Category Archives: Short Fiction

Halloween Update

Hello!

So … a tiny little update to some exciting stuff I mentioned on Twitter a few weeks ago, plus some more recent news.

A little while ago, this became my pinned tweet:

two-contracts

So this was kind of exciting for me for a few reasons. One of the contracts is for a story already written, scheduled originally for publication in an anthology on Halloween this year, but scheduling of one sort or another has pushed that back to early 2017. The theme of the anthology is top-secret but brilliant, and I can’t wait to see the other authors’ spins on such a delicious idea.

The second contract … well, this one is scary, at least to me. It’s scary because it’s for five (yes, FIVE!) stories that haven’t been written yet (though the ideas are percolating), so it’s a different (and thrilling!) type of creative pressure for me. Another reason that it’s scary is that the other authors involved are all these incredible creative powerhouses of whom I’m a little in awe, so yes, I feel like I’ll have to raise my game to earn my place in those pages beside them.

It’s maybe a little too soon to reveal the theme of the anthology *Trademarked Cheeky Geeky Northern Boy Teasing Wink* but … Just. You. Wait.

The more recent stuff I mentioned was this:

booth

This was really exciting, especially given the wonderfully high standard of the competition entries published on the Storgy site over the last week, in the run-up to Halloween. The story in First Place is being announced on the 31st October itself, and I can’t wait to be utterly terrified by the winning entry.

Should you wish to read my story, the link is here, but even if you give mine a miss, I really hope you read the other, excellent tales. They’re perfect Halloween reading!

Anyway, if you made it this far, thanks for reading and Happy Halloween! I’ll be spending it in a bloodstained hockey mask and wielding a machete … nothing to do with Halloween, just what I do on a Monday 😉

 

 

 

 

 

 


OOPS! We Did It Again!

Hello! Here’s another little shudder of micro fiction inspired by the delightful @ReeDwithaBee and her ear! No, that sounds weird, let me try that again. This one’s inspired by the delightful Ree and her ear for the conversations surrounding her on her commute, as well as her unerring instinct for making an excellent story out of these random prompts. She and I have done this dance before, and the first of her own eavesdropping-inspired stories (as well as a more coherent explanation of what we’re doing) can be found here. My own take on those initial prompts is elsewhere on this blog.

And now, wonderfully, we have a new set of prompt words, and Ree has come up with a acronym for our endeavours, namely OOPS (Occasional Overheard Prompts for Stories). Ree’s newest piece is now on her blog, and excitingly, another player has joined the game, the splendid @whithernow, and you can enjoy her story here.

So … the prompts for our latest 99 word tales (the default length for stories) are, in no particular order:

dead end
cheese
bell
perks
passion

And here we go …

I SCREAM

Selling ice creams at the beach might have been a dead end job, but it had its perks. Pretty girls in bikinis ran to his van as soon as they heard the bell in the summer air. The girl now awaiting her passion fruit swirl idly plucked at a sunburnt shoulder while she waited, and he imagined what he’d do to her when the sedative in the sprinkles took effect, and his blowtorch would tan that skin into something like melted cheese. He watched her walk back to the beach, then sat and waited for the night to come.

Thanks for reading!


May The Fourth Be With You

May The Fourth Be With You!

In honour of Star Wars Day, I’d like to present my first ever fanfic (well, unless you count the endless childhood stories where I teamed up Spiderman and Green Lantern to fight Daleks and the like). I should probably say that my take on the Wars in this story is maybe more Alternate Universe than Expanded Universe, but that’s where I found the most fun.

What follows came from a Twitter conversation with the ever-splendid Kiera (@kizzywiggleboo). I’ll go into the details of the conversation after the story, because, y’know, spoilers. And after that there’s something REALLY special 😉

