Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Archive for the ‘Stanger Tales’ Category

Enemy Classes (Stranger Tales No. 5)

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When I was newly-wed, my soul-brother Agnin came home to my wife one night and pretended to be me. She laughed him away, saying that she knew well enough how to tell between us. Two days later, her cousin came to visit. When I came home from the tavern that night, I saw what I thought was my wife in my home, and I kissed her neck as I always do, when my Elspa walked in from the pantry and saw me. Never lived that down, not being able to tell my own wife apart from her kin, when she so easily saw through mine. But we learn to live with these japes and mistakes, and we learn to have better eyes, even when drunk.

In any city, in any country, across both the continents, you will always find a face like mine. Men with my square jaw, proud nose, broad warrior’s physique – men cut from the same cloth as I. They say the gods grew tired, when making the host of man. For the kings and lords and ladies, they carved smooth faces of beauty and character, and gave them clothes of intricate patterns and hair all colours of the rainbow. When they came to make the common folk, they said twelve faces was enough. So from the start, there came the two types of people: the rulers, and followers. The commanders, and the killers.

When Elspa gave birth to our son, she stared into his face and said, blue eyes bright, ‘He’s a warrior like his father!’ And though it took a few years for Brodin’s features to grow closer to mine, soon it was unmistakeable: my son, my face, my path. I didn’t understand my reluctance to smile on him, or the sadness which came over me when he took my axe in hand, and said ‘One day, I’ll wield this in battle just like you, papa!’

Agnin, though, he understood. When the King ordered us across the sea, we met at the tavern and, sunk into our tankards, he said he was afraid.

‘They want Tara to come as well,’ he said. ‘Both of us, across the sea. She wants to fight with the Valkyries again, and she won’t hear me when I say how dangerous it is. She doesn’t know it’s different fighting lordlings and high-soldiers. They never miss. They use magic to heal every gash we give ’em. They say this prince has never left an enemy soldier alive, and gods, they say his archers strike down Valkyries like flies. His tactician is a heartless monster with an all-seeing eye, they say.’

Deep in my drink, I asked him if he thought we would ever get out of fighting.

‘The gods made us warriors,’ he said. ‘We cannot rail against our lot.’

I want to rail, though. When we are set on opposing armies, it is like killing my reflection, and my wife’s, and my mage cousin’s, and every other acquaintance I’ve known. You learn differences of expression, posture, freckles, eyes shade, how they wear the same clothes and hair, so by the time you’re ten you can tell each of your friends apart – but you still, when you face an enemy of the same kind as your friend, you think there is a moment of recognition before you slam your axe into their skull. I know what it would look like to see my wife gurgle blood from a cut throat. I know what it would look like to see her fried to death. I know what it will look like if I, or Agnin, or my son are ever cut down. That is horror. That is my lot.

But when we were sent across the sea, we knew we were not to fight our own kind. We knew we were to fight the prince’s army. We knew that if we ever faced him, we would not live.

I kissed Elspa goodbye. I held Brodin tight, and told him I would be a proud warrior. We travelled across the sea, and we set upon unknown land, filled with enemies who look like us. A man with a distinctive face ordered us to stand, and fight, for the glory of the superior kind, for this petty battle between those with rich cloth and unique features. I did not rail, for it is my lot to die for their squabble.

Today, we stand, Agnin and I, at the mountain pass, with our brothers and sisters-in-arms. Ten faces to cover the lot of us. Cavalry twins talk of horses together, thin-bearded mages make sparks at each other across the crowd, young and stern swordsmen adjust their greaves in unison.

The commander shouts. They are here.

I see them at the foot of the slope, and gods help me, I gasp, for I have never seen such variety, never seen so many high-bloods in one place. Red hair, blue hair, yellow hair and brown. Robes of black, of silver, and amour painted navy and copper. Some are astride brown horses, some black, while their Valkyries ride white pegasi. If I begged and pleaded all my life, if I won all my battles single-handed, I would still never be deigned with a look of attention from any man or woman of them.

‘That is the favour of the gods,’ Agnin says. He sounds like he is about to cry. ‘They will never lose, even if we kill half of them.’

The horns blast. The Valkyries ride ahead, Tara among them. We charge.

The pegasi are dead by the time the prince’s first wave reaches us.

The prince, handsome beyond reckoning, comes upon us, cloak billowing behind him. He walks as if his determination alone will win him this battle.

Behind him, in a hooded robe, walks the tactician. Her eyes glow red under the shadow of her cowl. All-seeing eyes.

Agnin screams, for Tara’s body is somewhere he can’t see, and there is nothing else he can do. His axe makes barely a scratch on the prince’s armour. One cut with the sword, an Agnin has fallen to his knees. Another swing, and his head is on the grass.

I have seen this, many times before, but it has not prepared me for the pain I feel.

My duty is the tactician. She looks at me with those glowing eyes, and I see no empathy. Only calculation. I am a hillock on her road, and – she thinks – I see she thinks – there are a million more like me.

She raises her hand and flames burst from her palm.

It is my lot.

I heard a tale, once. From a wizened old man, cracked over the years. He told me that the gods, were the lordlings to ever lose, would remake the world once more, and try again, and again, until they succeeded.

I wish I had been born with the gods’ favour.

I drop my axe, and I face the tactician as proudly as my shaking body will let me.

‘Go on,’ I say.

Her moment of confusion is my triumph, before her flames engulf me.

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Written by G.J.

13/03/2014 at 9:21 pm

Finger Slipped (Stranger Tales No. 4)

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Dear God, or whoever you are, she prays. Don’t let me die this time.

She’s lost count of her attempts to get through this. Still, when she blinks back to consciousness and finds herself once again standing at the stop of the hill, she prays that this time, she will get to the bottom alive.

No time to think. She’s running forward before her brain has registered the crash behind her. Debris flies on either side of her: twisted panels of metal, planks of wood, boulders. Nothing hits her, and she’s grateful for that at least. Her muscles are aching and her breath is ragged already. She never comes back fully rested – that’s the cruellest thing. Always as wounded and tired as she had been the first time the plane crashed behind her. That feels like months ago.

Her abdomen pangs from where she was stabbed earlier. There’s been no time to heal, no chance for the muscles to knit together, and it is a constant and literal pain in her side. Still, she runs, because she has to – because the plane is crashing behind her, and because it’s not her will behind her legs any more. Her soles hurt when they slap the ground, stamping on stone and sand and wood. Each new surface threatens to throw her off-balance, but she never once trips. Not unless she is made to.

It’s been only a few days since she felt the other will imposed onto her, like a woollen blanket that sank into her blood. She spends hours jogging from unfamiliar place to dangerous hole, running when she’s not jogging, shooting for her life any time she stands still. She is certain she must be living in a nightmare. When she is finally allowed a minute of rest, she cannot cry because it is too much effort. But she would only wipe dirt into her eyes, anyway. Never been so filthy in her life. She worries about the long term – worries about all the dirt getting in her cuts and injuries, worries about the scars she will have, worries that when she finally gets home, she will be feral and unrecognisable. She is made to run, regardless.

A slip – but it is meant to be. Something smacks into her back and she tumbles over her head, same as every other time. It never stops being terrifying. She thuds onto her back and now she’s sliding. She blinks, closes her eyes, screams every time a pile of splintered wood or boulder or bush rushes towards her, but always she skids out of the way. It is like being on a rollercoaster in her own body: one track, high speed, someone else pulling her out of danger in the nick of time.

