jeanine heard her sister ask for Jason’s phone.

“Tell your mum I’m fine,” she said, then her view of Jason flipped and there she was, upside-down on the screen for an instant before the image turned 180 degrees. “I’m fine, Beth. Don’t worry about me.”

Beth still had her own phone pressed to her ear. Strands of wet hair straggled over her hand. She looked like she’d just jumped out of the shower.

“You’re staying with us tonight,” Beth said. “Lockdown or not. You’re family.”

“I don’t want to be a burden.”

Jeanine could have bit her own tongue in half for saying something so daft. She wasn’t that old. Beth could probably use her about the house to help out while Jason was off school. Her husband, Rory, was a keyworker pulling long shifts and Beth had been asked to work from home despite pleading her case for furlough. Jeanine could cook for them and earn her keep. But when she tried to take her words back her mouth refused to comply.

“The police aren’t going to help,” Beth said. “They have me on hold here. Apparently there’ve already been calls about other shops on the Ormeau getting robbed. These hoods are jamming shutters and breaking into shopfronts while the emergency services are stretched. Stretched they said. Like, I understand nurses being thin on the ground, but cops? Jeanine, just come, will you? It’ll be fun.”

Jeanine thought of the wedge of wood. “Why would they break into my place? There’s no money here, no valuables.”

“Apart from all your kitchen equipment. These vultures would sell granny’s jewellery for a bottle of WKD.”

Jeanine needed to get off the video chat before she threw up on her phone.

“I’ll phone a taxi now, Beth. Thanks.”

Her sister spoke while Jeanine jabbed at her screen, trying to end the call. “Thank God. Only grab your essentials. I’ve everything you need here until Rory gets a chance to bring you back for a proper pack.”

Jeanine killed the screen and ran to the customer toilet. She threw up in the sink and stumbled away from the smell of it. Her balance was off. She ignored the instinct to clean her mess with anti-bacterial spray. A cold drink would be better.

“Barney said I should thank you for the traybake.”

She could hear him, but she couldn’t see him. Cold sweat stung her eyes. How the hell did he get in? The shutter was down, her back door deadbolted. But he’d got in. The hints of guilt she felt for her earlier overreaction disappeared. She was in survival mode again. And the knife block was just steps away. All she had to do was open the toilet door and run. If the weird guy stood between her and the kitchen…

Jeanine didn’t finish the thought. She reacted. And when she shoved open the bathroom door, the man stood there, blood drenched and bedraggled. For once in her life she picked fight over flight. Jeanine charged at the man, clenched her teeth expecting impact, and ran through him.

She skidded to a halt at the entry to the kitchen and looked back, expecting to see him lying on the ground. But he stood, his back to her now, mercifully hiding his damaged face. A painfully thin cat wove figure eights around his ankles. Jeanine sat down on the floor.

“How did you get in?”

The man shrugged. The skeletal black cat hissed at her. Jeanine closed her eyes and refused to open them.

That crackled voice grated over Barney’s mewls: “I have more truths to tell, if you have time.”

#GerardBrennan #ShortStory #Fiction #DockyardPress

THIS SITE DOES NOT TRACK YOU

3 Days in Skirt World — 25 March 2021

by M.V. Moorhead

The day after I learned I had cancer, I had myself frozen alive. I was a man about it. No screwing around, no weighing the options. I saw the course of action and I took it. One Wednesday morning I got up to take a leak, and it came out looking like crude oil. I went to the doctor, she ordered a bunch of tests, and the next day they were back.

Cancer. The “Big C,” as the great Duke Wayne called it. Pancreatic cancer. One of the few kinds they hadn’t figured out yet. She didn’t soft-soap me. I think she sort of enjoyed telling me I was a goner.

As it happened, Arizona had just become the first state to make it legal to freeze yourself alive. People had been getting their bodies frozen just after death for decades, but the technology had improved. They’d frozen animals and brought them back a year later good as new. Eventually they tried it with human subjects—overseas, of course, not with good Americans—and a year later these wog guinea pigs were back too, happy and smiling and demanding their fee. A few of them went on speaking tours.

So under pressure from a lot of influential Scottsdale and Sedona holistic health nuts and futurist dingalings and New Agey trophy wives, it became legal to get yourself turned into a human Popsicle—if you could afford it, of course—in the hope that they could thaw you out in fifty or a hundred years, or whenever whatever was about to kill you became curable. Time travel, the hard way. The perfect gift for future generations, I remember thinking—a bunch of sick rich white people.

Yes, I had a good laugh about it with the boys down at the club. But somehow it didn’t seem so funny when my doctor—again, barely concealing her pleasure, I think—told me my pancreas was rotting and I was weeks away from the last roundup. On Thursday afternoon I made the call; and that evening I toured the facility, a vault in the basement of a plain cement building in an industrial park in Phoenix. The guy who ran the place didn’t seem like a kook. There were already more than twenty people frozen, in long black metal tubes with self-recharging coolant systems. The guy said that they’d be out of room soon. So I thought, why not?

2.

Because it becomes relevant later, I suppose I might as well tell you now that the idea of freezing myself was starting to seem attractive to me even with cancer removed from the equation. And the reason why is simple.

Women.

I was pushing fifty, and I was rich, and I was respected in the business community. I had reached the point in life where a man expects to be able to call the shots. And yet I called no shots. Except for the few hours a week I spent at the club, or on the golf course, my whole life was about taking orders from women. My wife. My ex-wives. My daughters. My secretary—she called the shots at my office, and Christ protect me if I forgot it. My mistress. My doctor. The cop who pulled me over for an illegal left turn on my way to Phoenix. The world wasn’t just going to the dogs, it was going very specifically to the bitches.

Now, don't get me wrong. I’m not a sexist. I am a misogynist, that I’ll grant you, but I’m not a sexist. I didn’t think women were inferior to men. Based on most of the men around, I didn’t see any evidence of that. I just didn’t like women very much; their nagging and narcissism, their feelings and resentments, their lack of interest in my feelings and resentments. And above all, I didn’t like what women were doing to men in those days. Men had fed them and kept them safe for countless centuries, and in less than a century they took for their own all the things that used to be exclusively male—our confidence, our swagger. And they demanded that we take on everything that used to be exclusively female—the subservience, the emotionalism, the indecisiveness. And I had fallen into it as much as anyone else.

And then we got new leadership. A new President. Stupid and mean and full of shit as a man could be, but it didn’t matter, because he didn’t give a rat’s ass who he offended. On the contrary, he loved offending people. And he especially loved to offend the people that most needed offending, in my never-humble opinion. Especially women. It felt, for a moment, like the country—maybe even the world—might get back, at least partway, to a place that guys like me could recognize and be comfortable in. It was glorious. It was fucking glorious.

But of course it couldn’t last. Women didn’t like him, so of course we couldn’t have him. A lot of, let’s say, the underclass didn’t like him either. Why would they? And neither did a lot of Uncle Tom white guys who wanted to suck up to women and show how virtuous they were. But I think it was women, more than any other single group, whose hatred of him led to him being run off after just four years. It seemed like four hours to me, but it was just four years. We tried like hell to keep him, even got a little rough about it, but in the end, just like always, the bitches got their way.

So I thought, what’s to lose by skipping ahead a century or two? Maybe men will have taken their old turf back when I wake up. Or maybe not—maybe men will have become such wussies by then that I’d be an automatic alpha male. Or maybe they’ll never find a cure for pancreatic cancer, and I’d just stay in the deep freeze until Judgment Day, in which case at least my wife would never again make me go to some dinner benefiting local dance companies or Tibetan monks or whatever.

I met my lawyer Friday morning. He was appalled by my decision until he learned he’d get his fee early. I told him not to tell my wife and daughters until after I was on ice. I didn’t want to go through the drama. Besides, when they found out they were getting their trust money, I doubted they’d be all that inconsolable. And if they did need consoling, my daughters had their moron boyfriends—except for my youngest, who had her oh-so-fashionable girlfriend—and my wife had the pool guy.

So that afternoon I signed what seemed like a hundred releases, got injected with a tranquilizer, and crawled naked into the tube. The technician sealed it up. As I listened to the hiss of the coolant and felt the temperature start to drop, I drifted off to sleep.

3.

“You’ll feel a pain in your side.”

There had been a quick dream, of fishing with my friends in Mexico, and then I was awake. Somebody had decided to wake me up.

I couldn’t move and couldn’t open my eyes, but I could hear this voice.

This woman’s voice.

The voice didn’t lie. There was a sharp pain in my side, just below my ribs. It was gone almost as soon as it started, replaced with a tingling vibration.

“You should be able to see in a few minutes, and move a little,” said the voice.

The woman’s voice.

It felt like I had been asleep for an hour or two, tops. Somebody woke me and my cancerous pancreas up. My wife or my daughters had managed it; no doubt, to torment me with God knows what horseshit that didn’t interest me. They’d decided to let me croak slowly, pumped full of useless drugs. I hoped my lawyer would enjoy the new ass I was going to rip him.

I could hear somebody else in the room, speaking. Speaking another language.

Another language, being spoken by another woman.

“Our body scans indicate that you have a... a malignancy in your pancreas,” said the first woman’s voice. She was translating for the second woman. “This is why you were frozen, likely? You don’t have to worry, this treatment will also cure that condition.”

The voice spoke slowly and deliberately, often putting the emphasis on odd syllables. English wasn’t her first language, either.

My eyelids began to twitch, then they quivered open. The light in the room was dim. A machine of some sort hummed at my bedside, with a cord that led to an attachment on my side. Even the slight glow that came from it stabbed at my eyes, and I squinted as I looked upward. Two women were standing over my bed. A door was open behind them, and more women were crowded in the hallway, peering in at me. I didn’t know any of them.

Some feeling was returning to my body—I could feel a soft mattress beneath me, now, and the cool air of the room on my face.

I parted my lips, and tried to speak, but nothing came out. The women saw my effort, and the foreign-speaker said something to my interpreter, who spoke to me:

“Don’t try to talk now... sir. You’ll need about thirty more minutes of exposure to this... this infusion treatment... sir... and then you’ll need to rest awhile. Then you should feel fine. Better than ever, likely.”

My interpreter stood there watching me, smiling, fascinated, while the other woman fussed with the machine, and fussed with me. Then they shooed away the curious crowd in the hallway, and then they left, too.

At the door, my interpreter turned back to me. I noticed she held a sort of transparent envelope in her hand, with a paper enclosed in it. A very old, very yellowed sheet of paper. It was the medical chart from the top of my cryo-tube.

In her tentative English, the woman at the door said:

“Try to rest awhile, Mister... Mister...” she consulted the chart.

“Mister... Devlin.”

I managed something like a smile. I didn’t want them to think I was brain damaged, and couldn’t understand anything. Besides, this infusion treatment of theirs, whatever it was, was starting to work. I was starting to feel pretty good. Damn good, in fact. Like she said, better than ever.

She left, sliding the door shut behind her. After another ten minutes, I had enough strength to turn my head. And there it was, right there on the other side of my bed from the humming infusion machine: My tube, wide open, a few wisps of Freon still rising from it. It was faded-green with oxidation, and covered with dust.

