Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Archive for October 2014

Savage Writing: Host

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This week’s topic was simply “spooky stories.” Well, it so happens that that sci-fi idea I’ve had involved some stuff I find incredibly scary…

One part of this dialogue is originally based off a comment on Reddit that I can no longer find. I’m not sure of the animal in question – I think it was a gazelle – but that made no sense in this situation, so I changed it. Sheep may be smarter than I give them credit for here. My apologies for being inaccurate.

This follows directly from We Will Not Drown.

___

Dan woke, face-down, on a stainless steel table. Prising open his eyelids, he saw the blurry outlines of monitors, machines, and wires. His mind strained through a fog of nausea that could only be drug-induced. With a groan, he peeled his cheek off the frigid surface and tried to sit up.

A spasm jolted from his lower back. He flopped down.

Reaching around with an aching arm, he felt parted synthetic material, skin…and bandages. Reaching from his tailbone to just past his waist.

Another groan, and a slow push-up, and he was upright. Hospital gown. Anaesthestic machine. Clean-edged metal. They appeared one by one as he focused his eyes.

The operating theatre was empty.

Placing his feet on the tiles, words began to jump unbidden to his mind:

Riots. Gunman. Tier 4. Alleyway. So…here? How? Where?

A thick bathrobe lay on the door-hook. He wrapped it around himself as he ventured out.

He was not in a hospital; that was apparent. It was as if he stepped into a completely different building: small office rooms, devoid of paper or clutter or any evidence of use, stood opposite the theatre. To the left was another door, and through its glass panel, Dan glimpsed a rectangle of glittering black. A window. That was a good place to start. Then he could get his bearings.

The door opened to another corridor, lined with glass walls, behind which lay MDF tables and ergonomic chairs and large panelled screens. Meeting rooms. Another twinge ran up his back and he shivered, pulling the bathrobe tight to himself.

The corridor opened to a larger boardroom. The glass wall opposite showed the city sprawled beyond, white and yellow and red smeared through the black of the night. Seated at the table were two people: a middle aged woman with greying hair, and a red-haired man. The gunman, and one of his companions. Dan’s abductors.

The screams of Tier 4 returned to him, the pain where the back of his skull had been smacked off the concrete. One step back, ready to run – and another spasm shot through his spine, blinding him. He stumbled forward, and when he opened his eyes, his hands were gripping the back of the third chair at the table.

The woman smiled in a kindly way.

‘Won’t you sit?’

Calculations creaked and whirred in Dan’s mind. They were stronger than him. He didn’t know where he was. And they had done something to his back. Escape was not an option, and they knew it.

He sat down, eyeing them both: woman smiling, gunman looking out of the window, nonchalant.

‘How are you feeling?’ the woman asked, in a honeyed voice.

‘What have you done to me?’ he croaked.

‘He’s direct, that’s something,’ the gunman said, with a smirk.

‘Now, don’t you worry,’ the woman said. ‘We checked everything over and you’ll be absolutely fine.’

A perfect non-answer. Dan pushed down the gnawing fear in his gut and tried another angle.

‘You took me here from Tier 4,’ he said. ‘Why? The riot –’

‘Is over,’ the gunman said. ‘Thirty people are dead, and most of the police force that was present has been arrested for inciting violence by private security forces.’

Images of Jamie and Caleb and his other squadmates flashed through his mind. Rage burned through him.

‘We – we didn’t incite anything – that was you! Why did you–’

The gunman turned abruptly in his seat and put a box on the tabletop. Dan fell silent, fear snapping his mouth shut.

‘Are you afraid of spiders, Dan?’ asked the woman.

The gunman opened the lid of the box and tipped it on its side. Out crawled an orange-banded tarantula, about the size of his palm.

Dan eyed the creature as it began a languid exploration of the table.

‘…not particularly,’ he said.

‘I think they’re wonderful creatures,’ the woman said, putting her hand on the table and gesturing at the tarantula as if it was a cat. The gunman slapped the table and smiled when the arachnid jumped.

‘What about sheep? What do you think of them? You ever eaten lamb?’

Inside Dan’s head he screamed: I don’t give a shit! You monster, you’ve ruined my friends – killed thirty people! – and now you ask me what I like to eat? But he remained silent, eyes on the tarantula. The base of his back throbbed lightly, like a second heartbeat.

‘…yeah?’

‘Dumb things, aren’t they?’ the gunman said, with another infuriating smirk. ‘You know, if you make yourself smell right and walk among sheep, they’ll never guess you’re human. They’ll just think you’re a weird-looking sheep. You can go and stand right among their herd and they’ll never bat an eyelid.’

‘It depends on the senses,’ the woman said, as the tarantula climbed onto her hand. ‘Spiders see brilliantly, and they can sense vibrations and airborne chemicals – but they have no sense of balance.’

She tipped her hand from side to side. The tarantula skittered up her arm in response. Dan felt queasy as he watched it crawl over her skin.

The red-haired man leant back, hands behind his head.

‘Try to explain balance to a spider, the colour red to a dog – or try to explain to the sheep that what’s among them is a human, not one of their own.’

Another twitch from his back. It wasn’t centred, Dan realised. The pain came from a specific location, on his right side, a few inches up from his hipbone.

‘…what are you saying?’ he asked.

‘I’m saying – have you ever considered that perhaps there are beings who stand among the human herd, just the same?’

Dan looked at the smiling ginger man. It must have been the drugs. It must have been – because for a split second, he thought he glimpsed an outline beyond him, like a shadow: multi-limbed, non-mammalian, quasi-corporeal.

He pushed away from the table, but another wave of pain coursed through him, crippling his movement. When it passed, he found himself bent over, struggling to breathe.

‘It’s not true,’ he said – mostly to himself. ‘Can’t be. I’m still – I’m still under, I’m dreaming. I’m dreaming.’

‘We have been here a long time, Daniel,’ the woman said, voice still oozing kindness. Dan glanced up and saw the tarantula creeping across her temple. ‘Watching, manipulating, waiting. You lack the senses to see us, so we have made ourselves into a form like yours – a form you can sense, and interact with. And now we have you…our reason for being here may finally come to fruition.’

Another twinge rippled up and across his muscles. Bile rose in his throat. Something was throbbing, throbbing underneath his skin.

‘What did you do to me?’ he gasped.

‘You know,’ the gunman said, voice bright, ‘I was so impressed when you started to grow organs on animals. Ingenious, don’t you think? And synthetic meat, don’t get me started on that! But, anyway, you humans grow replacement tissue on animal bodies. We needed to do something similar, but with a human body.’

Another spasm. A second heartbeat.

‘It was very trying,’ the woman said. She pulled the tarantula off her head and kissed its furry body. ‘We’ve had so many failures, many have given up hope.’

‘Yes, because of course we tried women first – the carrying sex, and whatnot,’ the gunman continued. ‘But a womb’s a cauldron of hormones, you know – every attempt was spontaneously aborted. It made a hell of a cleanup.’

‘We should have known better,’ the woman said, putting the tarantula back on the table.

‘True – it became obvious after a while that we needed someone more…robust. And a better position for the tissue. A space with great access to human blood via an artery, in a place that wouldn’t harm the host. Well, it was obvious then, wasn’t it?’

‘After all,’ the woman said, ‘you have two, and you only need one.’

‘So we decided to take a young man in peak physical condition, and try this new location. Must say, it’s worked well so far. You’re still alive, at least.’

The tarantula crawled close to the gunman’s fingers. He slammed his hand on top of it with a bang, pulverising it, leaving only a furry wet lump on the woodwork.

‘Kurt, that was needless,’ the woman said, as mildly as if he had wasted a batch of paper.

Kurt put his hands behind his head again and grinned.

‘I thought human would be different though, didn’t you?’

‘Different?’

‘Different from pig’s kidney. It tasted pretty much the same.’

Dan jerked up from his seat. Half-bent over his roiling stomach, he stumbled away as fast as he physically could, hitting the door open, smearing his hands all over the pristine glass corridor. Just before the second door, his legs gave way. Pain shuddered up his vertebrae, across his hips, digging deep into his bones, and still the pulse of the thing in his back throbbed, and throbbed. He doubled over and vomited, heaving out every shred of sludge in his stomach, wishing he could heave and claw out his organs, one by one, until the creature was gone.

