December 2016 Competition Winners are:-
First Prize: Nathaniel Mellor of Savannah, USA for
‘Lost in Thought’
Second Prize: Jennifer Rowe of Brighton for ‘His
Third Prize: Rhodri Diaz of Swansea for ‘Blackcurrant Jelly’
The Judges would like to thank all those who entered the competition for the high standard of the writing submitted.
Lost in Thought
“Doin’ okay there, sport?” His father, in the driver’s seat next to him, asked. He liked to call James “sport” or “pal.” Even “kiddo.” It didn’t matter that James was twenty-seven and had lived alone for the better part of ten years.
“Yeah, Dad. Doing okay.” James said, somewhere between sarcasm and honesty. Even he couldn’t decide how he felt.
“Wanna talk about it?” His dad offered.
James focused on the fish he was drawing, adding squiggles for water and sharp angles for scales.
“Yeah. No. Not now, at least.”
His father nodded, understanding. Flicking the directional downwards, James’s father made a right turn. A horn blared from behind their car.
“Where are we going?” James looked up from his window masterpiece.
“Remember when you and I would go out for the afternoon and run by Checkers on the way home? And your mom never found out because I wouldn’t let us leave until you finished everything? Hah! She would have been pissed to see a milkshake cup in the trash.” His father smiled a half-smile.
“And you want to go again now?” James questioned him.
“Yes.” His father answered, pulling into an empty parking lot.
James opened his door and stood up, stretching. Looking at the sky, he squinted. It always seemed to rain on the day funerals were held. Never a tree-snapping thunderstorm, but a dreary pitter-patter of rain.
They walked up to the order window and stood in the bright white light of the food display board.
“Number seven with a vanilla milkshake?” James’s father asked, smiling slightly as if it were an old joke.
“C’mon Dad, you know I’m vegan now.”
“Your choice.” His dad turned to the order window and waited patiently for a server to come. He didn’t wait long.
“Welcome to Checkers, what do you want?” The lady asked, after opening the window.
“One number seven with a chocolate milkshake.” James’s father ordered.
“One number seven with a chocolate milkshake. Will that be all?” The lady asked.
James’s father looked to James, and James waved away his chance to order.
“That’ll be all, then.” James’s father handed over his card. After a few beats, she handed it back with a receipt.
“Your food will be out shortly.” She said, and closed the window.
James and his father stood in silence under the awning, watching as cars did their stop-and-go dance through the drive-thru.
Finally, the window opened and a young man with acne pushed the food towards them, and closed the window again without a word.
“Should we sit out here?” James’s father asked.
“Dad, it’s raining.” James said.
“They have umbrellas.” His father responded.
“And this is a Ralph Lauren jacket.” James held his lapels.
His father shrugged and stood there with his white food bag getting increasingly more transparent.
James shook his head and walked back to the car with his father in tow.
Once they were situated comfortably, James’s father opened his paper bag and reached down, pulling out a fry.
“Are you going to eat here? In the parking lot?” James questioned him, despite the fact he was obviously eating in the parking lot.
“We don’t get to talk anymore, kiddo. I think we should talk.” His father replied, ignoring James’s question.
“Fine. What do you want to talk about?” James snapped.
“Am I wrong in thinking we used to be friends?” James’s father asked,
James paused, then responded. “No, Dad. We used to be close.”
“Then what happened to us? Because for the life of me, I can’t figure out what it was.” James’s father asked, putting the bag of food on the dashboard.
“Can I ask you a question?” James countered.
“When did you stop loving my mom?”
James’s father looked at James in something bordering on shock and curiosity. “What makes you say I stopped loving her?”
“Dad?” James asked.
“Can you not treat me like a child? Believe it or not, I did grow up somewhere between turning fifteen and turning twenty-five.”
“Fair enough, James. You want this to be a man-to-man talk?”
“No. I want it to be a father-to-son talk.”
James’s father turned away, nodding a few times. “I have never stopped
loving your mother. However, you’re right in a way. We were no longer in love with each other.”
“How?” James asked. “People don’t just fall out of love.”
