Short Stories

Image Credit: Ruslan Bardash

Gelato

My mum waves goodbye at me. The Juicy sign printed on the bottom of my trousers surely did me a favour when I turned around and walked through those security gates. It gave my mum the impression that I was happy to leave, but I guess that’s what glitter does. 

I stop at one of the slim mirrors by the Ray-Ban till in the duty-free zone. I reach for my Barry M XXXL Plumping Lip Gloss which is almost the only thing in my tiny Jacquemus bag and apply it with precision. I could begin to think about not living with my mum anymore to feel the extra sadness. I hear the faint machinery voice speak “Please do not leave any bags unattended,” and then for some reason, I’m back to a better reality. I walk towards Gate 4B so I can sit down. I chose a seat facing the big windows where I can see the planes coming and going. The sun, which romantically stares right at me, reads aloud a letter of true love. I can feel a toasty voice, speaking only of affectionate words of sunbeams all over my hot black skin. There is a white lady opposite me, her cheeks rosy and her hair ash blonde. She looks like a movie star in her tank top which reads ‘Why Do Men Love Bitches?’. I wonder if she is starting a new life or just going for a vacation. Nah, I think she is just going on vacation. I put my Airpods in and play ‘Reckless’ by Wizkid, resisting the urge to move my waist.

After I pass London’s airport boarding checks, the gushing wind coming from the plane overtakes me, but the sun is still my friend who stops me from falling over. The line to get into the plane is not like the usual wait. Two older women in front of me, both wearing pearl necklaces, are conversing together about something clearly interesting, causing them to stroll instead of speed walk. I just don’t understand what about though, they are speaking Italian. 

“Ticket please,” says the flight attendant. She looks almost identical to the girl that was sitting opposite me at the gates earlier.

“Here,” I reply nervously as if I hadn’t already passed security. She scans the ticket with her eyes and points to the seats.

“E41. Straight down on the left. Benvenuto on board to Venice, Italia.” She smiles and hands me back my ticket.

As I walk down this aisle, all I see is old, middle-aged, young white people. I struggle to walk down the runway. It is super tight making me more anxious to just be seated already. A girl and her boyfriend are sitting next to me. They both have a strong Italian accent. He stands up to assist me with my bags and place them into the bag compartment above our heads. 

“Here, I’ll take this for you,” he says.

“Thank you, I’m by the window,” I reply, still standing beside him struggling. 

“Go, you can sit, I got this. You from Italy?” he asks.

“I will be from there now. I’m moving.” Before returning the question, I catch the girl beside him cutting her eyes at me. So, I squeeze past her and I sit in my seat. I’m comfortable.

“You alright there?” the boy says once he has sat down. 

“Yeah, thanks for that,” I say quickly to avoid any more conversation or possible drama on the plane ride. 

The plane ride went as I expected. I watched the Titanic on the mini-TV in front of me. I cried and cried as if it was the first time I watched it. It was the sixth. The sun was much harsher here, devouring my every piece of hair the second I came off the plane as bees would to honey. Even security here was different. Literally. I hold my matching juicy couture hoodie in my arms, along with my luggage and wait for my taxi man to load my belongings in the car. He looks very young; his scrawny arms tell me this. He is smoking a cigarette, puffing it impatiently. I pull out my phone to send my mum the mandatory flight text ‘Landed safe and sound. I’ll call you when I can. Love you ma xx’. He throws his cigarette and doesn’t stand on it to put it out. He takes my bags and puts in the boot and opens the passenger door as if I should sit there and then goes around to sit in the driver’s seat. I chuckle because I know from this point, London isn’t my home anymore. I close the passenger door and open the back door and sit inside. He turns around to look at me whilst starting the car and laughs. 

“Ha-ha chocolate girl, I just to make you comfort.” He smirks. The engine revs. I think he meant comfortable.

I didn’t know what to say so I say, “Do you have an aux cord?” with one of the many dirty looks I can give. He looks confused. So, I point to my music app and then the radio on the car. 

“Ahhhh ok scusa. Si, Si. Here. Bluetooth,” he says. As soon as I connect to the Bluetooth, he drives off to my destination. 

I sit in the car listening to Chris Brown’s Indigo album. The windows are all down and I’ve never felt a summer like this before. As we drive, I see kids on their bikes and people of all ages with ice cream in their hands. My eyes gaze at vivid flower fields that I’ve never seen a single day in my life in London.  I see couples who were actually speaking to each other and not taking pictures or texting. I see an elderly man, poorly attempt to hide a bouquet of white tulips from his lady and surprise her. For the first time in a very long time, I take a deep breath and inhale rhythmically. I don’t think about who I didn’t text back or the poor decisions I’ve made with the friends I no longer have or the boy who never cared for me. I don’t sit and stay on my phone. Or even have the urge to. This was a change I needed. 

Madonna dell ‘Orto, Venice. This where I’m staying. It looks pretty busy. I wasn’t aware of this but I’m happy. My apartment is in a tall light pink and light blue dusted building, with French balconies. This is what I have always pictured. Not exactly, but almost. My door number is 42. I’m high up. I have a view where I can see the sun come up and go down. I can see all the water Venice is consumed by. The inside of this apartment smells like sandalwood. I find myself connecting to the Wi-Fi, blasting another album on the speakers and run into the shower. 

“Oooo it’s cold!” I scream. The water is so cold it hurts, but I leave it on. I run out of the shower after 15 minutes. Do you know how good it feels walking around in this apartment with no clothes on and water dripping from the tips of my hair?  I felt like a bad bitch. Anyway, I open my suitcase and pick my clothes out on the floor. I have no urgency to put all my things away and be organised. Cocoa butter, satin scrunchie, flip flops, a mini dress. I’m good to go. I take in the hot air and strut my way around the area. I finally find a corner shop, alongside pizzerias and masquerade shops. There are two young men. One dark-skinned, the other one of a much lighter complexion. I make eye contact with the darker man and he shyly looks away. I pull my skirt down a little as I walk by, to avoid any unnecessary comments. I don’t receive any. Nor did any of them come and speak to me. As I walk into the corner shop, I whimsically thought to myself wow, are the men here different too? No catcalling, no harassment, nothing? But my thoughts are destroyed by the bald fat man who is sitting in the corner smoking a cigar, with his phone camera pointing directly at me. 

“Are you filming me?” I shout, hot and bothered. He quickly put his phone down and continues to sit there staring right at my boobs. “Ergh! so fucking disgusting!” 

The man behind the till says, “Anglais?” 

I look at him annoyed and respond with, “What?”

“Anglais?” he repeats. 

An older woman just stands there staring at me in disgust. I can’t tell if she didn’t like the way I spoke so loudly, or if she just didn’t like me. I figured that he was asking if I spoke English. I ignore him out of frustration and go to pick up a bottle of water and go back to the till. 

“This and a sim card, please”. He scans my bottle of water and doesn’t say another word to me. “Hello? Do you sell sim cards here?” I ask.

“No Anglais, Scusa,” he says as the two boys outside walk in and hear him. I stand there before paying for the water and use my earring to spring out my sim card port and show him, “This? Do you have this?” I say as if I was speaking to child.

“Ah no, no, no,” he says with a forced smile on his face.

I leave the shop very bothered. As sweat particles form on my head, I aggressively open the water bottle when the tall young man follows me outside of the shop. His skin is the richest of black I’ve seen. His teeth so bright I began to feel insecure about mine. 

“Everything okay?” he says, his accent charming.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I reply, defending myself. 

“Do you need help with anything?” he asks kindly.

“No. I’m good… are you okay?” I ask. His beauty is deserving of a kind response, but I can’t give him the satisfaction.

He lets out a cheeky smile, whilst squinting holding his hands over his eyes, he breathes out, “I heard you ask for a sim card. You can buy it from there. The blue one. 2 Euros. Enjoy the rest of your day.” He walks away without looking back and there I am standing. This was enough to bring my thought of men being different here, back.

My body aches from all the walking but it feels nice. Nothing beats this feeling of my bare feet on the floor of my room. I throw myself into my bed. This feeling of being in a place so familiar but unfamiliar makes me feel whole here.

I was sweating in my sleep, so I drench myself with cold water in the shower and then make my way to the centre. The city looked much calmer today, I guess everyone’s busy. I’m sitting at the bus stop, listening to the ‘Hot girl Summer’ playlist and for one moment, I realised that I am alone, but I am happier. The soft pink balsam plants growing beside me are radiating peace. I forgot to oil between my thighs because now they’re rubbing together as I walk. 

Google maps has never confused me more than today. In London, I hated using Google maps. I always used Waze which got me to my destination faster but today I’m not in a rush and to be honest, I don’t have anywhere to be, so why stress? All the women I see are wearing short skirts with tops revealing a lot of cleavages. I dressed appropriately, though it seems as if I haven’t from the gaze. As I walk through what seems to be the city of lovers, I find myself attempting on multiple occasions to block the sun from my screen. While trying to find some shade, I see him. Or I find him, I must say. He, who holds summer romance in his face. He, who I saw in the corner shop yesterday, is wearing a fresh pair of white air-forces, distracted on his phone as he walks towards the ice-cream parlour. I speed walk, so now I’m standing in front of him in this queue. From the reflection of the glass, I can see him still on his phone walking and then he finally stops right behind me in the line and looks up, away from his phone. These massive Dior glasses are doing me justice right now because he looks right at me into the reflection of the glass smirking. In perfect timing, I take them off and look straight at the menu. I can feel his eyes fondling the bare skin on my back exposed through the backless satin halter-neck dress I’m wearing.

“Hi,” I say to the waiter, twirling my fingers in the curls of my hair. “Can I please have a cone, with erm pistachio and vanilla please?”

“Medio o grande?” she asks, pointing at the size chart.

“Erm medium, please,” I reply.

“Farlo due volte per favoure.” I hear lover boy’s voice speak from beside me. He brings out his cardholder to pay for both mine and his ice cream. He looks at me and smiles. 

“What? I just want the same gelato as you.”

I felt a flutter of butterflies mingle in my stomach and suddenly forgot how to speak.

“Malik,” he says.

“Destiny.” I blush, without making eye contact. 

As we walk out of the shop, he opens the tiny box he had in his other hand. A cake but I couldn’t tell which flavour it was. “In a better mood today, I see?” he asks.

“Thank you for the ice cream but don’t you have somewhere to be?” I ask, in a nice tone. 

“Well, if I don’t, will you let me walk with you?” The piece of cake getting all of his attention.

“I’m going into the art gallery. So, I don’t have much walking to do anymore,” I say whilst licking my ice cream.

“Well, they won’t let you in with the ice-cream now so you gotta finish it before you go in, but you knew that,” he says cheekily, pointing towards the outdoor seating area. 

“You’re eating a cake with your ice cream?” I ask. “Couldn’t you pick one dessert?”

“You could focus on your own or you could take a bite,” he says, holding the cake to my mouth, so close to me I forgot we stood blocking the pavement, I bit where he bit, and it was the tastiest thing.

We put our belongings in the same tray at the security check-in before we enter the art gallery. He insisted on coming inside with me and I didn’t want him to leave me alone even though I asked him to multiple times. He stays silent as we saunter to and from the different exhibitions. It is this silence and minimal talking that fuels my admiration for him more.  This particular section of the gallery looks like an aquarium. It is empty and one projector displays luminous dark and light blue pictures of fishes and sharks underwater. I stand there watching the images change. He stands behind me, watching me. His slow breaths hovering around my neck and shoulders, I begin to breathe slower, but I move out of this tantalizing position and stand upright beside him. And it was when I look up at him from this side angle, that I see the Leo star sign tattooed and buried behind his left ear. 

I forgot how hot it was outside because, inside the art gallery, the air conditioning was on, so when I step outside, the heatwave comes over me.

“How can we get on the little canoes?” I ask Malik, ticking the museum off my itinerary list.

“We?” He mimics and then giggles. “Let’s go, they’re gondoliers.” 

“Gondoliers,” I repeat. “So, what are you doing here in Italy?” 

We walk down the little steps towards the canals. He pinches a sunflower at its stem.

“Just business,” he says, confirming my knowledge of Leo men as mysteries.

Whilst Malik concentrates on balancing the flower in my hair, he demands, “Come with me, to this party tonight.” He looks down at my itinerary list. “Unless you have plans?”

I can’t tell where the excitement was coming from, but it was enough for me to agree to go with him.

Image Credit: NASA

Beyond The Horizon

After leaving Mars we never expected to find a new planet with the fuel that we had on our ship, but we had to leave. With the sun heating up, the temperature on Earth was rising and this was making life on Mars also uninhabitable. We lived there for three years trying to set up a camp, hoping each day that we would make a discovery of some form of life that would make our trip worthwhile. We spent long days on the harsh planet, leaving a permanent taste of red dust in my mouth. The planet was dry and coarse and there wasn’t anything there but a billion years’ worth of dried out grain. We were there for so long that I forgot what rain was. Each day was the same, with the same climate, staying there any longer would have been a waste of our time and resources.

On the day we were leaving we decided to split into two groups, one group would head back to Earth and the other would continue on a mission, heading deep into the unknown. From our years of observations we decided we would go into a dark pocket of space that hadn’t ever been explored before. From then on, we would require an element of luck that would take us to somewhere hospitable. We knew that there was an oxygen emitting source in that direction, but there wasn’t clear co-ordinates for landing. With a small target in a wide expanse ahead of us, our crews parted ways.

