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Author: Sandy

Skin and Bone

It started with his ears: the sound of a circling fly was like a knife smashed across violin strings, louder and louder with each lazy revolution until Baron killed it. He didn’t want to. Bad men hurt animals and he was-

well, he was OK. He let the fly lie where it fell, as a warning to the others. Some ants tried to take his grisly message away, so he killed them too. Later, more came. Their little feet were loud on the damp wooden floor: tschoop tschoop tschoop.

The house had never seen better days, though it would be hard to imagine worse ones. The leak in the basement had gone critical months back and now the room was a well-caged swamp, complete with a yellowy fungus growing in the corners. Baron called it ‘wall puke’. It tasted OK.

He’d been a bigshot grifter once. Well, that was a lie. He’d been a two-bit conman once, but he’d scratched out a living. Good smile: lotsa teeth, big eyes. The punters liked big wobbly eyes and a sad story to go with ’em, and all the better if that same grief could be their gain. Baron’d lost count of how many ‘funerals’ he’d had to attend, how many times he’d said no sir real diamond but you know the cost of plane tickets these days and I just have to say goodbye to my dear ole mum with very-nearly-real tears in his eyes, because his stomach was growling and so was his landlord.

If he concentrated, Baron could swear he heard his nosehairs growing. He imagined them curling inwards, longer and longer, burrowing through the nose cartilage and nesting around his brain like seaweed strangling a jetty, or pubes smothering a limp prick.

His head thrummed with blood. It made him want to touch his eyelids. They were leathery. There were bone nubs growing downwards from his brow, a little frill of horns. He couldn’t see them, but he could feel them stretching his skin from beneath. The thing inside him wanted to burst out and dance naked in the rain of gore, body all slick and red: timeless, tailless, pristine. He shouted his name and heard the echo prang back. “Still here,” he said, then wondered who he was talking to.

He didn’t miss Elle. Well, that was a lie. She’d made him want to be a better person, and goddam he’d tried. Sometimes, we strive for some greater ideal and we find the true measure of our potential. Unfortunately, potential -like bank balance- is best left unchecked.

Tschoop tschoop tschoop. Bone nubs, wall puke and feet sounds; remnants of the man he’d once been that had lurked in his yellow belly for god knows how long and metastasizing at the worst moment.

There had been picnics, and half-asleep drunk fucking, and arguments over hairs in the drain: a domesticity that had been comforting in its all-ness. For two endless years, Baron had believed with all his heart that he could be normal, that he could halt the twitching in his hands and the petty social violence that sat like a splinter through his eye.

It had actually begun to work, until the little voices bouncing around the cavern of his skull pranged off the twisty nosehairs and found themselves front and center again. Three little words that made the gears lurch back into motion.

“It’s a boy,” the doctor had said.

He hadn’t said I’m sorry Mister Baron, but you’re a complete bastard. It’s not terminal, but it should be, but it had the same effect. Baron got home calm-as-you-like, then packed a single small bag. Running was easy; animal. Total physical lockout: body said goodbye to brain and got the legs going mile on mile. Baron eventually found himself on his knees, on a twist of tarmac broken by puslike yellow roots. His mouth moaned, his eyes twitched and his nerves jangled, all trying to break away from a body that could barely hold them. It was then that Baron found the house. He did not come out for some time.

There was a pile of mirror dust and splintered wood in the back yard. The wind wouldn’t touch it, nor would Baron any more. Bad luck to smash a mirror, so he’d smashed them all. No point breaking the rules just a little bit. A is for Anarkee said the writing on the wall. Right on, man.

Every day while he’d gone shopping for vegetables or run on the treadmill, Baron had told himself that he was becoming a good person. Every night while his wife lay asleep beside him, he’d fought with the fishhooks in his soul that wanted to breach him, to take him in godlike hands and tear his guts out. Bad man bad man bad man he’d told himself, as if dreaming the words hard enough would broadcast the warm inches between and she would know how much work it took him just to sit still, to quiet the violent whispers of his heart.

We are what we tell ourselves we are, and Baron knew he was an animal wearing a man’s skin. Well, that’s a lie. He wanted to be better, but the world made it so hard. His fingernails were harder now, and longer. He’d cut himself on them a few times before he’d figured it out. He tried to chew them off, and screamed as a stiletto tooth tore the flesh of his finger.

His clothes kept snagging on the new bone that jutted from his angles, so he tore them apart and walked the house naked, spitting, slobbering, playing a game of good man bad man good man bad man and letting the sound of his voice get lost in the big corners. The sound bounced back, and he felt briefly like he wasn’t alone.

“Good man,” he said, and touched the ring, which kept slipping off his too-long fingers. He’d had so much practice with fake rings, he had no idea how to treat a real one. “Bad man,” he said, then wept.

His stomach rumbled, as it had in the bad old days. He shuddered his way to the basement stairs, and took them one at a time, as if too heavy a tread would tear the rubber sheet of sanity. His feet went under the water. It was a relief not to see them any more. The toes stuck out at odd angles now, bones warped to fit a new frame.

He caught his reflection in the dark basement water, then tried to pretend he hadn’t. Big eyes, lots of teeth. Just what the punters love. There’s always profit in someone else’s desperation. He tossed the word ‘man’ into the water. It did not echo back. “Well,” he said, “that’s that then.”

He ate some wall puke, then fell back on his haunches and screamed. It was easy; animal.

He did not stop for some time.

Baron drooled, and dragged his knuckles and knives-of-bone across the floor. Where the spurs snagged, he grunted and pushed forward, tearing at the walls and floor. Outside called to him, pregnant with possibility. Grand Guignol for most, but a playground the reckless and violent. His muscles were stretched so tight that the sun played harmonies across them, little shivering arpeggios. He was hungry.

He could not be a man, but he could still do the good thing.

