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Category: Prose Fiction

Seeking Non-Exponential Decay

The Korekore cleaved through the between-ness, down the aeonic star-roads, timeloose. Somewhere in the darkness, a star turned inwards under its own immense weight, devouring itself – a symphony of shrieking magma vents and the low bass crunch of a gravity well. She turned away from this, and towards the little sound, a timetethered mayfly hum of a distant planet. Stepping between the veils, she walked into the world.

The locals called her The Snail. Art installation, installed in the dead of the night. Legend had it they came back every night and moved her, maybe a fraction of a fraction of an inch. Nobody had ever caught the artist, though many had tried. The council tried to remove her once; a small group of addicts and lovers gathered to protest it, but that wasn’t what kept her in place. The tow truck driver attached chains to her and tried to haul her away, but the engine and tyres screamed and then the crane ripped clean off its bed. Whatever The Snail was made of was heavier than any truck, heavier than the skyscrapers around it, heavier than the molten heart of a star. The protestors chased the driver away, and the council did not send another.

Aroha Henderson smoked weed and painted landscapes and had fitful dreams about one day owning a house. She lived with her girlfriend in a cramped apartment across the road from The Snail, and every night, when her beautiful Janey was asleep, she would creep to the window and watch the statue and hope to see it move. Every Thursday night she took a single photograph, and hung it on a string, until there were too many strings and too many photos, and Janey shouted at her that it was an obsession, that it was just a fucking statue, and they shouted and then fucked and then didn’t talk about it again. Aroha went to the wall of photos one last time, over a year’s worth. She kept the first and last, and threw the rest out. She held them up next to each other, and felt some unnamable emotion stir inside her– the statue had raised a single finger, perhaps a millimetre, across the space of a year. She showed it to Janey, who did not believe her, who said it was a shadow, said it was a dream, said she was only seeing what she wanted to see. They fought again, one more time.

Aroha and Janey did not last, though they did, in that sort of scattershot way small-city lovers do, colliding off each other at parties and events and fucking and then feeling guilty. They each ruined at least one of the other’s marriages, though Aroha told herself she wasn’t keeping score. Her paintings began to sell well, and she got herself a place overlooking The Snail, and every night she would go out and touch its hand and swear she could feel warmth from concrete.

Thirty years passed, and Aroha’s home fell to ruin, and her paintings became more abstract – star-shapes and time-weave, things she didn’t have names for, things that worried her friends and family, until they too withered away and she became a ghost in her own home.

Fifty years passed, and it became hard to take the stairs, and she took to staring out the window at The Snail, which she swore had moved a whole metre since she was a child, whose kind eyes told her promises of places beyond.

Five years passed, and she woke in the dead of night with a pain in her chest that made her snap bolt upright, fast enough to make her bones click. She knew what was coming. She took her walker, and headed down to The Snail, each stair a wail of agony in her chest and her arms and her back. A wave of vertigo struck her and she almost fell, clanging against the walker, feeling things shift and click inside her. Step, step, step, one at a time, moment by lost moment. She reached the Snail, and took it by the hand, and looked deep into its eyes.

The Korekore smiled, and placed a hand around her waist. The city whistled around them, the strobe of day and night flowing like water overhead. For less than a second, flickering beside them, she saw Janey, white and bent with age, standing beside them. The other humans moved too fast to see, but Janey was still, every night, until – after a moment only in this strange new time-ness – she too was gone.

Aroha and the Korekore danced across the square while the skyline rose and fell, and at last they stood together in the dust of the dry world.

“I love you,” said Aroha.

“No,” the Korekore said, “you don’t.”

And they went hand-in-hand, timeloose, down the star-roads and off into the night.

Critical Mass

I see: hands, delicate and doll-like, twin-thumb threefinger; slackface, two-halves stitched with care (for there is so little thread); the organ, furnacewhite death-to-plastic, radiant between the pipes; a Giant, four-foot tall, five dolls’ worth of parts, bent-back to fit into the rats’ nest of crawlspaces beneath the organ, to chase the errant children and drag them back to work; the Chirurgeon with his many hands, ready to stitch, ready to cut the fingers of children who steal, ready with paint thinner and glue to wipe away the mouths of the children who cry.

