Tag Archives: Inspiration

Nerdy As Charged – Yorkshire Cosplay Con 2016

WARNING! CLICK ON THE PICTURES TO ENLARGE! IMAGES AND TEXT MAY CONTAIN EXTREME AND BRILLIANT GEEKINESS!

 

Hello!

On the weekend of 11/12 June 2016, I travelled by train to attend the Yorkshire Cosplay Con held at the Sheffield Arena. The last Con I wrote about was the MCM Liverpool Event at the Waterfront Exhibition Centre, and that time around I used a kind of “Top Ten” of the weekend. This event was bigger, MUCH bigger, and I’d struggle to distil it to a mere ten highlights.

But here we are, and hopefully I can give a flavour of what turned out to be a fantastic weekend spent in the company of joyous, like-minded people, bonded by our appreciation of the imaginative. In uncertain times, when things change and there are days when you can almost feel the stitches of your hopes beginning to unravel, Cons are a wonderful way of refreshing your faith in tolerance and friendliness. Geek and Proud!

I was SO excited to be going to the Con, and make no apologies for taking snapshots of EVERYTHING, including my train journey. Whatever, the scenery was lovely, and the water feature directly outside Sheffield Station is pretty spectacular, too!

The Arena was only a short walk from the hotel, and once I’d collected my tickets (I waited in line behind Poison Bloody Ivy!) I was greeted with the wonderful trademark randomness that’s part and parcel of a Con. Big Hero 6 and Deadpool shooting the breeze on the upper level! Ghostbusters in the foyer! Kylo Ren advising Chewie which doors he should duck through!

Every single cosplay I saw was fantastic, and every single cosplayer I chatted with was incredibly gracious and friendly, even the ones that wanted to bite me! Special mention as well to the Time Lady I met, who charmed me in a double heartbeat by knowing the difference between the Prydonians and the Patrexes. #HowGeeksFlirt haha!

I took a break for some lunch, and I can assure that the packaging on my Rollover Hotdog DID NOT LIE! They really are the best hotdogs in the world! After that, I was planning to visit some of the stalls, but found myself distracted by the FREE video games, eventually punching the air after an unbroken hour on the Konami X-Men machine and yelling, “Yes! Still got it!” at an admirably unimpressed Dalek. And rather wonderfully, the TARDIS in my snapshot is actually a photo-booth (and no, those pictures are never seeing the light of day – what happens in the Type 40 STAYS in the Type 40).

There were some amazing displays in the Arena, many of which visitors could interact with. I loved the Marvel and DC displays, taking a moment to show my admiration for Stark Industries, though I think I MIGHT have given away my secret identity to a couple of Harley Quinn’s …

There were too many moments from the first day to choose a definite favourite, but certainly I enjoyed meeting a certain Princess (who I hope didn’t consider me too scruffy a Nerf-Herder) and one of her pursuers, and … well … I mentioned at the time on Twitter that I’d maybe just been in the best photo of my life and here it is. I SIMPLY COULD NOT resist emulating one of Leia’s finest moments. Jabba meets Jabe, though thankfully without a steel bikini in sight.

The last event of Day One was the mini-concert by J-Pop and K-Pop star Kelsey Ellison, a colourful and energised end to the first day that REALLY made me want to buy a bubble gun!

A handful of cosplayers were staying at the same hotel, so my planned early night didn’t really happen, but eventually I made it into my pyjamas, ready to rest and be fresh for Day Two …

37

Day Two was all about the booty 😉

I’d already spotted LOADS of stuff that I wanted to buy (and another Rollover Hotdog was definitely on my list), and as I had “EarlyBird” tickets for the weekend, I had an hour before the bulk of the Con goers arrived to raid the stalls. My favourite purchases are probably my Punisher cufflinks, the engraved Zippo lighters, and my Peruvian style TARDIS hat. Yes, I wear a Peruvian style TARDIS hat, now. Peruvian style TARDIS hats are cool.

And they’re not purchases exactly, but … I DID win a pair of goggles in a wager with a exotically named Steampunk assassin (it’s a long story) and also I’m now the proud sponsor of a lovely little cat called Maxwell. As a “Thank You”, the Cats Protection charity was very generous with a little goodie bag and also allowed me to choose a cuddly toy to take home. Her name’s Leia now, by the way!

