ClusterWars Vignette – The Other Death

As part of my efforts to bring my space opera Cluster Wars to life I have been writing bits and pieces that aren’t part of the main plot. They are not intended to feature in the text, but to help me pin down locations and how things work.

I also recently read The Aleph by Jose Luis Borges, which is an awe-inspiringly beautiful collection of short stories. “The Other Death” I found peculiarly affecting and as a means of processing that feeling I tried to write my own version of the story – this is the result: the bones of Borges’ story fleshed out in my imagined world.

–>

Dear Sebastian

I am sorry to burden you with this, but you may be the only one who will understand what has happened. You may even be able to explain it to Carolina.

I have stumbled upon the most extraordinary mystery surrounding the debacle at Vennkiser Gap. You may recall my father served there with some distinction. I was approached ten days ago by a fellow officer of my father’s from that engagement: a sub Lieutenant Damian. He was a fighter pilot, and as he knew my father I felt compelled to meet him. We went to that bar in Port Seng you may recall from your last visit. Over a few brandies he asked me if I had the means to contact Admiral Sabian for it seems he was wracked by guilt over a dereliction of duty at Vennkiser.

Although my father was the Admiral’s confidante I couldn’t just approach him, even in his retirement, without doing a little checking. There was no mention of any dishonourable conduct in any of the reports on Vennkiser, even though some of them were scathing on the tactics the Admiral employed.

When I went back to challenge Damian on it I found him dead in the dingy quarters he had rented on the landward side. I was minded to dismiss the whole episode as the drink fuelled fantasy of a lonely and deranged man, but there were too many elements of what he told me that rang true. He had given me some papers to prove his bona fides, and they all looked genuine. I left it all alone for a day, but I found myself increasingly troubled by Damian. There was an intensity and an urgency to his request, and having waited with his body while the police arrived at his apartment I felt as if I had entered into a covenant with his soul.

Since I lack the authorisation to check the files myself, I took it upon myself to visit the Admiral and see if he recalled events that had not made the official record or the transcript of the court martial in which he was acquitted of the charge of incompetence.

I am glad I did, even though the interview only increased the mystery of the fate of poor Damian. The Admiral retains his granddaughter as his personal assistant, a singular woman who has affected me greatly. But I run ahead of myself and I must complete what I know of Damian. He had begun to weigh on me like a physical presence, and unless I discovered the truth I feared I would be crushed by him. You, Sebastian, will understand why.

The military facility for the retired is somewhat inaccessible on the far side of Primus.It is a little pastiche of military life where they still observe the hierarchy of rank. The non-commissioned officers’ rooms and mess hall are a far cry from the private suite the Admiral enjoys, and they all salute one another as if they were still on board their starships or on parade. The staff also indulge the Admiral’s penchant for fine cigars. The air in his study is thick with the remnants of the smoke. It was not altogether unpleasant, but it gave the place an otherworldly atmosphere.

He greeted me warmly and for a while we remembered my father; the Admiral smoked throughout, waving clouds of smoke with one hand in which he also gripped a glass of very fine whiskey, although I was surprised that he never seemed to drink it, just inhale the aroma occasionally between puffs of his cigar.

He was more than willing to talk about the battle at the Vennkiser Gap, despite the mixed reports of his leadership there, and the loss of life that lead to his court martial. In fact I think he alluded to some failings on his part that were not revealed in the initial despatches or subsequent proceedings. Of the sub lieutenant Damian he did at first seem to recall something.

With your intelligence role in the navy I am not sure how much you know about the tactics of close combat, but that is where our conversation began.

“Vennkiser should have been a classic takedown of a cruiser group.” He told me, “Whoever holds their nerve and gets their fighters into the action first wins, most of the time. Our textbook move was to deploy a fighter screen ahead of the heavy ships, backed up by a couple of shield generators, forming a protective arc.” Here he put down his cigar and glass for a moment to splay out one hand and cup another one behind it. “You see, the fighters are enveloped in the shield, and they are individually too small for the enemy to pick up. All the enemy can do is bombard the shield.” He moved his cupped hand to the other side of the splayed hand and pattered it with his fingers. “That is where the nerve and skill come in. The fighter pilots have to hold their position in the line as it advances, even if they see munitions coming directly at them. In most cases the munitions explode harmlessly on the shield, but breaking formation weakens the shield wall for everyone. And if someone does get hit,” he tucked in one finger from his splayed hand, “You need good commanders in the line who can rebalance the shield.”

This was the deployment he had attempted at Vennkiser and has since been superceded with the advancement in weapons. It also accords exactly with the version of history Damian shared with me. He claimed he had broken formation when he had seen missiles coming at him, not trusting in the shield, he fled in his close range fighter. He told me he ejected after setting a course for some battle debris which would credibly damage his fighter, and then discharged himself from the medical ship that picked him up. So few survived and the capital ships were so badly damaged his lapse was not picked up, or so he claimed.

The Admiral recalled something very different.  When I pressed him on the performance of his troops he was adamant that all of them, not least my father, had displayed exemplary courage in the face of new weaponry. He recalled Damian, and said he had held the line when the sunward side of the shield wall was broken, before the loss of the Brigantine Celeste.

It was then that he called for his personal logs and the crew manifests. While Felicity, his granddaughter retrieved the data files and the Admiral checked the details, I took the chance to examine the room we were in more closely. It struck me as unnatural, a created, studied thing. There was an unfinished game of chess in one corner, with crystal pieces. There was a thin layer of dust over it, as if it had been left undisturbed for some time. And yet the Brazen Knight had been cleaned, polished, and moved into a position it could not possibly have taken. Otherwise the formation struck me as a replaying of Vennkiser, with a shield screen of Brazen Pawns before their Primary pieces, and the Primaries of the Lustre forces pushing through on one side.

I thought the out of place knight must be Damian, and I could not shake that thought. I am ashamed to say it, while the Admiral and Felicity were busy I pocketed the Brazen Knight.

There were books, real books lining the walls, but all the spines were worn and faded and it was impossible to tell what they were, or who wrote them. Only one was slightly pulled out from its position, but other than the suggestion of three initials I could not make out any more details.

When I turned back from the bookshelf I was given such a measured look from Felicity I felt as I had been scanned from head to foot. In that one moment it seemed that she understood me, and in doing so had revealed herself to me entirely.

Do you recall the girl we saw that year in the Seminary? The one we thought was an Absolutist of the Atenaeum, and yet there was no record of her presence among the supplicants or students. Felicity reminds me uncommonly of her. You will think me mad and infatuated, as I was then, for her hair and her eyes are different, and yet there is something in the grace of her movement, the way her head moves to one side as she considers a question, that can only belong to the same person. And yet that was half a lifetime and two sectors away from Primus and the retirement colony.

