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Wild Kingdom
"Nothing Is What It Seems..."
I feel like one of those individually-wrapped single-serving meatless-meat entrees. You could find me in the frozen food section of your local grocery store.

Not that I am cold. I'm not. It's currently 77F. That's 25 to the rest of the world. My ego-centric-American mind grumbles in the background about how unfair it is... just writing the temperature in Celsius makes it feel cooler... and it's incredibly unfair that the cherry on top is that I can spell Celsius without the help of Bill's spell-checker.

Warmed up, micro-waved, nuclear meltdown of flesh. Turning slowly 'round in tight little circles, perfectly aligned in the center so as to heat equally on all sides. The walls revolve around me.

I am the product of Betty Crocker and Jimmy Dean. Jimmy Dean makes me ill and Betty Crocker hates me.

I am so full of air that I don't have to swim any more. I am so dense of matter I could sink through the floor at any moment. I am at permanent stand-by for a complete shut down in five... in four... in three...

My dreams are filled with emergencies that I need rescued from. The boat is slowly sinking and will be submerged in about 15 minutes. The plane is going down. The tide is coming in and we won't be able to remain on the rocks any longer.

My dreams are filled with discussions of how the wind has changed so that the vog is blowing this way now, filling my head with cotton, stuffing my sinuses with a bad taste, plugging my ears with the gentle maddening relentless coos of rock-doves.

I can feel my pulse in the blood that rushes to my hands when I let them fall to my sides. I push the chaotic thoughts out of my head. Take a pill for my sinuses. Drink a diet soda to wake up before the pill pulls me to my bed again. Quick fix, that's for me. Cure in a bottle, in a can. Turn the can in and you can get 5 cents back. It's almost like money for nothing.

Maybe my subconsciousness has it right... I wake up at 1am, 3am, 5am... it doesn't matter, the melody is still the same. The quoki frogs and cicadas and chickens and dogs all sing the same melody. My brain doesn't know all the words but that doesn't matter either because I only need to know one fragment of it. That's all the world sings any more anyway... just the fragment... the rest of the song is just the filler between repeats of the refrain:

It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
And I feel fine.

Current Mood: crappy

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The sign on the wall seemed to quiver under a film of sliding warm water, Eckels felt his eyelids blink over his stare, and the sign burned in this momentary darkness:


A warm phlegm gathered in Eckels' throat; he swallowed and pushed it down. The muscles around his mouth formed a smile as he put his hand slowly out upon the air, and in that hand waved a check for ten thousand dollars to the man behind the desk.

"Does this safari guarantee I come back alive?"

"We guarantee nothing," said the official, "except the dinosaurs." He turned. "This is Mr. Travis, your Safari Guide in the Past. He'll tell you what and where to shoot. If he says no shooting, no shooting. If you disobey instructions, there’s a stiff penalty of another ten thousand dollars, plus possible government action, on your return."

Eckels glanced across the vast office at a mass and tangle, a snaking and humming of wires and steel boxes, at an aurora that flickered now orange, now silver, now blue. There was a sound like a gigantic bonfire burning all of Time, all the years and all the parchment calendars, all the hours piled high and set aflame. A touch of the hand and this burning would, on the instant, beautifully reverse itself. Eckels remembered the wording in the advertisements to the letter. Out of chars and ashes, out of dust and coals, like golden salamanders, the old years, the green years, might leap; roses sweeten the air, white hair turn Irish-black, wrinkles vanish; all, everything fly back to seed, flee death, rush down to their beginnings, suns rise in western skies and set in glorious easts, moons eat themselves opposite to the custom, all and everything cupping one in another like Chinese boxes, rabbits in hats, all and everything returning to the fresh death, the seed death, the green death, to the time before the beginning. A touch of a hand might do it, the merest touch of a hand.

"Hell and damn," Eckels breathed, the light of the Machine on his thin face. "A real Time Machine." He shook his head. "Makes you think. If the election had gone badly yesterday, I might be here now running away from the results. Thank God Keith won. He'll make a fine President of the United States."

