‘Nothing New To Begin’ Published in Tincture

…proving, yet again, my blog is suspiciously similar to a bus station platform

My string of vignettes ‘Nothing New To Begin’ is available now in Tincture Journal, Issue Five. I share the ToC with two of my PINPS colleagues: Stacey has the short story ‘Diary of a Tree-Sitter’ and Sean has a poem ‘The King’.

NOTHING NEW TO BEGIN

I wrote this piece back in August 2012 while Adam and I were in the middle of writing Piper’s Reach. I wrote it partly as therapy, partly to see if I could pull off the concept: each section a stand alone vignette, a snap shot of a moment, an ambigious  space for the reader to fill and be no longer than 250 words.

Even though they were all intended as separate pieces, I wanted them to fit together to tell an ever evolving and deviating story. It was a piece that I put through the beta reading wringer. I got a number of non-writing friends to read and comment on it before I sent it off to Dan Powell who expertly cut 250 odd words from it. Adam and Stacey all had input at varying junctures.

Here is a taster…

The silence of the car trip followed them inside with the chill of night air. She paused in the doorway then backed away, staring at the queen-sized bed. “I’ll sleep in one of the other rooms.”

A single bed had less lonely space to fill.

“I wasn’t suggesting…” he said, and she forced a smile to stop him finishing the sentence.

“Are you okay?” The car trip haunted her. How the conversation had petered out with the suburbs, becoming polite inquiries about the next CD and the best rest stops once they hit the highway. If she’d known it would be like this, the melancholy clinging to them like the damp sea air, she’d have never suggested it.

“We should eat,” he said. “Something proper.”

She nodded and watched him put his bag down on the far side of the bed.

Thunder heaved and the first iron pings of rain began to fall. An overhanging tree branch clawed the guttering. The window lit up.

“A storm?” he said, looking surprised.

“Of course a storm,” she said and placed her bags carefully on the other side of the bed.

Want to know what it is all about, how it ends. Buy your copy here for just $8.

#NFFD: The Man Who Would

It’s National Flash Fiction Day today in the UK, but like any good “national” initiative (think National Novel Writing Month) it’s really become a global celebration. After a conversation on Facebook with Adam Byatt and Stacey Larner on community, schooling and litigation, I’ve chosen to publish for the first time outside 50 Stories for Pakistan “The Man Who Would”.

I stumbled on the kernel of the story when I was researching events from 1960 for my step-Mum’s birthday invitation in 2010 on wiki and stumbled across Joseph Kittinger’s record breaking sky dive. “The Man Who Would” is my (not so thinly veiled) finger point at the stupidity of litigation.

- – -

Herman watched Jack pack his parachute, suit up and calibrate the oxygen mask which would keep him alive while the retrieval pod descended to Elara’s surface. Then, and only then, Herman broached the subject.

“Jack.”

A gloved hand went up. “It’s all good, Herman. Seriously man, you don’t need to say anything.”

Herman, as Jack’s best friend and legal representative, struggled with the possibility Jack might not make it. Jack on the other hand, accepted it was an occupational hazard when leaping from perfectly functional aircraft and spaceships. Jack also understood how he came to be on a low orbiting spaceship. Each record-breaking jump invited another and another, until all the possibilities on Earth were exhausted. Elara offered the possibility to jump higher, longer and faster than ever before. No atmosphere, no clouds and next to no gravity. Nothing stood between him and the surface of Jupiter’s eighth largest moon.

“I’m not worried about the jump. It’s this.” Herman pulled the contract and covering letter from his pocket, thrusting them into Jack’s hand.

“I don’t understand?”

“Read.”

Jack shoved the folded papers back at Herman. “It’s all been said and done. Signed.”

“First World found something. It’s not going to stop you from jumping in the future… you just can’t today.”

When FirstWorld Corporation acquired Elara in a hostile takeover, Jack considered it an endnote for Herman to handle. But the new owners refused to give Jack permission to jump. The negotiations, protracted and nasty, should have forced Jack to find a new site, but he was stubborn, refusing to give in to the fear of litigation which motivated FirstWorld.

Jack snatched the contract from Herman and ripped it, until the contract became hundreds of tiny paper pieces floating about him.

“I guess you’re not concerned that FirstWorld found a potential complainant.”

“No. They what, bribed an ex girlfriend to be concerned?”

Herman shook his head. “It’s more complicated than that.”

He retrieved the photo and piece of paper from his other pocket.

Jack hesitated then took them. He read the birth certificate and then stared at the photograph.

“She never told me.”

“You think Julianna wanted you to know?”

Jack shook his head. “She said she’d never stand in the way of what I had to do. But…” He stared at the photo of the young boy.

“I’m sorry.” Herman put his hand on Jack’s shoulder. “I can let the crew know to-”

“Hold on. The contract is null and void?”

Herman nodded. “The contract is based on the fact no potential complainants existed to sue for death by misadventure or negligence.”

“So, they can’t sue for breach of contract?’

“No.”

“And can’t collect the associated 30 percent royalties?’

“No, but-”

“What’s the worst they can legally throw at me?”

“Trespass.”

Jack tucked the photograph and birth certificate inside his suit and picked up the mask.

“Jack, are you sure?”

“I want my son to know me as the man who would.”

For a bunch of other brilliant flash pieces check out Flash Flood, Jaw Breaker and the #nnfd hashtag on Twitter. A special nod of the head to J.M. Strother and the Friday Flash community, supporting flash fiction writers across the world since 2009!

[FGC#4] Birthed

This week’s installment of the Form and Genre Challenge
FGC#4: write in the action-adventure genre
Word limit: 3000 words.

A low guttural cry tore through the cavernous interior of the abandoned Tavern on the Green and the hairs on Sylvie’s bare arms rose. The fire surged in the broken fireplace and a gust of wind rose from nowhere, extinguishing all the candles. She shuddered and tried to ignore the insidious feeling something was trying to get in. Something a drawn bolt and a chair beneath the knob wouldn’t keep out.

“Back off,” Sylvie hissed, picking up the scalpel lying beside her and pointing it in the direction of the ebony-haired Priestess inching closer, trying to see how far the baby had emerged. “I mean it.”

The Priestess retreated to the shadows, leaving her two Sisters supporting the laboring girl between them under Sylvie’s baleful glare.

