Some examples of my work.
This piece got me into the final round of the New York Midnight Challenge 2016 (40 from 2300)
by Robin K Hickson
She followed the spear, diving at a shallow angle. With a flick of her feet she propelled herself deeper, sighting the bright shaft against the sand of the seabed and ripping the impaled fish free of the kelp. A haddock: rare this close to the shore.
Back at their shack, Boy would have the stones fired by now, expecting crab. She imagined his gummy smile when she brought fish — although Boy was also sure to say a haddock was the harbinger of storms.
When she returned, he was sitting on his big wooden box. He’d been painting it again, she saw.
‘They were here. Looking for you.’
She sighed and sat cross-legged in front of him, presenting the haddock at his feet. He nodded, his glazed eyes finding hers.
‘Haddock? That explains it.’
She shrugged and looked away.
‘The Captain’s going to punish you this time, May.’
Nobody else called her May. When her grandparents first came ashore, the Captain found jobs for everyone. Her mother was Hunter, as was Boy before that. These days the hydroponics gave them all the food they needed — nevertheless, she took her inherited title seriously. No one swam further, dived deeper or for longer.
‘Farmer’s weird. He’s sick in the head, not just in the flesh. He’s always following me around. I just scared him a little. I’m not a child: I understand what he wants.’
She backed away, ostensibly to escape the smoke of the algae glowing beneath the slate slabs of the pit. Borrowing her spear, Boy pinned the fish and carefully shifted it to rest on the coolest of the slabs, squinting into the fire.
‘Better get that gutted, May.’
Obediently she took back the shaft, and slipped the blade free. One neat incision, and viscera tumbled into the firestones. Ill-scented smoke obscured her vision, so that Boy’s voice arrived across the white space.
‘When we first came ashore, May, I wasn’t much older than you. The ship’s boy I was, and Boy I remain. But what I was too young to understand then, I do now. The old Captain carved us a life. I had children, and a beautiful grandchild.’ Hunter smiled. ‘But I won’t live to enjoy my great grandchildren, and for that I’m strangely grateful.’
Hunter swatted away the white clouds so that she could see Boy’s face, despite the camouflaging wisps of his grey beard.
‘Why do you say that?’
‘I’m saying — we did our jobs. Fired our missiles. Destroyed cities. But the skipper still had two hundred men and women in his care, with no homes, no safe harbours. He gave us a reason to exist.
‘But with the new Captain? That’s not what I want for you, May. The Vanguard no longer values the very freedoms that we fought to protect.’
‘I still don’t understand,’ although she did. Many times, growing up, she’d considered stealing away, escaping the tyranny of the Engineers and the Farmers. But there was nothing out there except dust and sickness. ‘What’s freedom, anyway? When I’m out there,’ she pointed towards the water, ‘I am free.’
Boy cackled and coughed simultaneously.
‘What’s freedom? Good question.’
He fell silent. Hunter pushed the fish onto the central slab, its skin puckering. She began to believe that the conversation was over. Then his voice cracked.
‘Freedom is choice, May. Freedom is love and family and music and — ’
He stopped abruptly and she reached for his shoulders.
‘I’m not leaving you, Boy. Ever.’
Farmer’s garbled voice interrupted them. ‘Hunter!’ He was flanked by Chief and Mate. ‘Captain wants to speak with you.’
‘Why?’ asked Boy, stepping around Hunter.
‘Sit down, before I knock you down, old man,’ Farmer spat, saliva dripping from his bucked teeth.
Hunter slipped the blade into the palm of her hand, pushing the edge along the back of her forearm.
‘Touch him, and you die, Farmer,’ she growled.
She felt her face flush as she spoke, and her legs shook with adrenaline. She’d crossed a line, but she no longer cared. Chief marched closer, his frame looming over hers.
‘Captain says it’s high time you married.’
‘Married?’ Boy and Hunter gasped together.
Hunter winced as Chief’s hand clamped onto her wrist. In her other palm, she felt the blade slide into her grip.
‘She’s got a knife!’ bellowed Farmer.
The Chief released her and backed away, his expression wild. He pointed a finger while he kept his range, and wheeled around to the other two.
‘Fetch the Captain.’
Farmer hurried away, while Hunter’s rage dissipated as quickly as it had built. Her shoulders slumped. If she went before the Captain again, she’d be exiled. She’d die alone in a sea-cave, or be sent east to die of the sickness. She realised something else too, and the blade clattered from her grip to the ground.
‘No, wait!’ she cried out to Farmer’s back, ‘I can’t leave Boy. I’m all he’s got.’
She felt weathered fingers on her shoulder, attempting to turn her around, but she shrugged free.
She had no choice, she told herself, else Boy was as good as dead too.
‘Wait, please. Listen! I’ll marry Farmer!’
Farmer halted mid-stride, and with exaggerated care, he returned to circle behind them. Head hung in shame, she heard a cry, and spun around in time to watch Boy’s form crumple, his nose cracking with a puff of blood as it contacted the stony ground.
‘No!’ she screamed. ‘Why?’
She reached for the blade, but a large foot beat her to it.
‘I warned him,’ said Farmer.
She recognised the violence, the hunger, in their faces. She looked back down to the unconscious Boy and swallowed.
‘Just let me get Boy to bed.’
They shared a glance.
‘Take him. But be in my quarters before dark.’
‘Yes, Farmer,’ she blinked demurely, hiding her fury.
She watched the backs of the men as they swaggered away down the hill.
