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Wednesday Write-In #36

This week’s words were:

on the ledge  ::  fingerprint  ::  subtitle  ::  just a cigar  ::  birthday

Meet on the Ledge

She wakes to singing, gentle and under his breath. Barely there at all, it’s more of a vibration in his chest than anything. He’s warm beside her.

‘Morning,’ she whispers, curling herself into the hollow under his arm. They’re lying on the couch in the living room, and the curtains are askew. The light falls across her face like the blade of a sword.

‘Morning, you,’ he says, between verses. He sings her awake, making her feel like a snake being charmed out of a basket. Wineglasses cluster around overflowing ashtrays like workers around water coolers. The air in the room is heavy with remembered crowds. Laughter lingers in every corner.

‘It was a great party, wasn’t it?’ he says, when the song comes to an end. ‘Very, I don’t know – decadent, maybe. Bohemian.’ She feels him smiling.

‘They don’t throw ‘em like that any more, that’s for sure,’ she agrees. There’s a thickness in her voice, and a strange taste in her mouth. She rolls her tongue around, feeling all her teeth, trying to get her bearings. Everything feels upended. She tastes wrong, she feels wrong. Her head spins. ‘Where is everyone?’

‘Well, the birthday girl is in bed – I’m not sure who with,’ he says, archly. Her eyes fall on the birthday card they all clubbed together to make for her – it has a picture of Sigmund Freud on the front. Captioned ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…’, she grins as she remembers the messages they put inside. ‘I think there are a few marooned souls on the floor, too. Little islands of drunken solitude.’

‘You’re such a poetic fool,’ she teases, laying her hand flat on the skin of his chest. She stretches out her fingers. They feel like rivers, flowing down her arm and out under her nails, covering him from head to toe, dripping onto the carpet. She begins to feel light-headed. As if he can sense her beginning to float away, he lays his hand on top of hers. He circles her knuckles gently. Beneath her ear, his heart thuds, steady as the oceans.

‘You know, skin can take a fingerprint,’ he says. ‘So, if I become a crime scene, they’ll dust me. They’ll try to pin it on you.’ His voice takes on a noirish tinge. ‘You gotta make a run for it, sister. You gotta never let ‘em catch you!’

‘Idiot,’ she smiles. ‘I’m too clever for that. Don’t you think this is all part of my master plan?’

‘I never doubted you for a second,’ he says, chuckling. She feels his other hand start to play with her hair. She wonders if she stinks of sweat, or smoke, or worse.

‘What were you singing?’ she asks, covering her sudden shyness. She wants to ask him a different question, but she’s not brave enough to form the words.

‘Just now? It was Meet on the Ledge. Fairport Convention. Do you know it?’ She desperately wants to lie, to pretend she’s on his level, but instead she shakes her head.

‘Shame,’ he says. ‘It’s a great tune.’ The melody beneath her ear starts up again. She listens, and her mind fills up with images of high places, blown lives, waste. Lost friends. She finds it depressing.

‘A bit sad, isn’t it?’ she says. He’s silent for several minutes, but his heartbeat fills her mind.

‘No way,’ he replies eventually. ‘They knew how to write a song, back in the day.’ He hums a bit more, like he’s fast-forwarding a tape. Eventually, he gets to the part he wants. ‘“If you really mean it, it all comes round again,”’ he sings, so softly that only she can hear. ‘This isn’t the end, you know what I mean? It’s all a cycle. We’re meaningless.’ He pauses, takes a deep breath. ‘What’s the point of any of it?’ he says, his voice soft and far away. She can’t say why, but something about his words makes her feel uncomfortable. She swallows a sudden mouthful of hurt.

‘Sometimes I wish you came with subtitles,’ she jokes after a few minutes, looking up at him. His eyes are bright green in the morning light. They search her face for a long time, as if looking for a foothold. Then he blinks, and looks away.

Much later, she’ll remember this moment, and wonder what she missed. Every time this date that was once just a birthday, and which became so much more, rolls around, she’ll listen to the song. She still won’t understand, and she’ll wonder if her fingerprints are still on his skin. Between the notes of the song she’ll tell herself she can hear his heartbeat, and she’ll cry a little less with every passing year.

