Meager Hein

 In these sands men had died hundreds of deaths, most of them formulaic. Some parched by the long gaze of the desert sun. Some shot by the enemy. Some consumed by sudden torrents of earth and water.

 Little Jerry Sanford’s mother tried to have him play outside as much as she could now. From his favourite position in the sandpit, he looked up from his army men to regard a pair of shoes he had not regarded before. Laces done tight. A dark face haloed by the sun. 

 “Must they always die?” the figure said, gesturing at the toys. 

 “Yeah, they kinda have to,” Jerry answered. He entombed one with another handful. 

 “Well,” the figure paused. “That’s a pretty good understanding.”

Jerry ground the last surviving private into the grit, but felt like there was something he was forgetting. He wondered how long the man had to wait for what he wanted. 

The High Priestess

 “I’m afraid this is just the truth,” she said with cool resignation. I looked at the conjurer’s tricks on the table. Bags of pebbles scratched with sigils strewn about at odd angles. A pendulum tied to a frayed bootlace.

 “I’m going to turn out a murderer?” I scoffed. I mean, of course, I’d thought about those kinds of things. Everyone has. I got up in protest. “You wouldn’t even bet on it.”

 “I’d wager two quarters and a 1973 dime your late father gave you,” she called out. I stopped cold. Fingered the coins in my pocket. I slowly moved back into my seat. 

She picked up the cards, and something stirred inside her eyes that made me feel excited in ways I hadn’t yet known.  “Listen to me, child,” she said, showing me the image of Death, “and I will show you how not to get caught.”

Upir

 Mr. Charleston’s work was unmistakable. The village’s only major celebrity, he’d mixed his paints himself from pigments he found in the neighbourhood. Charcoal foraged from the woodburners’ remains. Ochre dug out from deep in forest reserves, his brushstroke as good as a signature to all who lived in that antiquated hamlet. 

 It was this the locals had in mind when the record-breaking work had been shown on the national news, sold at auction. The date on the painting just last year. They gathered spades and cut old fence posts for the pyre. Poured gasoline into the excavator.

Innate Nurturing Behaviours

 Mice have certain neural pathways associated with motherhood. A chemical receptor in the brain allows them to do things like risk themselves for their offspring. They isolated it. Found it in humans. Made it into a drug and offered it up to women suffering from post-partum depression.  After the change of government, it didn’t take long for people like me to be rounded up. We childless affronts to god.

 All the years I spent explaining to my parents that I don’t want kids. What they said never left me. “There must be something wrong with you.” “Why don’t you see a doctor?” and “Why can’t you be normal?” Normal is productively miserable, living for others’ expectations.

If I stop picking up my prescriptions, or fail to administer a dose, the ParentGuard app notifies the police. Now, I am so very normal.

Plenty More Fish

  She had a list of rules. That I may look at her sketchbook, but only when she is around. That I may hit her, but only when she is awake and asking for it.

 “Will you be my boyfriend?” is a hell of a message to get from someone before your first date. Before you have even met. If that’s a red flag, then loneliness leaves you colourblind. 

 I can tell you the colour and size of her shoes and the tattoos on her breasts but I cannot tell you where she is now or if she is even still alive. We walked around the museum, among dead things, until I found myself alone with the bones.

The Inspection House

 Five minutes until they make you go to the room again. The windows hold a view of the mountain you cannot reach. In the summer it is too hot. In the winter, too cold. But you have to be there. You have to be there for the gathering.

 Four minutes until they make you go to the room again. The instructions printed on A4. Forever the same typeset. They always greet you but never want to hear your voice. The room is an extension, a hearing aid for someone else’s thoughts. 

Three minutes until they make you go to the room again. The tables face one another but there is only one place we are permitted to look. The seats too low for comfort. The chairs older than most of us. They will be all that’s left. 

Two minutes until they make you go to the room again. The building is unheated. Only this room gets warmth, and not much. Only this room needs human presence.

One minute until they make you go to the room again. The years pass but you are no closer to understanding. That may be their intent.

Legacy

 A sword, glum and without sheen. Too ugly to be a display piece, but there it was, above the mantelpiece. Dormant, without its scabbard. 

“Why’d you keep that hideous thing up there, Uncle Vernon?” I ask. He had invited me for dinner, unusually. We hadn’t spoken in years. Not since our argument. He called me a wastrel, pissing away his dead brother’s nest-egg. He wasn’t completely wrong. Two years later and I’m penniless. 

 “There’s an old family legend, lad,” he says over his brandy. “That this weapon must take a life every fifty years, or our house will fall into ruin.” 

 I drain my drink to the ice. “You said this dinner was about a job opportunity, Uncle,” I say with impatience.

 “It is,” he says, unblinking. “Let’s wait for our dinner to go down first.”

It’s never what you want

I and the other boys bet small change on what Ms. Mountfield hides beneath those scarves. Her voice moults each of us like a current smoothing riverbed stones. If she hadn’t moved here from an obscure stretch of the black county we might actually know her real age. Not one appliance outside her store works. They slope in the rain and snow and gather companion weeds.

It draws business for those looking for unique and discontinued items. She has a knack for locating the forgotten. Write your bounty down onto a scrap of paper and press it into her paper-bag skin and she will drag herself away into a dark narrow doorway and root in an abyss for time unspeakable and surface with what you lost.

When I went inside with my little slip asking for a way to know myself she retreated to the lightless hall and returned with nothing. She’s never come back with nothing for anyone before. I stand outside the shop and stare into its orange lights on my evening walks, too afraid to enter a final time.

Being lost is their excuse

The Procurement Service figured some of us born since The End’s beginning have a genetic memory of a time when summer was real. Of orange-lit afternoons, chimes of now phantom bells that passed through windowpanes to ears primed with subliminal triggers. Bodies bursting out of doors with sudden discovered change and purses prized from parental digits. That was their reasoning behind their choice of van.

“You lads,” the officers called from the vehicle. Headlamps glared the dawn and wheels snaked the tarmac. “What kind of road is this to be on by yourselves?”

“Start running, don’t look over your shoulder,” Badger nestled his words in my ear. He pressed the keys to my hand and gave it a squeeze which I did not know at the time was his last embrace. The vans were now something to be kept clear of. Feared in the way that dogs no longer trust human voices.

A Sudden Reunion

 The sand blonde hair of a man who used to ride a BMX and gave me my first cigarettes in his waygone youth greeted me at the doorway. Still in the company of the same friends. Their names return to me now. Big and Little Sam, and Vick. We passed our days sat on sodden timber benches in a shroud of sycamore around the sports centre and passed white lightening hand to hand. How coincidental to happen upon them in this pub, so far from our old lives.

 One of the great hardwood roofbeams had fallen in and exposed the room to the blackened sky. I looked at the way the snow wrapped their clothes like bedsheets of fine ash. They lay huddled around a dormant campfire built under the ruined roof and their lashes were crusted with frost and I imagined how their last pleas to the world were met only by the air that froze their lungs once the life had passed out of them. 

 There was no way to take their wedding rings but to sever the fingers.