If someone was putting me on, they were doing a hell of a job of it.

It wasn’t a put-on. I knew it wasn’t. I’d been asleep a long, long time. No way the infusion treatment was a fake. I was starting to feel ten years younger. I was starting to feel like I could run a marathon, once I got my joints moving again.

And they said my cancer would be cured. And I believed it. I could almost feel it.

Ingratitude set in fast, though. I was glad I was back, glad I was cured, but...

...All these women. No men to be seen anywhere. Not a good sign.

On the other hand, there was an encouraging sign:

All the women had been wearing skirts.

4.

The infusion machine must have had some sort of tranquilizing effect, because even though I could feel energy starting to surge through me, I still fell into a deep sleep within a few minutes of the two women leaving the room. When I woke up, the machine was gone from my room, the tube was gone from my room, and daylight was seeping in through closed Venetian blinds.

I felt great, incredibly refreshed and energized. I couldn’t stay in bed. I got up, feeling only a slight creak in my joints as I stood—less then I did, mornings, in my pre-frozen days. I was naked, but when I glanced around the plain, white-walled room, I saw a robe had been laid out for me on a small chair near my bed. I put it on.

Then I went to the window, and opened the blind.

I was on the upper floor of a three-story building, in a sprawling desert city of cylindrical buildings, none of which was higher then six stories. The architecture was rounded and curving, the colors soft pastels. It looked like a city of huge mushrooms.

There were car-sized vehicles in the street below me, shoehorn-shaped things that hurtled along a few inches above the pavement. Hovercrafts of some sort. There were pedestrians, too; lots of them.

All women.

I looked everywhere. Yes, it was true. Every person I could see was a woman. A tall, strapping woman with long hair, wearing a long skirt. Well, no, that wasn’t right—there was a woman wearing a short skirt. A woman in her late teens or early twenties, wearing a skirt that went down only a few inches below her waist, showing her legs to fine advantage. Her very good legs. I suddenly realized how very, very much better I was feeling.

“Hello, world,” I said. I didn’t sound as hoarse as I would have thought.

Just then the door slid open behind me, and the two women from the previous night came in.

“Mister... Devlin,” said the English speaker. She was a tall, olive-skinned woman who gave the impression of being about fifty, though her tanned face was free of wrinkles. She had thick, curly reddish-brown hair. She still had my chart. Her companion, the foreign-speaking woman, looked to be younger. She, too, was tall, and had long hair, but hers was straight and blond. Her face was stern and a bit suspicious. She spoke.​

What the hell was that language? I’d been all over the world with my business, spoke some Japanese myself, but I couldn’t place it. It sounded a little like German, a little like Spanish, a little like Latin. More then anything, like some elaborate form of Pig Latin.

“Mister... Devlin. May I call you...” said the English speaker, looking at the chart. “May I call you...”

“Call me Biff.” They both jumped. It was the first time they had heard me speak. “That’s what my friends call me,” I added. This always worked when I was introduced to new clients.

“Fine,” said the Interpreter. “Biff. Biff, how do you feel?”

“You were right,” I said. “I feel great, never better. Sure wish we’d had treatments like that back in my day. So, uhm... How long have I...”

“My name is Dr. Teele,” said the Interpreter quickly. Uh-oh. She didn’t want to get into that matter just yet. “This is Dr. Piper.” The blond woman nodded at me a little.

“Well, thank you for saving my life,” I said to Dr. Teele.

“I can’t make credit... make credit...?”

“Take credit?” I offered.

“Take credit, yes, I can’t take credit for that. Dr. Piper is the physician. I am a Doctor of language, and of... of history.”

“Ancient history?” I asked, with a smile.

“You’d better sit down... sir. Biff. I’m here so that we can communicate with you. American... well, what you would have called English, our language, it has changed since you were suspended.”

“Yes, and how long ago was that?”

She paused a minute, then decided to take the plunge.

“About a thousand years.”

5.

“This isn’t Phoenix,” I said. “I don’t recognize these mountains.”

“Yes, this city was called Tucson before you went to sleep,” said Dr. Teele.

We were on the roof of the building—the hospital, it turned out, though apparently sickness had grown so rare that it was more like a spa. There was a running track on the roof, and we were strolling around it together.

“What’s it called now?”

“Agavia.”

I didn’t ask her what this meant. I had a feeling I wouldn’t like the answer.

An especially tall black woman walked behind us, her long skirt fluttering in the warm breeze. Dr. Teele didn’t say so, but she was plainly a security guard. She also didn’t say why we were walking on the roof of the building, but she didn’t have to—it was the only place I could get some fresh air without being stared at.

“How did I get here?”

“The vault with your tube was discovered at an archaeological dig in the ruins of Phoenix. Because I specialize in late 20th-and early 21st Century studies, I was called in from Berkeley to consult.”

Berkeley was still Berkeley, I thought. Of course.

“What about all the other people in the vault?” I asked.

“The coolant systems had failed hundreds of years ago on all of the other tubes except yours and one other person’s. They’d all thawed out and mummified.”

“One other person survived?”

Dr. Teele seemed uncomfortable. “Yes, there was one other... recovery.”

“Can I ask who?”

“A woman from the same time period as you. Her name is Dawn Hacker.”

“Oh, Christ,” I blurted. “Of course! I know Dawn Hacker. She was on a bunch of women’s boards with my wife. I should have known nothing could kill her but a stake of holly through the heart!”

I immediately wished I hadn’t said it, but to my surprise, Dr. Teele smiled. “Yes,” she said. “She... she remembers you too.”

“So you’ve met her?”

“Oh, yes,” said Dr. Teele. Then she sighed, and said, “She’s been assisting me, helping me learn conversational Old American, at my department in Berkeley for nearly five years.”

I whirled on her. “Five years? You mean you found us five years ago? And you only got around to waking me up...?”

“Mister... Biff,” she said. “You might as well understand right now that you are a... I guess you would have called it a hot potato, politically. I wanted to revive you from the start, but there’s been a lot of resistance to the idea. It’s taken me years to persuade the authorities of its scientific value.”

“But Dawn, you were able to thaw out five years ago.”

“Well, Biff, you likely must have noticed... ”

“Indeed I have,” I said. “So let’s quit dancing around the big question. Where are all the men?”

“They’re around,” said Dr. Teele.

I had been in business long enough to know a prepared answer when I heard one.

“Are they?” I asked. “Where?”

“I think maybe we should go in now,” said Dr. Teele. “You need your rest.”

The big security guard came striding up. She was prepared to enforce this. I wasn’t going to get any more answers right now.

So in I went. I did what the women told me to. Some things never change.

6.

They gave me a really horrible-tasting dinner, and then a bunch of doctors and researchers poked and prodded me, and waved hand scanners over me. Most of them, especially the older ones, wore the long skirts; a few of the younger ones wore mini-skirts. Most of them, young or old, were really good-looking, if you liked the earth-mother type. Which I didn’t, but hey...

Dr. Piper pointed a scanner at my abdomen briefly, looked at the readout, then, through Dr. Teele, told me in so many words that I now had the pancreas of a twenty-year-old health food nut.

Through all of this ordeal, Dr. Teele sat watching me, giving me enigmatic smiles. I think she felt a bit sorry for me.

I certainly felt sorry for myself. I was thinking about an old movie I had seen on television on the late show, back when I was a kid, a thousand years and several decades ago. I’ve forgotten the title, but it was about a spaceship that lands on a distant planet, which the crew—all men, of course—discovers is entirely inhabited by women. These women all go instantly boy-crazy, of course, and start trying like hell to seduce these spacemen. It seemed to me like a pretty good deal.

Despite Dr. Teele’s oh-so-casual response to my big question, as far as I could tell I now found myself in the same situation. Except that these women didn’t look at me as an exotic new prospect from the romantic past. They looked at me, and touched me, as if I was a frog that had been submerged in formaldehyde.

7.

The next day, I took exercise again on the roof with Dr. Teele. Again, the big black Amazon walked a few paces behind us on the track.

“Do you have a first name?” I asked Dr. Teele.

“Yes, my name is Marjorie.”

“I like that name,” I said. “Any chance I could call you that?” I was turning on my charm, such as it was. I figured what the hell, maybe these women didn’t have any resistance to male charm. It was worth a try.

“Certainly,” said Dr. Marjorie Teele, with a smile.

“All right then, Marjorie,” I said, as casually as I could. “Let’s try it again. Where are all the men?”

She sighed. “As I told you yesterday, they’re around.”

“Are you sure you weren’t fibbing to me about that, Marjorie?” She looked blankly at me. “Are you sure you ladies haven’t mastered the art of Virgin Birth?”

“No, Biff, pregnancies occur the same way they always have.”

“But it looks like... well, it looks like women run the show.”

“Run the show?” The idiom hadn’t survived, apparently.

“It looks like women are in charge of things. Like they rule society, make the decisions.”

“Oh... yes, I suppose that’s true.”

I stepped off the track, and walked to the rail on the edge of the building. Dr. Teele followed me. The big black Amazon stood on the track, watching.

We stared out for awhile at the cityscape of Tucson/Agavia.

“So, are the men slaves?” I asked at last.

“No,” said Dr. Teele. “Males are not slaves. They are very devoted and very well-loved husbands and fathers.”

In other words, slaves, I thought.

“When will I get to meet them?”

“Not yet,” said Dr. Teele.

“Why not?”

“You aren’t ready.”

I turned to face her. “I want to see a man, any man, right now!”

“Well, you can’t, not just yet.” Dr. Teele said. “I’m sorry.”

“You keep us in stud pens or labor camps or something, don’t you, Godammit? Just admit it.” I said it too loud, too aggressively, and the Amazon started toward us. But Dr. Teele held up her hand, and the big woman stopped.

“No,” snapped Dr. Teele. “Labor camps and slavery were products of your era, not of ours.”

I made myself calm down. This wouldn’t get me anywhere. I looked back out at the city, and the barren mountains beyond it. Finally I spoke.

“Is it this way all over the world, or only here?”

“All over the world, Biff,” she said, gently now.

“So, the world is perfect now, I suppose? No more war, and all that? No more violence, no more prejudice?”

“Of course not,” said Dr. Teele. “I wish that was true, but there’s still plenty of war and violence... ”

“Like what?”

“Well, there’s unrest in the Middle East, of course,” she said. “And there’s a war going on right now in southern Europe—the Sapphist Front is trying to take control of New Lesbos. And there’s been terrorism on the Moon lately, too, in Diana Dome. Hecatian purists insist that it’s a holy city to Moon Goddess worshippers.”

“Women run the moon, too?”

She smiled at me. “Doesn’t that, at least, seem fair?”

8.

Late that evening, I tried to escape. It was pathetic really. Another large, burly woman was posted outside my door at night, and I had already noticed that the night shift didn’t take the detail as seriously as the big Amazon that followed me around during the day. She’d leave to go to the bathroom every few hours, apparently assuming I was asleep, and be gone for four or five minutes. So that night, after another appalling dinner, I lay in bed and waited until I heard her pad down the hall. I cracked open the door, and saw that the corridor was empty.