"Yes," said the man behind the desk. "Were lucky. If Deutscher had gotten in, we'd have the worst kind of dictatorship. There's an anti-everything man for you, a militarist, anti-Christ, anti-human, anti-intellectual. People called us up, you know, joking but not joking. Said if Deutscher became President they wanted to go live in 1492. Of course it's not our business to conduct Escapes, but to form Safaris. Anyway, Keith's President now. All you got to worry about is..."

"Shooting my dinosaur," Eckels finished it for him.

"A Tyrannosaurus Rex. The Thunder Lizard, the damnedest monster in history. Sign this release. Anything happens to you, we're not responsible. Those dinosaurs are hungry."

Eckels flushed angrily. "Trying to scare me!"

"Frankly, yes. We don't want anyone going who'll panic at the first shot. Six Safari leaders were killed last year, and a dozen hunters. We're here to give you the damnedest thrill a real hunter ever asked for. Travelling you back sixty million years to bag the biggest damned game in all Time. Your personal check's still there. Tear it up."

Mr. Eckels looked at the check for a long time. His fingers twitched, but did nothing.

"Good luck," said the man behind the desk. "Mr. Travis, he's all yours."

They moved silently across the room, taking their guns with them, toward the Machine, toward the silver metal and the roaring light. First a day and then a night and then a day and then a night, then it was day-night-day-night-day. A week, a month, a year, a decade! A.D. 2055. A.D. 2019. 1999! 1957! Gone! The Machine roared.

They put on their oxygen helmets and tested the intercoms. Eckels swayed on the padded seat, his face pale, his jaws stiff. He felt the trembling in his arms and he looked down and found his hands tight on the new rifle. There were four other men in the Machine. Travis, the Safari Leader, his assistant, Lesperance, and two other hunters, Billings and Kramer. They sat looking at each other, and the years blazed around them.

"Can these guns get a dinosaur cold?" Eckels felt his mouth saying.

"If you hit them right," said Travis on the helmet radio. "Some dinosaurs have two brains, one in the head, another far down the spinal column. We stay away from those. That's stretching luck. Put your first two shots into the eyes, if you can, blind them, and go back into the brain."

The Machine howled. Time was a film run backward. Suns fled and ten million moons fled after them. "Good God," said Eckels. "Every hunter that ever lived would envy us today. This makes Africa seem like Illinois."

The Machine slowed; its scream fell to a murmur. The Machine stopped. The sun stopped in the sky. The fog that had enveloped the Machine blew away and they were in an old time, a very old time indeed, three hunters and two Safari Heads with their blue metal guns across their knees.

"Christ isn't born yet," said Travis. "Moses has not gone to the mountain to talk with God. The Pyramids are still in the earth, waiting to be cut out and put up. Remember that, Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler - none of them exists."

The men nodded.

"That" Mr. Travis pointed" is the jungle of sixty million two thousand and fifty-five years before President Keith." He indicated a metal path that struck off into green wilderness, over steaming swamp, among giant ferns and palms. "And that," he said, "is the Path, laid by Time Safari for your use. It floats six inches above the earth. Doesn't touch so much as one grass blade, flower, or tree. It's an anti- gravity metal. Its purpose is to keep you from touching this world of the past in any way. Stay on the Path. Don't go off it. I repeat. Don't go off. For any reason! If you fall off, there's a penalty. And don't shoot any animal we don't okay."

"Why?" asked Eckels.

They sat in the ancient wilderness. Far birds' cries blew on a wind, and the smell of tar and an old salt sea, moist grasses, and flowers the colour of blood.

"We don't want to change the Future. We don't belong here in the Past. The government doesn't like us here. We have to pay big graft to keep our franchise. A Time Machine is damn finicky business. Not knowing it, we might kill an important animal, a small bird, a roach, a flower even, thus destroying an important link in a growing species."