The Admiral broke the moment by handing me the data card. “I misremembered the name, but there he is. Dameaous it was, and a full Lieutenant, I wrote the citation for his posthumous award myself. Steadied the line in the sunward shield at Vennkiser for vital minutes that boy did, and then took out the laser battery on the Starlight Web knowing he couldn’t get his flight back to the carrier, but buying me time to retreat with the Harbinger, and pick up survivors from the Celeste.

There is a picture of Dameaous, and he is unmistakably the same man as I met in the bar in Port Seng. In his personnel files is the distinctive tattoo, and those details of his early life with the Free Constabulary against the slave runners of Tharl. The eyes are the eyes of the broken man who fled his shame and grew crops in the high plains of Bruyne. The man whose body I had found in a damp single room in the landward tenements. And yet here was undoubtedly a hero of the Vennkiser debacle, honoured in his death.

I could not bear to withdraw my hand from Felicity’s hand when we parted that day, and she gave no sign the lingering contact distressed her. Indeed she smiled and simply said, “Sometimes if we have not lived a good life, all we can hope for is a good death.” I murmured my assent, lost in how the planes of her face reflected light in the same way as the girl from the seminary. I asked to see her again, and she concurred without hesitation. “It is still better to live a good life,” she said, and placed a single dry kiss on my cheek.

A new fever took me then. I spent the day in my bed, refusing all calls and twisting in sweat soaked sheets. I turned the crystal chess piece in my hand, over and over, sometimes seeing myself in the cut faces and angles, sometimes Damian, sometimes Felicity. I left  a message for Felicity to call me, and then another. I don’t know if I desired her, or if she held some power over me, or if it was just the realistion that Damian’s life, and Felicity’s and mine were bound together and I felt I could not be free until I had found some absolution for the guilt-ridden farmer, or militiaman, or deserter, or hero or whatever he was.

I drank nothing but water that day, my teeth felt too weak even to chew on a piece of fruit, and the sight of it sickened me.

The next day I felt recovered and I went back to the tenement to see if there were any belongings of Damian’s that I could use to unpick his mystery.

The landlord denied there had been anyone in the room, or that the authorities had removed his body. When I insisted and pushed my way up the stairs, I found in his room a sweaty half dressed family of Frian refugees who had plainly been there for some time, their religious symbols tacked to the walls and clothes drying from lines strung across the room.

I went to the bar, but it was boarded up, as if it had been closed for months, and yet I swear to you that I had been in there sharing a cheap and harsh brandy with the man who said he was Damian just days before.

When I met Felicity we walked out on the hills above the  bay. We said not a word for it seemed as if I had known her my whole life, and there were no more words to say. We held hands.

The knotted rope that held me and her and Damian sank into to a still pool into which I was compelled to dive, to retrieve it and try to open the knot even as the rope dried and tightened. It gnawed at me as I wished I could gnaw at it, gnash it open with my teeth. The unwillingness of any trail or document to evidence the things I myself had seen and heard was a burning frustration.

When I held Felicity’s hand that restlessness subsided. If sub Lieutenant Damian had found himself to be a coward when facing his death in Vennkiser, and then spent a penitential lifetime in Bruyne, or if Lieutenant Dameous was a hero whose valour had saved countless lives,  what difference would my knowing or not knowing make? But she could see in my eyes that something rebelled against this truth.

I handed her the Brazen Knight unwilling to meet her gaze in that moment, but she closed her hand over my extended hand and pushed it back to me. “I cannot take you from yourself,” she said in those simple, sparse words she used which for an instant seemed to hold the entire understanding of the world, and then like a scene seen in a flash of lightning the understanding was gone, and all that was left was an echo of a prosaic sentiment.

She went with me to the Hub where I queried the authorities on Bruyne. They had no record of anyone matching Damian’s description, either as a holder of property or someone who passed through their ports. When I found that Felicity herself had been on Bruyne I began to suspect that there was more she was not telling me, that my innate comprehension of her could not encompass, or that she herself did not know. And undoubtedly a further mystery around the Absolutists of Ateneum, I feel their shaodw over this entire affair. There is more, much more that I cannot yet say, and that I do not yet understand.

I am left with the sense that all I met was a memory, the echo of a regret. Perhaps I witnessed the salvation of this man. I am also determined to overcome my own regrets, which why I have written to you Sebastian.

You have been with me through the Seminary, we have faced mortal danger together. You were with me when my courage failed in the mines of Caorramoor, and you hauled me from the wreckage, past the shattered bodies of the people we were sent to save.  As Damian looked upon his death and failed the test of courage, and now leaves only the memory of Dameaous, perhaps I too can find  redemption.

I don’t know how far the rope unravels. What will become of my sons if I succeed? If you read this and think Luis is deranged, the miners of Caoramoor were saved, then perhaps I have succeeded. I go to Bruyne. If on reading this you burn as I have burned with the untold history of Damian then seek out the Absolutists. Felicity has promised to come with me, but I am already sensing that she is less substantial, less present in the moment than I am, and I fear I will find she is only a delusion, or the means by which I have come to understand there needs to be a penance.

Tell Carolina why I must go, tell my sons that all I taught them about honour and duty is true, but that sometimes a different truth needs to be lived to give life to a lie.

Farewell Sebastian, for our paths will not cross again.

Your friend

Luis

END

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More Cluster Wars material including the reply to this letter here

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What The Eye Doesn’t See

Ok I’ll get my excuses in early, I’ve been tied up with another (very cool) writing contest and the deadlines clashed, my story for that sucked all the emotional energy out of me and so this effort for NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction competition was a bit, well… meh.

But I’ve gotten in the habit of posting NYC submissions, so despite the embarrassment here it is as submitted. The prompt was a romance featuring an emergency room and a mop.

 

What the Eye Doesn’t See

In the aftermath of a death the feelings of four hospital workers come out into the open.

 

 

 

Marco

 

There was blood all over the floor. Marco wheeled the bucket in, pushing against the long handle of the mop. Superbugs had changed the game from a simple swipe of the mop to a process of infection control. He didn’t mind. It lifted his work from the lowly domain of the janitor to something that had meaning and consequences.

 

It also meant he could spend time working around the slumbering Dr Arden. She was slouched in a plastic chair, still in blood spattered scrubs, in a corner of the room. A stray hair fell across her face. He itched to brush it away, but his hands weren’t clean.