I made it, without being spotted, to a big spiral staircase that wound its way down the center of the building, ending in a big round lobby at the ground level, three floors down. I crept to the foot of these stairs, but as soon as I got there, I realized I was going to be spotted, and indeed I was—a nurse at the front desk looked up from her screen, looked back down, then did a big double take.

She hit a button on her desk, and began to yammer into it in her language.

“Shit,” I said, and bolted for the door. As I opened it, I could hear my guard yelling at me she charged down the stairs behind me.

As soon as I ran out onto the street, into the cool night air and the light of a moon full of squabbling women, it occurred to me that this was without a doubt the stupidest thing I could possibly do. It was the panicked response of an animal. Marjorie had already told me that the authorities hadn’t wanted her to thaw me out at all; this would certainly prove them right, prove that I was a dangerous beast and couldn’t be trusted. I was in strange world where I didn’t speak the language, where I had no resources, and where I was immediately recognizable as out of place—as a monster, in fact. I was going to be recaptured, no question about it, and very possibly put to death. The only remotely smart course of action at this point would have been to give up peacefully, and apologize.

But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make myself go passive and throw myself on the mercy of a bunch of women. I’d slept for a millennium and outlasted cancer, and after all that I just couldn’t beg these bitches for my life. I kept running.

But to no avail. I was a fugitive for less than two minutes, as it turned out. I crossed the broad, empty street and dodged between two of the shoehorn-shaped vehicles that were parked along its side. The streetlights were really bright; I needed some kind of cover. I turned into a wide concourse between two of the mushroom-shaped buildings. Immediately I came face to face with three pedestrians, all women of course, all around forty, with long hair and long skirts. They shrieked when they saw me, but they didn’t scatter—they charged me. I turned and ran the other way, and there was the night-shift Amazon coming toward me fast, her skirt billowing behind her.

“Leave me alone!” I screamed, and took a swing at her—something I’d never done in my earlier life, I might add. My sad little punch missed her nose altogether, and I stumbled. She grabbed my arm, twisted it behind my back, and hurled me down to the pavement. I flailed with my free arm, but the other three women ran up and helped restrain me. More women emerged from doorways all around, alerted by the scuffle, and descended on me.

I started to scream at them. “Where are the men? Bitches! What did you bitches do to all the men?”

9.

I was sure they were going to tear me apart, but they didn’t. They just held me fast, talking excitedly in their Pig Latin-ish lingo, until more guards from the hospital arrived. I was taken back to my room and put in restraints, and the door was locked. About half an hour later, Dr. Teele came in. She had a book in her hand.

“That was unwise,” she said.

“I know.”

“Where were you planning to go?”

“I know, I know, it was stupid. Screw you.”

“Screw me... what does that..?”

“Never mind,” I said. “Ask your buddy Dawn Hacker; she’ll tell you. So I suppose now you’re going to stuff me and put me in a museum or something?”

“The council wouldn’t mind that, I admit,” she said. “But we have laws against that sort of thing. We’ve awakened you, and now we have to keep you. I’m not the most popular person in the world right now.”

“Well, look at this way, Marjorie,” I said. “You’re still more popular than me.”

“Listen, we have to come to an understanding, you and I,” she said. “I was wrong not to explain to you the situation with... with the males from the start.”

“I agree,” I said. “So tell me.”

“I brought you something to read,” she said, and took off my restraints. “I had this flown in from my library at Berkeley. It’s a very old book. It’s in your language.” She handed it to me.

It was indeed a very old book—it had already been at least a couple of decades old, I bet, when I got frozen. Once brightly colored, it was faded with age and with some sort of thin coating that had been placed on the pages to preserve them. The title was Fish Are Astounding! and the cover also bore the legend “A Read and Learn Book.”

“It’s for children,” I said petulantly.

“I know,” said Dr. Teele. “I’m not trying to... to... econdesendu...”

“Condescend to me?”

“Thank you, yes. I’m not trying to do that. But we don’t have much time, and this is the only piece of literature on this topic that I have in your language.”

“On what topic? Fish?”

“Just read it,” she said, “And then we’ll talk.”

So I did. There was a cloth marker in the volume, and I opened to that page. And there was a picture of large, snaggle-toothed, football-shaped black fish with spiny fins and a long, antennae-like projection from its head. From its belly there dangled, almost unnoticeably, a tiny, tadpole-like appendage.

This is what the text underneath said:

“Did you know that when you look at this picture, you’re looking at two fish, not one? This big girl in the center of the page is a female anglerfish, a predator of the deepest parts of the ocean. She hunts by attracting smaller fish to the glowing lure that extends from her head. But her mate is also in the picture—he’s the little fellow, less than three inches long, hanging from her underside! When a male angler is very young, he grabs onto his mate’s body with his mouth, and hitches a ride. Eventually his jaws grow right into her skin, and he feeds directly from her bloodstream for the rest of his life. As time goes by, most of his non-reproductive organs degenerate, including his sensory and digestive systems and his brain, and he depends on his mate completely for survival and nourishment.”

I read the paragraph through twice. Then I looked up at Dr. Teele. I cleared my throat, which had gone sort of dry. I wanted to crack a joke, say something, but Dr. Teele put up her hand and stopped me.

And then she pulled up her skirt.

And there it was—or, rather, there he was, hanging down from the front of her right leg, just below her hip. A shriveled pinkish GI Joe body with melted-down arms and legs, a buttcrack grown shut and a bald, eyeless head, mouth fused to her skin. Only one part of him was plainly not vestigial, and that part was very well developed indeed.

“Biff,” said Dr. Teele, “I’d like you to meet my husband.”

I fainted.

10.

When I came to, Dr. Teele was sitting next to my bed. Her skirt was down. Mercifully. She handed me a cup of water, and I drank it.

When I was finished, I spoke.

“I took college biology,” I said. “I was asleep for a thousand years, give or take, right? Evolution...”

“...Couldn’t have made such a big change in just a thousand years? You’re right, it couldn’t.”

“Then how...?”

“Human genetic science stepped in. Hundreds of years ago. I can you give the whole history if you want to hear it. It was a deliberate conspiracy, and I can’t say that the females necessarily behaved with perfect justice toward the males, although they had been pushed far. I can only say that this... this is the way things are now, and the way they’ve been for a very long time. It’s the only way that any of us have ever known.”

“Which makes me very out of place.”

“I’m afraid so,” she said. “None of us are quite sure what to do with you.”

I wasn’t listening. A new question had just occurred to me.

“Jesus, does Dawn Hacker know about this?”

“Dawn’s had a husband of her own for more than three years,” said Dr. Teele. “They have two daughters.”

11.

I asked for paper and a writing utensil, and was surprised when they gave them to me. I lay awake all last night, writing this account. This morning, I asked Marjorie to take a proposal to the authorities—that I be frozen again, for another thousand years at least, and try my evolutionary luck with the next Millennium. A copy of this manuscript could be attached to the outside of the tube, to help future generations decide if they want to try their luck with me. Less than an hour later, Marjorie came back, smiling at me a little sadly.

​She said they’d be happy to oblige.

#MVMoorhead #ShortStory #SciFi #DockyardPress

THIS SITE DOES NOT TRACK YOU

Cicada Summer — 19 August 2020

by M.V. Moorhead

In the summer of 1970, for me the summer between second and third grade, my mother had an operation that left her bedridden for several weeks. I was sent to stay with my Aunt Marion in Washington, DC, for the month of June.

It was a cicada summer that year in DC, a summer of sexual maturity for the Periodical Cicadas—after seventeen summers as underground larvae they had risen, to fill the trees with their vast choral love-music, and to make the birds fat.

Standing on the balcony of Aunt Marion’s apartment one afternoon, I saw a starling grab a cicada in mid-air. Possibly my earliest clear memory of death. Then I went home to Pennsylvania, where I finished out the summer, and finished out grade school, and finished out high school. Then I went to Penn State for a while, but left to get married, and then I got divorced. And then I got accepted as a transfer student at Georgetown, and landed back in DC—not Richard Nixon’s DC; now it was Ronald Reagan’s—seventeen years later, in 1987. That’s when I met Stan Zelinski.

He was drunk when I met him, and in danger of losing his life. I had gone to work, a couple of nights a week, as an usher at a movie theatre on Wisconsin Avenue. One of my fellow ushers was Trent, a big aggressively friendly Georgetown undergrad, and a frat boy. Trent talked me into showing up at a frat party one Friday night after work.

Loud music, smoke and none of the decadence I’d seen in the movies. Oh well.

Less than an hour, and I was about to leave, when I happened to notice a kid of eighteen or nineteen, a yuppie-type with full cheeks and brown eyes, talking to a fleshy, buxom blond girl of about the same age in a blue blouse too small for her.

She was doing the talking, actually—talking and talking away to this kid, and dancing while she talked, with a beer in her hand. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but it looked like the usual: what’s your major, what’re you going to do this summer? The kid wasn’t saying much. He was smiling at her, his eyes lowered. It looked like they were lowered in shyness. It was a charming expression.

Then he grabbed her bouncing tits, one with each hand.

For me, it was like a stretched-out moment in a car accident—I knew he was going to do it a split second before he did.

She yelled and pushed him away, and he fell on his ass. One of the other frat guys also saw it happen, and told several others, including Trent, and they dragged him out the door. I wandered out after them, and followed them around the side of the house. By the time I got there, they had already bloodied his nose.

“Want us to lose our fuckin’ charter, you little fuck?” Trent was saying, as he flung the kid to the ground. He raised a foot over the kid’s head.

“Hey, Trent. Cool it.”

They all looked at me.

​“You see what this piece of shit freshman did?”

“Yeah, I saw it, and he deserves everything you gave him. But go any farther, he’ll end up in the hospital. Or worse. And then you’re screwed. There goes your summer.”

I said I’d take care of him. They said to make sure he never came near the place again. I helped the kid up, and walked him off into the milling streets of Georgetown. Bloody and mumbling though he was, we attracted surprisingly little notice from passersby.

“What’s your name?”

“Stan. Who would’ve thought frat boys would take it so hard?”

“Yeah, who would’ve thought. Where do you live?”

“Brlffnglb. Hllllb...” He dropped to his knees and vomited. Then he told me which dorm he was in.

“Shit, that’s far. OK, let’s get you there.”

“You can stay over, if you want. My roommate’s gone for the summer. Thank God. Are you gay?”

“No.”

He sang a few bars of some song in a foreign language. Odd, he didn't look or sound foreign. Then he stopped, dropped and vomited again, several times. A trio of girls laughed at us as they gave us a wide berth on the sidewalk.

I got him up and kept him going. He started singing again, in English this time. “‘When I get excited, my little China Girl says, ‘Oh baby, just you shut your mouth’...”

“Bowie,” I said. “If you like Bowie, you can’t be too evil.”

“I like China Girls. China Girls.”

“Oh yeah, and that was a real lotus blossom you were putting your smooth move on back there.”

