Perception- By Gareth Topping

Massachusetts, 1690

 It was early autumn, that time of year when the leaves are only just beginning to blush hesitantly with colour, as if nervous for making their presence known too early. The evenings of amber- and rose-coloured dusk became shorter, and the pleasant cool of summer nights was rapidly becoming the uncomforting chill that promised a long, dark night.

                September is like adolescence, thought Matthias Fletcher as he rode along the rough dirt road. A month of conflicting humours, never quite sure what it should be.

                Matthias liked autumn, especially autumn in Massachusetts, for an autumn in that state is a beautiful thing indeed. However, after experiencing twenty-two summers, Matthias had decided that the season wasn’t to his liking. In his opinion, both the weather and the emotions of people ran too hot during the long, humid months.

                Matthias didn’t know what his companion’s views on the seasons were. Solomon rarely spoke, and when he did, it was for an important reason. He wouldn’t waste breath discussing something as trivial as the weather. “The Almighty gave me only a short time on His earth,” he’d say. “I won’t squander that time by engaging in useless chatter.” 

                And that had been that.

                Solomon rode ahead of Matthias, astride a charcoal-black mare called Testament. Like her rider, the horse had no doubt seen better days, but those days hadn’t seen fit to make an impression upon either of them. Horse and rider were calloused with the weary experience of those who had become firm acquaintances of hardship, rather than comfort.

                Matthias’s steed – a plucky russet gelding that he’d named Samson – plodded along the road. The day had been long, and saddle-soreness had wormed its way into Matthias’s muscles.

                “Maybe we should stop,” said Matthias.

                Solomon didn’t turn his head to acknowledge his companion. He didn’t speak for a while, and Matthias was just beginning to think that the older man hadn’t heard him when he grunted a response.

                “Nearly there. Patience, boy.”

                Patience wasn’t a virtue that came easily to Matthias. He’d never been one to wait quietly while events unfolded around him. Given his line of work, his recklessness was a flaw, and to his credit, Matthias recognised the flaw and attempted to correct it by emulating the stoic demeanour of his companion and mentor.

                Yet the day had been long, and Matthias was no longer too concerned about trying to keep Solomon happy.

                “It’s growing darker,” he said.

                Solomon didn’t reply.

                “I do not like the look of this road,” sad Matthias, trying a different approach. “What if brigands accost us?”

                “Then keep your cudgel close to hand,” said Solomon.

                “But-“

                Solomon reined Testament around so that he could look Matthias face-to-face. The younger man realised he should’ve kept his mouth shut.

                Some men age gracefully, and manage to maintain an air of youth about them. Their hair may remain thick and coloured, their skin may remain smooth and unmolested by Time’s cruel touch.

Solomon was not one of those men. He had aged in the way that a boot or side of beef ages, becoming rough, leathery, and filthy. His face was grizzled and jowly and looked like it had never played host to a smile. Solomon’s unkempt hair was grey and thinning, his nose had been broken, his teeth were bad, and he sported a permanent dirty fuzz of stubble across his cheeks, chin, and throat. He wore a shapeless, wide-brimmed hat, rough workmanlike shirt and breeches, and an leather longcoat older than him, faded nearly to grey by sun and rain. Under the clothes, Solomon’s body was a tough, thin thing of age-withered limbs and aching bones.   

If Matthias had passed him in the streets, he would’ve thought him a beggar or demented vagrant at first glance and paid no further mind.

Yet if one looked at Solomon longer and more carefully, they would’ve seen something much more than a tired, broken old man.

Despite his dishevelled, raggedy-man appearance, Solomon held himself tall and proud. There was a type of arrogance in his posture, an air of superiority that seemed to make the unspoken announcement – and it was forever unspoken, for Solomon would never be so boastful as to give voice to it-  “I am a greater man than you could ever hope to be, and woe betide those who may think otherwise.”

There was a paradoxical vitality to Solomon, the sense that although he seemed weary and battered by age and experience, he could snap into action, as fast and deadly as an old but well-maintained trap. The old man’s eyes and mind were as sharp and cold as whetted blades.  

Those sharp-knife eyes stabbed into Matthias.

“In all my years,” Solomon wheezed, “I have never heard such whining from a person who wasn’t dying or at their mother’s breast.”

Matthias’s cheeks – clean-shaven and smooth in contrast to Solomon’s – flushed. The old man had a particular talent for evoking shame in him. When Solomon scolded or derided him, he felt like a troublesome child again, receiving a lecture from some stern patrician authority figure.  

“My apologies, Solomon. I will stay my tongue from now on.”

Solomon snorted and wheeled Testament round to resume a steady trot down the path. Matthias quickened Samson’s pace so that he was riding beside Solomon.

“If the fellow we spoke to was not mistaken, we are not too far from the village,” said Solomon after some time.

Matthias was about to speak, to exclaim how much of a waste of a time he thought this whole journey was, but he decided to stay silent. He didn’t want to invite Solomon’s scorn twice in one evening.

“You’re wondering why I listened to him,” said Solomon, as if he’d read the younger man’s mind.

“Of course not!” stammered Matthias.

“I cannot abide a man who lies for the sake of foolish reasons,” said Solomon. It wasn’t even a warning to Matthias, but a simple, bald fact. Still, Matthias felt the familiar rush of shame.