On board the ship we had stripped bare all our non-essential electronics to save fuel. We were running on a never ending auto-regenerating power source, but with the supplies we had on board they would only last us 3 Earth years on our journey. At that point, if we hadn’t found this place we would have been stuck in a deep expanse for eternity.

With our navigation systems programmed we set off. During our journey time stopped as we travelled across the universe. All that we had going for us was the hope that we would find a new Earth, a land where we could survive and create a new life for ourselves. Our ship travelled like a speck on a blank tv screen, as we travelled closer to the stars, the further they got away from us. We travelled like this continuously and after some time we would sleep for weeks at a time. We left the ship on auto-pilot only to wake to see how much further we had ventured into the expanse.

As our journey progressed, distant stars appeared as spots only to disappear reminding us that we were completely alone with only the power of our ship edging us further along on our journey. Around one year in we woke to witness our ship swirling through space time. Our bodies felt like they were being ripped apart from the inside as we experienced travelling from the edge of the galaxy and heading into a brand new unexplored one. As our insides tore apart the unmistakable sound of metal bending pierced our ears. We experienced the transition with the bright stars flashing directly into our eyelids. The change taking place felt like an eternity, but our ship’s core pushed on as we entered a new unexplored solar system. Out of nowhere, our entire surroundings had changed, suddenly we could see movement of distant suns. Our ship was being constantly pelted by asteroid showers, but our radar highlighted that we were getting closer.

Not sure whether we would make it or not, we remained stunned by all the new worlds around us. The whole environment had come to life with vibrant colours of burning stars, infinitesimal lights radiating from distant suns and planets wrapped in sheaths of smog that highlighted their organic underbelly. At this point after years of suffrage through the dark expanse of space we started to feel life return to our souls. Within the battered shell of our ship our excitement had returned and our sense of adventure burst with a feeling of intrigue to find a planet that we can call home. 

As our ship ventured on our excitement at discovering new lands began to fire up our imaginations, but nothing we could think of would prepare us for what we were about to find on the planet that we were headed for.  The ship started to guide itself towards the atmosphere of the unnamed planet. The natural gases that were radiating from it created an air of resistance that forced our engines to fire up and push us through the gaseous shell limiting our vision of what lay underneath. As our propulsion system heated up, the windows frosted over, our engines roared using the maximum capacity they were designed for to push the saucer shaped nose to pierce the thick air around us. We slowly made it through to unveil a paradise none of us could ever have fathomed.

Once we had made it through to the other side our engines returned to their normal setting and our descent towards land was light and as we floated downwards. From our distance in the sky the earth beneath us was pulsating with life, the whole planet rumbled with the beats of our hearts, the planet was alive and we could feel our spirits gravitating towards this new lease of life. Nervous and excited about our new discovery, we stared out soaking up every little detail of our surroundings as our ship directed its thruster and lowered us for landing. As our ship was steadying, we checked the outside atmosphere and our systems reported back that there was a concentration of 99% oxygen.

As I arrived in the fields of the newly named XP502120, we found ourselves in a field with reeds that had grown so high that I couldn’t see further than the crossover caused by the breeze pushing apart the long tentacles gently with each gust of wind. We landed here on the 29/01/2021 Earth time. Through travelling the frictionless expanse of space we arrived here at what would be 10/01/1920. So far we can see that there is a possibility of habitation with a temperature of 20 degrees Celsius remaining constant with the planet and the nearest sun maintaining a perpetual gyrating spin.

Unsure about what to expect outside, we put on our suits. As the airlock on our door countdown reached 0 the latch clicked. With our masks on we headed outside onto the soft fertile land which felt like sponge beneath our boots. The entire environment ensconced us with its beauty; there were rich flowing rivers and tall preened trees that bore golden fruit with a blue glaze. With hesitation I decided that it would be time to take off my helmet. Slowly I clicked the button on my glove that released my visor. Without knowing what to expect I held my breath, nervous I let go and breathed a gulp full of pure oxygen that started to fire off the pistons in my brain. Suddenly all my memories erupted through my mind, I could feel my brain functioning at a speed that I had never experienced before. My whole body started to feel energized, I could feel strength in the tips of my fingers and I could simultaneously smell a hundred different scents that I had never experienced before.

With the pure oxygen running through my veins my body stood upright, shoulders spread apart and each step I took felt like I was jogging. Moving fast we walked up valleys overlooking rushing lakes, we scaled up high in the trees and we could see far right across this distant land. Wondering what to eat we decided to take fruits off the trees for testing them back at our ship. The results showed they contained an alien compound that we couldn’t recognise. With our food stuffs running low, I decided to take the risk of consuming this foreign object. As I bit into its soft outer skin, the golden juice squirted down the side of my face.

After a long time exploring and having our minds opened we each started to fall asleep. I woke to find myself hovering gently at my station. As I looked up I saw the several moons elevated in space surrounded by stars that burnt bright with fury. I finally felt that we had found somewhere that we could settle. As I lay staring at the stars my mind wandered back to Earth and I had a dying urge to share my new discovery. However, we didn’t have any form of communication. The only way for us to be able to get our information back across would be to leave this new planet. For myself, I was content here.

 And after all I woke up stared straight at the side of the ship and I concentrated and I could see right through it. At that moment, I blinked closed my eyes and the wall was there again. Suddenly I felt my back ache and the pain tingled into the tips of my fingers and then the energy burst out of my back and I felt myself push off against the wall. I didn’t feel like my regular self, I was moving, faster, hovering off the ground and I could leap high in the air, on top of trees. Something instinctively inside me told me to jump higher and I left the ground into the sky, then there I was, seeing through objects and bouncing round the world. The sun was shining, and soft felt clouds were rubbing coolly against my cheeks, below me the ground was moving at a regular speed and I watched it conclude underneath me.

After a day exploring, the exoplanet tensions were high back at the base camp. There had been discussions that we leave our newly acquired land and report back to Earth our findings. However, with the state of the ship it wouldn’t be sure that we would ever be able to make it back there. On the one hand, we could forget about Earth and its inhabitants and begin to start a new life here, or we could risk going back and sharing our information, in the hope that one day we would be re-joined with further supplies to help us thrive in our new home.

For me it was conclusive that I would never leave this new paradise. There is a beauty to this new environment that I hadn’t experienced ever before. The air was fresh and pungent, with each breath it felt like a meal in your mouth. The nature was pure and untouched; the habitat provided a sense of hope that there could be further longevity for humanity. Each morning the sun would rise in perfect symmetry with the day before and the sky would twinkle with the sparkling stars that would glint constantly providing a continuous show for your eyes each time you looked up.

As the rest of the group set out on deciding what to do, I continued to explore. Each day I would go further with confidence, taking pleasure in this new habitat. I was yet to come across any other living creature so far, however, I was certain that there must be some new species managing to thrive here. One evening I decided not to go back to the camp, I was content bounding this new world. With each mile that I trekked my mind opened further, I started to think of the limitless possibilities of setting up a new colony. As I continued on I found flowing water, on the surface there remained a plate of mirror and I stared at myself. It had been so long since I had seen myself and I realised how young I looked. I hadn’t felt that I had aged, our minds had been so focused on survival that we lost all sense of what we looked like. As I stopped and stared at myself closer, I paid attention to the new smoothness in my face, my appearance had gained an element of youth, an innocence that I had in my childhood.

After a few days away I decided to head back. As I arrived towards the camp I noticed that it was empty, there wasn’t any sign of anybody, and I looked over our abandoned ship and noticed how there had been a start to the repair works. Without adequate machining, it would be a while before it could be repaired to a point for take-off. After spending time thinking over the repairs I felt that there would have to be a way of sending some form of communication back to Earth without having to travel.

We spent a week discussing our plans, all the while we were becoming more accustomed to our new environment. Over time we all started to feel stronger. The new planet had sucked us into its grip and we could start to feel ourselves breathing congruously with the earth and the trees. Due to the pleasant nature of the environment there wasn’t a need to develop forms of shelter. In order for the ground to breathe, the atmosphere would expunge brief flutters of moisture which would waft around in the air, eventually landing on the ground providing a brief sheen of water that would be instantly soaked into the soil.

With the new strength that we had acquired it didn’t take us long to scour the planet in search of new life, but as each day passed so did our scope of the land. We looked further and wider, there were all new forms of organic plants but there wasn’t anything that resembled any form of intelligence. In the end, we conquered the entire land and we found ourselves to be the one dominant force. Alongside this, one member of our crew decided that they would risk going back to Earth to tell them of our new discovery. However what would remain once they made their way back there, remains a mystery.

Image credit: Cliparts PUB

In A Moment

At the question, Kate closed her eyes and breathed, she could smell his aftershave and the flowers she held to her chest. They were so close. The closest they had been in over twenty-four hours. It had been at Adam’s request. He had said when they first started dating that he “wanted to do the whole thing properly”; only now did Kate realise what he really meant by this. There was a gleam to Adam’s eyes as she walked towards him, that had filled Kate’s chest with so many overwhelming emotions. She had felt as if she could hardly breathe, a feeling she had become accustomed to feeling around her to be husband, it was a feeling Kate had first felt when the couple met fourteen years ago and was yet to leave. The walk to him had felt like it had taken a lifetime, while her heart hammered with passion, excitement and nerves. Kate had never felt comfortable when people stared at her. But she was there, finally standing in front of Adam, and this was it. The start of the rest of her life. She was ready, she blinked, and when she opened her eyes, she stared straight back at Adam’s, who whispered “Hi” to her. 

“Hi” She replied. They both smiled and let out a little giggle at an inside joke, no-one else understood. 

Kate forgot all about the crowd of seated friends and family, the registrar, the chilly mid-April breeze blowing in through the open doors behind her. She shivered, the breeze was getting stronger, ruffling the table clothes and blowing her hair into her face. The hairs on her arms stood on end. Kate blinked and then all of a sudden. She was standing in a school auditorium. She recognised it instantly. 

  •  

It was her seventh first school assembly. Kate had shuffled in and picked a seat somewhat at random, but also with purpose. She refused to sit in the middle in case this was the type of institution that required audience participation, for the same reasons, she also ruled out anywhere too close to the front, but also not right at the back, she wasn’t that kind of student, not for the time being at least. Little did she know how much this choice would influence the rest of her life. About 45 seconds before the bell went to signal to late-commers their detention, seeking the few spare seats in the auditorium and spotting the one next to Kate; was Adam. An average height male, with dark hair that wasn’t quite black, brown eyes, and the biggest smile. As Adam walked further into the auditorium several girls moved their bags from the seats next to them in an attempt to attract Adam towards them, but he had his eyes set on one girl, on the other side of the room to where he was now and requiring at least twelve people to stand up or awkwardly scootch their legs out of the way so he could walk the narrow aisle to the seat next to Kate. Kate’s mind wandered back into the room to wonder whether the rows of seats she had walked past and hoped that her friends and family sat there had plenty of leg room. 

Kate refused to make eye contact, to acknowledge him, who knew how long her parents planned on staying here before relocating again. It wasn’t worth the hassle of making friends, but as Adam made his way towards her and the seat, his smile and the remarks he made as he apologised to everyone he wiggled past, she couldn’t help but smirk in an attempt to hide a smile.

Finally, he was seated, and the teacher at the front of the hall began. Without a single thought for Kate’s potential interested in the speaker, Adam immediately stuck his hand out and whispered; “Hi”. She could not believe his audacity. Didn’t Kate’s dress sense give off vibes that said; ‘go away’? She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms, but he continued to hold out his hand, wearing this huge smile. She glanced up. His eyes caught hers and Kate could not look away. It was like his whole life and happiness rested on her shaking his hand, so she yielded and mumbled a ‘Hello’ back. 

“Hi.” He continued. 

“Hi.” Kate replied curtly. 

“Howdy.” The stranger beside her looked like he could do this all day. He was laughing to himself. This was apparently hilarious.

Kate refused to play his games and turned her attention to the speaker at the front of the auditorium, still acutely aware of the stranger next to her. 

Assembly ended and Kate tried to make a quick exit, but he blocked her path, he cocked his head to one side and asked; 

“I don’t know you, do I?” 

“No, I’m new, today’s my first day.” Kate didn’t know why she found herself over sharing with him, but it was easy. 

“Oh, well. I’m Adam. Welcome to our great educational institution” The smile returned, he gestured around him and then held out his hand again. This time Kate didn’t hesitate.

She giggled; “Well Adam, I’m Kate. It’s nice to meet you, I’ll see you around.” 

Adam paused. It seemed as though he had more he wanted to say, but before there was a chance. The greeting was over, Adam’s friend clasped him on the shoulder and Kate wiggled her way past the two of them and made her way to the front of the auditorium and continued on her way to first period English.

  •  

Kate sighed. She had always regretted leaving. She had always wondered what Adam had been going to say, but his friend turning up had changed everything. It was likely he was just being friendly to a new person, yet she had always wondered if there was anything more to it. Unfortunately Adam had a terrible memory, so the knowledge was lost to her. 

  •  

English was good. It was Kate’s favourite subject and the teacher like her, was new too which made things easier, but Kate couldn’t concentrate. From where she sat she could look out of the door and into the hallway, and daydream about what else Adam had wanted to say to her before his friend had interrupted. 