So, in spite of my jacket being adorned with the insignia of the Galactic Empire, I found myself unable to avoid some … Imperial entanglements. Those stormtroopers were everywhere, though somehow I don’t think that the Dalek (called Dave!) was the droid they were looking for. It was actually Dave who introduced me to Clara, for which I’m eternally grateful.

As always, randomness and creativity abounded, whether it be balloon Astro-Droids and Skarosians, or Lego Star Wars vehicles, or a singing werewolf taking to the stage (I later learned that the wolf was actually called Francine, and her delightful personality and singing voice belied her fearsome cosplay). A wizard joined the Avengers and Hulk high-fived Wally!

Meanwhile, Roger was …

Note to cosplayers: NEVER let me hold the “Free Hugs” sign. I WILL be cheeky with it.

So that was my weekend. If you made it this far, thanks for reading! And P.S … I think I know what I’m doing in January …

65


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!


Why I Write – Updated

I won’t lie to you – this IS and ISN’T a new post. Last year I was very kindly asked to participate in two blog hops, each of them inviting me to elaborate a little on my writing process. I’m currently doing a little housekeeping at The Ark Hive at the moment, and in reading those posts again I found areas where some of info was outdated. The works in progress or upcoming projects are sights in the rear-view now, so I wanted to post versions with those sections edited out, but if you’re of a mind to read the original posts (and I’d point you in that direction if only to introduce you to the awesome people who very kindly nominated me, and the equally awesome people I subsequently nominated) the originals are available here and here.

So … Why I write …

I know why I started. I think the creative urge is something woven into our DNA, a seed planted in the soil of wherever dreams are born. Sometimes that seed flourishes, nourished by the sunlight and showers of the imagination, and the mind becomes a garden of vision and creativity. Sometimes, the seed grows into something more fragile, little more than a teardrop of colour in the black soil, and the imagination runs to smaller endeavours. Sometimes, heartbreakingly, the seed is ripped viciously from the dirt or trodden underfoot or withered by the unforgiving winters of the real world.

Maybe I’ve been lucky, maybe I’ve been given a modest garden to tend. Yes, it’s often choked with weeds, and there’s the occasional square of disturbed earth between the flower beds where the bodies are buried, but its mine, dash it, and I think there are perhaps two elements from real life that brought it to bloom.

One of them was the thread of solitude when I was growing up. My childhood … Stuff happened. It’s not quite up there with the fate of Thomas and Martha Wayne, but suffice it to say circumstances allowed me the retrospective good fortune of being left alone to my own imaginary devices, unburdened by family influences so that I might tend to that creative seed.

The other element was comics, of course. I like DC, but at heart I’m a Marvel fanboy, and Marvel has always fostered a wonderful warm connection with its readership, breaching the barrier between creator and wide-eyed reader with its letters from the Bullpen (Excelsior!) and its fourth-wall breaking asides (Deadpool’s nods out the frame are the bastard child of these, I think) and its little boxes that namechecked the artists and writers but gave them amiable nicknames (“Marvellous” Marv Wolfman, “Live-It-Up” Len Wein, “Rascally” Roy Thomas). It’s one of the reasons that Stan “The Man” Lee is so beloved today, and why his cameos are such a fun part of the movies. Well, I call them cameos. Either that, or he’s actually playing the same character, a franchise-straddling, ageless immortal whose varied career path has encompassed Army General, a couple of stints as a Security Guard, and a postman. But I digress …

Another comic that showcased its creators in this way was the UK’s own 2000AD, the home of Judge Dredd, referring to its writers and artists as Script Droids or Art Droids, and again it was a glimpse behind the curtain that not only fed my imagination but reminded me that somebody, somewhere, was constructing these worlds. And even better, they were grown ups, and I suppose that was what decided me on the kind of grown up I wanted to be.

I know why I kept going, even when I was heavily discouraged from writing even as a hobby. I think a mantra sadly familiar to a great many aspiring writers is the one where people tell you that you can’t do it, or you shouldn’t do it, or you’ll never make a living out of it, or what will the neighbours think, or your words are no good. Yeah, like we need to hear that, when we’ve all considered these things and cast them aside, again and again? Bah! To hell with the neighbours! They can’t make me wear pants!