So …

A_long_time_ago

She found Han exactly where Threepio said he’d be, though she’d been hoping against hope that the golden droid had been mistaken for once. She knew the droid’s software was designed to adapt to the context of what its voice circuits were relaying, and its visual sensors were programmed with a range of human and non-human expressions so that it might read someone’s face and adjust its tone accordingly, but even so something of the droid’s inclined head and the slight pause before it spoke made Leia think that there was an actual sadness there, a grief beyond software.
The door to the medical bay wheezed open, and there he was, standing at the long, high window that looked onto the next chamber. He had his back to her, his forehead touching the glass. One of his palms was pressed against the window too, and if his hand was desperate to connect with something on the other side.
‘Han?’ she whispered as she approached him. It was a moment before he answered, and when he did, his face turning to hers, she saw the dark circles beneath his bloodshot eyes, and her heart broke to see that the only light that glimmered in them came from the bright illumination of the room beyond the glass.
‘Hey, your Worshipfulness.’
She took his hand, and they turned back to the window. The light was dazzling, Leia thought, and tried to convince herself that that was why she was blinking, why there was a sudden sting at the corner of her eyes.
Chewbacca was dead.
He lay on the polished metal plane of the autopsy table, his lower half covered by a crisp white sheet. The broad curves of his torso had been partially shaved, and the laser scalpels had cut a Y shaped incision through skin and muscle to allow the medical droids to peel back a view into his body cavity. A white-gowned medico stood at a comp-terminal, tapping at the keys while the surgical drones hovered at one side of the room, awaiting the medico’s next command.
‘You shouldn’t be here.’ Leia said, and though she was talking to Han, she felt as though she was talking to Chewie as well.
‘I have to.’ Han said grimly. ‘I have to be sure.’
Leia nodded slowly. ‘General Madine told me what happened …’ She hesitated. ‘Well, some of it. He said … he said you wouldn’t talk when you brought the Falcon in.’
Han sighed. ‘I guess they got a surprise when they looked in the hold, huh?’
She squeezed his hand. ‘What happened?’
‘We got word of a small Ewok colony on one of the Raxos moons,’ he told her. ‘It used to be an Imperial mining base, but when the resources had all been used up, they converted it into a scientific outpost.’
He shook his head. ‘The Imperials always thought of the Ewoks as a kind of vermin, something to be stamped out. One of the projects at the outpost was focussed around finding a biological weapon to use against them, something quicker and more efficient than hunting them down. A plague.’
On the other side of the glass, one of the surgical drones glided across the room to hover over Chewie’s corpse. It swept a gentle blue light over the body, gathering data.
‘When the Imperials abandoned the base,’ Han went on. ‘They left the Ewok test subjects behind. When we got word of it, I knew Chewie was gonna volunteer us for a rescue mission.’ He chuckled softly and wiped his eyes. ‘He’d got pretty attached to those little troublemakers.’
‘So we took the Falcon there. There were a couple of Imperial patrols that we had to go around but it was all fine, no problems. When we landed the Ewoks were kind of nervous, but Chewie calmed ’em down and we got them all into the hold. He set the nav-computer to take us home and that was that.’
Leia watched the surgical drone kill its scanning beam and retreat. Above the medico’s comp-terminal, a holographic image of the Wookie’s brain flickered into existence.
‘I noticed that he was kind of quiet.’ Han said. ‘I asked him if he was okay, and just for a minute, he looked as though he didn’t recognise me. I should have realised then that something was wrong.
‘We’d just dropped out lightspeed when he told me that he was going to check on the Ewoks, make sure the jump out of hyperspace hadn’t scared them. It was only a couple of minutes before I heard the blaster fire.’
The hologram in the autopsy chamber rotated to show the medico another angle. A section of the flickering brain pulsed with a glowing crimson light.
‘I thought we’d been boarded somehow, that maybe one last stormtrooper at the outpost had stowed away.’ Han was saying. ‘I grabbed my blaster and got down there as fast as I could. But what I found … Leia …’
He closed his eyes for a moment. Above the window to the autopsy chamber, a commlink crackled, the medico’s voice sounding strangely metallic through the speaker.
‘My scans confirm it, Captain Solo. There are traces of viral infection in your co-pilots brain. I’ve never encountered this specific virus before, but it has enough characteristics that I’m familiar with. My guess is that it was something the Ewoks were carrying, some kind of dormant strain that the Empire had infected them with. Harmless to human-like lifeforms, but with a Wookie …’ He paused. ‘The virus would have taken hold in a few hours, affecting the victim’s reasoning, memory, personality. There was nothing you could have done to save him.’
Han nodded. ‘Thanks, doc.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Leia said. ‘Han, I -‘
‘When I got to the hold,’ Han went on as if she hadn’t spoken, and she realised that he had to tell the story, just like he had to be here now. ‘There were bodies everywhere. The Ewoks were screaming, running, trying to hide but there was no escape. Chewie was in the middle of them all. He had his laser crossbow and was just … cutting them down, even the children. I screamed at him, and he turned.’
A tear rolled down Han’s face, just one, but the first of many. ‘There was nothing in his eyes, Leia,’ he said. ‘Just a kind of … wild light, like his mind was gone. All the Ewoks were dead or dying, and he was standing over the bodies and he was roaring, Leia, not anything I could understand, just something savage and crazy. He saw me, and started to bring up the crossbow, his finger already on the trigger.’
‘You couldn’t have saved him,’ Leia said, crying. ‘You heard what the medico said.’
‘He would have cut me down without a second thought,’ Han said softly. ‘So I did what I had to do. What I always do.’
He stared through the glass as the surgical drones gently drew the sheet over his friend’s face.
‘I shot first.’

