Fiction Fursday/Death Vision

Today’s story prompt was provided by JustAnotherTeenager over at Solitary Haven. The prompt was to write about characters who know that they are going to die, but not how they will die. I thought this was quite an interesting one so I dived right in. I ended up gravitating towards a fantasy story this time, which I’m always happy to to be writing. Thanks, Teenager! 🙂

I hope you enjoy what I was able to come up with.

P.S. If anyone would like to suggest a prompt for me to use in the coming weeks, please feel free to let me know via the comments section. I am using any and all prompts, so don’t be shy!

P.P.S. I currently have enough prompts lined up for four more weeks, so don’t be dismayed if I don’t use one of yours right away. I will get round to it, I’ve got a list and everything!

 

Death Vision

By Adam Dixon

“I remember the day you were born like it was yesterday,” the old man said, his rheumy eyes misting over. “You certainly gave your mother a hard time! Ten hours of labour and nothing the witch-doctor did seemed to make you want to hurry up! Ah, but you were always a stubborn one!”

“That’s great, dad, now will you give me a hand, please?” The young woman was painting an intricate warding spell on one of the bare walls of the small room. The paint was blood red and bold against the grey plaster. The old man sighed and placed the jug of water he was carrying on the windowsill. He leaned down and picked up a brush, completing the warding with ease. The room was not ventilated and the pungent, nauseating smell of the paint was strong. It didn’t help that it was so warm in the room, either, and the old man began to feel dizzy. The woman regarded the warding and nodded, brushing a loose strand of blond hair from her eyes.

“Great, thank you!” she said with relief. “You always had a better eye for these things than me.”

“Your mother taught me the difficult ones,” the man replied, rubbing the small of his back. The woman poured herself a glass of water and drained a huge gulp through a straw before picking up her paintbrush again.

“I’m going to miss you, Jennifer,” the old man said, his eyes brimming with tears. “I wish it didn’t have to be today.”

“Dad, it doesn’t!” Jennifer turned on the old man. She had a wild look in her eyes borne of desperation and determination. “I’m not going to die today, stuff what the doctor says!”

“Jennifer, I know it’s hard to accept,” the old man said, resting his hands gently on her shoulders. “Believe me, your mother and I barely accepted it ourselves, but the witch-doctor is never wrong. He tasted your blood the day you were born and we’ve known ever since. Why fight it?”

“Why not?” Jennifer retorted, glaring at her father. “I can do so much good in the world, so why shouldn’t I try to stay alive? Because some blood-drunk freak had a vision twenty-four years ago?”

“That’s exactly why, Jennifer, and you know it!” the old man said. “The witch-doctor’s Death Vision is never wrong, and it’s been that way for centuries! In a way, it’s a blessing to know when our lives are due to be over, that’s what your mother always said.”

“Yes and you didn’t try to save her either,” Jennifer said, shrugging off his hands and returning to her painting. The old man stared at her, deeply hurt.

“Your mother knew that her time was near, just like I did,” he said, his voice quivering. “We knew since the day we first met, but that didn’t change anything. In fact, she always said that it encouraged her to enjoy every day as much as she could. I was grateful to know that she wouldn’t suffer the indignities of age, something which you ought to be grateful for as well.”

“Well I’m not,” Jennifer replied, dabbing at her new warding. It was a powerful one, the strongest defensive spell she knew. “I want to grow old, I want to have that chance. Anyway, mum didn’t know the exact day like I do. You don’t know the exact day you’re expected to die, either!”

“That’s down to your rare blood type, my darling” the old man said, smiling. “It’s as if the universe singled you out as someone special and allowed the witch-doctor to be more precise! Come on, Jennifer, please don’t be like this. I…don’t want my last memory of you to be of us having an argument.”

“Dad, it’s not going to be your last!” Jennifer said in exasperation. The old man looked at his feet, his face the picture of misery. After a few minutes of listening to Jennifer muttering to herself, he approached her and pulled her into an embrace.

“Goodbye, my darling,” he said, smiling through his tears. “Be at one with Our Magic again, and I will join you soon.” Jennifer dropped the paintbrush, splashing her leg with red paint as she hugged him back. She broke down and began sobbing in earnest.

“Oh, dad, I love you,” she whispered. “But I’m not going anywhere without a fight!” The old man rubbed his weathered cheek against her smooth one, savouring her warmth and the wetness of their mingling tears. He pulled away and cupped her face with his hand, nodding and gazing into her eyes.

“I love you too, Butterfly,” he said. “I’ll be with you and your mother again soon.” Jennifer squeezed his hands tight and stepped back, drying her eyes on her sleeve.

“You’d better leave now, anyway,” she said quietly. “I’m about to set up a Circle and I don’t want you to get hurt.” The old man nodded again and moved towards the door. He shuffled past the threshold and took a lingering look at Jennifer as she began sprinkling a large sack of herbs around the room. She glanced up and winked at him.

“See you tomorrow, dad.” Her smile was weak. The old man smiled back sadly and closed the door. He sighed and leaned his back against it, suddenly feeling older than ever. Knowing that the day had been coming for years didn’t make it easy now that it had arrived. He stood listening to Jennifer casting spells and chanting incantations until the light faded. He fought the desire to enter the room and keep her company, warding spells be damned. But he did not. He became dimly aware of his knees aching and of his back sliding down the door frame…

He awoke sitting on the cold wooden floor with his knees bent and his joints as stiff as a rusty bike chain. He groaned and heard bone and cartilage creak and scrape together as he struggled to get up. His knees, hips and back cracked as he stood, dragging a rare expletive from his lips. He rubbed his body, fuming at its betrayal and thanking the universe for his wife’s early death. The thought stopped him in his tracks. He turned and faced the door, his heart heavy as he noted the silence behind it. He turned the handle and pushed it open, knowing what he would see. The room was colder than it had been the night before, and the stench of paint was gone. Lying in the centre of a huge circle of herbs, salt and animal bones was his Butterfly. Jennifer was dead.

The old man approached the corpse slowly, paying no mind to the crunch of the scattered detritus as he stepped on them. They were useless anyway, the spells would have died with the user. A mixture of scents assaulted his nose, some bitter, some sweet and others sour, but he barely noticed them. He fell to his knees, ignoring the fresh, angry waves of pain which lashed out from his bones. He looked at Jennifer’s beautiful, pale face and noted with relief that there was no trace of pain etched into her features. He hadn’t wanted her to suffer. He glanced over to the jug of water he had brought her the night before and saw that it was empty. He nodded.

“You drank it all,” he said, smoothing Jennifer’s hair from her face. “Good girl. I hoped you would do…it would have made it quicker.” He knelt over Jennifer’s body and gazed at her through hot tears.

“I love you, Butterfly.” he said. He took comfort in the fact that he wouldn’t live past the end of the year and so would have very little time before he joined her. He didn’t regret what he had done; the witch-doctor’s prediction had been fulfilled and everything was correct in the universe. Just as it had always been.