Wednesday Write-In #35

This week’s prompt words are:

cheesy  ::  breathless  ::   carbon copy  ::  jets  ::  shaving

Image: theoriginalrowanmccabe.wordpress.com

Image: theoriginalrowanmccabe.wordpress.com

The Barber’s Daughter

She wet the shaving brush, and when the bristles were good and soaked, she knew it was time to get the lather going. She’d seen her dad do this so many times that it was second nature to her now. He made it look so easy, though – his fingers didn’t slip on the brush’s wet handle, and his hands were big enough to keep a tight grip on the hard block of shaving soap. She transferred the frothy soap to the battered-looking mug hanging by the sink, the one Dad used on himself; it wasn’t fancy enough to use in the shop. He wouldn’t miss this one.

She was breathless as she carefully smeared the foam all over her face, just the way she’d seen Dad do it. The bristles of the brush were rough against her skin, like metal wires. Up one cheek, sweeping under the chin, lathered some more on the rough whiskers there, then up the other cheek. She dabbed at her moustache hairs, hearing Dad’s voice in her head, chatting away about the weather and the local football team, telling his usual cheesy jokes with their silly punchlines, singing songs about rebels, fighters, and the girls they left behind, all as he shaved and combed and cut. She smiled to herself as she listened.

Soon it was time to start shaving. Dad’s cut-throat was on the high shelf – not his good one, of course. That was gone. But his second-best one was still here. It’ll need sharpening, she thought as she climbed up to get it. She wished she’d thought of this first, before she’d lathered up her face – it was starting to fall off, and some of the suds were trickling down the neck of her dress. Seconds later, she had the razor in her hand. She pivoted the blade out of the handle. It was speckled with tiny blooms of rust, neglected and forlorn. Not for long, she told it, grabbing the loose end of the leather that still hung by the wall and pulling it tight. She laid the blade upon it with great reverence. Up towards the strop, her father had told her. Don’t put pressure on the blade, now. She did her best, but the razor skittered and stuttered its way up, bucking in her fingers. When Dad did it, the razor moved as smooth as melted butter up the strap, sharpening and honing the blade as it went, and he’d change direction on the way down to sharpen and clean the other side of the blade. She tried to mimic the flick of his wrist when she got to the top, but it was easier said than done. The blade bit into the leather, leaving a gash too small for an ordinary person to notice, but her father would spot it straight away. The second he came home, the first thing he’d see – before he’d even kissed her hello – would be this damage. Her heart began to pound.

She felt hot, and weak, and silly. The foam was beginning to itch. She took the blade away from the strap, and let it hang back by the wall. The razor would just have to do as it was. She was sure it was sharp enough.

She faced herself in the tiny, buckled mirror, the one in which everything seemed a little bit off to one side. She tilted her head and pulled her jaw askew to better present her face to the blade, and she carefully lowered it to her skin.

‘What in the name of God do you think you’re doing?’ Her fingers locked on the handle of the razor as she heard her mother’s voice. ‘You stupid child! Put that razor down this minute!’

The next second, her mother’s warm fingers were wrapped around her own, and the razor was being taken away. A flannel was doused under the cold tap and her face was cleaned of foam. She couldn’t help but see that Mum slipped the razor into her apron pocket. It doesn’t go there! she thought, with a wave of hatred. Dad never lets you touch his things! But Mum couldn’t hear her, of course.

‘You’re a carbon copy of that man,’ her mother muttered. ‘You’re him, cut short.’ There was a wobble in her voice, and the girl looked up. Her mother was crying, tears oozing out through her squashed-closed eyes, rolling down her reddened cheeks. A curl had come loose from her hair. She’d tried to do it herself instead of going to Mrs. Johnstone to have it set properly, but it hadn’t worked.

‘What were you doing with the razor, Bet?’ her mother asked, her eyes still shut.

‘Practising, Mum,’ she whispered. ‘So that I’ll be good for when Daddy comes home and he might let me work in the shop with him.’ Her mother’s hand gripped her arm, really tightly. Bet wanted to cry out, but she bit it back.