For me, being told that I couldn’t do it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me – I have something of a history of being unable to resist a dare (I once snorted an entire bag of Sherbet Flying Saucers!), and so I kept on writing (as we all must do, although I’d advocate avoiding the Flying Saucer thing). When I started to read Stephen King’s work, I found a friendlier, more encouraging voice, not just in the fiction, but in the many notes and intros that King includes in his books, the peeks into his creative processes. Again, it was that crack in the wall, that sense that the words on the page are one person talking to another, no matter the gulf of time and space between the writing and the reading, that reminder that You Are Not Alone.

Why do I still write? Hmm. What drives me to sit at my desk after a long day of dispiriting commutes and workplace politics and try to fill the page with words? Why have there been days when I’ve given myself headaches and heartaches, staring at a screen when I could be outside, enjoying the fleeting breath of an English summer, walking in the park and looking at real gardens instead of the one in my head? The easy (and honest) answer would be that I’m hoping against hope to make even a small living out of writing at some point, if only enough to leave that commute and the politics behind, but that might never happen, and even if that was the reason, then how do I explain the blog posts, or the stories that are written with no intention to publish, or the essays, or the journal entries? (I’ve discounted the #FPs, by the way, because I know why I do them – they’re beyond fun to write)

Certainly, the encouraging voices of fellow creators are still a factor – the writing community on Twitter is wonderful, and it’s fantastic to read the great fiction and inspirational articles of other bloggers, sharing their own sneak peeks into their creative processes.

So yes, of course, I want to make a living with this writing malarkey (and if I ever write for Marvel, I already have my nickname: “Jolly” Roger Jackson? No … no, perhaps not). But that’s not it, not really. I write because all this stuff in me … it has to get out. I wake up with another person’s thoughts in my head, a dream of a kiss or a punch in the face that I never gave or received, another person’s cares and concerns. Sometimes I have to let them take precedence over my own, because to not let the words out, to let the garden die when it’s weathered all those winters and stamping feet, to let those bodies stay buried … that’s not what we’re here for, any of us.

Why do I write? I think my answer is, ultimately, the same as every other writer’s would be.

I don’t have a choice.


My Writing Process – Updated

Another retooled post! Last year I was very kindly asked to participate in two blog hops, each of them inviting me to elaborate a little on my writing process. I’m currently doing a little housekeeping at The Ark Hive at the moment, and in reading those posts again I found areas where some of info was outdated. The works in progress or upcoming projects are sights in the rear-view now, so I wanted to post versions with those sections edited out, but if you’re of a mind to read the original posts (and I’d point you in that direction if only to introduce you to the awesome people who very kindly nominated me, and the equally awesome people I subsequently nominated) the originals are available here and here.

HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS OF ITS GENRE?

At first I thought this was quite a tricky question to answer, but ultimately it’s as simple as “It differs because it’s me writing it.”

To me, writing is like seeing shapes in the clouds. You and I might lay back on the warm grass, watching those little crystals of water or ice embrace tiny particles of dust in the blue sky, and, wondrously, this cold and unstoppable physical law will inspire you to see unicorns or angels, cats or dogs, the famous or the infamous, whatever your mind is wired to see.

If your mind is wired like mine, or if you’re meeting me halfway by reading the ink on a page or the pixels I’ve arranged on a screen, all I can hope to do is use my own experiences and emotional view of the world to convince you we’re seeing pretty much the same thing. That’s all any writer does. All our work differs from others in its genre.

WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO?

As I say I’m wired to see what I see, and to imagine what I imagine. As a kid, my earliest stories were superficially science-fictional, cherry-picking concepts from my favourite films and TV shows and comic books and mashing them into tales that didn’t so much explore strange new worlds as recycle them … many is the story from that time that saw a Doctor Doom/Darth Vader hybrid commanding an army of “like Cybermen but not really Cybermen” against a brave band of Mutant mercenaries armed with laser swords (definitely NOT lightsabres). Incidentally, I used to draw fake movie posters for these stories, crazy, sprawling artwork crammed with all the elements I’d stolen from my influences. Thankfully, none of these drawings survive, but they tended to be a variation on this:

I have this album ... and it's brilliant!