“Again, my apologies Solomon.”

“Remember Matthias, even a lie that the speakers believes harmless obstructs us in our holy duty. We are seekers of truth and justice, and lies are one of the most nefarious of weapons wielded by those who would dare to oppose us and the Lord. We must be the blade that cuts through falsehood and deception. What is it I always say, boy?”

“Perception is more pleasing than truth?”

“Precisely.”

Solomon coughed, a hacking old-man cough, and spat out a phlegmy lump that had been dredged from the depths of his lungs.

“Men no longer want the truth,” mused Solomon. He was unusually talkative, so Matthias shut up and listened to his mentor. “Men want to believe only in what they see, without any kind of proof or evidence. The truth is unpalatable to many these days. Even to the others of our small fraternity, truth is an inconvenience, something that can be ignored or fabricated.”

Matthias knew that the incident back in Andover had left Solomon in a black mood. A woman there had been accused of witchcraft, and Solomon had been in the process of investigating the case to determine the woman’s innocence. Their examination had taken two weeks, and during that time neither Solomon or Matthias had laid a finger of the accused woman. They’d just talked to her, and she’d talked back, and Solomon had sat there with her in the dingy cell where she was being held, and he listened to her.

Solomon had been assured of the women’s innocence, and had declared her as pure of soul and deed, claiming that the accusations had been born of ill-feeling and maliciousness. But the people of Andover had not listened to Solomon. They had wanted a witch to punish. They had wanted the alternative. They hadn’t wanted the truth.

Another of the brotherhood, the notorious Tobias Hale, had been summoned to deliver a second opinion. Within a few hours of arriving, Hale’s tools of excruciation were slick with the woman’s blood, and she was confessing to heinous acts of blasphemy.

Solomon’s protests had fallen on deaf ears, and Hale had the woman burned the same day.

The old man had raged – an uncharacteristic show of emotion for him – but eventually he had buried his fury behind his tired old face, and he and Matthias had left Andover, the smell of burning flesh still nauseatingly rich in their nostrils.

That had been six days ago. Matthias still heard the woman’s screams in his dreams, and knew that it was his punishment for failing her so utterly. He wondered if her screams were in Solomon’s dreams, but he knew better than to ask the old man.

 “There can’t be justice without truth,” muttered Solomon.

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Perception- By Glen Cross

The wind was whistling in his ears. The terror was absolute. Every nerve was on end in the way that only being pursued closely can create. The feeling that any second a hand is going to grab you from behind was unbearable and was beginning to cramp his stomach muscles. The fight or flight instinct inherent in all of us as a species was turning into hopelessness and despair, and the urge to just give up was gnawing at his brain, scratching at the door pleading to be let in.

NO. A fresh surge of hope flushed the thought out of his head and he pushed harder, vaulting the garbage bins in the alleyway in one smooth motion. Not today. The new breath that a fresh bout of hope can give was just starting to take hold as he rounded the bend out of the crescent alleyway and flipped himself over the last fence. His feet had just touched tarmac when , in an explosion of screeching metal and bolts being wrenched from brick, he found himself being driven face first into the ground.

Run all you want, you are not getting away from me, dirtbag .Officer Campos was furious. This was the third pickpocket to happen on his watch in two days. Up until today he had no clues; not even the slightest hint as to who the perpetrator could be, but the piece of trash had slipped up this time.

The victim had noticed straight after it happened and screamed blue murder. Campos had always been told he had great perception and intuition, and this is why he had seen him. A slight drop of the head, a minor lowering of the peak of a cap, and Campos had him. Seems the perp had a decent amount too, as Campos had barely begun to move when the scum had run.

Campos could tell straight away he was in the ascendancy. He was in supreme shape, a perfect example of poetry in motion. He had no social life to speak of, the job was all there was. There was only black and white, no grey area.

They ran into a crescent shaped alleyway, and Campos knew he had him. This was, after all, his stomping grounds growing up. With each step he gained ground, getting closer and closer until the animal in him was screaming to pounce, to bring down his prey. They hurled a couple of garbage bins and Campos knew this was it. One more fence and he knew from experience that it was a poor piece of workmanship. Many times in his youth he had climbed the fence and expected it to fall over. The blood was roaring in his head when he decided to take a gamble. The perp had just hit the tar on the opposite side when with a final push of effort, sinews straining to the point of tearing, Campos threw himself shoulder first at the fence.

It all happened so suddenly. The screaming lady. The running man. The pursuing beat cop. Frank barely had a chance to take a breath and they were off, partaking in the age old tradition of cat and mouse. Frank was still standing bemused in the blazing afternoon sun, sweat trickling down his brow, when there was an almighty screech of tortured metal behind him. In the time it took Frank to turn around, the police officer was already handcuffing the man’s hands behind his back, despite the fact he appeared to be unconscious. There were fragments of brick and mortor strewn all over the pavement and there was a growing puddle of blood by the unconscious man’s face, which was still on the dusty pavement, tiny bubbles forming in the puddle of blood from his gentle breathing.

The police officer stood up and reached for his radio.

“That was amazing!”, shouted Frank from a couple yards away.