Hands grabbed his arms. Hands and multiple feelers, wrapping around him and hoisting him up.

‘No – no – get off me!’

Noises passed over his head, untranslatable. Then a phrase in a warm motherly tone:

‘We shouldn’t have explained it all at once.’

The gunman only laughed in reply.

They dragged him back to the operating theatre, and with unbounded strength they lifted him onto the table. He couldn’t see them any more. Screaming and incoherent, Dan struggled against invisible restraints as they pressed him down.

Something pierced his neck.

Dan shrieked until the world cut to black.

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Written by G.J.

30/10/2014 at 10:31 pm

Pinwheel 9: Alice Makes Things Right

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June 1st, 1930

Fort Greene, New York

Alice does not go to the club that night. She sits at the kitchen table and replays everything she has learnt and seen, everything the other her learned and saw. Her sight brings more and more to bear until it is clear to her: her attempts to save Bertram indirectly create deeper and deeper spirals of death. Should she try again, she may not be able to stop John, or something worse, this time. And the image of what she would have done that night – of a young man writhing as his eye melted – burns itself into her.

With a shudder, she rises from the table.

She knows what she must do.

Late that night, she goes to Queens.

~~~

June 2nd, 1930

Ozone Park, New York

Sam wakes to a beautiful summer morning. He sits up, stretches, yawns, scratches, and sets his feet on the floor. They brush something cold. Leather.

Blinking his eyes into focus, he sees a suitcase on his bedroom floor. A note lies on it. Rubbing his right eye again, he picks up the paper and reads:

In another life, I wronged you.

Please accept this as recompense, and use it to help those you love.

– an unseen friend.

Wondering if this is an elaborate prank, Sam kneels on his floor and opens the briefcase.

Inside are stacks and stacks of twenty dollar bills.

‘Ma!’ he shouts. ‘Ma, come look at this!’

~~~

June 2nd, 1930

Fort Greene, New York

The door slams open, then shuts with a curse. Bertram storms into the kitchen a few seconds later. Alice is waiting for him at the table, her hands clasped together before her. He walks to the sink, runs the tap, and vigorously splashes his face. Then, he leans against it, looking out the window onto the neighbouring apartments.

She considers asking what’s wrong, but decides against it.

‘Twenty thousand is missing from the safe.’

She says nothing. He turns away from the window.

‘See, this is the problem with doing illegal things, Alice,’ he says, wrenching off his tie and throwing it on the table. ‘When twenty thousand goes missing from the safe, there’s no-one you can call to handle it. So now I’ve to pull up every single shill who works for me and try to figure out who took it, when I made sure to have a business full of liars. But which liar would be stupid enough to take a whole damn twenty thousand – twenty thousand –!’

‘I took it,’ she says.

He pauses.

‘What do you mean?’

She puts her clasped hands on the table.

‘I took twenty thousand dollars from your safe last night.’

The coiled chain feels pleasing in her palms. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Bertram has frozen.

He asks, in a deep, suppressed voice:

‘Why?’

‘To repay a debt.’

‘You have no debts!’

She hazards to look at him. Furious, yes, but not dangerous. She opens her palms.

‘From another life.’

The necklace spills onto the wooden tabletop.

Bertram breathes in deeply and runs his hand down his face.

‘You shouldn’t play with that thing,’ he says – still in the same dark tone. ‘You shouldn’t use it. I try not to use it. No-one should touch it.’

That is immaterial, now, she thinks.

‘What did you do?’ he asks.

She does not speak.

He slams his fist against the cupboard beside him.

‘ALICE! What did you do?’

‘Nothing, this time,’ she says.

‘Alice…’

‘Something came to stop me,’ she says. She is surprised at the instant clog in her throat. ‘But it showed me what once had been. I hurt people, I crippled a man, twenty people or more died because of my actions. I had to repay that debt.’

‘Let me get this right,’ he shouts. ‘You stole twenty thousand dollars from me, to repay for something you haven’t even done?!’

‘To save two lives I had ruined,’ she protests. ‘To do good for once in my life!’

He slams his fist into the cupboard again. The glass pane cracks.

‘Bertram, stop it!’ she cries. Disgust at his rage floods through her, overpowering her weaker emotion. ‘Stop it! You can live without twenty-thousand dollars! I took less than half of what was there! Between your money and a stranger’s life I will always choose a stranger! You cannot ask me to be so selfish!’

‘You stole from me, Alice,’ he says, turning back. Hand still in a fist. His knuckles are cut. ‘That is the problem. You took what was mine, and now you tell me I’m wrong to be mad?’

‘I love you,’ she says. Again, firm: ‘I love you, Bertram. I crippled people, I betrayed friends, I made paradoxes, all to keep you alive.’

His shoulders sag. He exhales. His fury dies.

Alice looks at the ground.

‘…it never worked.’

‘Of course it didn’t,’ he says. ‘I die in 1943 anyway.’

‘What?!’

He leans back against the counter and gives a bitter smile.

‘I told you to never go to the future, and that’s why. I went to 1944, and I’d been dead a year. A Jap stabbed me through the neck in a battle on the other side of the world. And I never found a way to stop another world war from happening, so I lived with it. I know I’m on borrowed time.’

The room is spinning around her. 1943. 1930. More than ten year’s difference. Ten years! But why the change – she had been told December this year – Sam saw the raid on the club, that’s why, the raid in December when he would have died, when he is going to die. She bought him three months more of life that time – but now she hears that, otherwise, he would have had thirteen years. Thirteen years to live! And what was the difference?

The club.

The club he opened, because of her.

Alice clasps her hand over her mouth. The room is spinning and spinning. I can only ever make things worse.

She stands, swaying. With effort, she walks over to him, arms out, searching for an embrace.

‘Forgive me,’ she says, struggling to keep the sob in her throat.

He pushes her away.

‘No,’ he says. Cold. ‘You’ve betrayed me, Alice. You’ve hurt me, for things that don’t even exist and people you don’t know. I won’t forgive that.’

He turns to leave.

‘I love thee!’ she cries after him.

The front door opens, and shuts.

~~~

June 3rd, 1930

Fort Greene, New York

They sleep in separate beds that night. He comes in late and he does not say another word to her.

On the empty sheet of paper that her dead-self has left, she writes:

December 13th, 1930

Police will raid the club.

I love thee.

She creaks open his bedroom door and allows herself one last look at him.

Then, she is gone. She takes the necklace with her.

~~~

September 19th, 1996

Surulere, Lagos

‘Anteeksi,’ Grace says, as they sit on the warm concrete pavement. ‘That means “forgive me”.’

‘So I guessed,’ Onyeka says. ‘I forgive you.’

‘I shouldn’t have told her.’

Shuddering down time, ripples and ripples. Shadows of what could have been pass over minds, and thoughts alter without any conscious reason.

Onyeka shakes her head.

‘It does not matter. I have made up my mind.’

‘You have?’

In the silence when she sat with her father, ignoring his drinking as they ignored the bribe money he brought home. She has been taught that God provides, but it occurred to her in that moment that she has never seen proof of it. A distaste for the idea of the supernatural now sits on her.

‘I do not care what mother says. I will be a physicist. And I think – I think I will go to Oxford. I don’t think I’d like to be around so many Americans at Harvard!’

Grace looks out at the street, a rare frown on her face.

‘Then I won’t come with you, nnwanne,’ she says. ‘Because I want to go to America. I really…I really want to go to New York.’

‘Really?’ Onyeka asks. Grace has never shown this determination before.

‘Really. Something…something is pulling me there. I need to go.’

They sit in silence and look out at the shimmering heat of the day. Onyeka wants to trap this moment in her mind forever: she and her beloved sister, outside their home in their own country. Soon to be parted.

‘I will miss you,’ she says.

Grace turns and smiles.

‘We won’t be apart forever, nee-san! Think of it as the beginning of an adventure!’