They think I’m young and inexperienced. They think they can intimidate me. They don’t know how much I want what’s on the other side this. What I’m willing to do to get it.

Sylvie looked back to the pale legs and bottom hanging in the space between the tattered rug and the birthing girl. Two more contractions and the girl would birth the first child and then the Priestesses would be upon them. She wouldn’t be able to protect herself, much less the baby and the girl.

Where are you, Marcus? I should have kept you close. Not sent you away for the rest of my gear. But how was I to know? If only I’d ignored the summons. Taken the car and driven away.

It didn’t matter now.

Hurry, Marcus, please.

“You are doing beautifully,” Sylvie said when the contraction ended, grateful the dark hid the track marks up the girl’s skinny arms and the lips blistered from the raw garlic the Priestesses forced her to eat before Sylvie arrived.

Too young to be fucked up on Oblivion and caught in some cult.

The girl shook her head and panted. “I’m scared. It’s coming. It feels wrong. I’m burning—”

“Shhhh. You’re fine,” Sylvie crooned, gently wiping her burning face with a cool cloth. “Birthing is hard work.” She leant in so only the girl could hear and said, “Just two more contractions.”

She felt the girl tense up and squeezed her arm in solidarity, caressing her face and arms, urging her to relax.

I promised I’d keep you and your babes safe. And I will. Somehow.

On the next contraction, the girl grunted and fought against it. Sylvie leaned in, whispering words of encouragement, coaching her to breathe. When the girl finally surrendered, the baby’s stomach, rib cage and shoulders slid down. Sylvie checked the cord for a prolapse and the girl’s racing pulse, then sat back to wait for the final contractions, pushing aside the deathly sixth sense crawling over her skin like a plague of bugs.

Marcus. For Godsake. What’s keeping you? I can’t do this alone.

The contraction started and the girl screamed, losing herself to the terror she had barely contained throughout the labour. She lashed out and tried to stand. The ebony Priestess grabbed her arms and pinned them behind her, forcing her back onto the lap of the other Priestess. Sylvie reached beneath the girl and a moment later, the warm, wet skin of the baby hit her outstretched hands.

The baby opened its eyes and seconds later cried loudly, accompanied by its mother’s soft sobs. Sylvie worked quickly to tie off the cord and sever it, keeping herself between the baby and where she had last seen the ebony Priestess.

“Lie her back,” Sylvie said and the blonde and auburn priestesses threw the girl backward into the pile of cushions and blankets and stood, muttering curses and stretching stiff limbs.

Sylvie held the baby up. “He’s normal. Oh my God, he’s normal,” the girl cried, reaching her hand out. “My baby. My baby.”

Sylvie placed the baby on the girl’s stomach and the Priestesses closed in. Sylvie reached backward, her fingers searching for the scalpel.

Hell, where did I put it?

The Priestesses watched, transfixed by the baby’s slow crawl along the girl’s stomach, her fingers gently stroked his back. Loving words cooing from her lips. The baby reached her chest and she drew it into her arms, his tiny mouth finding her nipple and closing around it, sucking furiously.

The blonde Priestess, standing closest, moved to grab the baby, but as her hands closed in, the girl screamed, her body stiffening. The Priestess pulled back and fell over the feet of one of her Sisters.

“You can birth the second one here,” Sylvie said. Raising one of the girl’s emaciated legs to give the second baby room, she saw for the first time the tide of blood soaking into the old blankets and towels, inching its way across the bare boards towards her.

“Get my kit,” she yelled at the auburn priestess, closest to her battered kit. “She’s going to die. And the other baby.”

The Priestess didn’t move. “We have one live baby. The prophecy said—”

“Fuck the prophecy. I’ve never lost a mother and I’m not about to now.”

“Our work is done. We finished what Teleia started.”

The blonde priestess lunged and dragged the baby from its mother, passing it up to the hands of her ebony Sister, her arcane robe dripping with the girl’s blood when she stood.

The girl convulsed again and the Priestesses smiled, watching Sylvie caught between saving the mother and unborn twin, and reclaiming the baby held in the ebony Priestess’s arms.

“Marcus,” she yelled. “Marcus!”

Just break down the bloody door. Do what you did out there when those creatures were about to kill me!

“He won’t be back. Teleia took care of him,” the auburn one said, taking one last look at the blood and the convulsing girl. “And now, the Prophecy has been fulfilled. Vengeance is ours.”

Sylvie ignored them and let them leave. She couldn’t abandon the girl now. She knelt beside her head. “You stay with me… you stay with me,” Sylvie urged the girl, lightly slapping her cheeks. “I promised I’d keep you safe.”

The girl’s eyes rolled into the back of her head and her body shook before Sylvie got hold of her kit bag and the drugs she needed. When the girl’s eyes rolled back, the pupils were gone and the irises bleached of colour.

“Shit!”

She dropped the head and lurched back, watching in horror as the girl twisted and writhed in impossible ways. With a primeval roar, the girl threw her legs apart and arched her back, her womb disgorging the second baby in one massive contraction.

The second baby opened its mouth and howled an angry salutation as an explosion loosened a thick layer of plaster-dust.

Ignoring the instinct to run and put as much distance between the girl-thing and the building disintegrating around them both, Sylvie instead inched toward the prone girl and howling baby, crawling through the pool of warm blood. Her hands moved frantically across the wet floor, searching for the scalpel and string. When she thought it hopeless, the room lit up, the filthy panes in the French doors filling with iridescent green light. She located her kit and found a new length of string before the light faded and a series of explosions rocked the old restaurant, sending fresh showers of choking plaster over her.

I’ve got to get us out before this whole place comes down.

In the dark, she tied the string and waited for the next flare of light to find her scalpel, assessing the baby as best she could from touch. Even though the girl lay still, Sylvie heard the pop and grind of bones moving, accompanied by shallow gasping breaths. Sylvie knew the girl was changing into one of the creatures that had hunted her when she’d first driven into the Dead Zone. Before Mutt appeared. Before Marcus.

That old crone couldn’t have killed Marcus. Not if those creatures out there couldn’t. Or wouldn’t? Where are you, Marcus? I can’t do this. I can’t. Can’t.

And her thinking stilled.