This is it: she comes to the platform at the edge of the ravine. Her arm jerks out and grabs onto the wooden ledge, and she swings down, shoulder nearly pulling out of its socket. The rest of the wreckage flies over her head, and then she is made to clamber up. Her tailbone is aching. Her fingers have splinters in them.

So far, so normal.

Next part.

She turns and jumps to the wooden ledge beside her. Half-destroyed shacks, hanging off the side of the ravine. What kind of idiot would build one, let alone ten, she thinks for the fortieth time.

More jogging. She sees the series of shacks waiting in a line in front of her. This, again.

I want to go home.

Instead, she turns and sees the jump. Planks of wood jutting over the cliff, a four foot leap to the next ledge, and a fifty foot drop underneath. The panic will begin again. She is not ready for it, but she has no say in the matter.

She takes a running jump, though every part of her body wishes she wouldn’t.

CRASH. The shacks start to fall apart, wooden walls tumbling like card pyramids at her presence. Ceiling caves in. Floor tilts underneath. She runs, and jumps to the next. The falling rocks won’t hit her, she knows, but still she flinches as she runs underneath them. Run, squeeze the energy from your thighs, leap, feel the judder in your shins as you land and the planks quiver underneath you, run before you can sense the pain, run before the floor gives out.

It is coming now. Sick dread fills her mouth.

Another jutting plank, a leap that is too far to be jumped. A scroll, a banner, something hangs from nowhere in the middle of the space between her and her destination. It’s a swing bar, and that’s what matters. But the next shack is positioned slightly to the right instead of dead on, and the empty doorway ahead of her is narrow, and this is the part that always goes wrong.

Wait, her mind screams, wait, wait, let me direct myself, let me aim, let me do something about this, please.

No waiting permitted. She launches herself off the plank, hands stretching for the bottom of the banner. Her shoulders jolt as her weight lands, she swings, legs ahead of her – she can see the ledge in front of her – Straight, straight, let go, that’s it

Instead, her legs jerk to the right.

Again.

Her fingers release the banner, though she prays that just once they will hold on.

She flies to the right of the doorway. Her shins collide with the fragile wooden beams that support this ridiculous shack in its ludicrous place on the cliff. She screams as she feels them break – beam and shins.

Then, she is falling, part of the debris. She tumbles into the foggy nothingness beneath. Once the fog clears, the ground rushes to meet her like an old friend. Snap. Overwhelming, excruciating, fiery agony –

A few seconds of blissful rest.

She blinks and she is at the top of the hill again.

There is a crash behind her.

Please, she begs as she starts to run. Please. Not this time. Not this time. Please…please…

Written by G.J.

15/01/2014 at 4:14 pm

NPC (Stranger Tales No. 3)

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Five rows of metal corridors, a scalding shower and haircut before they opened up the prison to her. She wore a pastel skirt-and-cardigan combo that was the “base” for young, white women.

‘All the prisoners are made to look like the same few models,’ the lady who cut her hair had said. ‘The possessed doesn’t like variety.’

She barely recognised herself in the mirror, with the dyed mousey hair, and the plain bob cut. In normal prisons, and in other countries, you had to wear a jumpsuit. Didn’t matter if you had been caught smoking pot or killed dozens of people, whether you were black or white or young or old: you all had the same suit, and from that base uniform you could wear it how you wanted. It felt more erosive to her individuality to be forced into such a specific style. But then, this prison was meant to be erosive to everything.

Martin, the official who had been in charge of her since her sentencing, took her along the last corridor, which rose from underground to street level.

‘We’re going to come out a street away from your route, near the east side. I’ll show you your quarters and how to get into them, and take you once around your route. From tomorrow, you’ll be on your own as you walk.’

Carly’s sentence was walking. Martin had given her a map of the city, with its three sprawling areas and outlying countryside, and on it a few tiny streets were coloured in red: her route. Every day, for the rest of her life, she would walk those same few streets, over and over and over. ‘Unless circumstances change or prevent that,’ Martin had said. By “circumstances”, she knew he meant “grievous injury”.

They came to a huge metal door, with multiple locks and security codes. Martin passed them all deftly before swinging it open. The sunshine and fresh air hit her, and Carly breathed it in gladly. During her trial, she had been trapped in an average prison cell, and to go outside now felt like freedom to her. Of course, that was a mistaken impression. She imagined she’d get sick of outside soon enough.

They stepped out onto the street, and Martin shut the door. It vanished into the brown brick wall of the building, nearly impossible to see with the naked eye. Two metres from it, there was a red wooden door with a shiny brass handle. The subterranean compound ended in a church, of all things.

The street they were on was as lively as expected: walkers passed by, many of them wearing the same uniform as Carly, others dressed as old men, old ladies, business people, casual men, workers. They all glanced at her and Martin as they passed, flicking their eyes the ground uncomfortably, unhappy to see a new arrival joining them in hell.

‘First things first,’ Martin said. ‘All the doors to the high-rises are fake and don’t open. The glass ones have dummy stores behind them. The only doors that do work are those to the fast food joints, bars, and casino. Hidden doors lead to all the living quarters. Come on and I’ll show you yours.’

They crossed the street, and Carly noticed how intently Martin watched the peacable roads. Not a single car moved out of file or at a different speed to the others passing by, but that could all change in an instant. They had considered making her a driver, instead of a walker, but ultimately decided her crime was too great for driving. Drivers at least had seatbelts, and three tons of metal between them and outside. Walkers were much more likely to die, though not the most likely. Drivers, walkers and workers, then hookers, police and gang-members, from least likely to certain doom. The judge had been relatively lenient on her, Martin had said. A more religious man would have made her a hooker for sure.

Down the street, cutting through an alley, and then to another block. Martin stopped in front of a white building with fake clothes stores along its bottom, and looked around for a moment.

‘Here, by this poster,’ he said. Next to a poster of an imaginary action movie, there was a crack in the brick. Martin prised it open with his finger, and underneath was a fingerprint scanner. He scanned his thumb and the door swung inward, leading onto some desolate stairs.

‘If the possessed is nearby, no doors will open,’ Martin explained as they went up. ‘Except those ones that are always open, that I mentioned before. The tag will monitor that you’re sticking to your route, but you are allowed to deviate from the path in order to enter these places. The bars don’t have any alcohol, obviously, and you can’t play for money at the casino. You are not permitted to stay in any of these places for more than two hours.’

Otherwise everyone would stay in there all day, and never complete their routes, Carly thought. They came to the third floor landing, and this time they went through the door instead of ascending further. A corridor with five doors stretched to their left and right. He took her to the leftmost door, and opened it with another fingerprint scan.

It was a bare little room, with a bed and bathroom. A bookcase and some stationery were the only items of note. On one of the walls, there was a metal hatch, the kind used to send meals from the kitchen in multi-level restaurants.

‘There are some reading materials, and stationery for writing home. If you want to send a letter, just place it in the hatch along with your plates. Your breakfast and dinner will be sent at 7am and 6pm every day. Dirty clothes should be placed in one of the laundry bags in your drawer, and onto the second tier of the hatch. Now, let’s go back outside.’

At least it has a window, Carly thought as they left her new home. That was better than the cell she had had. Again, the illusion of freedom was nice, even if the bruise on her arm, from where they had inserted the tag into her skin, reminded her of the truth every time it brushed against her torso.