 

Her life had real meaning and she threw herself into it. The maintenance office gossip had her dedication as the cause of her divorce. Marco shook his head at that. The desire to do things well mattered.

 

Quietly, taking care not to disturb her, Marco wheeled the bucket of bloody water away and began the spiral of disinfectants.

 

***

 

Jeanette

 

Someone had left study books under the lip of the desk. With reception quiet now the grieving family were gone Jeanette flipped it open, idly going through the pages of tables and charts. It was some night study course. She sighed. Another person with false dreams of making a better life.

 

She looked down the hall to where Marco was busy cleaning. He had no such absurd ambitions. He had been in the same job for years, methodical and precise; kind of attractive too. What was not to like? Neither of them were young anymore and he was a steady guy. She had flirted with him a couple of times but she guessed he was shy, he hadn’t really noticed.

 

That was a good thing, she decided. Less likely to mess around. He was considerate too, working with care around the Dragon so he would not wake her. Jeannette would have to make a move. Time was passing them both by.

 

He seemed to sense her looking, which made her blush and turn back to the book. Behind her the coffee machine hissed and clanked. She looked over her shoulder and suppressed a groan. Anthony, one of the paramedics, was ogling her. There was a perfectly good coffee machine by the ambulance park, but he insisted on coming all the way over here with the excuse the coffee was better.

 

He would want to talk, and there was no work she could hide behind. She stared at the book, hoping he would go away.

 

***

 

Anthony

 

He’d brought in the gusher. Running beside the gurney keeping pressure on the wound he’d twisted his ankle and run through the pain. No one had noticed. His next call out had been a false alarm, the passing time had not been enough for the boy.

 

At least it was Jeanette’s shift on reception, and at this time of night no one else was around. A little playful banter would go down well with his coffee and shake the gloom of a life lost.

 

Jeanette seemed to be engrossed in a book. He put the coffee cup on the counter and peered over to see what it was. The contents made no sense to him. “Management on the horizon Jeannie?”

 

She gave him the mock scowl he found so endearing and pushed the book away. “It’s not my book. Why are you hanging around here anyway?”

 

“Just came over for the best coffee and smile in town.”

 

She took a swipe at his coffee cup. He whisked it away before she could connect. “You’ve got your coffee. You can whistle for the smile.” The coffee splashed over the edge of the paper cup and onto his hand. Anthony yelped and dropped it. “And now you’ve got neither.”

 

He backed away, heading for an empty cubicle and a sink. Marco was cleaning up down the hall. Running cold water over his scalded hand he called “Marco, spillage in reception.”

 

***

 

Elspeth

 

A shout jerked her awake. She looked around, trying to place herself. She had sat down for just a moment when the boy had been wheeled away, and from the looks of things she had fallen asleep. Elspeth took a couple of deep breaths. There was nothing more she could have done.

 

There was a cleaner busy in the room, he gave her a shy smile and she responded with a tired one of her own before standing up and trying to ease the stiffness in her neck. She needed a shower and fresh scrubs to see out the rest of the night. Most of all she needed coffee.

 

Anthony was drying his hands on a paper towel as she got to reception, and there was coffee all over the floor. “What happened to you?”

 

He shrugged “A little accident.”

 

She shook her head in disbelief. “You can pull a boy out of a gang war, but you can’t hold a coffee cup?”

 

“Just clumsy, I guess.” His tone turned sombre. “I heard we lost him.”

 

She bristled, the boy’s loss was hers alone to bear, but she’d seen Anthony hobble on a bad ankle beside the gurney and couldn’t turn her anger on him. She looked back down the hall; she had tracked bloody footprints across the floor. “Hey,” she called out to the cleaner. “Deal with this already.” She kicked off her soiled shoes and stalked off.

 

***

 

Marco hurried over with his disinfectant floor wipes. Jeanette leaned forward over the desk and whispered. “She had no right to talk to you that way.”

 

Anthony watched her closely, realising in that instant where her interest lay.

 

Marco gave her a friendly smile. “It OK, it’s my job to clean up.” He looked over to where Elspeth stood by the coffee machine. Anthony read his expression as well and backed away around the spilled coffee. There was no way he was getting involved in this mess.

 

END

 

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The Snap and Flutter of Freedom

3rd round entry for NYC’s Flash Fiction competition. The set up was a romance set in a prison and featuring a flag.

 

The Snap and Flutter of Freedom

 

Cheek rolled the ball of bread, pushing it with his nose.

 

Jowl waited at the edge of the strip of light, until Cheek had delivered his gift. As he stepped back she shuffled forward and nibbled delicately at it.

 

It seemed to Ben the two rats played out their romance just to entertain him. The thin rectangle of light that fell into his cell was a stage on which they measured out their courtship. An inch or two to either side and he would have been blind to it; the scratching of their feet and the brushing of their fur would have been another unknown horror in the dark.

 

He broke another piece of bread and dropped it at the edge of the light. Cheek scampered back to claim it.

 

Sometimes Ben wondered if this was normal behaviour for rats, or just the product of his fevered imagination, a delirium born of pain and darkness.

 

*

 

The Princess had come to him to mend a broken buckle on her saddle. Her face was flushed and hair wild from a gallop; her stride long with the confidence of one who knows the world will bend around her whim.

 

She was his forge made flesh, wild, fiery and radiating a fierce attraction. He was soot stained and sweaty, everything she had never seen: potent, capable and anchored.

 

When she left he laughed at his own drop-jawed infatuation. She looked back twice as she mounted her horse.

 

She returned the next day to thank him, and then to commission new brackets to hang the lamps in her chambers. He drew designs with charcoal on scrap pieces of wood; she leaned close to add details. There was a febrile edge to the burned air from his forge each time their heads drew close.

 

He made her a gift. It was a jeweller’s work, not a smith’s. His thick hands cramped over the delicate effort. Her fine long fingers brushed slowly over the bright metal, a flag brooch. As she took it her hand stayed in his for a moment longer than necessary.

 

She gripped the precious token in one hand and trailed the other over the grimy surfaces of the smithy, then touched her fingers to the pale skin of her neck. Black spots of his world close to her heart.

 

Neither knew enough to fear the detail in the brooch, their nation’s flag, her father’s flag, curled as though it snapped and fluttered in the wind. Inadvertently when shown thus in motion, it was a symbol of rebellion.

 

The brackets were also decorated with the curled flag motif, something they had shyly agreed on. He went to the palace to fit them himself. There was a moment, an intake of breath between heartbeats, when they were alone together and her hand had crept into his. That was how they were found, and his craftsmanship presented as evidence of subversion.