For the rest of the day Kate couldn’t stop thinking about Adam, she had made friends with a girl; Christina, in second period maths and discovered that Adam was the talk of the school. Everyone wanted him. The most widely debated topic by all the girls in school was whether he was actually off the market or not. According to the girls in maths; who saw the lesson as more of a beauty parlour where they could preen themselves ready for first break when they would routinely do laps of the field where Adam and his friends sat, in an attempt to catch his eye despite the rumours that he was impossible to impress. 

Kate refused to accept that she was interested in Adam. She told herself that a boy didn’t matter, and there was no way he was ever going to be interested in her. It seemed as though the whole school was obsessed with him. Even teachers treated him differently. It confused Kate that one boy could have such an effect on the female species. She didn’t understand the fascination, but was fascinated, nonetheless. When Christina invited her along to socialise she didn’t turn down the offer. The girls were nice, despite maybe being a little conceited and obsessed by Adam. However, spending break with them meant she wouldn’t be alone. For once, Kate wanted to be in the company of other people, so she didn’t turn the offer down.

The bell for first break sounded and Christina and the other girls; Martha and Kerris showed Kate the way to the canteen, where they grabbed a drink and snack. They headed to the bathroom, where the girls, but not Kate; checked their hair in the bathroom toilets, reapplied lip gloss, mascara, powder and body spray. As if they hadn’t just done this ten minutes ago in a maths lesson, before scouting the playing fields for Adam and his friends. 

Adam was out on the back fields, somewhere which seemed to be reserved for the older students, which Kate and her friends were not. No-one had mentioned that he was two years older. 

Adam’s friends were playing with a rugby ball, tossing it between each other, occasionally throwing it at Adam in an attempt to get him to join them while he talked to three girls whose skirts were slightly too short and were certainly wearing shirts at least one size too small. As Kate and her friends approached to do their imitation of an aeronautics fly past but with their feet firmly on the ground, Kate felt wildly out of place, the girls talking to Adam were so much more than Kate or her friends could ever be. Christina pinched her arm hard through her blazer, Adam was calling her name. 

He had looked up, noticed the group of girls, and the unmistakeable auburn hair belonging to Kate. He had cocked his head to oneside and called her name. Kate had missed all of this but was debriefed later in the day by a very jealous Christina. 

The girls froze, Kate had failed to mention their earlier meeting and was now the centre of envy, as she left the girls and started walking towards Adam. 

“Hi.” She felt out of breath, despite a walk of no more than three or four metres, she was convinced her hands were shaking so she kept them folded at her chest. 

“Hello.” He said, looking up at her, with his huge eyes. Kate was unsure whether to sit or not, so stayed standing. “How is your day going so far?” he continued.

“It’s okay. Same content just the robots delivering it look different, you get me?” 

He was already laughing and attempted a robot impression which was of Mr Liabel from the mornings assembly. It made Kate laugh. The girls who were sat with Adam were not laughing. 

“Care to sit with us?” offered Adam. Not considering if the girls he was already with were comfortable sitting with a student from a younger year. 

Kate glanced at Adam’s friends and her own, ”Oh no, it’s okay. Thanks for the offer, but I should get back. See you around?” 

At her words he looked hurt, his eyes conveyed an expression you would only otherwise see in a kicked puppy, did he want her to stay, Kate wasn’t sure, his reply would provide the answer. “Okay, sure. See you around.”

She had felt disappointed at having to leave, she had wanted him to talk to her, keep asking about her day, she wanted to be close to him, to spend every second of free time that she had with this mysterious boy who captured the hearts of every girl in school. But he had denied her, she wasn’t that important to him. Kate told herself it was fine, despite wanting to be important to him, he was all she thought about. He was all she wanted, and Kate couldn’t even explain it. All she knew that seeing Adam again made each day okay, and during the week it was fine, she’d bump into him in the corridor, or stumble across him in the back of the library with a girl she assumed was his girlfriend, something she didn’t tell Christina and the girls. She even chose her seat for English so she could see out of the window onto the playing fields where she could see Adam whilst he was in football training.

  •  

Kate remembered how in the early days of her friendship with Adam, when they were both still at school, how she hated the weekends. It was the one time she was guaranteed she wouldn’t see him. However, on a Friday, it appeared that the two of them made a larger effort to see one another, sometimes spending the whole of lunch or both break times together, or walking home together, if Kate had an extra study session at lunch. Kate remembered how on other days of the week, while Kate waited for Christina and the other girls. Adam would sometimes come over and stand with her while he waited for his friends. These meetings were so brief, and so sporadic. But as Kate remembered the joy of afternoons when he waited with her, and the disappointment of afternoons when he couldn’t. She felt her heart long for Adam. 

One weekend Kate’s mother took her shopping at the local shopping mall. Kate asked her mother if it was okay to have ten minutes alone browsing the bookstore. After browsing the bookstore and limiting herself to only purchasing three books but promising to come back to the dozen others she had found. Kate walked out of the store and took a few steps forward so she could read the map and find the right exit to meet her mother back at the car, when she heard her name being called. 

She looked up, glanced around but couldn’t see anyone she recognised. Kate returned to the map, found the right exit, and started heading in the right direction when she heard her name again. Through the crowd of people, on the other side of the hall, was a milkshake bar, and behind the counter, was Adam. 

Kate laughed, and made her way over to him, and sat down in one of the tall chairs. 

“How did you recognise it was me?” she was still laughing. How loud was he shouting over the noise of the crowd for her to hear him?

“Hi.” Adam said. 

“Hello.” Replied Kate. It was almost a habit now, for every greeting to begin like this.

“It’s easy to recognise the girl who’s always running through my dreams”, he replied while getting a glass and a blender ready. He gestured to the topping and flavour board behind him, “What would you like?”.

Kate was blown away, there were so many options, fruits, chocolate, sweets, different flavours of ice cream, she didn’t know where to start. Eventually she settled on haribo starmix, cherries and vanilla ice cream. 

Adam rang it through the till, “That’ll be £3.90, my manager’s working today, so I won’t be able to give it to you for free I’m afraid.” 

Kate snorted and wondered how many times he had pulled this trick, before she could stop herself, she was asking. He looked at her bashfully, she was onto him, and he hadn’t expected it. Kate was impressed, pulling down the veil that Adam hid behind meant that she got to see more of who he really was, rather than the rumours or who everyone thought he was. 

“That’s okay.” Kate replied, she didn’t mind paying really, and it was more the company she was after more than anything. 

Kate remembered how several hours went by, Adam finished his shift and they continued to talk, about everything and anything, how Adam felt pressured at school because everyone noticed him, to hobbies and dreams for the future. It was easy with him. Kate wasn’t sure what would happen at school on Monday, but she knew that the dynamics had shifted. 

From this one meeting; in an assembly hall at school when she was thirteen, Kate had had the pleasure of finding the one. It had taken a while, she and Adam had spent almost nine years as friends before realising that what they had was huge, bigger than anything either of them had ever experienced before. Of course it hadn’t always been plain sailing, and of course marriage was going to be more of the same, but in the pit of her stomach, Kate knew she couldn’t do life without Adam, he completed her world and even she felt more whole with him than without. 

  •  

In the distance Kate could hear Adam talking, his accent had stayed, but his voice sounded older. The smell of spring flowers filled her nostrils before the goosebumps and breeze returned, blowing her hair about her face. When Kate opened her eyes, her hair was in place as it had been before she had walked down the aisle and Adam was standing opposite her. Kate was back in the present, she noticed the lines in Adam’s face that had worked their way in over the past fourteen years. She had only a few times noticed how much fuller his face looked compared to the photo’s they had from when they were younger. It didn’t matter to Kate in the slightest. When Adam had finished his vows, the registrar turned to Kate. She began to panic, thinking she had taken too long to answer the question, and everyone was staring at her, wondering if she was about to run back past the rows of chairs, she had walked calmly up, just moments before. Kate looked at Adam, his eyes unchanged despite all the years that had passed. Kate took a deep breath and spoke, with all the confidence and surety she had; “I do.”

Panther
Image credit: Angel Luciano

The Mantelpiece

It’s hunting season.

It surely is our protagonist’s favourite. She waits for it the whole year – watching tutorials, sometimes on the commonly accessible web and some other times, for the more detailed stuff, on the dark web. She drives all over the country to get the best supplies, studying the area, the woods, the different species. She likes trophies. Sometimes she hangs them on her walls or decorates her shelves, her coffee table, or even gifts them. Her gifts are always so well received – she has a knack for gift-giving. She says that studying a person’s behaviour in relation to objects is the best way to figure out the perfect gift. Feelings are also important – one of the things she found out is that not many women actually like getting jewellery gifted. That is, as a matter of fact, quite a sexist stereotype and she is sensitive to identity – if women are not in need of any specific jewellery, stay away from it. If, on the contrary, they are looking for something extremely specific, and during your hunting season you’re lucky enough to come across it, by all means, please, gift it. Sometimes people are decorating their house, so you could gift them a picture frame, or a painting that matches the colour story rather than taking into consideration ‘their favourite colour’. It is that simple. Gadgets are always well-received – perhaps a Kindle, or an iPad if you have the money to spend. A watch! Watches are a great gift, especially for men … when it comes to women, sizes are important, so avoid anything that requires a size. Clothes are always a bad choice. Avoid clothes at all costs. Hell, even burn them. Acid gets rid of anything, doesn’t leave a trace. She is quite used to thinking about every single detail because details make the big picture … without them, the frame stays empty or half done, or worse, broken. Her popularity is justified – she is so charismatic; she could make a person do anything. Of course, she doesn’t use it as an advantage! She’s not that kind of person! She is aware of her charisma and she knows just the right time to turn it off and on. 

Nothing to worry about.

She hunts for personal gratification, also it is a little bit of a challenge – you wouldn’t think so, but hunting is heavily competitive. You wouldn’t believe the number of people out there hunting. 

She doesn’t care about what you do in your free time, why should you?

Her friends love her. Did I mention that already? If you talk to any of them, they will tell you that she is the best person they’ve ever met. So outgoing, so sociable, so lovable. They would trust her with their life. Not many of them agree with this hobby of hers, however, they respect it, as good friends do. As long as it’s swift, painless and doesn’t directly hurt anyone … why not? Anyway, she doesn’t particularly like talking about it. It is kind of a touchy subject for her – understandably! She is proud and she knows she is extremely good at it, almost the best! Just imagine that you like knitting and then someone comes along and says that they don’t agree with the practice and you should stop. You would get mad as well and it is very justified. People just love to run their mouths all the time, they never stop, they never shut up. No matter if what you are doing is right or wrong, they will always have an opinion, right? Anyway, people not agreeing isn’t a problem and they usually get taken care of (with a civil confrontation, of course).

“I admire the way you prepare for hunting season,” mumbles Rosemary, looking at her from the armchair. “But why the bleach?” she asks, glancing at a big bottle.

“Come again?” Our protagonist is stuffing her bag frantically. When the weather calls her name, she ignores whatever people are saying. Nothing is like supply time.

“I understand the torches and the black clothes… but what’s up with the bleach?” Rosemary stands up and straightens out her t-shirt. She looks around and touches the heads mounted on the walls with her fingertips. She makes sure she doesn’t apply too much pressure – her friend is incredibly anal about it. It’s a sentiment that comes with passion, Rosemary thinks, nothing to do but accept it.

“I hate stains, Rose.” She shoves the bottle in the backpack. “They ruin blades, carpets and everything”. Her friend nods while touching the nose of a particular piece she always liked as it is very weirdly shaped – nothing she has ever seen before. She understood why that might be a unique one.

“How did you get this one? I know you don’t use guns, but this one is quite big and you’re quite small.” She bends her knees slightly, to look at the neck decorated by a hole big enough to insert a probe.

“You know guns are so inelegant. I would never use one. That’s barbaric, to say the least. That’s what men use. They’re cowards. Do I look like a man to you?” Our protagonist runs a hand through her hair. “I just punctured the carotid and let it bleed. And that’s when the bleach comes in handy. I can clean my blade and my shoes. Do you think I should bring a torch?”

“Makes sense. What was it doing when you stabbed it?” Rosemary keeps nosing around ignoring her friend’s question, which makes our protagonist feel ignored. She wouldn’t mind a bit of attention every now and then. She works all day for the community after all. 

“Eating. Can you answer my question?”

“Don’t bring one.”

“Why?”

“Not necessary. The moon.”

“Good point.” She closes the backpack and then lets herself fall on the bed. She turns her head towards Rose who is rocking back and forth on the armchair, looking at her fingers. “Do you think I am good at what I do? People keep saying I shouldn’t be doing it.”

“I think you are just fine.”

She looks at the pieces decorating her room and cannot help but be proud of herself. She is good and she likes sharing her passion with her friends who are always impressed by her skills. She thinks everyone should have a friend like her, so empathic and caring. These are things that she likes to secretly think to herself. She isn’t one to brag or to think too highly of herself, however, she indulges in it from time to time, when she is alone, skinning her trophies. A little confidence never hurt anyone.

