From Short Story to Short Story Collection (and all stops between)

An interview with Dan Powell

I’ve known Dan Powell since mid-2009. We stumbled across each other between Constantine Markide’s Fourth Fiction and the inception of #fridayflash. We were both relatively new to writing and wrote shoulder-to-shoulder through much of the second half of 2009. I greatly admired the scope and versatility of Dan’s writing. There seemed to be no style or genre he couldn’t turn his hand to with style and efficacy. In time we fell into a critiquing partnership that has endured the birth of children, moving countries, breakdowns, work pressures, time pressures, and all other things life can, and does, throw your way.

DanAuthorPicI’ve had the honour to publish three of Dan’s stories (‘This Be The Verse’, ‘Driver and the Beautiful Highway’, ‘Perfect Light’). He is an editor’s dream. In 2012 I had the opportunity to adapt ‘Driver and the Beautiful Highway’ for a short film script.

Behind the scenes I’ve had the joy of watching so many of Dan’s story grow and evolve and go on to find homes in magazines, anthologies and on prize lists. I tell in my editing seminars, in the section on beta reading, how Dan once sent me a story which was just an opening and closing. In the middle was a note: [something goes here. Do you have any ideas what it might be?] Those days are long past for Dan!

Dan’s work is uncompromising and at times uncomfortable in its exploration of taboo subjects or hidden ‘domestic’ situations. I have been disturbed and delighted by the characters and stories Dan has penned. In 2010 I (jokingly!) said to Dan: no more shit stories. Read ‘Soiled’ and ‘Did You Pack This Bag Yourself’ and you’ll understand the comment in context of a stay-at-home Dad going through toilet training!

Dan is one of my writing heroes: his dedication to the writing communities he belongs to (in the early days of the Friday Flash community he read and commented on every story, even when the list blew out to 70 odd stories), his dedication to the craft (his commitment to the Short Story a Day challenge back in 2010 was one of the catalyst in the evolution of his stories IMO), his dedication to Flash Fiction as a form (he has reviewed and shared countless stories from sites such as Metazen) and his work ethic (write, sub, and keeping subbing).

Then there is the huge investment Dan has made my work over the years as my crit partner. He knows my work inside-out and has consistently challenged me to write learner, harder and deeper. His editorial stamp is on so many of my stories, including Elyora/River of Bones.

Today it’s my pleasure to look across my desk and see copies of Looking Out of Broken Windows sitting there… and to grill him about the process of creating a short story collection.

Lou Reed said: I can’t do anything I want to. I mean, I can’t have my own TV show. I can’t have my own movie. But within my little world, no body tells me what to put on the album. It made me think of how writing stories is not too different to writing songs.

bookondeskThat is exactly what I love about writing. I write exactly the stories that I would love to read. That level of control is unique to the prose writer. Every other type of story-telling requires collaboration and as such means you relinquish some of that control, some of that freedom. I’ve written comic scripts and I love collaborating with artists and watching the words come to life in a kinetic fashion, but you cannot beat the raw freedom you get faced with a blank page about to be filled with prose.

I am genuinely excited by what I am writing about at any given time. You can’t beat that feeling of writing exactly what you want to write. Seeing that work go on to be accepted for publication and enjoyed by readers is particularly thrilling. It justifies all those choices, both conscious and unconscious, that you make during the crafting of the piece.

David Byrne said that sometimes there is an unconscious thread that runs through the songs on an album. The same could be said about writing short stories; that as writers we are drawn to tell certain types of stories and or give voice to certain types of characters. How indicative is Looking out of Broken Windows of the types of stories/characters you are drawn to and how did those stories influence the inception of the collection?

This collection is absolutely indicative of the kinds of stories and characters I was interested in exploring over the last four or five years.

I am drawn to the broken and damaged parts of people. In those aspects of character lie the real stories. All of the characters in these stories are a little broken, a little damaged and struggling to deal with the events and actions that have made them that way. This thread emerged in an unconscious process. Once I began filtering the stories during selection, it was very clear that a certain core group would provide the spine of the collection.

Being broken is a major part of the human experience. If you’re lucky you pick yourself up and carry on, hopefully with the help of others. This collection explores that side of being a person.

From that inception point, what was the process of creating Looking Out of Broken Windows? What was the hardest part and what was the easiest part of the process?

The short stories are the backbone of the collection. Once I had that group it was a matter of selecting the flash fictions that best complimented the stories.

The hardest part of the process was realising that certain stories just wouldn’t make the cut for the collection. I knew early on that a good few stories that I really loved, that I thought were good enough to include, just didn’t fit the overall theme and feel of the collection.

Looking at the collection now I can see that I absolutely made the right choices over what to include. And of those that it really hurt to cut, a good two or three have a firm place in the next collection, which they are perfect for, so it all worked out. Conversely, the easiest part was probably the removal of those stories that weren’t quite good enough.

LOoBW has 27 stories in it. How many stories did you have the pool and how did you choose what went in and what was held over?

I pulled the very best stories from the last five years or so of my writing to make up the collection. From a total pool of around 26 stories and 32 flash fictions I ended up with the 27 pieces in the collection. So by that reckoning, I trimmed away just over half of the stories that might have earned a place.

Most of those were cut because they simply weren’t good enough. Others were kept back for my next collection as they simply did not fit the emerging theme of this collection.

The real turning point for selection came with the writing of the title story (which was the last story to be completed in the collection). I knew as soon as I typed the final words that the collection had a story that would act as its figurehead. Once I had that, I had a title for the collection and the rest slotted into place.

Many of the stories in LOoBW were published previously in journals, magazines and anthologies. How does including previously published stories impact on the logistics of putting a collection together?

LOOBW lower res coverThat side of things was all very simple. All the stories were published at least a year ago and therefore out of any exclusivity that their previous publications claimed. For all of them I have copyright so that side of things was not an issue.