Her route began right outside her front door. It led down five blocks, along one, then up, then repeating in a snake-like pattern. Five blocks across from the starting point, it turned back on itself, making the same pattern in reverse: down the street, across one, then up or down. She guessed it took about an hour to do the whole thing. Martin said little as they walked together, still looking around, constantly wary of danger, as she should be. How often must he do the walks that people will do until they die, she thought. I wonder what the officials do with gang-members and hookers. I can’t imagine it’s fun.

Finally, they returned to the stretch of wall and poster that were her front door.

‘Your sentence starts as soon as I leave you,’ he said. ‘But you only have to walk the route three more times today, as you’ve just started. The tag will buzz if you go off the route, so you’ll know if you take a wrong turn. If you have any questions, then go into one of the open buildings and ask someone. If there’s one thing that’ll give you comfort, it’s that your fellow convicts are usually very willing to talk.’

She nodded. He turned, and she struggled with the urge to plead with him, beg him to take her back into the compound, beg him not to abandon her here.

‘I didn’t do it,’ she blurted out. He gave her a sad smile.

‘I’m not the judge, so I can’t make that call,’ he said. ‘But you never know. Luck might be in your favour. There are people who’ve been in here for years and never been hurt by the possessed. You might be one of them. If the ruling’s appealed and overturned in that time, you might just be one of the few who gets out.’

‘Hurt by him? You mean everyone meets him?’

‘Oh yes,’ Martin said, with a callous laugh. ‘Yes, everyone sees the possessed. It wouldn’t be much of a punishment if we couldn’t guarantee that, would it? Well, good luck.’

With that, he walked away. She stood by the wall, staring around at the street, terrified by the worn faces of everyone who passed by. She knew she should start walking, but the idea of starting on the track that would be the rest of her life seemed hideous.

‘Beginner’s fright, huh?’ said an old man as he walked by, with a kind smile. ‘Might as well get it over with, honey. It’ll only feel worse if you put it off.’

‘Come on,’ said a businesswoman a little behind him, ‘it’s just one foot in front of the other.’

Carly inhaled and stepped out onto the street.

It was like walking down a normal street in a normal city, at first. Group of people walked together, chatting. Those walking past her avoided her gaze, like regular urbanites. The lack of variety began to grate on her after a few minutes, though. She passed five women in her same uniform by the first turn in her route. Different faces, different heights and builds, all squeezed into the same look, until they all began to look indistinguishable to her.

The worst part, though, the part that no-one could have known merely from watching the crowds on the street, was the tension hanging thick in the air. Even the people who grouped up and seemed to be having fun had terse smiles and brittle laughter. It was like a smog that lay over everyone’s shoulders, a blanket that every person carried in part.

She saw interference after a little while. One businesswoman was walking very slowly, hobbling in her high heels, so she took them off and carried them in her hands. Within a few minutes, a door opened from a wall next to her and a suited person jumped out, grabbed her arm, and uttered a few words to her. The businesswoman complained and pleaded, but the suit merely passed her shoes back to her, and handed her what looked like a white slip. As Carly overtook her, she saw the businesswoman opening the slip and placing the blister packs on the back of her heels, before stepping back into her shoes with a tearful grimace. Carly felt grateful for her sandals, even if her toes were cold and grit was starting to collect between them.

An hour later, the walk was complete. Only twice more today, and then forever more until she died. She stood on the street in front of her front door, and looked down at her feet, and skirt, and shaking hands, and she began to sob.

‘Cheer up, girl,’ an old man said as he passed by. It was the same old man who had first cheered her on, now on his next circuit. ‘It could be worse. You’re still alive, and we’re all here to help. Want to walk and talk?’

You’re all murderers and worse, Carly thought. She shook her head, and scrabbled at the wall for the fingerprint scanner. The old man gave her a pitying look, and continued on by.

Once she was in the stairwell, she found she didn’t have the will to go up to her new room and face its hotel-like bleakness. Outside only held more walking, and more prisoners, and eventually the possessed, and doom. She had nowhere to go, and nothing could save her. So she stood by the door, crying into her hands, for who knew how long. Finally, her sobs subsisded, and the will to continue living returned. This was her punishment. This was her fate, and she had to face it head on.

The sunshine was just as bright outside, and the roads just as orderly. The walkers going by gave her small smiles of encouragement. It was nearly lunchtime.

There was a fast-food chicken place off the third turn of her route, and her stomach was rumbling. It was nearly empty, with no queue and only a few people sitting at the tables. She tried to ignore their looks as she walked to the counter.

‘Hey,’ the girl at the til said. She would have been indistinguishable from a fast food worker on the outside of prison, with her brightly coloured cap and polo shirt, but she had the slouching, judgemental attitude of a young, tattooed cynic. She looked like she should be chewing gum.

‘Hey,’ Carly returned, looking at the menus. Bright pictures of fried chicken and salad and drinks, with similarly bright prices. She had no money, of course.

‘Don’t bother looking at those,’ she said. ‘They’re for atmosphere. We’ve got a normal kitchen back there, and a microwaveable version of nearly everything, so just ask for what you want and I’ll tell you if we have it.’

‘I want a sandwich,’ Carly said. ‘Just a ham sandwich. No mayo.’

‘No problem,’ the girl said, before shouting the order back. When she turned back, she gave Carly one of those small, sympathetic smiles that she had been receiving all day. It must be painfully obvious how new she was.

‘I’m Sarah,’ the girl said. ‘You’ll get to know everyone round here within a few days. There’s not exactly a lot of us, so we have a community of sorts.’

Carly nodded, not knowing what to say.

‘So,’ Sarah continued, ‘what are you in for?’

I can’t answer that, Carly thought, but she still felt so raw, so upset at her fate, that she decided to spill it. What was the point in caring anymore?

‘They said I killed my baby, but I didn’t do it. It wasn’t my fault.’

‘Poor girl,’ Sarah said, with raised eyebrows – the small show of sympathy you give to a stranger, when you really don’t care about their problems.

‘You?’ Carly asked.

‘My boyfriend and brother went on a spree,’ she said. ‘Robbing across America. I was their getaway driver. Killed a couple of cash register girls. Judges thought it’d be funny to put me here.’

‘Karmic justice,’ Carly muttered.

‘Myeah. How long does it take to make a fucking ham sandwich around here?’ she shouted back to the kitchen. A man pushed along a plate with a meagre white-breaded sandwich on top, and Sarah picked it up. Carly had to resist the urge to go for her nonexistant purse.

‘Well, see you around, hun,’ Sarah said. Carly picked up the plate and turned away. She had only taken a few steps to the nearest empty table when the door slammed open, frame juddering as it recoiled from the force. A man walked up to the counter without a word.

‘Welcome to Clucky Hut, for all your Clucky needs,’ Sarah squeaked, suddenly standing straight, with a bright smile painted on her face. She fumbled for a button on the counter and a holographic menu appeared in front of the new visitor. The air had thickened in an instant. Everyone in the joint huddled, shoulders hunched, staring straight ahead at their meal – everyone except Sarah, with her plastic, terrified smile, and Carly, struck like a deer in headlights, plate wobbling in her hand.

He looked nearly normal. Average height, close-cut brown hair, stubble. The kind of harsh, handsome features beloved by both male models and criminals, all piercing cheeks and laser eyes. He seemed to stare through the world, as if barely noticing it while he made his way around. Utterly devoid of emotion. She hadn’t thought it would be so easy to tell him apart from everyone else, but a cloud of fear seemed to swarm around him, given off in the way he held himself and every movement of his body. He was the only off-model, non-suited person she had seen in the city.

He extended his hand to one of the options on the menu, and Sarah reached further under the counter, pulling out one of the meals that was displayed in the fake advertisements.