"That's not clear," said Eckels.

"All right," Travis continued, "say we accidentally kill one mouse here. That means all the future families of this one particular mouse are destroyed, right?"


"And all the families of the families of that one mouse! With a stamp of your foot, you annihilate first one, then a dozen, then a thousand, a million, a billion possible mice."

"So they're dead," said Eckels. "So what?"

"So what?" Travis snorted quietly. "Well, what about the foxes that'll need those mice to survive? For want of ten mice, a fox dies. For want of ten foxes, a lion starves. For want of a lion, all manner of insects, vultures, infinite billions of life forms are thrown into chaos and destruction. Eventually it all boils down to this: fifty-nine million years later, a cave man, one of a dozen on the entire world, goes hunting wild boar or saber-tooth tiger for food. But you, friend, have stepped on all the tigers in that region. By stepping on one single mouse. So the cave man starves. And the cave man, please note, is not just any expendable man, no I He is an entire future nation. From his loins would have sprung ten sons. From their loins one hundred sons, and thus onward to a civilisation. Destroy this one man, and you destroy a race, a people, an entire history of life. It is comparable to slaying some of Adam's grandchildren. The stomp of your foot, on one mouse, could start an earthquake, the effects of which could shake our earth and destinies down through Time, to their very foundations. With the death of that one cave man, a billion others yet unborn are throttled in the womb. Perhaps Rome never rises on its seven hills. Perhaps Europe is forever a dark forest, and only Asia waxes healthy and teeming. Step on a mouse and you crush the Pyramids. Step on a mouse and you leave your print, like a Grand Canyon, across Eternity. Queen Elizabeth might never be born, Washington might not cross the Delaware, there might never be a United States at all. So be careful. Stay on the Path, Never step off!"

"I see," said Eckels. "Then it wouldn't pay for us even to touch the grass?"

"Correct. Crushing certain plants could add up infinitesimally. A little error here would multiply in sixty million years, all out of proportion. Of course maybe our theory is wrong. Maybe Time can't be changed by us. Or maybe it can be changed only in little subtle ways. A dead mouse here makes an insect imbalance there, a population disproportion later, a bad harvest further on, a depression, mass starvation, and, finally, a change in social temperament in far-flung countries. Something much more subtle, like that. Perhaps only a soft breath, a whisper, a hair, pollen on the air, such a slight, slight change that unless you looked close you wouldn't see it. Who knows? Who really can say he knows? We don't know. We're guessing. But until we do know for certain whether our messing around in Time can make a big roar or a little rustle in history, we're being damned careful. This Machine, this Path, your clothing and bodies, were sterilised, as you know, before the journey. We wear these oxygen helmets so we can't introduce our bacteria into an ancient atmosphere."

"How do we know which animals to shoot?"

"They're marked with red paint," said Travis. "Today, before our journey, we sent Lesperance here back with the Machine. He came to this particular era and followed certain animals."

"Studying them?"

"Right," said Lesperance. "I track them through their entire existence, noting which of them lives longest. Very few. How many times they mate. Not often. Life's short. When I find one that's going to die when a tree falls on him, or one that drowns in a tar pit, I note the exact hour, minute, and second. I shoot a paint bomb. It leaves a red patch on his hide. We can't miss it. Then I correlate our arrival in the Past so that we meet -the Monster not more than two minutes before he would have died anyway. This way, we kill only animals with no future, that are never going to mate again. You see how careful we are?"

"But if you came back this morning in Time," said Eckels eagerly, "you must've bumped into us, our Safari] How did it turn out? Was it successful? Did all of us get through-alive?"

Travis and Lesperance gave each other a look. "That'd be a paradox," said the latter. "Time doesn't permit that sort of mess a man meeting himself. When such occasions threaten, Time steps aside. Like an airplane hitting an air pocket. You felt the Machine jump just before we stopped? That was us passing ourselves on the way
back to the Future. We saw nothing. There's no way of telling if this expedition was a success, if we got our monster, or whether all of us meaning you, Mr. Eckels, got out alive."