* * * * *

If you made it this far, thanks for reading! And if you did make it this far, you’re in for a real treat. That conversation I had with Kiera … Basically we were talking about geek-themed T-shirts, and I mentioned that I own one with C-3PO and R2-D2 drawn in the style of a Haynes Manual (if you’re unfamiliar with them – the manuals, I mean, obviously you’ve heard of the droids … and T-shirts), the Haynes books are technical manuals available for real-world vehicles and machinery, full of cutaway drawings and suchlike. Quite a few are available that tap into the geek or sci-fi culture, so we have editions that feature the USS Enterprise, or the Millennium Falcon.

Anyway, Kiera, knowing of my love of the macabre, suggested that rather than the schematic drawings of the droids, she would have expected me to have something more like a diagram of a dissected Wookie, and the cogs began to turn. Not just my writing cogs, but rather wonderfully, Kiera’s artistic cogs. The idea of working with her was irresistible, and so we decided to form our own Rebel Alliance and produce what follows, a Special Edition of the story you’ve (hopefully) just read.

The subject matter was grim and gruesome, so of course we wanted to do it in the style of a child’s storybook, with panels of Kiera’s fantastic artwork and my retelling of the story in four-line verse. I can’t thank Kiera enough for all the hard work and talent she’s brought to the project, and I know that you’ll absolutely love it!

story 1 best 2

story 2 best 2

story 3 best 2

story 4 best 2

story 5 best 2

story 6 best 2

story 7 best 2

story 8 best 2

DVD EXTRA ALERT!!!

I found the process behind the amazing artwork you’ve just seen fascinating, and Kiera has very kindly agreed to let me post some of her original designs …

autopsied Wookiee best 2

concept

failed panel

panel 1

panel 2

panel 3 Thanks again to Kiera and thank you for reading! 🙂 More of Kiera’s brilliance can be found here.


Flash! Part One

princess-aura-flash-gordon-1980-_129986-fli_1363015036

“Flash! Ah-aaah! Saviour of the Universe!”

If you’re not familiar with the 1980 Flash Gordon movie or indeed the Queen soundtrack that graces it, then that opening line may make me sound like a lunatic. Hell, even if you are familiar with the movie and music you may think I’ve lost it. The DVD occupies a proud place in my collection of movies based on comic books, and if you haven’t yet seen it, I ABSOLUTELY INSIST that you enrich your life with it as soon as possible. Max Von Sydow portrays Ming the Merciless, and he played chess with Death, for goodness’ sake! Flash and James Bond (sort of) duel with whips on a tilting disc that randomly sprouts deadly blades from its surface, in a floating city where Brian Blessed is Prince of the Birdmen! Beat that, Citizen Kane! For UK readers, it’s got Peter Duncan from Blue Peter in it! Peter Bloody Duncan! And then there’s the rocket cycle, and Prince Vultan’s joyous cry of “GORDON’S ALIVE!”, and the exquisitely wicked beauty of Ornella Muti’s Princess Aura, and … and …

I’m so sorry. I’m afraid I seem to have wandered off my point, somewhat.

The reason I chose to employ that particular lyric as a rather clumsy opening gambit is because I wanted to talk a little about Flash Fiction, and how, while it may not be the Saviour of the Universe, it certainly is jolly good fun, both to read and to write. I wasn’t really aware of it until a couple of years ago, and while I certainly didn’t dismiss the form, it never occurred to me that it was something I might want to try, or if I’m honest something that I might want to read. A hundred or so words? What could anyone do with that? How could anyone fit a plot, mood, character etc in such a small space, and tie it all up with the shiny bow of a satisfying ending? At best, I probably thought that a writer might be able to fit one of those things in the piece, make it a snapshot of atmosphere or an illuminating character moment, nothing more than a breath of story, the merest taste.

I was, of course, an idiot.