“Don’t they? People fall in love pretty easily. Sometimes it only takes a few minutes or the cost of a drink. Sometimes it’s a more drawn out affair. But in the end, falling in love usually happens quickly.”
“So you just fell out of love with Mom?”
James’s father rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. “We were moving in different directions. It sounds like such a joke, doesn’t it?” James’s father smiled at James but James didn’t return the gesture. There were tears in James’s eyes.
“It happened four years ago.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” James asked.
“You were stressed enough.” James’s father answered simply.
“And you guys didn’t get a divorce? Go your separate ways, or whatever?”
“We couldn’t. We just found out she was sick.”
“And now she’s dead. Is that why you didn’t cry at the funeral? Because you’re finally free?”
“Is that what you think?” James’s father snapped. “You think I’m happy that I just buried your mother?”
“Well you don’t seem too beaten up at the fact.” James tried to lash out but he started to realize he just took a step in the wrong direction. He let his anger dictate his words.
“How old are you, James? Twenty-seven?” His father asked, all traces of friendship gone. “What do you know of the world? Do you know the last time I heard from you before I called you a week ago telling you your mother died? A year ago. You called me to ask for money, money that your mother needed.”
“Then why even give it to me?” James interrupted. “If Mom needed it so badly, why would you lend me the money?”
“Your mother wanted me to. She believed in what you were doing, even if I didn’t.”
“And now you blame me for it?”
“Jesus Christ! Do you ever listen? I have never once blamed you for asking for money. And after everything your mother did for you, you didn’t even visit. Not once that I can remember.”
“I know you don’t, Dad.” James sounded defeated.
“So where were you when she would spit and swear because she knew her sentences didn’t make sense? Where were you to help her bathe, and to dress her?” James’s father spit out every word. “And where were you when she forgot who you were? Or where and when she was?” He whispered. “Where were you?”
“I’m sorry, Dad.” James said.
“Me too, James. Me too. You know, she was looking for you at the end. She asked for her little Jamison. I didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth. She thought you were in the kitchen. Or the living room. That you just stepped out. At the end, I think she knew. I think she knew you were gone.”
“I get it! You don’t think I’m a good son. You have made that perfectly clear, so clear in fact, that you were ready to step out of our lives if Mom hadn’t gotten sick.”
“When did you get so self-centered and ignorant?” James’s father erupted.
“Is that what you think I am?” James asked. “An egotistical prick that cares only about himself?”
“You haven’t shown me you aren’t. Maybe it’s because you’re young, or maybe you’ve lived away for too long, but you’ve become a poor excuse for a son. I hope that by the time you’re my age, you’ll have some more respect for those who have given you everything they didn’t have.” James’s father opened the car door and walked to the trashcan, without bothering to hunch over to protect himself from the rain. With a contemptuous toss, he threw away his number seven (minus one fry) and chocolate milkshake.
James sat in the car, wiping away the fish and water. They would go back to their home in Mastic Beach, and James would go upstairs to bed. And when he woke up, his father would be at the kitchen table crying over his youngest son who didn’t live there anymore. And James would tell him, “I live upstairs Dad. I moved back in two years ago to take care of you and mom.”
And when the day after tomorrow came, he would repeat it all over again.
His Master’s Voice
The Robot hound waited patiently for its master to return.
When he did not, it lay down and rested its nose on its front paws, still, but alert to any sounds or unfamiliar smells in the air. The sky, once blue, was an angry orange and a wind from the North was beginning to ruffle the dog’s fake fur.
Minutes turned into hours but it waited still, eyes turned toward the last sign of the man. When the number of days and nights ran into weeks and the sky had broken apart, turning the horizon into a swirling dark fire, and he had still not returned, it set its main life support systems to sleep, buried its muzzle a little into the remaining brown grass, and left only its basic programmes running.
