All posts in Short Stories

  • Happy Endings

     

    No one in our class really understood Marie. We were only about six when she joined our school, and even then, in that instinctive way that kids sometimes know things, we could all tell she was different. Most of us accepted her, though. People always say how kids can be cruel—which is true—but I think we just wanted to have fun back then. And fun meant having as many friends as possible and seeing who could do the best cartwheels on the school field.

    Even in those days Marie had funny clothes; she said that her parents let her wear whatever she wanted, which made me so jealous. She wore mismatching colours that were so bright it looked like she’d coloured herself in with highlighter pens. Me and Stan thought she looked like a bird because of all the colours, her big nose, and her skinny arms and legs. Stan thought calling her a bird was an insult, but I loved that she was like a bird, and I reckon that I loved her even then, on the first day, when she came up to me in the playground.

    ‘I like your hair,’ she said to me.

    ‘I like your jumper,’ I said.

    ‘Thank you. It’s my favourite. Can I ask you something?’                                                 

    ‘Yeah.’

    ‘Can you tell that I have magical powers when you look at me?’

    ‘No,’ I said. ‘Do you?’

    ‘Maybe,’ she said, smiling her goofy little kid’s smile that she never lost completely. Then she skipped around the playground and I ran after her. We talked about magic some more and pulled sticks off one of the hedges to use as wands.

    We were a wee gang from then on— me, Stan, and Marie—but I can’t remember a lot of what we got up to. And it’s funny, ‘cause even though I’m almost seventeen, I can only really remember the last two years properly. Being a kid seems to have turned into one big day, maybe ‘cause it went by so fast.  I’ve got memories of Marie from back then, but they’re more like separate feelings and images rather than complete stories:

    We went to my house a lot, where we mostly played with my toys and watched TV.

    I was confused once ‘cause she cried when I gave her one of my Barbies. It wasn’t even one of my good ones and I didn’t really like Barbies.

    Mum got annoyed once ‘cause we ate all the bread and jam. But it was Marie who ate most of it. I remember she had jam all over her face and her and Stan couldn’t stop laughing. She chased after him saying, ‘I’m gonna jam kiss you to oblivion!’ I didn’t know what oblivion was, but it was so funny and Stan couldn’t run or breathe he was laughing so much.

    Marie usually got sad when it was time for her to leave; she sometimes found some reason to stay a while longer.

    We danced to Spice Girls and even Stan joined in, but he made us swear not to tell anyone. There was nothing as wonderful as seeing Marie dance. It was mostly ‘cause she didn’t give a toss, but she was also pretty good at it. I didn’t have any rhythm and I felt embarrassed at first, but after a while it was impossible not to join in, ‘cause it was so great watching Marie flail around like a mad swan, moving however the music swayed her. So I stopped giving a toss too, and it felt great.

    We were watching Disney films one night. Just me and Marie. ‘I think they should make Bambi again,’ she said, ‘and her Mummy should be okay this time, and the film can just end with them all playing.’

    Marie stopped coming into school at some point; I don’t know when exactly ‘cause she missed school lots and it wasn’t weird that she hadn’t been in for a few days. Then Mr Kennedy, the headmaster, came into our class one day in his big cloak that made him look like Professor Snape. He told us that Marie had been in an accident, but that she was going to be okay. But he didn’t say what had happened and he still wouldn’t tell me and Stan when we asked him at lunchtime; he just said she’d been in an accident and that it was private.

    We heard rumours about her. Some people said that she’d gotten very sick; others said that her stepdad had burned her and that she was in hospital. Some said that her family had been in a car crash and that they’d moved afterwards—which sort of made sense, ‘cause they had actually moved out of the house; I know ‘cause me and Stan went to the house one day to see if maybe she was there.

    Some of the windows were smashed, but it looked like the kind of house that always had smashed windows. There was a pile of leaves on the doorstep that Stan just kicked aside, which bugged me ‘cause it seemed sort of disrespectful. We peeked through the letter box and saw about a hundred letters on the floor, so we pretty much knew she wasn’t coming back. But I still hoped she’d come into school one day and just sit beside me as though nothing had changed. A month passed. Then a year. And I eventually stopped hoping she’d come back. One day I stopped thinking about her at all.

     

    I was fourteen when I saw Marie again. Me and Stan were in Regent Grammar by then—same form class and everything, which is sort of funny, if you think about it. It was first period and we were in Mr Andrews’ English lesson doing Romeo and Juliet when there was a knock at the door. Marie came in, but I didn’t know it was her right away ‘cause her hair was so long and tatty that it covered most of her face.

    ‘Hi,’ she said, ‘I’m new. I was told to come to this class.’ Her voice was quiet, but familiar.

    ‘Wonderful,’ said Mr Andrews, who was the nicest teacher in the school. ‘We’d love to have you. What’s your name?’

    ‘Marie Fitzpatrick,’ she said, and it all clicked in my head. I looked at Stan, who hadn’t realised at all that this was Marie, our Marie. I elbowed him and whispered ‘It’s Marie!’ and his eyes near popped out of his head.

    She seemed so different, though. And I was different too. I didn’t feel like I could just go up to her and say hi. Instead, I made sure she could see me and I answered loads of questions so that Mr Andrews would say my name a few times and point me out to her. I waited all day for her to come and say hi, but she never did.

    I tried to talk to her the next day, but she just mumbled something I couldn’t understand and fluttered away like a little wren. She never talked to me and never even looked at me. It hurt a little that she’d forgotten me, but I tried not to get too upset about it.

    Everyone in Regent gradually realised how weird Marie was, but even the bullies understood that she was off limits. Or maybe they just realised that they’d get into too much trouble if they got caught bullying someone like Marie. She wasn’t much bigger at fifteen than when she was at primary school, and she had white scars scattered about her face that looked like little petals. I thought they were pretty and I tried not to think about how she got them.

    Marie used to talk to herself. She laughed quietly at her own jokes at the back of class, and when Mrs White once asked her what she was laughing about Marie just went quiet, like she was being told off—which was a shame, ‘cause Mrs White was smiling and was obviously just trying to include her.

    Mostly, people left her alone, and she didn’t seem to mind that ‘cause her big beak of a nose was always in a book. Sometimes I saw her take out some tip-ex and a pen and make changes in whatever book she was reading. After she’d been at Regent for about two months, I managed to sneak up behind her and peek over her shoulder to see what she’d changed in her grubby second-hand copy of Romeo and Juliet. I could just about see the pages, which looked yellow against the bright white of the tip-ex, but I didn’t get a chance to read it before she noticed me and ran away.

    One day, Marie came into school in a cape—like a superhero’s cape—only it was obviously just a bit of old purple curtain she’d cut and sewed along the edges. I felt like we were in primary school again and I could see her dancing so clearly in my mind. She smiled her little kid’s smile that day and I was in love again.

    I bet it took every bit of restraint the bullies had not to make fun of her in that cape. Me and Stan actually fell out ‘cause he was joking about Marie, saying she was a freak and I shouted at him and told him to take it back. And when he didn’t I punched him as hard as I could on the arm and walked away.

    It’s weird how something good can come out of something so bad. When my dog Fiver died Marie finally noticed me again, and I don’t think she would’ve otherwise.

    Mum still made me go to school, even though I couldn’t stop crying. The other girls were nice to me, and even Stan was kind in his own clumsy way: he bought me a Wham bar from the tuck shop. I cried on and off until lunch time; I just couldn’t believe that I wasn’t going to see Fiver’s silly walk and waggy tail again, that she’d just stopped being alive as if it was the easiest thing in the world.

    I sat on my own during lunch and I wasn’t very hungry, but at least I hadn’t cried in a while. Then Marie came over and sat beside me as if it was something she did all the time.

    ‘I heard about your dog,’ she said. ‘I think life is so hard sometimes that it sort of takes your breath away.’

    I couldn’t speak. I’d wanted to talk to her for so long, and here she was beside me, but I didn’t know what to say.

    ‘I’m sorry I haven’t said hi before now,’ she said, then she held my hand and squeezed it gently.

    I let her.

    ‘And I’m so sorry about Fiver,’ she said. ‘I remember her when she was a puppy.’

    I started to cry about Fiver all over again, but I was also so happy that Marie was with me. She hugged me until the end of lunch, and I didn’t care if the other girls were looking at us. 

    When the bell went she reached into her bag and pulled out the purple cape, which she’d folded up tight.

    ‘I know you like my cape,’ she said, handing it to me.

    I didn’t know what to say. I knew she was trying to be nice, but it wasn’t really the cape I’d liked, it was her wearing it. Where most of the girls were trying to dress like grownups, Marie was happy to dress like a little kid. I envied her freedom, which feels so stupid now.

    I knew I couldn’t give Marie the cape back, so it made me sad that I wouldn’t see her in it again. But I thanked her and there was this awkward moment between us where I wanted to tell her how great I thought she was and that I remembered how good a dancer she was. But somehow the words didn’t come, so I just put the cape in my bag and walked back to class.

    That night, when I unfolded the cape I found a book hidden, wrapped inside the fabric. It was her copy of Romeo and Juliet. Because Marie had given it to me, I decided to read it, even though I already knew the story. But Marie’s version of the story was different; she had made changes using little strips of tip-ex and neatly printed letters. She’d only made small changes at the beginning, but she’d actually tip-exed the entire last act, which was more than twenty pages long! She’d changed it, giving the play a happy ending. She made sure the priest’s letter got to Romeo in time, so that he knew Juliet was just pretending to be dead and that she was really just in a deep sleep. So instead of killing himself, Romeo waited for her to come find him and they went off together, living happily ever after.

    Reading Marie’s version of Romeo and Juliet made me feel like my heart was going to burst out of my chest. I’d heard people talk about love as feeling like that, but I’d never felt it for someone before. It wasn’t like the way I loved Mum and Dad or anything—it was bigger and scarier and so wonderful that I couldn’t stop smiling.

    I found her the next day and told her how much I loved her happy ending, which seemed to make her really happy. She came up to me after lunch with two more books, both full of tip-ex and her neat handwriting. The first book was about Icarus—that guy with the wings who fell. Marie made it so that instead of flying close to the sun and melting his wings like he was supposed to, he flew backwards, into the night. There, the air was cool and the wax kept the wings together until he reached land.

    The other story was much longer. It was A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway and it took me over a week to read. Marie had left most of it as it was; it was just the ending she’d edited. I don’t know what was supposed to have happened in the original, but it can’t have been good, otherwise Marie wouldn’t have changed it. She made it so that the nurse in the story had her baby and they all lived happily ever after in Switzerland. I didn’t really like the story, but I liked that Marie shared it with me.

                For the next few months, she kept bringing me her tip-exed stories. I read them, then we talked about them after. Well, I talked mostly, and she listened. She was quieter than she used to be, and she looked tired all the time. She was so different to how she was when we were younger and it made me sad in a way I didn’t understand. I still don’t, I suppose. But I was also glad that she let me be her friend again. We talked about the other stories she was going to change and she said something that I know I’ll never forget:

    ‘Life’s too hard already. Stories should make us happy—at least for a while.’

    I agreed with her. I still do. So I started editing books too, but I wasn’t nearly as good as Marie. Not back then, at the start. But I think I’m pretty great at it now, if I’m being honest.

    I asked her what had happened with her scars and where she’d been all those years. I asked her a few times, waiting for the right moments, but I guess no moment was right ‘cause she never gave me an answer and always managed to change the subject. So I stopped asking after a while and just let those things go unsaid. I like the idea that she’d tip-exed over her bad memories and that’s why she wouldn’t say—‘cause she’d made herself forget. But I know that’s not how memory works. Not really. So I just let her be herself. She was still like a little bird, except her feathers weren’t the neon blues and yellows of highlighters anymore, and we didn’t dance to the Spice Girls. But we talked a lot and we edited a lot of stories. It was better than before, but harder too.

    Then she stopped coming to school one day, just like before. This time the principal actually told everyone what had happened. He announced it at assembly, just before the prayer. I could barely speak or think properly for days, and it’s only now that I’m starting to get my head straight about her and how I feel about it all. I keep thinking it’s like that letter in Romeo and Juliet and I wonder if someone could’ve got to her in time and said something. And I wonder if I could’ve helped her if I’d known how bad things really were. But Dad says that there’s probably nothing I could have done and that obsessing over it won’t help her, or me.

    I worry that she’d have hated this story because it has a sad ending. But I hope she wouldn’t. I hope she’d smile that kid’s smile that always made my heart feel too big, take out her tip-ex and her pen, and get to work. Perhaps I’ll edit it myself and take out most of the bad stuff—give it a happy ending, Marie-style. But right now I need this version, ‘cause it’s about her. What I saw of her, anyway. And I can’t edit out the real her just yet.

     

  • Be Careful What You Wish For

    Dear mortal,

    I would like to introduce myself to you: my name is Azur and I am a genie. If you were told that there are no genies in this world, then you have been lied to, for I most certainly am a genie.  Or a djinn, as some used to call my kind. But I am a modern genie and I prefer this term to the old names for me and my kin. We were not made from Shaytan as some men have claimed. Indeed, Shaytan is not even a genie: he is a man. This is obvious, don’t you think, if you consider his pride, his great sorrow, his humanity?

    Read more

  • Ren

    Ren swallowed every pill on the tray.

    ‘Thanks Ms Argent,’ said the doctor. ‘You’ll feel the pain start to ease off in thirty minutes or so. Drink plenty of water.’

    ‘Thanks doctor, I–’ she began, but the doctor had already made it more than halfway towards the door.

    Perhaps there’ll only be one more day of this. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

    ‘Granny!’ a voice shouted from the door.

    ‘My little gremlin,’ Ren said, stifling a cough. If she started coughing she might never stop.

    Sarah waddled in, followed by Siobhan and Colm. Sarah scrambled onto the bed.