I have this album … and it’s brilliant!

 

The thing is, if I was writing about a cyborg, say, I started to realise how much more I enjoyed writing about the seeping, decaying remains of his or her flesh than the sleek, mechanical aspects of the cybernetics. Eventually, I came to understand that my science-fiction efforts were Horror stories in disguise, and that if I was going to write, that was the territory in which I could have the most fun.

I’ve written elsewhere about my love for the Horror genre, but the short version is that I honestly believe it’s the most flexible field I could ever work in. I can have my zombies and demons and killers (oh my!), but if I want I can also have comedy or erotica or teen angst or political drama or whatever I need. I don’t think it works the other way. Any of those genres can exist brilliantly on their own, but make the President a vampire or the angst-ridden teens serial killers and the story’s heart begins to blacken, to turn to the Dark Side.

For me, the genre remains honourable and undiluted no matter what other themes and elements it can comfortably incorporate. That’s why the Horror element always comes first when people talk about mashing it up with another genre. Zombie Western, Zombie Romance, never the other way around. Horror defines itself, and the stories it tells, and that’s why I love writing it.

HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS WORK?

Unfortunately, my day job doesn’t allow me the luxury of a fixed time to write, or indeed a great deal of free time at all, and so any creativity tends to be left to the end of the week for Friday Phrases, and as much novel-writing as I can manage to fit in over the weekend.

If I have a whole day, I’m at my most creative in the mornings. I’ll aim for around two thousand words of new stuff then, and spend the afternoon checking through what I’ve already written. I usually find this PM editing a relatively painless process, as I’m in the habit of editing the work as I write it. I know many writers might shake their heads at this, considering it a great sin against productivity and creativity. It’s far better, they might argue, to let the prose flow, to let one’s imagination spill unrestrained on to the page, and later to use craft and skill to shape the words into the best they can possibly be.

For the record, those writers are absolutely 100% correct, but generally speaking it’s not how it works for me. There is a reason for this, I think.

A few years ago, I tried my hand at a little stand-up comedy. I’d been writing a few jokes for radio shows and the like and thought it might be interesting to see how my material played to a live crowd. Believe me, though writing is a solitary, sometimes lonely endeavour, it can feel like a party compared to standing alone on stage in front of a cold audience daring you to make them laugh.

The material was a weird stream-of-consciousness thing which wondered what might happen if – and those of you of a sensitive disposition might want to look away now – an adult movie was created by the cast of Sesame Street.

It was strange. I fully suspect anyone still reading can guess the kind of things the beloved Count was so joyfully enumerating, and even deduce what appallingly inappropriate selection of letters and numbers my imagined episode was brought to you by. What role I speculated that the renamed Cookie Monster might play in these sordid events is perhaps best left consigned to history.

The material got a few laughs, but the guy behind the microphone was an idiot, so I stopped. The experience did leave me with a curious learning curve that informs my writing today, though. All those times when I stumbled over a line, or ducked a thrown beer bottle, or misplaced one of the events in my routine and had to backtrack in as naturalistically a fashion as possible … all those things meant that I learned to cut and paste my thoughts, and quickly. To edit and shape as I went along, rewriting “as live”, if you like. It’s one reason why the shoot-from-the-hip nature of writing the Friday Phrases really appeals to me. Many of mine share the same structure as a joke, I think, albeit a joke where the punchline involves a demon or a dismemberment.

So that’s about it for my Writing Process … thanks for reading!


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!


Parasite

The short story that follows was inspired by the work of the spiffing artist Claudette Anne Pearson, and one image in particular that Claudette posted on Twitter as part of a Halloween Advent Calendar project (reproduced here with thanks).

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It’s great, isn’t it? You can check out more of Claudette’s work, all of it brilliant, here.

As for the story itself … I’ve never written anything so directly inspired by the work of another Creative, and it was a strange, but fun, experience, like I was working on a cover version of a much-admired song. I can hear my voice in there, but it’s threaded with the melody of Claudette’s work from the first word to the last. So, with grateful thanks to Claudette for the inspiration and friendship, here it is …

PARASITE

Our Empress is dying.