Boy sat up.
‘May, listen… ’
‘Just rest, Boy. There was never really any choice, was there?’
‘Listen to me,’ he gulped a breath, ‘I know where the sub is.’
He tutted impatiently.
‘The submarine — the ship, May.’
‘I see,’ but she didn’t, not really. What difference did it make?
‘We scuttled it, but there are maps and charts aboard, May. Supplies. It’s not too late for you — there are others out there, across the sea.’
‘I don’t understand,’ she replied, more honestly.
‘May, I know there are other survivors. I heard them once on the ship’s radio. But none of us wanted to go back — we had new lives.
‘You can take the wooden box. There’s oars on the sub, too.’
‘Your box?’ He nodded, and finally it began to make sense. ‘It floats?’
‘You can get inside the sub via the open missile tubes.’
‘And find freedom?’ Her tone failed to betray her cynicism, eclipsed as it was by raw hope.
‘Yes, May. Real freedom.’
‘Love? Family? Music?’
‘There’s nothing for you here, not any more,’ Boy said.
‘I can’t leave you here, though. I won’t.’
There was a long pause, and Boy’s eyes slowly blinked.
‘May, you don’t understand. You’re not leaving me: I’m leaving you.’
He cupped her face in his rough palms, and brushed away the tears from her cheeks.
‘Take the box. Go north, May. Across the sea.’
Pushing the wooden box in front of her, she swam farther than she’d ever swum before. She was already tired when she reached the rippling surface that indicated the sandbar; alongside and beneath which, Boy promised, lay the ship. She trod water, testing the buoyancy of the box while she collected her breath. At the same time, the cold water sapped at her strength.
At last she dived, pushing herself with minimal strokes, down, down, then banking flat.
There it was. The shark-like violence of the huge ship.
Keeping her movements calm, she wasted no time finding her way to the tubes. She squeezed through a hatchway. Cylinders of light filtered inside, revealing a seating area and the captain’s cabin, just as Boy had explained.
A flash of chrome light caught her eye. Steel, burnished by the sea. Dribbling air from her nose, she angled to the floor, her hand reaching out for the rectangular block. Her fingers closed around it, and she pushed it into her belt.
Continuing to the captain’s cabin, she grabbed an armful of plastic charts. By now, her chest was pressing. She let air go, bubbles curling away from the corners of her mouth. The pressure was pounding in her ears, and her arms and legs were cramping.
She’d find the oars clipped to the wall of the conning tower, Boy had said.
She couldn’t make it. There wasn’t enough time.
She’d wasted seconds diverting for the metal. What a fool! Boy would die alone, while she drowned in the old ship. She kicked hard, giving up on preserving energy, chasing the final few seconds. There!
She made a grab, snatching one oar clear of its clips. The other fell away, towards the slanted floor of the control room. There was no way she could reach it in time. The temptation to snatch a breath from the cold water was almost irresistible.
The resistance of the single oar’s blade slowed her and she was forced to stop to slide the shaft inside her belt, squandering more oxygen. She pulled herself forwards on a hatch handle, accelerating, twisting her body up towards the nearest tube of light. Freedom, she thought.
She came to lying afloat on her back, surrounded by white chart pages. The sun had set, and the first stars were flaring behind high cloud. Memories caught up and she twisted around in the water. The wooden box was a few metres away. Reaching her hand to her side, she found the oar.
She climbed up onto the box and sighted back to land, where a few fires glowed. One of them could be Boy’s, she thought, then she arched around, facing the darker north. Black towers climbed from the horizon, losing their anvil tops in the deeper blue of the northern sky. Out to sea, she could see squall lines approaching the coast. A sick weight settled in her stomach. There was no way forwards, and no possibility of return. A storm was coming, after all.
The forgotten metal block was jammed into her pocket. She removed it, and turned it over in her hands. There was no obvious hinge, but she noticed a grill along one side concealing empty tubes that reminded her of the sub. She shook it, and water splattered out. She put it to her mouth, intent on blowing the tubes clear, and nearly dropped it back to the depths when a sound spiralled into the night. What on earth, she thought, and tried again. A sharp squeal made her laugh, and she wrapped her lips around the width, gripping with her teeth. Music, she thought, and her head snapped back to the shore.
Without hesitation she shoved the metal block back into her pocket, grabbed the oar and paddled as hard as she could towards the sound of the waves grinding on the beach.
It was almost dark, and the wind was helping to drive the wooden box ashore. She raced across the sharp stones, up the slope to their shack. As she’d hoped, a fire was glowing in the pit, and ducking inside she found Boy sitting up, bleary-eyed and still bloodied.
She thrust the mouth organ into his hands, and he stared dumbly at it for a moment, before lifting it to his lips. After several trial blasts, he cupped his hands, and a melody sang free. He grinned. She smiled back.
Hunter eased herself beside him on the bed, releasing her exhausted body to the rising and falling notes. She wrapped an arm around her grandfather.
‘Love… family… music… ,’ she said, and closed her eyes. ‘Our freedom.’
The Apothecary’s Tale
by Robin K Hickson
Death doesn’t scare you. Only the pointlessness of a bound existence could do that, you say. Twist and kick, apothecary, or hang motionless, rehearsing death. At the end, you will change nothing.