    ‘Please, doctor! Help!’ Ren cried with as much melodrama as she could muster, ‘A terrible little gremlin is trying to give me hugs and kisses!’

    Sarah’s high-pitched giggles were beautiful and she kissed her grandmother’s face. Ren stopped shouting and closed her eyes. She smelled Sarah’s talcy skin and she was young again—a new mother, between acting jobs, holding baby Siobhan in her arms. She was peaceful in that moment—or at least in the memory of it—and she didn’t worry which pub Brian had been in for days or which woman’s bed he was hiding in this time. Ren was sitting in the café near her flat, and she sniffed Siobhan’s downy hair; it had a smell she hadn’t known before and her heart clattered and banged so violently that it hurt. Ren was overwhelmed by her baby’s newness and helplessness. Her sleeping face stirred, her brow stiffened, and her little mouth, always so serious, began to pout as she awoke from whatever dreams a sleeping baby can imagine.

    ‘Granny? Open your eyes.’

     Ren was back in the hospital room with her family, her little people, and that pain screaming in her lungs and down her back. The pain was almost everywhere now and she couldn’t remember how it felt to be without it.

    ‘Why are your eyes closed?’ asked Sarah.

    ‘I was just remembering what it was like when your mummy was a wee thing, younger than you are now. Your hair smells like hers did back then.’

    ‘What did her hair smell like?’ Sarah’s face was so serious it made Ren smile.

    ‘Well,’ she paused and made a great show of thinking about it, ‘it smelled like horrible gremlin snot.’

    ‘Uugh!’ said Sarah, sticking out her tongue.

    ‘I happen to love little gremlins,’ Ren said, and Sarah hugged her.

    That lovely pain was in her chest again.

    Colm shuffled around to her left. He sat facing her, his back to the window; the sunlit blinds glowed brightly behind him, hurting her eyes and obscuring his face so that he was just an outline of her son. He held her hand and squeezed it gently. Then he lifted it to his lips and kissed her fingers. It was a natural gesture for him, even though he was almost thirty. She loved how he’d always been unafraid to feel whatever he felt. In this way—in all ways—he was hers and not his father’s. Ren couldn’t see a single feature of Brian in him. It was as though she’d budded him purely from herself, like a gardener cloning her plants. Perhaps that’s why she loved him a little more than Siobhan. And perhaps this was narcissistic, but it was too late to care about that now.

    ‘You okay?’ asked Colm.

    ‘Yes. Well, no. I suppose I’m not. But, you know…’

    He stared passed her, avoiding her eyes, and although she couldn’t quite see his face she knew that he could see hers, that he could see clearly how sick and emaciated she had become. She rolled over a little in her bed and moved her hand over her eyes. No son should have to see his mother like this.

    ‘You’re crying, Granny,’ said Sarah, on the other side of her. ‘Why are you crying?’

    ‘She’s just feeling emotional,’ said Siobhan. She looked at Colm, nodded, then picked up Sarah.

    ‘Come on. We’ll see if that wee shop down at the entrance has any sweeties, eh?’

    Sarah struggled in her mother’s arms. ‘But I want Granny!’

    ‘I know, but we’ll come right back. Granny’s just going to talk to Uncle Colm for a wee bit. Alright? Come on. We’ll phone Daddy at work and see if he’s coming to visit.’

    Sarah looked sullen, but she kept quiet as Siobhan took her away. The room was too still without her. Ren felt the warmth of Colm’s hand in hers. His skin was soft, except for the tough calluses on the tips of his fingers. He must have seen her squinting at the light as she tried to look at him because he stood up and walked around to sit on the chair on the right side of her bed. Such a sweet boy.

    She must have winced in pain because Colm grimaced and squeezed her arm, careful not to disturb the needle held in place with tape.

    ‘How’s Jamie?’ she asked, putting the pain aside, rising above the black exhaustion pulling at her.

    ‘He’s good. He’s playing at the opera house tonight.’

    ‘Lovely. What’s the opera?’

    ‘Parsifal. You know the one about the knight on a quest for the Holy–’

    ‘–I know about Parsifal, you pup.’ Ren said. ‘I saw it in London back in the noughties, when I was thirteen or fourteen, and I’ve seen it several times since.’

    She eyed him and he avoided her gaze.

    ‘Why aren’t you playing in it?’ she said, completing the question her eyes began.

    He ran his hand through his hair.

    ‘Colm? Why aren’t you playing? Do they not need a principal cello?’

    He rubbed his eyes.

    ‘Colm?’

    ‘I can’t play at the minute,’ he said. ‘Not with you in here, like this. They’ve given me compassionate leave and Marla’s getting a chance to play first chair. It’s a good opportunity for her.’

    Sweet Colm. Feeling everything.

    She smiled at him. ‘It’s okay, you know.’

    ‘It’s not okay,’ he said, his voice cracking a little, his eyes studying the floor.

    ‘No, I suppose it isn’t, but I know it will be. It’s just one of those things.’

    He started to shudder, his grief terrible in its silence, and she had no clue how to help him.

     

    A long silence held them both and Ren might have been lulled to sleep by it if she hadn’t been forming a plan in her mind.

     

    ‘Maybe it is okay,’ said Ren, hesitating before deciding to go on. ‘Maybe it’s okay because I’m going to be a second timer.’

    Colm stiffened and sniffed wetly. Ren didn’t understand the expression on his face at first. Then, gradually, she could see happiness there, and fear.

    He rushed to the door and closed it.

    ‘You’re not allowed to tell anyone you’re going to be a second timer,’ he hissed. ‘How’d you get the approval? Surely you don’t have the money—or the points?’

    ‘That’s a lot of questions, pup,’ she said, ‘and I’ve got five thousand points, if you must know.’

    The shock on his face was brilliant; drama had always been Ren’s gift.

    ‘How the hell did you get five thousand points? You’ve almost got enough for a third time.’

     ‘I got the points from back when I acted in Macbeth,’ she said. ‘Someone must’ve seen me in the play and thought a lot of my performance. It says so on my transcript: five thousand Second Time Points awarded for an outstanding performance as Lady Macbeth in blah de blah blah.’

    ‘But that was twenty years ago,’ Colm said. ‘Ordinary people’ve only just started getting sent back.’

    ‘I know, but I guess someone that’s part of the programme—some scientist, probably—must’ve seen me in Macbeth and remembered to save those points for me. It’s mad, but there you have it.’

    ‘But time travel didn’t even exist then.’

    ‘You’re normally brighter than this, pup,’ Ren said, considering a new angle. ‘Look. Someone, probably one of the first people to go back in time, will’ve gone back to a point prior to the invention of the technology that makes time travel possible. This person, my mystery benefactor, must have watched me act my socks off back then. They must have been so impressed that they made a note of my name and the number of points they thought I deserved.’

    Colm’s face scrunched; the poor boy was so confused he looked like he might go cross-eyed. Then he let out a loud, exasperated breath.

    ‘But that many points would only usually go towards a scientist or someone useful,’ he said. ‘It’s weird for them to give so much to an actor.’

    ‘Come now, boy,’ she said, smirking, ‘don’t write off my entire career. It was maybe not saving lives, but it was a good thing. I took people away from themselves for a moment or two. And that can relief can be exquisite.’

    ‘Yeah. Okay. I’m sorry. But when did you find out about this?’

    ‘About seven years ago. When this all started, I got a letter from The Second Time Programme. It told me about my points and how far that’d get me back. ‘And it told me the rules. As if we don’t all already know about their damn rules.’

     She stifled a laugh, and it turned into a cough that lasted for over a minute. She buckled forwards with the pain of it; her body only felt strong when she was coughing. Colm rubbed her back until the coughing subsided.

     ‘Why’d you wait until now to use your points?’ he asked, when she was still again.

    ‘I waited because Siobhan got pregnant and I was going to be a granny for the first time. I had to hang around for that.’ Ren took her glass of water from the bedside table and took a sip. She felt like she might drop the glass, but Colm took it from her before she could.

    ‘Then,’ she continued. ‘Then you got into the orchestra and met Jamie. I’d never seen you so happy. I had to see what happened next. I had so many people—my little people—I couldn’t just close the book and not read the next chapter.’

    Colm smiled. He hadn’t smiled at her like that since she’d been in hospital. Probably even longer. She stroked the dimple on the right side of his face. Neither of them spoke for a while.

    ‘So,’ Colm said, dispelling the little silence they’d made with their thoughts, ‘when are you going back?’

    ‘Tomorrow,’ she said, perhaps too quickly.

    ‘Ah.’ His eyes welled up again.

    ‘It’s okay,’ she told him.

    ‘I know it is, but I’m going to miss you.’

    ‘They’ll tell you that I died in my sleep, but you’ll know better, won’t you?’

    He nodded, holding her hand to his face.

    ‘Don’t you tell anyone about this, you hear?’ said Ren. ‘You could get in big trouble just for knowing about it.’

    ‘I know,’ he nodded. ‘It’s safe with me. I won’t even tell Jamie.’

    ‘Good,’ she wiped the tears from his face.

    ‘When are you going back to?’ he asked.

    ‘My points get me back to 2012.’

    ‘That’s far. I know they say that it’s all totally safe, but I’ve heard about second timers making such big mistakes that their children are never born. Aren’t you scared you’ll slip up?’

    ‘No, dear. It’s complicated.’ Ren stopped and thought about it for a moment. ‘Okay. Well think about it like this: all time travel that will ever happen has happened already, so no one can become unborn and everyone who’s alive today will always be alive today. The man from Second Time explained it to me, but it’s all stuff I’d heard before on the telly. We’re sent back into our own minds, into our younger bodies, and all that jazz… But the Second Time man emphasised how foolproof the failsafes are that stop us ruining our timeline. Whatever I do, whatever I change, it’ll be small.’

    ‘So you can avoid Dad this time?’ he asked, his voice quiet.

    ‘Yeah. They’ve already cloned yours and Siobhan’s DNA. They’ve made embryos that will be sent back in time. All I have to do is turn up at the clinic on the days you were conceived and they’ll implant you. It’s incredible how they’ve done it.’

    Colm picked at a bit of rough skin on his finger. His right heel jittered on the hard tiles.

    ‘So he can’t hurt us again?’ he asked, not looking up at her.

    ‘No. He can’t hurt us. Actually, he’ll never have hurt us—if we’re getting our tenses straight.’ They both laughed.

    ‘Is it okay that you’ll never meet your Dad? I won’t be able to explain it to you. That much will be changed forever.’

    ‘Yeah. That’s fine,’ he said. ‘Just be happy. It’s all I’ve ever wanted for you. You won’t get infected this time around?’ He asked. ‘Or should I say that you won’t have got infected this time?’

    ‘No. I hope not. What’s the point in getting a second chance at things if you have to go through all of the bad stuff again? I know when and where I got it, so I know to just make sure I go to a different hospital or to tell them that I don’t want a blood transfusion after the operation.’

    ‘But won’t someone else get it, then?’ he asked.

    ‘I don’t know. But is that really my responsibility?’

    He looked sad, and maybe he thought it was her responsibility. Maybe he was right.

     ‘Anyway,’ she said, ‘they said they’re going to fix everything sooner or later.’

    ‘Sooner or later is meaningless now,’ said Colm, tears in his soft eyes. ‘And when you go back we’ll be different, and this conversation will have never happened?’

    ‘Yes. Perhaps. Or perhaps we get to live this life before it changes. Perhaps we’re here, really here, and then tomorrow, when I’m twenty-five, I’ll change things so that this never happens. But it will have happened. Because it did. We’re here now. We’ve always been here. You know what I mean?’

    Ren could tell that he liked that idea. She knew he was right about her disease. She hadn’t thought about that. She’d lived with it for twenty-five years and she couldn’t remember the last time she felt truly clean. When she was first diagnosed, she scrubbed her skin for hours in the bath and she fasted and drank only water for days. She felt purified for a little while. And the drugs brought down her viral load so it was negligible. They told her the virus was actually undetectable in her system. But she knew it was always there. She could feel it.

    ‘But what about the cancer?’ Colm asked.

    ‘What about it?’

    ‘Can they prevent that? Never mind the bloody HIV—it’s just sitting there—it’s the cancer that’s killing you.’

    ‘I don’t know. They said that there’s a chance I mightn’t get it the next time. But there’s also a chance that I might get it earlier. It’s all guesswork with cancer—even for them. But at least I won’t have the other one hanging over me, eh?’

    ‘Yeah. I suppose,’ he said and he stared at the floor, looking for his next question.

    ‘Do you have any requests?’ she asked.

    ‘What do you mean?’

    ‘Is there anything you want me to change for you?’

    ‘No. I mean, no thanks. I wouldn’t change any of it. Not because there’s nothing I’d like to have gone another way, but because there’re no obvious big things to change.’

    They were silent for a moment, neither able to follow an idea so big, so nebulous.

    ‘Being twenty-five is the only thing I’ve let myself think about,’ Ren said, eventually.

    Colm smiled. ‘What were you doing then? Was that when you were in Oz?’ 

    She nodded, ‘Yeah. I’d just broken up with Michael Bowe. He cried when I told him I was going to Australia alone. I mistook his tears for weakness and I was embarrassed for him. If only I’d settled down with someone that could cry.’

    ‘Well I suppose you’ve got me and Siobhan; we’ve been known to shed a tear or two.’

    ‘Yes. That you have. You’re braver and more sensitive than most.’

    ‘I wish I’d toughen up a little, though,’ he said. ‘It can be a bit much sometimes.’

    ‘Yes, wee thing, you feel too much. But then, so do I. Just remember that there’s nothing wrong with allowing yourself to get distracted sometimes. Just let your mind wander onto something less painful. Maybe, if your brain allows it, lie to yourself now and then: say it’s all going to be okay, even if it probably isn’t. Feeling everything is the best way to be alive, but it hurts.’