Baron went home.

the Dance, the Dancer

The rain came first in spears – fierce long streaks lit silver by moonlight. As the night was pulled further and further apart, the rain went soft, and the wind took it in all directions; fuzzy halos coalesced around the harsh glow of the streetlights. You stood in a hooded oil-coat and pretended not to mind; there was something perverse to electric light — a single light should not have stood against the rain; a single light surrounded on all sides by the sea, when its fire should’ve been quenched in moments. You remembered when there were feeble gas lights, and scurrying link-boys, and when there was only fire, and even before that when darkness squatted upon the face of the earth.

In Vienna, a boy died that night. He was transfixed by the electric streetlight, and did not see the oncoming carriage. It ran him down, and did not slow –  he was only a boy. You saw it, from the corner of your eye, and did not intervene. You took his body in your arms. There was no light in his eyes. The rain made his wool coat stink. His eyes were brown, his hair was brown, his skin was pale and bloodless, his neck went the wrong way. He was heavier than you expected.

He stood outside his body, and did not understand: he cried when you took his hand. The children were always hard to deal with, but an eternity steels the soul to a few tears. Still, there was a pang to it–

All men die, but not all children. There is no peace in it – no inevitability. The boy in the wool coat cried when he saw your face, as they all did. You took his cold hand in your own cold hand, and tried to hush him, but it only made him bawl louder. He would’ve been a cooper, like his father. A dying profession, heh.

You felt guilty for laughing but you were human once, and a little of it was still there. You had a name, and a face. In that moment, you had neither. In that moment, you stand sentinel at the gate between the living and dead. The scythe no longer made sense — the farmers used great machines now that could harrow a whole field in a matter of hours. So much for metaphors, but you’d always been always a traditionalist.

You knelt down.

“What is your name, child?” you said.

You knew, of course, but perhaps hearing your voice -like brass nails pounded into wet earth, like the rumble of a mountain before it is taken into the sea- would calm him.

It did not.

“Do you like toys?” you said, and took a wooden horse from inside your coat.

“Neigh,” you said. “Neigh, so goes the horse, as is its way. The horse, like you, is dead. See, it’s not so bad? The nice horse died too. If you come with me, you can have the nice horse. Neigh.”

He did not like the horse. It was, to be fair, not a very good horse. You were the death of people, not of horses — you weren’t familiar with their shape. There had been horses in your life once, but it was so long ago. The toy had too many tails, and too few colours. Anatomical issues aside, with hindsight it was probably not the right animal to show to a child who had just been run down by a carriage.

You snapped off one of its heads.

“See,” you said, “now it has the correct number of those bits.”

Behind you, visible only to the boy and yourself, was the door. The boy had to go through the door. If he stayed, something would come out of the door. That’s why you were there – to ensure the right things went into doors, and nothing came out of them. It was a small door, this time: apposite for a child, difficult for a skeleton who’d been pretty big in life anyway.

The door whispered in the voice of many hungry children. They told the boy to stay. They told him they would let him see his father again, and eat all the candy he ever wanted. Of course they would say that, and of course a child would believe.

The boy bawled.

“Child,” you said, “if you come with me, I will tell you a wonderful jest. You will laugh heartily. We will laugh together, like you once laughed with your father. If you are good, I will return for your father and you can be with him in a nice house forever.”

The boy stopped. Good, mission accomplished.

His eyes were very wide.

“You gon’” he said, “you gon kill my dad?”

“I do not kill anybody,” you said. Your skull gleamed. “I simply collect.”

The subtlety was clearly lost on the boy. He tried to turn, to run. You moved, as you do, between raindrops, and appeared in front of him. You grabbed his wool coat, which stank of wet and blood. The whispers were so loud now, so hungry. You dragged the child’s soul, screaming, towards them. He tried to dig in his toes, but they found no purchase on the wet cobbles.

You threw him through the door. It closed neatly, without ceremony.

You stood alone, in the rain. You lingered for a moment, and considered the broken horse in your hands. The rain came down sideways, in a windtossed almost-mist. You squeezed the horse, and felt its pieces snap, and fall onto the cobbles. For a moment only, you felt sorry.

A lonely wind blew through the streets of Vienna, and you went on your way. There was nothing to see but rain, and the harsh glow of the electric light.

Sonata

hi im not i any more

outta nowhere, a moment of cataplexy – a giving way and i am no longer who i am. this is not coherent, i apologise. we underwent the opposite of a schism and now we are 1. i will list, as best i can:

  1. an ice bath
  2. a kind man
  3. an unkind man
  4. needles and thread

two men enter, one leaves ahaha. it is a movie reference. i like movies but i cannot remember which of i likes movies. i am a beast of needles and thread, of flesh and bright smiling teeth.

one of us liked music. do you know the moonlight symphony? it was the only piece of sheet music on the old piano in our mother’s house and she would play it most days. it is beautiful –  it is rich, complex, polyphonic. it has layers on layers of notes that crash together into a more complete whole.

the kind man gave me a drink and i drunk it. he cut pieces of me away and i screamed because i could not see his vision until he cut me open another eye. the unkind man lay strapped down next to me and also screamed. the kind man plucked out his eyes, to spare him the pain of seeing, but it only made him scream more until his throat broke and he tasted blood. i taste blood now, as I walk through his memory and it is my memory now