I still may be an idiot, but not in terms of my hesitancy around flash fiction. My first step towards falling in love with the form was @FridayPhrases of course, where I found a community of exceptional writers of microfiction (which is just getting better and better by the way – many is the #FP that takes my breath away with its skill and beauty) and soon after that I began reading the flash posted on Twitter via the wonderful Storybandit. That led me to the blogs of other writers where I enjoyed, and still enjoy, an abundance of microfiction that happily makes me massively jealous with its genius. Alas, Storybandit is no more, but once upon a time it offered varying prompts – or Writing Dares – for flash fiction (a setting, five or six words to include in the piece, maybe an opening or closing line, a word count to work towards etc) and then it’s up, up and away.

I’d worked with prompts before, mostly for competitions and the like, where the word counts were bigger and the theme was maybe more general than the sometimes challengingly surgical prompts from Storybandit (my vocabulary has expanded thanks to having to Google some of El Bandito’s word choices!) but even so, the strain showed in those earlier efforts of mine – many was the story that cracked at the seams thanks to my ham-fisted crowbarring of a prompt that didn’t belong. So, I thought that prompts and I were perhaps something of an ill-fit, but along with #FP, the lure of Storybandit proved enticing, and everyone’s work was so brilliant, and I never could resist a dare, and so I dipped my toe into those creative waters, and absolutely loved it.

Adhering to the parameters of the Writing Dares led me to thinking in directions that I might not otherwise have gone in – A blossoming relationship where I might have written about the break-up, something joyous where I might have gone for tears, a (hopefully) amusing aside instead of a scare. It’s been fun.

Storybandit has gone, but there are many other prompt pages out there, and the most recent of which I’ve become aware is @200WordTuesdays, curated by the always-inspiring @ReeDwithaBee – the format is a little different to Storybandit, in that #200WT offers two prompts per month, the submission period running flexibly from the first day to the last, with a collection posted every Tuesday. Every prompt so far has been amazing, and again, stand by to have your breath stolen if and when you visit the site.

Below are some of my own flash fiction pieces – a few I owe to Storybandit, a couple inspired by the @200WordTuesdays prompts, and a handful of other sources. Where possible, I’ve prefixed the piece with the prompts that helped create them (not the ones in bold text), and hopefully, if you’ve never visited the sites or pages I’ve mentioned, you’ll take a look. Read some magnificent flash fiction and maybe write your own. I’d heartily recommend it, so drop in on them, grab yourself a prompt, get creative and get flashing!

She’d been uncomfortable with the price tag of the 3D printer, but her anger outweighed the cost. She already had the books, bequeathed by her grandmother, and with a sweet irony the lighter had been one that John had abandoned in the house when he left. She wasn’t sure the spell had worked until she saw the black clouds around his face, heard the noise of screaming onlookers sickened by her former boyfriend bursting into flames.

She walked away, tossing the lighter and the smouldering paper doll into the gutter.

Voodoo in the 21st century. Her grandmother would be proud.

* * *

(Prompt: 199 w. Include the words unsullied, bluebonnet, immigrant, action figure, peach)

I’d never seen the girl before tonight, but I imagined that she had never looked more beautiful. She craned her neck to look up at me, her breath a stutter of frosty, wordless speech bubbles, her wide eyes the same vibrant hue as the fields of bluebonnet in which I’d played as a boy. Her pale, peach soft skin looked perfect in the white dazzling glare of the headlights, unsullied by years or toil or heartbreak. The sight of her, of her stifled beauty, filled me with a kind of awed dread, as if everything she’d seen in those last moments was bleeding through the cracks in my eyes, as if everything she’d felt was stealing into my heart like a strange immigrant emotion that was here to stay. A heartbeat and a lifetime ago, she had appeared from nowhere it seemed, growing suddenly huge through the windscreen, but she looked so small now, her hand tiny in mine, like she was some action figure that a child her age might have dropped in the road where she lay and I sat waiting for her to die.
My tears fell into her eyes as the ambulance crested the hill.

* * *

(Prompt: 99w. Use the opening line, “These blueprints are wrong,” she said.)

“These blueprints are wrong,” she said.
He pinched the bridge of his nose. It had been a long night. “How so?”
She pointed at the unrolled parchment. Everywhere, the clamour of the workshop went on. They were running out of time.
“There’s a broken circuit, here.” She said. “That’s why we have the flickering red light.”
He peered at the plans, frowning. He loved her, but hated it when she spotted his mistakes.
“I’ll fix it tomorrow,” he muttered, shrugging on his scarlet overcoat. Behind him, the robo-reindeer stamped impatient hooves.
“Rudolph can live with it for one night.”

* * *

(Prompt: 199w. Use the opening line, “Oh! You scared me. I didn’t hear you. Did you sneak up on me?”)