Onyeka smiles. Still, she thinks, I will miss you. I will miss this moment, and this time that will never come again.

~~~

July 3rd, 2005

Nakano, Tokyo

Why don’t you try? Uzu says.

Sosuke puts his fingers on the keyboard, ready to type that it is too much effort.

A shadow passes over him. A realisation.

Why not?

He sits back in his chair and looks at his cave of a room. All the money sitting in plastic or paper form on his bookshelves. His eyes settle on the calendar his mother gave him for new year: scenes from around the world. Forests in Germany. Mountains in Argentina. Skyscrapers in New York.

I’ll be right back, he tells Uzu.

He walks through to the kitchen.

‘Mother,’ he says, ‘I need to get a passport.’

‘Why?’ she says. ‘You’re not planning on going anywhere, are you?’

‘I’m going to New York.’

She looks up from the TV in surprise, eyes lighting on him as if he is mad. Maybe he is. He feels a cool determination, strangely free from the babbling self-doubt that always plagues him.

‘What?’

‘I need English lessons as well,’ he says. ‘Can you book some for me?’

‘A-are you okay, Sosuke?’

‘I’m going to get a job in New York. I need to have a passport, and English lessons. I’ll pay for the rest.’

He turns back to his room. She calls after him.

‘Wh…a…and what are you going to do in New York? Clean toilets?’

‘I’ll program computers,’ he says over his shoulder. ‘I’m…I’m actually quite good at it, mother.’

Complimenting himself feels like the most blasphemous thing he has ever done.

When he gets back to his desk, he types to Uzu:

Do you want any of my manga? Or figures? Or DVDs?

You’re selling them?

I’m selling all of them. I’m going to New York.

Whoa! When did you decide that?

Right now.

Sosuke looks around his room and smiles. The hero begins his adventure – and who knows what will happen, or what people he will meet on the way?

~~~

18th September, 1978

Mahdia Town, Qom

Zahra sighs at the window.

‘I must go to Tehran, as soon as your father returns. Maybe you should come. Maybe you will be a politician. I think you would run the country well.’

Sholeh laughs and shakes her head.

‘I don’t want to be a politician, maman.’

A tremor of dread crosses over her. A premonition of black and white comic book frames. Her schoolbooks suddenly appear worthless.

‘But…I might come to Tehran.’

‘Truly?’ Zahra says, eyes lighting up. ‘Oh, what a happy day! My daughter joins the cause at last! And will you cut your hair now, too?’

Sholeh laughs. She cannot explain the awful feeling inside of her. But hard as steel in her soul, she knows she must take a stand this time. Even if it comes to nothing – even if her mother’s hope is destroyed – she knows she must fight.

As she abandons her books and joins her mother, a voice speaks in her ear:

Don’t you dare give up!

~~~

November 10th, 2007

Combe Down, Bath

‘Oh, honey,’ Tessa says, as Alice sobs into her shoulder. She wants to say “It’ll be okay,” but she knows it won’t.

Half an hour later, she leaves Alice on her bed, and goes downstairs to make some tea. George joins her. He puts his arms around her waist and nuzzles into her neck. She sighs.

‘It’s horrible, isn’t it? And she’ll never be able to go back.’

‘Don’t you go anywhere,’ he says.

‘I won’t,’ she says, kissing his cheek. They stand in each other’s arms, and watch the kettle boil.

‘Did you hear what she said?’ Tessa says. ‘She left us to die in another time. I don’t really think she’d ever do that, but still…it’s weird thinking of another version of yourself dying.’

He holds her tighter.

‘We’re never touching that thing,’ he says, voice feverish. Being near Alice’s emotions, and told what they’ve been told, has exposed a rarely seen vulnerable core. ‘I never want to know what comes next. I just – I want to hold onto you forever, and never let go.’

Tessa leans her head against his. Two years ago, she was homeless and friendless, before chance put her in his way. She treasures everything. She tries not to forget.

~~~

August 4th, 1930

Ozone Park, New York

‘Y–you mean it?’

Sam laughs and lies back in his chair.

‘Course I do. What else am I meant to do with the money? Let it lie there, til my brother steals it? And what else is a business good for, but helping your friends get dough?’

John laughs and shakes his head.

‘I can’t believe you bought the whole building! Store and apartments!’

‘The rest went in stocks,’ Sam said, still smiling. ‘Marco thinks I’m crazy, but I told him, I’ve got a good feeling about those soft drinks…’course, harder drinks give more money, but it’s more trouble than its worth, I think, when you’re watching your back all the time. Anyway, you in?’

‘I’m in, I’m in! Christ, I’ve been looking for a job so long, I’ll take anything you throw at me!’

His smile falls as another thought returns to him.

‘Say, Sam…I hate to ask more when you’ve been so good already, but Al…’

‘Al’s dead weight,’ Sam says. ‘You know I can’t trust him with anything worth more than a dime.’

‘I know, I know, but the thing is – it’s not work, but well…he’s gotten in some deep water with some bad sorts, and I’m the only one left to fish him out.’

‘Oh? What kind of deep?’

John mimes slitting his throat. Sam pales.

‘How much?’

John names a high – but not too high – number. Sam laughs in relief.

‘Here,’ he says. He fishes in a drawer beside him and bring out a wad of notes. ‘Give this to ’em as a deposit. Say the rest is coming in a few days, once you’ve shown you’re good enough to work for me.’

‘Th-thanks! Thanks! Gee, Sam, how’d you get so…so…’

‘Rich?’

‘No, no, I meant…good, I guess.’

John’s hands are in his pockets as he looks away, embarrassed. Sam looks up to the ceiling corner.

‘I had a helluva dream, last month,’ he says. ‘Dreamt my eye melted in its socket, my leg lost all feeling, and I was crippled for life. Next part, the mob broke into my house and shot me right here, right in the head.’ He taps the centre of his forehead. ‘Next thing I know, though, an angel with golden hair came to me, asked me forgiveness for putting me through such hell. Said she was here to make things right, and that if I could use the money make more things right for her, then she’d be able to forgive herself. When I woke up…the money was there.’

A wash of light fills John. In a world as dreary as his, one miracle is all that’s needed to make him keep trying. Hope blooms. Kindness swells.

Sam smiles and shrugs.

‘I’m just trying to share the wealth – of money and soul, I guess.’

‘You’re sharing it,’ John says, lifting his glass of coke to clink against Sam’s. ‘And me, I’ll do my best to pass it on.’

~~~

December 13th, 1930

Pinwheel Club, New York

The police shoot him when they come.

Bert is waiting for them. He sits in his usual seat by the bar, and leans back in his chair, smoking the best cigar he could find. Last night he told everyone else to go home, and gave them an envelope stuffed with money in place of their last paychecks. It was the least he could do.

‘Gentlemen,’ he says, as they come up to his seat. ‘I’ve a question for you.’

‘We ask the questions here, bub,’ the officer says, trying to pull him from his seat. Bert kicks him away and laughs.

‘What’s better: dying quickly, as a free and rich man, or having your throat sliced open on a frozen beach – penniless, honourless, and heartbroken?’

‘Quit yapping,’ another officer says, pulling on the shoulder of his suit jacket. ‘You know the answer.’

‘Yeah, I do,’ Bert says.

He fights.

They shoot.

He bleeds, and trembles. He imagines Alice crying, thinking she’s given him a worse death. The idea makes him laugh. He was reconciled to death long ago – seeing your own grave will do that. She merely gave him a better alternative. And without her…without her…the years seem worthless, anyway.

~~~

February 28th, 1931

21 Club, New York

‘Double. Gin,’ Alice says. The barman barely looks at her as he takes her money. She sounds more English now, since she’s been living in Bath. She has imposed on Tessa and George for far too long. The time for weeping is over; she must be strong, and forge another path. But today…today…

The grave was covered in flowers. Seamus said Bert had given them enough money to last six months before it happened. They all did their best for him and his memory.

‘He left you something too, miss,’ Seamus had said. ‘I know you never married, but he considered you his next o’ kin.’

She went to the lawyer. It wasn’t “something.” It was everything.

Told him to take a quarter of it out. Once she knows where she’s going, she’ll change that money into another form, something she can use. Something physical she can sell for more in another time. Like an antique.

