A New World

The pod burns through the sky: we must seem a blazing arc, a shooting star. The shaking and turbulence recede, the flames and glow dissipate. Through the porthole we can see land below us, growing, taking shape. This is the right place: there is the river, and now the delta, splayed like a hand through dark, rich alluvium.

Then it passes us, and we’re over the ocean; a harsh break as parachutes open. Quick descent, jarring impact.

Relief. It’s all over and we’re still safe. But we look at each other — soon we will have to venture out. This pod cannot remain our home for much longer.

Paradise Ranch

In the United States, in Nevada, there is a lake. Beside this lake is an airfield with its buildings and sheds, warehouses, hangers, garages and yards. Inside are the dead bodies of grey humanoids, stretched out as if asleep on gurneys. And a giant ring which, when stepped through, will take you to the stars. Also, a machine the size of your hand that will show you your past; a crashed UFO that our fine engineers are still examining; the offices of a shadowy cabal that was brought together by Harry S. Truman to hide the truth.

These are secret things. We keep them hidden from you because knowing them will harm you. All the things which are a danger to society and the world, those things are here: the Ark of the Covenant, the true map of the land-surface hidden under the Antarctic ice-shelf, drawn circa 500 – 550 CE.

We ensure that nothing escapes. For your protection.

Inside yourself, in your heart, is a box. This box is locked with your mind and with your emotions; inside is the person you first loved and first lost. There is the Alsatian you grew up with, who you held while the vet put down. And that is your fear that your legs are too thin, your gut too large, your eyes too big, your lips too small. Those are the people who laughed at you when you were growing up; and dead grandmothers; broken homes; alcohol.

Hiding in the corner, under the blankets, are your forgotten dreams.

The locks around your heart are mostly strong. They ensure that nothing escapes. So we think only of the aliens who are coming — or who are perhaps already here. That God is about to call us up, that the sinners will be punished, and that the government should stop hiding the truth from us.

Sometimes we think of where our Alsatian is buried, although we no longer live in that house.

Everything else is rumour and conspiracy.

Vitae

His name is Jerry and hers is Christine. Every Thursday they book a table although they never ask for a particular one; for the last few weeks I’ve made sure that Cassiel seats them on the balcony.

They arrive around 7pm and watch the sunset. But something is different tonight: Jerry is tense, from what I cannot tell. Christine seems her usual self and smiles at the waiter, asks for water and a glass of the house white. Jerry mumbles for the red; his fingers tap staccato on the table; he stares out across the town, across the city lights below us.

I send Cassiel over to deliver their drinks. Cassiel is amused at my interest — and then humours me. She brings two bottles of wine and uncorks it in front of them, pours each the drink of their choice. I understand that having the owner do this is a compliment, in this case more for me than for them.

But they don’t notice.

Jerry is imagining a man’s face, cleanly shaven, thin, with a well-defined jawline and high cheeks, full eyebrows, no lips. It’s a beautiful face, except for the lips.

Starters are deep-fried corn cakes with plum sauce. He orders more wine, a whole bottle. Next, a butternut soup with coconut milk instead of cream, garnished with cilantro; and then the orange-glazed duck and the roast rosemary potatoes. He chews the corn cakes, barely tasting them; the soup he almost drinks and he ignores the bread; he tears more than cuts, packs into his mouth more than eats. Christine has picked up on his tension; she no longer dips bread into her soup and spoons it up instead. She’s eager to finish, to leave. She stares at the table.

I nudge Fluffy — with some work I can make her understand that I want her to visit their table, but Jerry kicks at her while she twines between his chair legs. Her pain is small, but her anger and fear intense.

She hides herself in the rafters where I let her be. Her anger towards me will pass. When my attention returns to Jerry and Christine they have already left, leaving money scattered on the table.

I wonder if they will return. Cassiel shakes her head and tells me no.

Lepidoptera

Jason met her after the aircraft accident, when he’d moved south to live with his Aunt Sheila. There was little for him to do except recover, but the writing and speech exercises frustrated him, and the intensity of his headaches were frightening. He was ten years old and tired of being kept indoors, so he dragged a chair to a window, pushed his crutches through, and carefully slid out after them.

He was sitting at the lake on a dilapidated wooden pier when Anna found him. He told her, in his broken, halting speech, that he wasn’t crying — he was scratching at his eyes because they itched. She showed him how to fish with a length of nylon and a bent safety-pin.

He never told Aunt Sheila that he was sneaking out of the house. The speech exercises remained frustrating, and the growing number of pills didn’t help with the headaches.

Two weeks later his Aunt told him that they had to move. We need more money, she said. There are better jobs in the City. Better speech therapists. The day before they moved, after most of the packing was done, he saw Anna for the last time. Jason was no longer in a cast, and walked down to the lake without his crutches. Anna grabbed his hand, wouldn’t say where she was taking him, and showed him to a stunted tree covered in colourful butterflies.

They’re not butterflies, she said. They’re moths.

But moths only fly at night.

Some like the day, too!

She held them in her hand, put some in his. Their little feet were ticklish, their wings were warm, and they seemed unafraid. Jason laughed.

He’s thirty-five now. He has friends and has sometimes been in love. Occasionally he has felt loved in return. He remembers her name was Anna, but he can’t remember her face. He still dreams of her hands covered in butterflies.