She is in her car, with her black clothes helping to conceal her in the night. She is excited. She’s found her new prey and getting to know them is a feeling which can’t be compared to any other. She breathes in the chilly air of the cold autumn. Her senses are heightened – she could have antennas instead of ears. She feels like an animal herself. Her skin is burning through the double layer of gloves, making her feel the wheel’s texture. Her excitement drops when she spots a black figure lurking by the trees. She already knows who it is. The other hunter. Todd. Competition, if she can call him that. They had sex once. Unremarkable. He is a man.

She takes the phone and dials swiftly, hiding underneath the steering wheel.

“Hello?” a sleepy voice whispers on the other side.

“Todd’s here.”

“Who?”

“Todd. Wear-socks-in-bed guy”. There is a moment of silence as Rosemary tries hard to recall whatever the hell she is talking about.

“Oh, you mean the very annoying one. The one with the slit in the eyebrow?”

“Yes, that one.”

“You should get rid of him. He’s everywhere.” Rosemary yawns. “Let me know how it goes. This could’ve been a text by the way”. Our protagonist snorts and hangs up. She places herself on the seat again and instead of looking at the prey, directs her attention to Todd. Eliminating competition is the fastest way to win – by outsmarting him, of course. She grabs on to the wheel again, her eyes barely blinking, looking at the shadow moving carefully in the woods. She takes a notebook and jots down every move he makes – the way he inspects the path, his position, the weaponry of choice. He is so careless, she thinks. He is such an amateur. He has no idea how to conceal himself. Who wears a neon yellow cap to hunt? She looks at her clothes and then raises her head towards the sky – a murder of crows has sweetly perched on the branch above and they share the same clothes. She feels prouder and prouder of herself. He can only dream of her technique. Once she gets the best prey, he will be sorry for standing her up last time they were supposed to see each other. She didn’t like that at all. And it’s not like he could afford to stand women up, she thinks. When she decides that what she’s seen is enough, she checks if there are any leaves underneath the car and very carefully removes the ones stuck to the tyres. She looks at the path and slowly picks up every leaf, making the way clear. She must be silent, swift and clean. Preys shouldn’t be able to hear any noise. She doesn’t wear shoes her own size. You must think that is a bit weird… well there’s method in madness. Who are you to judge, anyway?

Todd’s sighting ruined her plans. She wanted to, at least, do some assessment hunting, instead, she had to settle for just some observing. How lucky could she be, though! In one night, she got to observe both prey and competition. Her newfound knowledge stuck in her brain makes her feel like an earthquake – her destructive force will drag everyone to hell with her.

She slowly pulls back and tries not to shudder from the cold infiltrating the door – her left arm is completely frozen, but she is determined. She doesn’t want to make a sound. She changes her shoes very quickly and then she drives far enough to be able to close the door safely. She looks at the street, smiling. Rosemary always told her that she was such a great person and that her life was precious. It is indeed. She always tells her she is doing “God’s work”. Our protagonist likes to think of herself as a sort of fairy godmother for the children and a vigilante for the adults. They need her. She can see herself walking alongside God. 

These people need her.

The world isn’t divided into black and white, there is no such thing as good and evil. Grey exists, and it is right in the middle – it’s debatable, it’s very much ground for discussion, people are entitled to their choices as long as there is no judgement. She lives right in that middle, bombarded by people’s opinions from both sides, however, she truly believes that she is doing honest work, and she doesn’t need anyone else to validate her, especially men.

She has been called “emotional”, “bossy” and a “bitch” (usually preceded by “crazy”) first by her own father, then by her brother and finally by every boyfriend she can think of. She had to leave work for that reason – men being sexist pieces of trash. She quickly figured out that she was able to build something for herself, despite her being a woman. From the day that doctor said that she was a child who just had a different thought process, after she accidentally set the house cat on fire, she thought of herself as ‘less than’. Only recently something in herself clicked – she is not “less than”, she is special. She has something that other people don’t have – common sense.

She records details for six days, the days “of the Lord”, she says. On Sunday she rests.

It is Monday and, like an eager schoolgirl, she prepared her clothes and her backpack the night before. Her heart pumping in her chest, her smile lighting up her room before she has a chance to draw the blinds. She is a ray of sunshine! Of course, she won’t be in action until the night, but she cannot eat, sleep, speak or breathe without thinking how truly happy she feels. She is like the kind of god people need at the moment – one that is kind but unmerciful in the face of threat. She needs to protect her people; they’re all banking on her. She cannot let them down. No place for error. 

The night seeps through her blinds and a shiver runs down her spine.

It is time.

She checks her backpack one last time, wears her latex gloves first and then the woollen ones, wears a pair of shoes a couple of sizes bigger, stuffing them with extra pairs of socks. She hides behind a pair of black sunglasses and a black balaclava – however, she plans them to be easy to take off, as she enjoys showing her face to the prey as life is leaving them. She thinks it’s a kindness to show the prey who has decided that their life has come to an end so that they can pass on in peace. She is kind like that. She jumps childishly at the thought.

“Good luck.” Rosemary looks at her from the armchair. In this light, her figure looks angelic. Sometimes she wonders if she’s even real. Her voice is in the air but, every time she thinks about it, she cannot recall her face. They are always together, and people seem to never take notice of her when they walk down the streets. Incredibly odd since she is one of those people you cannot ignore. Even though, at times, the way she speaks is too much for our protagonist to handle. At times, she would ignore Rosemary’s texts and calls. Not answer the door when she knocks. But they always loved each other. Sometimes it was just too much for our protagonist and there is nothing wrong with that.

Her car slows down in front of the target, making the minimum noise possible. She looks outside the window and sees that the leaves have again covered the path set by her for six consecutive days, however it is still clearly recognisable as it has the least number of leaves covering it. She makes sure the car is in a dark spot and slowly slithers through, like a snake moving in the woods, as she clears up the path again. She scoffs at her slightly humid sweatshirt, but she is willing to get dirty for her job – that’s how much she likes it. She goes back to her car and takes her backpack, now significantly bigger than the one used during assessment. She carefully follows the now visible path, and places the backpack in a bush nearby, making sure it is slightly wet so the leaves wouldn’t make a sound. 

She crouches down.

“What is your plan of action?” Todd asks, coming up behind her, with a hammer tied around his back. He resembles the God of Thunder.  She shrugs. He is competition. “You can tell me. I am going to take the other one anyway. I know you’re just interested in the male. I want the female.”

She turns around to look at him sighing patiently. She takes a couple of seconds of silence to consider the pros and cons that would come out of this conversation. “While the children are upstairs, you take the wife, I take the husband. I reckon his face will look good on my mantelpiece.”

Todd turns around to look at the house, a sliver of pink neck visible under his neon cap. She weighs the blade in her hand.

What would her parents, currently displayed in her office, think of her now?

Leaves forming a heart
Image credit: Roman Kraft

To Those I Loved

When asked about love I tell people I have met love four times in my life. Each was very different from the last and every time, I became a different person. As I grew and changed the love I accepted grew and changed with me.

Maxwell was young and pretty, pretty in the way people often are when they are young and incredibly curious… he was so incredibly curious. His eyes a hazel that seemed to change colour with each and every environment he was in, each lighting offering a different shade. No one could really ever explain his eyes to anyone, they were his and yet not like anything I had ever seen before. Maxwell had freckles and short hair and a laugh that echoed in his chest. He matched my curiosity and my joy in ways no one ever had before. He was the embodiment of flower crowns and picking daisies just as they started to sprout. Maxwell liked to run in big fields and teach the horses to jump. Maxwell made sure no one stepped on the snails in the road path and everyone made sure to leave fruit out for the birds because they were just waking up, they were tired, and they needed it. Maxwell was shy, and quiet, but full of hope. You had to know how to approach Maxwell, with open hands and a soft voice, because he shared easily. But once you knew him you never understood how anyone wouldn’t take the time. Maxwell was worth the patience required to get to know him. Maxwell would read poetry out loud across the dinner table, not caring who was or wasn’t listening, he read it aloud for him as much for anyone else. Maxwell would run barefoot across the sand without looking down once, trusting the sand to not hold anything that would harm him. He only cut his foot twice and he only had one scar from it but he never let that stop him. No glass or bottle caps or weaver fish would stop Maxwell from enjoying the foam of the sea waves. Maxwell taught me to paint with flowers. He would outstretch his hands, delicate and soft, young hands on a young man, covered in dried acrylic, and he would pick up each flower individually, holding it to the light.  

“You’ve got to trust the flowers, my love. I know it is early, I know they have only just bloomed but they know what they are doing, they’ve been here before, they were made for this. You have to trust them, just like you trust me.”

Maxwell played music from a low-quality speaker across the garden whenever friends came over to drink homemade lemonade that was far too bitter to really be enjoyable, but we all drank it anyway. My mother loved Maxwell, she thought he was everything I needed him to be. She still asks after him, even now, after all the years have passed and never once have I been able to give her a decent answer. She still always asks about him. Maxwell used to leave bluebells on my doorstep and in my windowsills. I was too young to appreciate them at the time, but when I see them now I think of him. The blues and purples of Maxwell were always my favourite, the yellows and the whites brought out the smiles of others, but for us, the blues and the purples were something to remember, something that I held onto even after Maxwell left. Maxwell disappeared almost as quickly as he arrived, and I wasn’t ready for his departure, I hadn’t gotten to know him completely yet, I wasn’t ready to let him go. But I trusted in whatever would come next, because Maxwell had shown me that trusting the universe brought good things. Maxwell had shown me that trusting the process had brought me to him, and even if it had also taken him away from me now, I had to believe there was something else good in store.

Luca came quickly, unprepared and still filled with the joy of Maxwell. Each step felt right, like Luca could do no wrong. Luca brought sound back to my life, music and conversations, where he was happy to do the talking. I’ve always hated the quiet but with Luca there was never a quiet moment. Luca had a bright smile and sun-tanned skin. He was rugged like the sea cliffs and his eyes as blue as the water. He spoke with an accent even though he had no reason to, he just loved the way it made him sound. Luca was strong, handsome and bright. He wore a plaid shirt with all the buttons undone, always. Each thing that he did, he did it with confidence, he did it with knowledge, as if each movement he made could not be questioned, each choice he made was perfectly thought out. Luca was everything the younger versions of myself had hoped he would be. He was exactly the person I had hoped to find. He was brave and he was insistent, strong and determined, and nothing kept Luca down. He talked with such adamance, he took control of any room he was in and left everyone captivated and in awe of him most of the time. All of my friends loved Luca, they told me so again and again. Luca had something for everyone, he charmed the old, he made the young smile, Luca was enchanting. He had a smile that spread from ear to ear, when he laughed, he laughed from the depth of his stomach and no one saw anything he did not want them to see. Luca was a perfectly sculptured illusion in the shape of a man. Luca was warm and comforting at first, something that soaked up the sunlight like it belonged in it. Something in the beginning made it feel like it was born to last. But even the things more easily enjoyed can twist. Luca became hot and humid and it seemed to outstay his welcome. What once seemed charming now seemed repetitive and drawn out. How many times can you laugh at the same joke before it becomes just words? How many times can you smile at the same compliment before it becomes so rehearsed? The evenings drew out forever and let the tiredness seep in. People rarely talk about how the warmth can start to drown you, how something you once loved so passionately can change, how badly you can want Luca to end. You watch the skies, counting the moments between the hour and the sun setting, watching them become closer and closer together, waiting for the nights to shorten, the temperature to drop and Luca to leave the doorstep again. I waited like that. Starting to resent every sunrise, starting to hope for the cold winds. He was Luca and I was done with the warm hands and the insistence that the season of summer, with its warmth and its light, was all that mattered. That he was all that mattered. So, I waited for Luca to end. And when Luca ended and I was alone, I didn’t feel sad, everything just felt quiet. I did not hate the quiet like I used to. It no longer felt lonely. It just simply existed.

When the leaves started to fall, the crispness of the autumn breeze was a breath of fresh air, I had not felt since Maxwell. Since that first touch of spring. She had hair like the leaves, a dark orange that swept you into the day even with the grey skies threatening to loom over our heads. She wore long coats and shades of white and grey, the scent of cinnamon and the shoes just a bit too muddy to wear back indoors. So, we stood on doorsteps, until the coffees went cold and the grey afternoon skies turned into the black of night. Hazel laughed like it kept her young. Hazel shared a scarf with me the first day we met, wrapping it around her neck and then mine, to protect me from the shift in cold I had been waiting but was not ready for. Hazel was welcoming in a way that was off-putting to most. People liked to admire Hazel from a distance but barely tried to get to know her. Not that Hazel minded, she never let it show on her face or in her smile. Hazel was always quick to remind others of what the world had to offer, of the joy even in the long evenings and cold breeze. Hazel had a way to get everything done in a day and still find time for movies. She wasn’t big on flowers but she loved trees, fascinated by the nature of the evergreen and always pointing out the beauty in the stripped branches of the ones that left their leaves go in preparation for the cold.

“Have you ever seen a skeleton look so beautiful?” She would ask, more than once.

“How do you see something so sad and call it beautiful?” I would ask, hoping she would shed some light on what she saw in me.

“Simple,” she replied with a smile, “you accept it for what it is, just a part of life.”