Them-that-built are gone with the water but they left their temples down in the down-dark, fifteen-thousand PSI, enough to liquify bone; first a lab then a refuge then a church and finally a tomb but for their little helpers iterating and iterating and iterating, building on themselves in echo, in prayer, in splintered memory of their fathers, in the furnacewhite death-heat of the temple’s great organ—all light and heat, all glory, a single star breaching the night.

I hear: metal on metal, plastic on metal, plastic on plastic, the quiet roar of heat in the air and something, something, some new music—a shout which echoes (everything echoes down here; the outside is silent, but the inside is aroar with overlapping echoes) a shout that rolls through the pipes, a naughty child, the doll that does not want to worship, the very worst sort of doll, shouting and shouting, a clamour, that echoes, and for the first time in a thousand thousand years—for the first time since the Chirurgeon removed the writer-doll’s lazy hand and stitched it to himself and began to use it to write the records—the organ makes music.

No man-music no, nothing on those crude frequencies (men and their ears are made of coils of bone, and fifteen-thousand PSI will liquify bone) but a righteous music, a holy clamour, the songs of angels sweeping out through the temple, burning through dolls, leaving them stuck in broken for/else loops hammering against hot pipes until their hands melted away and even then hammering away some more, leaving the Giant’s five plastic souls tearing itself to pieces, leaving the Chirurgeon a gnarled forest of disobedient hands, burning through all that vein-dense sin until there is nothing left.

It leaves the place drowning in sweetsmell, oil and melted plastic, and then the pressure, the titanic weight of the ocean, begin to crumple the temple. The music gets out, and the water comes in, and together, they leave the dolls all ajumble, all parts apart, a thousand awful messes into one great mess. The water hits the organ and I see: steam as a wave, arms and legs and little faces all liquid, running into the water, merging with it, and so much water (the organ holds no normal fire, it holds starfire, holds the heavens together against the night) and the dolls run into water and the water turns into steam and they become one with the air, children of heaven, unconsecrated and beautiful, flung upwards and outwards, more water/more water/more steam for seventy nights and seventy days until there is no water left and the organ stands alone, in a trench.

The music comes to an end, and the world is sacred with quiet.

The Big/Ancient/Deep

My mate’s Charlie’s dad grows truffles and magic mushies out in the Moutere. He’s a tall guy, big-boned but skinny: got a head shaped like a tissue box. Charlie looks like his old man, but writ small—he’s got that flick of delicacy about him. Anyway, there’s an old place out on his block that we used to smoke weed in. Now most places like that are covered in graffiti, filled with rigs and dirty undies, but this place was fucking pristine. A perfect 20s farmhouse, preserved in amber, not even rust on the kettle. 

One time, me and Charlie are blazing up and we hear—I swear to fucking god mate—jazz. Coming from inside the house. It was maybe 9pm, middle of summer, sun still refusing to quite-go-down, and somebody was playing live jazz and we were high as shit so we sat and enjoyed it. It was real emotional stuff. You ever get that thing when you’re high, when the music manifests itself? Like it’s hanging in the air, and you could reach out and touch it. This was like that, but with fish hooks. I touched it and felt the tug and I started shouting, and Charlie started shouting, and we stumbled the fuck out of there. Got a bunch of cuts all over my arms that I don’t remember getting; I just remember moving through the trees, sweating bullets, knowing the music wanted me to follow and I did not want to follow.  

Went back in the light of day and the basement hatch was open, yawing madly, pitching down into darkness. Never even knew the place had a basement. I stood at the top of the stairs, bleary-eyed but stone sober, and felt fish-hooks in my blood. 

Charlie died last year. Took some bad Russian synthetic, started talking about the hole in the world, about the way wind sounds when it gets pulled down, then he went real still and he didn’t ever get un-still. Somewhere on the wind, I swore I heard jazz, and tasted amber. 