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Fiction Fursday/Night Terrors

Today’s story prompt was provided by my beautiful, long-suffering partner, Samwise. She has been trying to come up with a prompt for me since I started these Fiction Fursday posts, and she finally came up with a good one. She suggested that I write a story where “a person is hiding in their wardrobe from an intruder and his/her phone rings”.

This sounded like a great one to me, but I was determined not to write anything too obvious. I reckon I managed it, as when Samwise read the first draft she said “Well, that’s not really what I meant!”. I’m hoping that’s a good thing and I hope you all enjoy the tale I have come up with.

P.S. If anyone would like to provide a prompt for me to use in the future, please leave your suggestion in the comment section. Thanks!

 

Night Terrors

By Adam Dixon

Maggie awoke shivering from the cold. She closed her eyes and tried to drift back to the warm retreat of sleep, but she could not. Rubbing her eyes she crawled from her bed and staggered over to window. It was closed. She stood for a moment, scratching at her bed-hair and creasing her round face in confusion.

“Bit chilly for June…” she mumbled, moving with groggy steps towards her large wardrobe. She passed her desk, barely registering the birthday cards which sat there. “34 and Ready for More!” a pink one proclaimed, a gift from her neighbours. Next to it was her mobile which she scooped up and activated the torch app. She began rooting around inside the wardrobe, pushing blouses, dresses and cardigans out of the way.

“In here somewhere…” she said, still not fully awake. She knelt down and crawled inside the cupboard, thrusting aside sensible shoes and suitcases. Her fingers closed around the soft fabric of her dressing gown and she smiled in triumph.

Her bedroom door creaked open. Maggie froze, her eyes widening as she came awake in an instant. It was not the gentle creak of a breeze but the sound of the door being pushed. Maggie had always lived alone. A single footstep announced the arrival of an intruder. Then another. Another.

Maggie crawled further into the wardrobe, careful not to knock the sides as she turned around. Lucky for her it was large and she was able to sit against the back of it with her clothes hanging down over her face.  She shut off the torch on her phone, praying that whoever was in the room didn’t see it. Her mind raced as she tried to figure out what she should do next. Should she make a run for it and call the police? She didn’t even know what was happening! Should she stay where she was? That seemed like the best idea for the time being, but what if the intruder looked in?

Maggie tried to control her breathing as her panicked mind began throwing up suggestions as to who her intruder might be. It was that thief who escaped from the nearby prison the week before! It was one of those psychotic murderers she had learned about on TV! Or maybe it was a vampire, like in that scary book she was reading…She resolved to keep silent and not move at all…

Maggie’s phone began to ring. The high-pitched screech of her basic ringtone cut through the silence and Maggie’s heart leaped into her throat. Scrabbling furiously, she lifted it and prepared to swipe right to reject the call. She looked at her phone and her pounding heart seemed to freeze over. Her bulging eyes threatened to burst from their sockets and the blood drained from her face. The caller I.D. informed her that “Mum x” was calling…Maggie’s mother had been dead for seven years.

The clothes covering Maggie’s head were ripped from the railings with a vicious tug. Maggie screamed in terror and curled into a ball, waiting for the first blow of an axe or the sting of fangs on her throat.

“Margaret, there you are!” a voice hissed. A familiar, impossible voice… Maggie opened her eyes and forced herself to peer up into the darkness . Standing before her, as white as snow and dressed in mouldy clothes, was her mother. A strangled cry was torn from Maggie’s throat.

“Mum?!” she whispered. The phone was still ringing in her hand.

“In the flesh!” her mother replied, with a harsh cackle. That wasn’t right, Maggie’s mother had never cackled. “Or as near as I can be!” More cackling raised goose-bumps on Maggie’s skin. Her phone stopped ringing.

“But…how? You’ve been…”

“I know, I know,” her mother waved a hand with impatience. Her skin was translucent and Maggie could see her flowery wallpaper through it. The thin, pinched face of Elizabeth Goodwin looked just the same as it always had, except for the unpleasant smile stretching from ear to ear. Elizabeth had rarely smiled.

“I should be a rotten mess by now, eh?” Elizabeth grinned, her eyes wide and alight with madness. She struck a dramatic pose with her hand against her forehead.

“Oh, but I ought to be returned to the dust from whence I came, hadn’t I?” Elizabeth moaned. “Alas, my child, that was not to be my fate!” Maggie blinked rapidly and shook her head. Elizabeth had never made jokes either.

“I must be dreaming…” she said. “This is a nightmare…” She scrabbled for the rosary beads around her neck.

“Oh, you’re not dreaming, my dear,” Elizabeth rasped, crouching before her terrified daughter. She stabbed a ghostly finger towards the beads. “And that trinket won’t protect you! The nightmare is mine, not yours, I am the punished one here!”

“Punished?” Maggie’s head whirled. “What do you mean? You were so pious when you were alive!”

“Wrong God, my dear,” Elizabeth said with a sneer. “Devote your life to the wrong God, and the real one is quite unforgiving! The chains…oh, the chains! Would you believe it, Dicken’s was almost right!” Elizabeth stood again, throwing her head back in a shrill laugh. The noise echoed around Maggie’s small bedroom, bouncing off the walls and lancing into her ears.

“Dickens…what do you mean?” Maggie asked, struggling to stand. Her legs were trembling and her heart was hammering in her chest. She felt as if she were on the verge of fainting.

“Dickens, girl!” Elizabeth said. “Jacob Marley! He returned from the dead with great, heavy chains wrapped around him! Well, Dickens was close, oh so close! But his chains would be better than these…”

“Chains? Where?” Maggie cast her fearful eyes across her mother’s body.

“Chains in here,” Elizabeth tapped her temple with a pale finger. “Too much…such awful suffering…it drives you MAD!” Maggie recoiled at the shouted word, pressing herself into the wardrobe again. Elizabeth took a step forwards with a rictus grin on her face and hunger in her eyes.

“But I can throw them off…just for one night….seven years from the day….” Elizabeth was muttering now, not talking to anyone in particular. She reached out towards Maggie, who slipped down the wardrobe and into a whimpering ball once again.

“Mum, no, please!” She begged. “Whatever you’re doing, please stop!” Elizabeth continued walking towards her, muttering again.

“Just one night…one night to make them stop…” Elizabeth paused, her hands inches from Maggie’s face. A horrible light gleamed in her eyes. “By the way, happy birthday for yesterday, dear!” She barked a laugh and lunged.