 

He had no stomach for insurgency, but as the guards gripped his wrists, he learned he could not tolerate captivity either. Ben had burst free with the strength of his hard labour only to be felled with a poleaxe. He did not recall the second blow, only her cry that echoed into his imprisonment.

 

*

 

Jowl was dead. Cheek nosed curiously at her lifeless body, trying to rouse her and failing to understand the stillness. He nibbled at the bread as he wondered what to do. His whiskers brushed against Jowl’s whiskers, and then life left him in a single quiet exhalation.

 

Ben watched the two dark forms on their little stage of light, surrounded by a confetti spray of crumbs. He sniffed the remaining hunk of bread on his pewter plate, but his senses were too far dulled to find any hint of addition.

 

He ran his remaining fingers around the edge of the plate, trying to assemble an interpretation. His mind raged against the dullness imposed by his weakened body, but the lethargy wrapped around him like a blanket.

 

There was an imperfection in the plate, a scratch under the rim. Ben dismissed it as damage or apprentice work, but it drew his fingers again and again. The ache in his hands reminded him of the flag brooch. He had made it snap and flutter in the breeze to mimic her windblown hair the first time he had seen her. Perhaps this was a crudely scratched image curled like their flag, the symbol of their love, and coincidentally the symbol of rebellion.

 

He heard a distant bell, out of sequence, out of time. He counted the uneven cadence; a royal death. For whom did it toll? His eyes fell on Cheek and Jowl. The Princess had gone before him. Her father had finally sentenced him to death, and she had gone before. Perhaps the bread was her last gift to him.

 

Or perhaps the bread was from the King, a mercy on his daughter so she would not see her lover hanged, and the bells tolled only in his head. In the end it did not matter. She was a princess and he was no longer a blacksmith, but a broken, wretched thing.

 

He broke off a piece and put it to his lips.

 

*

 

Silence was a heavy shroud over the royal bedchamber. When she rose from her father’s side it was with a confusion of sorrow and relief. She summoned a scribe to write a pardon and the captain of the guard to release her love.

 

She played with the brooch, the snapping fluttering symbol of the freedom she had been denied and would now claim. The captain’s returning step at the door of her chambers was heavy and slow. The stem of the brooch pierced her finger. Her chin dropped, resting where she had once marked herself with soot.

 

Her dream snapped and fluttered free for a moment, released from her father’s cruel edict, only to be lost on the wind.

 

END

 

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No Son of Mine

My second round story in this years NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition – for the edification of fellow NYCers and the enjoyment of all. This version is as submitted, with no further edits, I’ll post the feedback when it comes in.

 

The set up was a Crime Caper involving a waterfall and a toothbrush, with a 1000 word limit.

 

 

No Son of Mine

 Stolen gems and exploding plumbing bring an estranged father and son back together.

 

 

 

No Son of Mine

 

Five years had passed since I had last seen Dad this close up. I’d seen him from a distance of course: on the news the day he was arrested, across the courtroom during his trial, and from the street outside when they bundled him into the van to put him behind bars.

 

The judge had made parole conditional on Dad giving up his stash of stolen cash and gems. Dad knew he could never enjoy it, that when he did eventually get out every step would be dogged by police and villains alike, but he wouldn’t give it up.

 

The last time we were together he had disowned me. The hurt from his words “You’re no son of mine” echoed down the years. Papers had flown behind the words. They held my entry details to university to study Chemical Engineering. I had to get on my knees to gather them as they drifted to the floor rather than make a dignified exit. On a neat pile on the kitchen table was the other offer letter, the one I wouldn’t be taking up: law school. We stopped talking that day. A week later I went to university and that was it.

 

Mum had backed me. Dad always said she spoiled me, that her indulgence would be the ruin of us all. Not his thieving, not his lust for danger, not his disregard for other people’s property. Mum told me to give him time, Dad would come round.

 

Dad used to say I had inherited his intelligence, the fine analytical mind that saw possibilities where others only saw problems. He’d wanted that mind trained as a lawyer to save him from prison. He knew he’d get caught one day, and that with the swathe he had cut through the rich and powerful there was not a lawyer who would give him a fair run at a defence.

 

If Dad was clever, Mum was wise. “I know your old man, I know him better than he knows himself” she told me, “And there’s nothing that will stop them locking him up, so follow your heart son.” Of course she was devilish clever too, which we would only appreciate years later.

 

True enough here he was in jail and I was talking to him through an inch of glass.

 

“How are you?”

 

“OK. I don’t cause trouble so they’ve given me some privileges.”

 

“I heard. I brought you some things.” I gestured to the guard who was making his way through the security doors with a cardboard box. There was a woven blanket inside, a couple of books, and a toothbrush. The guard had checked everything without comment.

 

“So what are you up to these days?”

 

“Plumbing.”

 

He sat back in his chair in shock. “Plumbing? You spent three years in university to become a pipe strangler?” He sighed. “You could have been anything you wanted.” Fortunately the box landed beside him to stop a reprise of our last argument.

 

Dad picked the toothbrush out of the box. Turning it over in his hands, thinking about the last time he had seen it. I’d retrieved it from Mum’s old house on Statton Street, the one we never went to after her father died, which was slowly falling into disrepair and dereliction. It turned out Dad had been there frequently.

 

“It was all about plumbing in the end.” I explained. He looked at the toothbrush for a long time before he looked up. I think the wetness in his eyes was pride; everyone had looked, but I had found his stash. “It’s all about plumbing now as well,” I went on. “I’ve marked some passages in the books that you should read.”

 

When I left they let him carry the box back to his cell.

 

*                                        *                                  *

 

The old thrill was back when I walked to my cell. I dropped on the steel bed and put my feet up. In the box were two John Grisham novels. The cheeky sod had given me books about lawyers. They both smelled odd.

 

The cipher was a simple one and I read through his instructions carefully before I sat up. There was a nylon filament in the thick wool of the blanket. I began unravelling.

 

After lights out I took the pages I had carefully torn from the books. The first pair were slapped on the wall with a little water. My prison issue sheets went over my mouth as smoke rose in stinking puffs. My regular blanket was draped over the bars of my cell so the smoke would not escape and trigger the smoke alarms.

 

When the smoke died down a little I could see a small hole. A few swift kicks on the weakened mortar exposed the cavity between the walls. A thick water pipe ran up the cavity to the storage tanks on the roof. A second pair of papers did for the outside wall. I kicked the bricks out of that too before playing out the filament and wrapping the sheets round it to protect my hands.

 

I slipped the toothbrush into my pocket and wriggled feet first out of the two holes in the walls. All about plumbing he’d said, and how could I resist? I stuck all the remaining pages to the pipe on the side facing into the prison.

