Saving souls

“I should be the one to go. I am strong, fast and skilled. I can get in and save them, and I can get out. Nothing can stop me. I have faced far worse terrors than this, and always won. This challenge was made for me!”

“These people need moral and spiritual succour and support. I have trained my mind and body for over fifty years in accepting the little surprises and interesting events that life throws at us. I should be there to help these people embrace their circumstances.”

The custodian gazed down at the two men standing before him: the magnificent Nordic soldier and the slight old man. This really was a most bizarre situation. The two great men had argued all night or rather ‘had enlightening discussions’ since brave soldiers did not argue with old men, and wise gurus did not argue with anyone. Each wanted to be the one to give up his life on a desperate quest with no reward except reputation.

The earthquake hit two days ago, causing utter chaos. One of the worst-hit areas was the mountain school of Manxia, which had become a symbol in this tragedy. The earthquake had cut it off from all communications. Now the slightest tremor would bring the mountain down. The chances of anyone having survived were slim, and chances of a rescue party making it in and out were even slimmer.

“Gentlemen, your help is not required. I have recently been informed that a group of concerned relatives snuck into the mountains early this morning to be with their loved ones. We cannot allow another group to go in, so let us pray that they achieve peace and possibly safety without your aid.”

Suitor

He’s not a bad boy, really, just young, and the son of a famous father: he thinks the gods favour him. He has never been able to believe I don’t care for him. I refuse his gifts, and turn my head away from his compliments, and he simply presses me more ardently. In his mind I admire him already – the trick is to make me admit it. He is only a year or two younger than I am, but I feel so much the older.

So this is the latest attempt. He’s so proud of the stupid things, and the fact is, he just looks silly. They’re beautiful, the feathers set so carefully in the wax in that graceful curve, but they look odd and awkward attached to someone’s arms. And Zeus knows if they work at all it’s his father’s doing, not his. Even imprisoned as he is the father is a great man; the son is a spoiled child.

When he came to show me he was strutting like a giant bird, boasting of how high he’d fly.

And I stand here, in the hot sun, and watch them. It was never about me, of course. The king will be furious at their flight. They’re soaring like the seabirds, away from his father’s achievements and the king’s jealousy. Silly boy, he hasn’t thought it through – he can’t ever return to see if I was impressed. And yet there he is, trailing his vanity across the sky, going higher and higher.

The gods watch over them, him particularly. He’s so young.

Warning

Oh, you should not have come in here, with your curious eyes. Don’t start with me, don’t go ogling my stuff, don’t go touching anything. You’re defiling my perfection, the settee just so, the curtains so fine, all mine. You reek of sweat, and what is it – fear?

It’s dawning on you now. You’re reading the wrong story.

What was it? Idiot curiosity? Watery eyes mindlessly running down a page? I cannot be more clear: you are not wanted here. Fuck off.

There’s a girl on the chair, looking at you now. This is all your fault, you know, you should have gone away. Last chance: stop reading now. No one needs to get hurt. She’s pretty, isn’t she? Straight as a bone, sharp as an arrow. If you stop here, she will be just fine. Just fine.

But no. Well, it’s all on your head now, I’m not enjoying this one bit. Look at those ties, what is it – fishing line? Oh, cutting into her flesh, so sharp, so fine. Blood wells onto stretched nylon, drips onto my lovely rug. You’ll pay for this.

She cries. Such pain. And fear: she knows (I know what she knows) what a sick, sick fuck you are. She knows you’ll never stop, you’ll let her die, just for the sake of some dumb story. A story you won’t even remember tomorrow.

Tell you what: go now, and I’ll free her. I’ll stop the blood. I’ll give her a puppy, true love, a happy ending. I can do all that in here, I’ll do it just to get the stink of you out of my world.

Do we have a deal?

But no. Here you still are.

Well, it’s all on your head now.

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?”

Another Assignment

Beads of sweat roll down the preacher’s forehead from the bright studio lights.
“You pick up your GUN and you call me! Call me on 555-GOD-LOVES-YOU.”
He sings out his last few sentences, his body shaking and his face flushing beetroot red.
“And… clear. We’re off the air, Father.”
“Thank you, son. My best performance yet, don’t you think? Prepare for twice as many hits as last night.”
“Yes, Father.”
“I’m getting too good for this gig.” He grabs the Egyptian cotton towel roughly from the runner and wipes his brow.
*
Controller Gibson sits in his office, watching the preacher on the CCTV. He signals his attendant to bring the preacher up to his office. He unlocks and opens the top drawer of his desk, removes the taser, checks the charge.
*
“Now? But I’m due back on in ten minutes. I can’t lose my spot at the top.”
The attendant stands mute. He gestures down the corridor towards the Controller’s office.
The preacher starts sweating again.
*
“Father, please, sit down,” Gibson rumbles.
A recording of the Controller plays: “As you tap your feet nervously, you pick up the taser.
As your hand begins shaking, you close your eyes and jam the taser onto your head.”
The preacher froths at the mouth; dots of spittle spray onto Gibson’s mahogany desk.

He sits back, hits Save. Referencing someone else’s story. Brilliant.
Still under the word count. Best story yet.
And a few days early, too.

He folds the laptop shut and turns on the TV.
“You hear my voice, telling you about the LORD!”
He shifts uncomfortably in his seat.