She had a way of presenting even the darkest of days as if they held magic in them, because she would see the magic in everything, especially the dark. She loved romantic comedies and sad films, because she was a sad girl with a big smile who just wanted so desperately to find love. She wanted to be the girl in the movies, but she never wanted a prince charming, she preferred her love with softer features. I didn’t expect love when I met Hazel, but I found it in her. I found love with her. I found love over coffee tables and park benches, I found it in the rain, I found it in our first kiss, as deeply and as truly as I found it in our last. When Hazel and I had to go our separate ways as the leaves completely fell from the trees, leaving bare, uncovered frames and peeling bark, I too felt exposed. But not lost. The love of Hazel kept me warm long after she left. I thought of her often in the weeks that followed our goodbye, all the things we would have done if she could have stayed. All the places she took me that remind me of her, not in the way Luca left marks under my skin that I can’t scratch out, but in the way that I can see a weeping willow and smile because I know Hazel is out there, somewhere. She is probably drinking peppermint tea through a straw and telling someone that she can’t wait for the first cold day, so she can wear a big coat and a brown scarf. I hope she think of me just as often as I think of her. I miss Hazel but I believe that I will see her again, and the hope I could keeps me as warm as her scarf I still keep under my bed, in the hopes she would call and ask if she left it here, and I could hear her voice again.

Winter scared me when she arrived, she was a love I had forgotten, left at the doorstep of each other season. I kicked her off my boots and tucked her in my pockets, I pushed her into empty drawers and let her wait there for everyone else to leave until she was allowed to come out. She is the most important love, the one I always forgot to love, the one who stays not only when the flowers die and the cold comes in, not only for the storms and the cold but also the firelight, the warmth and the light in the darkness. She was a love I hadn’t known when I met Maxwell, a love I sacrificed over and over when I was with Luca, a love that Hazel tried to remind me of in our time together, but I was so focused on her that this one last love never stood a chance. Winter stood at my doorstep, hands in her pockets, my pockets, waiting to be let in. A love by no other name but my own. I had learned and I had loved people that broke me, I had loved people that in one hand showed you sunlight and in the other dragged you into darkness. I had loved people in ways that had nearly killed me. I had loved people, who, no matter how hard I tried, I could never love the way they needed to be loved and deserved to be loved. Yet I loved them all in their turn. Yet Winter, she stood aside again and again and let me run myself in circles trying to shape myself to whatever love needed me and wanted me to be. She was patient, never expecting me to love her back, because she knew I wasn’t sure how. She knew if I acknowledged how much I neglected her, I would have to face the facts. She knew she scared me. It is so easy to pour love into other people, until you are an empty vessel. But to love yourself is a much harder task. Filling your own cup before anyone else’s is something we have to learn each day and I am still trying. But Winter is patient with me, she always has been. She knows that only I can choose to love her, to nurture her. I can only love myself if I let myself. So, Winter stands in the doorway, and after all this time, after all the loves that I put before her, she asks me again, if this time, maybe today, I could let her inside, even if just for an hour. Just a film. Just a cup of coffee. Just that one brief moment before I go about my day loving everything but her. She asks again and I let her in. Day by day. Some days she stays longer, some days not. And hopefully one day, she will know that she can just walk in the doors and be welcomed here, in this place, in my place, in my life. I hope that I can learn each day that Winter is just as important as every other season I give my time to, and that maybe, even if no one else sees the beauty in her darkness, I owe it to her to try. I owe it to her, to myself, to Winter, to the darkness that I keep tucked inside me to remember that love isn’t reserved for others. It isn’t something we bring out on Tuesday afternoons for lunch dates with our friends, not reserved for nights spend with lovers or for those who have earned it. Winter stands to remind me that I deserve my own love, as much all the others, if not more.

Illustration of Kaiden's dorm room
Image credit: Josefina Gurung

Swaying

“It’s frightening ’cause I would call you an imbecile, but that’d be cruel as you wouldn’t be able to spell it,” Nina stated with no hint of remorse on her face.

Ingrid who had been quietly sipping her matcha latte, chortled loudly while grappling the side of the bench to stop herself from falling over.

“Ha ha,” I added sarcastically.

“In our defence, this kind of stuff only happens as an excuse. Given for not having done your homework,” Ingrid said between giggles, brushing the little tears from her eyes.

Letting out a groan in frustration, I looked down at what was once my perfectly printed and stapled bundle of papers. Now crumpled, chewed, with half of its pages missing, it oddly resembled a badly drawn outline of a country. The more I tried to fix it, the more it destroyed into uneven confetti. I was angry but mostly disappointed. Disappointed in myself for not having even properly saved the files of this lengthy assignment, one I had sacrificed a whole week for.

It all happened so suddenly. I was walking from my dormitory checking to see if I had printed everything for the assignment. The deadline wasn’t for two days, but I thought I’d like to hand it in a bit quicker. Right next to our two-storey dormitory resides a couple with their beautiful walnut brown foxhounds. They’re twins and one of them loves me while the other, let’s say, we’re not so much on friendly terms.

“I will never. Eat. Beef jerky. When handling my assignments. Ever again,” I said, burying my face in my hands. Ingrid roared out laughing at this and even the impassive Nina chuckled at my statement.

“As the prophecy foretold. I shall then make my wa-“

“Wait, hold up Kaiden! Okay. Sorry. We promise to be serious.” Ingrid mimicked to pull a zip across her mouth.

I squinted at both of them especially at Nina, who sighed and nodded back in response. Contemplating the authenticity of their apologies, I sat back down slowly plonking my head on the wooden table and let out a long throaty groan. The cheerful weather contrasting the gloomy aura that I was emitting.

“Question,” Ingrid said. I hummed back, my head still lying on the table.

“Which one of the twins was it?” continued Nina.

“No!” I snapped, whipping my head back up.

“Yes.” Nina’s expression was deadpan serious.

I stared at her, hard. Burying my head back down between my arms. “Too much love can be hard sometimes, Nina.” As my cheeks flushed to an unsettled redness, I could hear the muffled voices of two teenagers trying their best to conceal their resounding laughter.

***

I had been proud that my circumstances hadn’t forced me down the path of being deprived of all sleep essential to the human body. Well, that was until today. Both Nina and Ingrid had helped me find all the sources of my references. Since I had a whole day of work tomorrow, it was crucial I finished retyping this assignment tonight.

It was midnight and my body wasn’t approving the fourth cup of coffee I was generously chugging down. Noticing the physical shakiness from the overload of caffeine in my system, I opted for a walk around the neighbourhood. It’s always awfully uncomfortable to feel the wind sinking its way deep down my spine, especially during summer when Montana is expected to get dry as the Sahara Desert. I like knowing beforehand what’s to be expected because I despise suspense, that crawling fear of the unknown. Despite its cloudless sky and the absence of the moon, the night was substantially alive. Yet, astonishingly quiet, in fact too quiet. There were no signs of any living creatures around. Just the oddly shaped houses, eerily visible from the weakly lit street lamps. Most of the houses were dark as well, an indication that everyone had already fallen asleep except for a few. Ah, us ill-fated individuals. Flouting or being forced to flout the purpose of the night. Deprived of the sleep that relieves the weary labourer and heals hurt minds, I thought.

Just then the slight breeze started shifting into a growing howl. Disapproving howls, I shuddered in revulsion. Grabbing my phone from my pocket, I connected my earphones and pressed the play button. Mozart’s Sonata No.17 in C started playing. One of my favourite compositions. It’s not saddening nor are the melodies a cynical reminder of reality, it’s smile provokingly cheery. I’d always find myself humming along which eventually led to whistling. As I whistled walking down the street, the wind hurled itself into a shuddering fury.

Promptly stopping right after, I recalled my grandma always telling me off for my habit, especially during the night-time. All because our family had this long-lived superstition that whistling attracted the wandering spirits. It was believed that whistling was a way of “calling” the spirits because the vibration of sounds that was created, was on the frequency they could hear. Especially during the night when their senses were believed to be at their peak. If the day was for the humans, then the night was for the unknown. So, whistling of any sort was forbidden, but I liked whistling. It eased my mind. Just what I needed.

“I mean it’s just a myth and Nan has tons of it anyways.” Shrugging my thoughts off, I continued on my path. As Mozart’s Sonata came to an end, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain followed right after. That was weird, for I was sure my playlist wasn’t on shuffle but as soon as the suspense of the clarinet and flutes starting booming its way through the earphones, it felt very fitting in the menacing environment I now realised myself to be in. Surprisingly, I was feeling thrilled. After what seemed like approximately twenty minutes and with the wind accelerating, I quicken up my pace, heading back inside.

Two a.m. and my progression was going on quite well. Granted my eyes were tired but my body was adapting. Finishing up my fifth page, my urge to grab a drink was increasing every minute. Who would have thought that pulling an all-nighter could keep you more hydrated than during the day? The only thing was that I couldn’t find my water bottles anywhere. After some moments of searching, I shuffled the chair towards my bed, pulling the duvets up in hopes to find the extras that I always stashed underneath, but I found myself grabbing on to nothing.

Unplugging my earphone, I crawled down on all fours fully lifting my blanket. Somehow, they had managed to roll down further towards the other side. As I tried to reach the bottles, it was as if I was suddenly submerged underwater and as expected the ringing sensation followed right after. Vigorously rubbing my ears, I tried to reach the water bottles. Going to the opposite side of my bed was more logical, but that meant getting up and starting over again and I’d rather prefer crawling. The ringing started to grow exponentially louder. Lying on my stomach, I finally managed to grab the bottle. Frowning disapprovingly; the bottles were wet, saturated. I hadn’t filled them with frozen water nor kept them in the freezer. As the tinnitus faded away, I was instead greeted by the scrape of my window sliding open, inviting the hollering wail of the wind. I froze up.

It was strange. Admittedly our dorm had fairly bad windows, but no wind was this strong. The rhythmic beat of my heart began drumming its way up towards my ears, muffling the music that was coming from my earphones. Could it be a murderer? Or even worse. A thief, here to get their hands on my precious Nintendo Switch!? I managed to crawl underneath the bed, making sure to make as little noise as possible. Calming my breath, I waited. To my surprise, no one entered the room. Still, I waited, just in case. As I inched myself further on towards the other side, slowing peeping my head out to get a clearer look and to my utter solace, found complete emptiness. Breathing in a sigh of relief, I let out a slight chuckle. There you have it, that’s a sign that you’ve drunk too much coffee, Kaiden. I thought.

Slithering the upper half of my body out, I pulled myself up to close the window. The glass, however, was foggy as if someone had been breathing onto it. No. A fog that accumulates by breathing only stays if the surface of the glass is cold enough but it’s undoubtedly humid today. Except for the abnormal winds. There wasn’t anything cold except the coldness that steeped after. Slowly, I backed away and that’s when I heard it. Someone whistling Mozart’s Sonata.

I could feel my feet freezing up, like being held by an invisible force that was unknown to me, leaving the upper half of my body awkwardly twisted back. Soon I could feel my legs chattering. Limbs numb. My hands started trembling, for a moment my heart had completely fallen inside my ribcage.

Standing before me on the other side of my bed, it stood still. Wrapped in sackcloth, ropes tired around its knees, stomach and chest. Facing downwards. Yet I could feel its sinister stare like it was observing me. Its arms were free from the confinement of the sackcloth and I could see that they were pale. Default Paper pale. To my utter dismay, it was glowing, not the luminescence emission but shining. A thousand thoughts raced across my mind but all I could gather was that right now, there was someone else present in this room other than myself.

I could almost see its human-like shoulders bouncing up and down. Indicating that what I was seeing was breathing and alive. By the time I had taken note of all its ghastly features, my body had managed to exit the frozen state. The rush of adrenaline now pumping around my body. But I couldn’t move. I just couldn’t. Was it the crippling fear or the aftermath of giving your heart the biggest jump fright? Either way, I stayed stuck. Petrified. Helpless.

The creature slowly lifted its head causing me to flinch in response. I screamed but there was no sound. What I saw was an exact reflection of myself. I was there, in front of my own self, but just ghostly. Eyes that were disturbingly hollow. We stood there staring at each other. Before my body could react, the radiating glow dimmed as the creature took a step forward. Its ungainly step made it start swaying. Slowly. Back and forth, like a towering structure on the verge of toppling over. Fear paralysed my body, leaving me to observe in pure horror. Moving slowly, it started crouching down, ready to make a sprint towards me. As it lunged forward, it halted on its other step, swaying back again. Slowly. Taunting my heart that now had reached my throat. I blinked and it was right before my face, gripping me slowly, distorting my visions. I could vaguely see the room spinning around as everything started turning blurry. With every inch of my body immobilised; my eyes shut as my head exploded out a throbbing screech.

Kaiden opened his eyes, blinking blankly. Confusion swept over his once numb body.

“Why… did I come here again?” he asked, no one in particular.

Like an actor waiting for his cue, he stood there, all alone, blinking cluelessly next to his window. Feeling a slight breeze at the back of his neck he whipped his head back to see the window wide open. His gaze urgently scanning the room, unable to rub off that uneasy feeling that he may just have forgotten something very important. He glimpsed at the clock situated above his bed frame. Eyes widened, for it was already five in the morning. Quickly grabbing the window by its frame, he slid it shut and hurried back towards his desk. Feeling the unswallowable hoarseness in his throat, Kaiden grabbed the water bottle on his desk realising that it was empty. Scooting his chair over to his bedside, he reached down to grab the extra bottles stacked underneath.

Throughout the morning, Kaiden would occasionally find himself staring mindlessly at the window. For in the distance, he’d hear the inaudible mournful tune of someone whistling.

