Short Story – Confession

Confession

When the end came, I was no gentlemen. I shoved and scratched with the rest of them – yes, scratched. Me, an upstanding man of the beast we used to call society, clawing desperately at the crowd around me like a cat in a corner.

I had dragged my wife and children kicking and screaming along the log road from Bristol.

That’s a lie. They dragged me.

I’d wanted to stay, with the house and the dogs and the fire. The servants were gone already, no surprise, but I’d decided I could handle the stoking myself. But Mary grabbed my arm ad sent me packing to the coach. For the children, she said. Our boys. A better chance to outrun the danger than try to hide from them, from the terrible black fog and the thundering guns. Others had tried and failed in the weeks before. So we fled, joining the long line of carts wheeling their sorry way to the sea, all on the hopes that the hurried whispers of rescue boats were true.

When we arrived to find the boats loading, my heart rose. There were soldiers guarding the refugees. There were iron railings and stacks of luggage. There was order. There was the chance for a deep breath.
And yet, it proved itself fleeting.
The sound of metallic marching and spreading flames echoed over the hills and the rooftops. The invaders’ herald.
The riot began, as many riots do, with an orderly queue. But then, the frantic murmurs. Distant drumming. A child cried. Two men were fighting. The line was breaking. Three men were fighting. The boats were leaving, someone shouted. Leaving, barely occupied! And we were left as meat, as bait. Worms on the hook.

Mary pushed me forward, in my husbandly duty as the vanguard of our advance, my hand in hers, her other arm around the boys. Hesitant at first, I tried to weave with little effect, and so thrust forward a shoulder. A man felt it, turned, pushed back, and I was overcome.
No, not beaten. Overcome with anger.
I kicked him forward, I remember, and freed my right hand from Mary’s grip, ready for a second strike. By this point all pretence of civility had been abandoned, and each family became a single vessel in a surging sea, as we struggled forward to the edge of the dock.

My first adversary down, I pushed forward, surprised by my own fevered strength. The details escape me here.
But this is where I clawed. I punched and shoved and screamed, and yes, scratched. Mary clung to me. My children bit and kicked at the legs of those who came too close, like the dogs they used to play with.

In time we reached the railings and I clambered up, leading the children to follow. The boat had just struck off, but we could make it, if we jumped. We could, I screamed at Mary, as she clung to William’s back. I made up my mind to spring for it, but was jostled back before I could leap. People jumping, taking our places. Fury in my eyes. I flung out an arm at the ankles of the man who’d sent me falling from the fence. He fell over the side, to the water, taking two others with him. One, a woman. His wife? His sister? Who’ll ever know? All I remember is the sound she made as she fell. Like a bird, I thought. Peculiar. And then, warped into gurgling as she hit the sea. Sent to silence as she sank.
We drew back in fear. Scattered to hide. As I looked back one last time before leaving the harbour, I saw the boat in flames.

Why am I telling you this?

I suppose it’s because I felt that someone had to.
Does it not strike you that we recovered rather quickly from the war? No, I know we are still rebuilding, re-electing, repairing. I don’t mean the physical destruction. I’m talking about ourselves. Our souls. My soul.

At the docks, I felt inhuman. I was an animal. A rat, scrabbling for shade as the hawk flies by. I was willing to throw others to the waves if it meant my family and I might have a chance of survival, however slim. Is that something we’re to forget, now the danger is passed?

The rest of England seems to think so. Now that we’re safe, it’s all flag waving and cheers. The politicians stand at the podium and speak proudly of the indefatigable Great British spirit, as though they weren’t cowering in the cellars with the rest of us when the invaders came from above.

Does it not occur to anyone else that our deliverance came by chance, not design? It was not our strength or spirit that toppled our foes. It was luck. Curse me for saying it, but I am sincere. Am I the only one that can’t go back?

All our humanity brought into questions, all of us running and squealing like rats, but with one dose of fortune we sound the trumpets and applaud ourselves. Isn’t it obscene?
I’m asking you. Isn’t it wrong?
Is redemption so easily earned?
Are we men again?
Am I forgiven, then?

Inspired by H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, and other apocalyptic stories from all over the place. By no means well polished, but it was a bit of fun to write.

– Sykes

Short Fiction: Laugh Track

I walked past the playground, and heard the kids playing, as I did every day. Same route, each morning, sure as if it was programmed into me. But this time, something about the sound was different, and it caught me by the ear like a fisherman’s hook and made me stop still.