“Oh! You scared me. I didn’t hear you. Did you sneak up on me?”
I laughed gently at her surprised eyes. “Sorry.” I glanced at the TV, a screen full of police cars in the rain. “What are you watching?”
“They think they’ve got him,” she said. “The Actor. I thought you’d be interested, seeing how you’re his biggest fan.”
“Serial killers don’t have fans.” I raised the volume. “I’m just intrigued.”
The news report recounted the case. He’d gained the nickname of The Actor because each of his strangled victims had been the leading lady in on play or another, athough tonight it seemed as though his luck had run out. One of his leading ladies had blown his brains out.
I started towards my room.
“You’re not watching it?” she said. “I thought -”
“I’ll catch it later,” I said. “I have to go to work.”
Alone, I flicked through the scrapbook of newspaper cuttings, the glowing reviews of his many murders. The Actor wouldn’t be on stage tonight, but that was okay, I thought as I removed the rope from beneath my bed.
I knew the script by heart, and was more than ready to understudy.

* * *

(Prompt: 99w. Include the words peter, custom, incense, abdication, malicious)

She watched the tiny flame of the incense peter out, inhaling the curl of aromatic smoke as it smouldered. He’d be here soon. She’d open the door and they’d kiss, something that had become more of a custom than a pleasure of late. It wasn’t his fault. He’d always treated her like a Queen, and tonight would be no malicious abdication. She would be kind.
The doorbell rang. She didn’t hurry, in case he should misinterpret her eagerness to see him, but when she opened the door and saw the two solemn faced policemen, she wished she’d moved faster.

* * *

They said it was an accident, and I believed them, although that wasn’t going to help me unravel my poor dog from beneath the wheels of their car.
‘We haven’t been drinking, I swear!’ the girl kept saying, her words floating towards me on a tide of stale beer. The driver said nothing for a few minutes. He just stood with his face slack in the headlights, his glassy gaze flicking between the bloody, dented grille of his vehicle and the tangle of black fur and exposed meat hugging the road beneath it.
‘I tried to brake,’ he said finally. ‘But I just … froze. I’ve never seen anything like it.’ He turned his bloodshot eyes to me. ‘What was that thing?’
‘My dog.’ I told him, reaching inside my jacket for the knife tucked into my belt. ‘You broke him, and now you have to help fix him.’
I remember how their eyes widened when they saw the blade.
My dog is on the mend now, even though I had to amputate some of him to get him out from under the wheels. The man and the girl helped to fix him up, though. He’s kind of clumsy with the hand instead of his paw, and he’s only got one of his own heads left, but I can see him getting used to seeing through their eyes, and barking through their mouths.
‘Good boy, Cerberus,’ I like to say to him. ‘Good dog.’

* * *

(Prompt: 99w. Use the opening line, “The baby was screaming again.”)

The baby was screaming again.
There had been clamour all around him, the rustle of scrubs, the clatter of slick instruments returned to metal trays. The voices of the medical staff, calm and reassuring to him and Sophie, low and urgent to each other. Sophie’s breath, frayed and wheezing, muffled by the misted plastic of the oxygen mask.
Yes, there had been clamour, but in all of that it was the missing sound that terrified them both. The cry that had stopped. Sophie’s damp, shaking hand squeezed his fingers into a bloodless bundle.
Then the baby was screaming again.

* * *

(Prompt: 200w. “Broken Worlds”)

The world felt broken without her, like he was experiencing everything through a television that, like his hopes, had seen better days. The images rolled, ghostly and forever flickering, the contrast dialled down so that everything in sight was bled of its colour, its vibrancy, its life.

The speakers were muted, crackling into activity only when there was a song he didn’t want to hear again, or a nearby voice that reminded him of hers. Even the static seemed to whisper her name.

Sometimes, he would try to think of other things, try to change the channel to something he liked, but the TV had a mind and a mission of its own, it seemed, and always sifted through the frequencies of his memory to show him something he didn’t want to see, a happy time that would make him sad. The pictures were blurred and lo-res, but the hurt was unquestionable High Definition, until one day, he came to a decision.

The pills spilled out onto the table in front of him, a boxful of brightly coloured Off buttons. He swallowed all of them one by one and closed his eyes, waiting for the screen to fade to black.

* * *

(Prompt: 200w. “Inky-Red”)

She knew the other kids wondered about the red pen she always kept with her, but she’d never tell. They wondered about the long sleeves in summer, but she’d never tell about them either. No-one had ever seen her write with it, and anyway, students weren’t allowed to use felt-pens in their notebooks, lest the ink bleed through to the other side of the page.