    Colm nodded. Something in her words felt like an ending and neither of them knew what to say next. The pain flushed through Ren’s back, along her legs, and to the tips of her toes. But this pain was somehow separate from her, hidden away in a different room of her body. They sat together, in silence.

    Finally, Siobhan and Sarah came back.

    ‘Everything okay?’ Siobhan said, looking scared.

    ‘Yeah,’ said Colm, ‘we’re just a couple of softies having a bit of a cry.’

    Siobhan’s posture relaxed and she let go of Sarah’s hand. Sarah walked around to Colm and hugged him.

    ‘Mummy said to hug you.’ 

    ‘Thanks, chum. I needed that,’ he said and he kissed her cheek.

    ‘Mummy also said that you’re the nice one, and that she’s the useful one.’

    Colm laughed, and Siobhan’s instant embarrassment was soon replaced with a smile.

    They talked for a while. Ren mainly listened as she dipped in and out of consciousness. It was nonsense talk, really, but it was nice. Then Colm took Sarah to the toilet and it was just Ren and Siobhan.

    ‘So,’ said Siobhan, ‘how are you actually feeling?’

    Ren coughed a little, but even her coughing had lost its power now.

    ‘I can’t lie to you,’ she said. ‘I think I’ve got about one more day in me. Maybe less.’

    Siobhan’s eyes filled up.

    ‘Oh, not you too,’ said Ren. ‘I’ve just had Colm crying his eyes out.’

    Siobhan sniffed and looked up. No tears. Siobhan was always strong.

    ‘No. I’m fine,’ she said. ‘I’m okay. We knew this was coming.’

    ‘We did. Now I’m sick of talking about death. It’s boring me. I need some normality. Tell me about work; have they closed that deal yet?’

    Siobhan rolled her eyes. ‘Believe me, you don’t want to get me talking about the bloody deal. It’ll be the death of me.’

    ‘That’s a little insensitive, Siobhan!’

    They both laughed.

    Colm and Sarah returned and they talked until the nurse came to announce that visiting hours were over. The nurse must have seen the fear in Ren’s face, or perhaps he also suspected that she didn’t have long.

    ‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘They can stay. Just keep it down and I’m sure it’ll be fine.’ He set a fresh glass of water beside her bed and left. He didn’t even pretend to offer her food.

    Sarah fell asleep on Ren, and the September sun began to set. No one bothered to turn the light on and the room darkened with the rest of the world. Ren felt light, almost weightless, as though all that was left of her was a little bit of air floating around in her head. It dawned on her that she might die now, in front of them all and it would undo everything she had said to Colm.

    ‘Right, little ones,’ she said, her voice as big and confident as she could make it. ‘I need to get some sleep, so I’m chucking you all out.’

    Colm and Siobhan looked solemn, but tired, and maybe a little relieved. But Ren saw something else in Colm’s eyes.

    They gathered their things and Siobhan kissed Ren before lifting Sarah, limp and sleeping, up into her arms.

    Colm hugged Ren tight.

    ‘Good luck in Australia,’ he said so that only she could hear him.

    She winked at him and they left her with waves and smiles.

     

    Late into the night, the pain got so bad that they increased her morphine.

    ‘I’m going back in time tomorrow,’ she said, the room spinning like a vortex. ‘The Second Time people.’

    The nurse sighed and looked around for a doctor or another nurse before he spoke.

    ‘Yes,’ he said, his voice as bright as he could manage. ‘I know all about it, Ms Argent. Second Time has sent me to get you ready for the procedure.’

    ‘Oh, wonderful. I was so scared for a while there… but I can’t even remember why.’

    ‘I know,’ he said. ‘There’s no need to be scared. Let’s get you back in time, eh?’

    ‘Yes. Yes. That’s so wonderful. My little people all over again.’

     

     

  • Window

    *This short piece started out as an exercise in free indirect speech. 
    It was also a personal writing challenge, as I wanted to see how many times 
    I could transfer the perspective from Gerard to Grace and back again. 
    This story featured in Issue 37 of From Glasgow to Saturn.

     

    Gerard had been back for at least five minutes. He hadn’t meant to be so quiet, but he must have been because Grace hadn’t noticed him from where she stood by the kitchen window, looking out. He couldn’t imagine what she could see from there. It was just the garden she’d insisted on once and had since let go to ragwort and wild mint. Past the garden were the fields: the carrots, which were barely sprouting, then the cabbages, which were good for business when the rabbits hadn’t eaten away a few hundred pounds-worth. But surely gazing at green cabbage wasn’t much better than looking at grass? It might’ve been the yew way over on the hill that she was looking at—it was a grand tree—but it was probably too far away to admire from that window.

    There wasn’t anything special about this window; Grace could barely see where they were buried from here. If she wanted, she could see them clearly from the bedroom, but when she looked out at them from upstairs she got ideas she didn’t like. She could just about see through the hedges, though. There they were, planted in the ground, yielding nothing but weeds. Six months had seen the mounds of soil sink flat. That word, mound, spun around in her head. The ragwort had claimed the whole garden months ago, but the weeds where the mounds had been were different, darker, and Grace had a horrible idea that it was because they were more nourished than the others.

    ‘Grace, will you come and sit with me?’ Gerard said from behind her. She started and was too surprised to respond. He was meant to be in town; it had just been her and the girls.

    ‘I thought you wouldn’t be back until dinner,’ she said, her voice so quiet that Gerard had to strain to make it out. ‘You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that.’

    Gerard wished he hadn’t strained to hear her; her distant tone still had some bite in it and he clenched his hands into fists. But there was no use in getting angry, so he let it slip away as easy as it had come. He sighed. Then he whistled to try and make her smile (she’d always liked his terrible whistling). But she didn’t react at all.

    ‘I didn’t sneak up,’ he said, when the silence got too much. ‘You just didn’t notice me.’

    Grace didn’t respond. She didn’t move her gaze from outside. She knew he was right, but she didn’t want to tell him that. He didn’t gloat when he was right, but there was always victory in his eyes and he was always so proud that he wasn’t a bad winner.

    ‘What are you looking at?’ he asked her, his voice too loud and hard—the voice of a farmer who’s spent years in the wind and the rain. She didn’t want to answer. He had no right to see them there, in the places he’d dug for them with his own hands as though it was as easy as a spot of gardening or a morning’s work in the fields. It had been winter when he’d buried them, but he had sweated. And then he’d come in hungry from his labour, the loamy soil stuck to his boots. He’d sat down to make himself a sandwich with the butter and ham and bread set out and he actually looked content. He was always happiest when he was busy.

    Gerard walked right up to her without her even noticing. He could smell her soft hair and he couldn’t see anything but his memories. It’s strange how much memory a smell can uncover—like wind blowing up seeds that don’t take.

    ‘You don’t see, do you?’ she said. And for a second she was right, and he couldn’t admit it to her. But then he saw.

    ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I see.’

    ‘You don’t see,’ she said, turning to look him in the face as he lied to her. He wasn’t crying. Never did. But there was something alive in his dull blue eyes and she knew he could see them.

    ‘Our girls,’ he said, ‘I didn’t realise you could see them from here. I thought it was just from upstairs.’

    ‘You don’t cook,’ she said. ‘You don’t do the dishes anymore. You’re never in here long enough to even look out the window.’    

    She turned from him. Back to the garden. They stood there, together, and stared at the place where there had once been mounds, where the grass and weeds were darker.

     

  • The Monkey Monster

    *This is one of the silliest things I’ve ever written and I make no apology for it*

     

    I doubt you’ll believe this, but it’s absolutely true. Seriously. There’s an invisible monster thing that follows some people. Even though no one’s ever seen it, some say it’s a kind of monkey that never stops laughing and only dogs and babies and old Japanese men can hear it.

    The monkey monster rolls around the floors and ceilings of our homes and we can’t even hear the bumps and thumps it makes. It slings its invisible monkey monster shit everywhere and laughs like hell when the shit lands right into people’s yawning mouths. They swallow its shit down into their bellies and part of the monkey monster’s trickster spirit is in their system for a day or two. If you accidently swallow some, you’ll find yourself dancing on the train platform or slamming out some absolutely stinking ghost drum solos whilst you’re sitting on the bus with your headphones on. If there’s enough monkey shit still in there you won’t even care when a few of those stuck-up bus bastards laugh at you.

    But the monkey monster can disrupt your quiet little life in other ways – in ways that don’t involve force feeding you his crap. If he takes a real shine to you he’ll haunt you for weeks and even months. Sometimes he whispers jokes into your ears and part of you hears these jokes – it’s that part only kids know about – the part that used to be a fancy monkey, before the homos met the sapiens. You almost hear his jokes and you don’t smile at first, ‘cause you wouldn’t even really know what you’re laughing at and you’re still thinking about all the worries and resentments that have grown like weeds in your mind. But one day, after the monkey has been telling you jokes for weeks, you smile for no damn reason. And it’s easier to smile after that.

    The monkey also loves to point out the good stuff you don’t always see. He points out little dogs with smiling faces. He points out cats that try to fit their whole bodies into cereal boxes. He points out when the ad hoc curry you make out of whatever crap you have lying around your home is easily the best goddamn curry you’ve ever had and you think you could eat it until you die and that it would be a sweet way to go.

    Despite all his rolling around, the monkey monster can be a lazy little scamp, and he loves nothing more than making his new favourite person stop what they’re doing and relax with him. There’s probably no way you’ll believe this part, but he’s like a full-on ghost masseuse and he rubs your shoulders and whispers little soothing messages into your ears so that you chill the fuck out every now and then. He helps you feel like you’re taking time for yourself, which is nice, but you’re actually with him and he’s probably snoozing beside you. Sometimes there’s a whole bunch of shit you have to do and it’s stressing you out so much you could die, and the monkey just makes you forget about it and sit in the grass outside and make daisy chains or draw made-up dinosaurs with too many horns and legs that are too small to support their weight. And then, when you finally get back to all the things you had to do before the monkey grabbed your attention, you realise that most of that stuff isn’t worth doing – which is pretty sweet.

    And sometimes the monkey does something totally sick when you’re at your most alone and despair has settled into your heart so bad you can’t move and you’ve forgotten how fun it can be to be a fancy monkey and how amazing it is that we’re even alive at all. The monkey – who is a complete sicko, btw – just leaves you alone with your troubles, ‘cause sometimes life is so tough and you’ve gotta feel all of it before you can be a crazy monkey again. There’s no rush. The monkey is easily in the top five most patient monsters in the world.

    It totally depends how long the monkey monster wants to spend with you – ‘cause it takes longer to disrupt different people. But it’s a day-by-day sort of thing, and the disruption is so subtle almost no one notices the little changes – the layers of tiny moments stacked on top of one another. But suddenly it just hits you ‘cause you’re smiling for no damn reason and you realise you’ve been happy for days now and it’s such a relief you start crying. But it’s okay; it’s the good kind of crying. Then the monkey decides to leave you. He’s in the disruption business, and there’s not much left for him to disrupt. So he’s off to fuck shit up in someone else’s life. And he says goodbye before he goes, even though you never really knew he was there.

     

     

  • The Figure

     

    The darkness of the room presses down on your guests, depressing their postures, causing the many whispering candles on the table to shake and shudder under its weight.

                You’re close to the guests, but not part of them. You’re a shimmering reflection of the candles and it’s as though you have a light source all of your own. You wait until the guests are completely quiet before you begin.

                ‘There’s a figure who follows me,’ you say, your voice strong but quiet enough that those furthest away have to lean in to hear you. ‘I first noticed him when I was five or six years old.  I say him instead of it because I have always had a sense that the figure was a man — that he looked at me the way a man might look at the young girl I used to be and the woman I’ve become.’

                As if to prove your womanhood, you take out a cigarette from the packet and place it to your lips. The snap of the lighter is loud and the tip of your cigarette sizzles brightly, casting shadows across your soft features.

                ‘He would watch me in dark rooms. I couldn’t see him, but I could feel his gaze. Sometimes I felt like prey, like a deer sitting exposed in the opening of a dark wood. Sometimes I felt naked, in a spotlight, his eyes working over me.

                ‘Once, when my mother made me sleep over at my cousin’s house, I thought I saw his feet and ankles below the long curtains of her bedroom. It was as though he was standing behind it, waiting for his moment. I screamed and scared my cousin half to death. She turned on the big light and his feet were gone. But an afterimage was burned into my eyes and I can still remember the worn black leather of his boots and the draping of a cloak on either side.’

                You pause here, feeling everyone’s eyes fixed on you, your face, your body. You are used to this sensation — of being watched — but you are still not immune to it. Even after all these years.

                ‘After that night,’ you say, ‘I began to see him everywhere — or parts of him, at least. Once, I saw a hand; his fingers were curled around the edge of my door when it creaked open in the night. I felt him there, in the room: a sort of heat, a stare, weak, hungry, hard. And all I could do against such a presence was wrap myself in blankets so that he could not see a single inch of me. He waited there all night, just beyond the blankets. Then, when light started peeking through my blanket, I knew he was gone — for a while, at least.

                ‘One autumn evening, when I was playing in the street with my friend, I looked up at my bedroom window to see a man’s face, malignant and laughing, staring down at me. I turned to my friend and asked her if she could see him, but when I pointed to my window he was gone.’

                You take one last drag from your cigarette and put it out in the ashtray. Some of the guests are smiling; they are thrilled by your story. Others are not smiling, and their breathing is fast and deep. My breathing is faster too. I’ve watched you tell this story a few times over the last few weeks, but I’m excited tonight.