She made the lawyer give the rest away.

Alice takes a swig of gin and wipes her cheeks. Was the money a way to keep her here, in his time? It was never going to work. After this, she will not return to 1931.

A familiar laugh behind her makes the hairs on her neck stand on end. She turns.

At a table behind her sit two young men. One has a high hairline and boyish freckles. The other is talking loudly, gesturing, giggling like a child. Both are wearing new suits.

Magnetism, she thinks.

They both pause and look up, directly at her. She holds their gaze, wondering what they might do.

Sam says something and John laughs. They turn back to each other, and forget about her.

Alice finishes her gin.

Outside, a cold breeze hits her. She hugs her coat to her body, and walks briskly along the street, only pausing once to look in a shop window, before continuing on.

Colourful pinwheels stand on display.

Written by G.J.

24/10/2014 at 2:45 pm

Pinwheel 8: Tessa and George Are Late

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February 28th, 1931

Prince George Hotel, New York

‘I hope Alice is okay while we’re gone,’ Tessa says as they come to the top of the stairs. ‘I mean, it has to be today, right? We’ve been here so fucking long that it’d just be typical if –’

George puts his arm out, blocking her. He turns and raises his finger to his lips. She doesn’t realise the door to their room is ajar until he has knelt in front of it.

She creeps down and ducks underneath him to put her eye to the crack. So they sit, head above head. He instinctively puts his hand on her shoulder. The touch is reassuring to them both.

Through the slit, she sees a young woman, twirling in Tessa’s second fur-lined jacket. The sleeves are too short for the woman’s long arms, and the material is stretched taut across her back, but still she smooths her hands along the fur, smiling. George makes the beginning of a motion to rise, when the woman calls through to the ensuite in another language. A voice answers her, and the woman calls back, her tone teasing, friendly, yet gentle. Soothing voice for a skittish dog. Now Tessa recognises the language as Japanese – she thinks. She feels a low-conscious dissonance, hearing a black person speak Japanese.

The ensuite door opens and in steps an East Asian man. He has one of George’s jackets slung over his arm. He shakes his head, blushing, and the woman teases him in the same gentle way. Yes, definitely Japanese. Tessa scolds herself for her prejudice, then basks in the wonderful strangeness of their conversation.

The woman digs in the wardrobe, and finds a trilby. She pats it onto the man’s head, and he half-cringes down, like a child. They talk more – tone of compliments from the woman – then she turns and fishes out one of Tessa’s cloche hats. She struggles to get it over the bounce of her hair, but once it is locked in place, she turns to the mirror, and twirls again, seeing herself as a true 1920s woman.

Tessa knows. She spent her first morning here doing the same thing. “Lookit me! I’m a DAME! I’m one step from being a flapper!” she’d cried to George.

‘Kirei, na,’ the Japanese man says. He has a faint smile, and the soft eyes that men rarely show in public.

When the woman turns to him, an unbelieving laugh in her throat, he burns red and looks down.

‘Thank you,’ the woman says, in African-tinted English.

Tessa can help it no longer. A high pitched squeak emits from her throat. George squeezes her shoulder in warning, but she has to whisper:

‘They. Are. A-dorable!’

He squeezes again; this time, in agreement. Her hair rustles as he bring his lips to her ear.

‘Infatuation…it’s amazing to taste. Deep, spicy chocolate.’

She glances to him. He gives her a quick smile, before returning his eyes to the intruders. She can’t remember the last time she saw him look truly calm.

Unease filters through as she remembers why.

‘George…’ she whispers.

He doesn’t hear her.

Tessa looks back at the pair in their room. Still chatting, still cute as hell.

‘George, we need to go.’

Still he doesn’t move. Faint delight lies in the curve of his lips, oblivious to all except the wonderful taste. Tessa readies herself to stand and force him out of his reverie, when the woman stiffens and fishes something out of her trouser pocket.

The spokewheel necklace.

She holds it in her hands, looks at it, then puts it away again quickly. Tessa recognises the feeling well: afraid that it will disappear if you take your eyes away, equally frightened to hold it too long, in case you accidentally spirit yourself away to another time.

‘That…’ George says.

He and Tessa look at each other. The same thoughts hit them both in order, heavy as hailstones: the intruders are from another time, most likely the future. There is only one spokewheel necklace. If they have it now, then at some point they, or someone else, must have taken it from one person:

‘John!’ Tessa says.

‘Shit!’ George says, scrambling to his feet. ‘We need to go.’

Tessa struggles to think as she runs after him. If they stop John, the pair will have no way to get back in time, and they wouldn’t have seen them. But they did, they were still there. Have they already failed, then, if the intruders didn’t fade away as they watched? But if they’re too late because of them – no – no – it makes no sense! None!