All of the stories that appeared previously elsewhere are mentioned in the acknowledgements of the collection, along with my sincere thanks to all the editors who championed my work by putting it online and in print. Their support was a crucial stepping-stone to this collection being accepted for publication.

Do the previously published stories appear as the fans of your work will remember them? Or did some require re-working to fit the overall feel of the anthology?

All the stories appear pretty much as they were originally published. The exception is ‘Did You Pack This Bag Yourself?’ which you will remember appeared in Chinese Whisperings interconnected short story anthology The Yin and Yang Book as ‘This Be The Verse.’

It was a story I absolutely needed to include, as no character of mine is more broken than poor old Calvinsweetheart. The rewriting was not about making the story fit the theme in this case, but taking the story back to its core, removing the elements that tied it in to the world of the Yin and Yang books, so the story could stand on its own two feet amidst my other work.

In the past when I’ve configured anthology ToCs I’ve been very mindful to place each story so it’s position amplifies the narrative but also builds the stories around it. Who decided on the final ToC order and how do you think your stories are altered/experienced differently in having them together in a single collection?

The final order of stories was totally my own decision. Salt are happy to trust their authors to shape their books. I think they believe that no-one knows the book better than the author and as such they give you a great deal of freedom regarding which stories you include and in what order.

I think my stories all stand up as separate pieces of fiction but hopefully, when read together like this, the reader will see the connections and resonances between the many narratives squeezed between the covers.

Hip hop artist Mos Def says all his albums are snapshots of where he is artistically. How is Looking Out of Broken Windows a snap shot of you are both as an artist and a person?

It is definitely a snapshot of me as a writer between 2008 and 2013.

All of the stories were written during that period and as such can’t help but reflect where I was at that time both as a writer and a human being. Many of the stories focus on the domestic, which is probably a direct result of my being a househusband and full-time-father during that time. It’s why there are so many stories about pregnancy and babies in the book, why there are so many stories about marriages, so many stories about parent and child relationships.

Are there any hints at what might be in your next collection?

My next collection is already taking shape. I have five or six stories for it already. This one is going to be all about the idea of masculinity in the 21st century.

It’s creative process is quite different as I have a clear idea of the general feel of this collection from the off and I am consciously writing stories that have something to say about that idea. Hopefully this will mean that this one won’t take so long to complete. The first of these stories, ‘Rip Rap’, has just been short listed for the Willesden Herald Short Story Prize. With luck some of the others will start appearing in publications and prize shortlists very soon.

– – –

Dan Powell is a prize winning author whose short fiction has appeared in the pages of Carve, Paraxis, Fleeting and The Best British Short Stories 2012. His debut collection of short fiction, Looking Out Of Broken Windows, was shortlisted for the Scott Prize in 2013 and is published by Salt. He procrastinates at danpowellfiction.com and on Twitter as @danpowfiction.

Dan is giving away a signed copy of Looking Out of Broken Windows to one reader of the blog tour; he will post to anywhere in the world. To win just leave a comment on this post or any of the other LOoBW blog tour posts appearing across the internet during March 2014. The names of all commenters will be put in the hat for the draw, which will take place on April 6th.

Looking Out of Broken Windows (Salt Publishing) hits the shelves Saturday 15th March. You can pre-order at the following locations:

The Salt store
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Book Depository

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Fourth Fiction: 12.9

Because of a simple blood test one baby would live and one baby would die.

Sylvie wished she hadn’t sent Marcus for the suitcase. Almost as soon as he was gone, she wanted him back. Under his scrutiny she’d felt exposed and vulnerable – naked and freezing under the water. But it was nothing compared to how she felt with the Crone’s eyes screwing into her back. The chill which crept through her when ever the Crone set foot in the room.

Sylvie thought she was smart. A blood test to solve the riddle. A legitimate excuse to make Marcus leave. Now she was alone and scared, trying to keep her fear from racing and fuelling the anxiety of the labouring woman.

Her knees ached, in fact her whole body felt ancient. Worn out. Used. There was a dull thump in her forehead, where the blood had crusted and tiredness threatened to cloud her judgement.

It didn’t take long to realise the labouring woman was not a woman, but a girl, probably no more than 16 and she was not part of the commune or whatever they called the enclave out here in the urban desolation. It was also clear something was not right – something outside of her understanding of human biology and birthing.

The girl refused to share her name, where she came from or how she got there and the other women in the room were mute to her questions.  The inside of the girl’s arm had the silvery calling card of old track marks, but it wasn’t withdrawal which was competing with labour. The girl seemed to be utterly terrified. Not just of the labour but of the Crone, cowering into the nest of cushions every time she heard her rasping voice. Sylvie had done her best to protect and calm her.

Sylvie had fought the Crone, losing her professional calm and yelling, when she’d discovered the girl’s lips and mouth were burnt and blistered from being force feed garlic.

“Do not question, midwife, what we do here,” was all the woman said then turned her back on Sylvie. That’s when she’d really lost her col and hurled bunch of garlic at hunched, back of the old woman as she shuffled to the door.

Regaining her composure Sylvie had sunk down into the birthing nest, gently sponging the girl’s mutilated lips with melted snow and stroking her brow, singing softly the old birth songs taught to her by Maia. Her hands massaged the slight hips and back, feeling the bones and ligaments shifting to release the babies.

But labour was faltering despite the girl being calmer. This wasn’t the rest and be thankful which segued into birthing. This was the warning things were not progressing as they should. The girl’s skin burnt and when Sylvie flashed the pen light into the girl’s eyes, the  pupils failed to respond.

Now Sylvie sat back on her heels waiting. But waiting for what? At least the crone was gone now – for good. Sylvie had  ocked the door after her last exist and pushed a chair under the knob. Then under the baleful stare of the three women trapped in the room with her, she stepped out a protective spell. If the Crone was who Sylvie suspected she was, she wouldn’t try to force her way back in.