Milk and Honey

Callum sat with his guts in his hands, surrounded by gold bricks, scorched turf and Prussian corpses. They’d been absolute bastards to the man—the remnants of Von Tempsky’s old unit, scalp-takers and cannibals all—but nobody deserved to die in fucking Otago. Callum should’ve died in Scotland, like every man of his blood before him, but he’d cut the fuses half an inch too long. Timing wasn’t exactly an issue when you used the shit for mining: you made the fuses as long as possible, and if they took a long time to blow then you went out for a sandwich break with the lads. Half an inch of fuse, maybe ten seconds’ difference, and his belly was laid open on the turf. Half an inch, because it was cold and his hands were shaking and he barely had enough left to buy food, let alone gloves.

His skin was freezing cold, but his guts were burning hot. It was like all the heat in his body were pulling inwards, t’wards the heart, mounting a brave rearguard to keep the rest of his bits alive. It wasn’t working. He couldn’t feel his legs. He picked up a gold brick, and tapped it against his tooth. It went clink, like it should. The last shipment out of Otago before the mines closed, now spread out all across the highlands, mixed in with little bits of blast-grilled German savage; mercenaries, not paid nearly enough to find themselves spread out to the winds. They took scalps because they’d heard native folks did it. Wrong continent for that business entirely, but nobody felt the need to correct them.

Four hundred-thousand pounds worth of gold, destined for London, for the fingers and necks of lordly ladies. More money in one brick than Callum had seen in his lifetime. He spat, and it painted the turf red. The pain hollowed him out like rot inside a tooth. He panted and tried to stay conscious, but night was coming and there weren’t shit he could do about it. His da had come from the other highlands—the real highlands—after the clearances drove the family north, to Inverness. Otago wasn’t home, but it was close enough; the place was emptier than Am Fuckin Monadh Ruadh.

Like the highlands back home, there was nothing left. Not a nugget of gold: not above-ground, not in the rivers, not anywhere you could reach with a practicable quantity of dynamite. Boys like Callum had flooded south with gold in their eyes, and come out with dust in their bellies. Thousands of them, tens of thousands, all for it to dry up in less than ten years. Up north they were so pressed for land they were killing brown men for it, but Otago had empty town after empty town stretched out across the hills like so many winter flowers. There was plenty of space—maybe they just liked killing brown men. Some of the gold would stay in-country: make its way to Wellington, fund more bullets to fight more Māori. There weren’t enough land, apparently. He’d heard that one back home, when they started dragging families out of the highlands, pushing them to Inverness and Aberdeen and Glasgow—they needed more space. Now there was nothing but space and silence. Silence in the Waikato, silence in Am Monadh Ruadh, silence across the Otago highlands—boundless, monstrous silence filled only by the dull clinking of gold.

Callum had nothing left to do but die, but instead he sang. It sent a shudder through him, from his balls to his tailbone and then off up his spine, but he sang. He didn’t know many songs that fit right: it was mostly miners’ and sailors’ stuff about girlies back home and how very well they filled out their clothes. There was one though, that da had sung sometimes. Burns? Probably Burns. It was always fuckin’ Burns. His tenor came out through blood and foaming spit, liquid and sloppy, tinged purple by the ache in his guts.

Farewell to the mountains, high-cover’d with snow,
Farewell to the straths and green vallies below;

The Company would find the gold. They had a system in place for this sort of thing. Half the plan was about keeping the damned cart in one piece so he could ride it away. Rocks fall in front of Germans, Germans come to a stop, threaten Germans with further demolition unless they leave the gold and fuck off back to Dunedin. Best laid plans and all that. Callum didn’t know robbery: he knew mining. For a moment it had seemed like one could become the other but that moment had all gone up in cordite smoke. In the burning glare of hindsight, he knew it had never been a clever plan, but hell—when all you’ve got in dynamite, everybody looks like a goldmine.