Eckels smiled palely.

"Cut that," said Travis sharply. "Everyone on his feet!"

They were ready to leave the Machine. The jungle was high and the jungle was broad and the jungle was the entire world forever and forever. Sounds like music and sounds like flying tents filled the sky, and those were pterodactyls soaring with cavernous grey wings, gigantic bats out of a delirium and a night fever. Eckels, balanced on the narrow Path, aimed his rifle playfully.

"Stop that!" said Travis. "Don't even aim for fun, damn it! If your gun should go off"

Eckels flushed. "Where's our Tyrannosaurus?"

Lesperance checked his wrist watch. "Up ahead. Well bisect his trail in sixty seconds. Look for the red paint, for Christ's sake. Don't shoot till we give the word. Stay on the Path. Stay on the path."

They moved forward in the wind of morning.

"Strange," murmured Eckels. "Up ahead, sixty million years, Election Day over. Keith made President. Everyone celebrating. And here we are, a million years lost, and they don't exist. The things we worried about for months, a life-time, not even born or thought about yet."

"Safety catches off, everyone!" ordered Travis. "You, first shot, Eckels. Second, Billings. Third, Kramer."

"I've hunted tiger, wild boar, buffalo, elephant, but Jesus, this is it," said Eckels. "I'm shaking like a kid."

"Ah," said Travis.

Everyone stopped.

Travis raised his hand. "Ahead," he whispered. "In the mist. There he is. There's His Royal Majesty now."

The jungle was wide and full of twitterings, rustlings, murmurs, and sighs. Suddenly it all ceased, as if someone had shut a door. Silence.

A sound of thunder.

Out of the mist, one hundred yards away, came Tyrannosaurus Rex.

"Jesus God," whispered Eckels. "Shit"

It came on great oiled, resilient, striding legs. It lowered thirty feet above half of the trees, a great evil god, folding its delicate watchmaker's claws close to its oily reptilian chest. Each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior, Each thigh was a ton of meat, ivory, and steel mesh. And from the great breathing cage of the upper body those two delicate arms dangled out front, arms with hands which might pick up and examine men like toys, while the snake neck coiled. And the head itself, a ton of sculptured stone, lifted easily upon the sky. Its mouth gaped, exposing a fence of teeth like daggers. Its eyes rolled, ostrich eggs, empty of all expression save hunger. It closed its mouth in a death grin. It ran, its pelvic bones crushing aside trees and bushes, its taloned feet clawing damp earth, leaving prints six inches deep wherever it settled its weight. It ran with a gliding ballet step, far too poised and balanced for its ten tons. It moved into a sunlit arena warily, its beautiful reptile hands feeling the air.

"My God!" Eckels twitched his mouth. "It could reach up and grab the moon."

"Shit" Travis jerked angrily. "He hasn't seen us yet."

"It can’t be killed." Eckels pronounced this verdict quietly, as if there could be no argument. He had weighed the evidence and this was his considered opinion. The rifle in his hands seemed a cap gun. "We were fools to come. This is impossible."

"Shut up!" hissed Travis.


"Turn around," commanded Travis. "Walk quietly to the Machine. We'll remit one-half your fee."

"I didn't realise it would be this big," said Eckels. "I miscalculated, that's all. And now I want out."

"It sees us!"

"There's the red paint on its chest!"

The Thunder Lizard raised itself. Its armoured flesh glittered like a thousand green coins. The coins, crusted with slime, steamed. In the slime, tiny insects wriggled, so that the entire body seemed to twitch and undulate, even while the monster itself did not move. It exhaled. The stink of raw flesh blew down the wilderness.

"Get me out of here," said Eckels. "It was never like this before, I was always sure I'd come through alive, I had good guides, good safaris, and safety. This time, I figured wrong. I've met my match and admit it. This is too much for me to get hold of."

"Don't run," said Lesperance. "Turn around. Hide in the Machine."