“Mum! NO!” Maggie screeched as Elizabeth’s cold fingers gripped her face. Elizabeth’s back straightened and her head swung backwards, her eyes rolling and her mouth going slack. Maggie’s world exploded into horrific, blood-curdling noise. She heard the screams and whimperings of men, women and children, old and young alike. She heard moans and shrieks, cries of anguish and shouts of pain. Each voice followed the other, as one reached its end the next one started; there was no respite. No single voice was the same, but the screams were united by one emotion: fear. Maggie bellowed and dug her fingers into her ears in a desperate attempt to block out the noise. The wailing continued unabated.

“What’ve you done?” Maggie shouted, barely able to hear herself over the noise. “MAKE IT STOP!”

Elizabeth stood still, gazing around the room in wonder. She touched a hand to her forehead and smiled.

“They’ve gone…” she breathed, relief clear in her voice. “I can’t hear them anymore…it worked!”

“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?!” Maggie cried, squeezing her eyes shut against the torrent of suffering. Elizabeth glanced down at her daughter and smiled without a hint of sympathy.

“What you are hearing is my punishment,” she said, matter-of-factly. “You are listening to the final, terrified screams of everyone who has died or is dying in this world. Once upon a time I would have felt awful about doing this to you, Margaret, but not now. Tonight, you are my saviour!”

“MUM, MAKE IT STOP!” Maggie began to writhe around on the floor as the screams continued their relentless assault. Elizabeth cackled and swept out of the room with the contented sigh of a free woman, leaving Maggie alone.

The living cannot hope to cope with such torment. That night, Maggie’s mind broke down and she was driven insane by the incessant screaming. Her terrified neighbours awoke to her cries and called the police, fearful of a violent attack. The police arrived and found Maggie writhing on the bedroom floor, sobbing and begging incoherently. She was taken to a psychiatric hospital and sedated, but to the horror of the staff she carried on screaming even whilst unconscious. She continued to do so until the first rays of dawn, which brought with it a blessed silence. However, Maggie’s mind never recovered. She was duly sectioned and spent her remaining years staring into space and babbling to herself. She would be heard muttering “chains”, “Dickens was close” and “Mum, why?” over and over again. This would continue, and once every seven years her screaming would begin anew…

The Slacker

I wrote this story today on my lunch break. It’s partially inspired by my lack of activity over the last fortnight, for which I feel guilty about. I’d gotten into a satisfying writing routine which made me happy and I will strive to get back on track with it. Unfortunately because I am a hideous slacker there will be no Fiction Fursday story until next week, sorry! Until then, I hope you all enjoy this little tale of a bloke who has a MUCH better excuse for his lack of productivity!

Here’s to getting back on track!

 

The Slacker

By Adam Dixon

John pushed open the door to his office with a shaking hand. His palm left a sooty smear on the white paint and his once-sensible shoes trailed mud and grime across the blue carpet. Pulling out his wheeled chair John sat down heavily and released a pent-up sigh of weariness. He slouched comfortably, content to close his eyes and steal a few moments of peace. He wrinkled his nose as the stale freshness of the room began to flee before his breath-taking stench. He reeked of sweat and ash and blood. Another sigh followed his first, this one of resignation.

It had been a week since he had last sat at his desk. Only a week, John thought in disbelief. What had begun as a perfectly ordinary, mechanical, boring week had spiralled into long, nightmarish days filled with fear, desperation and the struggle for survival. Heroes, too, John thought. He supposed that he could count himself among the men and women who deserved that title. He’d certainly earned it. He opened his eyes and glanced down at the thing in his hand. It was a long tooth, blackened and twisted with a razor-sharp point at the end. It was smooth to the touch despite its obvious age and John grimaced as he thought of the blood it had spilled recently. He could hardly believe that he, John the humble accountant, had proven to be one of the saviours of the world, but the tooth was conclusive evidence. Perhaps it was something to show his future grandchildren now that there would actually be a future to look forward to. John smiled for the first time that week and placed the grisly object on top of his desktop screen. With another sigh John booted up his computer.

The PC whirred quickly into life and beeped at him merrily. For once John found the noise comforting; it was as if nothing whatsoever had changed in the world. Scanning his build-up of unread emails John suppressed a groan and rolled his eyes. He’d received several over the last few days from his most demanding client, a man who had managed to remain short-sighted and irritating even whilst the world was coming to an end. Never mind the fact that John had been pressed into the fight to save both of their lives as well as those of everyone else on the planet, the client demanded a quick response to his tax issues. There were a few choice words flung at John in some of them, the basic gist of them all insisting that John was some kind of over-paid slacker in a tie. That’s not true, John frowned, and I lost my tie four days ago!

John ran filthy hand through his filthier hair and took off his blood-flecked glasses. Ignoring the painful protestation of his wounded leg he stood up and turned off his computer. Nodding curtly John limped towards the bathroom. After all he had been through that week, he figured that he had earned a break. A hot shower with lavender soap and a deep sleep in an actual bed at least. The client could afford to wait this time. John carefully wriggled out of his ruined shoes and dug his aching toes luxuriously into the soft carpet. Oh yes, the client could most certainly wait!

2nd Place!

I opened up WordPress yersterday afternoon to some wonderful news: I had come 2nd in a short fiction competition!
My story was entered as part of Esther Newton’s Flash Fiction Competition and the stories were limited to 100 words. I’m thrilled to have done so well and would like to congratulate everyone else who entered.
You can read my story, “Money”, by following the link provided here. Do please read the 1st and 3rd place entries, they are brilliant! Thanks again to Esther for providing the challenge!

PS. I appear to have buggered up the links as they are not working for some people. If they don’t work for you, Dear Reader, then please look in the comments section and find the lovely Esther Newton. You’ll find the stories on her blog along with many more wonderful and inspiring posts.

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Paintings of the Past

This is a story I wrote a couple of weeks ago for the lovely Esther Newton’s Guest Post. She kindly provided the prompt for me and this one was a joy to write. It seemed to flow from my mind to and on to the page more so than some of my more recent efforts. So thank you, Esther!

 

 Paintings of the Past 

By Adam Dixon

Joe opened his eyes and looked around the room; where the hell was he? He was standing in a long hallway with white walls, wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts. He blinked a few times to make sure that he was awake. He was, and with a clear head and calm stomach too, which dispelled his second idea that he must be drunk. He turned his head and stared down the corridor. It was a very long one and he could barely make out the end of it from where he was standing. All he could see was a crimson carpet running along the floor like an elongated blood stain and what appeared to be a series of paintings or photographs hanging on both walls. He glanced behind and saw only another blank wall blocking his path. He scratched his head in confusion and tried to figure out what had happened.

“JOSEPH PEEL, PLEASE MOVE ALONG. THE GATEKEEPER AWAITS,” a clear voice boomed from above. Joe almost jumped out of his skin and cast about to and fro, seeking the cause of the noise. He saw nothing but the walls and carpet. After calming down a bit Joe concluded with a degree of satisfaction that he must, in fact, be dreaming after all and that by approaching this Gatekeeper the dream would reach its conclusion. He would then wake up in his over-priced but stylish flat in Brighton and wonder at the significance of it for a moment before getting on with his day. Maybe it would even feature in some of his writing in the future. Regaining his dignity, Joe took a deep breath and began to stride down the hallway.