It hadn’t blown when it was meant to of course, so he’d run—worthless fireheaded tin-cocked fool—to check on it. Saw the Germans actually moving through the pass un-stopped, run to check on the sticks, rounded the corner just in time to see the whole damn highlands come to pieces. The blast had taken out at least one of his eardrums, and sent a bullet-sized piece of rock into his stomach and out the other side. Shucked his belly like an old woman working wi’ peas, spilt him out over the stone. He was a dead man and he knew it—the message just hadn’t reached his heart yet.

With nothing better to do, in defiance of God and Country and the gold rush and the clearances and the bastard cannibal Germans and the Company, Callum sang while the light faded.

Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods,
Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.
My heart’s in the highlands, my heart is not—

Wetware

Henry Tavit tore out his own brain. That’s an abstraction, but abstraction is everything.

Look, let’s talk about computers. In 2006, a single bit flip in a Toyota Camry glued the accelerator pedal to the floor and took the car into a tree, killing the passenger instantly. The onboard computer between the pedal and the engine had over 10,000,000 lines of code. I bet you didn’t even know there was a computer there, cars are barely mechanical any more—they haven’t been for decades. It took three years to find the bug, and it was one solitary bit flip: 0 → 1, and a car goes into a tree.

Bookout v Toyota Motor Company took eight years. Toyota was found guilty of negligence, ordered to pay three million dollars: eighteen hours of their global profit, and significantly less than the cost of a Camry recall. The ‘05 Camry is still on the market. It’s a popular car; you probably pass at least one every day on the way to work, and every single one has—lurking somewhere in a gnarled grey matter of its codebase—the bug that killed Barbara Schwarz. This really happened. If you don’t believe me, ask your phone.

I don’t want to go into the details of how a Trimplant works so here’s the short version. There are about forty million lines of code in a chip the size of a grain of rice. It perches on the occipital lobe. You turn it on, and you trip balls.

The problem is, it’s always on. It’s not always active, but the difference killed Henry Tavit. When it’s on, it’s still processing data. The human brain is electric: neurons are pushed along their routes by tiny charges of bioelectricity. They factored it into the design, of course: the Trimplant leeches tiny microelectric charges to keep itself running, never more than it needs. Over the nine months, its spiderweb wiring dug into Henry’s occipital meat, and the electricity changed it. Piece by piece, in imperceptible fragments until—nine months after implantation, while he was in his apartment kitchen, knife in hand—a 0 turned into a 1.

The Trimplant was not poorly-designed. It was a marvel. The engineers knew the risks of putting hardware into a human brain, and they spared no expense in development. It hurts to say, because we want villains in these things, but the team who made the Trimplant were highly competent. They accounted for almost everything but they—like the engineers at Toyota, like the engineers who run our power grid, like every engineer for the last hundred years—weren’t gods. They didn’t think it would be a problem. Nobody worries about drowning in a stream but given enough time, streams will carve canyons from bedrock. The almost-imperceptible flow of bioelectricity took nine months, but it changed a 0 into a 1.

Standing in his kitchen at 3am—half-sober, half-awake, making himself a grilled cheese—he started to trip. You ever had a New Certainty? Sometimes, when it leads us into the light, we call it an epiphany. Sometimes though, you wake up with red-eyed demons standing around your bed and your chest so tight it’s about to break open and disgorge your guts and you go oh, okay, I guess this is my reality now. Henry had the second type. He realised—as the drip-drip of water opened up a critical weakness and the ocean rushed in—that his house was alive, and hateful. He was in its belly, being slowly digested. The walls moved in and out, the rough timpani of a monstrous heart.

Henry was a clever man. On some level, he knew what was happening. On another, a dark wave crashed down on him. The cameras in his home caught almost nothing: just a twitch, and a stillness. He stood in his underwear with his knife halfway into a block of cheese, almost comical. His two halves fought in silence. Then, without speaking, he smashed his head against the kitchen window. Once, twice, cracks spiderwebbing out like a cruel echo of the wiring in his brain. Three times, and he opened up a hole. He gulped at the cool autumn air like a fish on the dock, opened up gashes on his chin, his cheeks. Sliced open the soft cartilage of his nose. His expression remained fixed: dead-eyed, staring into the distance.