 

It erupted when I was halfway down the wall, and the shockwave nearly made me lose my grip. I held on, imagining the full force of water in the six inch pipe sweeping through my cell. I had been on level three; it would be pouring through the bars and arcing across the atrium. A waterfall as my parting gift, and chaos to cover my escape. As I dropped to the ground a car engine started nearby and an old BMW rolled up.

 

I sat down in the passenger seat and smiled at my boy. “Plumbing, eh?”

 

“Plumbing,” he replied.

 

“Well, lucky for me you’re your mother’s son.”

 

End

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A Family Affair

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/11/11/weekly-writing-challenge-traces/

A Family Affair

The plaster smelled of wet plastic. The initial delicious coolness against my skin was losing its charm as Amy worked her way around my body. It was heavy and cold and I couldn’t feel my feet any more. She was less than halfway done, I figured by the time she was finished hypothermia would have set in.

Amy was muttering weights and times under her breath almost constantly, and from time to time she would stop to spray water on the parts she had already covered to keep them moist. It made the process of being plaster moulded by my twin an agony of stillness. The cold was doing nothing for my ego either.

I winced as she slapped plaster -there- a little less gently than necessary. “You realise your future nieces and nephews are in there?” I asked as her fingers roamed around with rough thoroughness.

“Shut up, concentrating,” was all I got in reply.

“It’s just, in the circumstances, that’s not really reflective of, you know…” I stuttered to a halt. Finally her head of frizzy hair lifted and her grinning face was revealed. Her eyes were twinkling with supressed laughter. She winked at me. “Don’t worry Dave, I’ll make you proud.” Her head dropped out of sight again, “Now be quiet, I’ve never done a full body before and I need to keep an eye on the drying times.” There were a few moments of laboured breathing as she adjusted the rack I was lying on to begin filling in around my arms, which were stretched over my head. She took me by surprise when she went on, “Of course the other guys I’ve cast didn’t seem to have any problems.”

I was about to twist my head to look at her in shock when a plaster covered hand grabbed me by the chin. “Don’t move you idiot.”

I let it drop, art was her business and I let her get on with it. I had designed the rack she was using, which spun around on three axes giving a range of manoeuvrability for her work. She had been working on me for over half an hour, merging legs and torso and neck, letting it all part dry, and then spinning me round and moving onto my back. The really tricky bit was yet to come.

I was numb from chin to heel when she whirled me about to face her. “Are you ready?” I tried to nod, but my head was rigidly caught in plaster. I managed to squeak out a “Yes”.

Earplugs went in first, then she put clingfilm over my mouth, smoothing it carefully. She pierced it with a straw that she left in place. More clingfilm went over my nostrils, and two more straws went in just before I began to struggle for breath through my mouth. She put clear little plastic caps over my eyes and Vaseline in my eyebrows and hair. When the plaster came the world went dark, and very very cold.

I lost track of time, afloat in a noiseless, motionless world. A level of terror at being trapped in a void crept in, and was building into a scream I would never be able to release when I felt a faint vibration. It completely filled the emptiness.

Amy had taped a fine wire up my sides and left the ends poking out above my head. Very slowly she was using it to saw away the plaster into to perfectly matched halves. The sensation went down both sides and then stopped at my ankles. Through the plaster and earplugs I heard cursing. Loud, vitriolic cursing. I couldn’t make out all the words, but I could guess, and I wasn’t sure I knew what all of them meant.

Her voice was suddenly close by my ear. “Dave, I forgot to wire up the insides of your legs and thighs.” There was a pause. “I’m going to have to cut you out. Sorry. This could take a while.”

It took me a moment to process what she had said. The wires were there to separate the two halves of the cast with the least possible damage and create a perfect replica of me. They ran from my head, up and down my over stretched arms and then to my ankles. I could remember her laughing as she had taped them to me. I couldn’t remember her running the wires up the inside of my legs. A very cold and very unpleasant sweat pushed through my numb skin. I wanted to thrash around but I was still under a weight of plaster that was only partially separated.

She must have sensed my panic. “Dave, you have to stay very still,” she said. “I have a hacksaw and I will be very careful, but it will take some time, I can’t risk using any power tools.”

No she couldn’t. I would get her for this. I began plotting my revenge through little spasms of panic every time the saw blade scraped my skin. She left the very worst til last. I felt the vibrations radiating from the centre of my body outwards. Suddenly I really needed to pee. It took an age as she gently cut her way through the plaster.

If I could have moved I would have sagged into the mould when she finally stopped. I could feel her strapping the upper half of the cast onto the rack. With a rattling of chain she winched it away. And then there was light and breath and noise. I was out. She ripped away the cling film and cut off the cable ties holding my hands in place above my head. I tried to use my own hands to haul myself out of the lower part of the cast but my arms flailed around bloodless and useless.

Then the pins and needles kicked in all over my body and I screamed.

I don’t remember much about what happened next. It was all a blur until I was looking into the deep brown eyes of Cousin Kate. Beautiful, intelligent, calm Cousin Kate. She was talking at me but the precise words weren’t piercing the fog. If I had control of my body I would have leaned forward to kiss her. It was OK, I had worked it all out; we were third cousins, kissing cousins.

Cousin Kate. Also known as Dr Kate Rovero, of the clan of doctors Rovero, and its various matrilineal lines. The doctors Rovero et al. of whom in my generation there were twenty in various fields of medicine, all alumni of the medical college founded by our shared three times great grandfather Dr Miles Rovero.

And then of course there was Amy the artist and me, the engineer. The two misshapen pears in the barrel of perfect medical apples.

I don’t know what had possessed Amy to call on Kate when there was a platoon of doctors in her phonebook. She knew very well Kate specialised in neuroscience, we had been given the drill of all the cousins and their specialities by our disappointed mother often enough. She also knew I had the most terrible crush on Cousin Kate; ever since I had worked out that not all girl things were the same as this odd appendage called Amy.

Yet here she was, and here I was, half out of my senses, wholly naked, tactically covered in Vaseline, shivering with cold, worse than that: shrunken with cold, and if I didn’t mistake the smell, I think I had wet myself somewhere along the line. I could only hope that had happened before Kate arrived.

Kate was rubbing me down with what looked suspiciously like the mouldy old tartan blanket from the back of Amy’s Volvo. Amy was in the corner sobbing over a kettle that was just at that moment coming to the boil. The babble of voices that had first broken through my stupor started to make sense.

“What the hell were you thinking?” Kate’s was exasperated and seemed to only have the echo of the fire I knew she was capable of. She had probably asked the question several times over.