‘Have a Clucky good day, sir!’ she said.

The man opened the packaging – so like home, Carly thought with a pang, yet so fake – and took out the chicken burger he had ordered it. Squeezing it between his dirty fingers, he sank his teeth in, and chewed.

Sarah’s smile wobbled.

He ate.

No-one at their seats had moved, except to look at each other and at Carly, still standing there like a loose hanging thread on a t-shirt. She wanted to sit down, she wanted to eat, but she knew if she moved she might call attention to herself, and then her prison sentence would be very short indeed.

The man finally finished his meal, and pushed the tray away. Sarah made it vanish as quickly as she had made it appear. She allowed her smile to fade, but the man at the counter did not move. He looked around the shop, turning stiffly, and Carly jerked to face the wall as he swept his eyes to her side of the room. Don’t drop the plate, she told herself, just don’t drop the plate…

She peeked back. The man was still looking around. What is he doing, she thought, trying to fathom what was happening behind his eyes.

Without a change in expression, he pulled a gun from his belt, and pointed it at Sarah.

Carly backed into the wall, plate clattering on the ground, automatically raising her hands. The people at the tables cowered, shielding their heads with their hands. And Sarah stepped back, crouched, and held her arms above her head, in a gesture of defeat, a plea for mercy.

The man turned his head and saw Carly, and everyone else buckled down. A ghost of a smile passed over his features, and then he put the gun back in the holster, turned, and left as suddenly as he came.

A collective breath rushed round the room. Carly felt her chest with her hand, felt her heart pounding at her rib wall. So that was the possessed. That was her punishment, bound up in one crazed, murderous man.

Sarah turned away from the til, wiping her eyes with shaking hands. The man from the back came out and comforted her, rubbing her arm. All Carly heard was ‘It’s okay, it’s okay, you’re still alive.’

She picked her plate from the floor, ham sandwich still intact on top. When she took her first bite, it was the most delicious thing she had ever tasted, salty meaty taste spreading over her tongue and soft white mush coating her teeth.

‘Next time,’ said an old lady at the table, ‘get your ass down quickly.’

The man from the kitchen took Sarah’s place at the till. Carly nodded at the admonishment, wondering why she had never realised how amazing food could taste.

#

The next day she wondered if she could just huddle underneath her covers all morning, refusing to look out at her white hole of a room. But come 6.30am, a loud alarm sounded, like it came from the very walls. She tried to curl up and ignore it, but after a minute the tag under her arm buzzed violently and she knew it was no use. Up, five minutes trying to adjust the shower to how she liked it, then into her bland uniform for the day.

Her feet had been especially disgusting to wash this morning, leaving grey and brown streaks all over the shower floor, and the thought of how bad they would get today made her feel sick. Blisters were starting up on her heels and across the bony ridges on top of her feet, where the sandal straps constantly rubbed against her. And she had only done four walks yesterday. She gritted her teeth, gave the sandals a wipe with damp flaking toilet paper, then slipped her feet back into them. Constantly walking in inappropriate footwear was punishment enough. She thought with envy of the old men and workers with their large, comfortable boots. Not fair to punish women in that extra way.

You’ll get used to it, she told herself, as she slipped on the skirt and blouse and cardigan. She had been surprised to see her new hair in the mirror this morning, but she would soon get used to it, and to getting up and doing this every day. Just think of it like a job. Like when she was still working at the supermarket, before she had Ava, and she used to drag herself out of bed and climb into her plastic-feeling uniform in pitch dark before standing on her feet for eight hours, burning her hands on hot rotisserie chicken grease. She got used to that. She would have to get used to walking, and sore feet. And a man pointing his gun at you for his own enjoyment.

Carly shuddered. She missed home.

Before the tears could spring on her again, she forced herself out of the flat. Coming out the doors, she met the businesswoman with sore feet from yesterday, an old lady, and a girl dressed exactly as she was.

‘Morning,’ said the businesswoman, already limping slightly in her heels.

The old lady nodded and went out. Carly and the other girl in the skirt stopped at the door to the stairwell. She felt she should be embarrassed to look so similar to another woman, even though that was the point. This woman had very dark eyebrows and a longer nose than her – she did not suit the mousy look.

‘Go on first,’ she said to Carly. ‘It’s best if we spread out a little on the walk – it looks kind of weird for similar models to go together.’

‘Okay.’

On the stairs, numerous people were clicking and clomping by. All these heinous convicts, talking cheerfully to each other, as if there was no danger outside, as if they were free.

‘How are you finding it?’ the girl asked.

‘…Tiring.’

Again, a small smile for the newcomer.

‘The girl who was in your room before you was here for ten years before anything happened to her,’ she said. ‘They had to change her model and everything. If anyone was tired, it was her. But she used to say that the way she saw it, outside you could be run over or shot or just drop dead from stroke at any second, so here was not much worse, and you don’t have to worry about food or bills or anything like that. I think you last longer if you’re positive like that.’

‘Being positive won’t stop someone shooting you in the face,’ Carly replied.

‘Didn’t stop her being dragged fifty feet by a speeding minivan either,’ the girl said. Her eyes were suddenly shiny with tears. Perhaps it was easy to be open with people in the same sad situation as you. Perhaps it was easy to become very close, and that made it the harder when they were suddenly taken.

‘Go on,’ the girl said. ‘Best to get started.’

Carly was out on the street before she realised that she should have asked the girl what to do about her bad feet. Well, there’d be plenty of time for that. She’d probably learn everyone around here sooner or later. Like a new family.

She recognised people from yesterday’s walks as she passed them, and by the third turn she was feeling strong enough to smile at them. The atmosphere had lessened slightly today. More chatting between groups, more genuine giggles. She walked with the businesswoman at one point, and asked why that was.

‘The possessed came by here yesterday, then ran off to the harbour. That means he probably won’t be back here again today.’

‘That’s good,’ Carly said. She thought about the harbour, and the countryside around the city. Keeping her voice very low, she asked:

‘Has anyone managed to run away from here?’

‘Invisible walls,’ the businesswoman said.

‘What?’

‘Clear plastic walls right round the edges of the fields, and on the sea border. We’re pretty much our own little country here, trapped in like hamsters in a cage. You know, you can get video feeds of what goes on here if you dig deep enough in the web – tapes of people drowning as they try to escape, banging against the walls in the fields, that kind of thing.’

‘I didn’t know they had cameras,’ Carly said, realising how naïve that sounded as soon as she voiced it.

‘When they grabbed my hard-drive they found I’d been looking at them,’ the businesswoman said. ‘Asshole lawyer tried his hardest to get me in here because of that, even though I hadn’t killed anyone. It worked.’

It was good to know there were some non-murderers here, at least – even if it was vastly more injust.

‘At least the public can’t see these things,’ Carly said. She didn’t like the idea of strangers examining her every idiotic move, especially her death.

‘What would be the point? It’s mostly hours and hours of people walking around. Really boring. Even the possessed doesn’t do anything interesting a lot of the time. Just runs about, stealing shit, driving too fast, that kind of thing.’

That man. Who was he? How had he come to be here? What kind of sick mind did he have, that let him terrorise incessantly?

‘Has anyone ever killed the possessed?’ Carly asked, again quietly.

‘All the time,’ the businesswoman laughed. ‘You think you can have so many gang fights without getting hurt at all? Hell, I saw one video when his head was blown clean off. But he always comes back.’

Carly’s skin crawled.

‘That’s not possible.’