I cleaned him up in the dorm bathroom, then helped him back to his room. It was cluttered on his side, empty on his roommate’s side.

“Like I said, you can stay over, if you want. Are you gay? It doesn’t matter, you can stay. Are you gay?”

“No, I’m not gay. And if I was, I wouldn’t be interested in your drunken ass.”

“Haw. I’m drunk.”

“That’s like saying Madonna’s got an ego.”

“Haw.”

I laid down on his roommate’s sheetless bed.

“You’re the best friend I ever had,” he slurred, face down across the room.

“I don’t doubt it.”

Within a few days, we really had become friends. It turned out his name was Stan Zelinski, like I said, and like me, he was a Pennsylvanian. He was from the other side of the state, though, from Philadelphia.

By the middle of May, he had moved in with me. I lived in a one-room cellar, with adjoining bathroom but no kitchen, in the bowels of a rowhouse not far from the steep stone staircase the priest plunges down at the end of The Exorcist. I had shared it that year with a guy named Danny, our futons homophobically at opposite ends of the room. But Danny was moving in with his girlfriend Gretchen in Bethesda, and even a cellar in Georgetown was more than I could afford on my own.

Stan had decided to stay in DC for the summer, so the fit was perfect. He even bought Danny’s disgusting futon for thirty bucks.

By the first week in June, I’d gotten Stan a job, too. Trent had left the movie theatre for a summer job in Florida, and Stan took over for him.

That’s where he met Grace Khanket, which ruined his whole summer. You see, it also turned out that when Stan Zelinski drunkenly told me that he liked “China Girls,” he hadn’t just been raving. He worshipped and coveted Asian—or, as we still said in those days, “Oriental”—women.

He had been an exchange student his senior year in high school, to Thailand. He’d fallen in love with every third girl he met, and also with the food, and the weather, and the land. And also with the language—he’d picked it up easily, and soon discovered that he was the rare and lucky American with a gift for Asian tongues. It was a prodigal gift, really—he was fluent in Thai and Lao already, and had a smattering of Japanese, Cantonese and Vietnamese.

He hoped that a Georgetown degree in Japanese would get him a lucrative career in international business with a Far East specialization. But the a priori behind this ambition was the hope of a string of delectable Asian girlfriends, culminating in a delectable but bringable-home-to-Mom Asian fiancée.

“You’ll have to meet this chick, Grace, who works down at the theatre,” I said.

Grace Khanket, who worked the concession stand, was a tiny, maddeningly beautiful Thai-American girl who dressed in black and wore Lois Lane spectacles.

She was a freshman, too, at George Washington University, but she didn’t live in the dorms; she was local, and lived with her large family across the river in Arlington, near the restaurant they ran.

The minute Stan saw her, the first night he worked, he knew why he had been put on earth. I introduced them, and as soon as she wasn’t looking, Stan turned back to me with his eyes bugging out and his teeth clenched, an expression of something like rage, as if I should have known, should have known upon meeting him that he needed to be introduced to her at once, shouldn’t have delayed this meeting all these weeks.

Though she was really a reserved, even slightly dour young woman, Grace chatted with him pleasantly enough that night. Between shows, when he tried some Thai on her, she paid him the compliment of saying that his pronunciation was better than hers. This was true, too; even a nonspeaker could tell that—Grace’s Thai, while flawlessly confident, was delivered in a honking Yank shopping-mall accent.

Stan was transported. After work he and I got burgers at Roy Rogers, then walked toward home, through the mugginess of a June night in DC. When we reached The Exorcist stairway, we sat on the top step and ate, and looked out across the black Potomac at Virginia.

“The Devil Went Down to Georgetown,” I said.

“I’ve met her,” said Stan. “I’ve met her already. I figured it would be years. I figured I’d be twenty-five, thirty maybe, and I’d meet her over there somewhere.”

“Who’s her?”

“Her. The One. The Perfect One for Me. The perfect balance of sexiness and class. I feel cheated, almost.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I had anticipated years as a single man, years to date dozens of women of all races, mostly Oriental but all races, to savor all that life has to offer. That’s out of the question now.”

“You’re drunk even when you’re sober.”

“I wonder if she masturbates.”

“What?”

“I wonder. Do you think she masturbates?”

“Why am I having this conversation?”

“Seriously. It’s too incredible to imagine. To witness that would be like finding the Secret Elephant Graveyard.”

“I know what you’re getting at there, but you might want to find a different image before you say that to Grace.”

“Seriously, though, I’m going to ask her to marry me.”

“Maybe, say, a movie first, or some dinner?”

“A mere formality. Does she have a boyfriend? I’ll do a fucking header down these steps if she has a boyfriend. Not that it matters; we’re getting married anyway.”

“I don’t think she has a boyfriend.”

“Thank God.”

“But you still don’t have much a shot with her.”

“Bullshit, why not?”

“I heard her say she doesn’t like American guys.”

“She only likes Oriental guys?”

“No, she likes them even less. She gets into English guys. That guy from Room With a View, Something Something Hyphenated, she gets into him. You know, she’s an English Lit major, which tells you...”

“Excuse me, excuse me,” said Stan. He was looking up. “What the hell is that noise?”

I listened. I hadn’t been paying attention, but he was right. There was a high, insistent whirring, symphonically loud, pealing from the treetops all around us.

“It’s the cicadas,” I said. “They’re out this summer.”

“Cicadas. Okay, as long as I know that.”

“City boy.”

“You ever see that movie when you were a kid, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, where the spaceships attack Washington? That’s what it sounds like to me. I thought maybe aliens were down at the Mall, blowing up the Capitol and the White House.”

“No such luck. Nope, just horny bugs.”

II.

We’re not talking here about the big, clumsy, dull-black annual cicadas, or “locusts,” as they’re sometimes called. Like the name implies, those show up every year, looking like giant houseflies, to startle us with their loud, ungainly buzzing. That summer in DC was the season of their more glamorous cousins, the Periodical Cicadas or “Seventeen-Year Locusts”—smaller, sleeker, shiny black, with cherry-red eyes and lacy wings that hum rather than buzz.

Periodical Cicadas remain underground, around trees, feeding on the fluids of the root, for seventeen years, before emerging as yellowish-brown nymphs to crawl up the sides of the trunk. They shed their exoskeletons, leaving them behind, split-back and still clinging to the bark, and take to the air and the upper branches for a few feverish weeks of singing, mating and laying eggs. They don’t sting or bite, but they’re still technically regarded as pests, because the females inflict tiny wounds on trees with their ovipositors, the organs with which they plant their eggs. These “oviposition wounds” can be so numerous that it’s inadvisable to plant young trees too close to a Periodical Cicada season.

Periodical Cicadas are also a classic example of “predator satiation,” an evolutionary adaptation in which the survival chances of individuals are increased by the abundance of prey available to predators. So the cicada I saw the starling snatch that day when I was a kid was just doing its Darwinian duty to its species.

III.

For a couple of weeks, it looked like I was right about Stan Zelinksi’s chances with Grace Khanket. She wasn’t unfriendly to him, and they had long, lively, sometimes even contentious conversations, Stan leaning against the concession stand in the longueurs between showtimes. But she was icy—aloof to his suggestions that they do something together outside of work. They were the same age, but she saw him as a pesky kid with a crush, and herself as a sophisticated woman.

Then one day, seemingly all at once, her manner toward him changed. I never knew how exactly—neither did Stan—but he’d broken through with her. Their conversations became softer, less animated, more intimate, less inclusive of the others that worked at the theatre. They started taking breaks together.

A few evenings later, on a Friday in late June, Grace agreed to go for a drink with Stan after work. He came back from this date to our wretched little cellar, beaming.

“Did you score?”

“Please. It’s not like that, I told you.”

“So you didn’t.”

“Please.”

“OK, so how’d it go?”

“We kissed.”

“Really?”

“Yep. For like half an hour.”

“Incredible.”

“That’s not all. I’m meeting her family.”

“What?”

“I’m meeting her family. This Sunday.”

“You’re going to her house?”

“Nah. I’m going down to the Mall. Some Asian cultural festival this weekend. I saw something about it on the bulletin board. Turns out her family is going to have a food booth there. She wants me to come down there Sunday and meet everybody.”

“I have to say, I never thought you’d get this far. I’m impressed.”

“Don’t be. It’s fate.”

IV.

Maybe what happened that Sunday was fate, too. That was certainly Stan Zelinski’s disgusted opinion, after his big date on the Mall that beautiful Sunday, between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. He came back around dusk, and I asked him once again:

“How’d it go?”

“I don’t know. Not good.”

“I was going to order some Domino’s. You want to go in on it?”

“No, I’m definitely full.”

“Well, tell me what happened.”

He flung himself on his futon, and stared at the ceiling for a while. Then:

“OK, I get there. She’s there, gives me a kiss. A kiss. On the lips. Right in front of her old man, who she then introduces me to.”

“Holy shit.”

“Yeah. Her Dad is very friendly, but he seems nervous, like he thinks I’ll kill him or something. Her Mom is not friendly. At all. But there are a bunch of brothers and sisters around, and working the booth is Gramma.”

“What’s she like?”

“Just what you’d expect. Several thousand years old, and about the size of a fireplug.”

“Wispy gray hair, wire-rimmed-glasses?”

“You’ve met her. She doesn’t like me either, I don’t think, but Grace is obviously her favorite, and I’m Grace’s guest, so she hands me a Styrofoam plate. Shrimp. I say thanks, and she just nods. So she doesn’t speak English, I gather. This, I think, is my opening. So I eat the shrimp, and man are they good.”

“Spicy?”

“Pretty spicy, yeah, more so than the crap you get in the restaurants here. But I’m a vet, right? So I just wolf them down. Then I say thank you to her, and tell her it was great, in Thai. And she gives me a look, the old lady. Not a smile, exactly, just a startled look like I may not be completely worthless. And she hands me another plate, this one with chicken in some kind of black sauce. Absolutely delicious. So at this point Gramma starts talking to me, slowly at first, but then she’s talking faster and faster.”

“What about?”

“About food, mostly, at first. The kind of food they made back in her village in the old country. She’s giving me more food while she talks—a plate of this and a plate of that, and it’s all great. I’m actually starting to get full. She’s talking faster and faster, testing me I think, and I’m keeping up, pretty much, talking back almost as fast. Pretty soon she’s talking about Grace, what a special girl she is and everything, and I’m agreeing all over the place of course. And then Grace’s parents are listening in, they can’t believe it.”

“Nice going.”

“And then it happened.”

“Uh-oh. What?”

He rolled on his side and faced me.

“The old lady hands me a plate of your bugs. Those cicadas.”

“Oh, Jesus. No way.”

“Oh yeah. Nicely wok-steamed, in some kind of light sauce. All golden-brown.”

“Oh, shit...”

“You see the position I’m in? I can’t turn them down. But I figure, anyway, hey, this’ll cinch the deal with Gramma, thus with Grace. So I dig in.”

“Are you shitting me?”