The objects mounted on the walls were all paintings. Joe knew little about art but he appreciated the realism of each one. They all boasted a central image of a man or woman staring off into the distance surrounded by a snapshot of their lives. One showed a tall, bearded white man wearing blood-spattered armour standing amidst several fallen soldiers, the cross of Saint George proudly displayed on a flag behind him. Another depicted a white woman on a wooden stage, gesturing wildly as an audience gazed at her with rapt attention. Another saw an Asian woman wearing colourful clothing watching a fierce battle with horror and sadness. Joe noticed that the paintings appeared to be displayed in chronological order in terms of their historical period. He rather enjoyed the grotesque painting of what surely must have been a victim of the infamous Vlad the Impaler in Russia. The suffering of the naked, bleeding man was exquisitely and disgustingly detailed. The painting of a primitive black woman protecting her children from a white man with a rifle was as inspiring as it was horrific. After half an hour of walking and not paying complete attention, Joe walked into a solid wooden desk and stubbed his toe.

“Ahh, bugger it!” he yelled, bending over to grasp the injured digit and hopping about in fury.

“Oh dear, that is most unfortunate!” a woman’s voice tutted sympathetically. Joe ceased hopping and looked up. He had reached the end of the hallway. A small, plump woman with a kindly face was seated behind the offending desk, her soft brown eyes gazing at Joe with concern.

“Are you alright, Joseph? I really ought to have said something, but I saw how engaged you were with the Artwork! Oh dear, silly old fool that I am!” The woman was about sixty, with curly silver hair and wearing a practical woollen cardigan over a simple green dress. Her voice was friendly, if a little bit high-pitched, and Joe found himself liking her instantly despite his situation.

“Erm, that’s alright,” he replied, unsure what to say. “So…are you this Gatekeeper, then?”

“I am indeed, Joseph!” The woman clapped her meaty fingers together in delight and beamed at him. “I am your Gatekeeper and I must say that it is a pleasure to see you again!”

“Erm…right,” Joe gingerly set his foot down and stood up straight. “So, what happens now? Are we going to have a tea party or something until I wake up?”

“I don’t follow you, Joseph,” the Gatekeeper frowned. “There won’t be a tea party, although I could have prepared one if I knew that’s what you would have wanted. You won’t be waking up either, I’m afraid. Well, not like this, anyway.”

“Oh…kay…” Joe scratched his head again. He looked behind the woman. There were two doors set against the sterile white walls, both just as plain and unassuming. The way out, perhaps?

“I wouldn’t approach the doors just yet, dear,” the Gatekeeper said, reading his intention. “Not before I tell you about them first. I always forget that you won’t remember the last time!”

“What last time? How do you know me? You’re just my imagination, a figment of my subconscious!” Joe was becoming annoyed. “I know I shouldn’t’ve eaten that bloody stilton! Look, just say what you need to say and let me wake up. I’m a busy man, I haven’t got time for this!”

“The dead have an eternity in this Waiting Room, Joseph Peel,” the Gatekeeper said solemnly.

“The dead? What the hell are you talking about?”

“You are dead, Joseph,” the Gatekeeper said with regret in her voice. “You died on Wednesday 3rd of May 2016 A.D. You are currently approved for Resurrection in 2030.” Joe stood dumbfounded, staring. After a moment he began to chuckle, running his hand across his face.

“That’s not bad, actually!” he said, grinning. “Although I’d have thought that my subconscious would’ve come up with something a bit more exciting. Maybe that’s why my first books haven’t sold! Haha!”

“Joseph, I am not jesting,” the Gatekeeper leaned across the desk and looked intently up at him. “You died at four thirty-two A.M after your lit cigarette dropped from your fingers and onto a pile of discarded writing paper. Your flat went up in flames a few minutes later. Your severe inebriation prevented you from waking up in time to save yourself.” Joe stood still again.

“You…you must be joking,” Joe stammered. “I can’t be…dead…I was only-“

“Thirty-seven years old,” the Gatekeeper interrupted, glancing at a sheaf of note papers in her hand. “You were unmarried, living in Brighton, England and you were working as a freelance writer. I know all about your life, Joseph. This life and all of your previous lives, too. Did you enjoy the charming paintings of them? There are quite a few now!”

“Previous lives…” Joe’s face scrunched up in confusion. “Are you trying to tell me that I’ve lived as those men in the paintings that I’ve just walked past?”

“No, Joseph, that’s not what I am saying,” the Gatekeeper said with a frown. “I am trying to tell you that you have been ALL of them, both the men and the women. Every single painting you wandered past before reaching me is a depiction of the person you once were, during a single stage of Resurrection.”

“Resurrection…”

“Yes, Resurrection, Joseph,” the Gatekeeper sighed. “It really is unfortunate that you don’t remember all of this when you come through here. It’s rather tedious having to explain it all over again! Simply put, Joseph, your soul has lived forty-seven lives throughout its existence and it is my duty every time you die to guide you onto your next Rebirth. Understand?”

“I…” Joe was lost for words. He scratched his head, a look of defeat creeping across his face. “I’m…dead….but…it’s not fair! I was finally getting somewhere with my life! My book sales were picking up and I’d started dating again! Why now?”

“Life is rarely fair, my dear,” the Gatekeeper said sadly, cocking her head to one side. “After doing this job for a few millennia you’d see that, too. You’ve had much worse luck in previous lives, if that makes you feel any better? You were wrongly accused of murder in Texas in 1843, for example; you were hunted down and lynched by the townsfolk! It’s shocking that they would even do such a thing to a woman back then…”

“No, it doesn’t make me feel any bloody better!” Joe cried, slamming his fist down on the desk. The Gatekeeper jumped, her curls bouncing and her pearl necklace jostling around her throat.

“Come now, Joseph! There was no need for that!” she said, adjusting herself crossly.

“Like I give a toss!” Joe retorted. He began to pace before the desk, stomping his feet deliberately.

“Why now? What’s the point?” he said, half to himself. “Why let me die in 2016 if I’m not due for Rebirth or whatever until 2030? Surely I could’ve lived until then!”

“Then you would have come here slightly older but no less annoyed for it,” the Gatekeeper replied, folding her arms across her chest and leaning back in her chair. “Now, Joseph, you must make a decision. You have two choices: to spend an eternity in this hallway with nothing but these walls and paintings for company, or accept what has been planned and be Reborn once again. To do so you need only open the door on the left. I know which one I would choose, given the opportunity.”

“What about the other door?” Joe rounded on the Gatekeeper. “What if I choose the door on the right?”