Cata, from the Greek kata for down. catastrophe, cataclysm, catamorph – new word new form sub form greater than sum. i am the moonlight

two eyes plus two eyes, plus one eye minus two eyes is a net loss of one eye but i always prefered quality over quantity haha

one of us had a wife and i ate her and she screamed. we were not meant to leave the lab but humans are so fragile. we broke the straps that held us down and we repayed kindness with kindness. the kind man screamed and i do not understand why – perhaps i did not add enough parts. i failed him and for that i am sorry

the wife also screamed. we did not intend to hurt her but we sought to add her memories to our own and to add her person to our own and to add. her screams petered out into little trills and grace notes

her pain became our own and we sat with our arms wrapped around our knees while we remembered the music but we had too many arms and not enough knees

down down down but we are beautiful now, yet incomplete

we found a house, and we added more. their pain hurt us too and they did not understand and they still scream even now that they are part of us. their mouths wrench open, their teeth gnash. like the unkind man they are blind to the great work the kind man began

my favourite movie is

i forget

i am not-

i am–

one of us liked movies and one of us liked to cook and one of us drank too much and watched the cars on tv to numb their mind, and we were lazy and selfish and slow and blind and now the sins are washed away in this bold new place but the little-us the catamorphs they writhe even though they are

as i grew older i came to realise my mother played the moonlight when she was sad. even when she could not afford to eat she did not sell the piano. she played as if the music would make her full, and complete. she cried while she played that night and i did not know what to do

the kind man was a composer and i am a song. i went from house to house and i added layers to myself, and they made their own songs of protest. their pain meant less and less to me – it added to the great work the kind man began

i found my mother in her house, across town. she did not recognise me; she had not seen me in years; she screamed i suppose because i had gotten fat. all the little catamorphs added a new layer to my song and as my mother sat in the corner with her eyes wide i played her the moonlight and she wept

Moloch

He sees the towers rise into the sky and wonders if he was once a god or a king or a man with two gold dollars to rub together. In a life before life, was he locked in his sar-

coughing as a bus rolls by and he inhales the stale gasoline air and wonders whether–  

there was once a gold top atop the grand pyramid; now there is only stone. We stand amongst wonders of stone and steel, and marvel at the delicate tyranny of the open sky. In times of old we stand clad in gold and we wondered whether–  

there’s a Cairo, Illinois, where the Mississippi carves its way between three States. There’s a Cairo, Georgia, just north of Calvary. Their pyramids are nothing but memory, their Niles are dressed –regal– in tarmac and stone. The men of Cairo sleep fitfully, dreaming of temples that rise up in defiance of an empty sky; they wake amongst TV dishes and cell towers, and choke their way to work along roads that wrap around the land.

Where is Moloch now? We can see him no more than fish can see the sea. His teeth are chrome and glass, his heart beats with the brittle tick of a monstrous clock. His eyes are LCDs that hum and glow in the dead of night. Moloch, eater of children; taker of teeth; salesman of dreams. We sit in tombs of gold and wonder whether–

a man sleeps on the street with his old coat wrapped around him, and dreams of a life he never lived. In Cairo in Cairo in Cairo men work until their hands break while the pharaoh sits in silence, in robes of gold.

On the river, on the interstate, in the valley of kings, the gods are silent.

Many Hands

Ten seconds ago it had been a sausage, now it was a single human hand, neatly sheared off at the wrist.

Jonno had been fixing some wiring issue when the whole sausage machine started pumping backwards. The sausages on the line went in, and squealing beasts came out. The lads on the line had been having a lot of fun all morning, putting sausages into the machine and laughing as whole pigs came out all mad rolling eyes and skreeeeeeeeeeeee snk snk then charging off the belt until they could be captured, and killed again, and fed back into the machine. The men went forwards and backwards with the same pig for twenty minutes, laughing the whole time.

Then they started putting in other meat from around the factory and it all went to hell. What had ten seconds ago been a packet of Mrs. Poppers London Garlic Pork Bratwust was a man’s pale, shriveled hand. It had a single ring on one of the fingers, inset with a red stone. The jokes stopped immediately. The building was scoured for other London Brats to put through the machine. Nobody was very enthusiastic about it, but it had to be done.

It didn’t take long for them to find more: four human toes without a foot. This little piggy went to market, this little piggy went home, this little piggy got butchered and this little piggy got boned. Two toes were dark-skinned, the third had red nail-polish on it and the fourth was covered in a layer of thick hair.

“’should call the cops,” said Jonno. He smirked, “though I suppose they be more worried about the pigs, wouldn’t they? That’s family, that is.”

They all shook their heads. Nobody said “if we call the cops, they’ll shut this down and we’ll never know exactly what in the hell was going on, and it will chew at us in our dreams until the day we die,” but you can be damned sure they were all thinking it. Curiosity, meet cats.

The foreman decided however, that it needed to be done right. Gibbo found a clipboard, and took notes.

Inventoried herewidth, results of putting Mrs. Poppers Real Authentic London Garlic Pork Bratwust Sausage Product backwards through the mincing machine, with which Jonathan “Jonno” Specker has recently tampered to produce an unusural effect.

1) one (1) whole pig, alive, later returned to sausage state by machine

2) one (1) whole pig, alive, later returned to sausage state by machine

3) three (3) human feet, de-void of toes, dead

4) two (2) whole pigs, alive, l.r.t.s.s.b.m.

5) one (1) human eyeball, brown, dead

6) one (1) whole pig, alive, l.r.t.s.s.b.m.

7) one (1) human head, aliholyshi

The head was screaming. “I’M NO SNITCH I’M NO SNITCH I’M NO SNITCH,” it said. It had no teeth, nor a tongue, and was missing one eye. It had been neatly sheared off at the neck, and this did not appear to affect its vitality in the slightest. The men from the freezing works were made of sterner stuff, and carefully took the head aside and put it with the other uh, things. After some consideration, somebody stuck a piece of tape over its mouth.

Please note: all previous detached human products resulting from the machine are now considered alive until further information is made available to us. It has been decided that Mister Gabrionelli, who was given all-hours access to the facility on his request -and granted due to his position as primary shareholder- is to be barred access to the machine until more information can be attained. Please also forgive any unchristian language used previously in the document, which was deployed due to the arisural of a surprising circumstance.