“Nope. I just started crunching them up. There were all these little Americanized Thai kids with their skateboards standing around, and they’re all going, ‘Whoa, Dude, that’s sick.’ But I ate the whole fucking plate.”

“How were they?”

“Not bad. Not real good, either.”

“Like chicken?”

“No. Sort of like shrimp, I guess. But not as good.”

“Oh, shit. You threw up, didn’t you? That’s where all this is heading?”

“Nope. Like I said, I’m full. But after I was finished, I’m thinking, I’ll be Grace’s hero now. I turn to her, and she’s looking at me with this look of revulsion. She was looking at me just like the kids were. She couldn’t believe I’d eaten them.”

“Wasn’t she pleased? I mean, you must have made a great impression with Gramma.”

“Oh, Gramma thinks I kick ass. So do her parents, I think. That’s just it. I don’t think that I was supposed to make a good impression. I think I was supposed to piss them off.”

“Ah. You should’ve showed up in a leather jacket, on a motorcycle.”

“Exactly. Shit, man, I really fucked up. Grace walked me back to the Metro, reluctantly, and she didn’t want me to kiss her goodbye. She shied away and laughed when I went to kiss her. She was too grossed-out by what I’d been eating.”

“After she kissed you in front of her parents.”

“She kissed me in front of her parents, but she wouldn’t kiss me when we were alone.”

“Well, at least you got a good meal out of it.”

“You’re a fucking riot.”

V.

That was that. At the theatre the following night, Grace was back to chilly reserve toward Stan. Even their earlier conversational rapport was gone. After a week he couldn’t take it any more. He quit the movie theatre, and took a job waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant a few blocks away.

By mid-July, the cicadas had gone quiet.

Stan and I lived together for a few more months, but then we both got better-paying jobs which allowed us to move into better digs, mine in Adams Morgan, his elsewhere in Georgetown. We saw less and less of each other after that, and within a few years we had both left DC. I still get an email from him now and then.

He did spend one semester in Osaka, but that was it for his Far East dream. After graduation he got a very good position with a firm in Texas, and married a woman he met there. He sent me their wedding picture. His wife was blond and fleshy and looked not at all unlike the woman he violated the night I met him.

Predictably enough, Grace ended up—according to Stan—marrying a Thai doctor she met at a cousin’s wedding. They had four kids, and still live in Arlington.

I moved west, and I got married, too. The other day it occurred to me that next summer will be cicada time again in DC. The descendants of the very bugs that Stan Zelinksi ate that day on the Mall, in a misguided attempt to win Grace Khanket’s heart, will be singing in the trees, trying to win hearts for themselves.

I wish I could get there, just to walk the streets, and hear the music. After all, how many seventeenth summers do I have left, before the Big Starling catches me?

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trichobezoar — 3 August 2020

by daishin stephenson

gloaming eased to darkness, the wind blew steady. a hut nestled within a copse of trees stood above the animal path.

i entered and sat on the earthen floor. there was a small hearth and fire.

i began to cough.

within my throat, a deep scratching tickle intensified. i began to retch. i rolled onto my hands and knees and vomited a dark, long, stringy mass. it was a thick rope of hair.

a few wet hairs stuck to my lips and face; i felt them move as my stuttered breath slowed. i placed the mass of hair in the fire. it smoldered before burning.

from behind, something moved towards me from the corner darkness. i leaned back against its legs to rest. it placed a thorny branch in my left hand and painted three horizontal stripes across my forehead. i closed my eyes. the skin beneath the stripes stung.

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The Fishmonger's Violin — 14 July 2020

by Alexander Thompson

The Mitchell Library is the biggest in Glasgow, occupying five floors and containing more than a million books. The librarians are friendly or not, depending on your accent, skin colour and clothing.

K. would show up there most mornings, go to the general literature section, browse the shelves, pick a book. Sometimes that would take a few minutes, sometimes an hour. K. would take the book to a table, sit down, and read for the rest of the day. Lunch was out of a bag, a cheese roll, packet of crisps, can of Irn-Bru. The first few days at the Mitchell, K. would eat there at the table, reading. But then a librarian came over and said it wasn’t allowed.

“Sorry, I didn’t know,” K. said, and carried the food outside, ate, then came back in.

Some days when K. came back after eating lunch, a librarian would have taken that day’s book from the table, even if there were plenty of unoccupied tables. Sometimes they’d just put the book back on the shelf, but other times they hadn’t, and K. would have to approach their desk and ask them for it.

Some days K. would have finished reading a book by early afternoon, and would browse the shelves and find another one. Sometimes the book K. had been reading would mention another book that seemed interesting, and K. would go to the librarian’s desk and ask if they had it, and the librarian would give K. a card on which to write the title of the book and the name of the author. If the library had the book — it almost always did — they’d either have it brought from whatever department had it, or they’d tell K. to go and read it there. K. never knew why it was sometimes one and sometimes the other.

One morning K. asked the librarian for The Fishmonger’s Violin. “I was going to look on the shelf, but I don’t know the name of the author.”

“Here,” said the librarian, handing K. a card and a pen.

Five minutes later, the librarian said they couldn’t find any record of it.

“Any idea who else might have it?” K. asked.

“No. It’s not just that we don’t have it, there’s no record of it. Are you sure you’ve got the title right?”

“Aye.”

“Where did you hear about it?”

I made it up, K. thought, but said, “Somebody told me about it. It’s supposed to be really good.”

“Well. I don’t know.”

“Thanks.”

K. went to the bookshelves and browsed for a while, but didn’t choose a book.

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Gang Aft Agley — 11 May 2020

by Bart Lessard

Swim in it, piss in it, leave it to the ducks, no pool had ever been a feature of the Hub. But thanks to drainage choked with gems of Eldorado glass the miracle came due. That morning was a summer one, the blue shorn clean. Two boys had been on the swings nearby, kicking up corners on the turf. One had sly aims in bringing his friend there and was only half on task—as much as half, that was, until he saw the puddle laid broad and deep. Skimming stones, a.k.a. thrawin shite—this was the new regime, though all they had to shy was any slag they could worry up off the tarmac. Tar could not bounce and the dabbles from these flop dives barely echoed off the tower blocks. Loud enough, though, for here were the wee schemies—all of them, a gushing litter birth—come down to aid in the murder of the day. Rafts made of fast food bags were set on fire, and those that Mcbeef had left see-through far outshone the rest. Trolleys from the Extra ran to plumes of water. Souse glass had shown up in the weeds, always welcome for a lob and a shatter. Where resources ran short fists were inevitable, even three bouts. The children were too soft yet, flyweight, to crack bone, and since all were under twelve none but Psycho Hamish carried a chib. “Keep it doon,” from a mother, one at the tables near. Back to talk, fags, a circle facing inward.

“Chaos,” Rab said, and not without a smile. “Chaos.”

But then he came back to why he had come with his new friend. Such a ruckus was never any good for a stakeout. The future timeline was at risk. Thinking fast—up quick for a change—he came back in wellies. A whistle left on the pitch had gone around his neck. This Rab blew, to a shriek and to nothing. Another scrap was underway. Two trolleys overturned in the joust, and on a wrenching crash a third caught air. But his friend stood aside him, and he tried again—double toot, extra shrill, for a penalty. The public eye was on him, or close enough.

“Nae runnin,” Rab said. “An nae fire.” Weegie Scots—off school grounds such was the default.

Just unhorsed, Davy stood up, sleeves draining. “Whit’s at noo?”

“A sayt nae fire an nae runnin by ra pool.”

“Did ye aye! An wha are ye tae say it?”

“A’m ra lifeguard.”

Of course Davy Duncan would be the one to jam the works. But laughs came hard all around, eyes to his friend but not with caution, as before. Rab bent a neck, to no sign.

“Did ye make a face?”

“Chan eil agam ach an tè.”

“Pal, pal, ye must commit. A’m ra smairt talk here, no ye.”

“Tell me about the rabbits, George.”

The friend had two means to poke, both just shown. Catchphrase, accent, dopey register—for Rab these were the worse. At least with Gaelic he could not fault himself. Nobody should expect to get through cluck from the North Atlantic, not in Maryhill.

“Whit fuckin rabbits,” to himself. To the crowd, “Listen aw ay ye. A was ra furst wan here, furst tae see water, and at gies a say. Craic is craic but how long afore ra auld yins notice? They’d shut us doon tight as a boulder’s erse, so they wid.” A sweep to the senga mums facing inward, yet in their envelope of nicotine.

“Cho teann ri de?”

Rab began to lay out pool rules. But the mob’s two up ye was still hooking baws. Eyes began to roam. Time was wasting. Bags to burn, carts to butt.

“Rab!”

Shug, late. On coming close he did a take, and Rab felt better. Shug had been away for a week to see a grandparent in Dundee. Feast yer specky eyes.

“Wha’s ra newbie? A had him fur a grup.”

“Grup?”

“‘Bonk bonk oan ra heid, grup, bonk bonk oan ra heid!’”

“Ra hell ye oan aboot?”

“Aw, at’s from—”

“Star Trek!”

A throaty burr, /r/s in a tumble. Cnut Mag Amlaíb had only just moved from a far and spumy rock. There life was different. Vikings in cable knits doffed hats to ewes. Friday nights saw a wicker man go up. Druids were new money and street signs were in runes. Call it the Isle of Nob. The name, and more, was a guess. Cnut had told little yet, though he had the human speech for broad strokes. He, too, was ten, even two months younger than Rab. Yet he stood a thumb above a meter eighty and weighed more than thirteen stone. None dare have a go, even for the outfit—breeks, hose, and a bluidy woolen gilet, all thirdhand. Like a sheepshagger husbandman from a telly countryside.

“This is Teuchter Cnut,” Rab said.

Bait untaken, as always, but you could see how the hook weighed in the eyes. Shug said, “Good tae meet ye.”

“Star Trek is braw! Ever play Doongeons an Dragons?”

“Ye are Dungeons an Dragons.” Shug caught himself. “A love a twel-sided die.”

“Ootrolls a caber,” said Rab.

“The toss?” Cnut said. “Och, that’s wummin’s work.” Joke and truth were too close a call. Plus nerd shite was not in the script, so Rab struck it. He would have to mind Shug and his reverse Midas touch.

“Hey! Hey Baywatch!” Davey was in the pond. “A’m drownin!” Angel motions for a churn and a go. Stuck to one ankle was a condom, fished out on a kick, flabby and yellow. “Baywatch! A’m fuckin drownin!”

Laughter again—and the weans took up the chant, stomping in the puddle.

“That’ll stick,” Rab said.

But here at last the agenda came into view. The ned dwarf. Led by Rab’s eye, Cnut and Shug watched him, too. The dwarf was local. Cut and colors aside he looked a lot like the best Lannister. Five years back, while in school, he had gone by Noser, and the tale there was cautionary. But that prendre pisse was not au courant. The dugs on lead had brought the change—each a wedge head, fawn and white, big as the man himself. A lone blung hand kept chains taut at two blung collars. Neither dug sped the pace. The dwarf was a big deal. He had graduated from the ranks of the Shawpark Young Team to the network that had no name. Rab had as much from Brace. That a “dinklage” could move up, and not his brother, made for whinges. Brace was away on a DTO. This freed up couch space and the PS4 and made home a wonderland.