The air grows tight around them, as if the world has shrunk, like an ill-washed jacket. Tremors shudder across waves they cannot see.

~~~

February 28th, 1931

Pinwheel Club, New York

‘Sam’s here,’ Bertram says. The tap-tap-click of his cane is audible in the back room. Bert glances to Alice. The hostility has not left him completely. She keeps eyes down like a serf.

‘You’d best stay here,’ he says, before walking through. Alice folds her hands in her lap, trying to remain calm, but a second later her hands are gripped tight on each other, knuckles whitening, tendons trembling. They’d only be a minute, she thought. Only a minute. Sam is here. She hears his voice through the wall and remembers John’s tears in Tokyo. No, it surely won’t be. She has changed the past before, she can change things again. But where are Tessa and George? They said they’d only be a minute.

‘You’re early,’ Bert says as he walks through. Sam turns. His expression is a shade more solemn than usual.

‘Thought it’d be best,’ he replies. ‘I’ve decided this is my last day here.’

Bert pauses for a half-second, then keep walking. He changes his direction to the bar.

‘Sad to hear that, Sam. Mind telling me why?’

Sam’s stare is withering as he says:

‘I think you know why.’

Bert sighs to himself as he round the bar and grabs a glass. Ever since Alice said those words – “I’ve only ever wanted to keep you safe” – he has felt fragile, as if he is one step away from falling off a high rope. He had counted on Sam’s sight to be a safety net, but that was naïve of him. Nothing to do but take it on the chin.

‘Well, I’d rather not lose someone with your abilities, but if you can make it on your own –’

‘I can. I’ve got enough stashed.’

Bert pours himself a slug and downs it.

‘Then I wish you well,’ he says, glad for the distracting burn in his throat. Sam still stares at him, not believing his well-wishing. Oh, the sight is something all right, but between anything and Alice it’s an easy choice.

Door clatters, and feet stamp halfway down the stairs before it swings shut. John runs into the club, hesitating when he sees Sam.

‘John? What’s wrong?’

He is pale, he is trembling, he has every sign of fear.

‘Shit, Sam, I didn’t want to get you involved in this, but – Bert, please, you gotta help me.’

Bert comes to the front of the bar.

‘What is it?’

‘I didn’t wanna get you all involved,’ he repeats, glancing at Sam again, ‘but I think maybe – they might be – aw, shit!’ He clenches his hair.

‘Hey, easy, just tell us what’s happened,’ Sam says.

‘I, uh, got some, ah, “accounting” issues –’

Two cars screech to a halt on the street outside, blotting the basement windows. John jumps like a cat and words are shaken out.

‘Oh no – they’ve – shit, Sam, it’s Al, he owed them all this money, I’ve given ’em every cent I have but it’s not enough, they got guys on the inside who’ll kill him if I don’t pay, say they’re gonna kill me if I don’t get it now–’

The door opens and multiple feet come down the stairs.

‘You gotta help me, you gotta–’

‘Easy, easy, I’ll handle it,’ Sam says, as ten – no, a dozen – men enter the club.

Bert folds his arms.

‘Afternoon, gentlemen. Sorry to say, the club’s not open yet –’

‘We’re not here for your club,’ says the leader, a broad-set man in his forties. At his side is a skinny rat-faced man, as twitchy as they come. Eyes dart around, hand flits to his holster, shoulders shrug, sniff.

‘Nice joint, this. Shame.’

He looks to John and John looks like he is about to piss his pants. He nearly does when Sam claps a hand on his shoulder, facing the speakers.

‘Shame there’s not more like ’em in the city, right? But enough of that – how can we help you?’

‘Shut your smart mouth, that’s what,’ ratface says, hand flitting to his holster.

Bert walks to the front of the bar, scowling.

‘The boy owes us a load,’ the boss says. ‘Personal business. Might be best if you take a step outside for a second, gentlemen.’

‘Don’t tell me to get out my own damn club,’ Bert growls.

The atmosphere drops to freezing. John’s eyes plead at Sam, but again Sam only smiles and grips his shoulder, looking the boss dead in the face.

‘See, the thing is I ain’t so good stepping about. Wouldn’t want to test your patience, understand? And the other thing is, this boy here’s like family to me. If you’ve got any problems with him, you can address them to me, and if you’re short a few cents, it might be I have some.’

John whispers, ‘Sam, you can’t –’

‘This guy be giving us the fuckin’ runaround for months and here he says he can just up and call in a favour?’ says ratface. ‘I don’t like being played for a fool, bub!’

‘What he means to say is, things have progressed beyond money at this point,’ says the boss. ‘This is about respect, capiche?’

‘Capisco, amico,’ Sam says. ‘See, we understand each other. There’s no need for you to bring all your boys here – I understand, and we can work things out.’

Boss’s features are inscrutable, but he is listening, and he emits an air of fatherly forbearance. John glances between him and Sam’s confident smile, and his eyes shine as if he hears angels sing.

‘After all,’ Sam continues, ‘as they say, ogni paese –

‘Jee-zuz, shut up!’ says ratface.

Sam ignores him. He fully lapses into Italian, gaze pinned on the boss.

‘Hey! You hear me?’ ratface says over the top of him. ‘You shut your whore mouth, else –’

‘I think you should get out,’ Bert says.

Ratface pulls out his pistol.

‘The hell did you say to me?’

The colour drains from Bert’s face as he looks on him. Breath spurts hard from his rigid body, like a bull preparing to charge.

‘What the hell did you say to me, pillface?’

‘I said, this is my goddamn bar,’ Bert says. Suppressed. Growing louder. ‘And if you can’t level like a goddamn grown man, then get the hell out!’

Ratface peaks. Pupils shrink, twitching halts, visibly snapping.

Sam’s Italian bubbles like a prayer over the scene.

Gun up. Sudden turn.

‘You motherfucking – will you SHUT UP!’

He spins to Sam and pulls the trigger. Only at the last half-second does Sam turn to face the bullet that ends him. The back of his head bursts over the shining floor and he thuds to the floor, lips still mid-word.

Ratface spins back to Bertram and shoots again. He slams against the bar and slides down, gripping his thigh and cursing

The boss sighs, and takes his pistol from his jacket. The gang straighten up, tommys pointed once more at John.

And John can only stare at Sam’s body, the blood oozing from him, his eyepatch skewed.

‘Now, as I was saying,’ the boss says. ‘We –’

The door bursts open. It’s Alice. She freezes at the sight of the mobsters.

‘Morning, ma’am,’ boss continues, not breaking stride. ‘Just a little business here. Best be on your way.’

She sees Bertram and cries out.

Boss sighs again and shoots ratface a glare.

Alice kneels beside Bertram, pressing her hand on his bleeding leg.

‘Sorry,’ he pants. ‘Sorry –’

‘C’mon, boss, enough stallin’,’ says ratface.

‘No,’ Alice repeats, again, again, again, ‘no, no – where are they? They said they would be here – Tessa promised me –’

‘Take him,’ boss says.

John is still staring at Sam. He sees the world unravel. He sees order shrivel and hope die. In their place lie shallow cruelty, and the chaos of swirling power.

He hears a step towards him. Without turning, he sees ratface reach a hand out to grab him. He sees the men take a step closer, forming a circle, excluding Alice and Bertram. Images flitting in his mind. Sam’s sight shows him what’s beyond Sam’s body.

Without moving, John reaches out.

Ratface’s gun arm jerks, springs back on itself. Before he can voice complaint, ratface pulls the trigger. First shouts are for that, second shouts – louder – are when he pulls every gun out of every hand and flips it around.

Don’t look. Don’t look.

He closes his eyes, and screams into the shots.

When he opens them again, everyone bar Alice, Bert, and himself are dead.

It doesn’t help any.

He sobs and grabs ratface’s gun.

‘Don’t,’ Bert gasps. ‘Wasn’t your fault – wasn’t your –’

‘Shut up,’ John says, voice thick with bitterness. ‘You don’t know anything! I could’ve…I should’ve…’

He straightens and turns to them. Alice shakes her head as she looks at him, then down at Bertram.

‘Again,’ she says to herself. ‘Again, isn’t it? I thought…I thought…’

Crazy girl, talking nonsense. John points the gun at her.

‘Give me the necklace.’

‘John –’ Bert starts.

‘If you don’t get him to hospital soon, he’ll –’

‘He’ll die,’ she says. Tears spill over her yet-unmoving face. ‘This is what you meant. I’ve done nothing. I’ve changed nothing. All for nothing.’

‘You idiot,’ Bertram says, with a cough-laugh. ‘After all that.’

‘Alice!’ John cries, stepping closer. ‘You know these things, right? Sam told me I’d bring people together. He said I’d do good. Is this what he meant, huh? Is it? I make everything bigger, better or worse – but it’ll never get better, will it? I can only ever make things worse!’

‘No,’ she says. Her face creases. She looks up at him and cries. ‘I’m the one who only makes things worse!’

‘Give me that necklace!’

‘You can’t undo it!’ she sobs. ‘You can never undo it. It’s not possible. Even if you don’t meet yourself – even if you don’t make a paradox – you can never undo it. You’ll never make it better, John!’

She curls into herself, tears falling on Bertram’s suit jacket.

‘Ha,’ he says, lowering his gun, happy to have his despair mirrored. ‘So what do I do? If I can’t make it better, and I can only make it worse – if I draw everything to myself, and I can’t stop it…’

He glances back at Sam’s corpse and laughs again.

‘I’m gonna do as he said,’ he says, quietly. ‘I’ll bring them together. Dammit! I’m a hole, a circling drain – I’ll bring it all together. I’ll bring every fucking thing together!’

He turns back.

‘So give me that necklace!’

‘No –’ Bert gasps.

Alice is defeated. She pulls the necklace over her head with a bloody hand.

Once more, the door opens and again feet descend the stairs.

‘Oh GOD!’

John spins and aims at the intruders: Tessa on the stairs, hands covering her mouth, quivering at her first sight of dead bodies; George gripping the handrail for strength, eyes on the necklace in Alice’s hands, wits firing haphazardly.

‘John,’ he says, ‘John, it’s okay, it’s o-‘

John shoots and Tessa screams. The bullet hits the wall five feet away from them.

‘Don’t you touch my feelings, you freak,’ John says.

‘John, please!’ Tessa cries. ‘Don’t do it!’

George sinks down beside her. His lips move, as he repeats to himself: Sam’s dead.

John turns to Alice.

‘Alice!’ Tessa cries.

Alice holds the necklace out to him. John snatches it from her. He looks at her, at Bert. Turns to look at Tessa and George. Looks at Sam’s body, one last time.

He vanishes.

‘We – we – shit,’ George says. The corpses make his brain misfire. ‘Ambulance. Ambulance.’

‘Alice…’ Tessa calls. ‘Why? You…you didn’t need to give it to him!’

‘It’s not use,’ Alice sobs. ‘It’s no use. Nothing changed. Nothing can ever change. It only ever grows worse. Nothing can be done.’

‘No,’ Tessa says, standing up. She hauls George up from the floor. ‘There is a way – there is a way, and we just saw it! If we’re quick enough.’

It takes George a second to understand her. He nods.

‘We’ll be back,’ Tessa says. ‘I promise Alice – I promise!’

They run out the club.

‘Best be quick,’ Bert wheezes.

Alice tries to respond, but only a wail escapes her.

~~~

February 28th, 1931

Prince George Hotel, New York

They are lying on the bed, top-to-tail, staring up at the ceiling.