Halting at the door, Sylvie closed her eyes and reeled when she felt the energy rising. It was then she realised this wasn’t a birth house. It lay onto of one of the lines of power which ran through the city.

– – –

The girl slept fitfully, the contractions at a complete stand still. The three women clustered by the altar and looked on as though it were a spectator sport and they were full of knowing of how to do it better.

“How many births have you been to?” Sylvie stretched and went over to them. She couldn’t get it out of her mind, the power which she had been able to raise when she’d sealed off the door to keep the Crone out.

One in a tattered red dress, with a serpent pendant clasped at her throat stepped forward.

“None of us. We are priestesses.”

Teleia is not coming back, is she?” ventured a woman in a purple dress, but with the same pendant in the hollow of her throat.

“No.”

The three women looked nervously at each other.

“You have a midwife here, among you>”

They nodded.

“Why is she not attending this woman.”

“She is unable to come.” It was the woman standing at the back, in the flickering shadows. She stepped out into the light.

“And you three?”

Simulataneously three hands went to the serpent pendants, as though an invisible strings pulled them in symmetry.

“We had no choice.”

Sylvie snorted.

“I’m guessing you were dragged kicking and screaming in here?”

She turned and went back to the girl, taking the rag from the earthen bowl by the cushions and throwing it at the group of women. The rag cart-wheeled through the air, tiny droplets coming off it like sparks off a Catherine Wheel, catching the light from the fire as they fell.

The last woman to speak caught it.

“Keep it on her head. And you two, stoke the fire. We need to get the temperature up in here.”

– – –

With the other women occupied Sylvie settled down next to the priestess.

“I’m Sylvie,” she said.

The other woman remained mute, reapplying the compress with an unexpected tenderness.

“You can think what you want,” she said, turning to Sylvie. “But sometimes you have to play out the part destiny chose for you.”

Sylvie pulled up her knees to her chest, as she’d done as a child.

“It is hard for someone like you to comprehend.”

“Maybe if you explained I would understand better.”

The woman shook her head, removing the warm compress.

“We are all here to do a job. Everyone.”

“Her temperature indicates a massive infection of some kind. I have nothing with me to treat that. Even if I had my suitcase with all my gear.” Sylvie reached out and gently grasped the woman’s forearm as she reached out for the earthen bowl. “Please, can you tell me about her?”

The woman shook her head.

“At least tell me your name then.”

“Tisi and the others are Alec and Meg.”

“Ok Tisi, how about we broker a deal. I won’t question what you do, if you don’t question what I do.”

Tisi nodded. Sylvie released her arm and watched the rag submerg in the water, cool and release its filth, then be wrung out and reapplied to the feverish forehead to begin the process again.

The fire roared to life and the room warmed steadily. New candles were lit from old ones. Sylvie watched, waited and silently prayed that she knew the right thing to do. The girl’s pulse was weakening and the contractions had yet to begin again. Both heart beats remained strong but the mother was struggling.

Sylvie turned her satchel upside down and a small jar clattered to the floor. Maia called it The Elixir of Life and Sylvie, with nothing else to call upon, prayed to the Goddess the sweet, thick liquid was just that.

The girl lay on her side, her breathing erratic and her enormous stomach pushing out as though it were trying to escape from her emaciated body. Sylvie crawled up next to her, unscrewed the lid and dipped her forefinger deep into the rich warmth. With the jar between three fingers, she used the other two fingers to push back the girl’s lips.

“No… stop!” yelled Tisi, lurching across the next of cushions and knocking Sylvie out the way. The jar flew from Sylvie’s hand and Tisi landed on top of Sylvie. She looked up at Tisi  in confused anger.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“She might bite you.”

Sylvie pushed her off and crawled away from  both the other women. The entire situation was finally clear to her.

“You purposely infected a pregnant woman.”

When Tisi didn’t answer, Sylvie scrambled through the cushions for the jar of honey, rescuing the small amount which had remained in the jar.

She picked up the sticky jar and climbed out of the cushions. She scooped out the last of the honey and positioned herself so Tisi couldn’t tackle her a second time. Pushing the girl’s lips back and Sylvie applied a thick smear of honey to the gums, the inner lips and the rough tongue.

Tisi had crawled free as well and was standing away, with her Alex and Meg on either side of her. Sylvie wiped her fingers down the front of her track pants with a defiance she hadn’t felt she was a tiny girl. The three of them took a step backwards as she stood up.

Sylvie moved across the room with an unchecked fury which had been waiting years to be unleashed.

“What was she what – some lab experiment? A lost junkie who wandered in here? What the hell are you women doing?”

Tisi squared her shoulders.

“Reclaiming what was taken from us,” Meg said, the fire catching the red highlights in the tattered material of her dress.

The girl moaned behind them.

“There were experiments, but she wasn’t one of them. We found her out there, attacked by The Dogs,” said Tisi. “That’s what Teleia calls them, the Old Ones who roam around looking for blood. She’d been raped and mauled. We bought her back here. We expected her to die… or change.”

“They’re going to kill me,” screamed the girl.

“Who knows she’s here?” Sylvie asked.

“Just us.”

“That’s why the midwife wouldn’t come. She doesn’t even know?”

Tisi nodded her head.

“I’m sorry you were bought into this Sylvie… but we all have a part to play in the Prophecy. Then we can all be free.”

“Prophecy? Give me a break.”

“It is said a woman will bear two children from her womb at the same time, one dead and one alive. A child who will free us from the virus.”

“The end will be the beginning and the beginning the end,” added Alec.

“And you fed her this bullshit.”

“It is what we believe.”

“Oh shit… I get it now. Tisiphone – avenging murder. Alecto – unceasing and you Megaera – grudging. The Three Fates.”

“I don’t want to die.” The words sliced through the air.

“You’re as committed to this us the three of us,” Tisi said.

“I will let you out if you want to. All of you.”

The three shook their heads.

“Tell us what we have to do?”