The dwarf felt eyes. Rab and Shug found sky and earth. Children of Maryhill were no different from the grups, bonk bonk. They knew not to know.

But not Cnut Mag Amlaíb of the Norsedick clan. No, he lent a stare, and Rab a swat.

“Whit? Wha’s that noo?”

“Sledge. On’t-dae ucking-fae ook-lae.” Cnut had none of the vulgate. Rab put it in the best of teuchter terms. “Ra world behind ra world—ra Unseelie Court.”

Sledge had come to a halt. The wedge heads did the same. His face was wan, eyes pink, and both were on Cnut. A night’s fun—that would explain the late pickup.

“So e’s a drug dealer?”

“No so loud. An naw, e’s no a dealer, unless it’s iron ye want.”

“Snog,” Cnut said.

“‘Snog’?”

“Snog.”

“Fuckin ‘snog’?”

What could be more Nob. Saying snog did not break the stare. That could be trouble. Wee did not enjoy a gawk, muckle should have known.

But Sledge lost interest and the dugs led again. Hedge, rock, paper sack, all per custom, by the community center doors. Sparse leaf could not hide it. The rafters were not as numpty as Rab had feared. In went the free hand, and off went Sledge.

“That bag,” Cnut said. “A wonder whit’s in it.”

“Wan warm can ay Irn-Bru. Sugar Free. Tae make weight.”

Rab heard the irony as he said it. Funny. But his was the only smile.

“That wis specific,” said Shug.

Up came the hoodie, waistband made bare, and Rab basked in the reveal.

“Ye nickt it?” Shug said, eyes on. “Ye nickt a fuckin drop?”

“Too loud,” Rab said. “An anyhow A only found ra cunt.” Wink. “Whoever’s rightful owner cannae be happy but.” Shug whitened to an eerie translucence. “Drop a pair,” Rab said. “It’s ra call tae adventure.”

Cnut was less fretful. “Whit is it?”

Both hands free, hoodie safely down again, Rab made air quotes to nock the syllables. “Ta-ser. Like a phaser, fae ra anorak show ay Shug’s, but wi a tee instead ay ra pee aitch an ye cannae set er tae kill.” The syllables again.

“Tell me about the Rabbits, George.”

“How’m A fuckin George here,” Rab did not ask. Instead, “Mind ye A don’t know why, right enough. A taser’s polis, an rare—no ra style, no at aw. Nor is ra transfer ay black market arms ra most commonplace use ay ra middleman scenario. But taser, aye.”

Shug turned to walk away but stopped cold. Rab and Cnut were distracted by the abrupt appearance of Psycho Hamish. For him such contraband had a scent.

“Ooh, whit goodies huv ye goat therr?”

“Aye, boeys—whit?” Even more abrupt. A sip from the can of Irn-Bru. The dwarf made a face and read the label. “Sugar free?” Left and right the dugs were off chain.

Rab watched himself bolt, and Cnut. Psycho Hamish kicked a leg from under Shug and ran his own way. Rab could marvel at the ingenuity even as he saw the dugs’ scrum onto his nerdiest friend. “Bastard,” he heard Shug say, scarcely a whisper.

No growl, no scream—as boy killers went the wedge heads were first-rate.

Sledge shouted, “Might we no skip ra middle?” The pool party had gone silent and a senga mom aired her grief. For the sprinty gust in his ears Rab heard no more.

Even after he had come to a stop, hunkered at bins on Towie Place, his heart was a bell. “Never felt so alive,” he said to himself, clamping back a panic shite. Cnut was no less out of breath but had enough for a hairy eye. Gaelic came in bursts. Rab understood the pitches if not the words. “Don’t gies that,” he said. “Ye were starin oan like a cow. A waanted ye tae see him, no tae thraw a fuckin searchlight.”

“Whit do ye mean ye waanted me tae see him?”

Very tall and very short should gain a rivalry. Such a scheme to things was only right. Capers would go on for years, neither side with the upper hand until the epic showdown. But Rab only shook his head. Tending to the field was his own calling. No one else could understand. And here came a wedge head—trotting up to haunch before them.

A panting threesome. None moved. Gone cold in the dug breath, Rab drew the taser.

“Naw! E’s a good boy.”

“Ra cunt just ate Shug.”

But Cnut put out a hand. The wedge head took the invite and got close. No red on the muzzle, Rab had to admit, nor guts for garters. Cnut fell to petting, and the dug flagged lickings with a tail.

“It’s oan oor side!” Rab said.

“Fuckin hell,” said the dwarf. “Nae mair dash, all right?”

The taser had gone up in a two-hand grip, the trigger clicking tinnily.

Sledge gave a scoff. “Pal, at wad’s shot already—cartridge is emptit oot—an ye’ll never want yer traces oan it noo, trust us.” Yet catching breath, he held out a hand. And so the prize was surrendered. “A’ll admit, though—ye’ve goat neck oan ye, daein at.”

The first wedge head had gone belly up, and the second had come around the bins for more of the same. Rab had never seen a dug happier than those very two. “Whit’s it fur?” Cnut asked, petting with both hands.

“Funny ye should ask,” Sledge said and on that matter no more. “Yer pal back therr, e had a spill but e’s fine. Maybe a bit kissy yet from ra pups. Rom and Rem here, how they love a wean. Ye shouldnae play wi bastards like at Hamish boey.”

Cnut said, “Ye ever play Doongeons an Dragons?”

Rab felt a blush but Sledge said, “Dungeons an Dragons is pure gallus! A used tae run a tabletop campaign wi me pals. Planescape! But A only play online noo.”

Cnut perked up. “Em em oh are pee gees?”

Sledge shared a platform and a username. No good would come of that. “Ye’re no mad at us?” Rab asked.

“Mate, ye’re only a wean. Young’s a stupit ye graw oot ay.”

Years ahead, deep in the new timeline—and S6—Rab went home from school. On his passing a close a voice said, “Tell me about the rabbits, George”—a voice grown to a boom, all Gaelic shed along with thirdhand woolens. He who spoke was Team and fated to rise in the world behind the world. Rab kept on. By then he knew who George was and all about the rabbits, and he prayed that stupid was not a young he never would.

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Company — 28 April 2020

by Deek Brodie

Jake had never used anything that did the job nearly as well as the Japanese knife. A birthday present from a friend a couple years ago, it had soon become the only knife Jake used. It seemed to glide through the vegetables rather than chop them.

Using the knife made food preparation enjoyable, which was good, because since Jake lived alone now it would be easy to fall out of the habit of cooking and just heat up processed food.

Jake lived in a block of high flats in the Wyndford housing scheme. A lot of people were afraid to live there, but Jake liked it for its sense of community. Recently, though, it had been hard because of the lockdown in response to COVID-19. It wasn’t a lack of people to talk with — Jake had plenty of friends to text or video chat with — it was a lack of other people’s physical presence. You couldn’t even have a wee banter with a neighbour in the lift, now that the rule was only one person in the lift at a time. Same at Tesco, since everyone had to stand six feet apart.

So Jake was pleased to hear someone at the front door, first knocking, then rattling the letterbox, and then there was the scraping sound of something being shoved through the letterbox. Then the same sound again. And again.

Jake had been chopping an onion to put in an omelette, but now stopped and, knife in hand, went out to the hallway.

A man had stuck his hand through the letterbox as far as it would reach, almost to his elbow, and was now groping around, fingers wiggling, but not finding anything.

Jake remembered reading an article on Glasgow Live saying thieves had been pushing open letterboxes and grabbing car keys or any other valuables within reach. This guy must have been desperate to be trying it when everyone was supposed to be at home. Desperate, or just daft. But, either one, the guy was out of luck, because the wee table near the door wasn’t near enough for him to reach, and there was nothing on it but an empty shopping bag.

The hand kept twisting and turning. Jake waited till the inside of the wrist was facing upwards, then drew the knife across the wrist.

It would have been easier to grab the hand for leverage while cutting, but better to let the man think he’d cut himself on some sharp surface he couldn’t see. And the Japanese knife was so sharp, no leverage was needed.

At first, the man didn’t feel anything. It was only after his wound had gone from trickle to spray that he felt the wetness and pulled his hand back. Jake heard him crying, swearing, stumbling.

A look through the peephole showed the man pressing the lift button while his other hand was clamped around his wrist. He fell, but when the lift door slid open he was able to crawl inside, leaving a wet trail. Jake watched as the door slid shut.

Jake went back to the kitchen. She was washing the knife when her phone beeped. There was a text from her nephew. “Hiya, Auntie Jacqueline, I’m at Tesco. Do you need anything?”

She texted back, “No, thanks, I’ve got everything I need. Be careful out there!”

Jake melted butter in the pan, then tossed in the eggs and onion, put a lid on it, turned the heat down low. While the omelette cooked, she used a cloth to clean the blood off the laminate floor of the hallway.

Later, as she ate, she hoped the man hadn’t died. She’d enjoyed his company.

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The Temp Typist's Tale — 29 February 2020

by Barry Graham

I don’t feel bad about it. I wish I did. I know I should. But I don’t, though I kind of feel bad about not feeling bad. Like when one of your relatives dies and you don’t feel bad because they’re dead, you feel bad because you don’t really care that they’re dead. That’s kind of how I feel.

Not just that, of course. I feel bad about Tony’s friends getting in trouble, and I’m scared the cops might realise that Tony knew them and that I’m Tony’s girlfriend and that I worked for Greaves and then we’ll be in trouble as well. I feel bad about that. But Greaves? I don’t feel anything. I don’t even feel all that happy, though I thought I would. I just kind of feel like it was right, like he got what he deserved. Maybe not exactly right, but fair. It feels like it was fair.


Greaves thought he was God’s Gift. That was as much the fault of the girls at the bank as it was his fault. They thought his carry on was funny. I couldn’t believe them. I’m not a feminist or anything, but I couldn’t believe women would find it funny, a wanker like that doing things to women they worked with.

I’m a temp typist. My agency said I’d be needed at the bank for six weeks, but it turned into four months. That was fine by me. I liked it there. A lot of the time there was hardly any work to do and I could just mess around online. Funny, considering that this was the bank’s head office and I was doing the typing for four different managers. And you should see what they were getting paid. The more important your job is, the more money you get and the less work you have to do.

Greaves didn’t work any harder than the other managers, so he didn’t give me any more work than they did. But he was a total arsehole, just a horrible, arrogant arsehole. Sometimes if you asked him a question he’d throw his head back and give this long, nasty laugh like you were dirt and there was something funny about you. And he wouldn’t answer the question. Once I asked him what time he needed some memos typed by, and he did that — haw—haw—HAW — and put his dirty hand on my shoulder and then just walked away.

I was angry at him doing that, him thinking he could do that to me because I was only twenty and female and only a temp. So, next time he walked past my desk, I had another question for him.

“Mr Greaves, what are you going to use for a face when Quasimodo wants that one back?”