There was this laugh – a child’s laugh, playful like. Three short peaks, each higher than the last, then a sort of jumbled chuckle. Now how often do you stop and take the time to memorise every note of something as commonplace as a laugh? You don’t. But this one called out to me because I’d heard it before. It was more than familiar; it was one of those noises that are ingrained in your memory, so deep down that you’ve no idea when or where you first heard it. You only know you’ve heard it often, countless times on repeat. I stood there for seconds, which is a long time by morning-walk-to-work standards, ‘til it clicked. It was a stock sound.

That odd but spritely laugh was one I’d heard a thousand times before through my television’s speakers, supposedly coming from crowds of kids behind a glass screen. It was a sound effect from an extensive library, used over and over again by everyone from movie producer to videogame designers, all because it was generously royalty-free. There are thousands of them, and I’m willing to bet you’d recognise more than you think. There was no mistaking it, that chortle of children. It was one hundred percent recycled amusement. You might say that I could have misheard, and I’d admit that’s a possibility, were it not for the fact that in the two minutes I stood at the fence, I heard that exact laugh repeated three times.

As I walked further into town I opened my ears. You’d be surprised how much more you hear when you really listen out for it. And what I heard, hidden behind the mundane, was disturbing. It wasn’t just the laugh. There were generic sound effects everywhere. A dog barked with the voice of a completely different breed. The birdsong in the park played on loop, as did the background noise of the day, which I imagine had a file name like ‘citycrowds5’. But I didn’t really start to lose it until I witnessed some hapless cyclist misjudge the height of the kerb and fall to the street. Because I swear to God, as that man flew clean over his handlebars, I heard the Wilhelm scream.

So this is where the inevitable existential crisis set it. These were stock sounds, they came from a database. How did they get from the database into the real world? Somebody put them there. But who, and how? The real world isn’t managed, or edited, or crea- oh. Perhaps ‘real’ was the word to challenge here. What if it’s an illusion, right? What if we’re all unknowingly part of some great film set, acting out our parts, oblivious to the truth? Because we’ve seen this before, haven’t we? Truman show, right? Or worse, the Matrix. Plato’s analogy of the cave, for Christ’s sake.

This was all getting a bit too much. I was starting to sweat through my suit. I took myself to the nearest bench and struggled with my tie. We’ve seen it before, said the so-far subdued rational part of my brain, and that’s exactly the point. Come on, man, have some originality. This has been done, there are books and books and movies about it. Real world masked by a generated illusion. We’re all pawns in some dystopian ploy to mess with our minds and meld our movements. Snap out of it.

I got to work with my mind just about intact, determined to work away the delusions. Because, I said to myself, there’s no point worrying that we’re all part of some grandiose illusion. There’s nothing we can do about it. We just go on living, we keep on playing the game, even if the game isn’t ours.

I sat at my desk. I never even mentioned what I do, did I? Trust me to get carried away. I’m a Negotiable Project Commissioner. You know, an NPC. Don’t ask me what that means, I barely know myself. Work for a big firm, do what I’m told over and over, wait for someone more important to step in and set things in motion. It’s depressing, really. Sometimes I think I’m only here to make up numbers.

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You may need to be vaguely familiar with videogames to fully ‘get’ this one. If not, try googling ‘NPC’, and all shall be revealed.

More doodles soon, methinks…

– SYKES

Flash Fiction: There is Nothing to Fear

Another picture writing challenge from over at Cognitive Reflection. I seem to be sandwiching sillier bits in between (half) serious/ dark short fiction. Lots of fun. Let me know what you think – constructive criticism is appreciated!

proper credit unknown

Maria whispers to herself as she walks down the corridor, carrying her father’s briefcase.  Beads of water fall from the ceiling to shallow, rank pools on the floor, creating echoes far larger than their size, and the familiar sounds of the city’s crowds are muffled and distorted, distant as they are beyond the walls of the abandoned building. Among all of this Maria is walking slowly, taking no steps to avoid the puddles, the litter and the fallen masonry that is scattered throughout the hallway. Her mind is preoccupied, drifting far from her feet, and she is using every part of it to maintain her murmured mantra. She repeats:
There is nothing to fear. There is nothing to fear. Nothing to fear but fear itself.