“All in days work, sir,” replied the police officer. Frank moved a little closer. “Please stay there sir,” said the officer. “We don’t want to risk contaminating the crime scene.””How did you know it was him? That was fantastic!””It’s all down to instinct and training, sir”, beamed the copper, “It comes as second nature, we just know. We know who the criminals are.”

“Well, I for one thought it was brilliant. Well done officer.” With that said, Frank turned and started to slowly meander down the sidewalk. He was musing about how superior the policeman had been, and how skittish the criminal was. Frank ran the whole scenario over and over in his head as he slowly strolled down the street, all the while mindlessly fingering the pick pocketed purse in his pocket.

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Perception- By Joe Butler

A fat low slung sun coloured the tops of the trees a dirty yellow. There were five of them, Jim, Tommy, Tubby George, Dave ‘Gopher’, and Billy.  

They stood at the mouth of ‘The Shift’. In front of them was a river, shallow and silver, fast moving and icy cold, shielded by an arch of green leaves from the trees where ivy hung down from the branches like a curtain.

Tommy took point and Gopher took the rear, they moved slowly, sloshing through the cold water. Tubby George was checking his machine gun nervously and he jumped a little when Billy moved passed him and squeezed his shoulder reassuringly.

“We’ll be alright,” Billy said and that seemed to hearten him as he nodded and his chin wobbled.

“Alright boys,” he said addressing his team, “nice and easy and keep your eyes open.”

 They made their way under the copse of trees and followed the river down into the dark. They crossed the water and came out on the muddy bank and moved slowly along the bank down river. For what felt like hours they stalked carefully on the wet wobbling mud with their weapons raised.

Sharp slants of yellow light fell in through the breaks in the foliage as they came to the entrance of a clearing and they all stopped.

“Gopher,” Billy whispered, “Go and have a look will you.” Gopher nodded and threw himself to the ground and crawled out into the clearing on his belly with his gun resting across his forearms. A few minutes later he returned, “There’s nuffink out there Bill. No-one, it’s like they all just cleared off.”

“I don’t like this,” Billy said, he turned around to his men. “Intel says there should be loads of them out there.” he shook his head.

Tommy spat into the grass and eyed Billy, “Smells like a fuckin trap to me.” And the rest of them nodded gravely.

“We have to go out there, you know that.”  Billy knew he had to keep the respect of his men, he had to appeal to their honour.

“We have to get out there and clear The Shift of those dirty bastards and I need you guys to do it.” They shifted nervously on their heels and looked at their guns idly fiddling with the fire selectors and magazines. They made a ragtag bunch of soldiers alright, all mismatched weapons and camouflage. But the orders had come down and Billy had to march them into ‘The Shift’ and that was what he was going to do. Orders were orders and he was a soldier.  

“Gopher, take point, you’ve seen what’s out there and for fuck sake everyone keep your heads down, we don’t want to be seen out there.”

They crawled out into the bright daylight ruffling the grass as they went. Billy dared a quick look over the long green blades; he could see towering buildings in the distance scorched black in the shadow of the sun smoke issuing from the slanted roofs. To the north, down the long hill he could see another bunch of tightly clustered trees. That was the objective; get behind enemy lines and start disrupting them; all they had to do was survive crawling down the hill that lay ahead of them. This is a bloody suicide mission, thought Billy.

That was when it happened.

Mortars began to whistle around them and explode showering them with dirt and they all watched as Tubby George his eyes wide with terror broke cover and ran. They were just fishing, Billy thought, looking for the easy meat and they got it.

The rest of them yelled for him to get down but instead George ran wide and snaking following the tree line and had he had made it back into the dense foliage he may have been safe, but a shot from somewhere took him in his head and he went down into the mud.

“Move, move.” Billy said as loud as he dared and they carried on crawling on their bellies through the grass as mortar rounds came in harder on their old position. Billy kept his calm even though his mind was reeling, just one of those could kill us all.

They saw them at the tree line, a group of them, the Enemy. They were lazily firing mortar rounds at them.  How they had spotted his team Billy did not know, maybe it was an inside job? He didn’t have time to question it right now so he focused on staying alive.

“Form up,” he whispered and they arranged themselves into a straight line next to each other.

“Right, Gopher you flank on their left, Tommy you flank their right, Jim and I will go up the middle. All clear?” they all nodded, “right then, lets get to it and keep your head down.”

They split and began slowly making their way to the flanks whilst Billy and Jim watched and waited. The mortars stopped after a few more random shells exploded nowhere near them, “Their barking right up the wrong tree,” Jim said with a smirk and Billy smiled.

It was time, Gopher started firing into their left, one of the enemies number had gone down and the rest were scrambling for cover when Dave opened up.

“Ready,” Billy said

“This is gonna be a fucking turkey shoot,” Jim said with a wry smile.

They both got to their feet and roared, adrenaline soaring through their bodies they charged down the centre. Tommy went down with two clean shots to the chest.  Jim dropped to one knee and started popping rounds at them to keep them suppressed. Billy got one of them in the head and the bad guy fell lifelessly to the ground.