‘You’re a good girl,’ she said. ‘But I’ve told you about Daddy.’ Her voice skipped like a dusty record. ‘I’ve told you he’s gone, Bet, on the jet plane. He’s gone far away.’

‘Yes, Mum,’ she said. ‘But I’m practising for when he’s back.’ Mothers can be so silly, she thought. If someone goes away, they come back after a while. And Dad would be so proud of how good and helpful she was going to be when he came home, that he’d never even think of going away again. She tried to explain all this to Mum, but her eyes stayed closed. Her tears kept squeezing their way through.

Bet leaned her head on Mum’s shoulder and looked out past the kitchen, where the shop door was, its round window dark. Soon, the sunlight would come streaming through it again, and Dad would be standing there, his sleeves rolled up and his black head shining with pomade. She saw him look up and smile at her, his eyes saying Good girl, my girl. She smiled back, and let her mother weep.

Wednesday Write-In #34

This week’s prompts were as follows:

Sinister :: minty-fresh :: Seoul :: Add to Cart :: Gold

And here’s what I made of them.

Power Play

‘Good morning!’ Kyung-Soon said as she strode past his cubicle, already halfway out of her coat. ‘My goodness, you’re in early today. You must be vying for my job, Gary!’ As always, as soon as she was finished speaking she let out a loud giggle. He never knew, exactly, what she was so amused by. This morning, her laughter was like water bubbling over out of a saucepan on a too-hot stove – uncontrollable, slightly frightening, and noisy. He quickly minimised his internet browser, switching instead to his Amazon homepage. Last search: ‘Gold: The Best of Spandau Ballet’. For something to do, he clicked ‘Add to Cart’. He tried to look busy.

‘Yeah!’ he chuckled back. ‘Just – you know. A good start is half the battle, and all that.’ She muttered something inaudible, but which sounded friendly, over her shoulder as she thumped her way across the thick carpet which led to her office. For such a small woman, she sure made a lot of noise. When she wanted to.

He licked his top lip, and found it tasted like salt. Was he sweating? Could she tell? I don’t even have a Kleenex in my drawer to wipe my stupid face with, he thought. He hopped up from his chair, intending to go to the toilet and see what colour his face had turned, and if there was anything visible in his eyes. As soon as he got to his feet, though, there she was, striding out of her office again, all raw silk blouse and pencil skirt, minty-fresh breath and stiletto heel. A daughter of Seoul, golden-skinned, hair so dark it sucked at your eyes. He felt his throat close over as he watched her approach.

‘Gary, would you mind running these documents down to the filing room, please? I know it’s not your job, strictly, and I am sorry, but…’

‘Sure, Kyung-Soon,’ he said, cutting her off. She blinked, drawing her head back like he’d spat in her face. After a second, she grinned, but only a little. ‘Sure, it’s no problem to do that for you. I’d be happy to,’ he continued, trying to speak slowly and softly. Remembering to smile.

‘Thanks, Gary,’ she replied, carefully, handing him a bundle of paperwork. ‘That’d be wonderful.’ She nodded, frowning slightly, and started to turn back to her office. He watched her go, and his decision was made in a split second. Run for it now, do the stupid job she wants, hurry back to the desk, she’ll never know. If he hesitated at his computer now, she’d twig something was up, and the next thing he knew he’d have IT Services on his back. He clutched the stack of papers like a policeman’s baton, and made a sprint for the elevator doors.

As the gentle ping sounded to tell him the doors were about to open, something caught his eye; instinctively, he turned, looking back at his cubicle. Even though on some level he knew the game was up, he almost vomited when he saw her, perched in front of his computer screen, sitting side-saddle on his swivel chair. Her long legs curved out in front of his desk drawers. Even from twenty feet away, he heard the sharp intake of her breath.

She’d found the site. He couldn’t read it from here, but he knew, from memory, what she’d be looking at right now. The homepage, with its rolling banner headline, and the eyecatching images – once seen, never forgotten. The Sinister Scourge of Immigration! Foreigners Out! And there was worse, too. All she had to do was click through a few pages to find out what they wanted to do with foreign women. Asian women, like her.

She turned to face him, already half on her feet. Behind him, the doors popped open, sliding apart with a silky hiss. Her mouth was open, and the scream starting, as she rounded his desk, bumping her hip against it as she went. She almost turned her heel, but she kept going.