Had a passing traveller glanced at the ground then, they would have seen nothing out of the ordinary - just a Border Collie crouched in the dirt. But there were no passing travellers now, nor would there be. It had been years since anyone had come this way. No real dogs with masters, no robot dogs with real masters, no salesman in their Holo-cars , no Coptors crammed with tourists, even the Army-Stealthers had rounded up the final few and left. Nothing wished to live here anymore; little could. What was left of the human race was either being shipped to waiting cargo-ships, impatiently orbiting the planet, or were already in the Sceptre galaxy where small settlements were earnestly developing a new way of living.
And yet there had been a master. The dog’s simple circuits knew that. A man had stroked its fur-covered body, held its smooth head and looked into its camera eyes. There had been a master for 9,183 days. It had walked many miles with him, they had run together, it had fetched sticks and balls for him, it had lain at his feet in the Facility while the master had looked through a vast tube into the sky. They had stood together in the cool Algonquin forest and peered upwards at a star-smothered sky, they had roamed through that same forest, years later, as the trees dried to skeletons and the stars faded away.
‘Stay, Larry. You stay here, OK?’
The Master had used his warm-voice, but the dog had sensed cold; two messages in one. It wagged its tail and took a tentative step forward.
‘No, Larry’. The master had pointed to the floor. ‘You stay now. You’re all we’ve got left. I have to go.’
The dog wagged its tail, sat in the drying grass and watched its master walk away – first half as big, then half again and then when he was nearly nothing more than a speck, the ground below the giant dish seemed to open up and swallowed him whole. Even then, the dog resisted the urge to follow, it resisted the urge to bound after him like it had done that morning and countless others, programmed to come to heel, to be a companion, to protect. It was programmed to be a dog, an obedient dog, a loyal friend; so he waited, just like he’d been told.
‘It’s coming, Larry. I have to go to the others. If they’re still here, I have to Larry, it’s time.’
The man had bent low, stroked the dog’s head, cupped its small skull and clicked something in place behind its jaw. He had looked into its eyes and then leaned forward, pressing his head into the synthetic fur of its neck. He let out a sound the robot dog did not understand. They stayed like that a while, the man’s shoulders shaking and his unsteady breath heating the dog’s coat. When he stood, his face was pink and the dog tasted salt in the air.
‘You’ll be fine, boy. You’ll be fine. Just…stay.’ That’s when he had turned and walked away, and once he had been eaten by the earth, then nothing happened for a very long time.
While the dog slept, the sky lit up like daylight once more, then darkened; the wind came and with it the dust rain and fire storms that washed its pelt almost free. Patches of fur and silicon skin clung around its haunches and stump of a tail, the metal below weathered and lost its shine but beneath, a tiny hot furnace still glowed, repeating its message over and over.
‘Wait, Larry, you have to wait.’
A long night fell, a night like no night before. Even small lichen and moss that had survived thus far slowly joined their neighbours in the dust. The dog waited, the dog slept.
Days, weeks, years passed – each time the sand and ash became too thick upon the dog’s body, a tremor from within would shake it to the floor. Before it, and behind, lay nothing now but dunes and distance and far faint rumbles from the sky.
Still longer, and the dark clouds of the interminable night began to clear, first slowly, hinting that the sun still lived above and then, as the sky became a brown haze, sometimes a little water fell. And before long, more water and the dust drank in long gasps until microscopic plants hidden, dry and deep, like long forgotten secrets began, once more, to search for the sun.
A long way off, a single light appeared in the East sky, lighting the umber-washed nothing with a beam of white gold. It grew in size, and the air began to fizz with an unfamiliar energy. Something clicked in the dog’s head. The furnace glowed brighter, sending electric synapses out across its resting circuits. With great difficulty, it sat up; the dust of the dead still caked its body so, to an unfocussed eye, a snow dog grew out of the earth. Its ears swivelled open. It howled, and howled again and again, the only sound in the wilderness.
The light grew bigger, brighter, formed two lights and, with it, a low buzz.
The dog howled more.
The thing grew louder and bigger until the jets that powered its landing blew the dust around and around the dog. Its shadow encompassed it and landed no more than a few metres away. For a moment nothing happened, nothing moved. Then, a hatch opened in the side of the vehicle, bright light shining from within. The dog tensed, its ears raised.