Gopher was out of ammo and charged into them with his knife. Johnny’s gun clicked dry and Billy threw him a magazine which was jammed into the bottom of his gun in a heartbeat. More rounds poured into the enemy, how many left, four, two?  He couldn’t tell. Gopher was on the ground fighting when he took a round to the back of his head and went down. Billy’s gun clicked dry and he threw it down and ran at the last of them. The one that Gopher was fighting was getting to his feet when Billy took him out with a savage blow to the head. Billy whirled round and saw him, the last remaining bad guy; he had a cruel smile on his face and a full magazine in his gun. He looked to Jim who was running down the hill, his own gun discarded and empty.

The smile fell from his face when a stone clattered into his temple. “Oi, you’re dead you dickhead,” he said to Tubby George who was standing there with a handful of stones.

“I was bored, I died ages ago.” He said apologetically

“That’s cheating.” The boy said

“George, you did die up there, it’s not fair.”

“Yeah, but.” He said nothing else and hung his head.

“I’ve got to go” Billy said as they dispersed and they all went home as a silky blue dark fell around them.

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Returned- By Joe Butler

 With a slam of a door she had returned.

The guests sat around the table looked at him nervously; clearly they had not expected another guest at this hour or indeed her. However, there she was and in the same state she had been the night before. She breezed through the front room door shouting and screaming and knocking pictures off of their real authentic Swedish designed tables. As usual she looked drunk, her blonde hair was plastered across her face and her eyes were dull but angry.

His guests looked at him wide eyed and he felt the regular sting of shame colour his face. Their eyes tennis matched from him to her, then to each other. They quickly gathered their coats and hurriedly made their excuses and goodbyes and left him to deal with her.

The man, whose name was Robert, sat down exasperated on with a ‘Whompf’ on their couch as she swept around the room swearing at him, at the chairs at nothing in particular. She stopped and stood in the doorway to the kitchen, resting her arm drunkenly on the exposed Victorian brickwork that she had loved when they moved in and she looked through him.

He was sick and tired of seeing her like this, he had tried to talk to her in the past but she had just ignored him as if he wasn’t there.  He had even begun to regret marrying the woman, (named Kate), in the first place. Kate was still just standing there looking at him with her watery blue eyes. She tilted her head to try and tried to meet his eyes, but he really didn’t like seeing her like this so he just tried to ignore her.

She had become a joyless ghost of herself, always drunk, always moaning and shouting and calling him names, always ruining his dinner parties. Nowadays she would appear at eleven thirty with a slam of the front door and start creeping out his guests with her odd behaviour.

The people at his work mostly ignored him as he sat at his desk, unshaven and smelling of a poisonous combination of body odour and alcohol. They of course talked about him behind his back, but he didn’t really care about that sort of thing.

She disappeared into the kitchen and he could hear her heavy footsteps stamping up the stairs, in about thirty seconds she’ll start throwing around the stuff in the bloody bathroom, he bit his lip. When she was like this she was inclined to squeeze all the toothpaste out of the tube writing his name on the mirror or she’d empty the shampoo and conditioner down the toilet. She’d probably remove the toilet seat again; she had done that once before when she was particularly upset. He was just too tired and half drunk on cheap zinfandel to try and stop her.

He heard taps running.

“Oh, she’s at that again.” He said to the carpet. His lids felt heavy and he wondered if he was going to get any sleep tonight. “Probably not,” he finally concluded to the crushed remains of hula hoop that lay there impassively under the ‘Öink Banana’ or whatever it was called table she’d chosen at IKEA.

She was calling his name now loudly and her voiced carried an echo from the bathroom that made his spine crawl.

“Alright, alright,” he said to the overturned fruit bowl as he finally got up from the couch and made his way upstairs in the dark.

The light was on in their bathroom and he could see her shadow moving about the room from under the door. He opened the door and a cloud of steam burst from the room like an errant cloud.

She was standing bent over the toilet emptying half a bottle of Head and Shoulders into it, watching with a certain glee as it plopped into the water in thick blue gouts. She turned her head to look at him and stuck her tongue out, then went back to concentrating on her work.  

“You are a… dick…head.” She said to the toilet, but he figured she was addressing him.

“Am I?”

“Yes and I think we are over.”

“Really sweetheart.” We’ve been through this time and time again. He carried on, “we were over a long time ago my love.”

“Too fucking right we were.” She said as she poured the entire contents of his Lynx Africa shower gel down into the cauldron that their toilet had become. She reached her hand up to flush the toilet but missed.

 “Want some help with that?”  He said his arms crossed as he watched her

“Yes,” she said to the multicoloured liquid roiling in the water.

He leant over and pressed the silver handle down and it began to swirl loudly.

“Dick.” She muttered as his face neared hers. She smelt of orange peel to him, even after all of it he still loved that smell.

“There you go and you are welcome.”  He said

The toilet filled with foam that rose like a mini nuclear explosion and ran over the sides of the bowl. The bath water began to leak over the sides of the bath in sheets, “Oh good, the bathroom is ruined again.” He said. She said nothing and began to sob hysterically her body wracked with the shakes.

He felt himself soften and the fight went out of him. He wanted to give her a hug but they were past that, so instead he turned the taps off and just watched her for a few seconds. She was sat on the toilet with her head resting on the wet wall tiles and her hands over her face.