‘Some people say there are hundreds of clones of him in the vault underground. Others say he’s an android. Whichever it is, we’re sure as hell not getting rid of him anytime soon. Fuck, my feet are killing me!’

She stopped and leant on the wall beside her, slipping off one heel and stretching her toes.

‘Go on, I’ll speak to you later. Jesus Christ…’

Carly was glad to walk away, since she needed the time to digest what she had just heard. It wasn’t possible. It was not possible.

She had lunch at Sarah’s joint again. The cashier didn’t say a word to her this time. It seemed she hadn’t fully recovered her ease after yesterday. This time she sat down as soon as she got her meal. The sandwich didn’t taste half as good.

#

It was late afternoon when he came up and started walking beside her. Black and lime green sneakers, bandana around his cornrows, white t-shirt. She automatically tensed as he approached her. One thing from outside was the same in this prison: gang-members always meant trouble.

‘Hey.’

She didn’t reply.

‘New girl, right?’

She nodded.

‘How you finding it?’

She made a non-commital noise. He continued to walk beside her for the next minute in silence, matching his pace to her increasingly slow steps. The blisters were becoming nearly unbearable.

‘Hey, you want my shoes?’

Carly burst out laughing. It was probably a nervous reaction, one of those fits that came in moments of stress.

‘Girl, I’m serious. You look like you’re hurting. Want my shoes for a while?’

‘I’d love them,’ she said. ‘Don’t think it’s allowed, though.’

‘No-one’ll notice for just a minute. Come on, let me be the gentleman.’

What was the use in being paranoid in a place like this? It all came down to the same two options: live, die. At least she knew she was being watched. Hopefully the officials would intervene if anything non-lethally awful happened.

‘Okay then.’

She gladly slipped off her sandals, stretching her toes on the warm, rough concrete, and stepped into his huge, sweaty shoes. They were like pillows on her feet. Heaven.

‘Don’t think you’ll fit mine,’ she said, picking up her sandals by the straps.

‘No biggie. Ain’t like there’s much glass or anything here.’

So they started walking together, people staring and giggling at Carly, with her neutral clothes and massive neon sneakers, and the barefoot gangster beside her.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Carly.’

‘Reese. Listen, Carly, I think you’re real pretty.’

She laughed again, trying to ignore those nerves. Once upon a time she would have maced him or run away for saying such a thing. Who gave a fuck now?

‘Me and all the other girls who’re exactly like this.’

‘Naw, they can’t change your face.’

‘You expect to get something from me, by saying that?’

That probably qualified as the most confrontational thing she had ever said. He was unfazed.

‘Listen, I’m a gentleman,’ he said. ‘The way I see it, you gotta live every day like it’s your last – especially when you’re dressed like me,’ he added, with a smile at his outfit. ‘So if I see a pretty girl, I tell her, and then what happens, happens. Can’t say I want any more regrets.’

Her nerves, her fears, were swept away at once, and instead she felt the urge to cry. Here was a walking dead-man, and yet he was human enough to give her his shoes for a while, and do without himself.

‘You kill someone?’ she asked.

‘Didn’t have much choice,’ he said.

‘Were you in a gang before coming here?’

‘Not much choice, where I’m from.’

‘How does it work for you here, then?’

‘Soon as the possessed comes out round here, we run and get him.’

Reese looked around the street: the staid line of cars, the never ending stream of similar people. The odd gang-members scattered around, noticeable by the lime green on their clothes. Nearly all of them were black, Carly realised. It had always been a thing for others to deal with – gangs, and hackers, and miscarriages of justice, the sort of thing that could never affect her. Then suddenly Ava was dead one night and somehow she ended up here, facing it all.

‘And he shoots you,’ she finished.

Reese nodded.

‘Usually. Can’t say I’ve dealt with that myself – not from him, anyway.’

Carly wiped her eyes.

‘It’s not fair,’ she whispered. ‘I’m not meant to be here. And if you couldn’t help it, you shouldn’t be here either.’

‘It ain’t fair,’ he agreed. ‘But that’s an outside thing, y’know? Once you’re in, you’re in. Nothing you can do about it from here.’

Outside didn’t care. She hadn’t cared. Since the possessed had appeared one day, and no-one could contain him, it was only right that they had used him to do justice, she’d thought. And now there was nothing she could do, because invisible walls and locked doors kept her in. Kept them all in.

A screech burst through the air.

The walkers froze, most ducking to the side, leaning against the walls. A crash came from up ahead, and the line of cars juddered to a halt. Carly froze, but Reese pulled her against the glass wall beside them, right next to the lacy mannequins of a fake lingerie shop. He stepped in front of her. The revving of a car grew louder, with more ear-piercing crashes and scrapes. The walkers were hiding behind fake dumpsters, huddling together in groups, crouching behind doorways. The line of cars buckled, then with another loud crash four of them span out of place, one crashing into a nearby building ahead of Carly. She dropped to her knees, turning her back to the road, arms shaking as she covered her head – a useless gesture against such danger.

She peeked over her shoulder and saw the car rush by, before it slammed into another vehicle. Deliberately driving at full speed on the wrong side of the road. The car was horribly dented, fender long gone and lights all smashed. The hood was half-open, smoke was coming from the insides, and at the window, staring passionlessly into the half-obscured vision, was the possessed. His face was cut from the glass of the cracked windows, but he did not seem aware that he was bleeding. He stared, and ploughed on into the fake taxi he had hit, until the taxi – squeezed between his force and a streetlight – span, and tilted onto its side. With that, the revving began again, and the possessed flew off at full speed, until the next crash was heard from further down the street.

The creak of hanging metal was all that was left, before the cries of pain started.

Reese straightened from his stance: leant against the wall over her, trying to protect her with his own body. Carly stood up and saw what he was looking at. Up ahead, the car that had spun out of control had hit some walkers. She knew she shouldn’t, but the same ghoulish curiosity that use to make her slow down on the highway when passing an accident now made it impossible for her to stay put. She walked towards it, as many of the other walkers were now doing, and Reese followed her to the scene.

The walls of the buildings burst open. Paramedics, complete with kits and stretchers, poured out of the gaps, along with officials in uniform, trying to push away the non-injured walkers.

‘Get back to your routes – everyone – back to your routes – we will clean up this section so everybody get back to your routes!’

The driver was barely alive, covered in glass from the broken window, half-stuck in his seat. They had to work to pull him out and he screamed the entire time. Ragdoll bodies were limp by the wall, blood on the concrete, some crying and holding broken limbs as the medics tried to help them. Near to Carly lay the unmoving body of the old man she had passed yesterday morning. The one who told her to cheer up.

‘Get back to your routes!’ the official said, pushing her away.

‘Come on,’ Reese said, taking her arm, ‘let’s go.’

I didn’t do it, she wanted to say. I didn’t do it. I’m not meant to be here. You’re not meant to be here. This isn’t right. This isn’t fair. Ten years before you’re dragged along by a speeding car all because you went to sleep one night and when you woke up your daughter was dead in her bed and they said you did it, and there was no appeal, there was nothing she could do, nothing she could do to protect herself against that monster with the unchanging face and the unstoppable force.

All she said in the end, as Reese dragged her away, was:

‘No…I can’t…I can’t…I can’t…’

Written by G.J.

24/04/2013 at 4:04 pm

Save Scumming (Stranger Tales No. 2)

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A slight jolt, and he was there. But he’d been there for five minutes already. He had caught the point again. It made him sick to his stomach.

‘So,’ Sam said, ‘you look well.’