‘I wish I could go out there, without fear,’ Grace says.

‘Historically, seventy years isn’t very long,’ Sosuke mumbles. ‘But between now, and 2005…it’s the difference between being able to walk around New York with you, without fear.’

‘I’ll come back here,’ she says, sitting up. ‘I will.’

He starts to speak, then hesitates.

‘What?’ she asks. He turns away, arm folded under his head like he’s trying to sleep.

She barely hears it: ‘Can I come with you…?’

Grace laughs. She likes him. She’d like to see how the world could mould him – what soul lies strong underneath the fear and self-hate.

She is going to say yes.

Two people burst into the room. They jump.

‘WAIT waitwaitwaitwait, listen to me!’ the girl says, in English, pointing at Grace. ‘We need your help. You’re from the future, we know you are. We know you used the necklace to travel here. Well, we’re from the future too, and John just took the necklace from this timeline – we need to find him!’

Grace pauses, struggling to understand the girl, hand in pocket but fingers not yet clutching the spokewheel.

‘What do you mean?’ Grace says. ‘What future?’

‘We were brought here from 2007. We need to find John, if you know him – he had that necklace, once.’

Sosuke still looks alarmed. Grace quickly translates. 1996 and 2005 look at each other, then to 2007.

‘John is in 2008,’ she says, slowly. ‘We have been working with him in Switzerland.’

Tessa clasps her hands in front of her. A prayer, a plead.

‘You have to take us to him. He’s lost it – we don’t know what he’s going to do – and we need to – to – to make things right. We were too late here – you’re our only chance!’

‘We need to go home,’ the man says, behind her. ‘It’s too late, Tess. We blew it.’

‘No way,’ Tessa says. ‘I made a promise. I won’t give up until it’s all fucking over!’ She turns back to Grace. Tears in her eyes. ‘Please. I’m begging you.’

Do worthwhile work, her mother always said. The right thing in God’s eyes.

‘Of course we will take you,’ Grace says.

Sosuke senses her agreement and begins to object. Grace takes the spokewheel out of her pocket and holds it in front of her.

The girl puts her arm around Grace’s shoulders as she grips her hand.

‘Thank you,’ she says.

The man adds his hand. Sosuke, panicked, clasps onto the pile with both hands.

Grace closes her eyes. So much for coming back to new New York. She knows their jaunt is over. The necklace is no longer hers.

CERN, September 8th, 2008…CERN, September 8th, 2008…

~~~

September 8th, 2008

CERN Headquarters, Geneva

‘Ah,’ John says, as Onyeka points the gun at him. The door bangs shut behind him. Sholeh cries out in Iranian – easy to ignore.

‘Now,’ Onyeka says, supporting the grip with her left hand, as her father told her to do. ‘You will answer my questions.’

John puts his hands up, but he smirks.

‘So if I say “shoot”, which are you gonna do?’

Onyeka gives him a withering look, unable to believe his nonchalance.

‘The chamber for the Hadron Collider,’ she starts. ‘Who is going to stand in there?’

‘Who d’you think?’ he replies, still smirking.

Her calm breaks.

‘Do not play funny with me! Do you intend to kill one of us? Or are you going to put yourself in there, as she says?’ She nods to Sholeh, who is tense and wide-eyed, like a cat ready to spring.

John says, softly: ‘If I’d wanted to kill any of you, I’d have done it long ago.’

‘So you intend to kill yourself, and leave us stranded here?’

‘You won’t be stranded,’ he says, equally soft.

A chill runs through her arms.

‘What are you?’ she asks. ‘You can do so many things…you learn without trying…you break all rules. What are you, and what are trying to do with the collider?’

John opens his mouth, then turns to Sholeh:

‘Sholeh, can you understand this?’

.

The air warps and turns around his voice. An echo behind each word. Speaking twice.

Onyeka grips the pistol even tighter in her hands.

Sholeh starts. The words bubble out clearer. Again, she understands. He has translated without meaning to, again.

‘Yes,’ she replies. ‘I can.’

John gives her a wan smile, then turns back to Onyeka.

‘I guess no way to put it off. Might as well say.’

Onyeka’s hands are trembling.

I’m a magnet,’ he says. ‘That’s what someone told me, a while ago. I draw everything to myself. And it seems it’s only getting stronger, and stronger. It doesn’t help anyone. It only hurts. So I…’

He hesitates, and looks again at Sholeh, as if the sight of her bolsters him. A light of madness, of desperation, dances in his eyes. Caught and cornered, she sees something in him pleading with her, begging her to help.

‘I stole the way the travel through time, looking for a way to make things right. But she was right. There was no way.’

He looks at the floor, turning back to face the barrel.

‘And all over time, I saw…I saw the same things, over and over. Endless suffering. Just, oceans and oceans of meaningless death and cruelty – if not in one place, then the next. Never ending. And I thought, I’d just like to sleep. If I can’t make it right, then let me sleep, let it go. But I couldn’t sleep with the memory of Sam’s – of Sam dead, Bert dead, Alice screamin’ at me…and I thought…’

Eyes turn to the ceiling, to sky, to God.

‘If you take a huge map, and you fold it together, the places that are far away from each other come together, sit against each other. And I wondered, maybe if I folded the world up right, the different ends would meet together again, and I’d see my family again and I’d see Sam again. And if it didn’t work, then at least we’d get nothing, be nothing – and there’s no pain when you’re nothing.’

He laughs.

‘And if anything, at least I wouldn’t be here anymore.’

‘How dare you,’ Sholeh says.

She can barely see John and Onyeka’s surprise behind her rage.

‘How dare you?’ she repeats. ‘You know you have done wrong – you see the suffering in the world – and you drown in self-pity? You look to hurt others because of your own pain? You – you see evil, and you bend beneath it? No – how dare you! How dare you give up!’

Her own words shudder into her, through her, lighting memories of Persepolis and Tehran and her mother and every pixel of information she has learned in the past ten days. Still, she screams it through her again: How Dare You Give Up?!

Onyeka takes a step closer. John is struck, eyes only for Sholeh. His weakness is spluttering, guttering, become unstable. She sees fight – then despair – then hate – then further despair, echoing and spiralling down, down, down.

‘You are going to give us the necklace,’ Onyeka says, voice firm. ‘When Grace and Sosuke arrive, we will all go back to our homes, one person at a time. Then you will return to your own time, and give the necklace back to its rightful owner.’

John laughs.

He laughs, and they do not know why. He puts his hand to his face, and chuckles, as if he has only now realised something essential.

‘What was it she said?’ he says, voice suddenly choked. ‘I remember now. “Again, again. I’ve done nothing. I’ve changed nothing.” I remember now.’

The gun jolts out of Onyeka’s hand. Suspended in air, the safety flicks off.

How dare you! Sholeh thinks again.

Onyeka fumbles forward, grasping for the gun. It it too late.

Sholeh slams her hands against John, pushing him aside.

Pain rips through her shoulder.

THUD.

Grace, Sosuke, and two other people thump to the floor.

Sholeh falls against the door, and slides down.

She grips her pulsing blood, and through her terror, she smiles in satisfaction.

.

How many times can a world end?

Sholeh is bleeding just like Bert did, almost unconcerned about it, just like he was.

And Tessa and George are standing in 2008.

‘You-!’ he cries.

George sways at the blood, the volume of people, the cacophony of feelings. He leans on Tessa, whispering ‘Shit, shit, shit, shit…’

‘Nnwanne,’ Grace cries. ‘What happened?’

‘You stupid, stupid motherfuckers,’ John says, seeing the jacket that Grace is wearing, his sight telling him the sense of it all. Spiralling down to that day again. How many times can a world end?

‘It was an accident,’ Onyeka says. She crouches beside Sholeh, pressing her cardigan into the blood. ‘An accident.’

Sholeh smiles.

‘John,’ Tessa says, hands out like he’s a growling dog, ‘John, we need to go back. Come back with us, and we’ll give the necklace to Alice –’

All for nothing, she screams. Sam’s brains blow across the club floor.

George’s head snaps up.

‘I’m never going back there!’ John shouts.

He lifts the gun into the air again – but George is already on top of it, muscles stronger than John’s mind. No – no – John pulls again. The gun jerks in George’s hand. Once strong push, and on the trigger – George pulls the opposite way. He spins. The gun fires.

Grace drops. The spokewheel necklace tinkles out of her palm.

Draw everything to you except bullets, it seems.

Inside John’s head there is nothing but screams.

How many times can a world end?

How many times can a mind break?

No. It can’t be. It must stop, sometime.

Onyeka wails.

Sosuke falls to his knees.

No more. No more.

John leaps for the necklace. Tessa snatches it first, grabs George’s arm.

No.

John leaps on them both: Tessa’s hair gripped in one hand, George’s neck in the other.

White rush.