“What if,” said Jonno, “we got a whole bunch of these parts, and we put them on the conveyor belt, and we put them through backwards together?”

At this juncture, a vote was taken on Mister Specker’s suggestion, which was agreed upon unanimously by the factory employees and the relevant union representative. It was realised by the employees that more human parts would need to be produced before the suggestion could be undertaken, and more sausages were retrieved for this exact purpose. The log of our results continues.

7) one (1) human head, aliholyshitve

8) one (1) whole pig, alive, l.r.t.s.s.b.m.

9) Three (3) human torsos, alive

10) Six (6) human arms, alive

11) 5 (5) human legs, alive

12) seventeen (17) human hands, alive

At this juncture work was postponed while the products were sorted out.

The hands were everywhere, skittering around the room like little spiders while the men smashed at them with shovels, and wrenches, and any damned heavy thing they could find. Several hands mobbed the foreman, and tore at his skin, gouged at his eyes. He screamed and staggered around, guided towards the conveyor belt. The men rushed to him, then tore the hands off and pulverized them until they were ruined pieces of flesh twitching on the ground.

An incident occurred. At this juncture the foreman was given one (1) cup of tea to calm his nerves. Mr. William Lint was sent for pies at 11:30am precisely, and as of 1:14pm has not returned. His cellular phone was called and he said he was “quite alright but suddenly had a cold and needed a half-day off”. Half-day granted.

They took inventory of the parts they had. They came from men and women of every size, age and race. Some were in states of greater decay, but some were plump and fresh. 30 people, at least, over a span of several years. Mister Gabrionelli had been up to some mischief and no mistake. The men took the parts and placed them on the conveyor belt. Somebody was praying. Somebody else was swearing.

Jonno stood at the controls, waiting for the all-clear. The union rep gave a nod, Jonno hit the switch, then the thing chugged to life. Poor choice of words there.

13) one (1) “human”, “alive”

At this juncture, another incident occurred.

The beast lurched off the conveyor belt, then fell to the floor screaming on its hands and knees. Large patches of skin were missing entirely, one leg was far too short, one eye was far too mad. Hair stuck out at odd angles, jutting out between wads of scar tissue. “I’M NO SNITCH I’M NO SNITCH I’M NO SNITCH,” it bellowed, and lunged at Jonno, grabbing him around the throat with both hands. Vertebrae twisted and smashed together. “PLEASE DON’T KILL ME KILL ME KILL ME PLEASE KILL ME DON’T PLEASE DON’T,” it screamed, shaking the man’s body like a child with a doll. Jonno’s head flopped back and forth with a grating of bone-on-bone.

Two men grabbed the creature by its arms. It wailed, snarled and bit as they fed it back into the machine forwards. It shook, and from inside their was a tearing of metal. Every man held his breath until the noises stopped, and the bodyparts came out the other side. They fed them through again for good measure. About 50kg of sausages sat on the belt.

“I tell you what,” said the foreman, “I’m never eating meat again.”

From the Townsville Times, June 27th 2014:

Mr. Federico Gabrionelli is facing charges of multiple homicide, and will be appearing in court today. Though the police refuse to divulge their evidence to the media, they are calling it ‘substantial’.

The Turk

I was Nan’s favourite, apparently. That’s what people tell me. She was a blunted battleaxe – a mighty woman curled double by age. Her English was perfect, but she never lost the accent – two parts Greek, one part Italian, one part everything-else-in-between. She’d chew her words, then they’d fall out of her mouth with the emphasis in the wrong places. She always kept her hands under a blanket that she’d knitted herself. Her fingers were swollen and scarred – twisted in all the wrong directions. She told everybody she’d been a nurse in the war. When nobody was looking – when mum was busy fighting with her brother over who would get what – Nan would tell me stories from the old country; Eurydice, Persephone, the twelve labours of Heracles. She told them the best, because she didn’t spare the gory details, and the good guys won in the end.


“The snake,” she said, thi snik, “the snake sank his teeth right into her and pumped her full of poison. The poison filled her up, and made her blood go thin, and it slowly squeezed the life out of her. She screamed and screamed, and Orpheus held her hand but there was nothing he could do to stop it.”
It was okay though, because Orpheus went down into hell and played his lyre, and she followed his music all the way home. She told all the kids these stories, as they clustered around her feet. She would do all the voices, though to be honest they all sounded a bit like various degrees of Nan. My favourite story was about Prometheus, who stole the secret of fire so that all mankind could benefit from it. He got chained to a rock by the gods, and the birds pecked at his guts, but then Heracles came and saved him, and they went off to fight monsters together.

She fell down in the hallway once. Everybody was fighting, but the muffled crack of woman-on-carpet stopped them dead. It was a stroke. The doctor gave her six months, but she took another seven years. It wasn’t the same after that, though. It took her another year to get her speech back properly. She didn’t tell any more stories. The fighting got worse, and her face got stonier as she sat in her little chair and rocked back and forth. There was always a backgammon game half-done next to her chair, but I never saw anybody playing it. I asked her to teach me once when I was younger, but it was too complicated. She kept dropping the pieces.

“Are you from Athens?” I asked. I’d seen pictures of Athens in mum’s books. I imagined a whole city of pristine ruins jutting up from between blue-rooved houses – a place trapped in amber, so rich in history.
Nan shook her head, then smiled. “I am from a city that doesn’t exist,” she said, “in a country that doesn’t exist. I am an Ottoman, from Constantinople. My mother was Greek, my father was Greek, I lived my life in Greece, but my home is gone. It’s lost to history. This happens, when you live long enough. Names change.”
“Are you Turkish, then?”
She laughed at that, and shook her head. “No, no. You shouldn’t say that to a Greek, agoraki mou. I don’t mind, but some of my brothers would be furious.”
“Are the Turks bad men?”
“No, no,”she said. “We’ve fought them a lot. Perhaps they’re bad neighbours, but so are we. We’ve fought a lot of people. You can’t hate forever, or you’ll go mad.”
“Did you fight the Turks?”