All the other typists and even my supervisor laughed, but this time Greaves didn’t. I thought he’d do something about it, maybe complain to my agency and ask for another temp to replace me. He didn’t. But I soon realised he wasn’t letting it go.

About a week after I said that to him, I sent a memo to all four managers, telling them I was taking Friday afternoon off, so if they had any typing for me to do they’d better give it to me first thing on Friday morning, and if they had anything really big they should give it to me the day before.

On the Thursday, Greaves walked up to my desk. “Hey. Ruth. I’ve got something big. Do you want it now?”

“Okay,” I said. “When do you need it done?”

“Oh, I don’t have any typing for you to do. I just said I’ve got something big. That’s what you asked in your memo.”

I stood up and made to say something or do something, but then the other girls — even Linda, my supervisor — started laughing. Laughing at that. Christ.

“Grow up,” I muttered, and sat down again.

“It’s probably too big for you,” Greaves said. “You probably couldn’t handle it.” Then he walked away and went into his office as the girls all started laughing again.

“I want something done about him,” I told Linda.

“Come on. He was only joking. He’s not doing you any harm.”

I wrote a memo to Greaves, telling him that if he ever spoke to me that way again, I’d report him for sexual harassment. He didn’t reply. I thought that might be it, that he might get me fired, but he never said anything. I could have just left. That’s why I like being a temp — if you don’t like a place you can just leave and get your agency to put you somewhere else. But it was a couple weeks before Christmas and things are always slow around then. If I left, I might not be able to get anything else until after New Year. Besides, it was the easiest job I’d had, and I wasn’t going to let one arsehole manager drive me out.

He did it, though.

You couldn’t smoke anywhere in the building. That was fair enough; there was hardly anybody who smoked. But I smoke like a crematorium. So I used to grind my teeth or chew gum until my lunch break and my morning and afternoon breaks, then go outside and get enough nicotine inside me to keep me going.

One morning I got a memo from Greaves telling me not to leave the building during my short breaks. I went into his office and asked him what he was playing at.

“None of the other typists go outside during their breaks. Why should you?”

“None of the other typists smoke. I do.”

“We have a no—smoking policy.”

“I know. That’s why I go outside.”

He smiled at me. “Not anymore. You can conduct yourself like everybody else. You can leave during your lunch break. During your other breaks, you stay in the building.”

“You can’t tell me what to do on my break. My break is mine. I’m not at work then.”

“No, but you’re being paid. You’re still paid for your time. So I want you to remain in the building in case you’re needed.”

I couldn’t handle that. I used the thought of the breaks to keep me going through the mornings and afternoons of cold turkey. Without it, I’d start sniffing glue.

I tried to fight Greaves, but nobody else was interested — not the other managers, not my supervisor, not the other typists. I was just an obnoxious little temp with a big mouth and no sense of humour.

So I left. I was lucky and my agency found me another job, starting the next day. But I didn’t feel any better. I felt as if anybody with plenty of money and no dress sense could do what they liked to me and I couldn’t do anything except give in and walk out.

The day I walked out of the bank, I went to Tony’s house and told him what had happened. He went mental. Then he calmed down and said, “What does this Greaves look like?”

“Why?”

“‘Cause I’m going to wait outside the bank and kick his fucking head in when he comes out.”

“No, you’re not. I don’t need you getting into trouble. With your record, you only need to slap somebody and they’d lock you up.”

He laughed. “I know. I’d love to fuck him up, though. Prick.”

“So would I. But I don’t want you doing it.”

He looked at me. “Serious?”

“About what?”

“Fucking him up?”

At first I wasn’t sure. Then I was. “Yeah. Why?”

“I know some guys that would do it. You’d have to pay them, but they’d do it cheap if I asked them.”

I waited to see if I was still sure, and I was.

“How cheap?”


They did it for a hundred and fifty. Seventy-five each. That wasn’t in the newspaper. The rest of it was.

They got Greaves outside the bank and started kicking him. He fought back and shouted for help. One of them stuck a knife in his back and then they ran away. Greaves’ lungs filled up with blood and he died just after the ambulance got him to the hospital.

The two guys got picked up by the cops a few blocks away. They’d got rid of the knife, but one of them had Greaves’ blood on him. It was only about ten minutes after they’d done it.

Before he died, Greaves told the ambulance men that the guys had asked, “Are you Martin Greaves?” before they attacked him. So the cops want to know why. Tony says the guys won’t tell them anything, but the cops aren’t always stupid.

Now it’s Christmas Eve. Earlier tonight I was doing some last—minute shopping, getting some presents — one for Tony, one for my mum. The mall was really busy, lots of people with their kids. It said in the paper that Greaves had a wife and three kids. I wonder what he was like with them. I wonder if they knew what he was like at work.

I thought about them, but I still couldn’t be sorry. I didn’t think Greaves would get killed — Tony said they’d just give him a kicking — but I can’t be sorry about him. The cops said it was “a brutal and cowardly murder,” but I don’t see how it was. Greaves was brutal and cowardly. He thought he could do what he liked because he was in charge, but he was only in charge at the bank. Other people are in charge in other places. But people like Greaves and the cops and the papers only think it’s fair if you do things the same way as they do. And they do things the way that suits them. What I did to Greaves maybe wasn’t right, but it was as fair as what he did to me.

I’m going to my mum’s for Christmas, then Tony and I are going to his sister’s party at New Year. If the cops are going to find out what we did, I hope it doesn’t happen until after that.

#BarryGraham #ShortStory #Crime #DockyardPress

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crow — 19 December 2019

by daishin stephenson

i sipped coffee and looked out a window. a crow lay in the yard under the white oak.

hours passed, the crow had not moved.

i approached the bird. blood oozed from its nostril, its leg bent at the knee in a direction it should not. i picked it up, carried it inside.

i placed the bird on a floor pillow. beside the pillow, a bowl of water.

we spent the afternoon there on the floor.

the crow died on the pillow. i felt loss, sadness. death is commonplace, part of the cycle. i sometimes forget that and it is good to be reminded.

​this is what happens when you invite something wild into your home.

#DaishinStephenson #ShortStory #Fiction #DockyardPress

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The HOST: a Thomas Carnacki Story — 9 December 2019

by Barry Graham

The email was from Carnacki, and was sent to me and the three others normally invited to his gatherings. It was an invitation to a Halloween party, but, Carnacki emphasised, it would not be the usual sort of Halloween party – no dressing up, no party games. Instead, Carnacki would cook dinner for us, and then he would tell us a story.

I wrote back and said I would be there.

When I arrived at Carnacki’s flat at 184 Woodlands Road in Glasgow’s West End, Hodgson, Reekie and Welsh were already there. They sat around the dining table in Carnacki’s kitchen, while that gentleman himself stood at the stove-top, stirring a wonderful-smelling pot of soup. In one hand he held the wooden spoon, and in the other a large glass of Laphroaig, of which our friends at the table also had glasses.

“Good to see you, Graham,” he said as I entered and took my place at the table. “Help yourself to a snort of Laphroaig. Dinner will be ready in just a few minutes.”

Indeed it was, and, as always, it was delicious. It was not a complicated dish; the soup was of fresh seasonal vegetables and a few herbs, and the bread was fresh from the oven. The simple flavours were so pleasant, however, that I temporarily forgot Carnacki’s dislike of talking about his sojourns before it was time to tell his story, and I remarked, “You haven’t had a gathering like this in a while.”

“No,” was all he said, and he turned his attention to the bread he was breaking into pieces and adding to his bowl of soup. Quickly changing the subject, I remarked that I had been reading an article in The Economist about how people in Glasgow had a shorter lifespan than elsewhere, which the journalist was unable to explain other than by saying that “It is as if a malign vapour rises from the Clyde at night and settles in the lungs of sleeping Glaswegians.”

“I’d say that’s about right,” said Carnacki, with a smile of appreciation for my implied apology for my faux pas. “But, as you shall hear shortly, such malign vapours are by no means confined to Glasgow.” We all knew better than to ask him to say more at that time, but I think our friends were all as intrigued as I.

When our repast had been taken, we took our glasses in hand and retired to the living room, where a couch and comfortable chairs surrounded a table that served as a throne for two additional bottles of our friend’s favourite libation. He poured everyone a generous measure, not excluding himself, then lit candles, turned off the electric light, and settled into his favourite chair. For perhaps a minute, we sipped our drinks in convivial silence, and then Carnacki began to speak.

“As Graham correctly observed, it has been a while since I invited you fellows for dinner, though of course I’ve seen all of you individually hither and yon. Although I’ve been on a few jaunts since our last such gathering, none provided me with a story to tell you... Not, that is, until my most recent trip, which was not very far from this city.

“As you know, such excursions have been the vocation of the men in my family starting with my great-great-grandfather, whose experiences have been terrifying people for more than a hundred years now. I do not think I am being immodest in saying that a few of my own discoveries—which, like his, have been given the vulgar label ‘ghost-finding’—have been comparable in their extraordinariness. However, for some time now I have been encountering so many dull hoaxes that I was even beginning to doubt the veracity of the stories I’ve told you—stories you know to be true in every word, but that were seeming less and less believable even to me.

“I resorted, to my shame, to phoning the Scottish Tourist Board, and asking for a list of purportedly-haunted houses and castles. They sent me a brochure. I called again and explained that I wanted to know about the places that no one would in good conscience include in a brochure. They passed me around a few people, and then at last someone told me they had heard bad things about Drimdarroch Castle.

“It sounds like some desolate place in the Highlands, but when I went online and did a search, I discovered that it is, in fact, in Dumfriesshire, not a long train-ride from Glasgow Central Station. At first, I thought I had made a mistake in my search, because there was little about the castle online, and nothing about its being haunted. But, since everything in the world is supposedly online, its lack of an Internet presence piqued my interest, and I decided to find out who the present owner was.

“This turned out to be a man called Monroe, who lives in the city of Dumfries itself. When I contacted him by phone and asked him about his property, he made no bones about it. ‘I wouldn’t set foot in that place at night,’ he told me. I asked him why not, and he became wary, wanting to know the reason for my interest. I told him that I would like to spend a night there, alone. There was a long silence—I thought perhaps he had hung up the phone—and then he surprised me by flatly saying, ‘All right. It’s up to you.’ “At that moment, I somehow knew that this haunting was not just another hoax, of the kind I had exhausted myself with this past while. In those cases, the owners of the properties had done their utmost to convince me to stay there, so they could play their tricks and convince me. Monroe’s casual insistence that he would never go there after dark, and his indifference as to whether I did, made me realise that this was something different. You can understand?

“On a Saturday morning, I took a train from Glasgow to Dumfries. I was carrying a large bag that contained the electric pentacle and other essentials you know I take with me on such jaunts. Monroe met me in a pub there at lunchtime, and told me what little he knew of his property.

“The castle was mostly a ruin. The reason he bought it is that it came with a nearby mansion-house, which he’s restoring with the intention of turning it into a hotel. There are really only two sections of the castle that are completely intact: the banqueting hall, and a small chamber adjacent to the hall. There is, of course, no electric light, though Monroe plans to install it some day. “He gave me a key to the castle, too big to fit in a pocket, and some notes he had made about the place. Of his reasons for refusing to go there after dark he would say nothing.