As the Lord Physician, I am the only man permitted to be in her presence as the hour draws near, though I can sense the guards in the next chamber, ready to carry out her last command to them, to kill me if I fail.

She sleeps now, and the room is near-silent, save for the soft humming of machines and the rasping, rattling ebb and flow of the Empress’s breath as her withered lungs struggle to function.  I look down at the wizened figure on the bed before me, already corpse-white, and imagine that its brittle, empty bones must be as thin as the dozens of hooked wires that puncture her papyrus-like skin, linking her to the machines dispassionately recording the decline of pressures and pulses.  She wears the Crimson Gown of the Imperial House, as is traditional for this night.  She wears her Crown of Skulls, as she does in the portrait above her bed.

The portrait shows her almost a century ago, when my own Mentor was the Lord Physician.  The image had been wrought by the land’s most revered artist, and was as haunting now as when the last bristle had slipped from the wet canvas, the union of creation complete.  Within the ornate frame, the Empress had been captured at the apex of her beauty and vitality.  Braids the hue of embers cascaded from beneath her Crown of Skulls, caressing her sharp, strong features, flushed with the bloom of youth.  Her eyes were so blue that they were almost the colour of moonlight, and so bright, so hungry for life, that they might have been painted with a brush dipped into her soul.

I hear soft footsteps and turn to see one of her Handmaidens approaching.  She carries a sealed metal box inlaid with black onyx, and as she hands it to me I see that her nails have been chewed down to the quick.  Above the machine hum and the tidal, dying breaths, I think I can almost hear the girl’s heartbeat pounding high in her throat, and it occurs to me that the guards have orders to end her life too, should I not succeed.

I am an old man, my grey hair thinning, my once-fine countenance drawn now and hawk-like.  My hands are still steady enough to wield a scalpel, as balanced as in my youth, but their contours are like the cartography of some ancient territory, the dark islands that come with age surfacing amid a sea of wrinkles, the thick blue veins winding like rivers towards a mountain range of knuckles.  I am old, and fear death, and a shiver of pity and love runs through me for the Handmaiden, with no more than twenty summers in her wake and facing the same fate as me.

Nothing is said, though.  I take the box and place it on the table, unsealing the lid to inspect the black shapes within.  The room is dim, merely candlelit, and yet the shapes react as though the thin glow is dazzling to their flat, murky eyes.  They are creatures of the soil and the rock, harvested from their underground channels and lairs by the Imperial Gatherers.  They squirm now in their metal prison, the oiled scales armouring their serpentine bodies clicking wetly as they writhe against each other.

Only two of them left, though.  Two out of thirteen.  The Gatherers are still searching, with a Legion at every compass point, but the creature’s nests remain undiscovered.  Perhaps they had found new places to hide, or perhaps these two specimens are the last in the land.  Whichever the case, the slithering, crackling things in this box have become the most valuable treasure imaginable.

Suddenly the Empress arches on the bed, a long, gasping cry escaping her parched lips, and from the next chamber, I imagine I hear the sound of swords being unsheathed.  I glance at the Handmaiden and see her dark eyes widening as she hurries to the Empress’s side.  She places her soft hands on the old woman’s bony shoulders, easing her gently back on to the bed, quietly mouthing words of comfort.

The twigs of the Empress’s fingers claw at the bed sheets, clutching handfuls of silk, and when I see how her eyelids are flickering, see the thin crescents of cataract-glazed white, I know that it is almost time.

A tray of forceps glimmers in the candlelight.  I select one and reach into the metal box, closing the pincers around one of the creatures.  It thrashes in the steel embrace, its scales clicking madly, and the other creature seems to entwine itself a little tighter around its captured companion, as though afraid of being alone.

I pull the creature free, though, lifting it smoothly from the box, and turn back to the Empress.

The white folds of her throat have begun to quiver, to ripple, as her mouth falls open and she sighs, some coppery, gangrenous whisper.  The Handmaiden flinches, but keeps her hands pressed to the old woman’s shoulders.  The Empress’s tongue slides forth to taste her grey teeth, and the wrinkled hollow of her throat pulses faster and faster, until the thin, sunken skin splits, blossoms into bloodless petals.  As I draw nearer, I can see the purple-black workings of her throat, and the dark, shrivelled form being expelled from the opening like some nightmare birth.