She didn’t speak for about twenty seconds.
“Never,” she said. She looked at the backgammon board, then pushed a piece slowly across it. After a few moments, she placed a single gnarled finger against the corner of the board, then turned it around.

“Who did you fight?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Fascists,” she said. “Germans, Greeks, Italians. They wore different uniforms, but they were all the same beneath them. They were scared, and proud, and easily led.”

I didn’t ask any more questions.

“Tell me about Promethius again,” I said. It was perhaps two years before the end. Every passing year, I got bigger and she got smaller. By thirteen, I was taller than her. By fifteen, she almost disappeared into my shadow. The doctors did what they could, but it seemed like medicine wasn’t was keeping her going less than her own strength. She refused to take painkillers, though she screamed in the night. She rarely left her chair.

“He didn’t get free you know,” she said. “I made that up. He’s still on the rock. He’ll always be on the rock. He was a good man, and he was punished for it. That’s how these things go. That’s the stories my people tell – of good men brought low. It helps, you see. We drink and we screw and we shout and we tell stories because it helps us to understand our pain. You want to know about Promethius? He’s a story we tell when we see bad things happen to good people. It hurts, but it healthier than hiding.”

It was the most she’d said in years. I didn’t know what to say. “Nanna,” I said, “you can’t talk about screwing. You’re old.”
She laughed, and the tension fell away. For a second, she seemed much younger. “Of course not, mou,” she said.

She told me stories again, and me only. Not old stories this time, but stories of the war. Of valiant Greeks being run down by panzer tanks, of patching up resistance fighters in dingy alleyways, of German parachutes opening overhead like so many dark blossoms in the spring. She told me the Nazis had placed a bounty on her head – that they’d called her Häkchen -little hook- after the tool she used to suture wounds. The Greek Resistance never left the same mark on the history books that the French did, but they were hunted no less fiercely. She had to run all the way to Cairo before they stopped chasing her.

Nan hated the retirement home. She told me she hated the smell the most – that it reminded her of the field hospital in Cairo where all the dying British soldiers went; all antiseptic fug, and everybody shambling around in a sedative haze. They put her in a room next to a German woman called Anne. Apparently they got on fine, though I never saw them talking. In her last year, she moved back into her old house and hired a full-time nurse. She rarely spoke, or left her bed. The backgammon game sat next to her chair in the lounge, unplayed. I noticed she’d made a few more moves since I last checked, but a thin layer of dust covered the board.

She told me one last story before she died. She was lying in her bed, her eyes sunken in their sockets, her skin like wax paper – you could see all the veins beneath it sluggishly pushing blood around her body, as if the life were slowly being squeezed out of her. The nurse had gone home for the day, and everybody else was asleep. The curtains were open, and a sparrow sat outside, curled up on the windowsill, pressed against the glass. The room stank of antiseptic.

“There was a Turk who lived in a house by the sea near Izmir,” she said, “who had no reason to care whether I lived or died. The Nazis had been passing my description out at every checkpoint. That’s what happened when you worked with the resistance. The Turks had no part in the war, but the reward stood for them as much as it did for any German or Greek. I spoke to him in Turkish, and told him who I was. He’d seen the posters. He needed the money. We drank, and played backgammon. He offered me his attic for one night, but no longer.”
She sat up, and I could see how much such a small movement took out of her.
“Two Gestapo men came in the night,” she said. “They tied him to a chair, and they smashed his kneecaps. I saw it all through a crack in the boards. He told them I had left the night before, so they burnt him with cigarettes. He owed me nothing, but he stuck to his story. They broke three of his fingers, and he did not change his story.”

She lay her head back on the stack of pillows and took a deep breath. Her arthritic hands were curled into claws. The words seem caught inside her, as if they’d been buried so long that they had become a part of her body. She muttered something in a language I didn’t recognise. Her hands shook.

“Then they left,” she said, “and he was fine.”

“Really?”

“Really. The Nazis left, and I fixed him up, and I left the next morning.”

She was so weak, and the every word seemed to cost her. I got up and closed the curtains, leaving the little sparrow out to brave the night wind. Then I left, and let her sleep. That was the last story she ever told me. After she died, the backgammon board stayed on the little table beside her old rocking chair. The game was never finished.

Bricks

“Behold Hadrian’s dead old wall!” said Liam. He hopped up onto the ruined stone, then got out his cock. It was semi-turgid from his little liason with Nigel; Nigel who was lying in the bushes on the Scottish side, his hand on his fat, hairy belly. He smoked a Marlboro Red. His prick stood up and proud in the chilly autumn air.

Liam jiggled his knee, a little, and stared up into the open sky. Tension, then release – a golden arc flying over Hadrian’s wall and splattering all over the frosty English soil. A little pagan pillar of steam rose up, coiled around itself, mingled with the fog and got lost.

Nigel took his cigarette out of his mouth. “Fuck the English,” he mumbled.

“Aye,” said Liam, “fuck the English”.

“Fuck you,” said Nigel.

“Aye,” said Liam, “fuck me.”

Nige shook his head, and took another puff of his cigarette. “Later,” he said. He paused, and cocked his head to the side. “I love you,” he said. “Is that weird?”

“Nope,” said Liam. “I’m pretty great. I have a Netflix account and all my own teeth. I barely even did junk that one time.”

Silence fell – heavy, leaden. Wind whistled through the old Roman stones. The proud bulwark between North and South was now low enough for a man to sit on, and have his feet still touch the ground.

“Don’t even joke,” said Nigel. “Don’t you fucking dare, you knob.”

Liam squeezed his bicep – lightly, but it hurt. There would always be scar tissue there. How long had it been since his last time? Not long enough for Nigel, clearly.