There’s a gap between the cornice and the highest drawers of the copper-scrolled cabinet. A place where the teak remains proud. Stretch your hand out now as you turn; feel it grate under your fingertips. Too late! You spin further, and flick watery hair away from your eyes, or perhaps you were reaching for the choking cord? You notice that the inner door is closed. Behind you, the front door, too. The room is unlit. Normally, four chandeliers create pools of plaster-yellow illumination upon the ceiling, but tonight, three of the fittings hang cold, and the fourth chimes against your buckle. The absence of light makes little difference upon the chequerboard floor below your feet, where the blacks and whites have mostly merged into smudges and furniture scars, but the dark windows would appear strange to your neighbours: for they would know that the lights are rarely extinguished at the great American Drug Store.
The window blinds are drawn. Perhaps, if they were open, somebody outside could crouch low enough to see through the lettering in the windowpanes. For the letters, unlike their frosted surround, are transparent; carved like a stream across a beach. The marbling in the plane of the more recent side, installed when “General” became “Drug”, is lighter than the other, but still opaque. The same old “Store” opposite; you were too cheap to replace both panes together. Thus the curious might crouch and peer through the bowl of the “D”, or the broad font of the “O”, and if somebody discovered you hanging, what then? Would they raise an alarm? Or would they pretend to have seen nothing; just sure that, after all this time, you’d finally got what was coming?
Desiré Au Lac. She was sixteen, with braces; the fat and silver-black kind that warps a mirrored smile. New to town, she sported a Nikon, and fancied herself a reporter; no – a photojournalist, she insisted. Your smile recovered. How’s school, you asked. Fine, she said, glancing to the floor, which told you that it wasn’t. Head down, she asked if she could take your picture. Mimicking her in sympathy, you lowered your eyes, until your stare was arrested by her bare ankle. Embarrassed, you turned instead to the cabinet dominating the centre of the room. A century earlier, when you were new here too, it bore the first soda fountains. Beneath the modern display lie the holes where the ice-feeder was once bolted. Back then, the ice was stored in the cellar – glacial blocks that dripped slowly, to your young eyes, hardly reducing in volume even over summer days. Madame Illes would slice head-sized chunks off a trolleyed block with a garrotte. Then, upstairs in the store, she lifted each head in succession, out of it’s sublimed fog, before feeding it into the funnel at the rear of the machine. One execution at a time, heads became chunks and chunks became gravel, until crushed ice filled the glass container on the front, where chromed taps encouraged the town’s children to self-serve. Soda-making was an adult magic, a ritual you observed by peering over the counter as the machine rattled and cold-steamed above you. Mister Witt would nudge you out of the way good-naturedly if you edged too close, lest curiosity drag you into the mechanism, and when Madame Illes had finished her part, Mister Witt would insist on adding the flavouring and colouring himself, never failing to remind his aunt, though he spoke directly to you, that she was incapable of judging the perfect emulsion because, he said, her mind was addled by too much tincture. Once satisfied, he would invite you to taste each new batch, and if you grinned or nodded, he would clap his hands and grin triumphantly at Madame Illes, who would turn away with the faintest shake of her head. Now those memories are strangely manacled; what was it you said, as Desiré’s ankle heckled?
“Sure”, you replied eventually, unable to decide why you remained reluctant. “Soda?”
“I didn’t know you sold them,” she said, then laughed. “No, thanks. Just your photograph?”
You skirted between counter and ankle to place a palm on the nearest surface, lifting your chin according to your own internal portrait of the gentleman store owner. “Why do you want to be a journalist?”
She backed away, camera to eye, getting her range. She appeared to fumble and the flash bloomed unexpectedly. You blinked at her answer.
“I want to see how people die. I want to photograph the wars – show people back home what they’re like. Make them stop, maybe.”
“Stop what?” you asked stupidly, still blinking.
“The killing, of course!” she said, lowering the camera. “Don’t you think that war is just awful?”
The camera strap pulled the hoop of her vest lower. You looked further up, above her head, to about where you now hang, suspended by the neck.
“Not really,” you said, distractedly. “Sometimes you have to fight.”
She sighed and looked disappointed. “For freedom? For your way of life?”
“Yes, I suppose…” Too late. “Or rather, no. I think…”
You looked back at her face. Into her eyes; so young.
“Do you like mints?”
The black smile reappeared. “Oh, thank you, sir.”
She came into the store often after that, from post-war summer until the wintry days of cold war. She shared her fears, her hopes. Innocent things, nothing complicated. You ended her life not because of some unfortunate sexual indiscretion, but because of what she said, what she thought; her absence of faith.
“It’s a way of making everybody equal, see? Man, woman, educated, simple, poor, rich – we’re all people. Socialism just gives that equality a bit of structure – a system of justice to protect individuals, without religion or government interfering. Are you listening?”
You wished that you weren’t. You paused whilst refilling the salts. Fresh from up north. Lavender, and agents like orange with kombucha, a concoction whose pungency you forever since associate with socialist indignation. You dip your chin in agreement.
“Good, ‘cos this is important, sir. One day we will rise up, and none of the overlords will survive.” Her head tilted backwards, and her eyes cast up and left as her mind remembered the original orator. Meanwhile you stared into the back of the display case, blindly seeing banners and bloody confrontation. “But I hope you survive, sir. You gotta listen to me before it’s too late!”
You turned towards her.
“It’s not safe to talk openly about such things, Miss Au Lac.” But you smiled encouragingly as the passion left her face. “Come back Friday evening. We’ll speak then.”
She nodded, still wide-eyed. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
She took the proffered tablet and swept the door open. A girl, not yet a full woman.