Better than you, Chris thought. How old Sam looked, compared to when he last saw him. The grey hair had overtaken the black in the battle for dominance of his head. His cheeks had a slight jowl, showing the continuing pull of gravity on his body, dragging him down to the ground. He still had the best smile Chris had ever seen.

‘I see you’ve gone up in the world,’ he replied, looking around the huge dining room. Sun streamed in through the bay windows, lighting upon the marbled floor, glancing off the rosewood of the restored fireplace. He knew the house contained at least five bedrooms, all the size of his garden at home, as well as a huge lawn and swimming pool out back. It was the kind of miniature stately home where you could refer to the sides as “wings” unironically.

‘Well, these things happen somehow,’ Sam said with a modest look around, as if only just noticing his riches for the first time. ‘You live your life and you work hard, and things always turn out well.’

Of course they did, Chris thought. He felt his jacket pocket. The vial was still there, making a cylindrical impression on the side of his shirt. Right away, the voice on the phone had said, you have to go right away, and he had run out the house without a second thought. On the doorstep of Sam’s home, he had felt a sudden weight in his empty pocket, and when he looked, the vial was there. Stolen from his brother’s lab, no doubt.

‘How’s Anita? How are the girls?’ Sam asked.

‘They’re well,’ Chris said. ‘They’re good. Well, they hate me, but they’re good.’

‘You know you’ve gotten quite the reputation,’ Sam said, with a raised eyebrow. ‘The most beloved bastard in the whole town, was how Darrel put it to me.’

‘That’s generous,’ Chris said. Whoremongering scumbag was what Anita liked to call him. Why she hadn’t left him yet, he’d never know…no, that was a lie. He knew why. He knew why, but he hated to think of it, like he hated to think of why that vial was in his pocket, and why that phone call had come earlier, and why sometimes he felt a jolt, like he had just waken up from sleep, except he had been going about his life the whole time.

Sam leant back in his chair, arms crossed. He smiled at Chris. A mixture of pity, disbelief, light-hearted humour. He took everything with a smile, no matter what. The best smile in the world.

‘Why do you do this to yourself, huh? I know you don’t get any pleasure out of cheating on your wife, and scamming people at work, and being a hot-and-cold manipulative dick to everyone. What’s the appeal? Why keep hurting everyone like this?’

Chris looked down at his hands. Ever since they had sat down at the table, he had been leaning forward, elbows on knees, like a scolded teenager. Everyone had impulses, didn’t they? Everyone would suddenly get the urge to do stupid, irresponsible things now and again, right? Sam had been the first person he had mentioned it to. Sometimes he would walk down the street, and get the urge to suddenly stop, and when he did it, two seconds later a person would turn the corner, and say hello, and that was that: friends for life. They day the house caught fire, he felt the urge in the morning to leave and go into town; the day his dog died, he knew he had to run home early from work and see her. ‘Doesn’t that happen to everyone?’ he had asked Sam, years ago when he was a teenager. ‘No,’ Sam had laughed. ‘Sounds like you’re possessed.’

Most of the time he felt the urge to talk, and connect with people. He wanted to know everyone. He wanted everyone to laugh at his jokes, to tell him about their lives, to kiss him if he thought it would be nice. He was the sun in the solar system, the point on which the world revolved, and every other person was a passing orbit, one of a multitude of tiny objects. Somehow, the wires always got crossed, and he left a constant trail of furious husbands and wives and mothers and employees and children. He never meant to make anyone angry. He just couldn’t help feeling slightly satisfied when most of them were. Hate was as good as love, a voice said through the air. If you can’t get one, then swing to the other.

There were exceptions. People he considered people. People he considered precious. But it seemed the world was indifferent to all of them, equally, and he could only be pushed along with it.

‘I don’t know,’ he told Sam.

‘Well,’ Sam said. ‘You can always start anew. You’re never too old, I say, and the way science is going these days, we’ll soon be able to stop aging entirely. A bit late for me, but I don’t mind,’ he added with a chuckle.

The vial pressed into Chris’s chest. He fished it out, and placed it on the table between them.

‘Maybe not,’ he said.

Sam frowned

‘What’s this?’

‘Louis made it,’ Chris said. ‘It’s…medicine.’

‘And what does it do?’

‘I heard it makes you younger. It heals you and makes you young again.’

Sam neither moved nor said a word.

‘…I want you to have it.’

Chris waited for him to move, to take it with thanks, or even be surprised that the science existed, but Sam did none of those. He stared at the clear solution in the glass for a while, and then he looked to Chris, giving him a worried, searching stare.

‘What are you doing?’

‘I want you to have it,’ he repeated.

‘I don’t need to be any younger,’ Sam said, pushing the tube back across the table. ‘And look at me! Look at this place! You think I need anything else in the world? No, if anyone needs to heal and have a fresh start, it’s you.’

Chris refused to take the potion back. It was never meant for him.

‘I’m glad I got to see you again, after so many years,’ Sam continued. ‘But this is too much. Know what I think you should do? I think you should move town. Break up with Anita and let her have the kids, and go start over in a place where no-one knows your name. Take this thing if you want to be younger, but you don’t have to – it’s never too late to be a better person. I know it’s what you want, Chris. You were never made to be the man you are now.’

But I was, Chris thought, Sam’s hope in him only feeding his despair. I was always meant to be this way. I’ve always been directed down this path.

‘Sam,’ he said, ‘please. Just take it. You know I can’t move, I can’t leave town – I can’t barely do anything. I can get another one for myself, I can break up with Anita, but I can’t leave this place. Just take it, and I’ll take mine, and we…we…’

We can be together, like I always wanted. Like I was never allowed. He had buried the pain – he hadn’t seen Sam in years, he had moved on with his life – and then the phone call had come straight after breakfast, with the unknown, disembodied voice at the other end:

Sam Sachs is going to die soon. You should see him right away.

Sam gave him that smile again, the smile of a man who understood the world, the smile of a man who was comfortable and happy and never questioned his sanity and free-will.

‘You can’t re-do life,’ he said.

But you could. One time, the world had frozen around Chris, and he had been stuck, stupefied, trapped in his own body as the steam stopped about the kettle and the curtain froze on the same billow and all noise in the world ceased to be. A blink later, he had been in his bedroom floor, gulping in breaths, shaking as if he had nearly died. He would catch on points in time; a moment of that freeze would catch him and swallow him for half a second, leaving him reeling as he resumed eating or working or whatever he was doing. And sometimes, sometimes he had the feeling he’d done something before. Going through the motions, bored with what had excited him a moment ago, feeling as if he already knew what the outcome was.

‘Please,’ Chris said again. ‘Please, do it for me, just drink it.’

The potion was put in his pocket for a reason. Maybe it was allowed now, him and Sam. To re-do life was possible. It had to be possible, if there was any justice or hope in the world.

Sam rose from the table with a sigh. He pushed his chair back in, then froze, hands still on its back. Chris jumped up from his seat as he saw the shadow of a spectre rise behind his friend’s body. Sam looked over to him, as if he had realised what was happening.

He collapsed to the floor.

‘Sam! Sam, no, no – this can’t – Sam, please…’

Chris grabbed the vial from the table, half-pulling off the table cloth as he did so, and pulled Sam’s head off the floor and onto his knee. His hands were juddering too hard to screw the top off. Sam coughed, and brought his hand up to rest of Chris’s arm. Finally, the lid came loose.