                ‘I visited a medium when I was fifteen,’ you say. ‘I was tired of feeling scared, but mostly I was tired of never feeling alone. And I was growing into a woman then, and the figure’s stare felt different than before. Charged. Shivering. Breathless. The medium wasn’t the old-gypsy-woman cliché I’d been expecting. She was tall, wore very fine jewellery, and she spoke with the kind of accent you can only acquire from an expensive education. A few people were there for the séance that night, and she lit several candles and set them on the table — a little like we have tonight. She made us all hold hands like they always do in films and she said a lot about lost family members and about how they wanted their loved ones to move on. But when she got to me, she looked above my head and gasped. She looked away and closed her eyes. “No. No. No,” she said, “I don’t see you. You’re not there.” Then she leaned forwards and blew out the candles and stumbled her way to the light switch in the dark and turned it on, dazzling all of us for a few seconds. She looked over at me, or rather to the space above my head, and sighed, relieved. The other guests were distressed and some of them ran from the room. Others tried to save face by walking out slowly. But all of them left. Then it was just me and the medium.

    ‘I asked her what she saw. “I saw nothing, dear,” she lied. “I’m sorry if I frightened you, but I saw nothing at all and I’m tired and I must ask you to leave.”

    ‘I was scared — of course I was — but I was also angry that this woman could lie to my face. “I don’t know why you can’t tell me the truth,” I said to her, “but this figure has been following me since I was a little girl and I need your help.” The hardness in her expression softened then and she smiled. It was a strange thing to see her smile so suddenly. “I saw nothing,” she said again. “I saw nothing and no one here should think otherwise. But I’ll tell you a story that might interest you, just because the rest have gone and because you paid me upfront. There are spirits all around us. And most are harmless. Some, however, are not. Some of them have forgotten everything about who they once were. They are dark things, more volition and instinct than consciousness, and they follow those of us who shine a little brighter than the others. Once they find the object of their desire they watch them every moment of every day, and they try desperately to be seen in return. They can only reveal themselves in small amounts — a foot, a hand, a face — before they are gone again, unseen again. But this is how they gain momentum, how they build themselves up into something more. Any acknowledgement you give them feeds them, making them more than they were. Any thought you dedicate to them brings them closer to the moment when they can finally touch you. But this is also the only way to see them, to finally face them, to fight back, to look back and tell them that you see them too. Some of these figures can even be vanquished.

    “However, I think it is always best to ignore their gaze, to laugh and smile and talk about how you have not seen them. It is a waiting game, and if you are vigilant enough, you can ignore them until you are old or perhaps even longer.”’

    You stop and look around your guests again, your eyes counting them. Your eyes almost shine in the candlelight and your breasts swell and sink with your quickening breaths. Are you excited? Scared? Angry?

    ‘The medium wanted me to take her advice and ignore the figure,’ you say. ‘And I did as she suggested for a few years, but it’s exhausting to always pretend he isn’t here, that he isn’t gazing at me with such wicked desire. So a few weeks ago I put an advertisement in the paper offering to pay people to come to my house and listen to this story. And this is why you are all here tonight. I tell all of you this story because it gives him substance, and I’ll be able to see him soon — I can feel it. I want to look him right in his eyes before he comes at me. And maybe I’ll win. I almost don’t care anymore; I just want it to be over. I’d rather bring him out and face him than pretend every moment for the rest of my life. Now I ask him to show himself to me. Whatever he has planned for me it could not be as bad as the waiting and the dread of waiting. Perhaps, tonight will be the night.’

    You look around at your guests, gazing into their eyes, focusing on their features, looking for a face that is both laughing and malignant. Perhaps you’ll see me this time. If not tonight, then soon. I can wait.

     

  • Losing Virginia

     

    Vincent absent-mindedly twists his ring round and round on his finger, trancelike, ignoring the oven timer beeping beeping beeping beeping—

    Fuck, he rushes to the kitchen, fuck fuck fuckfuck— He takes out the chocolate cake hurriedly, though carefully—ah it’s not that bad.

    The cake has turned out well. Perhaps not quite as well as Virginia’s, but that pretty neatly sums up the last ten years.

    He has baked her chocolate cake every year on the anniversary of her death. He knows this is a tad melodramatic, but he’s stopped caring about things like that. He just likes the ritual of it. It never tastes as good as hers did. It’s always too dry or too bitter or burnt, or sunken. But this year it’s different. It looks and smells almost perfect.

    Look at that.

    ‘It’s a thing a beauty,’ he says quietly to himself as he bends down to appraise his attempt.

    A thing of beauty.

    He cuts into the cake and inspects the inside. So far so good. He carefully sets the slice onto a plate. As he pours on the cream he catches a glimpse of himself in the reflection of the microwave door: his face is gaunt, skeletal, and his hair has almost completely fallen out. He hasn’t taken his Vitamins in over a month.

    So this is what it’s like to grow old? It’s not that bad.

    Vincent feels a sudden biting agony in his stomach and he doubles over, dropping the carton of cream on the floor with a splat. The cream goes everywhere, glugging rhythmically, as though it has a pulse. The pain slowly subsides and Vincent watches the last of the cream bleed out from the carton.

                                                                ***

    Vincent is on his third slice of cake and the cream has been cleaned up. He takes a mournful mouthful of cake and tries to remember everything in his life. He tests his memories, seeing which ones are still complete and which ones have rotted away.

    His mind rolls over every memory in his life, but it lingers on a few morbid moments. His thoughts of death bring him to the first time he experienced it. To Titan; his childhood dog. A beautiful dog. His memories of him are imperfect, which is partly why he loves to visit them so often. He’d not had any Vitamins back then; they hadn’t been invented yet, so his mind could actually forget things. He could lose a moment and rediscover it again, in a while, when a smell or a song brought it back to him. For Vincent, Titan is a true memory, not a perfect recollection—a matrix of smells, touches and affections—he is abstract and foggy in the ordered perfection of his mind. But he remembers how Titan died very clearly as it was the day of his fifteenth birthday. It was also the day the war ended. He remembers his mother calling out joyfully to him from the kitchen and he remembers Titan having some sort of stroke and dying in his father’s arms. Vincent remembers the painful strobing of his heart and the sting and the salt of tears on his face. The two events were distinct, but his young mind connected them into some cosmic significance, as though Titan had to die to balance out the books. It’s only really these two moments that he remembers that day, though, and little else at all.

    He used to enjoy his early, imperfect memories, but it’s the ones that came later that are harder to let go. The ones that had always been perfect. Vast lacunas are appearing in his past and he finds himself losing people’s names often. These are names he’s known for two hundred years.

    This is my decision, he reminds himself and he takes another mouthful of cake.

    It had only been three years after the war when Vincent first heard about the new drugs. Some Swedish scientists had developed them and it was all over the TV and the radio. He was at university in Manchester, lying in bed with a woman whom, in his recent state of amnesia, he has only just started to forget.

     Two months ago he took his last ever Vitamin. On that day, his memories were complete and his mind stretched back effortlessly over his long and eventful life. Two months ago he remembered the radio broadcast about the new drugs:

    —We’re here with Dr Kerry Livingston, one of England’s top medical researchers, and she’s going to explain to us exactly what Swedish scientist, Dr Selma Holm and her research team have achieved with their new drug. Dr Livingston, what exactly is this new drug?

    —Essentially, this drug is a sort of anti-aging formula. It began as a project to decrease the aging process of skin and it was going to be a revolutionary new cosmetic treatment, but Dr Holm realised that the drug had other applications.

    —Hmm, very interesting. How exactly does it work?

    —The full answer is a very long and complex one, but, in layman’s terms, it works by changing the way our bodies’ cells regenerate. You see, our bodies are very adept at healing and growing, and they do this on a cellular level by a process called mitosis, or cell division for anyone unfamiliar with the term.  Each cell has a sell by date, or is killed before then, so your body needs to regenerate these cells when required. The problem is that every new cell that is created is made so that it is ever-so-slightly aged.

    —Why is this? Wouldn’t it just be better for the body to just make the cell as good as new?

    —Yes, obviously, but it can’t. This is physically impossible. You see, all organisms contain genetic material, and this genetic material degrades over time.  As it degrades, the cells produced degrade also. Eventually, all things age and die. Without exception. It’s true that some trees have been known to live for thousands of years, but this entropy of cell division is always present.

    —Right, so back to this drug. Does it stop this process somehow?

    —Yes Tim, that’s exactly what it does. It does this by infecting the human body much in the same way as a virus does. It uses something called reverse transcriptase to open up a section of our DNA. It then implants its own revision of instructions, perfecting the process of cell division. In theory, when an infected person’s cells divide, the cells produced are as good as new and with no aging whatsoever.

    —That’s incredible. It’s obvious that this process could prevent aging, but can it reverse the aging process?

    —It’s early days yet, but there are a whole number of positive applications for this drug, and we think it might be able to reverse the aging process with a little bit of tweaking. We also think that it might be the final answer to cancer, as all cancer really is rapid and uncontrolled cell division—what this drug presents is an opportunity to fight this—to control cell division completely, and it’s very exciting.

    —I have to ask a question I’m sure you’ve heard a lot over the last few days: should we be meddling with this? What are the ethical issues surrounding the drug’s potential?

    —I’m not comfortable answering this question just now. I’m a scientist.

    —No answer at all? Come on, Dr Livingston?

    —No thanks. Not at this time.

     

    Vincent remembered this radio interview in its entirety because it was the beginning. It was a new way of thinking that he couldn’t understand at the time, from that limited and present perspective. It was only in the months and years that followed, when Vitamins were given freely throughout the world that Vincent realised why listening to the radio that morning in Katie’s sweaty, sleepy embrace had made such an impact on him: it was when he had begun to consider the idea that he might never die.

    In the twenty-five years that followed the introduction of Vitamins to the public, Vincent joined The Sentries and helped in the fight against the growing number of religious extremists.

    One night has been on his mind for centuries. It was the 10th of August 2036 and his unit received intel that a bomb was going to go off on Tower Bridge…

     

    “Do you know what the worst part of this job is?” Rex says to no one in particular.

    No one answers. They’re terrified. I can almost smell it. The terror. Maybe it’s something in their sweat…

    “I’ll tell you, then,” says Rex. “It’s not the fightin’. It’s all the fuckin’ waiting and fidgetin’ in between the fightin’ that bugs me. It’s the waiting that drives me—”

    —‘Charlie Team respond,’ the radio says in its nasal tone.

    “This is Charlie,” Liza says into the mic. “We’re at the RV point and awaiting instructions.”

    Her voice sounds weak. She never sounds weak. If I die tonight she’ll mourn me. She might think that she loves me. Though I doubt it. At least if I die she’ll never know that I don’t love her…

    —‘Understood. Charlie Team will take the transports to RVP two. Fire Team One get in the ADV, Fire Team Two take the jeep. Make your way to rendezvous point two and await instructions. Hostiles might be in your area; stay vigilant.’

    “Stay vigilant?” says Owen. “Are they taking the piss? Radio back: tell them we weren’t going to stay vigilant. Tell them we were just going sing songs in the car and play Eye Spy to pass the time—”

    “—Shut the fuck up,” I say. “You’re not helping.”

    Owen stares me down. He’s just scared; now’s not the time to fight.

    “Shut it,” says Liza. “You heard him: Harriet, Owen, Tom, Rex on me. We’re Fire Team One.”

    She always makes sure I’m not with her. Why does she do this? Is she worried that I’ll resent taking orders from her? Is she embarrassed to give me orders?

    “The rest of you are Fire Team Two,” she says. “Vinnie leads.”

    No one is saying anything. No one is moving. I can smell the terror and it’s something different—something other than just sweat and pheromones. It’s more than just chemistry..

    “Right people,” Liza says, “let’s go kill some backwards bastards and get back in time for a nightcap. First round’s on me if we make it. Move out.”

    I take my team to the jeep and we file in. Martha takes the driver’s seat, but I don’t want to argue with her.

    “Right. Let’s go, Martha,” I say. “They’ve already started moving. Trail behind, but not too—”

    —The light from the explosion is impossible—a star going supernova in the tight interior of the vehicle in front of me. The sound is a thousand thunders and I cannot think or see or hear…

     

    “Vinnie? Vinnie? Serg? Are you alright?”

    It’s Martha’s voice.

    “Serg. Are you awake?”

    I can feel my feet. My toes. I open my eyes and I see the green, chemical light burning from the ADV. I can smell them. Liza…

    “Uuurgh… I think—”

    “—There’re dead, serg,”she says.

    “I know.” I’m crying now. Hard. I’m shaking so hard I don’t know if I can stop. Maybe I did love her? No. It’s maybe worse because I didn’t.

     

    Vincent has thought about that moment almost every day for the last two hundred and twenty odd years, haunted by the hellish unreality of the orange and green flames and the reeking miasma of the burning fat and hair.  With precise detail, he recalled picking up the anonymous pieces of Tom and Owen and Liza and Harriet and Rex.

    Two weeks ago he forgot Rex’s name and felt guilty for hours. He gradually forgot Owen’s, Tom’s and Harriet’s names as well. Liza was the last to go and he slept better than he had in over a century. 

     

    Vincent rolled one of his Vitamins around on the table with his finger. He still had plenty of them. If he wanted to, he could go back on them and recover in a week or so.

    Vitamins are free and easy to get hold of, but some people still choose to die. This is how he first met Virginia: at a euthanasia rally in 2122. They had met in a café beside the main demonstration. Virginia was a doctor and Vincent despised her on principal. Death was anathema to him, and back then he couldn’t see how anyone could think differently.

    He still remembers exactly how she looked that first day he met her. He was writing a story for his online newspaper and he’d intended to crucify her in the interview. Instead, he’d begun to fall for her:

     

    This coffee is disgusting. That’s what I get for agreeing to meet at her choice of café.

    The demonstration drums outside, crashing against the little café like waves against rocks: ‘Our voice, our choice, our voice, our choice.’

    “Would you like a top up,” the waiter asks.

    I wonder how anyone could stay in such a thankless job when they might live forever—or for centuries, at least. How could they stomach it?

    “No thank you,” I say.

    ‘Our voice, our choice.’