“I thanked him, paid for his beer, took my leave and caught a bus to the village of Drimdarroch, about half an hour from Dumfries. I asked the driver for directions to the castle, but he told me he wasn’t sure, and that I should ask people at the village pub, The Cross Keys.

“I went to the pub, and a most pleasant place it was. I was reluctant at first to ask directions to the castle, because I didn’t want to give the local lads the idea of playing a prank on me. If you knew how many yokels I’ve had show up by my bedside draped in white sheets and making howling noises, you would understand.

“The pub has wireless, and I had brought my laptop with me, so I got online and tried to find directions from the pub to the castle... but I found nothing. You can understand how intriguing this was. Intriguing, and something else, something that made my neck tingle.

“I struck up a conversation with some fellows playing pool, and asked them how to get to the castle. They knew, and they told me, and they thought it a funny thing that I wanted to go there. I had half-expected that they might react like peasants hearing the name of Castle Dracula, crossing themselves and urging me not to go there, but not a bit of it. They just gave me directions, and invited me to join them back at the pub, an invitation I gladly accepted.

“It only took about twenty minutes to walk from the pub to the castle, carrying my rather heavy bag. Just outside the village, you reach an unmarked driveway, walk up it for a while, and find the mansion house on your left and the castle on your right. The castle looks just like any one of the numberless other such ruins to be found throughout Scotland.

“I found the door, which was at the bottom of a turret, let myself in and climbed a crumbling winding staircase to the banqueting hall. There was a big fireplace, almost big enough for a man of my six feet to stand upright in, and in two glass cases there were mummified cats, which Monroe had exhumed from the walls, where they had been bricked up alive. Back when the castle was built, it was believed that if you bricked up live cats during the construction of a castle, their spirits would stay there and protect it. As you know, I’m rather fond of cats, and none of the ones I know would thank you for suffocating them to death, but no doubt these were different times.

“There was a long table and a chair, which looked as though they could have been there for centuries, but in fact had been put there by Monroe. So also had the candles in the holders that aligned all four walls, and that sat in a large candelabra on the table. “At one end of the room was an archway, without a door, that led to the side-chamber. There was no other entry to it, so I decided that was where I would sleep. I set up my sleeping bag, flashlight, and water-bottle, and around them I constructed the electric pentacle.

“As you know, my grandfathers believed that you had to construct the pentacle around yourself for it to protect you, but I have found that they were mistaken. As long as you don’t turn on the electricity until you are within the barrier, you are safe. If I were wrong about this, I would have paid the price for my error years ago. The important thing is to have a battery that will last through the night, which is why I use a new battery every time.

“When I had finished setting up the pentacle, it was about five in the afternoon, still daylight. The side-chamber had no windows, but the banqueting hall had high, narrow, rectangular, glassless windows though which slivers of sunlight entered. It was light enough for me to sit at the table and read Monroe’s notes.

“The castle was supposedly haunted by a young woman who burned herself to death in the fireplace four hundred years ago. Less than fifty years ago, a woman from the village, exploring the castle, stayed after dark and jumped to her death from the top of a turret. This was all the information the notes contained.

“When I had finished reading, I stood up, got my camera, and took some photographs of the banqueting hall. Then I set up my camera on a tripod at the entrance to the side-chamber, facing into the hall. I adjusted its settings as I needed them—of which more later—and then I left, locked the door, and walked back to the village and the pub. It was a pleasant walk, and when I got to the pub the men I had met earlier were still there, and had been joined by quite a few more.

“I played pool with them, and then talked politics, with particular regard to Scottish independence. By early evening, some went home for dinner, and just as many did not. We ate some fine pub grub, and continued to drink and talk. I went easy on the beverages, which was just as well, as I received a few tempting invitations to abandon my silly idea of sleeping rough at the castle and instead stay the night with one of my new friends. One of them was a young lady with whom I’m still in touch, and had I had a few more pints I might have accepted her offer.

“As it was, I took my leave at about ten in the evening. Still thinking that someone might find it amusing to play a prank on me, I remarked, casually and falsely, that one reason I wasn’t afraid was that I had a gun with me, and planned to shoot anyone or anything that disturbed my sleep.

“I will make no claim to complete sobriety as i walked back to the castle, but, as Burns had it, ‘I wasnae fou, I’d just had plenty.’

“I will tell you, entering a place like Drimdarroch Castle in the dark of night is very different than doing so in the afternoon. I followed the beam of my flashlight up the driveway, which was easy enough, but when I reached the wooden door of the turret, I was missing the camaraderie of the pub—and when I entered, and made my way up the winding staircase, I was in something of a brown study. You can understand?

“It was chillier within the castle walls than outside. I went into the side-chamber, and turned on my camera, which, as I have said, stood in the doorway. It was attuned to the state of the light, or darkness, so that if there was any change in the light—such as that caused by a person entering the banqueting hall—it would automatically begin to take pictures. “I removed my shoes, and, otherwise fully-clothed, got into my sleeping bag. I turned on the electric pentacle, and, comforted by its blue light and by the beer I had drunk throughout the evening, I soon fell asleep.

“I am not sure how long I had been asleep when I was awakened by the sound of the camera taking pictures. I sat up, and when I realised what had awakened me, I felt no fear. Knowing that the camera was activated by changes in the light, I felt sure that the cause was either a bat or a bird entering the hall through one of the windows, or perhaps the arrival of one of the villagers to have some fun with me. I even thought it might the the young lady I had met in the pub, and I did not strongly object to that idea. “So unconcerned was I that I did not get out of my sleeping bag. When the camera went on taking pictures, and I realised I must investigate or turn it off, I stood up in my sleeping bag, holding it around me for warmth, and hopped like a kangaroo until I reached the camera. I stood behind it and peered into the darkness of the banqueting hall, but I could not for the life of me see anything that might have triggered it.

“Then the candles that aligned the walls were lit, all at once, like electric lights being turned on. So were the candles in the candelabra on the long table.

“Now, as I tell you this story, this room we are sitting in is lit only by candlelight, by which I can see you and you can see me. But the candles in that hall gave off no light. I could see the flames, but they gave off no light beyond their own shape.” Carnacki held up a finger. “Like this. You see my finger, but of course it gives off no light. The flames were like that.

“Then there was a face. Only a face, though if a man sat at the chair at the end of the table, it was where his face would have been. But it was not the face of a man, though I suppose it was closer to that of a man than of anything else I have ever seen. It was lit, like the candles, but, like the candles, its light did not shine.

“It smiled at me.

“It smiled at me, then raised a hand, a hand made of solid, unshining light, and beckoned to me in invitation.

“I closed my eyes, though tears squeezed and poured from under my eyelids, and I shook my head.

“Then the sound of the camera stopped. It was no longer taking photographs. I opened my eyes. The candles had all gone out. I realised that I had let the sleeping bag fall away from my body. I turned around to go back to the electric pentacle, and it did not even occur to me that by leaving it I had broken the protective barrier...

“Until I saw that thing, that face, inside the pentacle. It smiled, showing teeth that were not quite teeth, and again raised a beckoning hand in invitation. And when I did not move, it beckoned again, and then it came towards me, and as it crossed the barrier the pentacle went dark but its face did not.

“There is something that I have been preparing for twenty years to do, never believing that I would ever have to do it, but practising, practising saying it, though never out loud. And now I said it aloud, said the Unknown Last Line of the Saamaa Ritual, which, according to the Sigsand MS., is only to be spoken in the time of gravest peril, with no certainty that it will save your life, only your soul.

“As you know, I am not a man who is easy to frighten. But, for no reason I can tell you, I knew without a doubt that this was the time I must say these most dangerous of words, and I did, I said them, and then I started to say them again, but I do not know if I did...

“The next I knew, I was on the winding staircase, falling or flying, bouncing off the circular walls, reaching the bottom, exploding out the door, running, shoeless, running, and not stopping until I reached the village, where I walked the streets, loving every streetlight, until dawn.

“When the sun was fully risen, I walked back up that path, back to the castle, my feet like raw steaks, and I entered, and went to the banqueting hall.

“I checked every candle. They were ordinary candles, made of wax.

“I disassembled the electric pentacle, and packed it, along with my camera, and I walked back to the road, and waited for the bus, which took me to Dumfries. From there, I called Monroe, got his voice mail, and told him his key was in the door of the castle. I have not heard from him since.

“As I sat on the train back to Glasgow, full of laughing, chattering people who have never been to the worlds I have, people who did not know that my shoes were full of blood, I was tempted to look at the images on my camera, but I resisted that temptation. When I got home I went to bed and slept through the day, because I knew I would not be able to sleep that night for fear that I might wake and find that thing sitting by my bed, smiling and beckoning to me.

“I awoke in the early evening, ate dinner and partook of some Laphroaig, and then uploaded the contents of my camera to my laptop. In a good ghost story, the photographs would show nothing, but in actuality they showed exactly what I had seen. Interestingly, there are no pictures of the thing entering the hall, approaching the chair, sitting down, and then getting up and leaving, which there should be as the camera responds to changes in the light. You can understand?”

Carnacki said no more for a minutes, and neither did the rest of us. He refreshed our glasses, then said, “Would you like to see the pictures?”

No one answered. Carnacki opened his laptop, and said, “Here they are. Look if you want to. If you don’t want to, I’ll understand.”

After varying degrees of hesitation, we all got up and gathered around him and looked at the screen.

He clicked through picture after picture. It was as he had said. There was a face, hands, candle flames, but nothing else, and the flames radiated no light.

As we started back to our chairs, Carnacki said, “Wait. Do you remember I told you I took photographs of the banqueting hall in the afternoon? Well, I have those too. Look.”

The photographs showed the hall, the table, the chair, and the folder of notes Carnacki had been reading at the table. Behind the chair was the fireplace, and in the fireplace stood a woman in a gown, hands covering her face. There were no flames in the picture, but we all remembered that a young woman had burned to death in that fireplace.

“You didn’t see her at the time?” asked Welsh.

“No,” Carnacki said.

We all returned to our chairs.

“Any questions?” Carnacki asked.

No one answered.

“I think the legend of the haunting is wrong,” Carnacki said. “Monroe seemed to think it was haunted by the girl in the fireplace. I don’t think so. I think she burned herself to death under the influence of what I saw. I think the same is true of the woman who jumped to her death. And, had I not uttered the forbidden words I did, I think I would have joined them. I think whatever I saw was there before the castle was built, and will be there after the castle is gone. It is the place. It hosts everyone and everything that has the misfortune to be there. I know this with the certainty of my own death, and with as much mystery.”

None of us had anything to say. We finished our drinks, then Carnacki stood up. “Out you go!” he said, as he always did at such times, and we put on our coats and walked together down the stairs, into the icy dark, and along Woodlands Road, eventually separating and going to our homes.

#BarryGrahm #ShortStory #Carnacki #Glasgow #Fiction #DockyardPress

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