A whistle only he could hear.

“The End.” Jacqueline announced, looking up away from her phone screen.

Kaiden who seemed to have been eagerly waiting for this moment yelped in the hopes of releasing himself from Nina’s powerful grasp.

“Ow! Nina stop. Get off me- your nails.”

“No, just no. I refuse to believe that Kaiden- I… I mean story Kaiden is haunted by the endless curse of his doppelganger thing whistling!” howled Nina, her eyes shut while still holding on as if her life depended on it.

“That wasn’t even scary,” scoffed Ingrid, rubbing both her upper arms.

Jacqueline sent a gleeful grin. “But, did you guys enjoy it?” she asked.

“I mean, you used our names for the characters of your horror story. Kinda creepy but only cause our names were there. I mean…” Kaiden replied, scratching the back of his neck. Nina who was still using Kaiden as a shield finally peeped out from behind.

“Well, as Poe once said, ‘All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream,’ ” quoted Jacqueline back in response. With a mischievous smile, she turned her gaze towards Nina.

“No. I don’t want to. Can we please go inside instead?” pleaded Nina.

“Absolutely… not! We’re just getting started plus, this was your idea.” Jacqueline chuckled.

“Was not! Ingrid dared me, she said I couldn’t handle-“

“-Well, are you?” teased Ingrid.

Nina frowned, shoving Kaiden towards Ingrid. Kaiden, who breathed a sigh of relief, started intensely rubbing his numb arm.

“Guys. Guys. We’re here, at this rooftop party so we can have fun. Remember? It’s summer! What better season to share horror stories to spike some chill down our spineless spines, right?” Jacqueline reminded.

“Alright, but I’ve got a question,” announced Ingrid. Jacqueline raised her eyebrow, tilting her head in response.

“Is it purely fictional or are you going to pull the “based on true story” card on us?”

Nina turned her attention towards Jacqueline, even Kaiden seemed involved. Jacqueline chuckled, shrugging nonchalantly.

“Oh. Come. On!” groaned the three simultaneously.

As the four friends huddled together excitedly for Nina to share her story. Jaqueline picked up her phone, her empty notes reflecting back at her. Turning her phone off she paused for a second. Somewhere in the distance, she could hear a passer-by, merrily whistling. The wind started picking up, causing Kaiden to pull his hoodie over his head.

“Alright, my dudes. You know the rules. No screaming. No shouting or numbing someone’s arm. With their nails. It’s been very quiet this whole evening so, let’s keep it that way so we don’t make little Mrs Lee yell at us again from across the street,” he said, eyeing everyone. Nina specifically.

“Yes sir,” replied the girls in unison.

“Although, I’m impressed. Has your neighbourhood always been this quiet Nina?” Ingrid asked.

“Not sure. Guess everyone’s tired and probably inside cause it’s Friday after all.”

“Dude let me finish my assignment at your place. It’s so relaxing,” added Kaiden.

“Why? Are you afraid that the creature from Jacqueline’s story will come haunting you when you’re alone?” cooed Ingrid.

“It’s not even real.”

“We don’t know that.”

“Is that so? Then why not ask Jacqueline herself.” The three simultaneously turned towards her, who seemed to be staring back at them. “Is Ingrid making any sense?”

Jacqueline who had been observing the events behind from where her friends were seated, watched the swaying shadow bolting its way from a house to another. Rushing itself closer towards the source of the whistle. The closer it got, the more it manifested to a physical form.

It was hauntingly pitiful because after all, spirits were once humans too and all they yearned, was for their presence to be known. To be known for their unjustly deaths. If a spirit were to wander around, it meant it was among the lost ones. Those who not only ended their own lives but those who were the victims of brutal inhumanity. The stories these spirits were to tell, were of greater fear than anyone who witnessed them could endure. Because it was fear that made humans forget ever even seeing them. She looked back to her friends who were eagerly waiting for an answer.

“Nope. Not at all.” Smiled Jacqueline. All that we see, is truly a dream within a dream, she thought.

Image credit: Glodi Miessi

Ready Fi Di Road

Upon approaching Clapham Junction Station, Leah remembered just how narrow the ticket barriers were and flung her backpack off her shoulders. She edged it sideways, whipped out her Oyster card and shimmied on through. It had been a good idea to top it up at the off-licence last night because the mere thought of hearing the double beep whilst in a rush was not only an inconvenience but embarrassing. Besides, she could not miss this train. 

“09:11 Southern service to London Victoria, platform twelve,” announced the customer service advisor on the right. 

They were out in masses to contain the swarm of Londoners let loose for the Bank Holiday weekend. Men had traded their blue and black work blazers for a white t-shirt and pair of chino shorts whilst women waltzed in their floral summer dresses and open-toed sandals. The sun had a way of bringing out people’s true character. Platform twelve was at the far end of the tunnel, which meant a light jog and a brisk walk up the steps. The one good thing about this station was the departure boards periodically mounted overhead. Leah kept watch of the seconds ticking away at the bottom of the board and quickened her pace. This would be her first year taking part in the Notting Hill Carnival. Her uncle Trevor’s girlfriend Rosie managed one of the giant floats. The kind whose picture would be plastered across all the popular news sites’ culture section the following week. Yeah, that kind.

“Excuse me, sorry, excuse me.” Leah steered through the group of boys shoving bottles of Heineken into their drink cooler. Her black and gold feather headdress harnessed to her backpack jolted up and down matching the motion of her footsteps. Hannah would kill her if she didn’t make it. She’d got on the 09:00 train at East Croydon, and Leah promised she’d save her from getting off and jump right on.

The sound of a conductor’s whistle rang through Leah’s ears as she took a sharp right. He sauntered in his high vis jacket at the top of the staircase and raised his dispatched baton. ‘Please mind the gap,’ he echoed after the tannoy.

“Wait!”

Everyone on the platform turned their heads to locate the voice. 

“Hurry up miss,” he carped. He mopped his forehead and soaked up the pools of sweat dripping profusely.

The green LED lights on the baton flashed as the train engine let out a gust of steam. Like a scene out of the matrix, Leah whizzed past the conductor and lunged towards the train. She exhaled on her landing, looked back at the closing doors and smiled.


Ask anyone on Ladbroke Grove to describe Mr Watson, and they’d say he was the miserable white man at number thirty. And that he was.

“Morning Frank,” a voice yelled two doors down. “I hear it’s going to be a good one this year!”

If Mr Watson’s silence wasn’t telling enough of his mood, the whirling of his hammer drill was a clear sign of his intentions to remain inside for the next two days. He propped the board against his window and drilled in the last screw. It was sure to keep the mob away as it had done so last year and the ones before that. For him, the carnival was nothing but a weekend for youngsters all over London to come and trash the street he’d lived on for the last fifty-five years.

Ruth had known it was the one as soon as they turned the corner. Whilst driving up the road she wondered just how long she’d have to walk back to buy a pint of milk but then that didn’t matter. The brass knocker had a slight sheen to it that went nicely against the sage green door. “Frank, it’s beautiful,” she said flinging open the car door.

“The house or the knocker?” Frank replied sarcastically. He always knew what she was thinking.

“Both.” There were houses like these in the more affluent area of Whitby, but Ruth only passed them as she travelled to and from her apprenticeship at the local florist. When it was her turn to lock up the shop, she took the long route home down the thick slab steps and used her keen eye to study the exterior of the properties. Oh, how Ruth admired the Dutch roof on one house and the Victorian porch on another. She was fashioning her dream home on the spot. Frank thought she was crazy. 

“You really are foolish,” he said one evening as they walked hand-in-hand towards the coastline.

“Don’t you want more?” she asked.

“More?”

Ruth always wanted more. She knew there was more to life than cliffs and vast stretches of sea, so when Frank got a job offer five hours north to London, they loaded up his barely functioning car and avidly hit the road. Ruth loved the carnival. A few months had passed since Frank and Ruth moved to West London and they fit right into the neighbourhood. The August of 1966 was a hot summer. The wind was static which was precisely the reason why every window on Ladbroke Grove was wide open. A series of flyers fluttered through the Watsons letterbox and Ruth rushed to pick them up. At the top in bold red letters, it read Notting Hill Street Party. A street party on their doorstep, she thought. She had to be there and whether Frank wanted to not, he was going with her. He’d always been a simple man who enjoyed his own company but Ruth brought something out of him. That night at the carnival they danced till their feet ached. They tasted all the foods their stomachs could digest and then more, but that was then. It had been 10 years since Ruth had passed and Frank still wished he could bottle up the memories of that night and put it to rest somewhere in the house. He longed for one more dance, for a day filled with laughter but these desires felt impossible without Ruth.


“I might have to kill someone tonight. It could be someone I know. It could be a stranger. It could be someone who’s never battled before. It could be someone who’s a pro. It doesn’t matter how fast their fingers move or how clean their transitions are. I’ll have to kill them,” Hakeem recited in the portaloo mirror. The boy looking back at him was ready to annihilate the Rampage stage at 3pm. Anyone who thought they’d get the best of him was better off packing up their decks and going right back to where they came from, but the boy who ran into the grubby toilet for refuge was shitting it. But why? He’d been practising for the past two months. Hakeem hung his head in despair and plonked himself on the wobbly toilet seat. He thought back to the early morning trips to the record store where he queued to get the exclusive vinyls and the sleepless nights spent chopping and screwing tracks. He studied all the riddims. Ska, Ragga, Rocksteady, Calypso, Soca, you name it, he knew it. Then he thought of the competition this year. It was fierce. DJ Vision vs LocoBeats, Cosmx vs Keyyara, behind their questionable and rather comical stage names were years of experience Hakeem didn’t have. They’d worked enough clashes and won them to make a name for themselves and if Hakeem wanted to get to their level, to have a set on the main stage next year, he’d have to beat them fair and square. 

“You can do it!” he chanted. “I’ll have to kill them.”

A loud pounding shook the portaloo almost knocking it over. Hakeem held his hand against his chest. “Oi bruv, I need to piss.”

“I’ll have to kill them,” Hakeem repeated.

“How many of you are in there?” the desperate voice asked.

Hakeem flushed the toilet in an attempt to disguise his panic then pushed the door open. This was it. He stepped onto the chaotic street, wiped the sweat from his forehead and steered through the dense motley crowd.


The carnival was in full swing. If you looked closely not a spot of pavement was in sight. The people who came to Notting Hill Carnival ventured far and wide to feed off of its energy. They shifted the crowd control barriers and raced towards Westbourne Park to find a spot in time for the start of the parade. Bursts of powder paint exploded in the air and participants covered in melted chocolate embraced one another. The Caribbean islands flags couldn’t be missed. If someone wasn’t holding it proudly in the air, they were drawn on the faces of children or hanging from the balcony of the local residents. A man wearing a turban was at every entry point haggling with customers over the prices of whistles and blowhorns. Leah had the best view of it all. She felt like an eagle soaring as she looked down from the carnival float. On either side of her float was a line of young boys and girls playing steel pans which made the sweetest calypso tones. Leah bent over the safety railing to gain a closer look. She watched the women’s waistline move to the beat from the sound system on the float in front of her and as she looked to her right there was another soundman roaring on the microphone. The array of colours from the costumes were blinding and their feathers were ten times bigger than the ones on her headdress. Hannah said there would be a lot of people but this was an understatement. From above everyone looked like specks of black and white dots huddled together. It was a huge melting pot of bodies. Leah grabbed Hannah by the arm and they laughed at the dancers gyrating on the police officers. 

“Mmm, can you smell that?” Leah asked. She could smell the jerk chicken from a mile away. Even better, she could taste the sauce they splattered on top of the Jamaican hard dough bread. There was no doubt they were heading straight there once they got off the float.


As the floats ploughed on towards Ladbroke Grove, everyone scattered and gathered at their preferred sound system. No one ever stayed to watch the parade right to the end, because everyone knew the real party was wherever the stack of speakers were. Over at the Rampage Stage, Hakeem was psyching himself up. He hovered around the stage tent and guarded his decks just in case anyone tried anything funny. First, he opened his laptop and scrolled quickly to double check the order of the songs. It was DJ suicide if you were halfway through a set and you mixed two tracks at different tempos. That was sorted. Next, he reset his EQ’s and filters. He heard DJ’s sets from previous years with heaps of unnecessary special effects and the crowd wasn’t receptive at all so it was best to have that in check. Hakeem could hear the crowd going crazy for LocoBeats. That was a seamless fade from Beenie Man ‘Romie’ into Bounty Killer ‘Wotless’ Boy’, he thought.

The MC couldn’t contain himself. “I know you guys heard that,” he screamed. “Pull up!” That was code for a wheel up. Do you know how hard it was to get a wheel up? Hakeem stuck his head around the corner of the stage and saw everyone’s hands in the air. No, he wasn’t on edge at all. 

“You’re up,” said the MC breathlessly. Like heck he was. Two muscular men wheeled Hakeem’s deck stand holding all of his equipment. Looking at the speed they thrusted his belongings on stage, there was no way he could back out even if he wanted to. He could hear the MC introducing him.

“Alright ladies and gentlemen, up next we’ve got a youngster who’s come all the way from South London to entertain you today.”

Hakeem took a deep breath. 

“Let’s give it up for Hakeem!”