“That door…” the Gatekeeper’s tone and expression was grave, “is where Death awaits. If you walk through that door, Death will embrace you and He will reap your immortal soul. Your death that time will be final; no more Rebirths, no more lives to lead. It will be the End.” Joe shivered, hugging himself against the chill which passed through him.

“Do…do many people choose that door?” he whispered. The Gatekeeper shrugged.

“Some,” she admitted. “But not many. Most find the very idea too awful to contemplate.” Her expression revealed what she thought of that option. “You do not have to make your decision right away, but if you delay for too long then I will assume that you do not wish to be Reborn and I shall leave you here. By all means take a few moments to think it over. I shall wait.”

Joe’s mind whirled with emotion as he tried to make sense of everything he had learned. He raised a hand to his eyes and wandered back down the hallway aimlessly. He thought about his life, or the one he remembered at least, and longed to return to it. He felt crushed by the weight of his misfortune. Life really had been improving! Sure, he’d never have become the next Stephen King, but he was all set to make a halfway-decent living from his writing.

“A bloody house fire! How could I have been so stupid?” Joe groaned, recalling the countless instances when he had glanced up at his broken fire alarm and reminded himself to get it fixed. Maybe it was natural selection at work…

Joe opened his eyes and saw that he was standing in front of a ghastly scene. The painting before him showed a man lying on the back of a wooden cart with a dozen other corpses, all emaciated and riddled with disease. A village was burning in the distance, with a line of identical carts moving out from its gates. Joe was repulsed by the scene and suddenly grateful that he couldn’t recall this particular fate.

“Okay, I’ve made my decision.” Joe said, looking at the Gatekeeper with a pained expression. The Gatekeeper nodded and looked at him expectantly.

Joe straightened and took a deep breath. He stepped past the desk and with a trembling hand he opened the door on the left.

 

A – Z Challenge Day 26

It’s finally here! The final story for this April’s Challenge! I can hardly believe that it’s over, it has been a fantastic month! I’ve really enjoyed taking part and I am rather impressed with myself for managing to write as often as I did. I’ve had a couple of stumbles along the way, but I’m here on the last day with my twenty-sixth short story so I am pretty bloody pleased with that!

This prompt is once again from Viki, who has been a fantastic help. The word she chose to end my Challenge is “ZANY”. I don’t know about you lot, but whenever I hear that word I automatically think of Dr. Seuss and his wacky creations! My idea for a story is significantly darker than the friendly Cat in the Hat, just as a warning!

Anyway, here is my final story for this April. Thank you to everyone who has been following my progress and a bigger thank you to everyone who has found the time to give me feedback on my stories. As a side-note, my previous story which I uploaded earlier today was my 50th post since starting out WordPress, which I am really pleased about. Thank you, everyone, for helping me to keep doing what I love.

ZANY

By Adam Dixon

Rosie heard the music before her sister did. It filtered into her dreams, the beautiful, haunting melody of the simple pipe dissipating her innocent imaginings like a breeze through smoke. She allowed it to gently caress her senses and pull her slowly towards wakefulness. Once awake she lay still in the darkness, listening to the lonely pipe calling to her very soul. After a few minutes, Anna begin to stir in the bed next to hers and soon they were staring at one another in excitement.

“It’s him!” Anna breathed, smiling sleepily. Rosie nodded and sat up. Her neatly-trimmed brown hair was in disarray and she had been dribbling as she slept. Wiping her freckled face clumsily with the back of her hand Rosie got out of bed and hurried over to the window. Anna joined her a moment later, jittery with nervous anticipation. They stared out at the fields beyond their village, trying in vain to spot the source of the music. They could not, and Anna looked at Rosie expectantly. Being the Big Sister, it was Rosie’s job to make the decisions when Mummy and Daddy weren’t around. Rosie drew herself up to her full height of four feet two inches and assumed an important pose.

“Well, Anna, we’ll have to go and find him!” She said, nodding for emphasis. Anna gasped and clapped her hands together.

“Oooh, we’re going to have an adventure!” She yelped, bouncing up and down. Rosie clamped a hand over Anna’s mouth, eyes wide as she listened to the sounds of the house. She could hear nothing from their parent’s room, only the distant playing of the pipe.

“You need to keep quiet, Anna,” she whispered, removing her hand. “We can’t wake Mummy and Daddy up! They wouldn’t let us go and see him!”

“But we promised!” Anna replied, pouting. “We promised the Colourful Man that we would come and visit him if he played his pipes! Mummy and Daddy always say that we should keep our promises!”

“Yes, they do,” Rosie agreed, putting on her slippers and searching for Anna’s. “But they wouldn’t like it if they knew we were doing it at night time! Give me your feet, Anna, you need to put these on. Find your coat, too, it will be too cold for just a nightie outside!”

Rosie and Anna busied themselves for the next few minutes as they gathered provisions for their exploit. Soon, they both had coats, slippers and woollen hats on, and Anna held a plastic bag containing a packet of crisps each and half-empty bottle of fruit juice which they had saved for a midnight snack. Rosie put the spare blankets and pillows under their bedsheets just in case their parents looked in on them. It was unlikely, but she judged it to be a good idea nonetheless.

“Right!” Rosie stood, hands on hips as she observed Anna and the bedroom. She smoothed down her stubborn hair with her hand before attacking Anna’s darker curls with a brush. “Off we go then! Make sure you tiptoe past Mummy and Daddy’s room, Anna, and watch out for the creaky steps on the stairs!” Anna nodded eagerly, brimming with excitement. The two girls carefully moved through the house and down the stairs, unlocking the front door and stealing out into the night. The low amber glow from the few streetlights guided their way as far as the edge of the village, and from there Rosie used her Barbie torch to light their path. She held onto Anna’s hand tightly, whispering to her that the Colourful Man would be so pleased to see them.

***

Less than a mile away, hidden in the nearby wood, the Piper stopped playing. He knew that the girls would reach him soon, his pipe’s magic always saw to that. He stretched his arms and legs out as he sat on the tree stump, scratching his long white beard and yawning. His colourful robes were dulled by the darkness but he would still be easy to spot because of them. The children had been captivated as he had put on his ridiculous act for them at the village fete, jumping, twirling and juggling for them. He even told nonsensical stories in order to make them laugh and had howled along with them like a wolf. They enjoyed his clownish persona, and they always wanted more. He would wait until their parents were distracted before whispering into their ears that they would be able to play together again if they only promised to come to him when he played his pipe. The children readily agreed, completely ignoring the “Stranger danger” ethos that their parents had drilled into their heads. They were just as gullible now as they had been a century ago.

The Piper didn’t know why he had lived for so long, but he suspected that it had something to do with his diet. He grinned as he sharpened his skinning knives with a whetstone; young children were simply so nutritious!

 

A – Z Challenge Day 24

The final day of this April’s Challenge is here, and I’ve got some catching up to do! Unfortunately, I have stumbled at the last hurdle this week and I will need to post three stories in order to complete the Challenge properly. But fear not, for I intend to pick myself up and sprint to make the finish!