And in that moment, Sylvie knew she couldn’t do it alone, as much as she hated the three women who stood before her.

– – –

It took all of Sylvie’s prowess to calm the girl. When she lay quietly, Sylvie showed her the tiny dried flower bud which had been in the bottom of her satchel with the honey.

“This is a Rose of Jerusalem,” she said. “It is a birthing flower. It looks dead doesn’t it, but it isn’t. It’s waiting to bloom. The petals open slowly as heat and moisture wakens them. Your body is like this – it is opening, slowly and gently. It is what it is designed to do.”

She passed it to the girl.

“It feels worse than anything I’ve ever felt before.” It was the first time she’d spoken to anyone and the words although barely audible seemed to fill the room.

“The more you are afraid the more it will hurt. Do you think you can imagine you are this flower.”

The girl nodded, looking at the tiny bud in her sweaty palm.

“It’s ok to have been afraid, but you don’t need to be afraid anymore. I blew zombies to bits to get here and be with you. And I’ll do it again if I have to. I will kill anyone who tries to harm you or your babes while I am here. Do you think you can trust me?”

The girl nodded again, damp lanks of dirty blonde hair falling onto her forehead.

“Ok… we’re going to get you up. You’re going to walk, work with gravity to open the last of your cervix.”

“I can’t…”

“Yes you can.”

When Tisi bent down to help her up, the girl cringed.

“No one here is going to hurt you sweet heart, no one. I promise.” Sylvie kept her voice low and melodic and the girl let Tisi touch her.

Between the two of them they hauled the girl to her feet and began the slow perambulation around the room. The drafts, coming in from various different directions upset the stoic burn of the candles, distorting their shadows on the wall. The pungent tang of garlic was still thick in the air, along with the harsh smell of the candle smoke.

The girl groaned and stopped as the contraction washed through her body, her legs bending and her back arching backwards as she opened her mouth and release a piercing scream.

“Breathe out slowly, sweet heart. It will help you with the pain.”

“no.. no.. no..”

“Sh… shhhhh. Yes… yes… Breathe…” and she exhaled slowly close to the girl’s ear.

“Noooooo! I can’t”

Between each contraction they walked. By the time they returned to the nest of cushions the screams had become moans, animalistic urgings of a body bringing forth new life.

When the girl started screamed she was going to die, she couldn’t do it and began begged for forgiveness and for them to take her own life, to end it, Sylvie smiled.

“Your babes are close, sweet heart.”

When the maelstrom inside the girl’s body subsided Sylvie lead her over to the fire.

“Open your hand and look at the flower.”

The girl shook her head.

“I crushed it.”

“No, look,” Sylvie urged and when the girl’s small fingers opened, the petals of the flower opened with her. “See…”

The girl’s eyes devoured the majestic spread of the petals and the way the flower filled her small palm.

Sylvie walked away and left her to absorb the lesson of the flower in her hand. She found an unlit candle on the altar. She offered up a prayer as the flame sprung to life. Tisi, Alec and Meg followed her. They each took a handful of rosemary, lavender and clary sage and threw it onto the fire.

“A crash course on breech birth,” Sylvie said once they had completed their rites.  “There are four rules. Don’t push until completely dilated. Upright – work with gravity. Hands off – don’t touch the baby as it emerges. Warm room – don’t give the baby a reason to breathe before the head is out.”

Alec and Meg, you will both kneel, one knee up and the other down to form a birthing seat for her. Tisi will stoke the fire. Do you understand me? If it is a long second stage, you can swap.”

The three women nodded. Alec and Meg followed her to where the girl stood silhouetted against the flames.

“Gather up some blankets, towels, cushions. We need to make a birthing space here, close to the fire.”

When the space was ready Alec and Meg got down as directed. Sylvie took the flower from the girl and put it on the floor where she would be able to see it. Settling her on the knees of the women, Sylvie looked her in the eye.

“If you breathe with me, your body will relax and do all the work for you. When you feel the urge to bare down, to push, I want you to wait. You understand.”

The girl nodded.

She stroked the girl’s hand, listened to the heart beats then placed a hand on her massive stomach waiting for the womb to stir beneath.

The candles and the fire leapt when the womb stirred.

“Don’t push, breathe with me… long out-breath. That’s a girl.”

Tisi left her place by the fire to wipe the girl’s face with a cool cloth when the surge passed.

“You are doing brilliantly,” Sylvie said, her eyes full of admiration and encouragement.

The girl moaned, tears wetting her cheeks. They breathed together through three more contractions before the girl cried out, “I have to push.”

A low guttural cry tore through the room making all the tiny hairs on Sylvie body stand up. A gust of wind followed and extinguished all the candles. Alec and Meg attempted to pitch the girl from their knees.

“Don’t you dare move,” Sylvie threatened. She looked up at the girl from where was she crouched between her battered feet. “It was too light. It is perfect now. Relax.”

But Sylvie had felt the chill like the others and it wasn’t just the cold air, something else was trying to get in.

The girl’s eyes snapped open and her body stiffened. Another cry ripped from her mouth and her body born down. Sylvie saw a small round lump trying to push free.

“Gentle now sweetheart.” Sylvie applied counter pressure to the  girl’s perineum careful not to touch the rosy bottom of the baby.

On the next contraction the bottom emerged and baby hung with its legs dangling down, hidden from the stomach upwards. The girl grunted and worked to catch her breathe. Sylvie wanted to urge her to keep pushing but she held herself in check. A deathly second sense was crawling over her skin like a plague of bugs.

Everything was fine, she assured herself. Everything was going the way it was intended to.

She checked for a prolapsed cord and seeing everything fine, Sylvie moved back and waited, shrugging off the dread.

As the next contraction started Sylvie reached into the void and positioned herself to catch the baby under the arms as it dropped into the world. As it fell free from its mother, Sylvie felt herself in a free fall of her own, as though she was being sucked through time, out through the back of her head.