I’m just thinking like a woman in transition, screaming I can’t, begging for help. Thinking I’m going to die. It’s just transition. They don’t die. And I won’t either.

In the next wave of light, she forced herself to find the scalpel in the congealing slick and wiped it dry on her singlet. She cut the baby free with a shaking hand, and slipped her hands under its bottom and head, bringing it to her chest and running for the open door before the next round of explosions.

The ceiling collapsed with the next detonation and a beam clipped Sylvie’s shoulder, tearing the joint from the socket and knocking her onto her back, punching the air from her lungs. She clutched at the baby with her uninjured arm.

Before the dust settled, flares lit the room, revealing the girl-thing crouched several feet away, a single milky orb staring at Sylvie. A section of ceiling had smashed the other side of her face. The baby wailed and the girl cocked her head to the side, rising slowly. The girl had not only survived the massive haemorrhage, but stood several feet taller, her limbs elongated and the deathly pallor of her skin had been replaced with a mottled red and purple hue.

“My baby,” the girl-thing said, the words distorted but recognisable. She took a faltering step in Sylvie’s direction, unsure in her new body.

“I’m only… protecting your baby,” Sylvie panted, the pain spreading from her shoulder into her chest. “I promised… I would… keep you… and your babies… safe.”

“My ba-by?” The girl-thing took several more steps forward.

Sylvie slid across the floor on her back, away from the girl-thing, and pushed against the wall when she reached it, trying to use it as a brace to stand. She screamed and slid down, the pain unbearable.

The girl walked to where she lay and looked down. “M-y. B-a-b-y.”

Sylvie tried again to stand, this time leaving a smear of blood behind on the wall. The beam had torn more than the joint. The girl-thing sniffed and Sylvie flinched, remembering how she’d been invisible to the orb-eyed creatures until she’d cut her arm trying to climb out the smashed rear window of her car after the electric locks seized. Then, with fresh blood on the air, the creatures had converged.

“Please don’t hurt me,” Sylvie said, her voice barely audible. She clenched her teeth and reached up with her damaged arm. “Help me up. I can get us both out of here. I know you’re still in there. You’re not one of them.”

The girl-thing’s face contorted and her human-like fingers flexed and released. Flexed and released.

“Please. Marcus will take us both out of here. Somewhere safe.”

The girl-thing reached down, icy digits closing around Sylvie’s.

The door shattered inward and a torch beam swept the room. The girl turned and recoiled from the light. A single shot thundered and the girl stood headless for a moment, then collapsed, Sylvie’s hand still in hers.

“Stand up,” the man said, motioning with his rifle, the beam dancing madly.

Sylvie pulled her hand free and glared into the binding light. “You bastard. She wasn’t dangerous.”

“Sylvie Jorgenssen?”

“Who the hell wants to know?”

He dropped the torch from her eyes and turned his back, pulling a walkie-talkie from his pocket.

“Alpha-Capa to base.”

“Base to Alpha-Capa.”

Sylvie shuffled forward on her knees, using the light from the rifle to guide her. There. The scalpel. And a blanket.

“I’ve got the midwife and the baby. Can’t see the mother.”

She wrapped the baby as best she could, cradling it in her busted arm.

“There was one of those things in here. Lots of fucking blood—”

She clasped the scalpel between her teeth and got to her feet. It was only then she saw the black and grey pattern of the man’s combat pants and knew it was over.

Mulholland’s raised an army to get me.

“—think it must have killed the mother. Was going for the midwife.”

Sylvie moved backward toward the French doors—

“Bring her in. Alive,” the voice squawked.

—and reaching them, kicked as hard as she could. The solider spun around, bringing his rifle up. The decayed wood gave way, panes dropping to the floor, but the opening wasn’t big enough for Sylvie and the child to escape.

“Turn around! Don’t move or I’ll shoot.”

Sylvie turned, taking the scalpel from between her teeth. “Your commander told you not to shoot.”

She held the scalpel in front of her and kicked backward with her boot. More of the door gave way, but each jolt sent a new wave of pain through her shoulder and chest, and her grip on the baby weakened.

In one smooth move, the soldier shouldered his rifle and pulled a tazer from his pocket. Chunks of plaster crunched beneath his heavy boots with each footfall. Blue electric tongues licked at the air, tasting the ever decreasing distance to her.

“Please. No.” She dropped the scalpel, knowing the current was calibrated for an adult and would kill the baby. “Please. I have a baby. I’ll come peacefully.”

The fire leapt in the fireplace, as though the smouldering ruins momentarily fed on petrol, casting chaotic shadows on faded wallpaper. The soldier turned too late and Marcus’s forearm crushed his throat, and in a single fluid movement, he caught the soldier’s falling head and twisted it. The sound of vertebra snapping preceded the thump of the soldier’s body hitting the floorboards.

Marcus didn’t stop to check the soldier, or give the dead girl-thing more than a fleeting look. His focus remained on Sylvie and getting her out before the building collapsed. He picked up a discarded coat from the floor and kicked out the remainder of the French doors, hustling Sylvie out, leading her through the courtyard and into an area away from the building. She slumped against a rusted garbage hopper as the iconic building imploded behind.

Marcus pulled the cover off a manhole. “You’re going down. It’s the only safe place for you.” He took off his t-shirt and tore it into one long piece of material. “Tie the baby to you and then put on the coat.”

“Tie the baby on,” she laughed, a terrible cutting sound. “If you haven’t noticed my shoulder is shattered.”

“I can heal your shoulder.”

“It’s stuffed.”

“Put the baby down and I’ll sort it out.”

“You’re not listening—”

“No, Sylvie. You are not listening. Put the damn baby down and let me see to your shoulder. Unless you want to be target practise for Mulholland’s troops.”

Marcus put the coat on the ground and his torn t-shirt. Sylvie laid the baby on top.

“Look away,” he said, and Sylvie turned to stare at the fence, waiting for the pain of his probing fingers to assess the damage and the pronouncement nothing could be done. The area warmed at his touch and she felt dizzy. A vortex opened in her shoulder, pulling bone and flesh inward, knitting it together, while she sipped a cup of her mother’s grappa. Before Sylvie grasped the implausibility and constructed a logical explanation, the sensation ceased. She reached for the injured shoulder and ran her fingers over the smooth skin. Rotated the joint.