Gary threw the papers into the elevator and was already running as Kyung-Soon started to sprint for her office, where her desk was, with her direct-dial telephone to the security booth. The thick carpet snagged at her spindly heels, almost like millions of tiny pale hands trying their hardest to drag her down. She didn’t stop.

Wednesday Write-In #33

This week’s prompt words are:

chloroform  ::  banana split  ::  stench  ::  cracker  ::  shoestring budget



A distant boom rattled the phials on the dispensary shelves and started the lights swinging in their fittings, flickering as they went. One more hit like that and we could probably kiss our power supply goodbye. The stench of smoke and dust hung in the air like a veil, giving the stink of death and disease a run for its money. I adjusted my facemask, settling it more closely over my nose, and carried on with my rounds.

‘Doctor!’ I heard, from somewhere behind me. ‘Doctor!’ I turned in time to see a young, familiar-looking orderly come sprinting towards me, dodging cots and outflung limbs and puddles on the floor with a practised stride.

‘Come on, Jesse,’ I said, as he drew near. ‘You know I’m no more a doctor than you are.’ I tried to keep my voice down. If there were conscious patients nearby, they didn’t need to hear me confirm any suspicion they might have that this whole place was being run on a shoestring budget, by people who were making it up as they went along. I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be conducive to their attempts to recover. Before the war, I had been a scientist of sorts; it made me the best person they had for the job, but it didn’t make me a doctor. Just like putting an ungainly pile of injured and dying people into what had once been the refectory of the long-dead convent didn’t make it a hospital.

‘Whatever,’ Jesse hissed as he drew near. ‘You know what I mean, Elias. Will you just come with me?’ He barely gave me a chance to nod before we were off, tearing between the corridors of beds like we were playing one of our boyhood games.

‘What is it?’ I said, when we reached the corridor. There were patients lying here too, the stronger ones; their beds were further apart. Jesse and I had some space to talk. I pulled down my facemask to focus on my friend.

‘It’s the child,’ he said, his eyes heavy. ‘He’s awake, but he’s delirious. He’s calling for his mother, and for Johanna – we presume his nurse, or a maid. He keeps telling her to make him a banana split, whatever that means.’ I took a deep breath, and thought about how long it had been since any of us had seen a child. If his house hadn’t been shelled, I might have lived the rest of my life without clapping my eyes on one. But we didn’t have time to think about that now.

‘Let’s go,’ I said. Jesse led the way as we hurried up the dimly-lit corridor, the tiles running with damp, and covered in filth and condensation.

‘Has he been told about his family?’ I asked as we walked.

‘No,’ replied Jesse. ‘As I said, he’s not fully conscious. He thinks he’s still at home, from what we can gather. And – well, look. You know about the chloroform?’

‘No,’ I said, a sudden chill coating my lungs. ‘What about it?’

‘An orderly used up most of what we had left on an elderly woman this morning,’ he muttered. ‘She didn’t realise our stocks were so low. I haven’t told her yet what she’s done.’ My mind raced. It stood to reason the orderly wouldn’t know how bad things were. Nobody did, besides Jesse and me.

‘God,’ I said, realising. ‘But we may have to operate on the child.’ Jesse didn’t answer me, but he didn’t have to. In any case, there was nothing he could say. He threw me a sympathetic glance, shaking his head slightly, and I pretended not to see the tears in his eyes. We redoubled our pace, and within minutes a nurse was leading us to the child’s bedside. A fire blazed in the grate of his room, and the sheets on his bed were old, but cleaner than anyone else’s. As clean as we could make anything, these days.

‘Why are they pulling crackers?’ the boy muttered as we drew near. His eyes were closed, his colour high. ‘Tell them to stop pulling crackers, Johanna.’ His face was slick with sweat, and his wounds were bandaged. Even without examining him, though, I could smell that our attempts to stop his infection hadn’t worked. He was going to need surgery, and there was nobody to do it but me. I glanced up at the nurse, whose worried eyes told me he knew what I was going to say.