‘Take it,’ Chris said, bringing the liquid to his lips, ‘take it and you’ll be fine, you’ll be fine…’

With a swipe, Sam knocked the vial from Chris’s hand, spilling its contents all over the marble tiles. The clatter as the glass hit the floor was like a gunshot to Chris’s prayers.

He started crying.

He gripped Sam’s body close to his, wishing that they could trade places, wishing more than anything that he wasn’t so fucking helpless.

‘Why would you…why wouldn’t you…’

Sam, with the last of his strength, gripped Chris’s arm, and gave it the smallest shake. Chris turned and looked at his face, meeting Sam’s eyes for the last time.

Sam smiled at him. The sort of smile that said everything would be okay. The most beautiful lie of a smile there had ever been.

With that, he closed his eyes, and stopped breathing.

‘What’s happened?’ came a voice, and Chris heard Sam’s son, Darrel, run into the room.

‘Sam’s dying!’ he shouted, voice a gurgling shriek. ‘Phone a fucking ambulance…someone…phone a fucking ambulance…’

He knew it was too late, of course. But it felt right to let other people take his body from him, to let them take over and try to resuscitate him though fate had decreed that he would die at 7am this morning.

Chris went to the bay windows, still sobbing to himself as Darrel and his family dealt with the paramedics.

Please, he said in his mind. I think you can hear me. I know you can change things. Please, re-do it all. Go back to that point where I was at the table. Let me try to convince him to drink it, one more time, like I know you wanted him to. Please let me do it over again.

An answer came, fluttering light in the wind, a ghost of an emotion drifting down from on high: frustration. It wouldn’t work. No matter how many times he re-did it, Sam would always say no. This was not the first time. The only mercy was that Chris remembered but one attempt.

What feeble god can only control one person? he thought. What kind of omnipotence can ruin my life, but not even stop another man from dying?

No answer came. The sudden urge to leave overwhelmed him, to go home, to go out and meet someone, to connect with more people and continue the drama. As he left’s Sam’s gorgeous mansion, he asked the wind one more thing:

You can kill me, I’m sure. Do it. End me.

Not yet, came the answer on the breeze, faint as dying breath as it pushed him away from Sam’s home.

Not yet.

Written by G.J.

06/04/2013 at 5:05 pm

An Unseen Hand Pushes the Analog Stick (Stranger Tales No. 1)

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They found the girl at sunrise. Under a pale pink sky with feeble grey clouds, next to a riverbank swelled to brim from the night’s rain, sat an unknown young woman, drenched from toe to tip, staring up into the sky. Ann’s father thought it best to take her home.

‘Must be a runaway from the abbey,’ he said. ‘It was struck hard last night.’

The thunderstorm had ripped up the trees and splattered them onto the roads, and the fields were pools of mud. There would be no taking her back to the abbey for a day or two, if that was indeed where she came from. The people they looked after at the abbey had problems. It must have been intuition that made her father see that figure staring up at the sky, and pronounce her mad straight away.

They led her away from the bank, and she came without a word. She remained silent all the way back to the house. Ann wondered if she was deaf, but spoke to her anyway once they were in the bathroom together.

‘Let me get you out of those clothes,’ she said. The girl allowed her to pull her dress over her head without protest. It was scorched black and ripped, but the untouched patches showed that it had been a white robe of fine, heavy cloth. Ann put it aside, feeling the sodden weight of it in her hand, and wondering how it became so burned and yet so wet.

She turned back and found the girl standing in front of the looking-glass, her naked back turned towards it. Her scrabbling hands searched all over her shoulder blades and spine, as if she had never seen a normal back before. A cloud of worry glazed her eyes. Ann grabbed her hands and spun her round.

‘Now, now, let’s get you in the bath.’

‘I don’t need to be bathed,’ the girl said in a hoarse voice.

Ann was shocked to hear her speak, but tried not to let it show.

‘Oh! I understand. Can you bathe yourself, then?’

‘If it is necessary,’ she replied.

‘My name is Ann. What’s yours?’

‘My name is…’

The girl trailed off and frowned into the middle distance. Her face was blank for a very long moment, and Ann was about to ask if she was all right when sentience snapped back into her expression.

‘Miranda.’

‘Miranda,’ Ann repeated. ‘That’s a lovely name. Well, you’re welcome to stay here until we get you back to the abbey. I’ll get you some clean clothes, so just make yourself comfortable.’

The girl kept frowning, as if she was figuring something out. Ann was glad to get out of her sight. The tragic figure they had brought in moments ago had somehow transformed into an imperious lady, like a princess brought before commoners.

‘Papa,’ she said when downstairs, ‘are you sure she’s from the abbey?’

‘They have some strange ones there, chick,’ he said from the aga. ‘People you wouldn’t think as mad at first. They show their true colours in the end. Keep a close eye on her while I’m at the smithy.’

When Ann returned upstairs, to tell Miranda that breakfast was ready, she found the girl in her bedroom, rifling through her chest of drawers. The wardrobe door was ajar and her foot-chest of beloved things – items from her mother, presents from friends – was wide open.

‘Miranda! What are you doing? These are mine.’ She stormed over and snapped the drawer shut, away from those long white fingers. ‘We don’t touch other people’s possessions!’

‘You have nothing useful anyway,’ Miranda said, before walking downstairs. Ann checked over her chest to make sure nothing was stolen, and realised that Miranda had taken one of the cotton dresses from her wardrobe, and was wearing that instead of the dress she had laid out for her beside the bath. Well, it was a nice dress, but not worth arguing over. She rearranged everything that had been touched and went downstairs as quickly as possible.

Miranda ate in silence with Ann and her father. After eating, she left her plate and rose, turning to the door.

‘Ah, I suppose I should show you around the village!’ Ann said, leaving her food half-eaten. She knew she shouldn’t leave such a girl alone. ‘Come with me and I’ll show you where everything is.’

Miranda looked singularly unimpressed with her offer, but made no complaint. Ann took her out into the bright morning sunshine and pointed out the few noticeable houses in the tiny village: the inn, the baker and the butcher, the clothes shop, and the road out of town.

‘Left at the crossroads goes to the abbey,’ Ann said.

‘And right?’ Miranda asked. Her only response thus far.

‘That goes down to Mardonlea.’

‘What is that?’

A slight uneasiness of mind came over Ann again. Even mad people, she thought, have surely heard of it.

‘It’s the biggest town this side of Margate.’

Miranda nodded, then resumed listening to Ann’s tour. At the end, Ann took her back into the centre of town.

‘Now, papa’s going to be very busy with work today, so you’ll have to come with me and sit in the inn while I work. I’m sure Erik will understand when I explain what’s happened.’

They reached the inn, and Miranda stood as emotionless as a statue as Ann pleaded with her employer. He agreed that she could sit behind the front desk, as long as someone kept an eye on her and saw she made no trouble.

‘See? Now you can stay with me while I work and–’

Without a word, Miranda walked to the door.

‘Wait! You – you can’t go out alone!’ Ann stammered, chasing after her. ‘I have to look after you while you’re here!’

‘I can do nothing here,’ Miranda said, in the same commanding tone. ‘I must leave. I will come to no harm.’

‘Bu…but…’ Ann felt it was somehow wrong to say to a person’s face, “But you’re mad!”, and she had no other argument to keep her here.

‘I will be fine, Ann,’ Miranda said. ‘I can only go as far as I am allowed.’

‘Th-then don’t leave the village!’ Ann said, wondering what she meant by that, doubting that she could trust this strange woman, but seeing no alternative when she had to work. ‘Not a step outside the gates. And come right back to the house for dinner, understand?’

‘Yes.’