    I wish they’d pack it in. I’m sick of their whining… Is that her walking to the door? It is her. She’s beautiful. The door opens and the rhythmic waves pour in and drown the room:

    ‘OUR VOICE, OUR CHOICE, OUR VOICE, OUR…’ the door closes behind her, ‘… choice, our voice, our choice, our voice…’

    “Mr Murdoch?” she asks, smiling sweetly.

    “Yes… Um… Hi. Please have a seat,” I sound like a buffoon.  

    She smiles and takes a seat.

    “The usual, Virginia?” the waiter asks.

    “No thanks, Barry. Just a green tea for me, please.”

    She turns to face me, her mousy hair is messy—her face looks a little sunburnt. She smiles.

    “So,” she says, putting her hands together, interlocking her fingers, “would you like to ask me some questions?

    “My first question is bold, but I don’t want to keep you longer than I have to, and I don’t want to stay here, listening to that,” I gesture out of the window, “for longer than I have to. The question is plain: why do you support euthanasia of perfectly healthy people?”

    She looks a little shocked. I didn’t want to shock her. I didn’t want to upset her.

    “That’s not a plain question, Mr Murdoch, and your wording wasn’t plain either. I suppose the main thing I’d like to question is your assumption that they’re ‘perfectly healthy’. They aren’t. They are perhaps extremely depressed or mentally exhausted. Emotionally exhausted. Some are neither; it’s just something they want. I have spoken to so many people that have wanted to die, and most of them had thought about it for years before they came to me. The only reason they hadn’t done it themselves was because they knew how horrible it would be to come off the pills. A quick and painless death is what every man and woman wants.”

    She stares at me for a moment. Perhaps she’s searching to see if I’m satisfied with her answer.

    “Or perhaps,” she continues, “what you wanted me to elucidate was my emotions on the topic?”

    I nod.

    “Well I suppose that, other than empathy, the emotion I feel for these people is pity.”

    “Do you mean to say that you’re killing all of these people out of pity?” I say.

    “No. That’s not it. Your question’s loaded. I do it because a person has the right to choose what happens to them. But yes, I also do pity them a lot, and I believe I’m doing the right thing. It’s not illegal, you know? You’re looking at me like I’m a monster.”

    Am I?

    “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to.  I just haven’t had such a frank conversation with a no-lifer before.”

    “I hate that term.”

    “Oh. Sorry.”

    Silence.

    “I’m sorry if I was looking at you funny. I’m just not used to people being so honest with me, I guess. I know it’s not illegal, but it should be. I mean, have you not tried reasoning with them? Maybe all they need is a month or two to think things over. Death’s far too final. It’s not an option; it’s the lack of options.

    “You obviously don’t understand depression,” she says. “And what do you know about death? What does anyone these days know about death?”

    “I served in The Sentries when the attacks started,” I say. My heart is pounding in my chest.

    “Oh. I see,” she says, and she looks at the table. 

    “I served when they hit Heathrow at 10/10,” I continue, “and Glasgow in 2030. I watched countless friends die so that these poor bastards could live, so don’t try and tell me—“

    “—I know,” she says, her voice quiet, soft. “I’m sorry. Please. I understand why you feel how you do, and I appreciate that it’s probably the only way you can feel, considering what you’ve been through. Not everyone has the same point of view, though. Not everyone wants to live forever. We don’t all share the same life—”

    “—Don’t you think I know that?” I snap. I sound horrible; she’s looking at me as though I’m the monster. But I can’t stop.

    “I just think they probably just need a little more time to think about things. I mean, how permanent their decision is. Eventually they’ll change their minds. Their depression won’t last forever.”

    Virginia smiles. It’s a kind smile and I feel bad for getting angry.

    “Would it make you feel better if I told you that every patient is subjected to three independent interviews before they can be euthanized?” she asks. “They must show the same resolve to die for a minimum of six months. If they waver at all, they are denied their request and asked to resubmit in six months?”

    “Six months?” I say. “What’s six months compared to an eternity? I hope that I don’t get bored for a year when I’m three-hundred and decide to end it all. We live forever, now; what good can six months do to clarify someone’s thoughts? I was depressed for a decade once, but I knew that it was just ten years in thousands, so I persevered. Life is another day to eat my favourite meal or feel the warm comfort of a bath, or the easy belonging of sex, or just holding a woman’s hand. Living provides me with another opportunity to learn and to experience something new, and to see something I’ve never seen before. Death is just so final. Depression moves on eventually.”

    “Well you might well have been depressed for a long time, but it really doesn’t sound like you understand it very well. The U-Clinics aren’t for everyone. They aren’t for you, obviously, yet you’re projecting your values into the head and life of every single other person. I’m glad you hang on to life so strongly. It’s an admirable trait, but not everyone feels the same as you. This isn’t about you.”

     

    Vincent finishes the slice of cake and sets it beside him. He is tired of remembering. It is so exhausting to remember. Yet, his brain hasn’t degraded enough yet, and some things were still crystal clear in his mind. Like the wedding. It’s the obvious next step in this memory walkabout, I guess.

    Vincent and Virginia’s wedding was a small ceremony, with only their families present. Afterwards, they went to Barbados for three weeks. In the intervals between having sex, they drank cocktails and ate far too much snapper and saltfish.

    Up until a few weeks ago, Vincent struggled with the lucidity of these memories. Previously, he could recall each infinitesimal, aching detail of their honeymoon. But now it is lurid and hazy—though this blur only seems to intensify the sensation of love and loss, making it more than real—more than it was.

    There was one day on the honeymoon that distinguished itself from the myriad moments their marriage was made of. And even this familiar, regular memory wasn’t immutable or unforgettable. He can’t quite go to the memory like he used to; its edges blur into other days and other memories and he reckons that this must have been what it was like before Vitamins, when people were doomed to visit and re-visit imperfect memories of the ones they lost.

     

    I am making love to Virginia and images of her are an amalgamation of all of the most exciting, cinematic times we’ve had sex—a sort of aesthetic greatest hits. Her smell, on the other hand, is vivid and of the sea and of her and the rum on her breath and the salty sweat that beads on her skin. We spend the rest of the day reading each other fairy tales from an anthology Virginia has brought with her. We do silly voices and laugh at the twisting, senseless plot-lines. When we’re hungry, we eat mangoes and bananas the hotel staff have left out for us. And when we’re sleepy we drift away together.

     

    Vincent’s mind is back in the dim, darkening room. The fourth slice of cake rests on the plate in his hand. He takes a forkful and reflects on its tastelessness—even compared to the second and third slices only hours before. I’d heard that my sense of taste would diminish, but not this quickly, surely?

    And in his mind he sees Virginia’s sleeping body beside him on the bed, and he can’t quite smell the rum, the sea, or even her sweat anymore.

    He didn’t know that that day with Virginia, that specific day they were together would be ‘The Day’—that this day would be synonymous with her when she was gone. He didn’t know that almost eighty-five years from that day he’d be eating her chocolate cake. That almost eighty-five years from that day he’d begin to forget the little details that made that day so special. 

    Vincent wipes the tears from his eyes hurriedly. Desperately. As though he is ashamed of them. He thought he’d cried all he could cry and this sudden burst of tears caught him by surprise.

    I didn’t think I could forget that. Never that. Was her hair across her face or held back with the red hairband? Did she read Snow White or did I? Did she forget all of this by the end?

    It is only in this last desperate attempt to be close to her that he notices the blunting edges of his memories of her. She’s not forgotten—not nearly—but he struggles to see her face clearly. He wipes away the last of his tears and calms his nerves.

    I can’t even remember what shade of brown her eyes were anymore.

    He composes himself and has a shower before bed. His back creaks and groans as he lies on the ancient mattress.

    I’m getting old, he thinks, and he begins to laugh. I’m finally getting old.

     

                                                                ***

     

    In the morning, Vincent wakes up busting to urinate, but when he tries to go the flow is slow and painful.

    He goes back to sleep afterwards.

    This was my choice, he tells himself. This was my choice. This was my choice. He repeats it over and over in his head, like a mantra.

     

                                                                ***

     

    The next day, he struggles to urinate once more, but he’s had a day to come to terms with this aspect of his aging body and he is slowly accepting the frailty of it.

    It’s hard to not age at all, then to do thirty years in a month, he reflects as he sips on his tea. He sips from Virginia’s cup; the one with the wolf and Little Red Riding Hood on it; the one he’d found in the little shop in Durham. Even that memory is fraying…

    Virginia is in the next shop along and I’ve crept back to get it for her.

    “It’s lovely, isn’t it?” the shopkeeper says, smiling at me.

    “Yes. It’s very nice,” I agree.

    “I saw your lady friend looking at it. Is it a surprise?”

    “Yes.”

    She beams at me. I hate this kind of attention. Just put it in the box and be done with it.

    “Would you like it wrapped?” she asks.

    Oh, for God’s sake. “Yes. Please.”

    The shopkeeper is from China; she still has the accent, although her English is perfect. She doesn’t look a day over twenty, but then most people don’t look a day over twenty. When I was young, shops like this one were almost always run by old women. Now I can go six months without seeing someone that looks over thirty—never mind an old lady.

    I’d like to see an old person again, and not just myself in the mirror. Vincent chuckles at the idea of a zoo of elderly humans knitting and playing boules while all the eternally young men and women watch them with amazement through the bars. Then he drinks from her cup again and remembers giving it to her.

    She bursts out laughing—

    “You rascal! That’s what you were doing!”

    “Yeah, well, I’m tricksy; it’s just a good thing that I use my powers for good.”

    She hugs me tightly and kisses me softly on the lips.

     

    He drinks from the cup again and remembers, and hopes that this is one of the next memories to go.

     

    It was the nightmare again. That night with Liza and the others. What’s that noise? What time is it? The bed’s shuddering softly. Virginia. She’s… she’s crying.

    “What’s the matter, little thing?” I rub her back and she moves, almost flinching from my touch.

    “Honey?” I say. “What’s the matter?”

    Silence. She’s stopped crying.

    “Nothing,” she says. She sniffs.

    “Come on.”

    Silence. Then she sniffs.

    “I’m… I’m sad.”

    “Sad about what?”

    “Nothing. Doesn’t matter.”

    “Nonsense. What’s the matter? Maybe I can help you feel a bit better?” I kiss her neck and stroke her skin. It bumps and tightens in reaction to my touch. Virginia cries even harder.

    “What is it?”

    “I can’t say. You’ll hate me once I say.”

    “That’s impossible. I could never hate you. What is it? Just tell me”

    “Promise you won’t hate me?”

    “I don’t need to promise—”

    “—Promise or I won’t tell you.”

    “Alright, I promise.”

    A pause for a few seconds. It feels like minutes.

    “I want to die.”

    The room starts to spin around me and I don’t know… How can I… I can’t be here. I can’t lie here, feeling the weight and heat of her in the bed, hearing her breathing, her cries. I get up and walk to the kitchen. I don’t bother with the dressing gown. I’ll make a cup of tea; tea heals fucking everything… There’s the Little Red Riding Hood mug from earlier. I should smash it. She pads almost silently behind me, but I can just about hear her over the fuss the kettle is making.

    I wouldn’t have bought you this cup if I knew you were going to die.

     

    Vincent, old Vincent, finishes his cup of tea and wipes the tears from his eyes. I hope that day is the next thing to go. I don’t need it. After that, I want her last few weeks to go too.

    The last few weeks of Virginia’s life were the hardest weeks of Vincent’s. She’d been off her Vitamins for almost two months and she’d aged rapidly.

    “I hate you for doing this to me,” I say.

    “What a horrid thing to say. And I’m sorry, but it’s not about you. It just doesn’t work that way.”

    “There’s still time to go back on it. There’s still time take the Vitamins and recover.”

    She shakes her head.

    “Please. For me?”

    I’ve told you it’s nothing to do with you. I just feel tired, you know? It’s like I’ve never slept and I’m just so tired. It just feels natural.”

    “How could it be nothing to do with me? If I’d given you a… If I’d made you happier you… you wouldn’t even be thinking about dying.”

    “I know why you’d think that,” she says, “but you’re wrong. I don’t expect you to completely get it. Not yet. It’s just not in you to die. You’ll outlive everyone. You’ll be the last human alive, just in case you miss out on something. But I don’t mind missing out on some experiences. My glass is full already and I’m so tired I can hardly bear it.”

    But mine isn’t. Can’t you stay alive for me? You might get over this in six years or so?”

    “Vinnie, I’ve felt this way for at least the last five years!”

    “You’ve been unhappy for five years?” I can feel my chest start to go, and I can hear my words begin to choke.

    “No! Not at all. I’ve felt completely content for the last five years. I’ve felt perfect. Done. Complete. There is nothing more I want or could possibly need.

    “I’ll never forgive you, you know.”

    “I think you will.”

    “How could I? You’re making me spend the rest of my long life alone.”

    “You don’t have to be. You could always meet a nice new woman and settle down with her. You could apply for a license; maybe they’d approve it and you could finally have a little mini Vinnie like we always wanted?”

    “How could I have a child with anyone but you?” I can’t stop the tears now. “How could I ever be with someone new when I’ve been with you for almost eighty years? And there aren’t any new people. Just old people who look young.”

    “You sound like an old man, Vinnie.”

    “What does that even mean?” I sniff.

    “I don’t know. You just sound old. Set in your ways.”

    “There’s no such thing as old men.”

    “Hmmm.”

    Virginia reaches out and grabs my hand and squeezes it feebly. I can’t stop looking at the tissue-thin skin on the back of her hand and the protruding, bumpy veins that look so much like deep-blue jelly snakes. The contrast of it against the smoothness of my own skin is disturbing.

     

    Old Vincent sets the cup on table in front of him and rubs his wrinkled face with his wrinkled hands. The memory is so much clearer than he thought it would be at this stage. He’d never felt so separate from her. She was old. Ancient. Something he thought he would never be. At least he felt a little close to her now. At least he could feel some of what she had felt back then.

     

    “I’m an old woman,” she says

    “I know,” I squeeze her hand gently, scared I might hurt her hand if I use any more strength.