The sensation of the warm, wet skin of the baby hitting her outstretched hands bought her back with a start. The moment nothing more than a split second of disorientation. She slipped one hand behind the head and the other under the bottom. Alec and Meg to help the girl to lie down. The baby opened its eyes and coughed, then a cry filled the room. The room filled with the heady, metalic-laced scent of amniotic fluid.

“He’s normal,” the girl sobbed when Sylvie held him up for her to see. “Oh my God, he’s normal.”

Placing the boy on teh girl’s stomach Sylvie watched as he crawled slowly upwards, the girls’ hands stroking him gently, but not hurrying him. When he reached her breast he attached himself and begun to suck furiously.

As he did, the girl cried out again. Her body stiffening.

“It is OK. You can birth the second one here… relax.”

Sylvie grabbed some string and tied off the first baby’s cord and cut him free with her scalpel. She motioned for Tisi to hold the girl’s leg up to give the second baby space.

When Tisi lifted the leg Sylvie recoiled at the tide of blood free-flowing from the girl, soaking out into the old blankets and towels, inching its way towards her.

“Tisi, you have to go out. You have to get my case. She’s going to die other wise. And the other baby.”

Tisi froze.

“We have one live baby, that’s all that matters.”

“No it isn’t.”

“Our work is done.” Tisi dropped the girl’s leg and got up. The three priestesses drew back.

“Don’t you leave me here alone,” yelled Sylvie.

The girl began to convulse as the door opened and they were gone. The baby pulled away from the nipple and began to wail.

“You stay with me… you stay with me,” Sylvie urged the girl, coming up to her head and lightly slapping her cheeks.

The girl’s eyes rolled into the back of her head and her body shook. Sylvie cradled her head and when the eyes rolled back the pupils were gone.

“Shit!”

Sylvie scrambled away and grabbed the baby away from its mother, hugging it close to her as it screamed. She shuffled backwards on her bottom from the mother, crushing the Rose of Jerusalem as she went. The girl twisted and writhed in impossible ways. In the final moment he threw her legs apart, her back arched and her womb disgorged the second baby in one massive contraction.

As the second baby open its mouth to howl an angry salutation, an explosion tore through the night, cracking the walls and showering the birth room in a thick layer of dust.

Fourth Fiction 12.8

Marcus paused in the courtyard to listen. The sounds from within had changed. The small hairs on his body stood up… his entire body alert to the waves of energy building and crashing through the wall. A powerful, guttural roar tore into the silent night and he felt the hunger rise and possess him in an unprecedented fashion, even though he had feed before he had left to hunt down Sylvie.

The danger was all around and he thought he’d prepared himself… but he realised now, nothing on earth could have readied him for this.

Marcus held tight to Sylvie’s suitcase in one hand and the decapitated head inthe other,  desperate to stay in the present. He felt the earth shift, then the images came.

…screams amid flourishes of bright tie-dye material. A flash of facial piercing and tattoos. Groups sitting calmly, like monks in Vietnam, in submission rather than protest. No cameras to record bloodied mouths and frenzied looks as man, woman and child devourd each other. A seething maelstrom of rage and cannibalism. A split second choice to be bitten and the earth shifted – the course of what this history should have become, altered forever.

…a filthy room. Holes in the wall. A naked light bulb. Beautiful bare legs beneath cut offs. Her face growing out of the shadows. A realisation he could not abstain. He could not give her what she deserved, regardless of what she argued.  She had a life. He merely existed. He was not the man for her. He was no man. The flash of his scars in the broken mirror. The clatter of her diamond belly ring falling to the floor. A single tear.

… Sylvie’s flesh on his. The earth shift again. The spark of feeling. Of recognition.  The name on her driver’s license. A wound reopened. Memories resurfacing…

“What are you doing here?”

He gasped in the cold air as though he had been dead and a stab of adrenalin in the heart had brought him back. The world spun for a moment, a tornado of memories stilling and setting his feet back in the present.

You’re not in Kansas now Dorothy.

The crone stepped out of the shadows.

How long had she been there? What had she seen? Heard?

“It is not time.” She turned her back on him. “You will be called when it is.”

He took a few steps closer to the Birth House, his anger at the Crone protecting him temporarily from the temptation within and he threw the head at her, hitting her squarely between the shoulder blades.

“Responsible owners keep their pets on a leash.”

She snarled as she turned, picking up the inert head, the pupil-less eyes reflecting the glow of the full moon before it was once again covered by heavy clouds.

“They could have killed Sylvie.”

“The world is in flux boy, and I have no intention of letting just anyone walk in here tonight.” She held the head up. “Did you think you could scare me?”

Marcus took two crunching steps closer, his words white in the freezing air.

“I have something for Sylvie.”

“You’re on a first name basis with the midwife.” She threw the head out into the snow. “How sweet. But given our arrangement – completely inappropriate I would have thought. I’ll take the case.”

She moved out of the shelter of the crude eaves and into the snow to take the suitcase from him.

“Uh-ah… patience, old woman.” He put up one condescending pointer finger just to piss her off. “Things just got a whole lot more complicated.”

“We had a deal.”

“Deals off.”

“The deal is not negotiable.”

“You lied to me.”

“I did nothing of the sort.”

“You did not tell me who the midwife was.”

“She is nothing important in the bigger scheme of things. A baby will be born, a midwife was needed.”

“There you go again, old woman, telling lies.” Marcus put the suitcase down behind him and planted his feet at hip width, crossing his arms across his muscular chest. “Omission of the truth is the same as lying.”

“So… she’s the daughter of Dr. Johaanson.”

“The sins of the father do not need to be visited upon the daughter. Don’t you think she’s suffered enough?”

“Suffered enough…” The words flew out through the gap in her teeth with a hiss and her withered featured contorted into a look of sheer hatred. “You either take her and feed from her when all of this is over or I throw her to, as you have called them, my pets. Either way she will not be leaving here. His flesh and blood will pay for what he did here.”