Too Cold

It began with seeds, floating on the wind, landing between the grasses. The weather changed, grew warmer, grew wetter — the seeds caught in the earth and sprang up, first a few, then many, until the ground was dappled in the summer and in the winter the steel grey of a cloudy sky could only peek between the clutter of bare branches.

Animals visited and lived, moved in moved on, their lives momentary, ephemeral. They flourished, they died, they brought seeds and life and sound and disaster and decay; they were the daily routine, the things that quickly passed, that stood out amongst the trees, the landscape. Termites burrowed into the oldest tree in the heart of the wood; a fire killed off all the underbrush and saplings. Deer came for a season, wolves for two.

Trees were cut, for space, for land, for wood, for warmth. First slow, then not so slow. Grassland and pasture and herds encroached. A road marched between and through, and then few trees remained.

The weather changed, grew warmer, grew colder. The last planes flew overhead. The herds died; the road cracked, broke apart. A shoot appeared. The saplings returned.

And when the road was gone the weather grew colder, grew drier.

Gaggle of Children

It all begins with school, I tell them. If you can’t take lunch money off a kid in a school-yard, then you aren’t going to lift money from anybody on the street. Sometimes that’s an easy lesson for them to learn — usually I need to beat them.

On the street you need to keep it simple. Begin small — maybe petty theft from street-stalls; one kid plays the distraction, another pockets something. Both need to be able to run fast. I don’t have my kids steal cars, but I do have them run things for me. Messages across town, a few grams of coke. There is an advantage to youth in this: the younger, the more innocent — the less apparent guilt. Too young, though, and that’s a complication.

Halloween is one of my favourite holidays, when I can dress my children up and send them out under cover of crowds. Usually my children need to show some subtlety, but that’s not true for this one night. No doubt you’ve seen them — you feel them watching, you wonder what they want. I dress them up as animals, the dog, the cat, the donkey, the pig. And yes, if you’ve ever crossed me, then you should worry when you see them gathering on your doorstep. Because even if they’re sweet looking and innocent, they could still be one of mine. Heartless and cold, not just the animal on the outside, but an animal on the inside.

And they could be waiting for you.

Quotes

Fellow MicFictioneers,

I have been busy laying out MicFic: The Bookering, and have a question. At the moment I’m laying out themes as a double page spread. I’ve hacked together a PNG of what that looks like, but you should have a look at the example file. The left page is currently blank for the image, while the right page gives the theme title and a little quote.

I’ve taken the quotes from one of the micfic entries for that theme (the one above is, conveniently, from my entry for Ghost). I’ve also made sure that each person has a quote, but this does pose a question: what quotes do you micfictioneers feel are your best?

If you want to let me know, reply with a list of your own favourite quotes (that means quotes from your own stories, not someone elses!), one from each piece, like so:

Stop: “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Gone: “Then he turned to me and said, ‘Poof! Gone!'”

Ghost: “Oh. My. God.”

And so on! I will then choose between the quotes, and try to get your most preferred quote into the Bookering.

Also, if you disapprove of quotes, now is the time to raise your voice in protest!

 

Finding Becky

Becky once said — or so I’ve been told — that my scars are a sign of my achievements. That was such a cutting thing to say.

You see: the barkeep in this little, lakeside village tells me that he serves the best drinks this side of the water. My landlady tells me that I’ll find no better room in the village, nor no better landlady — that comes, of course, at a price. The muleteer has the hardest working mules, the pie-maker the richest gravy, the puffiest crust. They want something, all of them. There is an uncontrolled need in them, a hunger, a greed.

You see: these people are like my scars. They remind me of a past I’m glad to have outgrown, of my “achievements”, which are only the outcomes of a dubious, immature intent.

And so instead of looking for my sister I drink cheap wine and remember what I once was — I imagine what I want to be. What would Becky think if I went searching for her at her doorstep? Would she talk to me? Should I leave her to find me instead? I remind myself that I am capable of acting, and sometimes we need to act even though the consequences are unclear.

Her family home is empty. Someone sits at the pier’s end, cigarette in hand, facing out towards the water. I don’t recognise her, but it’s been so long.

I haven’t come to prove anything. I hope she no longer wants me dead.

Becky doesn’t turn as I walk up behind her, but surely she can hear me. I say, through my mask, “Becky?”

Blue

A poet – I look for them when we’re in port – once told me, “I see a malaise on your soul, little warrior.” But I’m only a cabin-boy, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’m not young enough anymore to be called by childish names. Still, malaise is a beautiful, difficult word. It sounds like something the captain or our doctor would use, but the sense of it is clear enough: sometimes, when I’m running a message, or scrubbing the deck, or tidying a cabin, I know I’m doing these things only because I have to. There is no want in me to do them, to sing and joke in the mess, to talk with others at our bunks before sleep.

I watch the doctor: he moves from action to action as if a fire burns within him. I know that’s something I’m missing; no fire burns inside of me. I think that’s what the poet meant: everything the doctor does he does as though a life depends on it, and no lives depend on me.

Our ship’s lone guest sometimes reminds me of the poet, the doctor’s fire, and myself.

He sits at the bow with his walking stick and a white mask he always wears. Sometimes the captain is with him, but the masked man doesn’t speak much, and the captain has been standing with him less and less.

Our guest also doesn’t speak to me, but he lets me sit beside him. I think that, like me, there is no fire in him, no heat. It’s not the here and now – not the ship or its people – that call to him: he watches, always watches, outward, towards the sea.

He watches the blue of the horizon.