An inch of the withered shape emerges from the cavity; her throat spasms, again and again, ejecting another segment, then another, until one last convulsive tremor forces the last of it out of her.  The thing falls to rest on the front of her Gown, its scales splintered and shedding, the body within them a wasted, blackened husk.

Our Empress Eternal, our beloved Parasite, has used up another life, another century of stolen heartbeats.  She sinks back into her bed sheets, her wrinkled brow beaded with sweat.  The fleshy petals flanking her throat flutter gently now, as her unnatural mouth releases something like a fetid, contented sigh.

I nod to the Handmaiden, and she steps away, her black hair stuck to her forehead in wet strings, the candlelight sharp in the corners of her dark eyes.

The creature whips back and forth, perhaps sensing its damnation, but my hands are still strong, and steady, and I squeeze the forceps tighter against its struggles.  But then … I find myself hesitating, my fear that the guard’s cold steel might be warmed by my blood little more than a receding distraction.

In this critical moment, this mortal void between the expulsion of one creature and the implantation of another, the Empress’s life is as transient and as fragile as my own.  If I wait … just wait … then the centuries will draw level with and consume her.  In a spasm of dissolution, she will become nothing more than dust and ash.

What I am tasked to do is an abomination, a defiance of the natural order of things.  The injustice of it boils in my chest, until my brain spills its cold logic into my heart.  Behind my eyes, I feel its chill trickling down, to sting my sinuses and numb my tongue.

I can choose to die, but the Handmaiden’s fate is not mine to decide.  I lean forward, lowering the thrashing, clicking creature in the forceps towards the cavity.  I can feel the Handmaiden watching me, and still I wonder if I am saving or cursing us both.

The fleshy petals of the Empress’s throat twitch hungrily as the forceps  descend, stretching forward to enclose the jolting, terrified body.  I can feel the creature being tugged from my grip, and unlock the metal fingers, allowing it to be drawn shuddering into the maw.  Behind me, the last of the things thrashes in its metal prison, the scrape of scales against the walls of the box sounding like screams.

The hollow of her throat folds shut, the skin meshing seamlessly as though sewn with invisible stitches.  There will be no scar.  There never has been.

The rejuvenation is already beginning as I use the forceps to pluck the dead, depleted creature from where it fell.  The Handmaiden approaches with another box, this one plain, wooden, like a coffin.  I drop the crumpled corpse into it and she withdraws, taking it for whatever disposal awaits.

The Empress and I are alone.  Her skin is already smoothing, already beginning to glow with youth.  Her hair thickens, the locks flooding with colour as they fall from beneath her Crown of Skulls.  Her Crimson Gown ripples and shifts as the body within changes, bones strengthening, sheathed in fresh, taut muscle.  She will sleep now, and when she wakes, the portrait above her bed will be as a looking glass.  There is nothing more I can do here.

But as I seal the metal box with its solitary captive, as I turn to leave the chamber, I hear a voice, weak and rasping.

‘Lord Physician?’

Slowly, I turn, my heart like a footprint in snow.  Her eyes are open, the cataracts gone.  They are blue, almost the colour of moonlight.  So bright.  So hungry for life.

‘I felt you.’ she tells me.  ‘Sensed you.  You faltered.’

My lips part but I find no reply.  The box in my hands feels heavier suddenly, its occupant silent.

‘It matters not, for I am alive.’ she says, her voice growing stronger, younger, with every syllable.   ‘And you are not the first.  They all falter.’ She glances at the box.  ‘Have the Gatherers discovered more?’

I shake my head.  Outside the chamber, I can hear the guards stirring.

‘Then teach your successor well, Lord Physician.  I want no hesitation next time.’ She closes her eyes.  ‘Leave Us now.  We must rest.’

I depart the chamber, and find the guards glaring at me, their bloodlust denied, their fingers tapping fitfully on the hilts of their dry swords.  Their Captain takes the box from me, to secure it in some lightless vault for another century, and as he does so I see something of myself that is alien and terrifying, and know that I am lost.

My hands are shaking.