‘We’ll have to prep the surgery room,’ I said to him, in a low voice. ‘Round up everyone we can find to try to keep this child alive, and scour this whole place for anaesthetic. I don’t care where you get it.’ The nurse nodded at me before glancing up at Jesse; then, he hurried out of the room. My eyes fell on the child’s face again. He glowed in the firelight. As I knelt by his side, stroking his hot, clammy head, a tiny frown wrinkled his forehead, and he licked his dry lips. He opened his eyes, red-rimmed and sore, and gazed straight at me without recognition. He blinked, once or twice, before his eyes drifted closed again.

It wasn’t until I felt Jesse’s hand, his strong fingers, resting on my shoulder, that I realised I was crying. I hurried to wipe my face as the nurse bustled back into the room.

‘Doctor,’ he said, out of breath. ‘We’re ready to begin when you are.’

Wednesday Write-In #32

This week’s prompt words are:

cardboard cut-out  ::  exhale  ::  brittle  ::  gleam  ::  acrid

Image: throughhimwithhiminhim.wordpress.com

Image: throughhimwithhiminhim.wordpress.com

The Perfect Family

Your acrid breath wakes me. Once upon a time, it would have been your gentle, giggling kiss, but I can’t remember the last time you touched me out of anything other than duty or, at best, simple kindness. I watch your face, frowning even in sleep, for a few moments. When you exhale, it sounds like a sigh.

‘Hey,’ I whisper, nudging you gently. ‘Come on. It’s time.’ Your frown deepens and your eyes start to move, rolling back and forth behind your taut, yellowish lids.

‘Wmff?’ You lick your lips and your eyes flick open for a split second. ‘What time is it?’ Your voice is early-morning hoarse.

‘Going for seven,’ I answer. ‘We need to move if we’re to make it.’ You roll away from me and scrub at your face with your fingers, worn thin. Your wedding band catches the light, gleaming as brightly now as it ever did. As it ever will.

‘Right,’ you say, flinging off your covers. ‘Thanks.’

‘Yup,’ I reply, my skin puckering in the sudden gush of cold air. ‘Turn on the heating, will you?’

‘Really?’ you say, pulling your hair into a rough bun. ‘We’ll be gone within the hour. It’s hardly worth the effort, is it?’ You turn away and start to rub some sort of cream into your face.

I warm up in the shower instead. I’m as quick as I can be, but by the time I come out you’ve already gone downstairs. I hear the clink of crockery as you finish your breakfast.

It’s a brittle sort of day, snow-clouds sitting low on the horizon, needles in every breath. By the time we reach the motorway conditions improve a bit. The road is warmed with traffic and dotted with grit. We make better time.

‘Strange weather, isn’t it?’ I say, squinting at the sky. You neither look up nor answer me.

‘We need to take Exit Four,’ you announce, tapping on your phone. ‘There’s been an accident on the old road, and it’s closed to traffic.’ I thank you, but you just busy yourself checking email. I can hear the soft bleep every time a new message comes in. Each one demands your full attention, and I don’t dare to put on the radio for fear I might disturb you. After a few minutes, a sharp pain in my shoulder starts to impact on my concentration, and I relax my grip on the steering wheel as much as I can. But it’s never enough.

A man in a high-visibility vest guides us to the appropriate car park once we arrive. His face is almost entirely muffled with a scarf and hat, and he jogs on the spot to keep from freezing solid. It’s still snowing, and the wind is blowing the flakes into soft drifts. I drive slowly, keeping my eyes peeled for a space.

‘There,’ you say, tapping my arm gently. I feel it like a spider’s bite, warm and aching, radiating through my flesh. ‘Take care – it’s slippery.’

‘I’m fine,’ I mutter, nudging the car in beside its gleaming neighbour. A new BMW. Don’t hit it. You hold your breath until we’re parked, and I’m not sure what’s in the look you shoot me as I switch off the engine. It’s not pride, it’s not relief. It’s not gratefulness. That’s all I know.

We slide up through the campus, toward the Conferring Centre. Gaily painted signs direct our every step, and before too long we’re stamping off the snow in the vestibule, trying to make ourselves presentable. I hold the door for you as we follow the crowds into the Centre, up a corridor with a long mirror to our right.