“She wasn’t even born when this started. She’s been punished for his other sins. His whole family has.”

“What do I care about what Johaanson got up to after he tried to kill us all here? What do I care for his family.” The crone moved in on him, shuffling through the snow in a stop motion version of a circle. “Why do you care so much for her? What would one like you want with Sylvie?”

Marcus squared his shoulders.

I wont let her get to me.

“You are nothing more than beast. Nothing more than the first plague. Like him.” She pointed to the head lying with one cheek to the snow. “Living in the shadows on the perimeter of society. You can’t be normal, any more than they can.”

“You are wrong!” He spun around and grasped the suitcase, pulling it away from her outstretched hand. ‘Take me to see Sylvie.”

“You think that girl is going to redeem you?” She laughed, a sound like a flock of annoyed crows alighting from power lines. “Oh, Marcus. How does one so evil, still find shreds of innocence and naivety.”

She shuffled away from him, back under the cover of the eaves, muttering and shaking her head. Brushing the snow from the thick shawl around her shoulders she regarded him, one hand bloodied and the other holding onto the suitcase as though it were a life raft.

Another roar exploded into the night… shifting the lines between them, as the it went deeper.  Raw. The  primordial sound of the ecstacy and pain of life. The crone noticed how Marcus’s skin flushed and despite the sub zero temperatures, a thin layer of sweat broke across his brow.

She smiled, then sucked in her bottom lip for a moment as she thought, her cheeks sinking even further into her skull, letting the birthing sounds hang between them a little longer.

“You want to broker a new deal. By the grace of the Goddess we’ll broker another deal.”

The blood raced through Marcus’s body, the snow melting in a halo around him. The labouring woman’s roars and pants thundered in his ears, as his defences dissolved like the snow, the sounds pounding in time with his heart beat.

“You give me the suitcase and I’ll give you the other baby. And I give you my word that nothing befalls the midwife.”

He could feel the heat in the room, the smell of garlic, the lines of power that Sylvie had stepped out to protect the space. Ineffectual against him, since she had touched him earlier. The touch of Sylvie’s hand on the woman’s searing skin.

“I want both of them,” he gasped. “The midwife and the baby.”

He squeezed his eyes shut and focused for a minute on the smell of the snow and the rancid, polluted blood of the plague still thick on his hands, pulling himself out of the birthing room. He shook his head as though to free the connection with simple kinesthetics.

Focus.

“Shake on it?” He extended his hand and he saw The Crone falter and hesitate. “If the deal you make is true then you have nothing to fear in shaking my hand.”

She closed her eyes and took a minute to think on it.

Just say yes you old bitch. Do it. I can’t hold on much longer…

Marcus tried to keep his focus on her, but the strong, steady heart beats of the twins, about to break free from the womb called to him drew him in. One promised to him.

How long could I live with the life energy of a new born babe? One of them was meant to die anyway… it was the prophecy? But Sylvie…

…I don’t care what she thinks… the chance…

“Indeed Marcus, we have a deal.” He fought to stay present – to be patient. The hunger was clawing him, like a rabid beast fighting its way out of his flesh. A frantic dance to the dual rhythm of the heart beats.

The crone is going to seal the deal.

She’d shake his hand and they’d all have insurance against any deceit.

“I have nothing to fear in shaking your hand.”

“Ok, old woman,” the words barely came out of his mouth. The trembling had begun, the primal parts of him swamping the civilised parts. He took an unsteady step towards her, the suitcase heavy in his hand, the other outstretched to grasp hers.

The crone nodded her head, urging him towards her as a woman jumped from the wall behind Marcus, landing lightly with a crowbar across her thighs. With a single swing Marcus lay face down in the snow, the suitcase wedge underneath his prone body.

This installment incorporates Mum and Robbi’s challenge (a lie) and Anna Barros and Em’s (walking the boundaries, garlic)

Fourth Fiction: 12.7

To catch up on the entire story you can read here, or the last installment which connects here.

XXX

There was a knock at the door.

“Sir, we’ve decoded the message.”

Coffey opened a window flashing at the bottom of the massive flat screen. The three men read the message and took a moment to let it sink in.

“She was heading into The Dead Zone.” The Director pinched the small bruised space on his nose, just above the eyes and squinted.

“It seems that way,” answered Coffey, in a nonchalant way which drove the Director crazy. It was as if nothing phased the Head of Intelligence, even when it came as a surprise.

“Of course she was.” Mullholland’s booming certainty stilled the undercurrent between The Director and Coffey.  “It’s been under our nose all this time. The Underground are based out in The Dead Zone. ” He walked over to the screen and pulled up the photo of Midwife #2, Sylvie Johanssen. “She was the bait.”

“Bait?” queried Coffey, scratching at the sandpaper growth on his jaw line.

“Why lead us in there then?” asked the Director,  pulling the his tie off. “And why kill the agents before they got there?”

“Nothing works in The Dead Zone – you know that as well as I do. The electro-magnetic disruptors put up by the hippy-scum thirty years ago were amplified by the Government after the infection to ensure no one went in.”

“And no one came out,” added Coffey.

“Kill them once they’re in there ,” Mullholland continued ignoring Coffey’s comments, “and you’ve lost your calling card.”

The Director turned to stare at him. “You honestly think the Underground is based in there.”

“Yes. We’ve spent years trying to locate it. It all makes sense now.”

“You Coffey?”

“I’m unsure. The message seems to be sending her into there. Rather than out of there.”

“Sending her in there without an escort though. ” Mullholland said, staring hard at Coffey. “This is totally removed from the normal modus operendi. Midwives never go anywhere alone. They are considered by the underground too vulnerable and too valuable to wander around by themselves.”

“Have you been able to isolate where the message came from?” The Director wound the tie around his hand and pulled it tight, the meaning not lost on Coffey who shook his head in reponse.