“It’ll get you down the ladders. Maybe further.” He stepped away, and caught the look of amazement. “You’ll still go through the natural healing process.”

“How did you—”

A volley of flares streaked overhead and he turned. Sylvie saw two vicious scars, raised and jagged, running the length of his shoulder blades.

“Where my wings were.” She traced the ridge of one with her finger, the topography of the shattered bones. “When I fell, the Government dropped the virus on the Occupiers. Central Park became the Dead Zone.”

“Wings? Marcus, I—”

“Listen to me, Sylvie.” He turned to her and seized her upper arms. “My presence draws mayhem and malevolence, magnifies it. This fighting, this is what fallen angels bring. There’s no Devil, just my kind walking among yours, drawing out evil. Feeding off it.”

“You’re… feeding off this?”

“Not any more.” He released her and stepped back. “Get dressed.”

“Come with me.”

“Not until the fighting is over.”

Sylvie took off her stained singlet, unwrapped the baby and placed it on her bare chest. Skin to skin. Marcus passed the length of material and waited for her to position it over the infant.

“Okay. Tie it.”

Sylvie felt the air crackling with static electricity and Marcus’s breath hot and shallow in her ear. “You’ve no idea how hard it is for me to be this close to a baby.”

“I trust you.”

The material stretched, tightened and automatic gunfire erupted close by. He completed the knot, and picked up the damp coat. “The manhole ladder leads directly into a series of service tunnels beneath the main ones. Keep turning right until you can go no further and wait.”

“Keep turning right. I’ll go around in circles.”

“No you won’t.”

Bullets tore through the fence surrounding the courtyard and Marcus dragged Sylvie down behind the hopper, stray bullets ricocheting off the metal.

“Hurry. Get dressed. They’re closer than I thought.”

Sylvie pulled the singlet over the wrapping and then the coat, testing the sleeves as makeshift gloves. Marcus helped her into the manhole.

“Before I go,” Sylvie said, reaching up to touch his hand. “Was there actually a prophecy?”

“No.” Marcus shook his head and leaned down to kiss her forehead. “Go. I’ll see you soon.”

He lay on the frozen ground, watching the darkness swallow her, knowing he’d lied. He didn’t know if Teleia had succeeded in engineering the babies to carry a new form of rage virus. All he could do was hope the infant didn’t kill Sylvie before he got back to her. His salvation counted on it.

Final Word Count: 2999

- – -
Many thanks to my writing partner Laura Meyer for ensuring I wrote something this week (of quality), to Chris Chartrand who ensured it didn’t suck and Toni Rakestraw who ensured  a clean final copy.

What I Left to Forget

Charlotte Mackay thumped a sweaty fist against the steering wheel and swore loud enough for the elderly woman in the nearby Morris Minor to hear. She ignored the raised eyebrows. Mouthing ‘fuck you’ as she turned back to glare at the temperature gauge and cut the engine. Ahead, the traffic jam stretched into the melting horizon.

She wanted to escape. Sit on the veranda with a cold beer pressed against the back of her neck, the bitter taste cooling the inside of her parched mouth. Most of all she wanted to ring Jake—to hell with Grayson’s threat.

What the fuck did Grayson expect her to do? She couldn’t trawl the live music scene and remain unattached indefinitely. At some point she needed to hook up to fit in. People talked and she needed to be invisible. Would he have cared so much if she’d got a girlfriend?

“Your relationship with de Brito compromises your position,” Grayon had bellowed at her, small missiles of spit spraying from his mouth.

Why couldn’t Grayson see the benefits of a high profile lover:  a whole new level of access to people, places and sources for her. Doors opened for Jake de Brito and she stepped through them.

She rifled through the detritus on the passenger seat, throwing gig fliers, empty film canisters and assorted tapes into the footwell until she found Jake’s mix tape.  The cassette slid into the tape player and she turned the ignition on and the sound up. Closed her eyes and tried to figure out what to do.

The opening synth bars crackled through the ancient speakers. Four bars in, the cello’s notes, full of longing, took up the melody.

She sighed. The song reminded her of the cello sitting in the corner of Jake’s bedroom. It wasn’t what she expected… a grunge god trained as a classical cellist.  Or for him to seduce her with it: pulling her into his lap and positioning the cello between her thighs, his hand beneath hers, fingers moving over the strings. Even now she could feel the slow back and forth motion of the bow.

A horn blast from behind ejected her from Jake’s musty room, away from his naked tattooed body, back into the metal columns, melting in the combined heat mirage of the exhaust fumes and sun.

She blinked against the light and turned the Datsun 180’s engine over, eased the clutch out, coasted forward a car length and cut the engine again. She didn’t want to listen to the tape. She was having enough trouble thinking straight and the tape took her back to the night Jack pressed it into her hand back stage… and the raw memory of a young man she once made a different type of music with.

“Don’t, like, judge me for the first song,” Jake had said to her that night. “It was on the radio the first time I saw you. You were watching us through your camera. To me it’s, you know… our song. Not very rock and roll, eh?”

She had stared at the track listing.

I Just Died In Your Arms? sounds like a death wish,” she’d said. Thinking: it’s a warning.

He burst out laughing, throwing his head back. “This is why I love ya Charlotte.” When he reached for her, she went rigid. “I’m sorry. I’m coming on a bit much, aren’t I?”

She should’ve got the hell away from him then. Run. A. Mile. But she didn’t! The temptation overwhelming. He was overwhelming.

But Jake de Brito, the Jake de Brito had said he loved her?

And she’d struggled to remain focused. Detatched. Professional.

“It’s been a while,” she finally said to him and kissed him lightly on the cheek, flattered by his attention and appalled by how it made her feel. How it changed things.

She hadn’t known being with Jake would make her feel so lonely. Why didn’t someone let her know the trajectory of loneliness went from benign to malignant when you lay naked near someone, feeling the rise and fall of their chest, breath whistling in and out. All the hours spent alone welled up with the inhalation,  dissipating with the exhalation. But she feared without him the loneliness would swallow her whole.

Fuck. She had to focus. Had to stop Grayson breathing down her neck.

“He is a person of interest.” That’s what it all came down to in Grayson’s books. “If it’s a fuck you need Mackay, get a prostitute.”

“And I’d be able to claim a male hooker as a legitimate business expense, sir?”