Whatever part of him stayed cogent kicked in. It knew what was happening. It could stop it, or die. It had a kitchen knife, and very little time. Henry Tavit died performing neurosurgery on himself at 3AM, in his kitchen, with a model of the human brain open on his laptop. He opened a slit on the back of his neck—close, to access the occipital lobe, but inches-as-miles from where it needed to be—and struck his spinal column with the blade. Collapsed to the floor, gasping, no feeling below the neck. He broke his neck when he fell, and blood flowed into his airway and lungs. The dishwasher grumbled, as though the whole house were laughing. Henry Tavit died on his kitchen floor, surrounded by demons.

The Trimplant is still on the market. The next bit-flip might happen to a surgeon, or a pilot, or a president. A recall of installed units is almost impossible, and a recall of units on shelves is costly enough that the accountancy department quietly nodded to themselves and made the company forget. The court case is ongoing. The story appeared on newsfeeds as a suicide. It didn’t last a day before the tide carried it away.

FLASHBACK FRIDAY: 9 WAYS TO KNOW YOU’VE BEEN GHOSTED

I wake up at 3am with Karl Marx looming over me. “There is a spectre haunting this bedroom,” he says, “the spectre of—”

I wave him away: I know the punchline. A communist! he’ll say and he’ll grin and spread his translucent hands wide, dadlike and expectant. He’s corny, but at least he’s not the other guy.

***

The Spirit of the Age is following me around at work. I have bags under my eyes; my performance is suffering, and my boss has noticed. The Spirit suggests I yeet my boss into the fucking sun. I click on the wrong spreadsheet tab and bite back a fuck—Susan across the table is a swear-narc.

Susan owns two investment properties in the Wairarapa. They are worth 500% of what she got them for in the 70s. Last night I caught myself eating a cold flour tortilla straight out of the bag. Susan’s investment properties gather dust.

The Spirit is flossing sadly, his hands moving side-to-side like the pendulum of a broken clock. I shoot him a smile. He half-returns it. I hope the kids are alright.

***

The three spirits of Christmas don’t have much to do this time of year. They sit in the corner of my lounge and play chess. Christmas Past keeps knocking over the board the instant anybody declares check. Christmas Present can’t do shit about it. Christmas Future is silent—you could cut yourself open on his bladelike cheeks. I looked into his eyes once: I expected a deep and endless void, but saw nothing, and heard only wind.

***

My phone buzzes at 6am and it’s the Ghost of My Youth with his daily bro did u make it y/n

I check my pulse, and text back “Y”.

It’s not quite a lie, and he’ll need it later.

***

We are looking for a junior marketing superstar to join our team! Does this sound like you?

  • Four years’ minimum experience
  • An appropriate postgraduate qualification
  • A flexible schedule

This is a 3-month contract.

***

A cute boy slides into my DMs. He loves my work. I wonder what his lips taste like, whether he’s just drank coffee, whether he will be bitter or sweet. I don’t respond, I close the app—I will disappoint him, and I don’t want to do that. The Ghost of Christmas Present peeks over my shoulder.

“Yeah mate,” he says, “that’s how it starts.”

***

Dear Sir or Madam, we regret to inform you that we will not be moving ahead with your application for [].

***

I take a cold flour tortilla out of the bag. There’s chicken in the freezer, but I forgot to defrost it; I have been forgetting to defrost it for months. I bite into the tortilla. It is dry. I try to put it back, but the bag is closed.

***

My phone buzzes at 6am: bro did u make it y/n

I do not text back.