Tonight, your face is bursting blue, when it should be flushed red with memory’s shame, apothecary. Ah! A foot up. You’re thinking, but your strength is fast fading. Just unravel the noose, and fall…
Your chest and stomach stretch and your hands claw at your throttled neck as you abruptly find the floor, smashing glass and bouncing away from the old cabinet. Your lungs flame. Small lacerations prick your bare palms, your mouth is impossibly dry. This is how it feels to be betrayed, apothecary. Remember dear Mister Witt? He invested in you, trusted you, and you dashed his faith upon Madame Illes’ imperfectly pale breasts. Beyond fear at the end, as your hands squeezed his larynx, your wrists and fingers aching, understanding dragged his eyes to yours. Realisation bulged in his throat like his swollen tongue. Phlegm squeezed from the corners of his mouth. His cheeks puffed, and legs kicked.
“We’re helping you, Mister Witt. Don’t you see?”
In your mind’s eye, you see her too.
Madame Illes' reflection fills the mirror. By hinging the two wings, she could study her own golden-framed face three times. Front, left and right. When you were just a boy, she sat you in front of the main mirror, on her lap, and you played with the wings while she told stories of the theatre; of her favourite plays and greatest loves. When you were a little older, a young man, Madame Illes leant her cheek against yours, and whispered the same stories of her greatest lovers. When you were older still, she lay beside you, speaking through a post-coital sigh.
“Soon, sweet love, we shall be together, always. Come and hold me,” she said.
You draped an arm across her shoulder and chest, and the other encircled beneath her breasts. You touched her navel with one finger.
“What about poor Mister Witt?” you asked.
“I have a present for him,” she said. “But he can’t know it comes from me. And he must take it all – that's very important.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Sit down, and let me explain, while I finish looking beautiful.”
“You always look beautiful,” you said, backing off to half-sit on the edge of the bed. She smiled and took her seat before the mirror. She closed her eyelids, leaving you to watch her unobserved. With one hand she found a squat pot on the dresser. She raised it over her shoulder.
“Shadow,” she said, replacing the pot but retaining the stopper. Blindly, she reached for a cotton brush, dipped it and carefully steered the dark-powdered bud, tainting both eyelids. In the mirror, you watched the dark areole of her left breast amplify the tiny movements of each stroke. Her eyes reopened, and she blinked and owled at herself.
“Hand me that gown,” she said, pointing behind the door.
You snatched the garment from its peg and held it open, stretching the shoulders, and she stood and wrapped it tightly around, knotting the belt emphatically. She pointed to the edge of the bed, and you sat back.
“Listen, my beloved. You and I, we need to be free of Mister Witt’s selfishness and cruelty. We deserve our indépendance, at last. Don’t you feel it too?”
She reached around to pick up the pot and reinsert the stopper. Placing it in the palm of her hand, she held it out to you.
The next day, just as dawn light threatened the kitchen window, you shook the black pot’s contents into Mister Witt’s tea, and served him as usual, alone at the head of the table. Chai, with a touch of lemon and wolfsbane. You feared discovery when he grimaced at the first sip, but he merely yawned, then blearily supped a second time. He gasped as he released the cup's lip from his mouth.
"It’s the lemon,” you said, foolishly.
Blue eyes sought yours, apothecary, fear and confusion shaping them wide. He sagged back in his chair. Fussily, he succeeded to juggle the cup back onto its saucer, spilling tea onto the kitchen table, then slithered further to fall to the floor with a thump as his limbs succumbed. You watched him froth and writhe for long seconds, his expression now one of quaint surprise, but when he began to gurgle and fight his paralysed jaw, you suspected recovery rather than surrender. You straddled his chest and throttled, and this – rather strangely you thought – gave you the time to consider your own fate.
Madame Illes failed to rouse herself for breakfast later that morning. While you were curiously absent, she woke only to the sound of the disintegrating door from the store below. She stumbled sleepily downstairs, nearly tripping on her nephew’s body, to find the marshal forcing his way inside. Madame Illes paid, alone, for Mister Witt’s abandonment. One bright morning in the spring of 1814, her prison jerkin ripped away from her shoulder as she dropped onto the noose, exposing a limp and varicose breast to the laughter of the assembled townsfolk.
The townsfolk! Crawl to the door and beg their aid. Make them help you, apothecary. Tonight, you cannot loath them. Crawl.
You look back to gauge your progress. Four tiles; red, then black, then white, now red again as your palms smear blood. Alternately wiping your weeping hands across your jacket, you suck and blow through your teeth, urging your heart to slow. A flush bursts in your eardrums, leaving the night muted; nothing to hear but your own dying breaths, you think. Your throat seizes, chokes. You reach the door, and rest your back against it, then stretch your neck up, painfully forcing your shoulder and arm above your head until your fingers find the handle. You push and pant, heart pounding harder. Unexpectedly, a spike of hope leeches through your thoughts as a cool air flows across you, then circles and retreats, as if searching for an exit. You gasp it down emptily, like a landed fish. It tastes of humanity. Earthy, warm. You see a flare, like a street lamp from within autumnal fog, muffled and diffuse, from the back of the store. The fog grows and forces out the smell of earth, and dims the glow. Sight, smell and sound fuse in your muddled head.