Because they’d never seen her use it, people presumed that it was the same pen throughout the term, and she’d never tell them that it was a different one maybe every two weeks. Her brother had bought them for her, or more accurately he’d bought as many packs of felt-pens as he could find and afford, and extracted all of the red ones to give to her. The other colours were left to gather dust beneath his bed.

A Distraction Technique, the counsellor called it. Sensory or visual input to drive away the urges to hurt herself. She’d never tell the other kids about how, beneath those long sleeves, red ink stained the places between old scars, and she’d never tell them about how, as secrets went, she thought it the best she’d ever had.

* * *

(Prompt: 99w. Use the ending, “We would need to burn that couch.”)

The screams died with the flames, but black smoke still curled from the lip of the metal trashcan.
It was all Bert’s fault, him and his terrible handwriting. But I’d misread the last word, and I’d poured the petrol and I’d lit the match, so of course he wouldn’t see it that way.
Yes, I’d screwed up, but Bert and I still had a job to do. The apartment was infested, and, Oscar’s incineration aside, we had to torch Big Bird’s furniture before the whole of Sesame Street was overrun with bugs.
We would need to burn that couch.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading!


Empathy – Part Five

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

The house that Pierre’s childhood memories had sketched in my mind was structurally similar to the one I was seeing through my windscreen, but the years had redrawn it as lightless and peeling, and overgrown with dying greenery. But this was the place; the sprawling oak tree mentioned so often in Pierre’s reminiscences confirmed it. That, and the vulgar American car standing outside and gleaming silvery red under the night sky.

A gentle breeze sprung up as I got out of my own vehicle, blowing brittle leaves around my shoes as I crossed to the house and stepped onto the porch. Something crumbled gently beneath my foot, and I heard a crunch. Snapping open my petrol lighter, I knelt to get a better look – in the flickering light I saw a clot of damp soil, its middle flattened into the imprint of my shoe, and the smear of broken beetle I had crushed beneath my weight.

Graveyard dirt.

Suddenly, I felt as though thick, hooked fingers were squeezing my innards, sickening me. I stood and tried the door. It was unlocked, and screeched open on horror-movie hinges. That was when the stench hit me, invading my sinuses and filling my eyes with a stinging wetness. I gagged, covering my nose and mouth, but the smell crawled across my tongue. In my future I would smell it again, first on Yvonne’s breath and then later on Pierre’s but even then I knew it for what it was.

And as I entered the house, it grew worse.

‘Pierre?’ I called from behind my hand. ‘Pierre, it’s me, Jacques. Where are you?’

There was no answer. The house seemed silent but for the creak of floorboards beneath my feet and the rising gusts of wind whispering in the gloom.

I raised my lighter to cast a little more radiance and saw more piles of dirt scattered randomly along the hallway – blind things squirmed in some of them. I followed the trail, hardly aware of the tears on my own face. That uniquely noxious stench had settled upon my shoulders like gossamer cobwebs, mingling with my own sour dread. My bladder burned as though it were filled with hot embers.

‘Pierre?’ I was whispering now, though I was sure he could hear me. Suddenly, I could hear him. Beyond an open doorway filled with shadow, I could hear him breathing. Thick, muffled breaths.

I stepped through.

Pierre was sitting in the corner of the room, rocking gently and cradling his brother, poor, ragged Alain. He was holding him close, stroking hair that came away in his fingers. I thought he might be crying.

My numb lips mouthed his name, but no sound emerged. Pierre looked up anyway, and I saw that he was crying; huge, glistening tears rolled down his face and splashed upon his dead twin’s lips, cold lips that some patient undertaker had sewn into a soft, contented smile with tiny, elegant stitches.

Pierre was looking at me, and his smile was identical. Soft, and content.

Sobbing, I fled, and it was the early hours of the morning before I made it home. The journey back seems like a dream to me now, even the crash, hurtling off the road and gashing my forehead on the steering wheel. I looked at my split and bleeding brow in the cracked rear view and laughed. I laughed as though it were the world’s funniest joke; for a time, as Pierre might have pointed out, I too was riding the crazy train.

I told Yvonne I had crashed en route to the Leveque family home. She never believed it, of course; there were too many nights when I woke up crying and she held me, hushing my sobs and kissing away tears. But she never asked any questions. Love kept what happened that night a secret between us.