Hakeem stepped on the stage and the sea of people cheered but he couldn’t hear them. They were there alright. He could see them, yet it was all silent. The MC who was shouting moments ago had simmered down and stood on the side motionless. Hakeem’s eyes darted to the left to see the big countdown timer. Three minutes. That’s all he had. Three minutes to show everyone what he was made of. He gazed back at his audience. He couldn’t lose them, not now. Hakeem approached his turntables and jerked the jog wheel. It made a scratching sound that vibrated through the speakers. He hit the Beat sync button and the crowd erupted.

Mr Watson had been sitting in his armchair all day and successfully locked himself away. Though the racket outside was becoming unbearable, he held on to the thought that there were only a few hours left till the carnival came to an end.  He was very satisfied with this year’s turnout and he planned to do the same exact thing next year. Like always, he thought of Ruth and how she was the only one who could possibly get him to leave the house and enjoy the festivities, but those days were long gone. The sound of the carnival-goers retiring from the parade grew louder. Yes, Mr Watson had boarded up his windows, but this didn’t make the house any more soundproof than it had been.

At last, he rose from his armchair, crept towards the front door and looked through his peephole. A group of youngsters squatted on Mr Watson’s porch. They had no right, he thought, it was his property. He unfastened the latch and let out a loud cry. “Get off my porch!”

The children stopped their chatter and froze. Leah and Hannah, who were making their way to the jerk chicken stall, paused in their tracks and glanced at the commotion going on across the way. The shapeless man standing in the doorway grew red in the face and clenched his fists. “Get off my…” he muttered.

In the distance, Mr Watson could hear the melody of Jackie and Millie ‘Pledging my love’. He loosened the firm grip that balled up a fist. It was his and Ruth’s song. They danced to it on the night of the carnival. Mr Watson grabbed the brass knocker on the door, closed it shut and followed the faint sound of the music.

Castle on a hill

Bittersweet Chalk

It would be a day like any other, but also, not at all. Adam Warren glanced down at his watch and concluded that he was going to make the 08:37 train. He was cutting it close though, especially as he had run back to his apartment to get the chalk. When you are in a time crunch, there are things that you need to prioritize, and for the past five weeks, Adam had prioritized the chalk. Not the briefcase. Not the brochures. Not even the cellphone he would need to contact his boss. No, the chalk had been the most important thing. This might be the day, he thought, as he entered the breezy train station that had not yet been warmed up by the scorching late August morning sun.

The platform was empty. Adam was travelling to the Hamptons but had to take an unusual route to get to the David A. Sarnoff Reserve in Long Island. When he had been given the task of showcasing the reclusive and luxurious manor in the middle of the reserve, he’d been given the information by the seller on the back of a napkin to “take the Montauk Branch towards Hampton Bays from East New York train station on platform 7. Goes twice in the morning. Once back in the afternoon. Always sit in the last car”. Upon asking around and searching for the route online, the general consensus was the seller’s instructions evidently reflected the old man’s dementia and the habit of sipping too much whiskey. Despite the confusion and lack of information on the station’s timetable, Adam had gone to platform 7 on his first day as realtor for Reignstill Manor and, to his surprise, a train had arrived.

Adjusting his black portfolio with the silver emblem representing Weathervane Private Realty, tucking in his white shirt, and readjusting his blue necktie, Adam walked across the platform. He kept a steady eye on the ground for the mark that he had left yesterday. The thing about platform 7 was that it was not like other platforms. When you ride a train or a subway every day, you get to know the distinct timing that a specific platform has. After a while you know exactly where to stand to be right in front of the doors when they open, useful knowledge during rush hour. However, platform 7 always changed. There was no consistency, other than the fact that it was continuously inconsistent. Adam would always sit in the last car, which was the furthest away, but no matter how far he went, he never managed to be in the right place for the doors when they opened. With his chalk stick Adam drew a thick white “X” on the platform. Old marks seemed to vanish overnight, and Adam always assumed it was due to the rain or a cleaning crew, despite that there had been a heatwave for weeks and he had never seen a cleaning crew on any platform, let alone platform 7. Then, standing by the “X” the next day, he expected to time the train perfectly, but not even once had that been the case. It was although he was in competition. A pointless, yet mesmerizing challenge.

Adam stopped. Maybe today was the day. The distinct marking on the ground was between his feet and as the clock hit 08:35 the train slowly approached. Adam watched the silver larvae crawl forward. He kept a close eye on it as the doors of the carriage got closer. Closer. Closer. Yet, the screeching sound suddenly halted, and the train stopped.  Six feet. He had missed it by six feet. With the chalk in his hand, he walked over to the door and, disappointed, made another “X” on the platform.

The carriage was not what one would expect. It had old neon skateboard posters in it and there were several plants, located on a few seats and an old hat shelf. Who watered them and kept them alive was a mystery to Adam. The car was usually filled with the others, but none of them took care of the plants. Adam did not miss them, but he was curious whether someone would show up. He glanced at his watch. 08:36. He hadn’t been late before and taken the later morning train, so maybe today he would be in the car alone.

He waited, but when the clock was about to turn 08:37, a familiar bumping sound echoed in the distance. Adam watched the doors give way to a large black bear wearing a small blue hat. On his first day, Adam hadn’t known what to do. A black bear in a train car in New York? That just didn’t happen. Several rats and on the occasion a few exotic pets, sure, but not a bear. Trying to remember those short survival videos that never applied to him, Adam had tried to remain calm despite nearly having a heart attack. He had moved his way over to the emergency phone hanging on the wall, only to realize that it was made of cheap plastic and glued to the wall as a decoration. Now, Adam was used to the bear’s presence, and despite not having asked the bear its name, Adam had nicknamed him Oxy.

“Hey, what’s up?” Adam and Oxy always took the early train together, so he was curious why they had both managed to miss the first one. But with Oxy answering a short grumbling “nothing much”, they went silent and listened to the rhythmic sound of the doors closing and the train departing.  As he watched the green summer scenery, it hit Adam that he had no idea how the train would stop. The railway by the unnamed station in the forest split up, so every morning the train would disconnect the last car and continue its journey to Hampton Bays, only to connect to the car again in the afternoon on its way back to New York. But Adam had never taken the second train. Did that mean that there is already a car there waiting? But he had never seen two cars on the way home.

The train slowed down in the middle of the forest. They had arrived.  Adam looked out at the wooden shed with a lantern hanging from the crooked roof and the lacquered sign with the cursive word “station” painted across it. As the train disconnected the car and left them behind, Oxy was the first to continue their ordinary routine. Standing on his hindlegs, Oxy placed his blue hat on a small bush by the rails, and like a normal black bear, sauntered into the forest, departing from Adam without a word. Adam himself started to walk down the path leading to Reignstill Manor. However, with a sudden rush of joy, he glanced back just to double check, that yes, there was only one car. With no time to lose, Adam began to jog through the forest with the tempting thought that maybe, for some miraculous reason, that they wouldn’t be there today. That they hadn’t taken the first train that morning.

Having been assigned Reignstill Manor by his boss, Adam had assumed that it was a reward for his hard work, but it had been the opposite. During summer, or as the firm called it, “house hunting season”, lawyers and surgeons made their way down to the Hamptons to spend millions of dollars on a house they spent three weeks in per year. Adam knew the area and those type of clients well, so to be given a manor in the Hampton area seemed like a done deal. Except it wasn’t. Rumored to have been a secret vacation stay for a European Royal family during the 1970s, the manor had a timeless but gothic appearance with all the prestige, but also privacy any celebrity would die for. Yet, the house had been empty for months with no interested buyers.  Upon first inspection, Adam understood exactly why. To sell it, his boss had ordered him to have open days every day to appeal to the filthy-rich clienteles, but also to bring over buyers if for some miraculous reason they wouldn’t be there.

Glancing the manor between the trees, Adam jogged until he reached the great lawn that was decorated with several marble fountains. The manor looked like it belonged to a handsome vampire that had a taste for absurd art and gardening. Naturally, in his house brochure he’d left out that description and instead written “classic gothic chic”. He quickly skimmed the garden and the manor’s windows to see if he saw anyone, and when he saw no signs of life, he smiled. Approaching the manor on the gravel pathway, he picked up his phone to tell his boss the good news. He gleefully imagined saying; “Boss, the house is empty today! Bring over a client ASAP!” But before he pressed the contact info, Adam heard a voice. His heart dropped when he saw the woman wearing a fire-helmet, black evening dress and satin gloves walking around a marble statue of Athena, holding a dirty shovel. The ground around her was filled with flattened molehills. The woman adjusted her helmet and continued her intensive discussion with the statue about horoscope acupuncture. When a new molehill appeared, she immediately ran to smash it to the ground. Adam sighed, brought out his seventh version of the house brochure and scribbled down “well-kept grounds”. He needed to make their presence sound good, so the brochure needed some further editing. The fire-helmet woman meant only one thing, that they were all here.

Opening the grand wooden door, Adam’s suspicion was confirmed. The spacious foyer of marble with golden flakes was, as usual, covered in two feet of murky water. According to the law of physics, when opening the door, water should flood out into the garden, but as per usual, the pool of water didn’t even ripple. It looked like a dirty fish tank except there was no glass aquarium. Adam took off his shoes and socks, and stepped in. In the middle of the foyer, a small grey wooden boat floated, and in it sat the gloomy young woman accompanied by a plastic skeleton holding the oars. As usual, the woman was looking down into the water while making tiny circles with her finger. She never looked up at Adam and seemed unbothered when he waded through the foyer. In his notes, Adam scribbled “built in humidifier”, and he moved towards the kitchen.

Staring into an empty fridge, the girl with silky hair sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor. She seemed ordinary enough until you could see that she had the beak of a platypus. She also had a tail and Adam had to google around for a while before he concluded that it was a racoon tail. The beak-girl had a habit of opening the fridge, staring into it for a while and walking to the window, all day long. Adam noted down “spacious kitchen”.

For the rest of the day, he walked around the house to see the others. The chimney sweeper in the hobby-room who was rolling balls of yarn all day was always sooty, but Adam could never recall if the manor even had a functioning open fireplace. Then he went to see the lady in the library, who tied herself to a pole every day, put the spruce twigs beneath her on fire, and then grabbed a cigarette to stand there and smoke. Neither the fire nor the smoke ever spread anywhere in the house, so Adam had noted that the manor had “excellent ventilation”. He had also added “natural lighting” for the master bedroom where a large hummingbird was trying on an array of ball gowns in the soft afternoon light.

Like any other day, Adam tried to make phone calls and convince clients to come and view the house, but they all kindly rejected his offer. Then, when the clock was five, the day was over. Wading through the foyer, Adam went outside to dry his feet in the summer heat. While putting on his socks and shoes, the door opened multiple times and the chimney sweeper, the beak-girl, the smoking lady and the hummingbird all exited the manor and walked towards the train station. The fire-helmet lady joined them, and Adam followed a few feet behind.   They all usually took the morning train together, and the same train home in the afternoon. They never spoke and they never interacted, and after countless efforts, Adam realized that he was never going to sell the manor.

Oxy was the last onboard, as usual. He approached the train from the woods, looking like a wild bear, but when he stopped to put on his hat, he suddenly became Oxy. In silence he squeezed into the car and after a few moments, the train came and reconnected, taking them once again to New York.

“This is all madness,” Adam said, perhaps louder than he intended. Yet to his surprise, Oxy glanced up at him. “They come to the house every morning, do the same stupid meaningless things every day and then repeat it week in and week out!” Oxy tilted his head.

“Habit and routines are oddly natural,” he concluded, but Adam continued.

“It’s natural for a black bear to be in the woods all day, but it’s not natural to be like them,” he said, gesturing to the unresponsive figures next to him.

“You will see, it’s a common abnormality to not see the full picture of your behavior.”

“How can you not realize when you are doing something so absurd and pointless?” Retorted Adam, but Oxy did not respond.

For the rest of the trip home, Adam sat so lost in thought on what he could do to make the sale happen, that he didn’t realize when they had arrived at East New York station. The others had already left when Adam exited the car, except Oxy. It wasn’t like Onyx to wait behind, but this time, his gigantic head moved like a slow bubble head doll between Adam’s face and the ground of the platform. Adam looked down and all he saw was a large number of white X’s. Five weeks’ worth of X’s. They had seemingly vanished one by one, but now they were all magically there again, reflecting back at Adam his own strange habit and pointless routine. The bizarre resemblance of a starry sky or failed attempts to find a buried treasure, made Adam look up and mumble, “I am like them.”

Oxy adjusted his hat and answered, “Whether they make sense or not, habits and routines are a bittersweet comfort.”

The late August summer heat was still alive and flourishing, but a lone dried leaf spiraled lightly down from the sky and landed on an X. In a few days, the seasons would change, and fall would begin. House hunting season would be over. Adam picked up his phone and started to walk away. While dialing his boss’ number, Oxy shouted, “See you once again tomorrow?”

Adam put the phone to his ear and turned around. “Once again? try never again.”

He smiled at Oxy and when his boss answered he said, “I quit Reignstill Manor.” Adam’s voice drifted away and Oxy watched him leave.

Then, alone on platform 7, Oxy sat back on his hindlegs, yawned and said, “Good”.