“I’m going to bed now.” He said softly. His eyes shone wet as he pulled the cord and the extractor fan in the bathroom died. He pulled the door shut and undressed. There would be no point trying to brush his teeth without toothpaste, so he went through the pocket of a pair of jeans that lay in a crumpled denim heap at the foot of his bed and found a packet of chewing gum. He popped one into his hand and threw it into his mouth, then chewed loudly for a few moments as he undressed.

He switched the bedroom light out and closed the door then went and lay down in the dark. The thought of Kate in the bathroom, sat there in the dark crying or unrolling all of the toilet roll disturbed him. He wanted to fling the door open, he wanted to tell her he loved her still and that if he could he would take it all back. All of the arguments, all of the fights, he would especially take back the time were she burnt him with an iron. He would take it all back to their wedding day and she would be as happy as the day they had met. Her eyes would sparkle and smile as they often would.

He definitely wouldn’t have hit her with the axe they kept in the shed after a drunken row and buried her in the garden. Not if it was going to lead to this.

She opened the bathroom door and came over to him silently in the dark. He felt the pressure of her weight on the mattress as she lay down next to him.

“Goodnight,” he said to her.

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Returned- By Stephanie Sanassee

I yank my luggage off the carousel after struggling with one that has turned out not to be mine. A man with an L.A smile but kind eyes jogs over to me to claim it and begins running off jokes about how our bags look exactly the same. I humour him with a smile that has to be pulled to one side like a child about to be scolded. I can’t match his joviality, nor do I want to ignore it. I simply don’t mind his company but I want hit him all at the same time.

                “I hope you haven’t done a switcheroo on me and put things in there you shouldn’t have,” he continues, his set of blinding white teeth open up like a Venus Flytrap, letting out a hideous game show host laugh. He doesn’t stop even though we both have what we want and have started to roll across the concourse towards ‘Nothing to Declare’. Our little interaction in this time and space is supposed to be done. Over. Bye bye, take care now. But all the way out through to the sliding doors that reconnect you with the world, he yaps on about coming home for his parents wedding anniversary but his wife has flown out before him to help with preps and presents. He throws the occasional question in there to dig into my reasons for why I’m here, why a man who is all alone has been sitting on a plane for five hours without having shaved or worn a fresh pair of jeans. The paint is still on them from where I dropped the phone and flung the brush against the wall splattering myself with Frosted White that was supposed to lift the spirits of the hallway. She was going to hang wind chimes above the banister, to “attract things into our life” she’d said; but the world had other plans it seems because between one brush stroke and another, that life has been taken away.  That house will stay exactly the way I left it, in my memory it’ll always be empty and unfinished. Someone else will have to nest in it the way she had always wanted to. And yet this man that insists on being my escort through the airport seems to fill in the blank space and I’m actually grateful for it. I’m not able to return the same kind of friendliness to this stranger; I’ve come here to become one again. Or am I just coming back to the place I’d spent years trying to work out who I’d be once I left? I quicken my pace to shake him off and say: “you enjoy that party now,” with as much life as those immigration officers back there can give when they stamp your passport. 

                “I hope you have fun doing whatever it is you’re doing out here!”

I’m not giving you anything, my friend. Keep on wondering. There are no cabs out here in this little mountain town but the streets are clean and the air fresh and I’d happily walk a couple of miles with my eyes up to the peaks but Uncle Wilson insisted on coming to get me. A honk as lively and intrusive as sparkly mouth over there sounds out from a car across the street and in it waves a woman who must be his wife. I watch this guy jog over to her and wonder how he manages to find that kind of springy joy in anything.

I look left, I look right and one by one all the passengers from my plane are throwing themselves and their bags into familiar cars. Forty minutes go by before Uncle Wilson pulls up.

                “You been waiting long?” His voice calls from the driver side but I don’t see his face until he comes round the rear and gives me a quick but firm squeeze that winds me a little.

                “A fair while,” I heave my bag into the back.

                “Your plane landed at two-thirty didn’t it?”

                “No, I said one-fifty. You know what, it doesn’t matter. It’s a nice day anyways.”

The whole way up to the house we don’t talk about her, but then again we never really did before. Uncle Wilson takes his wisdom on love only from songs. To me she was more like the music itself, not the words. She’d fill a room like she was water, fluid, beautiful and consuming. She’d choke your chest but you’d stay there drowning in her anyways.

I stay like that thinking about her, about before when she was here with me, my thoughts drifting deep into those pine trees and way over there at the crossroads that take you either further into the green or way out to the desert.

                “Jenny says you can sleep in her room tonight since she’s going out to a dance,” Uncle says to me but keeps looking out his own window, I realise then that he hasn’t looked me in the eyes once since he saw me standing outside Arrivals.

                “Thanks,” I reply, not to Uncle or to Jenny for giving up her room. I’m thankful for the suggestion of sleep, but I know that it won’t get a hold on me tonight. It’s the silence I know this place can bring that will push me into knowing what to do next.

She could never sleep.

She’d come to life under midnight’s spell. She didn’t like to be up when the world was awake; she said she found more truth in its slumber. She’d be barefoot on the wooden floors in a nightgown she’d worn for a full week; her nails would be black from the charcoal, up all night lighting incense and making pictures. Breathing it all in like it was some sort of smoky elixir to cure her ails. Her pupils would push those green eyes further away. I see them in the trees now as Uncle Wilson tells me that he always loses his favourite radio station when he goes past the timber yard which we’re coming up to real soon.