It’s an old one, and a good one, though considering her derelict surroundings and the shadows on either side that seem to follow as she walks, it does not seem entirely convincing. But Maria has her reasons to believe it, and now that she has come this far there is no sense in second guessing them. She was promised her safety if she met the conditions. She has brought the briefcase and grips it rigid at her side, as though afraid that it will leap for freedom if she loosens her hold, and disappear into the ankle-depth water below her with some cheap magician’s trick.

There is nothing to fear but fear.’

She is nearing the end of the corridor now, where the windows are largest and the light is in reach. She is unsure which room she is meant to be looking for, so she tries every one of the doors on the right, until she sees something beyond one of them that settles her mind. She walks inside, but within seconds she has returned to the corridor, this time without the briefcase, and it clear from her face that she feels that its weight has been lifted.

There is nothing to fear.’

She says it one last time, and she believes it. She believes it as she quickens her pace, hurrying for her exit. She believes it as she approaches the stairwell, and she believes it as she skips a step in her urgency. But as her foot catches on a metal pipe, left carelessly strewn on the stairs, the mantra leaves her mind. As she tumbles, headfirst, down the thick grey steps and sees the cracked concrete rushing to meet her, it seems there is something to fear after all.

I step from behind the door on the left, where I watched her. I feel pity, though I will not pretend to feel remorse, as I go to retrieve the briefcase. Beware of old sayings, I think. Beware of mantras and clichés.

There is always something to fear.

 

Selling Organs: A six word story (Daily Prompt)

From the daily prompt – Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other
‘Write a six-word story about what you think the future holds for you, and then expand on it in a post.’

Sold organs in desperation. Church furious.

Selling organs

This was drawn very quickly, so the organ may not be anatomically correct.

Judging by the current state of my finances, this is looking to be a likely outcome for my future. Desperate times, eh?

Love a good six word story. This website has a good collection of them, if you’re interested.

– SYKES

A Short Story about some Moody Waves

Something slightly more serious than usual (Don’t worry, silly doodles will be back soon). Earlier this week I came across the picture writing challenge at another fine blog, Cognitive Reflection, and decided to give it a go. Below is a short story based on this picture of some moody waves.

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There is a place on the coast, close to where I live, where the sun sets in black and white. Not only sets, but rises, and hangs throughout the day, with not a hint of its usual amber warmth. It is a natural phenomenon, much like the northern lights, though with the colour drained away. The spectacle stretches for about a mile along the beach; on either side the sand is golden, the sea darkened blue green and the sky becomes whatever hue it feels like on each certain day. Then, the colour simply runs out. The yellow sand merges into a pitch of pavement grey. The water darkens further still until it is black, but for the white crests of waves that ride down to the shore. The sky is grey, as are the clouds, and when it rains the raindrops can barely be seen for they too are grey, until they reach the surface of the ocean to become a part of darker depths.

To those unfamiliar with my home this sounds like a marvel. But, like most wonders of the world, the locals barely bat their eyelids while outsiders flock to see them like crows to a corn field. As for me, I try to maintain my respect for the black and white beach, reminding myself at times how I felt when I first set eyes on it, twenty years ago. It was the sense of natural awe you might predict, except that it felt muted. In an appealing way.

I still take pleasure in introducing strangers to the scene, and so you can imagine my delight when my niece, eleven years old, came to visit, and asked to see the beach. We walked together to the coastline one evening, and I insisted she cover her eyes until we had walked well past the line of colour. When she lowered her hands, I waited for a gasp, or a subtler smile, but it didn’t come. She looked left to right and back again, before staring up at me.

‘It’s just black and white,’ she said. ‘Like a photograph. An old one.’

I was a little taken aback by this attitude. ‘Isn’t it beautiful, though? Like an old photograph? Or an old film? They can be great, in a different sort of way.’
She shrugged. ‘It’s just black and white. There’s nothing more to say.’
She turned to leave, but I took her hand.
‘Why?’ she said, ‘I’ve already seen it all.’
But she hadn’t. She had seen the black and white, but not between those lines. I insisted she stay a little longer, so that we could watch the sun set together.

I said to her, ‘See the blacks and whites, but they aren’t the only colours. Look at the greys.’
‘The grey?’ she asked.
‘Greys,’ I insisted. ‘See how many there are. They’re so alike that they seem to blend together, but they are by no means the same. There are thousands and thousands of greys, and you could spend a lifetime trying to count them all.’

Together we looked at the myriad of colours, where we once thought there had been only two. And as the cold white sun sank over the horizon, I looked to my right, and saw my young niece’s eyes begin to widen.