Glass snaps, somewhere in the back room, with the noise of a rotten branch ripped from a tree in a storm. Much closer, you hear and feel, together, the woof of accelerating flame devouring the furnishings. Push, you urge yourself. Get up. Sweat breaks out on your balding crown, and is transmitted by straw hair to your cheeks. Acrid sweets reach your nostrils. Unknown chemical fumes compete with woodsmoke to blind and intoxicate. Your eyes stream, the hot salt joining the sweat from your scalp to burn across the wounds encircling your neck. Beneath your chin it drops from your beard, trickling over your chest to form a pool in the shelter of your paunch. You force yourself to stand, and you feel the sweat running away down your back and curving around your belly to link again beneath your scrotum, dripping along your thighs like a woman’s birthing waters. You attempt to shout, but your voice is cooked and weak. Instead, a shriek from behind makes you flinch, and you slither back to the floor as your legs fail to hold you. The shriek becomes shadow, midair, then blooms into reddish mush until it collides with your face. Cat’s fur. Claws that dagger and slice in desperation. In reflex, you flail and swat the animal away, connecting far too well, propelling it across the room. It yowls in pain, then is silenced as it impacts the case front adjacent to the store window, cracking the glass and leaving the ginger still. Poor Puck. Poor Puck, you repeat, something nagging at you.
“My little one,” said Madame Illes one hot Sunday afternoon, lifetimes ago. “I need you to run to Mister Freeman’s.”
Mister Freeman ran the grain exchange, a rat-stained barn on the edge of town.
“Oui, madame. What may I fetch for you?”
“Non. Nothing. Take a message to that dirty, thieving heathen. No doubt he is working on the Sabbath, and drinking, and whoring…” Her voice took a nasal tone, one that she adopted only when her mind toyed with evil-doing.
“Tell him – pay, or we will burn his filthy warehouse back to the desert sand!” You heard her swallow. “Wait. Of course... don’t tell him that.” She spun around, the evil shine still alive in her eyes. “Just make sure he understands, boy.” She shrugged. “Make sure he knows who I am.”
You ran from the store, past the cellar entrance, emerging from darkness into raw sun and the scentless dust of frontier desert. What little moisture your body possessed was squeezed from your armpits and crotch, but you didn’t stop running until you dropped beneath the shelter of Freeman’s barn. The floor was a mix of cornhusk and dried mud. Hessian sacks, each as large as a cart wagon, were lined across the height and length of the longest side. You tried to ignore the rats that grazed in herds, like miniature plains bison, on the loose grain. To those that snuck along roof pillars near your head or roamed too close to your shoes, you flapped or kicked a warning. A central hayloft ladder led to the office-cum-dormitory of Mister Matthew Freeman – entrepreneur and trader. Up the ladder, then, quietly but loud enough to be heard. Long-fingered hands assisted your last steps from the ladder into the cramped space. Light fell unobstructed from an open skylight several yards overhead, and pooled in the centre of the simple room.
“Ah, the honourable master. Welcome.” Mister Freeman waved his arms expansively. “How is the ever-pompous Mister Witt? And that whore, Madame Illes, how is she?”
He leaned forward to make sure his face was lit from above, then spat tobacco juice onto the floorboards in front of you. He cocked his head to one side, and waited, staring. You were relieved when something moved behind him, permitting you to look away. From the poorly lit area near the far wall, a shadow emerged. It stopped beneath Mister Freeman’s stool, and pinned you back with a hunter’s focus. Eventually, at a moment of its choosing, the great tomcat squeezed forward between the legs of the pedestal, dipped its tongue into the viscous juice, and lapped. You grimaced in disgust, but Mister Freeman laughed, loud and open, arching his head back.
“Don’t be so judgmental, boy,” he said, his laughter ceasing as unconvincingly as it had begun. The two men either side of him, each resting astride a straw bale, grinned – more hungrily than happily, you thought. “Puck is the best ratter in this godforsaken town. He hunts day or night, summer or winter. What if he likes a little baccy when he’s not working, right boys?”
The others grunted in agreement. The cat returned, unremarked, to the darkness, out of sight.
“Do you know why I’m here?” you asked abruptly.
The grins disappeared. Mister Freeman leaned in further, menacingly.
“You’ve lost your way? Or that bitch Madame Illes wants her tithe? Her bloody money. Tell her to come and get it herself. No good sending her apprentice. Or maybe…?” He thrust his hips forward, complimenting the simulation with a lewd flick of his tobacco-brown tongue.
You remained silent. An idea was forming. Mister Freeman laughed and glared at you, daring you.
“Can I have some?” you asked, your voice neutral.
“Some what?” he asked, shifting his weight.
“Some tobacco, of course; my job is done, the message delivered. Obviously there’s not much I can do to threaten you.” You looked pointedly towards Mister Freeman’s sleeve and the secreted cut-throat. “But if I return now, Madame Illes will say that I was too hasty. She will beat me.” You knitted your eyebrows, and looked between your feet, then back to his face. “Let me have some tobacco, and I’ll return later and tell her that I cajoled, threatened, begged – but to no avail, and I will tell her that it’s no use. The money is lost.”
Mister Freeman sniggered.
“An unlikely story. But I'll play.”
He threw the pouch across. You seated yourself cross-legged on the floor behind where it landed, and pulled paper and a match from your chest pocket.
“No. Chew it, boy, like a man,” he said. “Then go back to your store and kiss that whore on the lips. I heard you like that.”
You hesitated before dropping the match and paper to the floor in the triangle between your legs, then lifted a peck from the pouch, tucking it into the corner of your cheek. The men watched you chew, your face twitching and snarling as the potency bit.