I’m starting by uploading Thursday’s story, which was prompted by one of my email followers. The lovely Viki Allerston suggested “X” for “XENOPHOBIA”, and I think it’s a great word in such a restricted letter group! Unfortunately, this word is very relevant to the world today and so I wanted to treat with a degree of care. I have plans to explore this subject another day with a less restrictive word count, but I have come up with a short story which addresses it in the meantime. Thanks for the prompt, Viki!

Here’s what I was able to come up with. I hope you enjoy it.

XENOPHOBIA

By Adam Dixon

The good-natured chatter within the tavern hushed as the dark-skinned man wearing a turban walked in. He stopped as dozens of pairs of eyes turned towards him, most with open hostility. He gulped, took a deep breath and strode up towards the tavern keeper. The man ordered a drink in his rough accent and the other patrons reluctantly turned back to their own, grumbling to their companions about the “damn foreigners”. Two men seated close to the door glanced at one another and shook their heads.

“That was a close one, Rek” the first man said, stroking his waxed moustache. “It’s a good thing he isn’t armed or one of those fools at the back might’ve jumped him!”

“He is armed, Jarol,” the second man replied, gesturing towards the stranger with his mug of ale. He was taller than his friend, with a shiny bald head and a bushy beard. “He has a dagger hidden in one of his boots and another one up his sleeve. These are dangerous times, my friend.”

“By the Gods! I know I’ve been away for a while, but things are worse here than I could have imagined!” Jarol exclaimed. “It’s a sorry state of affairs when a man must come secretly armed in order to have a drink! And all because he is from the Eastern realms!”

“It is,” Rek agreed, patting the scabbard of his short-sword. “But there’s more to it than simple dislike. The Easterners have been causing tensions in these parts for decades but the High Lords won’t acknowledge it. The Northmen don’t appreciate the way that Easterners have been muscling in on trade and housing since they settled, but the Easterners do nothing to aid their cause. They strut around villages in large gangs, intimidating all but the bravest or the most foolish of the natives. It’s rather unusual to see an Eastern man come into a tavern alone, actually. Naturally, many Northmen have become embittered and are crying out to ‘reclaim their land’ from these ‘invaders’.”

Reclaim?” Jarol grimaced in disgust. “Invaders? What do these Northmen think their ancestors were doing in the Eastern realms a century ago, taking in the scenery? That is ridiculous!”

“It is, but keep your voice lowered, my friend,” Rek said quietly, turning to glare at the men in the tavern who had begun to pay attention to them. The men lowered their heads before his stony gaze. “These Northmen are fiercely proud, and arrogant. Do not make the mistake of questioning their ire in public.”

“You’re right, I’m sorry,” Jarol said, nervously glancing around the room. The other men had returned to their conversations, but they seemed to be keeping their ears open.

“It’s happening in my homeland, too,” he said, looking at his ale sadly. “The Southern Province used to be so accepting, so united once the Divide broke down. Alas, twenty years later and the liberators have become our new jailors! My own family had its farmland seized by the new lords and we were all but forced to move north. We don’t have as many issues here, but we are still seen as second-class citizens, even if it’s done politely.”

“It’s such a tragedy that your land couldn’t remain united, it was such a wonderful time to be alive when the Divide ended.” Rek’s mood was sombre.

“It truly was, wasn’t it?” Jarol smiled and his eyes clouded as he became lost in his memories. “We were all cheering, Southerners of all colours and creeds clasping hands and dancing together, sharing music and food. Brothers and sisters at long last! But now…the Divide is back, simply in disguise, coaxed back by ancient prejudice and grudges.” He sighed dejectedly and took a long swallow from his mug. His friend simply nodded, frowning.

“The trouble is,” Rek began, gesturing around the tavern. “Ordinary folk don’t understand what’s happening to their lands, but they are always eager to pin the blame on somebody else. Here, it is the Easterners, and in the Southern Province it’s your kind. We seem to have lost the ability to live amongst each other peacefully.” He stopped as some of the men began loudly talking about the turbaned stranger in aggressive voices. The man sat at the bar, keeping his head low and trying to ignore their comments. The big man stood up.

“Come on, friend,” he said. “Let’s go and sit with that fellow and give him some company. Perhaps he’ll appreciate another drink and a way to shut those braggarts up.” The Jarol nodded, also rising.

“Yes, that’s a fine idea,” he responded with a smile. “The world may have forgotten how to be friendly, but you and I certainly haven’t! Let’s help the poor fellow out.” So the two men strode over to the frightened Eastern man and made his acquaintance. The man was initially suspicious and then greatly relieved at their presence, gesturing happily at the stools next to him. The men sat, and the other patrons looked on in dumb silence.

A – Z Challenge Day 21

Day 21 is here, and that means it’s the final week of this April’s Challenge! I’m surprised, relieved and somewhat saddened by the prospect of it all being over so soon! Today’s story is a bit late because I have been working late today, which has required me to write on the go and almost exclusively on my phone, which is something I haven’t done before. Quite a tricky but rewarding experience, I must say!
Anyway, today’s suggestion comes from the brilliant Geoff Le Pard
, who, as I have previously mentioned, is largely responsible for inspiring my theme for this Challenge. Geoff suggested the word “UNREAL”, which I am delighted to say really forced me to think hard. I discarded several ideas before I settled on this one, and I hope I have done it justice. Thanks, Geoff!

UNREAL
By Adam Dixon

Jack could hardly believe the realism of the game. As soon as he pulled down the visor-screen he could almost swear that he was standing in a meadow during the height of summer, rather than sat in his ergonomic gaming chair in his draughty South-London flat. He could nearly feel the grass tickling his feet and taste the pollen in the air. The box containing the virtual reality system boasted “A gaming world so real, it’ll leave you drained!” It certainly was visually impressive.

“Wow,” he whistled in appreciation. “Pretty good start!” He glanced down at himself and marvelled at the physique of his chosen character. He gazed in wonder at a bare torso covered with rippling, solid muscle and saw equally strong legs supporting him. He almost whooped in delight. He was just like Conan the Barbarian!