    “But I’m ten years younger than you,” she says. “You know what that means don’t you?”

    “What?”

    “That means you’re an old man.”

    “You’re only as old as you feel,” I say, just for something to say. I don’t like this.

    “Fair enough. Then I feel two-hundred-and-ten-years-old.”

    “Yea, but that’s because you haven’t been taking your Vitamins—”

    “No, Vinnie, I’ve felt old for a long time. I’ve felt old longer than I’ve felt young.”

    “It’s hard to argue with that.”

    “Then just hug me instead, young man.”

    I hold her against my chest and I notice how much shorter she seems. Her frame is withered and frail and I’m so scared I feel sick.

    “Your heart is pounding,” she says.

    “I’m terrified.”

    “I know. I’m so sorry.”

    I’ll never forgive you, you know?”

    “I think you will.”

     

    Vincent takes the cup with Little Red Riding Hood on it and sets it in the sink. He is drained and can’t even muster the willpower to reach his bed, so he lies on the sofa and closes his eyes, hoping that he’ll have forgotten a little more by tomorrow.

    The more I lose, the easier it will be, he thinks, before sleep claims him.

     

                                                                ***

     

    Vincent wakens and decides to go for a walk through the park nearby before he’s no longer able to. He’s a little achy, but the painkillers have kicked-in and he has an old walking-stick left over from a Halloween party thirty years ago.

    People avoid looking at him. A woman gasps in horror as she notices him—though his hearing has almost gone by now. He can see the fear and disbelief in her eyes.

    I’m just an old man, he thinks to himself. He almost shouts it as he passes by a group of people.

    I’m just an old man.

    ‘What are you looking at?’ he accuses them and they all walk away from him, impossibly fast.

    How can they move so quickly? Was I ever that fast?

               

                                                                ***

    His days are getting excruciatingly long now, as though he’s trying to fit another hundred years into the tedium of his last few moments. His body aches and he is tired but restless and unable to sleep.

    Vincent wakes up wet and confused. He has wet the bed and it takes a while for him to realise. Cursing under his breath and sighing tiredly, he busies himself with stripping the bed and putting the sheets in the washing machine.

    While drinking tea from the Little Red Riding Hood cup, he tries to remember where and why he’d bought it. He doesn’t think it’s very him.

    Virginia must have bought it, he decides finally, exhausted at the effort of forcing the memory.

     

                                                                ***

     

    Today he drops the Little Red Riding Hood cup and it smashes over the kitchen floor. He’s crying and he doesn’t know why.

    I don’t even like this mug. It’s tacky.

    It’s his birthday. Two-hundred-and-thirty-one-years-old. He treats himself by cooking another one of Virginia’s chocolate cakes and reminiscing. His favourite memory is of his and Virginia’s honeymoon. Most of the details are flimsy and translucent now, but he still remembers the smell of rum on her breath and the look in her eyes and something of the magic of the moment. He remembers her hair spread out across the pillow—a rich, warm brown against the white. He remembers the smell of the sea and the saltiness of skin—

    If I could go back and live one day again… but his thoughts trail off as he loses track of them. He takes another bite of cake and continues to reminisce, smiling and enjoying the memory.

     

                                                                ***

    Vincent awakens slowly, growing steadily aware of the distant sounds around him and the indescribable feeling that he is somewhere he has never been before. He opens his eyes slowly and strains to focus on the morphing, blurring sway of the grated tiled ceiling above him.

    Slowly, timelessly, his eyes begin to focus.

    “Where the hell am I?” he mutters, but no one hears him.

    The room is large and very still. The noises come from the corridor. Voices huddle round, twittering jovially. Vincent props himself up for a moment to see who’s talking, but he is too weak to get more than a two-second look at what he realises is a nurse’s station.

    “Hello Mr Murdoch. You’re awake, I see?” says a much-too-loud disembodied voice.

    Vincent tries to see the source of the voice, but his muscles fail him again and he collapses back, gasping in pain.

    “Don’t push yourself, Mr Murdoch,” says the voice again, and she steps into view: a short, white doctor in a white coat.

    “You’re very lucky to be alive. Your parents found you on the brink of death. You actually died on the ambulance journey over here.”

    “I died?” something struck him about his voice – other than the obvious weakness of it: he sounded old and he couldn’t understand why.

    You kept saying the name Virginia and we were worried you might slip into a second coma…”

    “Who’s Virginia?” Vincent asks, realising the answer as he finishes the question. A little pang of guilt pumps through his chest, but it’s short-lived.

    “She was your late wife. We didn’t know who she was either, until your parents came to visit you and told us.”

    “I can’t believe I forgot her for a moment.”

    Vincent feels his cheeks warm with shame.

    “My memories are…” he continues, “I’ve… most of them have gone, I suppose. It’s hard to understand, but I feel like there are gaps between things. Massive gaps between memories.”

    “Hmm. Yes, I’m afraid it’s another side effect of not taking your Vitamins. The effects of aging occur exponentially. Some people have been recorded as aging the natural equivalent of twenty years in their final day.”

    “But why are most of my memories gone?”

    “Ah, well that’s simple: the brain cells containing the lost memories have died. We administered Vitamins at ten times the normal dosage, but I’m afraid the damage to the memories has been done.”

    Vincent stares at the ceiling, unsure of how to feel. He knows he should feel some sort of loss—he’s just wiped out at least half of his memories. But it’s hard to miss what he can’t remember.

    The doctor looks bashful. She says: “May I ask you why you stopped taking your Vitamins? Why not just jump off a tall building or visit a U-Clinic?”

    “I can’t really remember why I did it.”

    Studying her feet, she says, “I know you don’t know me and I don’t know you, but I think there is so much to live for and there’s always help and–”

    “—It’s okay,” Vincent laughs and dismisses her fretting with a wave of his hand. “Whatever made me want to die, I can’t remember it. So you don’t need to worry.”

    The doctor smiles.

    An awkward silence.

    “You said my parents found me. Are they going to visit me in here?”

    “I’ll call them if you like?”

    “No thanks. I’ll see them when I see them, I suppose. I’m not even sure I’d recognise them.”

    Vincent sighs deeply and searches his memories for images of either of his parents, but his search is in vain. He tries to find Virginia in the back of his mind, and all he remembers of her are snippets—little flashes of happiness and sadness.

    “What will you do once you’ve fully recovered?” asks the doctor.

    He contemplates this for a moment.

    “I’m not sure. I might travel.”

    “Where would you go?” She asks as she readies a syringe. She pierces the little jar and pulls on the pump, filling the tube with three times the standard dosage of Vitamins.

    “Don’t know, really. Can’t remember where I’ve been. Maybe China, or South Africa, or Mars.”

    “Oh, that sounds exciting. I’ve never been to Mars.” She fires out the air shot and injects him skilfully. It barely hurts.

    Vincent looks out the window and thinks about travelling the world and to other worlds, and he’s glad he can’t remember what could possibly make him want to miss out on another adventure. He falls back to sleep after a while and dreams of a woman and hair that smells like the sea and an old wrinkled hand grasped in his and about Mars—and it all muddles into something strange and wonderful and one of the nurses notices that he’s laughing in his sleep.

    “Must be a nice dream,” she mutters to herself.

     

    © 2015 Peter McCune. All rights reserved.

     

  • The Wounded Angel

        

    The blackening sky was cold and clear, except for the two darkling thrushes that sang and danced above and around them. The boys, Mikael and Sepp, carried the girl along the dirt path. I thought she’d be weightless. Mikael held on, his hands ached and his feet were numb. He couldn’t tell if Sepp was struggling as much as he was. Sepp was behind him. Behind the girl…

    They’d found the girl while the sun was still in the sky. They’d been hunting for pigeons when they saw her, unconscious, in between two trees, her existence absurd against the realness and coldness of the woods just outside Aapo’s farm. She was still, her skin pale yet dull, with some memory of light in its complexion—as though it had once glowed, perhaps until recently. Her clothes were dirty and ragged from the fall, her hair was dove white, and her wings, her broken wings, were dull, off-white, muddied with flecks of dirt and blood.

    They made a stretcher from Sepp’s coat tied to two thick sticks they ripped off a silverbirch. When they placed her carefully on the stretcher, Sepp rushed to the back and began to lift. Mikael was forced to take the front. I thought she’d be weightless, he thought, but she’s as heavy as a dead boar. Mikael changed the position of his shoulders, easing the pain in them for a moment.

    “I want to stop for a second, Sepp, I’m thirsty,” said Mikael.

    Mikael knew that Sepp’s stomach hurt too: he’s in almost as bad shape as me. He just doesn’t want to admit it.

    “Fine, little brother. If you have to,” said Sepp.

    The boys tried to set her down gently, but Mikael’s knees buckled and the girl rolled forwards onto him. She wrapped her arms around him and whispered something in his ear. The weight was too much for Mikael to support and they fell sideways onto the dusty path. Sepp rushed over to see if they were alright. He pulled the girl off Mikael and rolled her down softly on her back. Mikael thought about slapping the dirt off his coat, but he didn’t have the energy. He was also distracted by the girl and what she might have said in his ear. He couldn’t take his eyes off her.

    “Stop staring at her, Mikael,” Sepp protested.

    “You were the one that ran to hold the back of the stretcher,” Mikael complained. “You’ve been looking at her the whole time we carried her.

    The boys looked down at her. A bloody bandage wrapped around her eyes. It was there when they found her.

    “She can’t see us,” said Mikael, “We don’t even know if she can hear us.”

    “It just doesn’t seem right,” Sepp said, “you should show her more respect, she’s an an—” 

    “—No she’s not,” denied Mikael. She can’t be an angel. “She can’t be. If she’s that, then it’d mean that He’s definitely real.”

    Sepp stared at the ground for a moment, then looked at her again.

    “Maybe He’s sent her here to help us,” Sepp said. “I mean, look at her wings, and there’s something special about her, isn’t there? Like how she doesn’t really look real, but she’s so heavy. And she’s almost glowing, isn’t she? There’s something about her, I mean, maybe she’s what we’ve been waiting for. We haven’t had a good harvest in three years. Maybe she’s here to save us. Don’t you think?”

    “Even if she is that, she can’t save us. Look at her. If she’s really… you know, then why are we starving? Why did Hanna die? Why did Mother…”

    “—Shut up.” Sepp snapped, and he started to cry.

    I’m an idiot, Mikael thought, why’d I have to mention Mother and Hanna?

    “But she’ll get better,” Sepp said, wiping his eyes, “and she’ll—”

    —The girl let out a quiet sigh and Sepp went silent. Both of the boys stared at her.      “Better get her back to town,” said Mikael. “We need to get her to Dr Laine before it’s too late.”

    “Don’t say that—she’s going to be okay.”

    “Alright. She’ll be fine,” Mikael sighed. “Let’s just get her into town before it gets too dark.”

    They struggled to get the girl back onto the stretcher. And when they did, Mikael rushed to the rear and claimed the handles.

    It’s not staring if she’s in front of me and I’m carrying her. Where else does Sepp expect me to look?

     Neither boy knew how much longer the makeshift stretcher would hold out, or how much further they could carry her. As they lifted her, Mikael’s limbs and hands began to ache once more. The girl let out another soft sigh as they began to shuffle forwards. What had she tried to whisper in my ear, Mikael wondered again, and he kept his eyes on her, careful to avoid looking into her face. He inspected her limp, crumpled wings, and her small, laboured breaths. She hasn’t come to save us. Maybe she just fell and He didn’t catch her. He didn’t catch Hanna either. Or Mother.

    Up above, the thrushes fluttered weightlessly through the dull purple of the gloaming, and Sepp began to whistle along with their music. Mikael was not cheered by their song, and he could no longer see them. A cold wind beat against the girl’s feathers and Mikael heard her soft sobs. She is despairing. We have to help her.

    The brothers carried her until the sky was completely black, the clouds concealed the moon and stars. Mikael thought about the village—about how they’d react, half-starved, half-mad, to the girl with the almost glow and the broken wings, and if she would give the village a good harvest this year. Maybe she’ll do the opposite, he thought, with a grimace. Maybe bringing her here is a mistake. Mother would have known what to do. I’m so hungry and she’s so heavy.

    They carried her in silence for several minutes, then the darkness amplified the scraping of their feet, her despairing sobs, and the bristle of wind over the barren ground. The birds had stopped and bats had not bothered with their region in years. Recently, the nights had been almost as quiet as they’d been dark.

    Mikael was so exhausted he was delirious, and his thoughts meandered from the girl to Sepp and his mother.

    He remembered Sepp’s idea to run away and fish in the river, and how much he’d wanted to follow him. They’d been hungry then too, but at least there was food to be had if you looked hard enough. His mind settled on his happiest thought. She was lovely. Her thick blond hair. She was everything his father was not.  Kind, soft. She was funny and she loved to tell jokes. Mikael had adored his mother, but Sepp had been her shadow, her ‘sweet one’. Mikael and Sepp had loved her stories more than anything else. She often told tales about her mother, and about her grandfather who had travelled great distances in search of treasures and adventure. It was these stories of adventure that Mikael loved most. His brother preferred the stories of The Old Man, Väinämöinen. The wizard.

    “His power was not in his hands,” she’d say, “but in his voice, for who needs to lift a finger against one’s enemies if one can convince them not to fight? His songs were more beautiful than any other, and they had the power to change everything. When Väinämöinen sang, the world listened; for it’s not just men, women and children that listen to songs, but all things. And as a ballad can move a man to tears and conjure in his mind images of heaven or hell, so too could Väinämöinen’s voice change the listening world.”

    Mikael remembered how Sepp used to pretend he had the power to change the world with only his voice. As a young boy, though older than Mikael, Sepp described his imaginary exploits to his brother. In his imaginings, he usually saved a woman or a helpless child from a gang of bandits or trolls. He would transform the ground they walked on so that it became soft and boggy, sucking them in and trapping them. When he was young, most of Sepp’s fantasies ended with him living happily ever after. Mikael had enjoyed them back then, when the barns were full and the winters short. But it was different now.