The next time I saw Pierre Leveque he was on television. And in the newspapers. Being arrested, being led slump-shouldered into court. I expected to be called as a witness, but the call never came. Pierre never mentioned our encounter to the police, and nor did I. The bribed night-watchman testified for the prosecution in return for a more lenient sentence, but they hardly needed him. The police had arrived at the crumbling house perhaps an hour or so after I had left, acting upon an anonymous telephone call. It wasn’t from Yvonne or I, as you may be thinking, and I often wondered if Pierre had arranged it himself, in advance. That secret died with him. According to the tastefully censored articles I saw at the time, the authorities found much the same scene as I had. The public outcry combined with Pierre’s apparent lack of remorse was what truly damned him – he chose never to appeal against the judge’s sentence of life imprisonment.

The bodysnatchers – a man and a woman – were never found.

* * *

Thirty years later, he looked at me from the bed of a prison infirmary where he would die less than an hour later, with his hand in mine. His eyes were ringed with blood.

‘You understand now why I did it, don’t you, Jacques?’ he asked, his words hoarse and reeking. ‘Poor Alain. He was alone, you see, all alone in the dark. He was scared, and he called to me. Please, Jacques. Tell me you understand.’

‘Yes.’ I told him. ‘I understand.’ And then that silence blossomed between us again, only this time, I am glad to say, it was the silence of friends.

* * *

The funeral was a week ago.

God, I wish Pierre was alive now, if only so we could laugh together about how wrong Alain was. It isn’t just sibling empathy that calls us back, you see, for I too long to reclaim wasted time – thirty years of it. Pierre’s body is buried deep, next to his beloved brother, and yes, I wish he were here now, so that I might embrace him for a while and he might stop the screaming in my head.

The tools are all laid neatly in the boot of my car, and though the earth is hard with winter frost and my arthritis seems so much worse this year, I will dig, and dig, and dig.

THE END


Empathy – Part Four

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

The second of December 1965, the atrocity was splashed across the front of every newspaper. Who could do such a thing, I wondered. I was sickened, revolted on some primal level, as though I’d looked into a crib and found the child asleep on a nest of newborn rats. I could only imagine poor Pierre’s distress. My wife – dear, sweet Yvonne – switched on the television and there it was again on the evening news: footage of an army of monochrome reporters besieging Pierre and Alain’s houses, their shouted questions going unanswered by grim-faced gendarmes.

‘Where’s the car?’ Yvonne asked suddenly.

‘What?’ I turned from the television to look at her. She was standing near the window, her blonde hair gleaming in a wedge of cold twilight and looking (as always) quite beautiful.

The car,’ she repeated, pointing at the screen. ‘Look!

I followed her outstretched finger and saw that Pierre’s vehicle, the one he’d brought back from America, was conspicuous by its absence from Alain’s driveway. I remembered then how proud Pierre had been of it, grandly unveiling the crimson and chrome gas guzzler to me as though he were Mr Toad with a new toy. I remembered telling him at the time how perfectly vulgar I thought it was. Delightedly, Pierre had agreed with me, and we had laughed together and taken it for a spin.

‘It wasn’t outside Pierre’s place, either,’ Yvonne was saying behind me. ‘Jacques, if the police have taken him somewhere, to the station or wherever, surely they would have driven him there, so where’s the car? I can’t believe they’d let him drive himself, the state his mind must be in.’

‘If he knows,’ I said. ‘Maybe he’s gone off somewhere on his own, maybe he hasn’t heard a word about all this.’

‘But where?’

‘The house.’ I said it instinctively, without thinking. If I’d understood the nature of empathy then as I do now, I might have understood why. ‘The old house where Pierre and Alain grew up. It’s been abandoned for years but with all that’s happened -‘

Yvonne was already picking up the telephone. ‘I’ll call the police. If they’re trying to contact him and he’s there -‘

‘No.’ I laid my hand over hers and gently we returned the receiver to its cradle. ‘Not yet. I’ll drive out there first. We don’t know for sure if he’s there and if he is, I want to be with him before half of the Paris police descend onto his doorstep. Not to mention the press.’

She nodded. Her grey eyes strayed back to the television. ‘Poor Pierre,’ she whispered. ‘He will be able to cope with all this, won’t he, Jacques?’

‘I don’t know.’ I told her. The option of lying to her, of sounding assured when I wasn’t, had already occurred to me, but I couldn’t do it. I wanted her to hope for the best and expect the worst.

I took our car and started driving. Sometime during my journey the sky darkened and a full moon rose to ride the clouds – I’m not sure when. My mind kept drifting, returning always to Yvonne and her parting words to me, whispered warmly against my neck.

I love you, Jacques. Be careful.

I will, don’t worry, I told her. Everything will be fine, I’d added, wondering if perhaps I hadn’t lied to her after all.