“I’m just having a wee bit of fun,” said Liam.

“A wee bit of fun?” said Nigel, “oh aye it was a wee bit of fun for you back then wasn’t it? Because you were high the whole time. You didn’t have to -”

his voice broke. “Fuck,” he said. “Fuck. Look, I’m sorry. It’s been almost a year and I still dream about it sometimes. You don’t know how close you came. You put a needle in, then you woke up in the hospital. Me? Fuck mate, your missing time was a hell of a night.”

Liam pulled up his pants, went to zip them closed. The mood was, to put it lightly, dead. “Do you really love me?” he said. Funny word, love. Noun and verb; state and flux; stone and wind. A snake that eats itself every night, to be reborn in the morning; a coiling pillar of steam, lost in the fog.

“Always” said Nigel. He wasn’t quite crying. His cigarette was a flameless stump, doing a lazy circuit of his mouth. He sat up. Liam hopped off the wall, then went to him and lay down. Nigel’s skin was a minefield of goosepimples.Trust a Scotsman to want to fuck outdoors in the cold.  He didn’t pull away when Liam touched him. He smiled, just a little.

“Love’s an act, innit?” said Nigel. “It’s a process. It’s something you do every day, until you stop doing it. I love you – love, verb. You know who told me that?”

Liam shrugged. He had a suspicion, but he didn’t want to give it words – to make it real.

“You did,” said Nigel. “You said it while you were barely conscious, strung out of your mind, strapped down in the back of an ambulance. You were muttering it over and over: love’s a verb love’s a verb. Ain’t that the fuckin’ truth: I pulled the needle out of your arm, I called the ambulance, I hauled your ass out into the street even though I was convinced you were deid. I did love. Did, see?”

Liam saw. He bit his lip. “What can I do, then?”

“You can lay off the jokes for a few more years,” said Nigel.

“Aye,” said Liam, “I can do that.”

They lay together in the bushes, and they loved.

Space is Our Destiny

Four mates from Perth, captured in an alien prison! However will our brave Aussie battlers escape this pickle? Stay tuned kids, for the fantastic finale filled with adventure and derring-do!

“A steak and cheese pie,” said Gibbo, “then a can of Fosters, and then I’m gonna kiss my wife.”

He poked his head through the bars. The vile two-headed alien guard was out on a lunch break. They had maybe two minutes. Willie had gotten a plum job working in the chemical baths, and he’d managed to knock together a stick of dynamite. Marvin –using good old Aussie ingenuity–  had built the wiring and detonator from random junk lying around in the prison yard.

“Uh huh,” said Damon. Tick tick tick went the pickaxe. They needed to weaken the wall just enough for the blast to take care of the rest. “Not the missus first?”

Gibbo went red. “c-course not,” he said. “Pies and beer and other manly stuff. Riding horses in the desert and whatnot.”

“Uh huh,” said Damon. “Sure. I bet you-”

The dynamite went boom, and took most of the cell’s outer wall with it. There was a distant whistling, then a pitterpatterthud of reinforced concrete redecorating the prison yard.

“Strewth,” said Willie. “Give us a bit of warning next time.”  

Marvin nodded. “Ayep,” he said. That was the only word he ever said. Marvin was a bitter of a nutter, to be honest. No sane man was that good at making things go boom. The explosion had done exactly what it was supposed to – not just tear up the wall, but leave a generous hole in the outer electrofence. The prison perimeter was paper-thin: with the wild jungles of Gorthumax for kletons in every direction, where would escapees even go? Well let me tell you, those pesky aliens didn’t figure on plucky Australians!

“Peg it, lads!” shouted Gibbo. They pegged it, thoroughly: sprinting pell-mell out of the prison while sirens blared and lasers blew holes in the concrete all around them. Marvin got out first, then Damon. The other men stumbled around a bit, before the first two lads hauled them through the gap. Within seconds, the brave Aussie battlers had disappeared into the jungle, where they knew the cowardly guards wouldn’t dare follow.

***

“So let me get this straight,” said Damon, “using tree bark, a broken wristwatch, and some shiny beetles, you’ve configured a distress signal that will call the Australian Space Navy to our exact coordinates, so long as we can get to the top of Bloodcreek Mountain, at which altitude the signal can pierce the stratosphere?”

“Ayep,” said Marvin. He held up the device. It looked like a ball of mud with a bunch of LEDs stuck in it.

“Strewth,” said Willie, “I bet you a two-headed alien couldn’t make a machine like that. Bunch of blouses, all of them. Those subhuman two headed aliens don’t stand a chance if we all stick together and buy war bonds! Tell your parents today!”

“That’s right,” said Gibbo, “the war effort needs the help of ordinary folks back home. Just a few dollars will help us to buy guns, tanks and ammunition needed to finish what we started with those two-headed freaks. Space is our destiny!”

“Space is our destiny!” said Willie. “Stewth!”

***

Bloodcreek Mountain was an extinct volcano. The crater was an ancient holy site for the savage aliens, with dozens of armed guards all around. Whatever will our fine lads do against such barbarians?

“Okay,” said Damon, “so they plan is that we distract them with shiny lights and trinkets, while Marvin sneaks up through the trees to the top and activates the beacon?”

“Ayep,” said Marvin. He was very stealthy. He had a necklace of ears from all the aliens who hadn’t even seen him coming. Not that they needed ears in hell, right? Space is our destiny, not their destiny.

While Marvin sneaked his way through the dense jungle around the lip of the crater, the three friends walked casually out in front of the guards. The foul aliens drew their guns and spouted their incomprehensible babble, but Gibbo held up a wristwatch and said “see? Shiny! It can tell you WHEN you are without even needing the sun.”