    Not long ago, Sepp told Mikael that he wished he was Väinämöinen.  It had been a few years since he’d mentioned the wizard, but it was cold and neither of them could sleep, so Mikael was not so surprised to hear talk of The Old Man again. It had always been at times like this that their mother used to tell them stories—when the cold droned in their bones and sleep was many hours away.  In the darkness of their room, Sepp began his tale, without preface or preamble. He told him a story that he made up as he went along. Instead of saving a damsel in distress, Sepp used his powers to fix his broken village. He created food from dirt; soil became bread and fish, and the stream turned into beer. The villagers feasted for days because of Sepp’s magic. Using his voice, Sepp transformed the barren, unyielding earth into rich fertile soil, and crops magically sprouted up to three times their usual size. He sang his mother and sister back to life. He raised his voice by their graves, and they rose with it—fresh and overjoyed, as though only waking from a long sleep. It was a rich imagining and Mikael’s heart hurt as he listened to it.

    “Just shut up about that wizard, Sepp!” Mikael had said, the darkness holding on to his words, amplifying them somehow.

    “Just shut up about magic and about Mother and Hanna. They’re dead, Sepp. They’re dead and no one or nothing can bring them back.”

    Mikael was crying. He felt bad for chastising his brother. But he felt other things. Complicated things for any ten-year-old to process.

    “Mikael” Sepp said, his voice faltering, “I only wanted to pretend.”

    Mikael sighed. “I know. But you’re too old for that. You need to grow up. You need to be a man.”

    Sepp didn’t reply. Mikael felt like a fool. He knew who he sounded like, and he hated himself for it.

    I sounded like Father, he thought. I never want to be Father. And that brought him to another memory.

    One day Mikael and his father were chopping wood while Sepp was mending a fishing net. This was woman’s work, but someone had to do it, and Sepp’s nimble fingers made much quicker work of it than Mikael’s. As they split wood and he mended nets, Sepp told his father some of his stories. He told him about how he stopped the great hunger, and that he had brought his mother and Hanna back to life. His father listened to his stories from beginning to end, captivated. But when Sepp mentioned his mother, his father thumped the axe into the block and screamed at him:

    “You’re eleven, boy. You can’t go around telling stories!” He slapped him hard across the face and Mikael felt the sting tingle on his own face, though that might have been the embarrassment. I should have stood up for him, he thought. How dare he hurt Sepp!

    He stomped back to the block and resumed chopping the wood. He was hitting it too hard and the logs were tipping over and chipping diagonally. Neither of the boys spoke.

    “Stop idling like a silly child,” their father said after a few moments of terrible silence. “You’re almost a man now. That sort of nonsense is something I expect from a child, not a boy of eleven.”

    “I learned the stories from Mother,” Sepp said. “She loved them,” his voice was strong and deep.

    In that moment, Mikael felt embarrassed, yet proud, of his big brother. He waited for his father to hit Sepp again for talking back and for mentioning their mother. And he did. Sepp tried to fight back, but he was overpowered easily.

    You’re a sad, pathetic little man, Mikael thought. I don’t know what someone like Mother ever saw in you.

    …This memory stung Mikael. He turned his thoughts away from it—to the real pain—to the ache in his hands, his shoulders, his belly. He turned to the back of Sepp’s head and the broken creature they carried. She was not so heavy now, although Mikael was more tired than ever.

    “You okay back there?” Sepp called.

    “Yes. I’m fine.”         

    “She’s getting lighter.”

    “I know.”

    “Let’s hurry it up a little,” Sepp said.

    “Yes,” Mikael agreed, and they tried to speed up, building into a stumbling trot. I don’t think I can take this much longer. I think I’m going to faint.

     

    The angel died quietly a mile from town. The sudden lightness, almost weightlessness, of the girl threw their breathless jog out of kilter and they tumbled forwards into the dirt.

    I knew she’d die, Mikael thought. Sepp was up and dusting himself off.

    “It’s okay, little brother,” he said. “We’ll get her to Dr Laine. Maybe she’ll be okay.”

    “No, Sepp,” said Mikael. “She’s dead. You know that. She’s gone.” Mikael tried to stand, but he collapsed back down to the ground.

    “Can you stand?” Sepp asked.

    Come on. Just stand up.

    Mikael tried again, with all of his strength, to get to his feet. His muscles ached and his head rolled and he thought he was going to be sick. COME ON! JUST STAND UP! Just…   

    His vision blacked and warmth, fuzzy sensation washed over him and he almost knew that he was fainting…

     

    Some time later. Maybe seconds. Maybe minutes. He felt hands on his shoulders, shaking him.

    “Mikael? Mikael?” Sepp sounded muffled, distant. “I’ll get you to the doctor.”

    Mikael felt himself become weightless and he was aware of a pain in his gut. I’m floating. This pain was all he could feel or contemplate and it was easy. Easier than before.

    Eventually, they stopped and he guessed that Sepp had set him down, because he didn’t feel weightless any longer. Mikael felt the empty feeling ease a little and he opened his eyes enough to see Doctor Laine sitting on his front step holding his pipe. He did not smoke; tobacco was a luxury no one could afford, but he was often to be seen on his front step, with his pipe in hand.

    “Sepp,” he said, in his deep, though quiet voice, “what’s wrong with Mikael?”

    “He’s sick,” Sepp replied through laboured breaths, “I think it’s just hunger and exhaustion, but he hasn’t been right for days.”

    “Right,” the doctor said. “We’ll get him inside and I’ll see what I can do—

    “—It’s not just him, Dr Laine,” Sepp interrupted—he’s getting more and more out of breath, thought Mikael. “It’s the angel as well.”

    No. You shouldn’t have said that, Mikael thought. Maybe they will just think that she’s a monster. A freak. And nothing more will come of it.

    “The angel?” said Dr Laine. “What are you talking about, boy?”

    “The girl Mikael and I found in the woods. She has wings and she was really heavy but now she’s light and I think she might be dead, but she’s an angel, so maybe she’s not—maybe she’s just sleeping and I really wanted—”

    “Hush boy. You’re having a panic attack,” said Dr Laine, taking him by the arm and guiding him to the ground. “Sit. Take deep breaths. Tell me where she is.”

    Sepp slumped forwards on the ground and struggled to slow his breathing.

    “She’s. Near. Turri’s. Turri’s farm,” and Sepp fell sideways onto the dirt.

     

    Mikael dreamed that he and Sepp were attending a banquet, but there was only one mouldy piece of bread between them. Then he dreamed of the angel. Her eyes were deep amber and she smelled of flour and butter. She took him and his brother into a room with a table piled high with hot, steaming rye bread and baked fish. The angel smiled at the boys as they relished the food in front of them. When they were done, she brought them each a freshly-baked pulla and a cup of watered-down mead, sweetened with extra honey. Hunger sated, the boys sat by the fire and listened to the angel’s evensongs. They were the most beautiful either of them had ever heard.

    Mikael awoke quietly, gradually, barely aware of the distinction between the angel’s banquet and the Laine’s. He felt cold, but sweaty, and his stomach twisted and hurt. Where’s the angel? Where am I? Who’s talking?

    “Look Sepp,” said a woman’s voice, “I’m sorry, but I don’t believe she’s an angel.”

    “But you’ve seen her wings! How can you even think that, let alone say it? How can you not believe in angels?”

    “I do believe in angels, Sepp,” said the voice again—she must be Mrs Laine—“but I don’t think they come in the shape of dead little girls left out in the middle of nowhere.”

    “But she wasn’t dead when we found her! She was alive. She’d fallen. There were bandages on her arms and one covering her eyes. She had a sort of magical glow. She’s an angel—or was one, anyway…”

    “I don’t want to dishearten you, Sepp. You’re a nice boy, but you’re almost a man and you need to be realistic.”

    Not you too. Please don’t say that to him.

    “I can be realistic when I want to be, but that’s got nothing to do with the bloody angel that just died. I felt the weight leave her body, for God’s sake!—”

    “—That’s enough!” she said. “I’ll not have you taking the lord’s name in vain in my house.”

    “This is the right bloody time to bring up the lord! We need to accept the truth, even if it’s almost unbelievable. We need to figure out what it means. I mean, maybe there’s a reason why the crops have failed three years in a row. Maybe there’s a reason for all of this, you know, a plan?”

    There was a silence.

    Has she gone? Is she… Is she crying?

    “I… I didn’t mean to upset you, Mrs Laine,” Sepp said. Mikael heard his brother’s soft, tender tones, and he knew he felt guilty. Sepp was always quick to anger, but he was even quicker to get himself out of it.

    “I… I’m sorry,” he said.

    She sobbed even louder and Mikael could tell somehow, from her muffled noises, that they were hugging and that her face was pressed into Sepp’s shoulder.

    Big brother. It’s so easy for you.

    “Why are you crying?” Sepp asked after her sobs had died down.

    It’s because of Eerik. Remember him, Sepp? You can be such a fool sometimes.

    “I… I didn’t mean to cry,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’m a mess.”

    “It’s okay. Don’t be silly,” he said. “You can cry if you want. Crying can help sometimes. But what was it I said?”

    “It’s just that I don’t like the idea that God has a plan for us. That anything that’s happened in the last three years was always meant to happen.”

    “Oh.” Sepp paused. “It’s Eerik. I’m sorry. I didn’t think…”

    “It’s okay,” she said. “No need for an apology. Now. How about I make you and your brother some onion soup?”

    “That’d be lovely. But doesn’t Mikael need medicine instead?”

    “Yes,” she replied, “I think he does. But he needs food just as much. His fever broke when last I checked. He’ll be awake soon, and it’ll be nice for him to awake to a nice bowl of soup, wouldn’t it?”

    “Thank you, Mrs Laine,” said Sepp, his voice sounded thick, emotional.

    Can I open my eyes now? Mikael wondered. His eyes flickered open and he was met by a blurry, distorted perspective of the Laine’s ceiling. As his eyes began to focus, he studied the room: When he was younger, he remembered playing with Anni. Eerik was too young to play with properly, but he and Anni had spun him around and laughed as he tried to walk and fell. Mrs Laine had caught them and scolded them for it. She told Mikael’s mother about it and she scolded him. But she laughed about it with his father later. Father was so different then. He also remembered the time Anni showed him some of Mrs Laine’s silver and gold jewellery. The entire place had been packed full of beautiful furniture and paintings. Mikael barely recognised the place now. It was bare; most of the furniture was gone, as were all of the paintings.

    The sound of footsteps brought Mikael back to the moment. Doctor Laine stepped into his house and slammed the door.

    “Valma, the people of this village have gone mad.”

    “What’s the matter?” Mrs Laine asked, turning to face her husband.

    Doctor Laine sighed deeply. “They believe that the girl is a fallen angel. They believe that her coming is a sign from God. They believe that we are wicked and that we’re being punished with this famine. They fear more famine, more hunger. How they think that poor girl out there has anything to do with our crops is beyond me!”

    “Oh dear. Did any of them back you up?” Mrs Laine.

    “Only Anni. She stayed to try and slow them down,” he said. “Edgar has wound them up too much with all of his scripture—he was at the head of this nonsense, of course. He said that she was sent by God to die before us, and that we had to redeem ourselves in his eyes. He thinks the boys are related to this. He spoke of the Bible, of how people used to use a scapegoat to free themselves of their sins. He argued that because the boys brought the angel to this village, it is their duty to bear the village’s sins. They’re to be the scapegoats. It is as they did in the bible, Valma, in times like these: they would place their sins onto a goat, or someone weak, crippled, or dying, and they would send them out into the desert as a sacrifice to cleanse them of their sins and rid them of whatever famine or plague blighted their town.”

    “But they can’t send us away,” said Sepp. “Mikael is too weak.”

    I can’t even sit up, brother. You should escape without me.

    “So are you, son,” said Dr Laine. “You boys need rest and whatever food the rest of us can spare.”

    Just then, Anni came charging into the house.

    “They’re coming, Father. I couldn’t delay them any longer.”

    “You did well, dear,” he said.

    “Edgar knew what I was doing. He… he said some horrible things about you once you had gone…”

    “Of course he did,” Dr Laine hugged his daughter. “He’s a coward, so he waited until I was gone. Try not to think about him.”

    “Maybe we can change his mind,” said Mrs Laine. “Maybe he just needs to—”

    “—Don’t you think I said everything, anything, I could, Valma?” He stopped and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. It’s just that I was there: Edgar has swayed the villagers. All of them.”

    Even Father?

    “Even my father?” Sepp asked, his voice trembling.

    “This is a desperate time,” the doctor said, and he rested his hand on Sepp’s shoulder.

    “He opposed Edgar at first; it was him and me against the rest. But his harvest was one the worst in the village and with your mother and sister… he’s lost so much…”

    Sepp began to sob.

    The bastard. I’ll kill him. I’ll get better just so that I can kill him.

    “He’s just lost, Sepp,” said the doctor, “and he’s angry at God. Most of us are right about now. We cannot expect any help from him.”

    What will they do when come? Will they hurt us, or just take us away and leave us to die somewhere? Maybe Father will be in the mob. I want to look into his eyes. I want to spit on him.

    Mrs Laine hugged Sepp, and he cried onto her shoulder. None of them looked over at Mikael. If they had, they’d have seen him awake, lucid, staring at them.

    “They will probably come for boys soon, Valma,” said the doctor. “They want to send them far away from the village—along with the poor dead girl. They want to leave them to die. I can’t abide this, Valma; I’ll kill whoever tries to take them.”

    Dr Laine began pacing the room and Mikael closed his eyes; he knew that if they thought he was awake, they wouldn’t talk as straight. Adults never talk to children like they’re people. And he knew that it was just because Sepp was a little older, and much taller, that they didn’t mind speaking the truth in front of him.