Westminster Bridge at night
Image Credit: Thien Hinh Nguyen

The Midnight Market

“Slept in again, huh?”
Connor hated to leave the comfort of his bed but knew that unless he began his day, he’d either have to suffer Harvey kicking down his door and dragging him out of bed or a fate far worse per his history. Hence why he was in their shared living room with a spoon in his dominant hand and a tub of ice-cream in the other.
“Are you seriously surprised at this point? When haven’t I slept in?”
“You may want to consider eating something else for your brunch, buddy.”
“Harvey, unless you want some of this ice cream launched and stuffed where the sun doesn’t shine, then shut up.”
Harvey smirked but stopped before brushing one of his long locks away from his eyes. Why did he never seem take care of himself? Seeing him in this frazzled state always seemed to bother Connor in a way that was almost beyond words. With hair so overgrown that it almost looked like a bush, ripped jeans and a heavily creased long-sleeved t-shirt, Harvey was the exact opposite of himself, Connor often thought. A complete mirror image of his short black-haired, neat trousers and cotton shirt self.
Harvey’s effort to tame his hair became more and more arduous as his hair descended into deeper chaos than originally. Watching as there became more locks that fell than there were that stayed, Connor slammed down his ice-cream before heading over to the nearby cupboard and ripping it open. “For the love of god, here.” He wailed. A band of brown zipping through the air from his hand to Harvey. “Tie it up with that.”
Harvey laughed as he picked up the band, looping it around his stack of fine thread and making a ponytail. “Always knew you loved me. So, what kept you awake this time? Anything interesting this time around?”
Having returned, Connor sat down and finished his ice-cream. Why couldn’t he have gone and taken back that deal a year ago? He’d be rid of this moron at the very least. “New trades up for grabs. Bunch of exclusive stuff available until the end of the month. Spring sale or something like that. People going crazy with the change in hours.”
“Well, did anything catch your eye? Oh, wait, let me guess-”
“Don’t—”
“Tomes. Why am I not surprised?”
Connor winced, unable to deny him. Yet another reminder as to why he’s able to tolerate Harvey. Despite his laxed self, Harvey was deceptively calculating and intelligent, both of which was something that Connor admired in a person. Though it didn’t really require intelligence to guess Connor’s interest.
“Did you buy any of them?”
“No, I didn’t really have time to look at all of them and the one’s I did see didn’t interest me. But even if I did—”
“Great, here we go.”
“—there’s nothing wrong with being a little bit interested in what they have. There’s no harm in knowing, Harvey, being ready for whatever is waiting.”
Harvey rolled his eyes. “Dude, you make it sound as though there’s a kill truck waiting outside with a shotgun aimed towards your head. There’s no harm in not knowing. Hell, like they say, ignorance is bliss.”
“Ignorance is fatal if anything.” Connor growled, throwing his empty tub into the bin and his spoon into the sink. “Knowledge is power Harvey, and I can’t really afford to be powerless.”
“Well, you will end up powerless if you keep going there. How many hours did you trade this time? Six? Seven?”
“I don’t need to hear this right now.” Connor sighed impatiently, walking over to the corner, his trainers slipping over his socks. “For your information, I keep track of how much I trade away. It’s not a coincidence that I woke up in the afternoon. I planned that.” The tail of his trench coat swept through the air before settling on his backside, its warm embrace outfitting him.
Laughter escaped the poorly sealed lips of Harvey. Not the amused, happy, bell chime laughter he usually heard, rather it was the cold, cynical, almost a cruel laughter, like he heard something and knew otherwise. “Pfft, I would expect nothing less of you, ya control freak. Where are you going now? Off to make someone scream in misery?”
“You know me so well.”
“Dude, that was a joke. What the hell do you plan on doing exactly?”
“Off to Campus. There’s a little bit of work I need to do in the labs with the hydro-pump and the generator. Speaking of which,” Connor leaned down and picked up a case next to his shoes, “I need this. Whilst I’m at it, there’s something else that I need to drop off.”
Harvey continued staring at Connor expectedly. “And?”
“And what?”
“Don’t give me that. What else?”
A thin and cruel smirk stretched from the corner of his mouth. “Let’s just say that I don’t appreciate Karen taking my materials for her work.
“Oh, boy.” Harvey began praying.
“Hey, if the board isn’t going to do something, then I am. Now then,” Connor grasped the handle to the front door, “see you here tonight?”
“Yeah, sure. Just take it easy on her, ok?”
Harvey wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t seen it for himself, but Connor’s smirk seemed to evolve into an inhuman, almost devil-like grin. “Hey, if anything, she should be thanking me for my gift! Great deal, too! The full set for the price of one!”
“Okay, just go already!”
“If she want’s my stuff so much, then that’s what I’ll give her!”
“Just go already!”


With the final droplet of copper sealing the two wires together, Connor dried the soldering iron on the sponge before placing it back into its holder. All things considered, that was much easier than usual.
“Come to make some magic, Mr Lie-man?”
Connor twisted around before immediately relaxing at the sight of the Professor and his powerful goatee. “Jeez, sir, don’t you know it’s dangerous to sneak up on someone whilst they’re working?”
A faint chuckle escaped the old man’s lips. “Young man, I’ve been in charge of this department for years and have seen the worst of mistakes. At this point, nothing can kill me.”
“I’ll take your word for it, Professor.” Connor reached for the toolbox behind him, grasping a screwdriver and continuing his tinkering.
The Professor gently pinched the tip of his long facial hair. “What are you up, boy?”
A silver rectangular piece was gently toyed with as Connor showed him his piece of machinery. “A little bit of innovation.”
“That’s quite the upgrade you have there.”
“I know, right!” Connor’s face seemed to almost morph from looking focused to looking like a child being told he’s allowed candy for dinner. “Got this baby at a Spring Sale! Ten times faster processing in memory access and analysing. And I got three of them. Boom!”
“Ah.” If the Professor was uninterested, he was hiding it very well. “And what did it cost, my friend? Because the department can cover any expenses that- “
“Nothing that I’ll lose any sleep over.”
“Really? Because you seem very manic today.”
Connor smiled coyly. “That’s not sleepiness or insanity, Professor.”
He frowned. If that was some inside joke, then he wasn’t a part of it. “So, you’re—”
“Just modifying the circuitry on the motherboard. My data dump shows interesting result, so I thought that if—”
Whatever it was that Connor had seen in his results, or had hypothesised, The Professor wouldn’t find out until the next day. It was like a canary singing a tune of pure fear and despair. Or a shopper in anguish after finding out they were almost broke from their long day of purchasing. A shrill and resounding scream raced down the white hallway, bouncing back to the lab it started from. Connor ran to the neighbouring room, the Professor racing behind him. What awaited them was almost stupefying.
On the floor was a woman, her blond, side parted hair frazzled as though each greasy strand had been delivered a frightening shock. Both the Professor and Connor were at her doorway, yet she gave no sign that she knew they were there. She remained on the floor; her eyes transfixed on the opposing wall.
“Karen, what is the matter?”
Karen snapped out of her trance and turned her head to Connor. “I thought…I thought that…I saw…horrible…”
The Professor knelt down, gently shaking her shoulder. “Are you alright, my dear? Connor, why don’t you leave this to me? We can talk again at a later date.”
“Understood.” Before leaving, Connor followed Karen’s frightened gaze, aimed towards the wall. “Interesting mirror you got there. Have you always had that?”
Karen’s eyes seem to shake, as though unfamiliar with the reality that she was in. “Yes, I got it from…I-I mean-I meant that…no…I’ve had it for…no…”
Connor’s face was stoic. “I see. Well, I will see you tomorrow Professor. Let me know if you need anything.” He turned and took his leave, the shadows of the late afternoon kissing his feet upon his departure. It was still quite early after all. He could browse around before heading off and maybe see what the rest of the day had to offer before looking for bigger deals to bag.

 


“What the hell is this?” When Harvey had left that afternoon, the living room in their shared flat had been moderately filled, with a few shelves, a table and their respective desks, with enough floor space to walk freely. Now it was like playing hopscotch over several dozens of bags to try and get your wallet. “And where the hell have you been? I swear it’s only been a few hours.”
“Indulging myself a little bit.” Connor responded, sitting hunched over a very thick stack of paper. “Couple of things up for grabs, might make my space a bit roomier. Also,” he pointed to the pile of t-shirts with rock stars, cartoon characters and weird slogans and catchphrases, “these were selling like hot cakes online, so I got them whilst I was out. Can you believe it? Fifty percent off on all limited-edition sale merch. Barely cost a damn thing.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” Harvey muttered. “It’s almost sundown. Had a little something to eat whilst out so I’m gonna take a little nap before I… we take off. Be ready in an hour and half?”
“Sounds good.” Connor didn’t break eye contact with his papers.
“‘Kay. Night, honey! Don’t work too hard, okay?” Harvey laughed as a screwdriver bounced off the wall, missing his head by a few centimetres. He closed the door behind him as he left the room. Glancing to make sure he was gone, Connor reached behind him, pulled out a small notebook, and jotted down a quick note reviewing all he needed in that night’s endeavour:

Next day events:

Lecture 12:00 – 15:00.

Part time job 16:30 – 22:00.

Sleep available for trade: 3 – 6.

Trade away:
• Sympathy
• Empathy
• Vitality
• 500 Units of Ancient Currency.

Available information for exchange:
Witness report, case 305 (Missing Person)
Suspect sighting, case 606 (Grand Theft)

“Not much,” he muttered silently to himself, “but I can make it work.”


“I thought you said that you’d be ready?”
“I lied, okay? Jeez.” Harvey rubbed the sleep out of his eyes before climbing onto the back of Connor’s Harley Davidson. The sun was setting fast, as it usually did for those who wanted to enter. “I hate to tell you this, dude, but most people enjoy sleeping. They consider it relaxing, even if you don’t.”
“Shut up.” Connor started the engine. “We have two minutes, let’s get moving.” Twisting his throttle, they lurched forward, the sun sinking and disappearing from the heavens. The moment it did, shadows stretched from lampposts and buildings. They continued spreading and crawling, the light growing dimmer and faint until…nothing. There was no light, no buildings, only emptiness. The motorcycle? Gone. Harvey wouldn’t have known he was on one if he couldn’t feel it rumbling beneath. He wouldn’t have even known that Connor was in front of him if he hadn’t been holding him. Suddenly, it all came back. A bazaar lit only by the single planet sized crystal star in the sky, vendors and street stalls all around, hoping to make a sale. In the dark alleyways were a number of shadier people who were hoping to make a sale whilst remaining unknown. The two of them dismounted from the bike.

Image Credit: Thien Hinh Nguyen

“Ah, The Midnight Market. It’s been too long.”
“Shut up.” Connor growled. His bike disappeared as it always did, knowing to reappear only when they wanted or needed to leave. The mirrors hanging from a stall caught his attention as the two of them were about to depart.
“Exotic mirrors for sale!” Bellowed the salesman, his turban bopping joyfully with his dance. “Great deal only available for three more days! The entire three-piece collection for the price of one! Suits all of your purposes! You see more than just your reflection, trust you me! I’ve had more than my fair share of scares! Ho, ho!”
“Nuh, uh.” Harvey grabbed Connor by the collar, dragging his towards the stall. “There’s something you need to do.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You know what.” He glared.
Harvey growled, his lips twisting with disgust. Why should he let it go? He’d already tried talking to the top dogs in charge and nothing changed. In the end, it ended like it always did, relying on his own devices. “Why should I?”
“It won’t solve anything. You need to appeal to the board again, not torture her. You gain nothing but sick satisfaction at her expense.”
Connor looked at him indignantly. “That’s the whole point.” He turned and faced the vendor, the turban bouncing lightly. “Hey, boss.”
“Back so soon, young man? What can I do?”
Connor sighed. This was going to be painful. “Those mirrors I bought, how long do the visions last for?”
“One month! Is that not to your liking?”
“Oh, I do this with great reluctance, trust me.” He gritted his teeth. “How much to stop the visions?”
“You can’t!” The vendor smiled brightly. “But I can lessen the time. For the right trade, of course.”
“Nine days.” Connor declared.
Harvey looked insulted. “Connor!”
“Fine, one week.” He kept looking at the vendor. “In exchange, the visions intensify to physical sensations. Fair?”
The vendor stood motionless, as though meditating. “Hmm…”
Connor groaned. Should have seen this coming. “I’ll throw in 50 units, 3 hours of sleep and my empathy for the day.”
“Sold!”
He smirked as a purple light flickered for a moment before turning to Harvey. “Happy?”
“Not really, but it’s something.”

“Mr Lie-Man! My favourite customer!” At a stall on the far south side of the bazaar, a young woman bounced in childish glee, her mocha skin and her wide smile illuminating in the star light. “What can I do for you today? You need another memory enchantment? Another RAM chip? I’m afraid we’re sold out of that today. A date?! I’ll gladly provide a date for you!”
“Is there any way you can refund me for this idiot?” Connor ignored the fact that Kana was less than a centimetre from his nose and pointed to Harvey picking his nose.
“You know the rules, Connor. No refunds. Besides, you got what you wanted.” She said, leaning back.
“I asked for something that would make me happy, not give me a migraine.”
“He will make you happy,” she smiled cheekily, “it’s only a matter of when, which you didn’t specify at the time.”
“Fair enough,” he sighed, “let’s get to business. What you got for me?”

Fin