Prowess

I was at Brown’s last night: that place is floating in hot woman. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. You know since I’ve been studying NLP no woman can deny me. Seriously, this stuff works on anyone:  Stand right, speak right, do the anchoring carefully and presto!

I was at Brown’s last night – no don’t look at me like that. Anyway it’s not like I was looking for nice conversation; it was 2am and I was drunk. There were some semi-hot guys and this one dumb-looking blonde guy caught my eye.

As soon as she walked in I knew she was going to be the one to make my fucking night. But I take it easy and just go over and sit nearby. So we chat comfortably about her family and I do the touches and all resistance crumbles.

So this guy comes over but he’s awkward and just sits looking at me until I talk. He’s creepy: he keeps touching the inside of my wrist as he asks me about my dad and other private shit. But I’m drunk and it’s late so I do the thing with my eyes and stick my tits out (no man can resist me when I try) and soon he’s mine.

She was so hot for me she was almost doing me right there in the club. I had her screaming my name a few times back at her place; lucky girl.

I had a dry run with him on the dance floor to see if he was worth taking home but it wasn’t that good in the end anyway. I was too drunk to enjoy it and I hate it when men thank you afterwards.

The Engine

“My genius literally knows no bounds.”

Louis looked up from the paper he was reading.

“Yes,” he said irritably, “what is it now?”

William stood before his desk looking very please with himself.

“I have fixed it – Engine XI works,” he announced.

“Really?” asked Louis.  “You know they have been working on that Engine for years.”

“Oh, yes, I am quite aware of that,” said William.

“And you’ve been four months and you think you’ve managed to get the Engine to work?”

“It’s five months actually,” corrected William.  “But yes, I have made it work.  I am just that good.”

“Let me see,” said Louis holding out his hand.

William pulled from this waistcoat with some flourish a stack of papers.

“My genius,” he said and handed it over.

Louis paged through the document, pausing here and there to take a closer look at the diagrams.

“This is quite… something,” said Louis.

“I know,” beamed William.

“You have tested it?” asked Louis.

“Yes, and you will note on the last page that the test was observed by the Head,” said William leaning forward pointing.

“The Head of Botany,” said Louis paging forward.

“He is a faculty member,” sniffed William.

“We are engineers, we make things we do not grow things,” said Louis.  But he had to admit, the young man was right and he knew it.

William struck a pose giving Louis his profile, hands on his hips.

“Praise me,” he said.

“Well done,” said Louis.

“Thank you very much,” said William with a bow.

“Engine XI,” said Louis as William was about to leave.  “You know numbers start from one and move up?”

William’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“Engine XI,” smiled Louis, “is one of three engines we’ve managed to get working.  I’m sure you can spread your genius to the others.”

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.

The King

“I just… I just don’t see how this is helping,” he said, head bowed.

“You don’t need to see. You don’t need to understand, Elvis. You just need to follow orders.” The Colonel stood up, making motions to leave. He felt a pang of pity for the soldier, remembered when he was in a similar situation many moons ago. A few less sequins, though. A lot less junk food.

“Colonel,” he said, edging closer, “it’s not me.” He glanced around, afraid that someone was watching, listening. “I can’t pretend to be this person anymore. I don’t think I’m fooling anyone. And this.” He brushed a burger aside and picked up a sheet of music from his make-up table. “Blue Suede Shoes. Carl did this, a few months ago. An extra body was shipped in for him, he burnt through the first one so fast. Why do I have to do the same song again?”

The Colonel sighed, ran his paw through his slick-backed tentacles. He brushed some glitter from his insignia. “Listen to me, son,” he said, placing his hand gently on Elvis’s shoulder. “This planet is important to us. Not just you and I, not just the military, but our people. Our race. This Thread is important to us.”

Elvis looked at his mentor and tears welled up in his eyes behind his sunglasses. He longed to be free of this body, of this place with its heavy gravity. He turned to his mirror and wiped his eyes. He stood up and shook his hips at his reflection.

“Well, it’s one for the money…”

Blue genes

Only if both parents carry the gene….

Tom Petersen slowly placed the knitted bookmark against page seventeen, closed the magazine and very carefully put it down on the table. The bookmark had been a present from his daughter, Karen, for his forty-third birthday. It was green with pretty blue polka-dots; they popped strikingly against the green background but were much less bright than Karen’s blue eyes. His wife Rachel’s eyes were almost as blue as Karen’s, but not quite. They always joked about how his own bronze-brown eyes had zapped the mist out of Rachel’s powder-blue eyes to produce Karen’s perfectly azure ones.

To the repeating mantra in his head, Tom turned off the lights in the study, took the trash outside for the Tuesday morning collection, checked that the front and back doors were locked, and started up the stairs. To the mantra, he paused outside his daughter’s bedroom, softly opened the door and silently crossed the room. And to the mantra, he picked up a discarded pillow and gently placed it over her face, so that he would never have to see those beautiful azure-blue eyes again.

Downstairs, the lights of a passing car swung past the house, briefly illuminating the scientific magazine on the table in the study. Emblazoned on its cover in brilliant yellow text, below a picture of a beautiful blue-eyed child, was the phrase: “Defined by DNA: Find out what your genes say about you.”