    “Perhaps we could take the boys to the next village,” said Mrs Laine, “and hide them there. We still have a little money saved from the jewellery we sold.”

    “But how would we get them there. We’ve no horse or cart, and we’re not strong enough to carry them. Not at our age, not with bellies half-empty.”

    “Then we’ll hide them—under the house,” she said.

    “Where?”

    “Under the floor boards. We can take the cheese and wine out and then put it back over them. They won’t find them. Then we’ll take the boys out when everyone’s gone.”

    “It might work,” Dr Laine agreed, and he rushed over to Mikael and knelt beside him.

    “Boy, open your eyes. I know you’re awake.” Mikael opened his eyes guiltily. “Do you understand what’s happening?” Mikael nodded his head—they want to kill us.

    “Right, well Valma and I aren’t going to let anything happen to you boys. We’re going to hide you in our cellar until this madness blows over. Okay?”

    Mikael nodded again. He knew he should be terrified, but he felt very little, other than the fury at his father.

    Mrs Laine helped Mikael out of his bed and lifted his arm over her shoulder.

    “Can you walk if I prop you up?” she asked, breathing hard from the strain of lifting him.

    “Yes, I think so.”

    “You okay, little brother,” asked Sepp, stooping down to get a closer look at him in the lamplight.

    “Yes. I… I’ll be okay. I just need some food, I think.”

    “They’re coming,” Mrs Laine cried, looking out of the window. The room was silent, its mind fixed on the front door, its heart flittering tremulously in its chest.

    “Mikael’s too weak to leave, and Sepp’s not much better,” said the doctor. “You’re right: we’ll have to put them in the cellar.”

    “But they’re seconds away, there’s no time.”

    Doctor Laine sat on the bed and sighed. The urgency of the moment made this small rest feel like forever.

    “I’ll fight them if I must,” the doctor said eventually. He pulled out his flintlock musket from the cupboard in the corner and loaded it with a ball of lead, then poured a little powder into the pan.

    “Father. You can’t fight them all with that thing,” said Anni. “The entire village is coming.”

    “Maybe not, but if I don’t try, these boys are as good as dead.”

    Something about the aging doctor in that moment—his thick beard, his wild, wind-swept hair, reminded Mikael of The Old Man: Maybe you’re as close as we’ll ever get to Väinämöinen. And the thought comforted him a little, though he didn’t understand why.

    Mikael watched him from the bed as he prepared the rest of his ammunition and set the black powder on the windowsill. He was fast; this took only a few seconds. I guess you’re more of a fighter than you seem. Dr Laine peered through the curtains at the mob.

    “Look at them out there,” he said, “Young boys, women, friends, neighbours—all of them are there. I can’t do this. There are too many.”

    “Perhaps we can reason with them,” Mrs Laine offered.

    “No. I’ve tried that already. The only thing they’ll respond to now is fear.” The doctor fired his first shot through the open window and it must have hit the ground just in front of the mob. A warning shot? I think they’ve stopped.

    As he reloaded, he shouted out the window: “I have already reloaded, and Valma and Anni have their muskets aimed directly at you. If you move forward all three of us will shoot you. And as I am the only person in the village capable of treating shot wounds, you had better stay where you are.”

    “You’re bluffing,” shouted Edgar. “You don’t have three muskets, and you’re a doctor—you wouldn’t hurt any of us.”

    “You’re dead wrong,” the doctor shouted, as he moved to the other window and he fired the musket again, this time a little closer to them.

    “That was Valma,” he shouted, “she’s a much better shot than me. Don’t come any closer.”

    The doctor turned to his daughter as he reloaded, “Anni, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to stall them while your mother and I lift the boys into the cellar.”

    “Okay Father,” Anni said, taking the musket from him.

    Dr Laine and Mrs Laine moved the rug aside and lifted the trapdoor. Mikael watched them; he felt such love for them in this moment. He tried not to think about his father out there in the crowd, shit-scared and mob-brave all at once.   

    “Ukko,” Edgar shouted from outside. “Don’t do anything reckless. We bear no ill feelings towards you or your family. You’re a good man.” Edgar must have started to walk towards the house because Anni fired a shot close to his feet and he stopped for a moment.

    I can’t see anything from here.

    “Ukko, please, let’s talk about this.”

    Anni, didn’t say a word. She reloaded the musket, but she was much slower than her father. Mr Laine picked up Mikael and set him gently in the cellar. Sepp followed and pulled a blanket over both of them.  

    If they look in here they’ll see a blanket with two boy-sized lumps under it and they’ll spot us immediately.

    “Ukko?” Edgar shouted again.

    “Father,” Anni whispered, “you must say something or he’ll come in.”

    Mikael heard Mr Laine’s heavy steps as he rushed to the window.

    “They’re gone, Edgar,” he shouted, “We’ve been buying time. They left through the back as you arrived.”

    “Quickly,” he whispered back into the room. “Close the trapdoor.”

    Mrs Laine and Anni closed the trapdoor above the boys and Mikael felt insulated in the cellar, in the silent darkness of it. He felt a little safer.

    “If the boys aren’t there, Ukko,” Edgar shouted, and Mikael could still hear him, and the small sensation of safety left him.

    “Let us come in, Ukko. If they’re gone, what’s the harm?”

    “The harm is all of you men riled up, with your blood boiling in your belly coming into my house and upsetting my wife and daughter. That’s what the harm is.”

    “We’re going to come in, Doctor. Just accept it. If the boys have left, we will leave you alone.”

    “If you come closer I’ll shoot you.”

    “DON’T!” Mikael heard the doctor shout, and the bang of his musket, and they were thumping at the door and Anni was screaming. They flooded into the room and Mikael felt as though there were a hundred people thundering above him.

    No! Don’t hurt them. Don’t hurt them. Sepp took Mikael’s hand in his own and squeezed it firmly.  

    “Where are they, Ukko?”

    “I told you: they’re gone!”

    “Perhaps they are. Perhaps they aren’t. Perhaps they’re in the cellar,” Edgar said. “I know you have one.”

    “Get the hell out of my house!” the doctor cried out and Mikael heard a dull smack then a thud as something heavy hit the ground.

    “No! Don’t hurt him,” Anni shouted, her voice was shrill and shaking. “They’re in the cellar. Please just take them and go.”

    No Anni. We’re dead. You’ve killed us.

    The trapdoor was pulled open and strong hands tugged Mikael up into the light as though he were a doll.

    “I don’t understand!” Doctor Laine shouted. “We’re all hungry. We’re all starving. Why must we become monsters every time we’re threatened?” He looked at the boys:

    “Boys, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

    I know. Mikael nodded sadly. Sepp nodded. What can we even say to him? He risked everything.

    “Ukko!” Edgar said, “Give it a rest. Don’t do anything as foolish as follow us when we leave here. Don’t think about it. There are too many of us for you to fight. There are too many of us for your family to fight.”

    The doctor’s head sank. He got the message.

    “You bastards,” Mikael shouted as loud as he could manage. “They’re just trying to help us. They’re just trying to stop you from killing two little boys!”

    “Shut up!” Edgar snapped, and he slapped Mikael across his face. The pain seared and resonated deep in his head—but it felt good. Mikael wanted pain. He didn’t want to go without a fight.

    “You’ve done enough for us, doctor.” Mikael said.

    “Ukko, we’re doing this for the good of everyone—even you.” Shouted someone else in the room—a faceless, scared voice lost in the mob’s conviction.

    “I beg you not to.” He said, slowing his speech and emphasising each word. “They are just children; don’t do them any harm. It will do us no good.”

    “We’ve already decided, Ukko,” said Edgar. “Can anything you say fill our bellies with food? Can anything you say or do bring that angel back to life?”

    Doctor Laine remained silent.

    “Then don’t stand in our way.”

    “But how will sending the boys off to die help us?” Mrs Laine asked. “How will their deaths save our lives? This is lunacy.”

    “It is what needs to be done; the angel was a sign.” Mikael recognised the woman speaking: Mrs Fisk. She had three young children; the fourth, the youngest, had died a month ago.

    Mrs Fisk spoke again, “Why else would God send us a dead angel? Think about my Eeva and your Eerik: it’s a message. And I don’t want to ignore God. Do you?”

    “Don’t you dare bring my son into this,” Mrs Laine said, surprisingly calmly. “What if it isn’t a message? What if she’s just a girl with some giant seabird’s wings sewn onto her skin? Or she could be a freak of nature, disfigured from birth.” The crowd was silent.

    “Even if she is an angel,” Dr Laine added, “what if she just fell by accident? You’re all jumping to wild conclusions, and Edgar is leading you to them.”

    “Enough, Ukko,” Edgar said. “Will you swear not to follow us? They must be left outside. No one must save them.”

    Doctor Laine looked to his wife and daughter, surrounded by the men. “Go. Take them, damn you.”

    Edgar and Turri walked over and hoisted the boys up onto their shoulders.

    Turri’s shoulder dug painfully into Mikael’s belly. Pushing the pain away, Mikael looked over to Sepp and saw tears streaming down his face.

    “It’ll be okay, Sepp?” Mikael said, his voice stuttering as Turri’s shoulder jutted into him with every step.

    What can I tell him? How can I tell him? How can I? I should tell him a story instead.

    “Don’t worry big brother, for I have special powers. I can change the world with my voice.”

    Sepp stared at Mikael, “What are you taking about? You never believed in Väinämöinen …”

    “Where do you think they’ll leave us to die?” Sepp asked, though Mikael could tell that didn’t really expect an answer.

    “We’re going to a celebration instead; we’re to be honoured by the village for bringing them the angel.”

    “What are you talking about?” Sepp said. “She died. They’re leaving us in the wilderness to die alongside her.”

    “No, big brother. You’re dead wrong. I spoke to Väinämöinen and he said that it’s all a ruse so that we won’t expect the surprise party they’re throwing in our honour.”

    “This is ridiculous… Oh. Okay.”

    He gets it. Thank God he gets it.

    “Is there to be a feast?” Sepp asked.

    “Yes. There’s to be a huge feast and—”

    —Turri stopped for a moment, letting Edgar and Sepp get away from them. He set Mikael down. “What are you talking about, boy? Don’t you understand what’s happening?”

    “Of course I do,” Mikael whispered, “But do you want me to talk about how my brother and I are going to die because you all listened to Edgar?” Turri looked to the floor, his mouth opened again as if to say something.

    “You’re much too grown up for a ten-year-old,” he said, his head dropping, and he lifted Mikael onto his shoulder again and caught up with the others.

    “I always felt like Doctor Laine might have been a wizard,” Sepp said after a while. “He’s special, isn’t he?”

    Thank you so much for this.

    “Yes. He is,” Mikael agreed.

    “Maybe he’s Väinämöinen, hidden among us…” said Sepp.

    “Yes. Maybe. I could believe that.”

    “So you believe in him now, little brother?”

    “Of course I do,” Mikael said. I’ve seen him, sure. He told me we’d be okay.”

     

    After a while, Sepp passed out again, and Mikael continued to tell stories to himself. The stories were like the ones his mother, then Sepp, used to tell him. They soothed him. He told himself about Väinämöinen: how the wizard had given his voice to him so that he could make everything right again.

    “Everything will be alright, big brother.” said Mikael, and in his mind, he almost believed it. He closed his eyes and saw his dream again.

    “It’s real, isn’t it?” he asked the angel.

    “Of course it is, Great Wizard Mikael.” The angel smiled. “Of course it is. Come in. Have as much food as you like.”

    The men carried the boys far beyond the village. They left them in a ditch where no passers-by would find them and they bound their wrists and ankles together. They left the angel’s body with them. They’d wrapped her in a woollen blanket. I’m glad she’s with us, Mikael thought, remembering her sobs and her delicate, broken wings. Now you’re all crushed up inside that blanket and no one will see you again. I’m sorry.

    Turri set Mikael down against a tree and left a skin of water beside him. He pulled an old stale piece of bread from his pocket and looked at it for a few seconds before quickly stuffing it back into his pocket. He walked away quickly, catching up with the other men.

    “Don’t worry, Sepp,” said Mikael, “I’m as great as Väinämöinen now, and to honour me the angel has cooked us a feast.”

    “I don’t have the energy for this,” Sepp said. “This isn’t like you, Mikael. I… I can’t pretend to be a little boy anymore. I’m sorry.”

    “Look, Sepp. The table has so much food on it that some of it has tumbled to the floor.”

    “Stop this, Mikael. Just grow up.”

    “Not all children grow up, big brother. You know that better than me.”

    Please. Just try this. Mikael was on the verge of tears. He saw Sepp’s eyes soften slightly.

    “Oh! Look, Mikael,” Sepp said, his voice bright all of a sudden. “It’s pulla—your favourite. Eat some; it’s delicious.” And Sepp began to chew thin air; his lips smacking happily, his teeth chomping down on nothing.

    “Look. Here’s one for you,” and Sepp set the invisible bread on Mikael’s lap with his bound hands.

    Thank you! Thank you. Maybe it’ll be enough.

    “Oh,” he said. “I see. Hmmm, pulla, it’s very tasty.” Mikael, hands bound together as though in prayer, picked up the emptiness and began to eat.

    “This pear’s nice too, Mikael. Do you want some?”

    Mikael smiled thankfully at his brother. “Sure, I love pears.” He took it from him and ate it happily.

    “The angel didn’t really die, did she, brother?” Mikael suggested.

    “Nope. You’re right there,” Sepp said. “She’s gone off to get mead and some cheese. She’ll be back shortly.”

    “Lovely.”

    Two thrushes twittered in the cold and the sky above them. I can hope for another angel to fall to earth, Mikael thought. The next one will save us. In the meantime, I am Väinämöinen.

    “We’re going to be alright, big brother. I just know it.”

    “I know, little brother, I know.”

     

    © 2015 Peter McCune. All rights reserved.