“That’s it,” said Mister Freeman, and as he watched he reached across to slap one of the men conspiratorially on the back. “That’s it, boy.”
“What about some rye, too?” you asked, nodding at the bottle on the small table. Mister Freeman laughed again.
“My, aren’t you going to be a handful for Madame Illes as you get older?” You watched that planted thought flux and open in his mind like watered barley. His eyes widened. “Sure. Sure, boy. Here.”
He waved an impatient hand at the man nearest to the table. Obediently, the oddly clean-shaven man (both head and face), bent in from the shadows to collect the bottle, and passed it to you as you chewed.
“Thanks,” you said, and brown drool escaped from one corner of your mouth. You snatched at the bottle and cuffed your face at the same time, managing to spill a few precious measures on the straw-strewn boards.
“Careful, boy!” snapped Mister Freeman, and leaned forward as if to claim the bottle back. You corrected your hold, and took a long swig, persuading the older man to retreat. Smiling broadly, apologetically, you put the bottle down between your thighs. After several more grinding mastications you leaned forward, and spat half a mouthful in front of your feet. You reached for fresh tobacco, and Mister Freeman applauded. From the shadows, the great tomcat glided forward again. Tentatively, it approached the brown phlegm, then, perhaps encouraged by Mister Freeman’s good humour, it stretched out to lick the mess, its tongue searching ahead like a wilful snake. You swigged again from the bottle, spilling some, as your other hand rounded out, faster than the cat could flinch. You seized a handful of fur, and dragged it closer. Its tongue morphed into glazed fangs which reached for your wrist, and the inflated beast hissed horribly. From the corner of your eye, you could already see Mister Freeman loose his sleeve, and sensed his momentum shifting forwards. You released the bottle, and kicked out, sending it spinning towards him. You had only seconds, to snatch the discarded match from the straw, and strike it blindly against the nearest pillar. It flared orange, illuminating the features of the shaven man. His skin was broken and waxy, scarred by old fire. As the flare subsided you watched his eyebrows knit in surprise, then horror of remembered agony.
You expelled a second mouthful of rye on to the desperate cat, dropped the lit match into its fuzz, and ducked as the whisky flashed. The angry animal slashed at your hand. You let go, simultaneously pushing yourself backwards towards the ladder. Yowling and scrambling, the cat bounced from the stool to the shaven man’s lap, igniting his loose blouse, then fled further back into the room, its flaming coat illuminating the animal’s panicked flight away into the roof's eaves. The straw bales snapped immediately afire, forcing Mister Freeman and the men away from the hatch, beating at their clothes. You escaped, bouncing down the ladder steps to land in the soft chaff below. From the floor, you kicked out violently, connecting with the ladder, causing it to fall away. Back on your feet, you raced the rats from the barn, mindless of your clothes’ rents and the ellipses of sweat and dust that stained your Sunday shirt.
With the assistance of the townspeople, Mister Freeman saved most of the grain, dragging the sacks clear from the doomed building, yet he could not save himself. Madame Illes swore that you were plied with whisky, and if it hadn’t been for a carelessly discarded cigarette causing the blaze, she argued, you would probably have been abused and murdered. Mister Freeman was run out of town, leaving Madame Illes to build and manage a new emporium, while your part in her prosperity remained unheralded. But the ginger tomcat was your first kill, a milestone you commemorated by immortalising Puck as the given name for the next shop cat, and every generation thereafter. So now? Is this Freeman’s revenge?
No – it’s too late for that. There’s no-one left from that generation – that time – save you, apothecary.
“Who is it then?” you demand of the sulphurous room, but receive only crackles and groans in answer, though the injured cat rouses itself at your voice. Conspicuously bleeding, it staggers away towards the fire and smoke and a memory of exit at the rear of the store.
“So die, Puck. Go.” You call after it through raw lips, while your bloodied fingers brush circles in the shattered glass around you, making space. You roll and stand, using one knee as a crutch. A light nausea lifts your chin. On the cusp of a faint, you sway but catch and scorch yourself on the front door’s handle. You shake your head, sweat spray flying to hiss on the walls where it lands. By now the smoke is high enough to make you cough, even standing. Your hand finds the head of the spare key atop the doorjamb, and you pull it down, trying to control your heaving chest long enough to direct it towards the keyhole. You steady one hand with the other, and slide the key home. The heat on your back throbs and your breath rasps, surely weaker. Despite the cracking of wood and the chime of fracturing glass behind, you hear as well as feel the mechanism clunk. You tug on the handle with what strength remains to you, expecting to feast on the spill of night air, but fear burns in your chest like the fire’s heat on your back when the door sticks. Trapped. Destined to be shrivelled and contorted by the inferno. You imagine a gargoyle left to posterity in an image of weakness, foetal, screaming silently as the flames sear your throat and blind your eyes.
To die alone, apothecary, like Desiré Au Lac.
When Desiré returned, as promised, that next Friday evening, her fervour had not dimmed. Her passion was condemned with a simple question.
“Mint?” you asked, holding out the coin-sized tablet.
The scent and texture of hairy horsemint wrapped the trace of monkshood as neatly as her lips wrapped around black teeth, exposing darkening gums. Her eyes closed, and she crumpled unconscious to black and white. You dragged her to the cold cellar, her shouldered camera bag thumping on the stone steps, and left her without food, water or hope. She died one night, while her family forlornly searched the desert beyond the town.