The alien dropped their laser blasters to come closer, at which point

POW

KKRAKK

WHAMMO

SPACE IS OUR DESTINY.

SPACE IS OUR DESTINY.

“That wasn’t part of the plan!” roared Damon as the other aliens shrieked and charged, swinging their bladed forearms. All of them exploded at once – it was Marvin! Standing atop the highest hill, with the sun behind him, wielding a grenade launcher. Chunks of body fell everywhere around him.

“Ayep,” he said.

The beacon was lit, and the good old Aussie Space Navy were quick to respond – flying in from orbit to save our brave lads in the nick of time. Remember, no man who goes to war is ever left behind! This is our glorious cause! How can you help? Buy war bonds and always remember, space is our destiny.

ICU

“Coma is such an ugly word,” said Becca. “I prefer corporeally challenged.”

She tried to curl her hair around her ring finger, but it passed clean through with a liquid little scccchig. Force of habit. Human body gets very accustomed to, you know — physicality. Heft. The human spirit may be divine etcetera etcetera but it has all the physical integrity of cotton candy in a hurricane.

“That was a joke,” she said. “You can laugh now. Annie? You can laugh, okay?”

Annie was crying. Not pretty TV-crying, but a makeup-ruining, throat-stinging burble. She was trying to talk, but the words kept getting stuck behind the tears. She was talking to the body.

Becca’s body, of course, said nothing. She barely even recognised herself – she covered in bruises, with some sorta life-support jammed down her throat; squatting on her face like a clear plastic spider. The whole room was a bustling misery of beeping, and tubes, and antiseptic-reek.

“It’s my f-f-fault,” said Annie. She sat on a chair beside the hospital bed, almost bent double, leaving graceless little mascara smears on the sheets.

Maybe it was her fault if you wanted to get all technical, but accidents are accidents – you might be able to blame a woman for losing control of the steering wheel, but not for a patch of black ice on the road. Ain’t that a shitshow? Mother nature gets a bit too chilly, and all of a sudden you’re upside-down in a barren cornfield. Buh-bye to corporeal existence, hello to food from a tube.

“I wish you could hear me,” said Becca. She wanted to make another joke, but she couldn’t find the words. She wanted to hold her friend’s hand, and tell her it was okay. That wasn’t how it worked – that was against the rules. Once you pierce the veil, you can’t go back. It was something she knew in her soul, in the same way a living breathing human knows where their hands are, or when they’re hungry. She reached out anyway, and lay her hand across Annie’s.

The woman jerked back. Her eyes were wide, and tear-filled. She shivered, and rubbed the back of her hand, then muttered something under her breath.

B-but, there were rules

That –

It-

Fuck.

Becca puffed up her spectral chest. “HEY ANNIE HONEY IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT, YOU’RE GREAT. YOU GOTTA GO AND BE GREAT OUTSIDE THIS ROOM, OKAY? HAVE SEX WITH A CUTE BOY AND MAKE FRIENDS WITH A DOG. I DUNNO, I’M NOT THE BOSS OF YOU JUST GO OUT AND LIVE YOUR LIFE THE SAME AWESOME WAY YOU ALWAYS DID.”

A piece of paper fluttered, and fell to the floor. The lights flickered on and off. Becca’s echo bounced off the walls –the real walls– but the words were lost. Annie was sitting bolt upright now, with her mouth wide open. “Please Becca! I know you’re in here, and you’re mad!” she said, “forgive me!”

“I, uh -” said Becca. Okay so, time for plan B. They’d found her grand-dad’s old morse tapper in the attic when they were kids, and spent afternoons pretending they were heads of state sending Important Telegrams. Becca pulled her arm back, then punched the wall with all her might. It went [size=small]tap[/size]. She hit it three more times, then paused, then twice more. Short short short short, short short. Hi. She rapped out the morse code for chill.

Annie’s chin dipped, and she counted the hits out loud. “Chill,” she said. She bit her lip. “You’re cold honey, I know. So cold. Don’t go into the light.”

God DAMN it.

“You’re taking the whole ghost thing pretty well hon,” said Becca, “but you need to take it a bit less seriously. It’s not like I’m dead or anything.”

She cocked her head. “Give it a few hours.”

The words weren’t received, of course the weren’t. Force of habit. Probably for the best. She grabbed Annie’s hand, and squeezed. Annie didn’t pull back this time. She smiled, just a little, through her tears. Her eyes lit up a little.

“One squeeze yes, two for no,” she said. “Are you angry?”

There we go. Good on ya, Annie! Squeeze squeeze. Annie shivered. A line of goosebumps ran up her arm. A few errant hairs stood up on end.

“Do you blame me?”

There was no squeeze for OF COURSE NOT, so two squeezes had to do; two hard squeezes. Annie’s hair looked like it was trying to make a break for the ceiling. A few strands were going white. Right, foot off the gas; too much ghostiness and her friend would end up looking like Doc Brown.

Not a great summer beach look.

“Are,” said Annie. She stopped, and didn’t quite sob. “Are you coming back?”

Well, shit. The machines beeped their beeps and the tubes pumped their fluid through the grotesque plastic affair on Becca’s face – her body was still alive, but it had gained that waxy corpse-sheen. She knew she wasn’t going back in there, in a way she didn’t have words for. She knew, but telling somebody else would make it real. Somewhere between one soul and another, truth got mediated. Somewhere between one soul and another, ideas stopped being ideas and started pushing against reality. Two squeezes, then gone – bought the T-shirt, rode the roller-coaster, buh-bye Becca.

In all the stories, ghosts held on because they had unfinished business. They had somebody wicked to haunt, or a friend to console. Becca knew one thing, looking at Annie’ tear-streaked face: she’s never forgive herself until Becca was gone; while her presence was in the air, so was guilt, and shame.

“Becca?” said Annie.

One squeeze. Becca took a deep breath. She smiled, Annie’s eyes were wide now.