“Understand this, Mackay.” He leaned so far forward the sweat on his forehead caught her reflection. “You have 24 hours to end your relationship with de Brito, or I will do it for you. You came here promising much, Mackay. Focus or else you’ll leave here scraping up what’s left of your reputation.”

Fuck Grayson. He would never again question her commitment.

The time for fence-sitting was over. She might not know if she loved Jake or not, but it wasn’t her who needed to make a decision tonight. Time had run out for them. Tonight, it was business. She’d make Jake understand one way or the other. Cold. Logical. They’d get it straight and then they’d move on. Start again.

She gunned the engine, mounting the footpath and turning into the next laneway, driving too fast, her impatience barely in check. Three blocks on she found a park, grabbed her bag and stopped at the first payphone, the coins dropping when the answering machine picked up.

“Hey babe. I’m running late. Traffic! We need to talk—serious—when I get to your place. I’ll be there soon.”

There. He had ample warning.

She caught the next tram back into the city, changed at Swanston for Brunswick and ran the last four blocks to his house in the fading heat, her white sundress dark with fresh sweat.

The front door stood ajar and she caught her breath before poking her head in, calling out. His ambivalence toward security meant he couldn’t be bothered to shut the front door, much less lock it and she often found groupies in the lounge room, Jake oblivious to their presence.

“Jake?”

She pushed the door open. The smell of bolognaise sauce simmering in the kitchen made her stomach rumble.

“Babe?”

When he didn’t answer and no one giggled in the lounge room, she slipped into the bedroom, taking in the cello in the corner, the left-over tangle of bed clothes in the centre of old iron framed bed, her clothes scattered on the floor. Familiar. Comforting.

She knelt on the floor and pulled a pair of red gloves from her bag, the soft leather sticking to her hands when she pulled them on.  Reaching into the dusty space, she found the brief case and dragged it out. She aligned the dials on the lock and flicked open the top. A small pistol caught the fading light slicing down through the venetian blinds. She left the silencer, took the pistol and the four bags of cocaine, closed and slid the case back under the bed.

“Babe?”

She walked down the hallway and into the huge, stuffy lounge room. His guitar lay abandoned on the couch, an overflowing ashtray holding down one corner of a scrap of paper, random lyrics and chords scribbled in pencil. A warm glass of coke sat next to it. Under the closed window the answering machine flashed. She cleared the messages and ejected the tape, slipping it into her bag.

“Jake?”

Continuing on to the kitchen, she expected to see him at the stove humming to music only he could hear, but the kitchen was empty. She extinguished the gas under the bolognaise and flicked the safety off the pistol.

“Babe?” The gun felt heavy in her hand.

She dumped the bag on the kitchen table, remembering how his cheek felt against hers the first night they’d met. Her heart stuttered, just like it did when she leaned in to tell him how she’d come back to Australia because a fire gutted her Nashville apartment, destroying all her photos, the lie rolling easily off her tongue. He nodded and looked at her, when they pulled away, like he too knew what it meant to lose something big, something important.

What you have to forget to move on.

She moved slowly toward the bathroom.

Drip-Drip. Drip. The tap kept beat in the silence.

“Babe?” She prayed he was just asleep in the bath again.

The pistol steady in her right hand, she twisted the knob with her left. Slowly. Gently. The door groaned and she raised the gun as the space between the door and jamb opened.

Jake lay gazing at the mildewed ceiling, earphones in. Three bullet holes, in a triangle, dead of his chest.

Charlotte slid down the doorframe, cradling the pistol in her lap, staring into the congealing claret of the bathwater. Numbness settled over her, deepening with the realisation, without the traffic jam, she’d be dead too.

READ ON: Adam Byatt’s The Photographer’s Concerto is a further exploration of the relationship of Charlotte and Jake (a seriously sensuous and beautiful piece of flash fiction).

Many thanks to my stellar beta readers Chris Chartrand, Andrew Girle, Icy Sedgwick and my impeccably picky writing partner-in-crime Laura Meyer.

“What I Left to Forget” was written in response to the Form and Genre Challenge 2012′s first pitch: pen a 1500 word 3rd person POV story – open genre. It was the first original short story I penned after emerging from a long period depression and burn out in 2011.

My Life in Short Fiction

A month ago Dan Powell, one of my good friends and an uber talented writer to boot, invited me to be part of his “My Life in Short Fiction” series of interviews. Dan opens the interview with this:

It would probably be easier to make a list of what Jodi Cleghorn doesn’t do than try to cover all the varied and exciting publishing related stuff she gets up to across the web. She is a founding publisher and editor with eMergent Publishing, the publishers of such short fiction goodies as the Chinese Whisperings anthologies and recent MLiSF guest Emma Newman’s debut collection From Dark Places. Most recently, Jodi has been the driving force behind two charity anthologies, 100 Stories for Queensland, a collection of flash fiction and Nothing But Flowers, a collection of apocalyptic visions inspired by the classic Talking Heads track

Jodi was awarded the Kris Hembury Encouragement Award over the weekend, which recognizes an emerging artist in the area of speculative fiction. On a personal note, she has been a constant source of encouragement and a provider of keen perspective when beta reading my work. I am in awe of Jodi’s energy and commitment to providing support for up and coming authors. And she tells damn good stories. Ladies and gents, it really is a great pleasure to present Jodi Cleghorn’s Life in Short Fiction.

While I’m still blushing crimson – head on over to hear me talk about Daniel Keyes, Ray Bradbury, Jack Marx and of course, Dan himself!

Renegade A to Z: F is for

…From Dark Places

From Dark Places is the debut short story anthology from the wonderfully talented and slightly twisted mind of Emma Newman (E.J. Newman). It is also the debut short story anthology for eMergent Publishing, one of those brilliant literary morsels that drop into your lap when you’re not actually looking for it (and I should add – they are the best kind!)

My decision to go over to an iPhone last February was made in part by the release of the original eBook version of From Dark Places. I’d been a lurker, enjoying Em’s work on a sporadic basis and had been blown away by “Heartache” the story she wrote from Chinese Whisperings: Red Book… so I took out the iPhone contract and downloaded From Dark Places to read during my short lived ‘short story for a day for a year’ challenge. To me it was wins all around.