Amy didn’t seem to be in any fit state to answer, so I thought I had better pitch in. “It’s a dental amalgam we adapted,” I said between my still chattering teeth. “Should have been perfectly safe. Amy uses it for casts all the time.”

“And just how long were you in it?” She asked sternly.

I shrugged, although whether she could tell over the shivering was uncertain. Amy returned with a cup of green tea. “It was about an hour and half in the full cast,” she said

“How long was the process?”

“Two hours, maybe just over. You have to work quickly or it…” Amy’s explanation tailed off under Kate’s glare.

“It didn’t occur to either of you geniuses to just break the damn thing apart?”

“But that would ruin it,” we said in unison. Kate looked from one to the other and then closed her eyes and shook her head. She checked me over with brisk professionalism while I sipped the tea, making me follow her finger with my eyes, jabbing my fingers and toes with some of Amy’s sharp tools.

Eventually she stood up, dusted off her knees and took off the doctor face. Worry and tiredness warred across her features. “You got lucky,” she said to me, then turned to Amy, “You both did. Now get him dressed and home and into bed.” Amy nodded, so Kate followed up with, “And no more of these experimental shenanigans.”

I shot Amy a guilty look, which she shot back. Kate was a sharp one and she caught us. “What’s this?”

“Well, Dave was first so we could test the technique, then he’s going to use it on me for the next one.” Amy explained, a hopeful smile attempting to break out across her lips as she spoke. Kate was a couple of years older than us, and while I fancied her, Amy had always looked up to her. Kate’s approval meant something to Amy’s otherwise independent spirit.

“No you bloody well are not. This stops here.”

“But the project’s not nearly complete,” I protested, now slightly more in control of my mouth and limbs. “We need the Amy casts to make the whole thing work.”

“Are you kidding me? Dave, that was really dangerous.” Kate pointed at the rack, “Neither one of you is getting back into that death trap again.”

“Death trap?” She had stung my pride in my work. “That’s a piece of precision engineering. It worked perfectly.”

Amy followed up on my lead, “we know exactly what went wrong, I forgot one part of the process, that’s what made the whole thing take so long. We’ll be much better at it when it’s my turn.”

“You are both completely nuts.” She stamped over to the cast, looking for more reasons to stop us, or perhaps just a hammer. “What the hell is it that you’re working on anyway? What are you willing to go to such lengths for?” She stopped. Realisation dawned on her face. It softened away her anger and I fell in love all over again. “It’s for next week, isn’t it?”

We both nodded. She looked from me, to Amy, and back again. “OK, but Amy’s the one that knows the process and how to work the materials.” She looked from one to the other again, “So I’ll be your model.”

I was stunned, with a simple sentence she had left herself to our skill, just like that. And I’d just landed the prospect of seeing Kate naked. It must have shown on my face, she pointed at my own obvious lack of clothes and said, “but I’ll do it in a bikini.”

*                                   *                            *

Amy flapped around me like a mother hen until I snapped at her to leave me alone. She fled back to her studio to make me into a statue. A life sized Dave reaching up over his head. When Amy phoned through with the weight of metal used to make my statue I was able to run some calculations  on the weight of resin that would make Kate. Actually that would make five Kates leaning forward like figureheads on a ship, and reaching back with their hands, which would join to form a circle.

I didn’t feel up to hitting the workshop, so I spent the afternoon curled on the sofa with a notebook making amendments to the final design, and deciding how I would need to arrange the weights and gears to make the whole project come together.

When Kate stopped by to check up on me I was busily sketching what I imagined her naked body would look like. I flapped the notebook closed when the bell rang, and gulped like a schoolboy when I saw who it was.

The apartment that Amy and I shared was on the edge of the university district, easy enough for us to get in to run classes, but far out enough that we could rent a nearby warehouse and split it into her studio and my workshop. It also put us a comfortable distance away from the College and Mum and the campus of family that were concentrated close to it.

Despite my protests Kate made coffee and then checked my eyes and pulse, she took my blood pressure and asked some general questions about how I was feeling. It was about half an hour before she got to the point of her visit.

“What’s really going on here Dave? You guys have always been off doing your own thing, and now this,” she waved her hands roughly in the direction of our studio cum workshop.

“It’s Mum, she’s so into this clan thing, how everyone is a doctor of medicine, and marries other doctors and begets more doctors, and the whole Rovero legacy. We just wanted to show her that what we do has some value too.” It sounded weak when I said it out loud.

“Everyone knows Auntie Jen can be,” she hunted for a diplomatic word, “Difficult.” She took a sip of coffee, “She does take the whole Rovero thing pretty seriously.”

“And the funny thing is that she is two steps down the maternal line. I think it is just the fact that grandma never did it, and it would ridiculous, that stops her double-barrelling Rovero into her name.” I stopped there, it was all sounding a bit childish and bitter. Amy did needle and spite much better than I did, she could really lay on the acid, while I just sounded whiney.

Kate changed the subject, “So show me the project, I got the gist of it yesterday, but I want to know what I’m getting myself into.”

I flipped open the notebook to the master drawing. “It’s basically a tulip with five petals and a central stalk. There are counter rotating gears between the one Dave and the five Amys.” I stopped, “or the Kates I should say now. In the circular base there are asymmetric weights.” I flipped over the page, “So when the Kates catch the wind the Dave spins in one direction and the Kates in the other.” I flipped over another page that showed the bearings, getting a bit geeky in my element. “The tolerances on the bearings are incredibly tight. To the uninitiated it will look like a perpetual motion machine.”

She took the notebook from me and flipped back to the first page. “It’s beautiful.” She smiled ruefully, “The funny thing is I always envied you two. Off in your own world away from the pressure and expectation of the clan. And now you come up with this…”

I sat back, surprised by the revelation. To the outward eye Kate was a true scion of the house, first in her class at everything, qualified and practising a year before she should have been, and in a technically demanding field of medicine. I tried to explain, “Mum could never accept that we just weren’t into medicine. It’s so important to her. Dad was cool with it, I think he liked having something else to talk about over dinner, even if it was Rodin and Brunel. We got a chance to try and tie it all back together, we couldn’t turn it down.”

She smiled at me and flipped idly through the pages, not really paying attention to my hard work. “I always wondered what it would be like to do something else.” There was a faraway note to her voice. “There are so many other things we all could have been, but our beloved ancestor seems to have laid down the tracks for us all.” She flipped on a few more pages, “Well not all of us.” She looked at me, “In a way I’m proud of you and Amy, you both broke the mould and made your own way. I guess that’s why I want to model for your project,” she gave me a bigger smile, “So that I can be part of your revolution.” I think the confession embarrassed her, because she looked away from me back to the notebook. Her own face looked back, accurately rendered by my hand. “Oh.” She flipped forward another page to my imagined naked Kate.