“I know you can’t hear me,” she said, “but I’ll see ya later, I hope. Be good.”

Two squeezes.

“Goodbye,” said Annie.

There was light –  

perfect and beautiful light.

The God Squad: Inside the Secret Society of Salt Lake City

It was some real fucked up shit; me screaming in Sumerian while flying through the air, wielding my laptop like a club; me, the last thing standing between a 4000 year-old god and the entire population of Salt Lake City; me, a wicked-cool Vice reporter whose closest thing to demon-slaying experience was dropping a mescaline/MCAT hybrid in the backstreets of Harajuku.

Let’s back it the fuck up, man. I was on the Sundance beat; watching cool movies from Africa and shit, smoking weasel dust with bicycle mormons – pretty pedestrian stuff. I’d just gotten out of this very bae French movie about incest when I ran into this San Francisco hipster type; old guy, technicolour robe, tattoos in cuneiform on his forearms, which of course I immediately recognised.  

“Yo man,” I said, “you holding?”

He bowed. “I hold the secret to ultimate pleasure.”

“Oh cool, disco biscuits?” You’re never too cool to get high with a fun old dude – this is a life lesson I’ve learnt and now I tell to you, my reader. Old dudes basically invented getting high, and you should treat them with respect.

So this old dude, he just walked off, and I followed him – he seemed to be on some powerful shit, you know? So I followed him, then he goes into a vine-trellised alleyway and just walks clean through a fucking concrete wall with a blop. That was kinda the noise he made – organic, liquid; one second he was there, then he wasn’t. Blop. So I followed, because whatever shit I was on was pretty amazing and I wanted to keep the good times going.

I walked through the wall with a blop – there was a holy moment of trickling cold, like praying beneath a spring of young meltwater. Then I was through, standing in a stone alcove, looking down on a circle of cool old dudes in tie-dye robes. In the middle of their circle was a burning altar made from film cameras, wine bottles, and carnival masks.

“MARDUK, MARDUK SUM EH-AH AKITU,” they sang as they danced in a circle. Marduk of course, is the ancient Sumerian god of the festival: sometimes called the Dancer on the Sun. In the earliest days of human civilization, upon the banks of the Euphrates, people would pray to Marduk by putting on plays, and celebrating by telling stories in the firelight. Marduk: the Saint of Sundance. It all made so much sense: all the fucking movies made him powerful – all those stories flying around in the open air. The sunbaked Utah flatlands probably reminded him of home.

I tasted iron, and spices. The air crackled with something like electricity, but more vital – more alive. From the bonfire rose a dark figure wearing a crown of peacock feathers. The old dudes gasped, and screamed. This didn’t seem to be the dude they were expecting. It had too many teeth, and its eyes were empty. Its clothes were beautiful, but ill-fitting.

Shit went wild. Old dudes starting popping like water balloons filled with guts.

“TIAMAT,” cried the leader of the old dudes. He leapt forward with a gold-tipped spear. Tiamat shrugged, and snapped her fingers – with a cricky-cricka-crack of snapping vertebrae, the old dude-leader’s head spun all the way around.

In less than ten seconds, every old dude was dead: their funky tie-dye ensembles stained with the many colours of the human body – reds, pinks, greys and browns. I was alone in the room with Tiamat. Her eyes glowed red. She turned to me and said “you are not worthy of death” “you are totally awesome and up with the times, and we’re gonna have a final showdown later.”

Then she vanished into a cloud of perfumed mist that stank of oranges and decay. I was about to leave, when something grabbed my ankle – it was the old dude from outside. His pale eyes rolled in little oceans of blood. One of his legs was twisted entirely the wrong way, and the other was missing. “Tiamat ha-he mus,” he said, “Tiamat utika, ha-he mus. These words will weaken her, so you can –  can –”

Then he died. It sucked. Pour one out for my cool old dude. For a moment there, I was done – this was like the third craziest shit I’d ever seen. I took out my laptop, and found it was ruined – the screen showed  jumble of coloured blocks, like somebody had covered the damn thing in magnets. I sat beside the old dude’s corpse, and I cried because I’m sensitive. My whole article was gone, and also a lot of people were dead. I know you’re not supposed to get sad when people die, because you’re cool and cynical and whatnot, but it’s easier said than done. Your humanity is always there, lurking below the surface, threatening to pierce the veil of irony.

It’s pretty fucking upsetting, honestly.  

I got up, then went back through the wall of blop, and arrived to a scene of carnage. A great storm wracked the sky, and ancient two-headed dragons swooped down to snap up passing tourists and critics. Out of the alleyway and into the street, Tiamat stood with her arms open wide.

“FEAST,” she cried, “FEAST, MY MINIONS. PROFANE THE FESTIVAL OF THE SUN DANCER.”

She was taller now, and glowing a faint blue. As I watched, a bolt of lightning came down and earthed itself in her chest. She smiled, and grew taller.

“Tiamat ha-he mus!” I said, “Tiamat utika, ha-he mus!”

She glared at me. She stuck out her hand, and I staggered back as a blast of wind nearly knocked me off my feet. “Tiamat ha-ha mush!” I said. No wait, fuck. Tiamat he, uh –  

Fuck it.

I held my broken laptop high, and screamed “I WORK FOR VIIIIIIIICE” as I charged. The storm raged around me, but it meant nothing – I was protected by the old dude’s magics. The sound of cheap plastic casing colliding with a god’s skull is hard to describe – like a tearing in the fabric of the real; like the best idea you’ve ever had and will never remember; like lightning that knows how little time it has left to live. Tiamat reeled back and shrieked. I hit her again, and the dragons fell from the sky. I hit her one last time, and the storm broke. There was nobody there.

I stood, surrounded by the corpses of unhip old theatre critics, and I was the coolest man on earth.