Only in this town could you stop at a traffic light and see a deer by the roadside nibbling on a small tree, I’m marvelling at him on the inside and Uncle Wilson isn’t even looking. It’s something that probably would have made her cry.

I’m calling her back to me with my entire soul, and yet I was the one that made her disappear.

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Returned By Glen Cross

Returned

Anticlimax. Stark disappointment. These were the only things occupying the man’s head at that given moment. He had expected so much more. There had basically been the assumption that there would be so much, aesthetically and spiritually. He opened the aluminium pedestrian gate. It felt hot to the touch on this blistering July afternoon. There was a slight North-Easterly blowing which, thankfully, was pleasantly cool. According to the locals this was the breeze that always preceded a storm on this side of our floating rock. The facebrick pathway to the front door was relatively new and solid. He looked up from the distorting heat waves rising from the bricks at the two story house. Mine.

 

6 months. 6 months since he purchased the house for a pittance. He still remembered in vivid detail standing outside the house and feeling an indescribable emptiness. If only he had known back then; would he still have entered? Yes, he thought. Without a doubt. Without a doubt. He remembered the first time he saw it. Felt it. Tasted it. It happened without his knowledge at first. A simple stroll into the room, a picked up newspaper and a relaxed exit of the room. That was the sum total of it. It was only once he was reading said paper that he noticed that everything in the paper was off. In fact it was completely incomprehensible. The language was…wrong. The nearest he could tell was that it was a bizarre hybrid of English, German and possibly Italian. At first the man thought it was a joke paper, a simple jest aimed at the unwary; that is until he looked out the window and saw an eighteen foot high tank silently roll by his house. The twisted yet unmistakable logo on the strangely futuristic looking vehicle  struck terror into the core of his being. A Swastika.

 

In a blind panic he had tumbled back to the room he picked the newspaper up from and promptly fallen off the edge of the earth into a gaping maw of infinite blackness. Eternal horror, two more words with which to describe the colossal emptiness he had felt as he fell for an eternity.

 

Then he had stepped back into his hallway.

 

 The room had either dragged him to the brink of madness and given him a taster, or he had gone….somewhere else. So the stories had been true. The following months had been filled with exploration of different times, different places, always relatively safe. Still, he wondered, would he always be returned?

 

 

 

20 years. Nick could not believe such a beautiful house could stay abandoned for so long. He turned to his 5 year old daughter, “So what do you think Maggie?”

 

“Stinky!!!”, she squealed.

 

He had to admit it did smell like a bums flip flop in summer. After sending her to continue unpacking her toys, Nick decided a cold beer was on the cards. The sound of the shattering glass of the beer bottle brought a surge of adrenaline with it, urging Nick into action. MY DAUGHTER IS SCREAMING. The ten metres to the room felt like a lifetime.

 

The man was shaking Maggie by the shoulders demanding to know when and where he was. Seeing Nick enter the room seemed to bring some measure of lucidity to the shaggy bearded man’s eyes. He was wearing ragged clothes and was dirty from head to toe, scars on every piece of open flesh, his long, tangled, matted hair giving him a savage appearance. Nick swept Maggie up into his arms, burying her head into his chest so as to protect her.

 

 

After carrying Maggie to safety Nick charged into the room in a fury, intent on doing some gbh. Instead of a savage homeless man he saw the man for what he was; old , weary and weeping uncontrollably. The man spoke before Nick; “Please, for the love of God, tell me when we are?”

 

“Don’t you mean where?” Nick replied.

 

The stranger spoke again, in a voice barely more than a whisper;”Where and when.”

 

“Arkansas. And it’s 2032”, Nick said.

 

The man burst into tears again, mumbling something over and over again. In a brief flash of lucidity the man asked one more question, “Is there a leader, a president, and is America still a democracy?”

 

Not wanting to be in the room and looking to call the authorities, Nick gave a hasty “Yes”, to which the man replied to himself, “I have been returned”. That was the last legible word as the man descended into an endless flow of mumbling and gibberish.

 

As Nick walked out the room on the way to calling the authorities, he couldn’t help but think to himself; What was this “president” this man spoke of? A leader there was, but everyone knew that the Supreme Monarch Steeklingberg and his ancestors had ruled the Amerikas for centuries….

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Returned- By Gareth Topping

A mighty flame followeth a tiny spark.

Dante Alighieri

                The centuries have been long, and dark, and cold. There has been no true heat, no true life, since your long sleep. Your rest has been as long and dark and cold as time itself. It has not been peaceful, merely an absence of sensation and thought. In truth, it has been painful for you to bear, a dull, chill ache in your dusty black bones and your dust-dry veins.

                But now your rest is coming to an end. After all these years, after the rise and fall of civilisations across the world, the Time of Ashes is finally in its final few hours.

*

                As the Divine Fire begins to smoulder within you, your memories begin to return to you in a rush of soothing heat. You recall the last Time of Flames, when the world burned with vigour and life under your guidance. You remember the millions of primitive creatures that flourished under your heat and your light. You remember their vitality, their diversity, the simplicity of their lives. They existed, burned bright, then guttered away peacefully, like the flames you embodied.