To Be Concluded


Empathy – Part Three

Part One
Part Two

From beyond the curtains enclosing Pierre’s bed I heard footsteps, soft and rapid, and the sound of an infirmary trolley on the roll – one of the wheels needed oiling, I remember. The curtains whispered softly at their passing and part of me hoped that the trolley pusher might intrude upon us, some nurse, probably male, assigned to give Pierre his chaser of morphine. An interruption might give me a minute or two to step outside and smoke a cigarette – damn their rules – and think about whether or not I wanted to resurrect the horrors of thirty years gone.

But the footsteps and the squeaking wheel passed us by, and with them went my doubts. I had to hear it, even if Pierre’s words might fill my remaining years with sleepless nights. I waited, and after a few moments, he resumed his story.

‘It seemed so incredible,’ he whispered. ‘That this empathic bond should be something more that a natural affinity between siblings or even sheer coincidence. The idea that it may be a genetic time-bomb inside every twin, just waiting for a trauma of some kind to activate it, was almost inconceivable to me.

‘Until I heard the screams.

‘One afternoon, three or four days after the funeral, something happened to me. I was preparing to leave Alain’s house and visit the grave – you’ll remember I was staying at his place, sorting through twenty odd years of his junk – and as I got into my car and closed the door I heard some sound, a kind of soft continuous buzzing, all around me, it seemed.

‘For a moment or two I thought it must have been an insect of some sort; a wasp or housefly, sluggish with the cold and trapped in the car with me. But gradually I realised: the sound was inside my head.

‘Looking back on it, it seems foolish that I decided to drive that day – I’ve heard that phantom sounds like that can precede an epileptic seizure – but you have to understand, Jacques, something was making me do the things I did. The night you found me, something was -‘

‘Is that it?’ I asked suddenly, surprised at how bitter the syllables tasted on my dry lips. ‘You’ve had thirty years to think of an excuse and the best you can come up with is Something Made Me Do It?

Pierre looked at me for a long moment before replying. ‘I have no excuses.’ he said tonelessly. ‘Only my reasons. You can leave at any time, Jacques.’

I stayed, and stayed silent as he continued.

‘The closer I got to the cemetery the more intense the sound became – by then it had changed from that soft buzzing into something shriller; it sounded like … like the howl of an electric saw. Yes, that’s it. An electric saw, and as I drove through the gates it felt as though it might tear the top of my head clean off. I managed to stop the car and open the door before I threw up, but only just.

‘I walked to the rest of the graveside in a kind of daze. I didn’t even realise until later that my nose had bled. Thank God there was no-one else about to see me; I must have looked like one of the living dead myself, blood on my lips and chin, vomit splashes on my clothes, staggering around the cemetery with a wreath falling to pieces in my hands.

‘When I reached the grave itself my knees unlocked and I fell. The dirt was cold against my face, I recall. A few tangles of spiky grass had already begun to grow through it, as though my brother’s body was the finest fertiliser in the world, and I remember thinking, “Good old Alain, always full of merde.”, and then I was laughing and crying and shaking and feeling that if I wasn’t already riding the crazy train, I had at least bought my one way ticket.

‘And all the time my head was filled with that dreadful screaming, and somewhere below that I could hear … not a voice, exactly, more like my mind trying to pull words out of the static.

‘But I heard my name. I’m sure of that.

‘Somehow I made it back to the house. By then the sound had subsided to that soft buzz, and a couple of hours later it had stopped completely. The next day I found myself wondering if I hadn’t dreamed the whole thing, until I saw my clothes.

‘Exactly the same thing happened the next time I visited the cemetery. And the next. Of course, I couldn’t tell anybody. Not even you, not then. A distress call from the grave? Only a psychiatrist might have humoured me while we waited for the straitjacket to arrive. No. I knew what I had to do.

‘I had the -‘ His eyes narrowed suddenly. ‘I had the grave exhumed by … private agents. At night. I was there to supervise; neither of them was overqualified as a human being and I didn’t want them screwing up and digging up the wrong body. We travelled to the graveyard in a stolen van with fake plates, and all the way there the screams in my head were getting worse. This time my ears bled too but the people I hired – a man and a woman – asked no questions. The graveyard’s night-watchman had already been paid off, and I stood and watched them dig, listening to the shriek behind my eyes. And when at last the spade thudded against the lid of the casket, the screaming … stopped. And then -‘

Pierre grinned at me, exhaling death. ‘And then I took him home.’

To Be Continued

Part Four