The original 11 stories lived up to my expectations: twisting, dark fiction that when collected together in the one place, feed off each other in the most amazing ways. When I expected something supernatural to happen, it turned out to be a straight up literary piece which gave the ending a  double whammy of a surprise. It’s one way to in advertently amp up expectation… by truly never knowing what’s coming next.

I commented at the time to Dave, that Em put the realism into magical realism… because her magical/supernatural narratives are so bloody realistic and believeable… there is never a moment when the reader is asked to suspend logic to truly enjoy the stories. I used Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Year of Solitude as a juxtaposition, where I had to tell myself as a reader, that ahh… it was okay for a magic carpet to be flying past a window in the background of a scene. When you read Em’s work there is never that jarring moment between reality and an alternate, fantastical world. They coexist in the most harmonious of fashions. As do her perfectly fractured characters.

The other comment I made, was it was disappointing Em wouldn’t hand her stories over for editing, because with a little spit and polish by a 3rd party, her stories would go from being 9 ½ out of 10 to 11 out of 10 (which is the highest form of compliment in our household – and a bit of an old standard joke as well!)  Em’s a friend though, and I knew how she felt about handing over her fiction and why, and I respected her for that, having been down a similar road.

So nine months later, when I got an excited Twitter DM from Em (only Em can inject excitement into a DM) I was immediately intrigued by the idea she wanted to pitch to me. And as the fates would have it, we were both awake at the same time (no mean feat on a Friday night/Saturday morning time junction between our two time zones).

What transpired from our very first Skype session, other than a revelling in being able to talk in real time, was a proposal for me to take to Paul, my business partner at eMergent, to publish Em’s new and extended version of From Dark Places under the eMergent label, with me as the editor.

Em said she skipped around the house for several days, and I think there was much gleeful movement to be held in our home. It was one of those moment’s Dave talks about, where I get a twinkle in my eye and I glow. It’s not every day you get to work with one of your living, breathing literary heroes. It was an extended ‘oh my god, I have the best job in the world’ moment.

Then we got down to work… and there was a little less skipping to be had, as we worked through the hard slog of revising, editing and rewriting 25 stories.

Editing is a serious business, especially when you are entrusted with someone else’s project. Up until November I’d only ever edited my projects – that is Chinese Whisperings, or issues of Down to Birth, where I was working, with others, to produce a certain literary vision (mine!) This time I was entrusted with helping to create someone else’s literary vision… and not just anyone, someone who is a much loved friend.  In the back of my head I worried about this all going very wrong, because I very much didn’t want it to go wrong.

At the same time I was editing Em’s stories (with a ridiculously gruelling deadline, in hindsight), I was trying to bash out 2000 words a day of an historical sci-fi novel for NaNo. This is what happens when you set aside the month just to write – your dream project pops up on Twitter!

I went in delicately with the stories, which for the most part, needed little ‘hard’ editing. I wanted to get the process right. I wanted the experience of editing to be a positive and as enjoyable experience for both of us.

Given the keys to the kingdom, I got the opportunity to see what else was lurking in the shadows of Em’s story and to be able to say, “Hey look what’s there, do you see it too?” From Dark Places (the opening story of the anthology) is probably the best example of it.

The most memorable part, for me, was choosing several stories: one to be recorded and entered into a competition, the other to bring down the curtain on the anthology. Among 25 tight and unique narratives, it is hard to pick a ‘favourite’, especially when you’ve invested time and energy into every story – you feel warm and fuzzy toward most of them. However Em quickly got a feel for which stories were my (unspoken) favourites, “Getting Fixed”  and “Everything in its Place” were those stories! “Getting Fixed” is perfect in its dark, comedic timing and complimented by Em’s turn of phrase. I laugh every time I read it – still! We agreed the anthology would benefit from ending with an upbeat note, so “Getting Fixed” it was. Em recorded “Everything in it’s Place” after discussions about what story would be best – and what story did I really like! Everything in its Place wooed me compliments of the main character Harry, who reminds me so much of the Audrey Niffeneggers’ Martin in Her Fearful Symmetry. I’m not sure why I find characters with life-debilitating OCD so charming and engaging, but I do – especially when they are written with precise, authenticity. And the bit at the end, well I’ve had that moment time and time again – only there were far less interesting things in the depth of that particular white good in our home as a kid.

Of course Em didn’t have to take my advice, she didn’t have to place my favourite stories in those locations, but she did. And it’s the kind of acknowledge which is so subtle but profound… and so very Em! Or of course, I’m just talking out of my bum and have it all wrong!!

It was fun – but not all plain sailing, and I’m hoping I can talk Em into coming back later on in the month, as we hit the final stretch of the alphabet to share some background about one particular story and if I smile nicely – she might release the recording of that particular story… as I’ve experienced, with the arrival of the proof copy of 100 Stories for Queensland, the exact same magic Em spoke about, after she’d recorded this particular story.

From Dark Places isn’t the hardest gig I’ve done, but it’s possibly the project with which I have invested the upmost care. Of really needing to get it spot on perfect. Throughout the editing and layout I was hyperaware of not wanting, but needing to do a stellar job, of turning out the best possible version of Em’s stories and making it as painless for her.

Tomorrow is Em’s London launch at the Pitcher and Piano in Holborn. I believe there will be a gathering of eMergent associated writers there to cheer her on, as well as lots of other interested parties, and not for the first time in the last six weeks, I’m frustrated I can’t be there to enjoy in the spoils of publication… and spoilt is what Em deserves, thrice over… because writing is only part of it (and if you follow Em’s blog, you will know that). Thank you Em for letting me be part of it all.

You can read extended reviews of From Dark Places at Alan Baxter’s blog  and also on the Goodreads page. You can follow what’s going on at From Dark Places’ Facebook page and most importantly – you can buy it, as an eBook or a paperback (Em will sign a copy and personally pop it in the post for you) here. And of course, there’s a try before you buy sample of two stories including the story from which the anthology derives its name from.

To celebrate, I’m giving away a copy of From Dark Places. In the spirit of Harry from “Everything in its Place” the book will go to the reader who shares the quirkiest, weirdest or down right bizarre true-life habit . It doesn’t have to be yours, you don’t have to admit it as yours, but you do have to put it down there in the comments section if you want to go in the running to win.