                They didn’t understand your gift, but you didn’t require them to. You were satisfied in that primordial landscape. You bathed in calderas of lava and rivers of molten rock, soared through skies of crystal-blue, and the world was warm and safe.        

*

                Yet no fire can burn forever – except maybe yours – and the reptile creatures had burned long enough. The time came for them to be extinguished, to be consumed by the very flame that had sustained them. You did this without malice or hatred. You did it because even the brightest flame must eventually be robbed of its ferocity and become dust and cinders.

                You remember that day, so very long ago, back across the gulf of time. You remember the exact moment when you burst from the volcano you had claimed. You remember ascending – as the creatures watched you with sluggish, cold-blooded curiosity – above the world you had adopted, into the icy black infinity of space.

                You remember looking down on the oceans, the puffy ribbons of cloud, the single burnt-umber continent. How beautiful it had been.

                But no fire can burn forever.

                You fell. You fell like a comet, a burning harbinger of both extinction and creation.

                You struck the ground, and in a heartbeat, millions of creatures were wiped from existence, engulfed in blistering oblivion.

                But you weren’t finished. Flame is your essence, and with flame comes its younger siblings, smoke and ash. Your second murder was that of the climate as you choked those crystal-blue skies with hot black fog, and summoned the world’s boiling blood from its core.

                You did your duty. You watched over the reptiles as they burned and perished.

                The mammals managed to surprise you. You had feared that they would not survive the Extinguishing, that you would leave a world of scorched, lifeless rock, but the mammals – the tiny, insignificant creatures – began to exert their dominance over the world that they had inherited.

                You were satisfied. You could sleep now, knowing that your duty had been done, that the cycle of life, death, and rebirth was intact.

                You found somewhere quiet and secluded where you could sleep, one of the deepest and darkest pits in the world, a place where you would burn brightest of all when you awoke.

                By that time, your wings were dull, your skin the red of dying embers. There was no longer a flame-bright glint in your eyes, no halo of incandescent majesty upon your head. You were tired. So, so tired.

                And then you died, dissolving into a neat pile of ash.

*

                You weren’t aware of the changing world around you. You don’t know that the mammals became much, much more than even you could imagine. You don’t know about the long and torturous road they walked to become what they are now, how they went from primitive grunting hominids to the lords of this world.

                The lords of this world. Oh, how you will disprove that particular notion.

                But you don’t know about them yet. But they know about you, even if they think that you are only a myth, a storybook character. Just as you burned away the old world of the reptilians, so you burned a memory of yourself into the racial consciousness of the mammals. Just like you, the idea of you never died. In some cultures, it flourished.

                The ancient people of the lands that became known as Egypt, China, Persia, and India all incorporated you into their legends, but it was the tribes of ancient Greek that gave you the name that the world refers to you by.

                You would be so proud of them if you knew, but you would find it curious that they depict you as a bird-like creature. Yet then again, the mammals have such charmingly limited imaginations. 

*

                It is time.

                You wake, and it is not a peaceful awakening. It is glorious and thunderous, the blazing roar of a billion flames bursting back into furious, incendiary life.

                You ascend from your pit into the noisy, filthy world the mammals have built, and to see it causes a chill to pass through the roiling furnace of your soul. You should not have slept. It was a mistake for you to take your leave, to let life take its own course.

This… this is not what you wanted to return to. This is not a world you want to protect. The mammals despoiled and desecrated the world you wanted to protect centuries ago.

                This is a world that you want to cremate, right down to the bedrock, so that it might be reborn again from the ashes.

                You are deaf to their tiny, mammal squeaks of distress. You blaze into the sky, into the void.

                You look down upon the world. You don’t even recognise it any more. It isn’t your world.

                You burn hotter than the Sun and begin to fall, hoping that the cycle will not fail this time. 

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Les Mademoiselles- By Joe Butler

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The Playful Kittens- By Gareth Topping

“The Playful Kittens”

Our Feline Times arts correspondent Tibbles takes a harrowing and explicit look behind the scenes of a human cultural phenomena, in the first of a series of shocking articles.

 

Ten years ago, if you’d said to me that a picture of a fat grey cat accompanied by a caption in intentionally broken English inquiring whether or not he could have a cheeseburger would be one of the top-ranking Internet memes amongst our humans, I would’ve told you to stay off the catnip. But here we are, and the humans are still finding that iconic image amusing. I CAN HAZ CHEEZBURGER? indeed.

Thankfully, the humans believe that these Lolcat images, and the cats portrayed, are victims of circumstance, chance moments caught on camera and married with mangled one-liners. However, the Lolcat movement is a business as valid as any other, and I took it upon myself to discover the real extent of the operation from some of the movers and shakers.

It’s March 18th. I’m sitting in a shady garden with one of the top Lolcat executives, Gobbo. Throughout our conversation, he keeps his eyes on a valiant (or stupid) starling.

 

You would not believe the money that rolls in from this thing. I mean, really! You’ve seen how we’ve taken off in the past few years with our merchandise. Books, T-shirts, calenders, the whole she-bang. The humans love that s**t. I saw a guy the other day with a “Ridin Mah Invizzabul Bike” shirt, and I just thought, you dumb f**king ape, that’s helped paid for all that African springbok milk in my fridge.”