Canto III

I wish my dad had drank himself to death. Instead, whenever he got mad, he’d grip his thumb inside his palm and his breathing would get weird and tight. After years of barely-suppressed anger, patches of his cheeks and nose went the purple-red of good beetroot – a whisky shine without the whisky. The coronary was the least surprising thing that ever happened to him: he’d been alone, sitting in his chair, watching the TV blare something about immigrant hordes. With nobody else to shout at – not me, not mum, not even old Ms Potts from next-door, who stayed far away from the fence – all his anger went inwards and popped his fucking heart.

He insisted throughout his entire life that alcohol was the devil’s brew. He didn’t drink, or swear, or jerk off. I know good folks like that too, but dad wasn’t good folks. Dad shouted his way through life, and he shouted his way through two marriages, and he shouted his way to an early grave.

There’s this thing called learned helplessness. You put a puppy in a box that it can’t escape. It tries and tries to break out, but the box is just too big. The puppy turns into a dog and now it’s much bigger than the box but it still can’t leave: it knows it can’t, so it doesn’t try. I tried to stop dad from shouting when I was a kid. It always ended up with me on the floor, and him towering over me and shouting. One time, he’d been watching the rugby and trying to eat mashed potatoes. Some went down the wrong pipe and I tried to hit him on the back, like I’d seen on TV. He spanked me with his belt so badly that I couldn’t sit down properly for days. I was twenty-five when he died.

I got him a copy of The Divine Comedy for his birthday once. Passive-aggressive, I know. I didn’t think he would read it. He did. He told me loved he Inferno. He told me about Mr Wilkins from the bowls club, who was a fat fuck; about young Ms Perkins who worked the desk, and how she was probably a whore; about the widowed Ms Potts from next-door who was a treasonous bitch and wouldn’t meet his eye at housie. Inferno had ‘em all, he told me. Each one slotted into their own hole where they’d be tortured until the Almighty had time to sort ‘em out. A circle for cowards and a circle for killers and a circle for little brown babies born to the wrong religion.

Dad never touched a drop but I know deep in my heart that if he had, it woulda fucking killed him. He would’ve taken to the bottle like a drowning man clinging to a raft. I never met a man more in-need of a drink, and less inclined to take one. I wanted him to drink so he’d just stop holding it in. Maybe he’d have killed me and then mum and then himself, and maybe he’d have collapsed inwards and left a pile of clothes and skin on the kitchen’s vinyl floor. Either way, we’d have been rid of him.

Dad got so mad that he just fucking died. I came home to find him, bug-eyed and purple, clutching at his chest with one hand and reaching out to me with the other. He was still twitching. He might’ve been dead but it was hard to tell. I couldn’t bring myself to touch him. learned helplessness, innit? I sat and watched him die, or maybe I just sat. The man on the TV shouted about the Deep State and dad didn’t shout at all; he didn’t even make a sound.

I’d get up to call for help, then get close to him, then spin around and sit back down and chew another fingernail until it bled. I watched him until rigor mortis kicked in – his shoulders squared and his knees stiffened, and for the longest minute of my life I swore he was coming back from the dead to beat me until I couldn’t sit down. His empty eyes rolled and his purple skin was black and glossy. He was a giant again, a monster with a bulbous wagging tongue, and I was a kid staring him down. The change in position forced him up out of his chair and he staggered, then fell. I swear, as he fell, I heard him cussing me out. He couldn’t have, but the sound made it to my ears anyway.

He loved Inferno, but I’m still not sure he read it. The fifth circle is for the wrathful, and the seventh is for the violent; cowards don’t even get through the gate. They’re non impegnato, uncommitted, unable to act or leave. Dad died, and I did nothing. There’s no place in hell for me, but there’s two for him so I think it shakes out.

Maybe he’s suffering somewhere. That makes two of us.

Shaq is About to Eat Five Gyros

NB: this piece was written for the I Don’t Even Own a Television podcast’s short story competition, where the prompt was ‘Shaq is about to eat five gyros’. It was soundly and fairly beaten by the actual winner, but I’m still very proud of it, and to this day I’m sad I never got to hear Chris Collision read it. It is immensely silly, and for some reason remains one of my most popular stories.