~~~

Nassau, 2004

John prises Tessa’s fingers open.

~~~

Sydney, 2000

She digs her fingernail into his palm and wrestles it back.

~~~

Bath, 2007

George is hyperventilating. His back slams against his old Johnny Marr and Dylan Moran posters. John steps on his DVD cases and breaks one.

In a year’s time, I killed a girl.

John growls from the pit of his throat as he takes the necklace out of Tessa’s hand. She grabs onto his ears, one in each hand.

George hooks his arms around his girlfriend’s waist. He will not be left here without her. Not ever.

~~~

Rome, 1808

Enough screaming. George jerks the necklace chain and the medallion comes into his hand.

‘Yes!’ Tessa shouts, clasping her hand over his.

George grabs John by the shirt.

Her eyes are shining. He doesn’t want to go back. But she’s right. It’s the only way to set things straight.

~~~

February 28th, 1931

Pinwheel Club, New York

‘Alice!’ Tessa shouts, taking the necklace from George’s limp hand.

The smell of blood. Alice’s despair, and the chaos that is John. Sam is dead.

‘No – not here! Anywhere but here!’

Alice springs from the floor and reaches for the necklace. John roars. Her fingers clasp around the chain. Near miss. John is touching the medallion.

~~~

Santiago, 1953

Three against one.

Neither George nor Tessa knows where they are going. Or who is touching the medallion now.

~~~

?????

They land behind a stage curtain. The place smells of beeswax and alcohol.

I know this smell, Tessa thinks. I swear, this is familiar. This day is familiar.

John pushes off the group, but Alice holds tight onto him. They spin away, and stumbling down the steps of the stage. Tessa and George run after them.

John freezes.

Tessa’s chest constricts until she can hardly breathe.

The air warps and swirls around them.

.

Before them is a small table. At that table sits Bertram, Sam…and John.

It is January 28th, 1931.

.

John stares at himself.

He looks back.

The colours of the world run, high-pitched ringing, gravity tilting.

A noise of animal terror rips out of his throat.

.

The world is ending, the world is ending.

Alice refuses to let it be.

I want to never exist.

Rescue, escape, gibbet. Something.

She grabs his hand.

They disappear.

Leaving Tessa and George behind.

.

The air settles. Ringing stops. The ground is stable.

John of January, 1931 suddenly breathes again. He panics.

‘The hell was that?’

Bertram and Sam are speechless.

‘No way,’ John says. ‘No way. I’m out’

He scrapes his chair as he rises from his seat, and he tries not to look at Tessa and George, still standing there.

The door to the club bangs shut.

I’m over at the bar, Tessa thinks. Right now.

‘What do we do?’ she whispers. ‘We’re stranded.’

George looks at his hands in reply. And laughs humourlessly. He brings them up to his face.

His fingers are fading away.

Tessa looks down.

Her feet are disappearing, like sand washed away at the beach.

‘No!’ she cries. ‘No! How –’

‘John sees himself,’ George says. He is back to normal: quiet, calm. ‘He leaves and never works for Bertram. The gang never comes to the club. Sam and Bertram live. John never takes the necklace. He never goes to the future. He never meets Alice there. She never asks us to stop him.’

‘No,’ Tessa says. ‘No – fuck! – no, that can’t – we’re dying!’ She looks again at her rapidly fading limbs. ‘We’re dying!’

‘We’re not dying,’ George says. ‘We’ll just…have never existed, in this timeline. Back in 2007, everything will be fine.’

‘No, no, that’s not fair,’ Tessa sobs. George pulls her close. They are floating in mid-air, now, torsos suspended without legs to stand on. ‘We got married! What about Paradise Island? What about Wicked? It’s not fair! It’s not fair!’

She sobs into his chest as the last of their arms disappear.

‘It’s alright,’ he says. He closes his eyes for absolution. Grace doesn’t die. Sam doesn’t die. He prays that, in 2007, he will appreciate everything he has.

‘It’s alright, Tessa.’

They are gone.

.

Sam and Bertram stare at the place where, moments before, two strangers disappeared into mist.

A clatter of heels.

Alice turns the corner.

‘I thought I heard crying –’

She stops. Sees Sam is at the table.

Sam takes her in.

He laughs.

He guffaws like this is the best joke he’s heard in a long time.

Bert puts his head in his hands, and Alice turns and runs, and Sam laughs and laughs and takes off his eyepatch and throws it onto the table, and he leans back in his chair and laughs and laughs as his eyelids open and white mist tendrils snake out and dissipate and he laughs and laughs as his useless, useless sight clouds up in the air before him.

~~~

March 13th, 1602

Bitton, England

John is raving insanity when she leaves him in the woods. Maybe the villagers or wolves will find him before he disappears. She doesn’t care which. The world spins tight and her hands are fading, and she has something she needs to do.

~~~

June 1st, 1930

Fort Greene, New York

Alice puts her hand on the doorknob to leave.

A crash in the kitchen makes her jump.

She walks through, tense, ready to flee.

Someone is curled up on the kitchen floor. Alice feels sick to her stomach at the sight of them, but she approaches nevertheless.

They leap up, and icy stub-fingers grab her arm.

Eyes.

Her own.

In one soul-curdling flash she sees death, the future, madness, and everything she was intending to do coming to naught.

Then it is gone. There is no-one on the kitchen floor but herself.

She would think it was a hallucination. But the frozen touch is still on her skin, and when she asks her sight for guidance it tells her:

It was all the truth.

Written by G.J.

23/10/2014 at 12:58 pm

Savage Writing: Fairest

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The topic for this week was “twisted fairy tales”.
___

My first wrinkles have come. They sit on my lower lids, creasing deeper when I smile (and this is why I try to not smile). Fledgeling crow’s feet. I’d cut them out with a knife if I could, and he knows that. That is why he gave me the mirror.

‘It will always see you as I do,’ he said, the day he pulled down the curtain. ‘The most beautiful woman in the world.’

When I laugh, my cheeks crease. I cannot blame it on dimples any longer. If I raise my eyebrows I make furrows like the fields in autumn. Of course I am still young, he says. Still young enough, still beautiful enough. But each month fades in, and out, and my thighs clot with blood, and when he hears his eyes shade, and I can see his thoughts written in each dignified line of his forehead, cheek, eyes. “Of all the beautiful girls, I had to take the empty one. Should have known her beauty would come with a cost.”

If I lose my beauty now, will nature return life to my organs? Lose one part womanliness, gain the fundamental?

If I lose my beauty now, how long will he stand me by his side?

.

My day contains rituals of rigour far beyond yearly fasting and occasional penance. Sleep well, is the first. A morning bath – scented, but not too strong. He likes rosewater, I prefer lavender. Wash face with boiled nettles, then douse with milk. Almond oil to my treacherous eyelids. Pinch cheeks to give colour. Brush golden hair a dozen, a hundred times, and pray that today my curls and waves will sit in a beautiful manner instead of a windswept one. If they refuse, bend them and pin them. Tight undergarments. Bust raised. Only the best silken cloths for the queen. Eat little. Pray loudly every day for his health. Pray secretly but screaming in my mind: keep me beautiful. Give me a child. Dearest Lord, keep me beautiful. Don’t render my daily trouble worthless. Don’t take away the only strength I have.

.