I ask him if all the other Lolcats are as well-off as him.

“I’d be lying if I said they were. But come on, it’s to be expected, right? I mean, I am one of the bosses after all. I helped get the ball rolling. F**k, I think of all the time I spent getting images just right and then flooding the 4chan message forums. Don’t speak to me about f**king 4chan.”

I politely remind him that he’s skirting the real issue raised by the question.

“And what real issue is that? You think the stagecats are being taken advantage of, or exploited? That’s bulls**t. Well, not really I guess, not anymore. Back before we cornered the market, back when there was Funnycats.com and Failcats.com and a thousand other sites all trying to jump on the bandwagon… well, it was pretty grim. Lolstars weren’t getting the right benefits or health and safety checks. But we’re a lot more professional now. Our Lolstars are checked and only allowed to work with us if they’re clean, and we never get them to perform or pose if they’re underage or we don’t have their consent.”

I ask him if the policy changes were due to the 2008 Kitten Scandal, in which over forty 10-day old kittens were photographed for LOLs. Gobbo stops watching the starling and faces me.

“No. F**king. Comment.”

I leave.

March 22nd. I’m on-set with one the top Lolstars, Minxy Sphinxy (not her real name). I manage to catch a few minutes with her before her set.

 

“Sometimes I wonder why I’m still doing this. I mean, I’ve made enough for early retirement, easy. My dad’s stopped speaking to me ever since he saw pictures of his little girl all across the Internet, crammed into Tupperware containers or riding on top of a human’s head or sticking my face into a Dorito’s packet… I guess it broke his heart. But I was like, hey Dad, it’s my nine lives, I can do what I want? And then he just whined and bitched about how he’d failed at bringing me up right and some s**t. Well, he had. It was just Mom and me growing up, while Dad went out and f**ked anything with a tail.”

I offer my condolescences.

“Oh, don’t bother. I know what you’re thinking; oh, typical silly Lolstar, daddy issues that can be seen from space, let’s work out that angst by degrading myself on camera. Well, it’s true, I did some pretty nasty things when I was starting out. But now I’ve got standards. And think of it this way sweetheart, who’s really being degraded here? Me, whose going onto set in a few minutes to eat some steak so one of the writing cats can stick OM NOM NOM or some c**p to the picture, or one of the humans sitting at home alone, waiting and waiting for the website to update? Everytime I have a little doubt about what I’m doing, I think of some snorting idiot ape and how I’m better than them. That’s why I’m still doing this.”

March 27th. I find Jericho in an alleyway that stinks of despair and urine. It’s hard to believe that the bag of bones in front of me was the original Longcat.

 

“Oh yeah, I was a Lolstar. A great one too! The f**king best! Such a simple act, but so effective. I mean, LONGCAT IS LONG. Pure poetry. I had all the tail and all the nip I wanted. I lived like a f**king king, just because I was long. But times change. Suddenly, being Longcat wasn’t e-f**king-nough. You seen the site recently? The Lolcat site?”

I tell him I’m more of a Failblog fan.

“(laughs) Yeah, I hear that! Watching those humans f**k themselves up is great stuff. And they’re still doing it by accident! By chance! They never worked out that all the Lolcat stuff was staged, a f**king hoax! Just you wait, some clever cat is going to get his claws into that, and then we’ll have the humans dancing to our tune. But that’ll be after we f**k up Loldogs. I mean, dogs? Where’s the f**king appeal in dogs!?”

Jericho descends into incoherent rambling about Loldogs. I toss him some spare IAMS and leave.

 

Money, glamour and ruin; the inevitable consequences of an online comedic legacy, or the building blocks of the greatest exploitation known in feline history? I fear that we may never know.

“The Playful Kittens” continues in next Sunday’s Feline Times supplement.   

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An Invitation- By Gareth Topping

Dearest Friend ,

I most humbly extend to you an invite to attend the most spectacular Last Day Celebration, to be held on (obviously) The Last Day.

This most spectacular of events shall be witnessed from the main hall at the House at the End of the World, which can easily be located by taking three steps into the past, and then walking until you forget your destination. You should then find the House just over the Blind Horizon, at the Centre of Nothing, in the Eye of Yesterday.

Please arrive promptly, as you will not be admitted after  ∞:30 !

Casual dress is permitted, but please be aware that some attendees may be attired in non-Euclidean clothing and/or form.

Also, dear friend, I should inform you that there will be several VIPs attending the celebration, and they are strange folk with odd customs. In summary –  do not make eye contact with The Pale Queen, graciously accept whatever gift The Garbed-In-Gold Man offers you, and never, under any circumstance, tell the truth to The Paradox Child.

You are free to mingle and converse, however the main event shall begin when the Oblivion Clock has chimed sixteen, and the Altar of Naught is in the ascendant. You will then be obliged to imbibe a draught of Primordial Ichor.

Please consult with our catering staff and inform them of any allergies/mental instabilities you may have before you consume the Ichor.

We shall then revel under the un-light of the decaying sky, until the stars have all breathed their last and Existence is only a memory which you were never permitted to own.

Please R.S.V.P ,  A.S.A.P !

Yours sincerely,

The Impossible King

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