‘There he is,’ I say, quickening my pace. ‘He’s in his robes already.’ As if he hears my voice, my son turns towards us. Tall, beautiful like you. I feel a throb in my chest as I look at him. I smile, and call his name. I see him looking at us, first at his mother and then at me; he raises his hand to wave, and then lets it drop to his side again. His grin fades, and from here I can feel his heart breaking. He shakes his head gently and turns back to his friends.

‘What have you told him?’ you hiss. ‘I thought we were saying nothing until his big day was over!’ You grab my arm and we stop, people milling past us. Joyful reunions are going on all around, and the room is filled with happiness and pride. Reflections flicker in the mirror behind you and I raise my eyes to look at us.

We are a cardboard cut-out, a painting. We are an anatomical diagram. The Husband. The Wife. The Perfect Family. Arrows point to our notable features. Our faces are blank with formaldehyde. We are fooling nobody.

‘Come on,’ I say. ‘Just one more day.’

As we walk towards our boy, you slide your hand into mine. I’m not sure if you’re urging me on, or holding me back.

Wednesday Write-In #31

This week’s prompts are:

sniffle  ::  font  ::  northern  ::  powdered  ::  pick a card

A Game of Chance

I couldn’t remember how long it’d been since I’d last taken the Northern line, but I’d been glad to see the station hadn’t changed a bit. It had settled around me like a favourite dress, comfortable and familiar, as I’d waited to depart. I had no luggage to speak of, besides one small valise, and so I felt I’d made a neat and pretty package as I perched on the platform. I’d almost wished there had been someone to see me, but the place was, as I’d expected, cavernous and deserted. The train had hissed into the station without conductor, guard or driver; there had been no whistles or flags. It had just waited, patiently, for me to board, and so I had. I hoped it was the correct service – but then, I thought, this train only has one destination. I knew where I was going. I checked my ticket against my seat number one more time; all was well. This was where I belonged. I tried to settle against the uncomfortable springs, realising the sniffle I’d had upon leaving home was beginning to turn into something more substantial. My throat ached, and I wished for the liberty to press my forehead against the cold, condensation-covered window beside me. I was alone, of course, but I had to maintain standards, nonetheless. I had a novel to read, but I’d long put it away; my mind was too full to focus on it. My eyes fell upon a notice – perhaps a map of the line, for some strange reason – pinned to the wall a few feet away. It was faded around the edges, as though it had been there for many years; it was, nevertheless, new to me. My vision swam as I tried to focus on it. The elegant font nipped at my eyes, at first like a playful pup and then – painfully – rather more like a biting wind. I blinked away tears as I fumbled for my handkerchief.

‘So,’ came a voice, as sudden as lightning. ‘Here again, are you?’ I tried to cover my shock by turning a gasp into a delicate cough. My eyes were still running, but the pain had eased.

‘I beg your pardon?’ My eyes refused to open fully. I couldn’t clearly see the figure seated opposite me. The only impression I could get was one of bulk, and a colour like powdered darkness, soft and smudged as a charcoal drawing.

‘You beg my pardon,’ repeated the strange voice, its tones warm. ‘Isn’t that amusing. I suppose it’s appropriate, considering you’re taking this journey again, without so much as a by-your-leave.’

‘Whatever do you mean?’ I asked, dabbing at my eyes. The dark shape before me was beginning to solidify. ‘I am in the correct seat, on the correct train. I made sure to check most thoroughly.’

‘Yes,’ agreed my companion. ‘You are nothing if not thorough.’

‘I am not sure I quite understand,’ I replied, hoping my words would not sound impertinent. ‘Have we met?’ My burning eyes had finally begun to calm. I could make out that my seatmate was a lady, older than I and corpulent with it. Her dress was dark as eternity, her head adorned with jet beads. Her hair, where it was not speckled with grey, was a similar colour to my own. Her eyes were steady.

‘Shall we play a game?’ she asked, smiling. Even as she spoke, her fingers slipped into the black bag she wore at her wrist.

‘A… a game? Of what sort?’

‘Oh, it’s not a difficult game,’ she hastened to reassure me as she withdrew her hand. I saw she clutched a pack of playing cards.