Miranda failed to give even a look of acknowledgement before leaving the inn. Ann watched her go with some trepidation, failing to keep the unease out of her words when she explained the situation to her boss.

‘Well, there’s only a few things to do, and it’s probably going to be a slow day since the roads are so bad,’ her employer said. ‘I’d vouch that you can go early today.’

Still, work had to be done before then. She served breakfast, cleaned the rooms, and after the laundry was set out to dry she finally rested at the front desk, waiting for any potential customers. The locals, especially the old ladies, often came in to chat on slow days, knowing that they’d be good company for Ann. Before long, the runaway from the abbey was mentioned, and then the complaints started to come through.

‘That girl you picked up barged right into my house and began to rifle through my cabinets,’ Mrs Crabtree said. ‘She even took one of my pots of tarragon and put it straight in her bag!’

I didn’t give her a bag, Ann thought worryingly, as she apologised.

‘She’s been annoying us in the shop all day,’ Peter Rogers, from the clothes shop, said when he came in to chat at lunch. ‘She bought a few things, but since then she’s been asking for more, and coming round the back of the counter and saying “Talk to me”, over and over. Oh, I kept talking for a while, but she doesn’t say anything herself, and it’s hard to talk with someone who won’t talk back, you know?’

As predicted, Ann was let off work early, and rushed out as soon as she could, kicking herself for letting the strange lady out of her sight. Barely five steps from the inn door, Mrs Cunningham stormed up to her.

‘Ann, you must keep that insane girl under control! What were you thinking, leaving her to her own devices?’

‘What has she done?’ Ann asked, full of shame.

‘She came right into my house, ran upstairs without so much as a word to my family, and she stole my son’s old shield from the chest in my room. I ran and told Albert, so he went to deal with her. She absolutely refused to hand it over, and when Albert tried to take it from her forcibly, she assaulted him!’

‘Oh dear,’ Ann said.

‘And then she ran off without another word! I really cannot let this pass by, Ann. You must make her give that shield back, and the sooner she is sent back to the abbey, among the imbeciles of her kind, the better for all of us.’

Miranda wasn’t at home. Ann looked all over for her, and finally found her – crawling out of the town well by its rope, stinking of stagnant water and mulch. A small crowd had gathered to gawp at her in disgust, but even with all the people around, Ann could not restrain her anger.

‘Miranda! What do you think you are doing? Have you no shame?’

Miranda did not appear to hear her words. For the first time, she looked pleased.

‘Look at this,’ she said, holding out her palm. Amongst the mud were some slimy old weeds, and a few bashed copper coins.

‘Who cares that you found some coins? It’s not normal to go crawling around wells! Come back home right now – you’ll have to have a cold bath this time, since we used all the hot water for you this morning.’

‘The coins are a mere boon,’ Miranda replied with a dissatisfied frown. ‘But staggernot is very rare and hard to find. I can use it to regain strength, or alchemise it to make an even greater–’

Ann grabbed her other hand, shuddering as the muck transferred to her palm, and dragged the mad girl away from the giggling crowd. She was glad to shut the front door on the village, glad they couldn’t see her make a fool of herself any more.

‘Get upstairs and wash,’ she said. ‘And throw away those weeds!’

But the weeds, and coins, were somehow gone from Miranda’s hand.

‘I am fine how I am,’ Miranda said.

‘No you’re not,’ Ann said. ‘You stink.’

‘I understand,’ Miranda said, before disappearing. Ann sat at the table and put her head in her hands. Maybe we should give her to Mrs Shore, or someone who better understands mad people, she thought. I thought she’d be stupid like a child, or violent at worst – not infuriating like this.

Miranda came down only minutes later, but she was completely clean. Ann didn’t like to imagine how messy the bathroom was. The woman made straight for the door again, and Ann had to physically block her path to stop her from yanking the door wide open.

‘Wait,’ she said. ‘You’re not to go outside for the rest of the day.’

Miranda did not protest or even ask why. All she said was:

‘You cannot stop me.’

Simply, without affect or emotion. The threat made Ann’s stomach flip.

‘No. You’re not going out until you control yourself. Everyone’s been telling me all day that you’ve been barging into people’s houses, bothering them, and even stealing. You’ve taken my dress, Mrs Crabtree’s plant, and Tim Cunningham’s old shield, and you know you have to give them back.’

‘Why?’ Miranda asked.

‘Because stealing is wrong!’ Ann cried. ‘I like that dress, Mrs Crabtree was going to use her tarragon for cooking. And Mrs Cunningham’s son is dead, and that shield is one of her prized possessions from when he was alive.’

‘She does not use it,’ Miranda said.

‘No, but it has sentimental value for her. But it doesn’t even matter if she doesn’t use it – it’s hers. You can’t take what other people own.’

Miranda’s expression changed – really, truly shifted beyond her blank state, into something worse: a sneer.

‘What is the point in objects that are not used? What is the point in having an object that you misuse? I need these items. I will use them as they should be used.’

‘You can’t use my dress in any other way,’ Ann protested.

‘True,’ Miranda said. ‘It is only necessary for the moment. When I find or buy something superior, I will sell it, for the money from it will do me better.’

Ann was truly shocked that she could so easily tell her this, without a single glimpse of conscience.

‘You – you can’t do that! You can’t take my things and then sell them when you’re done with them!’

‘They are not yours,’ Miranda said, sternly as a schoolteacher. ‘Nothing you have belongs to you. All that you claim belongs to god, and I take them by his power, in order to fulfill his wishes.’

You’re mad, Ann thought. It had taken time to reveal itself, but now she could think it without hesitation: this woman is mad.

‘No, no, you’re wrong,’ Ann said, trying to draw herself taller but the woman seemed to have grown in stature, and doubled in power. ‘N-now, you take that shield back to Mrs Cunningham, and apologise to her husband for hurting him. Tell them you’re sorry.’

‘The man tried to fight me,’ Miranda said. ‘And I returned his battle. He is fortunate that I did not destroy him, as I thought I should. God stayed my hand.’

Ann cowered. Suddenly she regretted being between this woman and the exit.

‘Out of my way, girl,’ Miranda said. Her voice deepened to a thunderous tone. ‘I have larger things to do than worry about you and your minuscule lives. My task calls, and my god grows impatient.’

‘What task is that?’ Ann asked, trembling.

‘Completion,’ Miranda said.

She put one hand on Ann’s shoulder and pushed her aside with inhuman strength. Ann stumbled, and knew she must not let her leave. Had Miranda been good, and kind, she might have believed her mad words, and she would have let her go in joy. Instead, she was terrified of what such a woman could do to the world if let loose.

‘You’re not an angel,’ she cried, grabbing her arm. ‘You’re just insane!’

Miranda stopped and looked back. Ann tried to look up defiantly into the woman’s face. She was devastated to receive only a pitying smile in return.

‘You people are small, insignificant statues, and this place is but a base point from which I jump to the further story. You will never change, you will never grow to greatness, and you will never even know when the world is threatened by catastrophe. To everything, you are blind. That, Ann, is insanity.’

She walked away from Ann’s grip with little effort, and set off down the road. At the end of the village, she paused, and in a blink a shield appeared on one arm, while a sword – evidently taken from the smithy – was gripped in the other. Miranda stepped out into the road, and all sight of her body disappeared instantly.

Ann remained frozen in the doorway, unable to speak, unable to move, as if the puppet-master that had been moving her strings had suddenly abandoned her, to go play some better, greater game.

Written by G.J.

03/04/2013 at 6:13 pm