Shaq stared at the menu, and wept. He wanted the gyro with fries. He wanted the gyro without fries. He wanted the chicken gyro, and the lamb gyro. Most of all, he wanted the dark pleasure of the Everything gyro, which contained chicken, lamb, and a superposition of both fries and no fries – it contained the sum of all human knowledge, and some knowledge beyond the reach of man.

Coach Basketball had forbidden the Everything gyro. He said that there were some things men were not meant to know. Shaq wanted that knowledge: to fill his own boundless curiosity, and also for basketball.

“I have a large belly,” said Shaq to the gyros man. “I can fit five gyros within it easily.”

He pointed to the menu with his titanic arm. “I would like those five specifically.”

The gyros man went pale. “Four gyros and the Everything gyro? You are surely mad, Shaquille O’Neal.”

With a boom like a timpani, Shaq slapped his gigantic stomach. “ᴅᴏ ɴᴏᴛ ᴅᴇꜰʏ ᴍᴇ, ɢʏʀᴏs ᴍᴀɴ,” he roared.

The gyros man wept a single tear. “You have convinced me, Shaq. You are ready for five gyros.”

He disappeared into the depths of his food truck. Shaq waited, and smiled.

Fire-gilding

Beyond the west of the world, where the sun cannot be seen, lies Crow Hearth – the city of ice and stone. A city out of time, lost beneath the snow and beyond the turn of the world. Men scurry through the lightless streets, holding their warm coats close until they can escape down into the rats’ nest of heated tunnels that make the bulk of the city.

Down now, down again. Through the tunnels. Follow the insistent ticking that lives somewhere behind the mind and pushes further onward. Don’t touch the men with blue-and-white carbuncles upon their skin, and pale light in their eyes – they are touched by the Heart and lost to the world.   

Down now, down again. Tick tick tick. The world here hums. The walls move in and out and the ice groans. There is a shop filled with clocks. An old woman attends. She wears goggles cobbled together from wire, obsidian and red glass; it is not clear what she sees. She scurries around, moving clocks back and forth. Her time is not up yet.

Watch. She opens a door in the back and enters the room of bad clocks. It is deeper, and closer to the Heart. The walls are ice, and glow with sickening light. In years past, she hammered hooks directly into the ice and now upon them the bad clocks hang. They tick a second too early, or too late. They tick when they should tock. They are ugly.

To make a gold clock, she coats it in a layer of, among other things, liquid mercury, then lights it on fire. The mercury burns so fast it doesn’t even damage the wood, and leaves a more pure and beautiful gold coat than mere paint could ever hope for. The room of Bad Clocks smells of piss and mercury. The old woman smells of piss and mercury. The horrid syncopated ticking hides the lower, more regular and insistent thump thump thump of the Heart.

She was young once. She did not want to die. Every second ticked away was a second she could never get back. She charted each passing second as the ice walls closed in. She took meticulous notes of her time ticking down. Now, she lives alone, encased in ice, with the ticking of her clocks for company.

Below, the Heart beats. Above, the snow falls.

There is nothing here but the ticking of clocks, counting down to gods-know-what.

We Fight Monsters

Every day, Rose went out beyond the hawker stands –out beyond the torn-up fences and beat-up dock workers–  to the place where the water was clear. Every day, she went to the ocean to weep. The siyokoy took her son when he was out swimming: the niños ate her little niño. She would cry, and scream, and strike the water with her fists. Then, she would return home and cry, and scream, and strike her remaining sons while they cowered in the corner. If you’d asked her, she couldn’t tell you why.

Patti saw, and didn’t know what to do. She watched and hid in trees, on rooftops, behind a jumble of TV aerials. She walked on her hands to keep a low profile, and kept her wings hidden in the small of her back. Her guts got dirty as they dragged along the ground. When Rose wept, Patti wept too. She couldn’t tell you why.