‘I’m afraid I do not gamble, ma’am,’ I said, straightening my back.

‘Not with money, perhaps,’ she said, beginning to shuffle the pack. ‘You take your chances only with things more precious than mere currency.’

‘I beg…’ I began.

‘My pardon, yes,’ she finished. ‘You may beg, but I will not grant it.’ She continued to shuffle the pack, her movements hypnotic. ‘You will draw a card,’ she instructed, ‘and then I will draw. If your card beats mine, you may continue your journey. If I beat your card, however, you must disembark at the next stop and turn back. Those are my conditions.’ Her hands kept moving, gracefully and quickly. Her fingers were pale against the darkness of her dress. I noticed she wore a ring not unlike the one my father had given me for my last birthday. My pulse began to beat, painfully, in the hollow of my throat.

‘But this train does not stop,’ I objected, in a small voice. ‘It… it is an express service.’

‘Not this time,’ she said, her shuffling movements slowing. ‘Can’t you read the map?’ I forced myself to look upon the pinned-up notice once again. This time, my eyes stung but they did not fill. My companion was correct. There was a junction up ahead. To make my destination, I would need to change trains. I wondered when that timetable alteration had been introduced, and I fought my feelings of irritation.

My companion cleared her throat, drawing my attention. She had finished shuffling. A strange trembling overtook me as she pierced me with a look. Her eyes were so familiar.

‘Pick a card,’ she said, smiling gently. She looked almost kind. ‘Any card.’

Wednesday Write-In #30

overdose  ::  mither  ::  gloss over  ::  poach  ::  digest


‘Just hang on a bloody minute,’ said Katie. ‘You’re not telling me you feel sorry for her, are you?’

‘Oh, come on, Kates,’ I said. ‘She did take an overdose, after all.’

‘Overdose, my eye. I’d like to go in and give her a second helping,’ she muttered.

‘That’s an awful thing to say!’ Even for you, I didn’t add.

‘Grow up,’ she snapped, glaring at me. ‘She didn’t poach your boyfriend from out under your nose. All right?’ Her eyes filled. ‘Until you’re sitting where I am, you can just shut it.’ She squeezed her eyes closed and wiped her nose with the heel of her hand.

I bit my lip, deciding I’d gloss over the fact that Katie and Frank hadn’t really been going out. Not in the proper sense of the word. He’d told me they never made things exclusive, at least. Katie was just being dramatic, as usual. I began to stroke her arm in what I hoped was a comforting way.

‘Leave off,’ she told me after a few minutes. ‘You’re starting to mither me.’ I snapped my hand back like I’d been burned.

‘Sorry,’ I mumbled. I was useless in these sorts of situations. ‘Just trying to help.’ She sighed deeply and didn’t answer me for a few moments. Her fingers scrubbed at her forehead, her nails lightly scratching her skin. I watched the tiny pale tracings as they flared and faded, bright against the redness of her face. She always got a high colour when her temper spiked.

‘You know what we can do, though,’ she announced, suddenly. She flicked the last tears out of her eyes and fixed me with an intense stare. ‘We can go through his phone.’

 ‘We can what?’ A firework of nerves started to fizz inside me. Keep calm, Allie. Keep calm.

‘Go through his phone,’ she repeated, settling herself more comfortably in her seat. Her face started to return to its normal colour as she started to put her plan together. ‘For texts, and maybe even emails. See what he’s really been up to.’ She drummed her nails on the plastic tabletop as she thought. ‘He’s in work today, so his phone will be at home. I’m sure the lads will let me into the flat. I can say I want to cook him a fancy dinner, and you’re lending a hand.’ She sucked on her bottom lip, her eyes gleaming. I was doing my best to digest this, work through it to its logical conclusion. My throat started to burn.

‘But – look. Do you even have his code? For the phone, I mean?’ I tried to keep my voice calm. ‘This is crazy, Kate!’

‘Of course I have his code,’ she said, in a pitying tone. ‘It’s the first thing I made sure to find out! Don’t tell me you wouldn’t check your boyfriend’s phone?’ Her eyes took on a strange gleam. ‘Oh, but you’d have to get a boyfriend first, I suppose.’ She shot me a glacial grin, which I ignored.