Two dark shapes stepped out onto the ash-snow soil. Their boots sank into the grey.
‘Earth.’ They said it together, with reverence. ‘Earth.’
The dog’s tail began to beat the hollow earth.
Their attention turned to the movement.
‘Beacon located. Scan correctly identified.’
‘A dog?’, one whistled. She waved a metal stick in a circle around them and inspected it. ‘Air’s fine, helmet’s off.’
Together, they peered at the dog. One glanced at the other. ‘Safe…?’ The other nodded and they began walking towards it.
The dog whined and trembled in anticipation and then, as if readying itself to howl once more, it lifted its head and, there from the depths of the tiny furnace came its masters voice:
‘Report 419, May 24, 2334:’ the voice drifted loud and clear above the faint whirr of the cooling vehicle. ‘Dr Andrew Wright of Standard Defence Division B: A summary of our last days before close contact. Asteroid is expected to enter the atmosphere within the next 24-48 hours. I’ve stayed up-side as long as I can but it’s too late.’ He laughed - a dry unhappy sound. ‘It was too late way before this. We expect surface disturbances here to be strong, estimate is minimal life for 30 years but the instruments are old so this is an approximation. We are the last four, I think. Forster, Ives and Kadinska are dead. We haven’t heard from the other centres for more than 8 months. The others are waiting for me in the survival tank and I’ll continue audio reports from there. I’ve stayed above in the hope of finding another solution but let’s face it, this rock’s just the full stop at the end of a very depressing sentence. Our safest bet now is below ground until the Impact Winter ends.’ A pause. ‘I know we’re only putting off the inevitable, but I can’t stay up here any longer and watch the rest of it die. Larry – I mean, the beacon – has all our files and he’ll monitor outcomes. He’s built to withstand a lot but there’s copies with us too. Er, look, whoever finds this, I guess you’re probably not going to hang around for long. When you go, don’t – don’t leave him, the dog I mean, don’t leave him here when you go. Christ, this is going to sound stupid. He doesn’t like being alone. He’s more than just…he’s my dog.’ His voice softened. ‘Hey, Larry, good job, my friend, good dog.’
The new astronauts looked at one another, one held her hand towards the dog. ‘Um. Larry?’
As quick as a rocket the dog shot towards the astronauts, sniffing, whining, trembling with anticipation. If they had not recognised it as a dog before, they would have been sure at this. But although the dog’s sensors were now functioning normally, it could not find the smell that went with that voice – the voice that said ‘good dog’. Without warning, it stiffened and galloped away, past the crew in their radiation suits and across the sands. It stopped abruptly half a mile or so away, scrabbling at the sand.
When they caught up with it, they found the facility, and beneath that the hatch, the mummified bodies and the equipment that had failed to save their world. While they finalised their search, the dog slumped beside the corpse of Dr Wright and though it was easily called away, trotting along obediently beside the two astronauts, they noticed that it often looked back.
As they sat at the controls, readying the ship for its return journey to the 58th Planet, the dog curled like any other real dog in a passenger seat, the older woman sucked her teeth. ‘Thirty years! Boy they had no idea, did they?’
‘That old hound’s better at being alone than anyone else I’ve ever me,’ chuckled her second in command. And they set their coordinates for home, the home where they were born, where their parents were born, and their grandparents and great-grandparents before them.
It’s the sky that gets you. Everything else, you get used to. Bare-boned buildings, gutted and decaying. The pervasive smell; sulphur tinged with rotting carcass. After a while, it all feels normal. But the sky, a sky the colour of blackcurrant jelly, that’s something you can never quite adjust to. Sometimes, you’ll wake up and it’ll be paler, more diluted. Then you start to think, to wish, that maybe the universe is correcting itself. That maybe things will go back to the way they were before. Hope is our only currency, and we're running dangerously short.
The rotting, the madness, the world crumbling around us, all of that happened slowly, methodically. We had time to adjust our eyes to the new light. But the jelly sky, that hit immediately. Something comfortable, something familiar, was forcefully taken from us. We went to sleep in our own bed and woke up in a strange one. It didn't take us long to realise that we will never sleep comfortably again.