“Oh man, this is gonna be good!” Jack squeaked, lifting and flexing his limbs for a better inspection of his new physical prowess. He felt powerful and confident, making his character strut around the deserted meadow with a deliberate swagger. It all seemed so real, even down to the dull thud of his character’s rough leather boots on the soil. The only aspect which reminded Jack that he was in a game was the Head-Up Display fixed permanently in his sight just above his left eye. It displayed a full green health bar, as well as currently empty weapon and potions slots. In the centre of his vision was a flashing red timer counting down from one minute, urgently informing Jack that the “FIRST WAVE”  was approaching.
“Hmm…weapons…” Jack muttered, casting to and fro. He spotted a large, double-headed axe leaning against a nearby fence. Brimming with excitement, Jack ran over to it and curled his massive right hand around the haft. As he tensed to lift it, the resistance astonished Jack. It even felt heavy!
“Fuck, this is awesome!” Jack exclaimed as he took a few practice swings with the axe. It made a low whooshing sound as it cleaved through the air and threatened to overbalance him. That didn’t matter, he’d get the hang of it in time. As he moved around the meadow with the axe held high the red timer hit zero. Almost instantly Jack heard savage snarls behind him. He spun around to see three terrifyingly life-like wolves running towards him. Yelping, Jack held the axe at the ready, somewhat comforted by its weight.
“Come on, then!” He shouted, planting his feet and squaring his shoulders. He felt braver than he had ever been as Jack the nerd. He was Conan, and he wasn’t scared of some stupid wolves!
The first wolf attacked, leaping through the air with its razor-sharp fangs seeking Jack’s throat. Jack swung the axe in an awkward sideways motion with all of his new might. His axe slammed into the wolf, sending shock waves up his arms. He felt faint as he heard bones snapping and the wolf howling in pain. Wow, this is a bit too real! Jack thought, his emotions caught somewhere between joy and horror.
Swinging the axe twice more he felled the other two wolves like trees. As he stood panting, he noticed that the red timer had started up again; the “SECOND WAVE”  was on its way.
Jack spent the next hour battling various enemies as the timer stopped and restarted. Wolves, bandits, fellow barbarians and even armoured knights fell to his mighty axe as Jack grew in confidence and determination. He was astounded by the VR’s attention to detail; he saw every sickening laceration, every grimace of pain and and every look of terror on his enemies faces. He continually had to glance up at the HUD in order to remind himself that he wasn’t in mortal danger at every turn. He experienced the full impact of the VR’s sophistication when a knight stabbed him through the arm. Pain radiated from his wounds and his forearm grew slick with blood. His health bar decreased by a third and Jack felt a portion of his energy disappear with it. He screamed and almost threw off his visor-screen in a panic. Instead, he despatched the knight and stood trembling, reminding himself firmly that it was only a game. A damned realistic game, but still a game. None of it was real.
Jack was becoming exhausted by the “SEVENTH WAVE”, and he was pounced upon by a huge bear during the “EIGHTH WAVE”. He was forced the ground under the weight of the beast, choking on a mouthful of its reeking fur. The bear tore into Jack’s throat and he screamed again, marvelling at the heightened sensation of pain he was experiencing. As the bear’s jaws opened and closed, Jack felt his strength ebbing away. The virtual meadow began to grow dark as Jack’s health bar emptied. The last thing Jack thought before he died was wondering what the loading screen would look like. He wasn’t sure if he would hit “CONTINUE”. He’d had enough for one day…
Back in Jack’s flat, the vampire Lucius reluctantly finished his feast. He withdrew his own very real fangs from Jack’s throat and stood back, wiping fresh blood from his chin and admiring his handiwork. The overweight, heavily-acned corpse that had once been Jack sat slumped in the preposterous gaming chair, its skin pale and its face contorted in agony.
Lucius laughed as he contemplated how easy hunting was becoming these days. One could always find loners like Jack who would jump at the chance to test out a prototype gaming system, no matter how dodgy it all seemed. Lucius removed the visor-screen from the corpse’s head and collected the controllers and power outlet. Before he left, he turned back and took one last look at the very real, very dead man. He grinned and strode out of the flat. Virtual reality: just another way to turn the vulnerable into the delicious!

A – Z Challenge Day 17

 

 
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Today’s prompt comes from the brilliant Geoff Le Pard. Geoff has written some very interesting posts about London during this challenge, and he has been kind enough to provide me with two prompts for mine. The theme for my own challenge has been heavily influenced by Geoff, as he wrote a short story every single day last November for NaNoWriMo. I was astounded to learn of this feat and have been inspired to have a crack at something similar ever since!
Geoff’s suggestion for today is “QUISLING”. This is a great word which I have only come across a few times and it presented a fun challenge. Thanks again, Geoff!

Here’s what I was able to come up with. I hope you enjoy it.

QUISLING

“You would bite the hand which feeds you, woman?” Captain Siper asked as he stared at Alesia over the top of his clasped fingers. The inside of his command tent was cramped with the huge wooden desk and two burly guards flanking him. The air inside was stuffy and smelled of sweat and leather. Alesia shrugged, irritated by the question.

“That is why I am here, is it not, captain?” she replied, folding her arms and raising her chin. “The people in this village have done nothing good for me in the last year.” Her angular face was held with pride despite the dirt covering it. Captain Siper found this behaviour extraordinary.

“So it would seem,” he said slowly. He leaned across his desk, splaying his hands over the rough maps of the surrounding area as he peered into Alesia’s face.

“Tell me, woman, is there any truth to the rumours my men have heard about you?” He asked, an unpleasant smirk curling his mouth. “They have learned that you were once a respected woman within the village, and a favourite of the local lord, no less. They also learned that you were tossed aside like a soiled blanket once a fairer, younger maiden was made ready for said local lord! Could this be the reason for your traitorous scheme?”

Alesia’s eyes blazed with fury and her breathing quickened. Oh, how she would love to hit him right in his smug, self-satisfied mouth! She stood straighter and her voice was cool as she answered him.

“They are not quite true, captain,” she said, narrowing her eyes at Siper’s stoic guards. They were watching her with same alertness as a fox would watch a rabbit.

“I was indeed favoured by the local lord, as I was once his mistress,” she continued. “But that time has passed, as you may have deduced by my slovenly appearance. I was not “tossed aside” as you so delicately put it, but there was another woman embroiled in my fate and that was the lord’s wife. She has seen fit to wield her influence on these simple-minded villagers, and suffice it to say my fortunes have declined of late.”

“Yes, that much is quite obvious!” Captain Siper barked a short, cruel laugh. Alesia sniffed but maintained her composure.

“Well, will you accept my help or not?” she demanded. “I know that your leader desires this village for its strategic position along the trade routes and you know that the villagers won’t let you take it without fierce resistance. I can help you minimise the losses on your side considerably.”

“Perhaps we don’t require any aid, hmm?” Captain Siper sneered at Alesia, who was beginning to loathe the oily little man. “Our numbers are enough to flatten that miserable village and put every man within it to the sword. We know this and the villagers know it, too.”

“Whilst that is true, you must also realise that it will not be so simple,” Alesia said, with a wry smile of her own. “The villagers have vowed to burn the entire place to the ground if it seems as though your army will succeed. They would rather see their homes burn than fall into your hands. I can help you prevent this from ever being a possibility.”

“Go on,” Siper said, his smile vanishing. Alesia allowed herself a moment of silent triumph.