As a little laugh on bizarre habits… here is the lotto ticket I bought the weekend before Em’s first launch in Manchester (I never buy lotto tickets!) When I bought it, I said to the Universe that I wanted to win so I could fly to England and surprise Em at the launch. I’m big on stating intents and ‘putting it out there’. I obviously was not quite specific enough in my request!

NaNo Ruminations: Thought Dissidence

This is a story I stumbled back over last night on my old blog while chatting with the wonderful Adam Byatt about growing and developing as a writer. The concept for this story has been floating around in my head ever since I started writing back in late 2007. It originated in a dream about a certain other Adam, and the name stuck for the male protagonist and gave me the idea to call it ‘Adam and Eve’. This installment is long and possibly not brilliantly written… but it’s sparked my interested in it as both a story idea and concept.

Could this be my 2010 NaNo project after two previously aborted attempts to embrace it?

This story comes with a warning. It does have adult content in it – so if you’re likely to be offended by sex, it possibly not the piece you want to read!

It is 12:09pm on the information bar on the TV screen as I walk into my local. I take my earphones out long enough to order a short black and allow the barrista to scan the back of my hand. He smiles at me, out of well rehearsed and imprinted hospitality but I know for a nanosecond that he wonders when I will stop coming in for my short black.

Coffee is a luxury. The price rises each day as the store of beans slowly but surely depletes. Coffee is not considered an essential food item and is therefore not on the Government’s Agriculture charter. There is no land allocation for coffee though I imagine that there are high officials who have the power and access to bribes to have a few acres assigned to coffee for their own personal use. But we down here on the ground will never see it again. There is no international trade so one day, someone will pay an exorbitant price for the last public cup of Joe and that moment in history will be streamed straight into everyone’s mundane existence; another bastion of civilised society gone.

I have few other things to spend my meagre Government allowance or the savings that I have accumulated since I arrived here, so coffee it is today, tomorrow and with any luck the day after that. There was once a saying, “You can’t take it with you when you go.” Where I am ultimately headed, any amount in a digital ledger will be pointless.

The café continues to thrive even with coffee beyond the reach of most. They still serve food and as a Government affiliated eatery there is rarely an empty table. I squeeze between two men at a counter overlooking the street and slip my earphones into my ears. The unit looks exactly like the latest iPod and I notice both men glance sideways in jealousy at it. Every purchase is obsolete or out of fashion with a few months. The drive to work, earn and purchase is obsessive and socially sanctioned, as is the need to exercise, refine and hone the body. After all, there is nothing else now. Despite global constraints on energy, resources and production we have become the ultimate market society – we exist only to consume.

Slipping the earphones into my ears I scroll through the options, a playlist like no other. Immediately there is a flood of static and it takes a moment to tune into a clear frequency. My coffee comes and I smile at the girl my age who works here from dawn to dust. I know, because I’m here for breakfast, coffee instead of lunch and I stop on the way home for the simple dinner that is Government fare.

She is a drone in every sense of the word. No unique thought has ever escaped for her cerebral cortex while I have been in here. Her mind sprouts Government propaganda, responds in the agreed upon format. She is a glowing example of the third wave of the Government micro chipping programme. It chills me to the core.

As I sip my coffee, I surf the frequencies hoping that I will find someone with a dissident thought. There has been a growing trend in the past month. I’ve been able to collect more names since the last new moon that I have the entire time that I have been here. Something is shifting, something is freeing the minds of the population. Cracks are emerging, thoughts are seeping in, biology is working to triumph over technology.

Towards the end of my coffee I come across a thought. A man’s longing for a woman, the brunette with the short bob who had just ordered a green tea and the standard heavy wheat bread sandwich with hummus, and is walking out the door to take a seat with a colleague out in the sun. It is the briefest of indiscretions, so brief he doesn’t pause for an extra moment to stare after her. He will not have even realised that he’s had it.

There are five more minutes left of my lunch break. I have to be back at my desk at exactly 12:46pm. No one is ever late; it’s been programmed out of us. It is in the hands of the Universe as to whether he will be chosen. He stands just as I do and I follow him out. With speed and a lightness of hand, I drop a lolly wrapper in his pocket as I stride past him, with expert agility in my high heels. I’ll find his identity and apartment number later, if the lolly wrapper makes it home. They often don’t. There is with the simple tracker woven into the plastic. And if it does, I will add him to the other names and addresses on the list I will give Adam.

Adam ….

It’s been almost two weeks since I saw Adam last. The thought of him and what we do together in the shadows of the Neo-Burlesque club makes my chest tighten. My breathe catches in the bottom of my throat and my yoni moistens. I ache for wanting his touch, however brief. But I catch myself and file those feelings away for later, alone in bed, in the dark where the cameras can’t catch me. We may have successfully stolen their prototype thought transistor but their face recognition cameras are sensitive enough to detect shifts of emotion through facial expression. The last thing I want to become is a person of interest.

I push open the imposing glass foyer door of the Djerassi Building, the sole manufacturer of the reproductive micro chip that started it all. I sit down at my desk as the TV screen in the PR department flicks over to 12:46pm.

At nine o’clock every night the lights go out across the city. It is as if some naughty cartoon characters pull out a massive plug and the city is plunged into darkness. There are no candles or torches. There is the dim flickering of the LED television screen from apartment windows, powered by the days solar energy, captured by the massive panels that clad the outside of each of the apartment buildings. But they too go out one by one, until the entire city is cloaked in an un-urban like obisidan, with the only illumination coming from the moon as it rises. It is only then that I dare to venture out.

From my hotwired computer portal I link into the security system of my apartment building, over riding the night locks on my front door and the emergency stairwell. I exit the building through the second floor fire door, lift off the manhole cover at the back of the building and lower myself down into the sewer. The water is cold and slimey, I don’t want to think just what is in it. It’s a kilometre before I arrive at the manhole cover I want and climb the dangerously erroded ladder back to the road. The next twenty metres are the most dangerous. I need to walk down the street in full view of the cameras, hoping that Adam has disabled these few from his end. But I can never be sure.

I walk briskly until I come to the next manhole cover, but this one does not lead into the sewer. Lowering myself back into the subterranean belly of the city, I land softly on the paving. My bare feet are grateful for the cool smooth paving. The city is crisscrossed with convict made tunnels that the Eros Network has been utilising to smuggle the Liberated beyond the city limits, out into the country to a safe community.