I leapt off the sofa, spilling my coffee as I grabbed the notebook. “Sorry, I was just doodling,” I said lamely, trying to ignore the hot coffee running down my leg.

She gave me the full bore smile then, like the sun coming out of the clouds on a rainy day. “I’ll see you tomorrow evening in the studio.” Then she was gone, and I was smelling her perfume and spilled coffee and grinning like a village idiot with an amusing turnip.

*                                   *                            *

I was in my workshop when Kate arrived the next day. I didn’t hear her car roll up as I was busy on the lathe with my ear defenders on. When I saw her in the doorway between Amy’s studio and my workshop I waved an apology and bent back over my equipment. For the mechanism to work it had to be very precisely balanced, and I couldn’t afford to leave a component half finished.

When I was done I walked in on Amy explaining her finishing process to Kate. She had a file in one hand, and was waving it at a full sized naked model of me, in a bright aluminium alloy.

“It’s called forgiving,” she said, “taking out all the small imperfections from the casting and pouring, and giving the whole thing a perfect finish.” She looked evilly at me, “Of course some subjects take more forgiving than others.”

I gave her a childish sneer, which thankfully Kate missed, and then we got started. It took an hour, it went without a hitch and at the end I got to lift Kate out of the cast and carry her to a corner of the room where we had set up heaters and blankets and a thermos of tea, and rub the circulation back into her. It seemed like a more than fair reward for my near death experience and I figured myself heftily in karmic debt. Some days life just throws you a break.

Of course I didn’t see her again for several days, because Amy and I were locked together, building. Kate was sworn to secrecy as part of our plot and as she now featured so heavily in it, but her part was done.

There was one other essential conspirator: Dad. He was academic director at the Rovero College, a position he had earned in spite of, rather than because of his marriage to a daughter of the clan. Family were generally kept away from influential posts in a tacit agreement with the Board. His position meant he could pull strings and make certain arrangements for us.

We were working towards a memorial service, the annual tip of the hat to Dr Miles Rovero who had established the College, brought medical training to the region, and involuntarily set up the family business. This year was special, a hundred and fifty years had passed since he had first opened the doors and every one with a hint of Rovero blood was descending on the College grounds for a gala dinner, with alumni and professors all thrown into the mix.

There would be a distinct shortage of doctors all-round the country that night, and as I had seen the champagne order, it would be unwise to get taken ill the next morning as well.

We had a few bumps along the way to the final installation. Amy got copper grease in her hair which took three visits to the hairdresser to get out, and I nearly lost a finger fitting the acrylic mounts for the turning mechanism. But we got there, on time and ready for the big reveal.

I’ll be honest; it was a pretty swanky do. All black tie and evening gowns, a string quartet in one corner, a jazz band in one of the large tents, waiters with trays of little bits of food and enough booze to float a boat.

Kate was everything Mum thought a Rovero should be which included carrying the right surname, so I think she was disappointed to find Kate hanging about with Amy and me, thick as thieves. Mum very unsubtly bustled her away to some people she simply must meet. I wondered what she would make of Kate’s contribution to our work.

When the time came for the main address Amy and I were called up to the podium, which would have annoyed Mum no end, her delinquent children on show for everyone to see.

I spotted Kate at the front of the crowd and called her up as well. She resisted at first until Amy’s indecorous insistence threatened to ruin the solemnity of the moment.  I was nervous and excited all at once. We’d planned this for months, built it in a week, and then nearly destroyed the whole thing when the crane tipped during the installation.

I felt Kate’s hand slip into mine, and realised she would be incredibly nervous as well. It would be her body spinning in front of the thousand people when the cloth went up. Amy was already gripping my other hand hard enough to crush my fingers; all that working with plaster and sculptures had given her an iron grip. It tightened further as Dr Barfield, president of the Board and MC for the night, explained how two Rovero descendants had built the monument that would commemorate the milestone of a hundred and fifty years. I missed the rest, caught in the moment and Kate’s proximity, until with a flourish several dozen yards of silk was removed to show our work.

The moment was perfect. The sun was setting, catching the enormous flower of Amy’s imagination. In the centre rose a silvery Dave stamen, highlighted golden in the sunset, and shooting shafts of reflected sunlight through the translucent deep lavender Kate petals, which joined at the finger tips and heels to make a cupped flower. The slight breeze caught the whole thing and made it spin gently, drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd.

“What made you think of it,” asked Kate, her voice filled with wonder. My drawing hadn’t done it justice.

“It was Mum’s idea actually. She said everyone else could lay their medical certificates at the feet of Miles Rovero, but we may as well just come and throw a bouquet of flowers,” Amy said, “So we did.”

Kate laughed.  Amy was led away by Dr Barfield to show the monument to eager admirers. We watched her bask in their adulation.

“You know what they are really impressed by don’t you?” Kate said, nudging me in the ribs.

“You mean apart from the five spinning naked women?”

Her jab in the ribs was sharper this time, Amy had filed away the bikini lines and Kate was presented to the world as nude, her chest pushed out, her arms thrown back. It would have been beautiful even on a spoil heap.

“At least mine is accurate,” she replied, “Your twin was quite generous in how she interpreted certain bits of you.” A slow flush rose up behind my wing collars and onto my cheeks. Kate slipped her arm in mine, and lead me off to the buffet. “Don’t worry Dave, your secret is safe with me.”

End

If you are interested in more of my work check out my book “Image and Other Stories” https://www.createspace.com/4463941

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Living By Numbers

As often happens when I am supposed to be working on something, a new idea distracts me. Here’s an impromptu 1.7k words on bereavement. Please let me know what you think.

 

Living By Numbers

 

It was my Nan that suggested we write up a timetable. I guess she knew how scatty my Dad could be, and how important it was to make sure we didn’t miss out on anything with Mum gone.

 

It started with waking up in the morning. That was Task One. By Task Four I would be washed and into my school uniform and heading down the stairs. If Dad was going into the office he’d take me over to Nan’s house, which was Task Five. Once he’d gone she would untie my hair, brush it out again and then tie it up neatly before giving me my breakfast, and then taking me to school in her old Nissan. If Dad was working from home that day then Task Seven was to give him a kiss at the school gate. We’d call out the task numbers when they were done. The other parents must have thought us a bit odd to say “Task Seven” at the school gate, instead of goodbye.