“It was routed so many times it is basically background static. Their communications system is more sophisticated than anything we’ve seen.”

“Or more basic than anything we’ve experience in decades,” suggested the Director.

Coffey nodded his head. “We’re investigating that angle also.”

Mulholland bought up the picture of Jamieson again and blew it up to fill the entire wall sized screen. It looked as though the dead agent would crumble to dust, like a Hollywood corpse and blow across the screen to cover them in Death.  He turned and pointed up to it for added effect. To their credit the other two men didn’t look away though Mulholland caught The Director flicking imaginary dust from his shoulder, completely obviously to the fact he was doing so..

“Let me pose something to you… if The Underground isn’t The Dead Zone, then something in there is trying to get out.”

“You don’t think your two ideas are mutually exclusive ?” said the Director, looking up to the feed coming in from the sewer..

Mulholland shook his head.

“We can’t discount that The Underground, regardless of where they may be based, had strong links when the first encampment was established. Parents and grandparents would have been wiped out when the virus was released.” He paused, letting his words sink in.  “What if they now want to unleash something on the City, like the City unleashed on them. And I’m not talking biological warfare.”

To emphais his point Mullholland pulled up the only remaining photo of on of The Dead Zones infected – eyes ablzed in a gaunt barely recognisable face. The Director sucked in his bottom lip and thought for a moment. Coffey looked away.

“We’d need to go in on foot.” The Director sat down on the edge of the table. “Mulholland search our databases and work out what will and wont work in there, and if we’ve got it on hand here.”

“See what old military junk lying around, yes sir.”

“And Coffey, I want all intel on what’s been going on in there the past twenty-five years.”

“TYou are not seriously considering going in there.”

“I’m seriously considering all option and I’ve asked you for something.”

“Well it won’t be too difficult – there is basically nothing. The best I can offer is a blank page and heresay. We turned our back and walked out of there when the virus mutated, you know that as well as anyone. No one wanted to know what was going on in there. There was an official decree to destroy all the files. What was left is what we already know. There are no secret files. Nothing.”

The Director pinched the aggrevated spot above his nose again.

“Arnold – I’m asking you, not as the Director, but as a fellow citizen of this great city we both love and wnt to protect, if you’ll put aside your personal and professional issues and work with me on this.”

Coffey coughed and typed something into a mobile communicator and a new window appeared on the screen, showing all the satellites.

“I can position one of our probes to the quadrant The Dead Zone is in, but it will take at least two hours before I can stream any images live. That’s not me, that’s just the way it is. And I can’t be certain the electromagnetic disruptors wont interfere with what images may or may not come out – assuming anything is bounced back. And nothing will be accessible in the field.”

“Shit,” the Director shook his head and jammed his tie into his pocket. He wasn’t a military man, before his rapid rise to power, he’d been an auditor. He was way out of his depth – he should defer it to someone in Stateland Security but the lead was cooling and if Mulholland was right…

“Thirty minutes gentleman – you’ve both got thirty minutes to supply me with the information I want. And Mulholland, organise a debriefing for an hour’s time. I will have made my decision and spoken with the Mayor by then.”

This installment incorporates Dale’s challenge (a blank page).

Fourth Fiction 12.6

Sylvie knew she was staring, but a magnetic pull stopped her from being able to tear her eyes away from his face. She almost said she wished saving her was his every-day gig, but she stopped herself and the words came out instead as a choking sound, then a cough, followed by a fit of sneezing. When she had composed herself, she dared to glance across again as she rubbed at her nose.

The stark moonlight illuminated his features and he appeared to be oblivious to her intense scrutiny, concentrating on driving, so she didn’t try to look away. Her body zipped and tingled with electricity, as though the interior of the car was alive with static.

Separately there was nothing spectacular or beguiling about any of his features, but the manner in which they were assembled was a masterpiece. Once she’d read beauty came from symmetry – perfect balance. She didn’t believe in God or any particular religious dogma. Her pagan leanings and her love of the Goddess came more as part of her midwifery practise than an actual personal decision to pursue any path of belief. But something pulled at her when she looked at Marcus. In that moment, with his beautiful face in profile, serene but serious, staring out into the hostile nothingness, it was easy to believe something divine had had a hand in creating him. Or she’d just been sequestered away from men too long, yearning for love and the quiet simplicity of a life beyond The Underground.

Trina had always said she could put a fantastical spin on anything given half a chance. But in those days she was conjuring fairies, not heroic demi-Gods in mustangs.

It was the hands though, that did it for her when she finally looked away from his face to the rest of him. They were long and elegant, tapered fingers wrapped around the steering wheel, but not white-knuckled with the pressure and stress which hers would be. Despite the sub zero temperature, he wore a crumbled grey t-shirt which showed his muscular body to good effect, but Sylvie got the feeling he couldn’t have cared what he looked like and was totally oblivious to the effect he was having on her. And he didn’t seem to feel the cold.

A large tattoo ran the from beneath the sleeve of the t-shirt down to the tip of his elbow. In the low light she couldn’t make out what it was and didn’t feel it her place to ask. She didn’t want to make it any more obvious she was opening staring and taking stock of him.

He turned and didn’t just look at her, but into her. The clouds, from the building snow storm, swallowed the moonlight and the interior of the car was encapsulated in darkness again. Marcus’s eyes glowed briefly and he turned away. Pulling at the waist band of her hoodie, Sylvie looked down at her lap embarrassed to have been caught openly gawking at him like a smitten teenager.

Impeccable social skills Sylv.

She almost wished for another embarrassing sneezing fit.

Leaning back into the seat of the car it seem to mould around her, shifting to embrace her rather than some stuffing giving way to her greater weight. It made the hairs on the back of her neck want to stand up, but she wasn’t scared; something instinctive in her telling her to pay attention and to stay vigilant, but to stay calm as well. Her mother had told her to never believe everything she saw and to question everything. Fantastical thinking got you know where in the real world.