The Eros Network originally linked people and kept safe houses for couples to meet. That was before my time though. It was a quiet revolution when the first draconian laws were passed forbidding intimate relationship of any type, when people still remembered and longed for sex, for connection, for love – before the yawning cavern inside was efficiently though inadequately filled with stuff. You can never buy what you are missing – you can’t even get sex or love on the blackmarket, even if you realised that was what you were really missing.

Now Eros liberates men and women from the biological suppression of the reproductive chip. I was one of the first to be liberated. I am the first link in the chain, identifying those who are open to being liberated – those who are having thoughts of a sexual nature. I have only met ever with Adam. The network is simple – you know who comes before and after you. In my case there is only Adam. That protects the network.

Now that we have the stolen Government technology, for the first time ever Eros is one step ahead of the Government. We are using their cutting edge technology against them, saving people who would other wise disappear.

Inside the tunnel I run my fingers over the wall until I hit pay dirt, the torch. It’s another of those commodities that are almost impossible to buy even on the black market. You have to have something of greater value to actually physically exchange for it – a mere torch. And few things command the same price. Who would have thought. A fragment of a memory surfaces of a little boy and a blue torch, an argument? Before I can get a mental hold on the memory it is gone, though I feel it, like the others, each memory is imprinting itself with growing intensity on my actual body. They warned me about this, about the memories, when I was liberated. I think I’m doing OK dealing with them as they surface.

The torch casts a thin shaft of light into the gloom. I marvel at the workmanship in the brickwork and construction of the tunnels, and at the lack of dust in them. I can’t help but run my hand over the bricks and know they are more than 200 years old. I hurry then. Adam will be waiting for me.

Beneath the cellar of the Neo Burlesque there is a trap door and someone has rigged up a simple rope ladder. There is an old plastic milk crate filled with misappropriated clothes – lavish costume pieces, simple sheaths of silk and satin. Tonight I choose a leopard print dress. It doesn’t fit perfectly – they never do. The lycra bunches or falls open in all the wrong places. It is also tailored for someone with a waist and hips. I have neither in the classic sense. There’s no time to change once I’ve pulled it over my head. The smell of sweat and stale sex tells me that I’m not the only one to wear it this week. I fold my office clothes lace up the knee high Doc Marten boots that I know fit me from past trips here.

There has never been time to ask Adam how it is possible that the Neo Burlesque continues to operate. It is the antithesis of everything that the Government stands for. It encourages the obscene, the sexy, celebrates the sensual and beauty of both the male and female form. And then there is what goes on in the shadows. Like coffee I guess, officials have their quirks and someone very high up must still have a penchant for this.

The club is one huge room, an old theatre. On the stage there is a band singing original, unsanctioned material. Two girls, one tiny and the other huge are dressed in bustiers and huge tattered tulle skirts that are short at the front exposing their fishnet stockings, and long at the back in an exaggerated bustle. A tall flamboyant feather is tucked into each of their upswept hair dos. The guitarist is in his usual knee length black trench coat and a top hat. From somewhere deep inside my head I hear a naturist’s voice commenting over the top of the brass section, speaking of the band as though they are exotic birds rather than a mish mash of left overs from Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras … where did that come from?

Before I have time to contemplate the new thought, there is a hand on my arm. It is Adam. We melt into the deep shadows at the perimeter of the theatre. There is a good reason that so much light is magnified to the middle, it creates these safe havens along the wall.

Adam’s mouth is hard on mine, his body pushing me into the cold, broken plaster wall. His hands are on my body, fevered and impatient, as mine are on him. He pulls the dress up to my waist, as I struggle with the button and zipper on his pants. My hands are shaking – again. There is no time for foreplay, for any tenderness or exploration. A chance for us to look each other in the eye, to traverse the histories we see there … for intimacy or love. There is only the physical act now and we are grateful for that.

Adam tears open a condom packet and rolls it over his cock in a single fluid action, then hoists me up onto his thighs. I wonder where he gets them – the condoms, but there’s no more time to think about it. There never seems to be any time to think about anything that matters. He presses me harder into the wall and fumbles for a moment with his erection, trying to get it inside me … and then for a delirious few minutes, we rut and pound our bodies into and against each other. Even with the anticipation and the two week wait, Adam cries out in the hollow of my neck and comes before I’m close to being there. That’s the way it is.

We untangle our bodies; Adam rolls the condom off, ties a knot in it and hides it in his pocket once he’s fastened his Government issue pants back around his waist. A used condom is the worst possible thing to have on your person, yet he doesn’t just drop it on the floor. I pull the dress back down and bend over to extract the list of names and apartment numbers from the inside of my boot. Our fingers linger, entwined for a moment as I pass the list to him.

There are screams as the outside doors of the theatre are beat in.

“Raid!”

Adam grabs my hand and we dash for the stage, racing up the stairs and pushing through the startled musicians, making our way for the backstage dressing rooms. Adam takes the first of the Government’s henchmen in the throat with his fist, crushing the man’s windpipe. I grab for the Tazer as he goes down. There is enough of a gap between the two black clad men for Adam to pull a knife from his belt and fell the second with an expertly thrown knife to the heart. We waste precious seconds stripping both men of their weapons, but there is no alternative. I’m unarmed and Adam only has his knife. I fasten the second man’s belt around my waist and try to make it fit. They’re not meant for women.

We hurry through to the dressing rooms, pulling open the trap door in the toilet in the largest of the dressing rooms, jumping down into the cellar. Adam sets me first down the rope ladder into the tunnels, following me as voices erupt above. And we’re running, hearts pounding in the darkness, my hands clutching at the belt which threatens to fall and trip me up. It’s dark and only Adam’s hand in mine keeps me moving forward. It is a bad time to realise that I have a mortal fear of the dark.

We come to an intersection. We stop and we’re both breathing hard and shallow. I can feel a breeze coming from a different direction. I have no idea how we got here, or where we are. I’ve only ever come the one same way to and from the Neo Burlesque. We are only just ahead of the beams of light behind us, there is not time to falter.

“You go this way Eve. We need to separate.”

I want to say something, but he is gone before I can and I’m all alone in the world – running for my life in the dark.