He hates it when I talk about before. He says that nostalgia isn't productive. That the future is what counts. I’m not sure that there is a future. But I can’t tell him that. I need him. I need something to hold on to. We all do in this world. I wish I could have loved him before all this. Before everything was finished.
He’ll wake up soon. I don’t want to see his face when he looks outside. You forget while you’re asleep. The best part of the day is when you wake up and, for the briefest of blissful seconds, still think you’re dreaming. That moment is what we live for.
We still have coffee. That freeze dried stuff lasts forever. I miss milk though. It’s strange, the little things you never realise you’ll miss until they’re taken from you. Milk, chocolate, the BBC. They feel like relics from an ancient, unknowable world.
I bring the coffee to the cracked glass table beside him. He stirs and rubs the gritty sleep out of his eyes. He fell asleep on the sofa last night. Fatigue is a common side effect. The roots of his hair are turning a mossy colour. Scaly red patches cover his body. His forehead burns like a furnace. A week together. A week of normality. That’s all I want.
I was the one that pulled him out of the wreckage. I got on my hands and knees and I dug until my hands bled. I don’t know why I chose him. Why I chose that building. There were others in need. Others that died because no one stepped in. I wish I could say that it wasn’t because he was beautiful, but I think it was. Love was the only thing that was still in our control. I needed him or I would have been lost.
He smiles when he wakes up and looks over at me. We do this every morning. I wake up, make coffee, he smiles at me. The biggest smile he can muster. It makes us feel normal. It’s kept me alive. I store it away, for future reference.
He takes a tentative sip. I apologise for the bitterness. We lost sugar a long time ago. He chuckles, like it’s the most trivial thing in the world and we can just get some later from the corner shop. I don’t know where he gets it from, that boundless optimism. “One day, we’ll have sugar.” he says.
It only takes a minute before he’s rushing to the bathroom. The coffee hasn’t been staying down long lately. There are red flecks on the sink bowl. One more day, if we’re lucky.
I know what has to be done. I know it but I don’t want to believe it. We all think that we could do it. With our back against the wall, when nothing else was possible. But when it comes to it, looking at him hunched over the sink bowl bringing up that bitter freeze dried crap, I’m not sure I have it in me. But it has to be done. For his sake. What was that phrase in the old days? ‘Cruel to be kind’.
He spies me out of the corner of his eye and tries to wash away any evidence before I can see it. He laughs again. It's an unsure laugh, as if he expects me to validate him. I’m not sure I have any laughs left in me. But I validate him, all the same.
I sit on the lid of the toilet seat and I think about love. I often used to do this, before, with some miserable pop band playing and the memory of an ill-fated tryst swirling around in my head. I used to think that love was the willingness to do the littlest things for someone and, at the same time, the biggest things. Back then, love was a mess of contradictions. It made you want to run forward, run towards something brighter, more exciting and at the same time, it made you want to run backwards, towards something safer.
I’m too scared of going forward. All I want to do is run backward, back towards something that made some sense. Now I know that love is complete dependence, a tie that binds you to another person. And the bitter truth of it is that the only people who survive in our world are people without ties, and the people who manage to stay sane long enough to survive are those with ties. Rock and a hard place.
He’s on the rat-bitten couch when I come out, flicking through some tatty paperback, the only one that survived, some sensationalist piece of garbage they used to churn out by the thousands. He hates it too, you can see by the way his nose crinkles when he reads a particularly lurid paragraph. I imagine what his taste would have been. Woolf, definitely Woolf. Edith Wharton. The Beats. God, he’d have been perfect. We could have sat all day, discussing aestheticism in Wilde or first-wave feminism, then we’d make love and go to bed. Rinse and repeat until we're old and withered, sitting in adjacent chairs in some far-flung nursing home, stinking of stale piss and Fisherman's Friends.