The landscape outside raced past in a blur; tumble-down high rise buildings, smaller collections of what looked to be adobe styled houses and wide open spaces of nothing which felt even more foreign in the middle of the city. Finally a wall appeared and Sylvie braced – the memory of her own brush with a wall fresh, like the blood drying on her forehead.

He drove around the perimeter of the wall once and then stopped, the engine roaring one last time before quietening to an idle and then stilling. As Sylvie went to get out, the clouds shifted again and a shaft of moonlight caught a diamond-like trinket hanging from the rear vision mirror and she lent across to touch it. Rather than a trinket it was a belly ring, a graceful silver bar with a dangling line of diamonds ending in one large one, tied to a length of cord and then to the arm of the rear vision mirror. It swayed and turned, like a tiny, barely lit mirrorball at her touch.

“Talisman?” she asked. Marcus opened his door and got out, ignoring her questions. Sylvie opened her door and said as the cold night air struck her like a hammer, “My sister had one just like that.”

This installment incorporates Fiona’s challenge (a tattoo) and passing mention of Constantine’s (heart/middle of the city)

Fourth Fiction 12.5

Mulholland stood staring at the screen flanked by the Director on one side, immaculately attired in a three piece suit and clean shaven despite the fact it was hours off dawn. In direct contrast Coffey, head of Intelligence, was dishevelled with a day old growth covering his chin and cheeks. But he was as sharp, if not sharper than the Director as they moved and counter moved the data around on the screen as though it were a game of chess. Outside of Mulholland’s office, the entire unit was assembling and every available agent had been called in.

Mulholland glanced up to the closed-circuit TV feed up in the right hand corner, updating every second from each camera on sewerage outlets feeding from The Dead Zone. He’d assigned one agent to sit and watch all screens feeding in from the sewerage system. Nothing was going to slip past him, other than the occasional over sized rat scurrying through the disembodied green of the night vision.

“We can’t discount this is a ruse,” the Director said, knowing it would be him who would need to make the phone call to the Mayor for authorisation to move to Code Black. “I still don’t understand how Pullen managed to delete everything. There must be some way to retrieve what was lost.”

“We head hunted Pullen because he was the best. He was more than an eavesdropper – he created software and systems which gave us spying potential beyond anything we’d previously had.”

“Then you are facing the difficult truth that you actively recruited a saboteur into your ranks,” said Mulholland, enjoying the moment.

“There was nothing at any point to indicate Pullen was anything other than a loyal employer.” His voice remained steady.

“Well perhaps he was once upon a time. His wife is scheduled for birth in two weeks time, is she not?”

“And she has never missed an appointment with the hospital or has given any indication they were collectively planning to break the law. In his time Pullen helped in the arrest more than twenty midwives. I have never had reason to doubt his loyalty.”

“Until now.”

“But it makes no sense.” Coffey shook his head and thrust his hands deep into the pocket of his stained sweat pants.

“He set the systems in place, like slowly but surely wiring in a bomb to take out a building. Bit by bit,” said Mulholland.

“We will be able to retrieve some of our database, if not all, it will just take time.”

“Time we don’t have,” said the Director.

The Director pulled across a string of photos, Pullen, Midwife #2, Jamieson, Booth, Kravin and Colbert and a barely discernable picture of a black Mustang.

“How does this all fit together?”

This installment incorporate’s Tina’s challenge (a difficult truth).

Fourth Fiction 12.4

The lights went out and the world plunged back into darkness again. The car accelerated at such a rate, Sylvie was thrown into her backpack caught between her and the seat. She struggled to untangle herself and then reached for the seat belt.

“You won’t need a seat belt.” The driver was a male and in the confined space of the car his vice sounded different to what it had out in the open. Sylvie’s eyes, traumatised by the bright light couldn’t get a proper fix on the features of the driver. He was just there. Driving like the devil incarnate.

“I’m not sure I trust your driving.”

“At this stage, I don’t think you have much of a choice.”

Despite the speed and the lack of vision, the car seemed to glide over  the rough, mostly barren landscape. Sylvie braced herself, waiting to be jolted or jarred but there was nothing. It was like being in a plane, in an artificially pressured space, speeding effortlessly above everything.

She sneezed, once and then twice and remembered the proliferation of ragweed seeds imbedded in her hoodie. It would be impolite to sit in the stranger’s car picking them off and dropping them on the floor. Plus Sylvie wasn’t convinced that at any moment the faceless driver wouldn’t jam on the brakes sending her through the windscreen. The sneezing reminded her though of what he had said as he’d somehow dragged her into the car.

“What did you mean about the ragweed?”

“Round here they believe ragweed gives desperate confidence in desperate situations.”

Sylvie ran her hand over the tiny prickle-like seeds.

“Where I come from they’re a noxious weed.”

“Well Dorothy, this ‘aint Kansas any more.”

“You’ve got that right –I don’t think a bucket of water would take care of those… things.” Sylvie shuddered, feeling as though something had walked across her grave. “I was told I’d meet the escort in The Dead Zone. I expected you’d be waiting.”

“I was busy.”

“So was I.”

“I noticed.”

“Do you think you can be on time next time?”

“Maybe I wasn’t late. Maybe you were early.”

“I’m always one time.”

“You got some cheek.”

“You can talk. How much finer could you have cut it.”

“If my memory serves me correctly it was me who saved you out there.”

“I was holding my own. Me and the dog.”

Sylvie turned to pat the dog how sat in the middle of the back seat.

“Yeah well, I’m not dead. So thanks. I was always curious if the warnings on those cannisters were for real.”

He turned to her for the first time, as the moon came out from behind the clouds and Sylvie saw for the first time that he wasn’t just good looking, he was devastatingly handsome. The sort of man she believed only existed in the wildest of her fantasties.

“And just for your information, I’m not planning on making this a regular gig.”

This installment incorporates Paul Servini’s challenge (a devastatingly beautiful man)