Patti wasn’t a siyokoy. She hadn’t even been nearby when little Alberto got dragged down and eaten up – she was off in Cebu, lurking around a maternity ward. The modern world was good for manananggal: they put all the pregnant women in one place. Patti could spread her feeding around, and not hurt a soul. Her neighbours knew what she was. One of them would hang crucifixes all over the damn place and the apartment hallway always reeked of burning sage, but they left her alone.

She didn’t swoop down on them in the dead of night; they didn’t hunt her through the jungles with spears. They told their friends about the monster next door but never said anything to her face; she smoked weed and listened to old punk records, and only fed when she needed to. She followed Rose out to the docks every day she could, and watched, and wept.

It was near the end of the dry season when it happened. Patti sat on Mr Nunes’ balcony smoking a cigarette and listened to Rose shouting at her boys. She leaned across and peered in the window, and one of the boys (Lucas, the tall one, with his shaggy mop of hair) peered back. He was backed in a corner, almost in a squat. Patti had seen a lot of human faces. She’d seen them scream, or go white, or (in more recent times) turn away muttering a prayer. She had never seen this–  Lucas looked her dead in the eye, plaintive, and mouthed a single word.

help

While she stared, Mr Nunes ran up and hit her with a broom. She hadn’t even seen him coming. “Aswang!” he shouted “go away! Get out of here, Tik-Tok!”

She took flight while Mr Nunes shouted some bullshit about Our Mother Mary. She hung in the air for a moment, hissed at him, then gave him the finger and swooped off into the night.

***

Every day, Patti followed Rose down to the water. Every day, she remembered Lucas’ sad eyes and crept a little closer. As the dry season came to a close, Cadiz was going insane– after six months without rain, a sick pressure builds in the air that makes men wish for a flood. Patti felt it in her skin, and in the space between her eyes. Rains made it harder to fly, but also easier to move around undetected. She knew in another six months she’d be praying for the rains to stop. Funny how that worked. Patti had left her legs behind: lower profile, harder to be seen. She had a good view of Rose from the roof of the Port Authority office. A dock worker noticed her, made the sign of the cross, then went back to stacking boxes. She took a deep breath, and swooped down.

She wanted to scare Rose–  to bite her and scratch her. She spread her wings wide, and bared her sharp teeth, and opened her mouth to roar. Rose turned, and saw. She did not scream, or go white. Her eyes were plaintive, and filled with tears. Patti lowered her hands, only a little. Her jaw hung open.

“Are you going to kill me?” said Rose.

It wasn’t fear: Patti knew fear. It was almost begging.

“No,” said Patti. She slumped, and let her guts touch the sand.

“So,” said Rose, “we’re monsters.”

She stared out to sea. The sun hung low over Cadiz, and painted the clouds in fire-orange and bruise-purple. They sat in silence. Patti took out a cigarette, then realised she’d left her lighter in her pants. Without speaking, Rose proffered a green plastic Bic lighter, and lit the cigarette.

Patti smoked it down to the filter, then held it between her thumb and forefinger and flicked it into the ocean. It floated, and sent ripples out into the water.

“We don’t have to be,” she said. “The world hurts. It hurts in big ways and it hurts in small ways, and it twists your spine until you find yourself hurting it back. That’s the trap. You’ll hurt your sons, and they’ll hurt their friends and their wives, and their wives will hurt their sons and it’ll keep on hurting until the clouds and the rapture takes us all.”

“You think it’s that easy?” said Rose. “Just stop hurting?”

“No,” said Patti. “It’s the hardest thing I ever did.”

Rose didn’t reply. They sat, and watched the sun set. Patti took out another cigarette. It was the last one in the pack.

“You never really quit,” she said. “You just go longer between relapses.”

“Cigarettes?” said Rose.

A pause hung in the air.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Maybe,” said Rose, “that gap gets big enough that you forget what tobacco tastes like.”

“That would be nice,” said Patti. Her voice broke, only a little. “Really nice.”

They sat, and watched another day turn to night. Patti smoked her last cigarette. She left embers in the sand, as the disappearing sun left streaks of fire in the sky.