When the scratching ceased, you re-entered that dark space to find her buried beneath a molten, shimmering mat. The rats mostly scattered as you approached, and you shooed the last away as you bent over her body. Scratches and bites marred her skin, and most of her fingernails were missing – some of which you found in the back of the cellar’s inner gate. Her camera was by her side, dented but intact. You opened the case and reeled the film free. Later, you scraped away the emulsion, and burnt the celluloid into unrecognisable knots. The camera was discovered beside her body, amongst the rats, in an abandoned space above the stables – the same place that you cut her arm, dragging the blade from wrist to forearm.
The ivoried blade was prised free from the rigor mortis in her right hand. When the marshal came to call and asked his questions, only then did you remember her left hand reaching across the camera when you first met her, a cack-handedness you mistook for the clumsy dexterity of a teenage girl. That portrait photograph hangs still on the wall in your office, reminding you. She was left-handed, the marshal confirmed, but he had little more. The store lights went out, only until insufficient evidence lit them three weeks later. You sacrificed her to your dogma, apothecary, then wrapped her soul and reputation in a lie of suicide.
You sniff again at the crack between door and frame, tasting the air outside. So close! You brace one foot on the wall for purchase, and grip and lean, your excessive weight a rare boon; then at last, a cold crack echoes the hungry flames behind. The door bursts free, and cool night seeps past you, feeding the fire within. You scramble over the threshold and drop onto the dusty asphalt, just as the blaze feasts upon the fresh fuel. It roars like the shot of a giant cannon, booming over your prostrate head.
“Help!” you cry, and roll onto your back. “Somebody help me!”
The neon of the 7-11 on the opposite corner inks your body red. In the night sky, Orion’s belt is split by his sword. The tip accelerates towards you, gleaming a brighter orange on the fire side, to embed itself in your thigh. Unexpected agony bleaches your thoughts. Wild-eyed, craning your neck to peer above your belly, you watch the dagger withdrawn by your own hand. From the wound, blood spurts and splatters warmly, soothing the flash pain of the fire on your skin like a salve. The dagger has a hickory grip, and the blade drips black. American timber and ill-tempered steel silhouette the constellations. Orion’s Dog Star is hidden behind the knife's shadow, low down to the horizon. You tilt your head for a new perspective, and sure enough the blue diamond sparkles clear. Out of reach. Your arm falls to your side, and the blade is free, jangling lightly on the stones.
“I don’t understand,” you say to the night. But you do. You are dying, alchemist, and you were wrong.
Death does scare you.
by Robin K Hickson
The snow rose like jet exhaust over the arete, obscuring the view of the corrie below Ben Macdui. I turned my face away as ice crystals scraped by skin, somehow finding their way past the balaclava, my eyes saved by the swimming goggles that my father had assured me were the perfect substitute for the more expensive mask that the school had advised. I could imagine him laughing to himself, right now. I grinned. At least my mates had seen the funny side too.
They were standing behind me in a huddle, securing the last of the gear, conversations restricted to near-kisses as the storm howled and harried. The group lead raised an arm, and I crouched down to my knees, backing up to the pack. I slid my arms into the loose straps, pulled them tight, and pushed one cramponed boot beneath me, then the other, and stood up, balancing myself against the wind with a couple of small steps. As I pulled the belt tight, shifting the backpack higher onto my shoulders, I looked around for the last time. I was proud, and I knew my Dad would be proud of me too. Seventeen years old, and I’d survived a three day winter hike through the Cairngorms, including a major storm that had stripped away half of our tents and gear.
I felt like a survivor.
The train ride home was a victory parade. For large parts of it, I leaned out of the carriage door window, enjoying the secret pleasure of the comfort of the compartment at my back, contrasted with the stream of cold air across my face as the munros and glens flew past. Seven short hours and several station changes later, we were nearing home ground. I recognised the flat terrain and the drab industrialisation well before local landmarks confirmed our location. As the train slowed, I already started to imagine my Dad’s face as he waited for me on the platform. That lopsided grin asymmetrically balanced between deep sideburns. The crows’ feet tracking both eyes, so that you could always tell he was laughing well before his lips cracked open and he chortled, broad shoulders shrugging and shaking.
Bedford, announced the platform signs. We slid beneath the station canopy lighting, and I leaned further out, my arm outside the door and reaching for the handle as I searched the platform. It was late evening, and the station was quiet. No more than a dozen figures watched the train arriving, their faces lit a sickly yellow by the filthy sodium strip lamps. I couldn’t yet recognise my father, but then a flash of familiarity behind the glass doors that fronted the platform elicited a double-take. My sister. And next to her, my mother. Holding hands. Their faces melted by refraction. I couldn’t move.
I knew then, immediately, that it wasn’t refraction of the glass that caused their expressions to be elongated like Edvard Munch’s Scream, that drained the blood from their skin, leaving them looking empty— no, not merely empty. Excavated. Eviscerated. It was pain. Grief.
Somebody pushed past me; our group leader, a friend of my father’s. He crossed the platform quickly, reaching my mother. Their heads leaned close, as if midst conspiracy, eyes sighting my way. I felt guilty and jealous at the same time. Whatever it was, they knew and I didn’t. I forced myself to move, the few yards between myself and the three of them a tunnel, a narrow funnel beyond which no others existed, no universe at all, just that umbilical connection between terror and release. For once I reached them, I would know. Understand. And it wouldn’t be as bad as I feared.
The group lead met me halfway back. I searched his face for a clue to the climax as he started to speak, but his expression and tone were both neutral; compounding my agony.