 

I think Dad preferred it when Nan took me to school. Dad and I would have a nice time chatting on the way, but the mums at the gate scared him. Their little gangs and groups put him in mind of a ghetto with graffiti on the walls and burned out cars in the streets. The coffee mornings were drug deals and the parents’ advisory group that met the headmistress once a month was the court of the local crime lord.

 

I didn’t know what any of these things were before he started walking me to school. Imagining what things might really be was one of the games we played. When his ideas became especially colourful he would have to explain all the bits to me. I used all the crime and ghetto stuff in a story for school, and Miss Hargreaves called Dad in for a chat about what books I was reading. I think she liked the real answer even less, and for a while Dad was a bit more restrained.

 

Nan didn’t go in for the routines herself of course; they were just to keep her son in order. She’d pick me up from school and take me to her place, where I’d have tea and change and do my homework. Dad would stop in on the way from work to have dinner, and then we’d go home together. He’d be on Task Twenty, but really dinner was Task Six, that was Nan’s and my little secret.

 

We also had a timetable in the kitchen, so we’d always know which homework was due on which nights, and whether I had after school clubs the next day. We marked on birthday parties, and put a star in the week before to make sure we had bought a present, and that dad had wrapped it.

 

Dad said Mum had special magic mum powers that meant she just knew which was library day, and when homework was due, and who had given what presents at the last birthday.

 

By Dad’s count Task Thirty was to tuck me in bed and either read to me, or listen to me read. To be honest I was ten at the time, and little old for it, but it was part of our day. If he was particularly tired he might fall asleep at the foot of my bed. He would be a warm, comforting weight for me to sink my feet into.

 

I’d wait til he had said goodnight and gone to bed for Task Thirty-One. The day Mum died I had taken her pillow and hidden it under my bed. I would pull it out, breathe deeply, and then hold it for a while before I slept. At first it had still smelled of her, but long after the smell had gone, I kept doing it. I knew there were a million breaths and a million heartbeats somewhere in that pillow, and it was a way of saying goodnight to her too.

 

Weekend routines were more relaxed. We tried to keep mornings for ourselves, and then either go out shopping or visiting. There was still time reserved for weekend homework, and making sure that Dad had his work clothes ready, and I had my school clothes for the week all set out, and my shoes polished.

 

Our cleaner came in on Wednesday. Dad and I didn’t think we made that much mess, but Nan said Dad suffered from a rare condition called dust blindness. Mum had never let Dad do the cleaning because she said he always made a mess of it, and she just had to do things over. Dad of course denied it all. He said he was just pragmatic about the whole thing. When I asked him to explain what pragmatic meant he told me about Mum’s troll.

 

Troll dolls must have been a thing in the olden days when my parents were children. Mum still had the ugly little plastic figure with wild bright green hair. You could still see the marks where her little brother had once drawn a moustache on it. It lived on a shelf in the study. Dad had one of his tidying fits one day, and threw out loads of stuff. Somewhere buried in all his clutter was an old keyboard, and he couldn’t throw that away he explained, because it might come in handy one day. It was however covered in dust, and so he had used the hair of the troll to clean the dust out from between the keys.

 

That was how Mum found him that day, and to quote Dad “she went fractal”. He couldn’t see what he had done wrong, I think if I could ask him today he’d still be baffled. It was a suitable implement, and it was easily to hand, so he used it. To Mum it was part of her childhood that had just been subjected to a terrible ordeal of indignity. Afterwards he had to explain to me what fractal meant, and I couldn’t see how it described Mum’s temper, but it was such a cool word that it stuck.

 

He was prone to those kinds of lapses, which is why we had a cleaner. That way he wouldn’t mix up the cloth for cleaning glass with the wood duster, or use the wrong heads on the vacuum cleaner for the wrong parts of the house. Chrissie had been coming since the time Mum got ill, and she knew how Mum liked things done, and she kept at it, in spite of any advice she got from Dad.

 

My secret pillow came to light one evening after Chrissie had been. On the Tuesday we’d had our school play. I had a very minor part, but Dad came to watch, and took lots of pictures. He’d told me not to worry about not getting a big role. He was always spear carrier number three at school, because he liked to make up his own lines and couldn’t be trusted with a speaking part.

 

The routine was blown for that night, and I was really tired, so when Dad tucked me in, I dragged out my pillow and fell asleep. Task One the next day was a real problem, and I stumbled around up to Task Four. I almost fell asleep over my cornflakes at Nan’s.

 

When we got home it took me a while to understand what had happened. Chrissie had been through changing all the linen and there was Mum’s pillow, on my bed, in a crisp, clean pale blue cover. I must have forgotten to put it away.

 

Dad tried everything. All the words that people say when someone has died. How they live on in our hearts and memories, how they would like us to go on living, how much he loved me, and so on and on while my storm of tears would not end. I must have fallen asleep from exhaustion in the end.

 

I remember waking up in the middle of the night. I still felt exhausted. It was as if not saying goodnight to Mum meant the sleep was useless, and I hadn’t rested at all. I had another little cry then, scrubbing the tears off my face as they fell.

 

Dad had left the night light on for me as if I was still a little baby. I rolled over to turn it off and nearly shrieked in fright. On my bedside table was Mum’s troll doll, its bright green hair standing straight up and glowing in the dim light. It had a big goofy smile and it still had the traces of the moustache. I remembered the scene as Dad had described it, with Mum towering over him, and him in his study chair holding the doll in one hand and the keyboard in another. Mum going fractal, her hair standing up like the troll doll.

 

Mum had described the scene to me as well, and as I looked at the doll I could hear her laughing and telling me, “Your Dad looked like a puppy that’s pooped on the carpet, and doesn’t understand why it’s being told off.” Dad came up with imaginative ways to describe things, but Mum could nail them precisely. As I heard her description in my memory I smiled.

 

I crawled out of bed to go pee, since I was awake anyway. On the way back I peeked into Dad’s room. He wasn’t there. I walked all-round the house, and eventually found him dozing in his chair in the study. The screen saver was waving on the screen, and when I touched the mouse a picture of Mum and me together came up. We were camping in our own back garden, and peering out of the tent.

 

The tears came again. This time quietly. I climbed into his lap, and he shuffled sleepily to accommodate me, “Cuddle time is Task Two on a weekend,” he murmured drowsily. I didn’t reply I just rested my head on his chest. I began counting his breaths against my hair, and the slow sleepy thump of his heart by my ear.

 

In the morning I woke up bright and early, in my own bed. The troll doll was still there, but the pillow had gone. I walked past Dad’s room on my way to the bathroom and called out, “Task One.”

 

***

 

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