We live, we exist, opposite what was once the university, my university. It was the pride and joy of our city, towering Victorian architecture, red brick and just ostentatious enough that everyone knew what kind of serious learning went on there. Now it’s a shell, still burning inside, red brick turned ash. If you look closely, you’ll sometimes see a scrap, a bit of paper from a book or a journal, a couple of words still legible in amongst the debris. A message from the time before. If you look even closer, you’ll see knobs of bone and clumps of hair. No one looks that close.
I imagine seeing him, lounging on the long stretch of field in front of the main hall. It’d be a sweltering day, the kind of day where even the buildings and the trees seem to sweat. Absent-mindedly, he’d finger through a dog-eared old book of heady, flowery poetry. Lost to the world, caught up in cadence and wordplay. I’d imagine a thousand different conversation starters. I’d say I’d read that particular book of poetry, though I hadn’t, and loved it entirely. He’d catch me out somehow, quote me a passage that doesn’t appear and I’d nod and gush about Keats or Rimbaud and he’d laugh at my foolishness,. I’d see the dewy perspiration on his brow and I’d imagine making love to him. He’d move closer to me, tastefully, and we’d share the poetry. He’d point out his favourites, I’d notice how he smelled, sandalwood and the suggestion of sweat. After an hour or two, he’d have a lecture to attend. He’d promise that we’d meet again. I almost believe this really happened.
I excuse myself and slip into the bedroom. The bed is unmade, a tangled ball of filthy damp-smelling sheets. For a while, we were regimental about changing the bed. It was ritual, a slice of normal life. Now, it feels like time that no one has to waste. Sitting gingerly on the edge of the bed, I pry open the bottom drawer of the side table. In among the passports, birth certificates, family photo albums, the detritus of ancient life, I catch a glimpse of dull grey metal. Puffing out my cheeks, I pick it up carefully. I've inspected every inch of this pistol over the last few weeks. Checked the ammo a thousand times. Two rounds.
The first night we were together, we made love. He was still tender from his injuries. But he asked me, he begged me. He needed to feel close to someone. Afterwards, we lay in bed and we held each other and wept. It seemed strange, that everything had crumbled but sex was still there, still the same. No matter what, they couldn’t take that away from us. Sex was our weapon, our way of rebelling, against God, against fate, against whatever had done this to us.
When I come out of the bedroom, he’s napping on the couch, the lurid book still open on his chest. You try and sleep as much as you can. Forget as much as you can. There’s a spot of red on his chin. He’d saved the worst for when I’d left. I look at the hunk of metal in my hand. The cannonball in my stomach is trying to make a grand exit. I hope my retch doesn’t wake him. Red flecks on the sink bowl. It’s happening to me too.
I check the ammo again. It’s enough. I snap it shut and steel myself. I’m doing this for him. He opens his eyes slowly. He asks if I’m okay, but he soon catches a glimpse of what’s in my hand. It’s unbearable. His eyes fix on me. I can see every little change of emotion, every tiny register, from fear to anger to understanding to regret. He pleads with me, without saying anything, not a single word. He wonders if there’s anything else we could do. We could get medicine, or see if we could find other survivors who could help. No, he knows as well as I do. They’d shoot us on sight. This is the only way.
I sit next to him on the couch. Tears slide down his cheeks. I can’t look at anything but the roots of his hair. I kiss him, tasting the tang of iron on his lips. He smells like sandalwood. I pull the gun up to the side of his head and with one last embrace and “I love you” on my tongue, I release him. He goes limp in my arms. I let his head loll backwards and pull the hair from his face. He’s smiling. I've done the right thing.
My hand is shaking violently as I put the barrel to my own temple. I can’t feel anything below the waist. I wonder how it came to this, how everything decayed underneath us. I think of the day when I pulled him from the wreckage and I remember hoping that maybe now everything would be okay, that maybe together we could take on the world. I pray, for the first time in years, to someone I know isn’t there. I think of him on the lawn of the university and I think of how our lives would have gone. I imagine a passionate summer affair and a cool autumn romance and I imagine how we would have grown old together and for a moment, just before the darkness, I’m happy.