“I know the schedule of each and every man who will be on sentry duty over the next week,” she said. “In three nights’ time I shall open the main gate for you, so that your men may enter the village under the cover of darkness. You can then occupy it from within and do whatever you will with it and its people.”

“How will you get the gate open if there will be men guarding it?” Siper’s tone was scornful as he sized Alesia up. She was tall and slight, with small hands and feet; she was not a figure which inspired physical prowess in any way. Alesia merely laughed at the implication.

“Oh, captain,” she said, shaking her head and grinning. “If I only ever know three things about men, they are that they believe all women are weak, unthreatening and desperately attracted to them. There will be one guard on duty that evening, a dullard called Thom, who most certainly thinks those things of me. Simply put, I shall kill him and open the gate. Understand?”

“And how, pray tell, would you benefit from this betrayal, woman?” Siper asked, his expression guarded but interest gleaming in his eyes. Alesia approached his desk, and leaned closer to the captain’s face. Her grey eyes were alight with ambition.

“I would benefit by being permitted to rule the survivors!” she replied, as if it were the most obvious question in the world. “That is my condition! I will allow you entry to the village if you will grant me control once it has been tamed.” Siper gave another bark, this time sounding relieved and astonished.

“By the Gods, I like you, woman!” He chuckled. He stood up and extended a gauntleted hand towards Alesia. “On my honour as a man of the Empire, it shall be done as long as you uphold your end of the bargain!” Alesia grasped the offered wrist and shook it.

“Then it is done,” she said, holding his gaze with intensity. “Assemble your men outside the main gate in three nights’ time. The way shall be clear.” She moved towards the tent flaps, but paused as a guard lifted the canvas.

“One more thing,” she said quietly, looking over her shoulder. “I’d like it if you could capture the lord and his lady alive, and then bring them to me. I have…plans…for the two of them.”

“My lady, consider it done!” Siper gave a mocking bow. Alesia exited the camp and stole back to the sleeping village with the captain’s laughter ringing in her ears.

 

 

A – Z Challenge Day 10

It’s the tenth day of this April’s Blogging Challenge and sees the final prompt from Kate’s dazzling sequence! Thanks for all your help, Kate, you’ve suggested some wonderful and often taxing prompts and through them I’ve written stories which I am quite pleased with!

Today’s word is “JACKASS”. Now, this one really gave me a hard time! I just couldn’t think of anything that I liked the sound of, or anything that didn’t sound obvious or cheesy. However, I’m not one to throw in the towel so I put several thinking caps on and came out with something I’ve deemed worthy of this Challenge. I hope you enjoy it. Thanks again, Kate, you rock!

JACKASS

By Adam Dixon

Lawrence sat in his cell, lost in his thoughts. Introspection was all he had to while away the long hours of his imprisonment, but thankfully he was an expert at it. He sat on the edge of his bed in his orange overalls, caressing his broad, scarred knuckles with his huge hand as he stared into space. He wasn’t feeling sorry for himself, he knew why he was in prison; it was to be expected when you killed a man, after all. No, Lawrence was reflecting on the events that had led up to the man’s death and wondering where it could have been prevented. A few moments stood out, and Lawrence saw with the clarity of hindsight what an emotional fool he had been.

Lawrence had always been emotional, ever since he could remember. It came with growing up as a large male in a backwards, masculine society. He was often cajoled and ridiculed for his size when he was a child, with the other children and their parents sniggering and calling him “Bigfoot” and “Ape-boy”. He thought that it would end when he grew up and became a man, as his size offered him prodigious strength and intimidation. To his dismay he found that it had had the opposite effect as the men around him felt the need to prove themselves against him, usually with their fists. They would seek to provoke him wherever he went, attempting to find a weak chink in his armour. Because of his size they thought he was stupid and that he could be riled up with ease, but Lawrence rarely gave them the satisfaction. He knew how to control his emotions, especially his rage. Rage was an emotion he knew well, they were almost like old friends and he found its fiery presence strangely comforting whenever it welled up inside him. It made him remember that he was human, despite what the idiots threatening him would insist. But that night, he couldn’t control it.

There you are! C’mon, you big fucker, you! Fight me!”

The man’s voice echoed in Lawrence’s ears as he replayed the events of that night in his mind. It was one of the thugs he had thrown out for being too drunk at the bar, and by the looks of things he was still angry and wanted to settle a score. He’d stood in front of Lawrence’s car, an already beaten-up Ford which was now sporting two flat tyres and a smashed windscreen. The man wore an idiotic sneer, his eyes bloodshot and daring him to make a move. He wasn’t small, but he wasn’t as big as Lawrence either. Exactly the kind of man Lawrence was forced to tangle with on an almost daily occurrence. He had stared at the drunk for a moment before turning around and walking off. The guy wasn’t worth it, he’d walk home.

You deaf and stoopid? Fight me!

The man had staggered after him, yelling abuse and waving his fists. He’d had a small group of buddies with him who were jeering and shouting encouragement. Lawrence had kept walking, doing his best to shut out the man’s voice by concentrating on the sound of his footsteps on the gravel. He breathed in the humid air of the summer evening and pushed on.

Fight me, you big ape! Or are ya scared?

The man’s friends had howled with laughter at that one, praising their friend for his bravery. It was an oldie but goodie, Lawrence supposed. It rarely bothered him though, he actually found it funny too. As if he’d be afraid of a lowlife like that? The man probably couldn’t string a coherent sentence together without injecting a curse word! Lawrence strode on, feeling rage’s familiar fingers snaking up his chest. He had it under control.

C’mon you fuckin’ oversized jackass!

Lawrence didn’t know why that word had made him snap. Perhaps it was because his father, also a big man, had often called him that as a child. Perhaps it was simply the final straw laid upon his back following his resistance to everything before it. Or perhaps it was the breath-taking lack of imagination the man had displayed in choosing it, who knew? All Lawrence did know was that because of that word a man was dead and it was his fault.

Lawrence grimaced and looked down at his hands. Those large, strong hands which served drinks at a cocktail bar and had carefully turned the pages of countless books. The same hands which were always gentle when shaking another hand or touching a woman. The same hands which had gripped the thick neck of a grown man and lifted him from his feet as he struggled and choked…those same hands had crushed the life from another human being…

All it had taken was one word. Two syllables had cost Lawrence his liberty and in a few short hours also his life. Lawrence wondered whether or not he should have accepted the man’s invitation for a fight back in the bar, or even in the first instance outside. He would have easily bested him, and his lick-spittle cronies wouldn’t have had the gall to get involved. He could even have called the police and had them move the man on, rather than having him hang around until closing time. So many ways he could have avoided this outcome…

When the time came, Lawrence stood and walked out of his cell and down the hallway in dignified silence. He was flanked by a large group of prison guards, all of them on high alert should the ape-man decided to make a run for it. Lawrence would show them. He wasn’t an ape, he was a man, a good man. He’d just had enough one day, that’s all…