I remember that day with the same clarity I remember every wound. I requested that no party be made, no ball thrown, but still he made an occasion of it. Poisoned words tossed carelessly from his lips: twenty-five! Twenty-five! I cringed under each onslaught. Every scene before my eyes was filled with ladies of twenty, eighteen, fifteen, smiling and congratulating me, praising my beauty and the virtue that must have spawned it. I gripped the handle of my dinner knife until I shook, wishing I could kill them all. Wishing I could stop the appreciative eyes of the lords dancing over their short heights and tiny frames, naïve smiles and innocent words. Beautiful ignorant daisies, soft and helpless as kittens in your hands.

The older ladies understood. They gossiped of those who stepped too close to scandal, and planned the next move of courtly chess, using the sprightly baubles currently flirting in the hall. They whispered of my barrenness in corners.

Twenty-five. I considered slitting my own throat. I am half-crone already. Age is poisoning me.

.

The princess gave me a bracelet of rubies that year. She was still girl enough to be harmless then. But everyone who saw her spoke of her growth, and how pretty she was becoming. Once upon a time, they said such things to me. But I was never blessed by birth. I had pimples and unsightly weight at that age. I grew into beauty and I clutch it with every finger taut. For her, it is as much a part of her as her soul. As birds must fly, so she must be beautiful, without any intention or effort, so at every age she has expelled constant, constant fairness. Not of colour – her raven hair never curls – but in everything else.

The mirror speaks otherwise. My husband said it reflects the truth. It tells me I am the fairest. But once it is silent, I again see my wrinkles. Twenty-five was years ago. Still each month I bleed like clockwork. His own routine is to visit my bed: perfunctory. Joyless. Hopeless. My soul shrinks with every passing morning as time strips me away. It gives to her: a glowing dawn, a bursting frame, flawless milk-white skin.

.

Her birthday is in winter.

The mirror speaks that morning, as if it has only been waiting for the turn of the year to speak the truth, only waiting for the calendar to agree to her womanhood:

She is the fairest of them all.

I hit my fist against the pane. It stands firm. I am the weaker. Fragile bone, helpless crone.

She. She. She.

Ten years I have had to prepare for this blow. Still it guts me, hollows me. Empties me.

.

His majesty no longer visits me at night. He rarely asks how I am; he turns from me when we sit beside one another. He smiles when he looks upon his daughter, as does the court, as does the world. I am invisible. Hollow queen. Useless woman. A thousand upstarts have taken my place, pasted with cannibalised ordure remnants of what age slices from me – and she, she is the queen of them all, goddess and angels, fairest, fairest, fairest.

I wither with the year. I shrivel with the plants. My wrinkles deepen with the dark nights. Black words call to me, circle me, enchant me. Worthless old woman. Barren old hag. She was blessed from birth. How could you and your mortality compete?

One frosted night my emptiness breaks. A voice screams at the mirror:

Blessed from birth? Let’s see if she is as blessed in death!

Summer needs winter and dawn needs dusk and her raven locks will see my golden curls twine around her throat and squeeze every drop of blood from her lips until her skin is the paleness of bone. Blood and bone and the black of the grave – that shall be your blessing, fairest!

.

In spring I am reborn. No words or actions or lack of them can harm me, for I have made a revenge against time itself and the grief they will feel shall comfort my own.

She is radiant; I am husk. She is maiden; I am crone.

I see my huntsman on his horse.

She is dead.

I am alive.

Written by G.J.

15/10/2014 at 11:44 pm

Turtle Soul (poetry is always indulgence)

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Turtle soul,

Hedgehog soul,

Skunk.

Touch you and you become a fortress,

Reach for you and the spikes come out.

Sprays the bile all over

Stinking hot and wet.

_

Pound the metal, pound it hard.

Pound every weakness and impurity away.

Snap.

Bad panel.

Too weak.

Chuck aside.

Pound. Pound. Pound.

_

Rain lashes at the window,

water wears away stone over time.

‘That’s just the way the world is.

Nothing is going to be handed to you on a platter.

Grow up.

You’re no special snowflake.

You are not special at all.’

_

Kick a dog enough times and it turns.

That’s the sort of thing child-abused serial killers say.

Kick a dog enough times.

Woof, woof.

No responsibility for me, thanks. I’m an animal.

_

You are better than that, they say.

You are better than that.

You are better than this.

If I was better than this, I wouldn’t be here.

_

Pound, pound, pound.

Be realistic.

Pound, pound, pound.

Cliff to arch to stack.

Be realistic.

_

If you really wanted it, you’d work harder.

If you were really smart, you’d have followed a plan.

If you were really better than this, you wouldn’t be here.

_

Just look at you.

_

Strips away like layers of muslin on a mummy.

Hammered away until glowing-hot core is left.

Voice is acid that burns all but the bones.

You are nothing, nothing,

nothing but bones.

Worthless bones.

_

If I was meant to be better, I’d have done better by now

(says the skeleton, jaw clacking).

If I was any good, I’d know it, wouldn’t I?

Can’t trust people. They’re blind and liars and fools.

But I’d know if I was worth it, wouldn’t I?

_

First goes trust in others.

Their opinions are so slow and weak compared to that voice.

Kindness is burned away,

first to self,

then – withering after, drip by drip over time –

to the rest of humankind.

_

You’re right, you agree with the vicious, why should we care?

These people brought it on themselves.

The delusions, the fear, the insecurities.

The weakness.

Ha! Ha! Look at their weaknesses!

Laugh at them. Laugh at them. They should know better.

This is just how the world works.

Be fucking realistic.

_

(Just look at you, screams the voice inside.

You are them. You are weak.

The weakest).

_

Over the throbbing pulsing exposed kitten-soft core

Come scabs, and callouses.

Hard as shoeless feet, leathered, impervious.

What was once a child’s crying heart.

_

A turtle soul.

Knows better than to let anything touch it.

A hedgehog soul.

Barbs ready, up in defence.

A skunk.

Knows its best to hurt first. Hurt strongest. Leave a mark.

Do something, fucking do something.

This is just the way the world works.

You keep swimming or you die, you keep swimming or you drown.

The weakest are taken down first.

The old, the sick, the young.

From animal’s first impulse: do not be weak, do not be weak,

hide your soul or you will die.

They will reject you and abandon you and you will starve alone and die.

To fibre optic and LCD and sickness vaccines, and still,

you will die if you are weak.

The group laughs at you, you’re dead.

Must do as we say, must do as we want, must follow the rules we laid out.

(We just want what’s best for you, that’s all)

But be realistic.

Be realistic.

You are not special.

This is the best you can hope for.

And if you were meant to be any better, that was a lie.

You believed you were going to be better? What are you, conceited?

The weak only live by latching on to the strong.

How fortunate that we pity you.

(Must be good for something at least,

parasite,

flea).

_

I mean, just look at you.

_

Fine, comes the voice.

Echoing through the empty chambers of brown-green-black caverns.

From deep within the shell, comes the voice:

_

Fine.

I accept it.

I’ll play by your rules.

I am nothing.

You are nothing.

This world is nothing.

We are animals scrambling to the top of a pile and destroying each other and the ground we stand on. There is only so much earth, and material, and air to use. The weak get eaten. Stop swimming and you die. So shut the fuck up and get on with things and don’t you dare complain about what some sad soft-shitted adult or two said about your potential lifetimes ago, don’t you dare remember that people believed in you – they were fools, right? All fools. Be fucking realistic. The world is not going to hand anything to you, you entitled piece of shit.

I mean, really…

Just look at me.

Just…look at me.

If I was meant for anything better, I wouldn’t be here, would I?

If the world feels cruel, it’s only because I’ve been too soft for it.

Ungrateful piece of trash.

_

So says the voice,

of the turtle soul,

the hedgehog soul,

the skunk.

Pound, pound, pound.

Hammered out.

Never be so weak again.

The doors are shut.

The room is sealed.

No-one can hear the scream inside this head.

Nothing is unfair.

All is as it should be.

Pound, pound, pound.

No vocal fold to vibrate, no words to filter through the brain.

Only a vague sense of sound filling up the subconscious,

animal wail.

_

Turtle soul,

Hedgehog soul.

Skunk.

Done.

Written by G.J.

02/10/2014 at 12:50 am

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