“Robin, I’m afraid your father has been taken ill. He’s in hospital.”
And with those few understated words, my life ended at 17, and another life began. Same body, same mind, but everything else died, along with my Dad. He was 47 years old.
I remember vividly the thoughts and images in my head. The way he looked, wired and grey, impossibly inanimate, as he lay on the bed. The expressions of the staff, as they chased me out and beyond the curtains.
‘He’s not ready,’ I remember them saying, as if I had rudely interrupted the creation of their clay masterpiece.
I remember my mother’s face, crumbling, disintegrating, as the doctor told us there was nothing else he could do. Our husband/father/friend had passed away. Passed away? Passed away? What does that euphemism even mean? Is he coming back?
I remember the white lines of the silent motorway strobing beneath the headlamps of our neighbour’s car as he drove us home, cruelly emulating a pulse.
I remember a refrain that kept pace with the pulse. There is no god. There is no god. There is no god. There never was.
I remember climbing into bed in the early hours of that morning, wondering how I could do something as normal as sleeping, when the world had ended.
I remember waking to a fresh horror. An impossible terror: I’d never see my Dad again.
My new life fed on pain, a parasite of the old life. Every morning I awoke to the horror of that same first thought. He’s gone: and not gone as if he could return. Rather vanished. Extinguished. Was he ever real? Could I prove it?
Give it time, family friends said. They never said how long that time would be, but in their own time they stopped visiting.
You need to be strong for your mother, they said. But who was going to be strong for me?
You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. You’re wrong. That life’s gone too.
Five years later our first child was born. And with it, like a malignant afterbirth, a new truth. Another painful understanding: because now I could never go back. A little piece of my father was preserved. A spark, carried in this tiny, vulnerable body. Until then, I had always somehow maintained a bizarre hope. Build a time machine! Slip through a wormhole! But after this new life was created, I had to let my father go all over again. If offered that time machine, I would be forced to destroy it — to remove the risk that our child might never exist. And with that knowledge, came the pain of betrayal. I cried that night with pride, with love, with fear, with guilt.
Another five years on, and my beautiful girl had somehow created three sparks, three fragments of my father. Yet I tortured myself every day with questions. Would they look like him? Would I recognise mannerisms that survived the genetic lottery? Did I want them to? Could I bear to look at them if they did?
Yesterday, my wife and I sat on a shop sofa beneath bright lights, inhaling the smoke and perfumed scent of candles atop the coffee table. From the dressing area, our youngest daughter stepped into view, her eyes bright — laughing without a smile, as her grandfather might have done. She turned a complete circle, the wedding dress glittering in the too-bright lighting. Tall, elegant, beautiful.
He would have been so proud, and I wished for the millionth time that he was here to share this moment with us.
Today, I’m 47 years old myself. And I try not to think about ageing.
by Robin K Hickson
The clouds colluded with the sun, hiding her away on my special day. I sat out on the porch as she set, gifting her collaborators red jewels and onyx skirts. I thought that was that, and prepared to go inside to change, when — to top it all — diamonds popped and sparked on the horizon. White and pink explosions of colour, like nightmares I sometimes have.
By the time I was dressed and sitting at the table, allowing Mother to make up my hair, I could no longer hear the ducks out on the pond, only the lonely crescendo of the dogs in their pen.
"He's never going to come if it storms, Mother," I said, set to cry.
"He will. He promised," she stopped brushing and stepped in front of me, "and you’re beautiful."
"Am I? Am I, Mother?"
"Yes, Child. Beautiful, but wilful!“
Mother moved behind me again, pulling my shoulders so my head fell backwards and my hair dropped down over the spine of the chair. She brushed vigorously, almost too hard. She had to pause to tug great handfuls of dead fibre from the bristles.
"Will he still love me if I'm wilful?"
"You're old enough to know better now, Child."
A sudden flash of lightning lit the redwood over the pond. It reminded me that it was dark, and he always came with the darkness.
"He could be here soon, Mother. We must hurry!"
"Your hair! We'll have to leave it up."
"And my dress, Mother?"
Looking down, I could see mud stains and dead leaf fragments where I had been dragged.
"I'll shake it out. Take it off, quick now."
I stood, and looped the dress over my head. A ragged hem caught on my hip, then my lower rib.
"Won't he think I'm terribly skinny, Mother?"
"He won't mind that, Child."
She shook it, a few leaves and small stones flying away to add to the gritty feel of the floor. I remember I used to have shoes.
"Where are my shoes, Mother? The ones with the ribbons? Don't you think he would like those? I have very dainty feet."
"Which is exactly why you don't need shoes. There, put it back on."
Perhaps at a distance the dress would look better; but close to, I still saw the green streaks of dried mud.
The dogs howled. Through the windows, I could see the woods light in staccato. Deep concussions rattled the glassless frames. In one corner of the room, the air gyrated, rousing the lightest of yellowing bones.
"It's getting worse Mother. I don't think he's going to come tonight."
She laughed lightly.
Hot light pulsed around the walls. Ground thunder was sprinkled with the crack-crack of snapping wood. I rushed to the window in time to watch the old redwood splinter in two, silhouetted by the sky barrage. From the night came a sound like ghost trains on distant rails.
Beyond the window, the great redwood fell, and the pond erupted. I tasted the water on my teeth, and I saw my evergreen sisters thrown naked onto the bank.
Mother crossed the room, reaching me before the knock on the door.
"But he's already here, Child," her tone was sad. “He was always here for you.”