‘What’s the point, though? What are you trying to prove?’ I said, hoping she wouldn’t hear the wobble in my words. I felt cold, suddenly, despite the warm sunshine pouring through the café window.

‘If he did it with one,’ she said, unfolding her legs and getting to her feet, ‘he’ll have done it with more.’ She started to pull her jacket on. ‘And I’m going to put every last one of them in the hospital.’ She laughed, mirthlessly, as she pulled her long hair free of her jacket, letting it stream down her back. It gleamed in the sunshine. ‘Maybe they’ll put ‘em all in the same ward. At least he won’t have to go far when he wants to visit his little harem.’

I didn’t move. My hands were wrapped, white-knuckled, around my cold cup of coffee. I was trying to imagine myself in traction, and not liking the thought.

‘Well?’ she said, looking down at me like a headmistress. Like a tombstone, from the point of view of the grave. ‘Are you coming, or aren’t you?’


Wednesday Write-In #29

This week’s prompt words are:

‘I do’  ::  crockery  ::  surreal  ::  torch  ::  capsule

Carina Nebula Image: commons.wikimedia.org

Carina Nebula
Image: commons.wikimedia.org

Mission Day

I used to call them ‘crystal time’ moments when I was a kid, you know, those events in your life which seem important, even as you’re living through them. The ones you’re sure you’ll keep in your mind, in their entirety, frozen. A capsule of your personal history, held in amber.

Mission Day had definitely been a capsule moment.

‘Lieutenant Owens,’ the voice of my Commander had boomed. ‘Do you understand the ramifications of the task to which you have committed yourself?’

‘Sir,’ I’d said. ‘I do, sir.’

The truth was, I’d had no idea. They’d wanted a man to fly, one-way, toward an anomaly our ‘scopes had barely been able to pick up, somewhere near the Cloud. It was the best part of a parsec away, and so I knew when I accepted the job that it was ‘Goodbye, Home Planet’. It didn’t really bum me out too much. Since Mireille, the girl I’d held a torch for since we were embryos in neighbouring tanks, had blown me off in favour of a moon-rock salesman (‘at least he has a stable income!’ she’d wailed), there hadn’t been much keeping me here.

Besides gravity, of course.

Just my little joke.

It wasn’t until I’d reached deep space before I could really check out what they’d sent up with me. I couldn’t believe it when I saw they’d kitted me out with old-fashioned crockery, linen tablecloths, actual knives and forks – Goddammit, even a wine carafe! It was almost surreal, this vision of domestic bliss as I hurtled through eternity. I was touched, actually. It was like a final farewell from my buddies on the base, a message to take care. Anyway, I knew I only had a week to enjoy all this stuff before it was time to put myself on ice for the rest of the trip, so I made sure to have a good time. I ate the steak they’d included in my rations (the last fresh meat I’d eat in the living history of my planet, I told myself, which was sort of mind-blowing), and drank the morsel of wine from my fancy carafe. I toasted my planet, Mireille, and the machine that would keep me alive until mission’s end.

And then, my last transmission home. My final orders received. It was time. I said goodbye. They wished me well, and told me I was a patriot. I felt like nothing of the sort.

I lay in the suspension chamber, my mind whirring faster than the mechanism beside my left arm, the one which would put me under. Everything looked fine; the buttons flashed in the correct sequence. The needle entered my vein as it had done in the run-through, back home. The first touch of the freezing liquid stole my breath, as I expected.

But the pain – now, that took me by surprise.

It entered my body at the wrist, and travelled up my forearm. Stupidly, I called for help. I called for help in space, can you believe it?

‘There’ll be no pain,’ the doctor had said back home, her dark eyes soothing. Those had been her exact words. I remembered. ‘The mechanism’s been tested rigorously. You’ll be just fine. It’ll be like falling asleep.’

So much for that. The pain was in my biceps now. My arm felt like it was aflame. I couldn’t undo my straps quickly enough to shut the machine off. On it pumped, my body failing a little more with every second.

My brain reeled. I felt like I’d been turned on my head and set right-side up again, like a doll in the hands of a huge, angry child.

Then, finally, the agony reached my heart.

It stopped.