"Yes." Eckels seemed to be numb. He looked at his feet as if trying to make them move. He gave a grunt of helplessness.


He took a few steps, blinking, shuffling.

"Not that way!"

The Monster, at the first motion, lunged forward with a terrible scream. It covered one hundred yards in four seconds. The rifles jerked up and blazed fire. A windstorm from the beast's mouth engulfed them in the stench of slime and old blood. The Monster roared, teeth glittering with sun. Eckels, not looking back, walked blindly to the edge of the Path, his gun limp in his arms, stepped off the Path, and walked, not knowing it, in the jungle. His feet sank into green moss. His legs moved him, and he felt alone and remote from the events behind. The rifles cracked again. Their sound was lost in shriek and lizard thunder. The great lever of the reptile's tail swung up, lashed sideways. Trees exploded in clouds of leaf and branch. The Monster twitched its jeweller's hands down to fondle at the men, to twist them in half, to crush them like berries, to cram them into its teeth and its screaming throat. Its boulder-stone eyes levelled with the men. They saw themselves mirrored. They fired at the metallic eyelids and the blazing black iris. Like a stone idol, like a mountain avalanche, Tyrannosaurs fell. Thundering, it clutched trees, pulled them with it. It wrenched and tore the metal Path. The men flung themselves back and away. The body hit, ten tons of cold flesh and stone. The guns fired. The Monster lashed its armoured tail, twitched its snake jaws, and lay still. A fount of blood spurted from its throat. Somewhere inside, a sac of fluids burst. Sickening gushes drenched the hunters. They stood, red and glistening. The thunder faded.

The jungle was silent. After the avalanche, a green peace. After the nightmare, morning. Billings and Kramer sat on the pathway and threw up. Travis and Lesperance stood with smoking rifles, cursing steadily. In the Time Machine, on his face, Eckels lay shivering. He had found his way back to the Path, climbed into the
Machine. Travis came walking, glanced at Eckels, took cotton gauze from a metal box, and returned to the others, who were sitting on the Path.

"Clean up."

They wiped the blood from their helmets. They began to curse too. The Monster lay, a hill of solid flesh. Within, you could hear the sighs and murmurs as the furthest chambers of it died, the organs malfunctioning, liquids running a final instant from pocket to sac to spleen, everything shutting off, closing up forever. It was like standing by a wrecked locomotive or a steam shovel at quitting time, all valves being released or levered tight. Bones cracked; the tonnage of its own flesh, off balance, dead weight, snapped the delicate forearms, caught underneath. The meat settled, quivering. Another cracking sound. Overhead, a gigantic tree branch broke from its heavy mooring, fell. It crashed upon the dead beast with finality.

"There." Lesperance checked his watch. "Right on time. That's the giant tree that was scheduled to fall and kill this animal originally." He glanced at the two hunters.

"You want the trophy picture?"


"We can't take a trophy back to the Future. The body has to stay right here where it would have died originally, so the insects, birds, and bacteria can get at it, as they were intended to. Everything in balance. The body stays. But we can take a picture of you standing near it."

The two men tried to think, but gave up, shaking their heads. They let themselves be led along the metal Path. They sank wearily into the Machine cushions. They gazed back at the ruined Monster, the stagnating mound, where already strange reptilian birds and golden insects were busy at the steaming armour. A sound on the floor of the Time Machine stiffened them. Eckels sat there, shivering.

"I'm sorry," he said at last.

"Get up!" cried Travis.

Eckels got up.

"Go out on that Path alone," said Travis. He had his rifle pointed. "You're not coming back in the Machine. We're leaving you here!"

Lesperance seized Travis' arm. "Wait"

"Stay out of this!" Travis shook his hand away. "This son of a bitch nearly killed us. But it isn't that so much. Hell, no. It's his shoes Look at them! He ran off the Path. My God, that ruins us I Christ knows how much we'll forfeit. Tens of thousands of dollars of insurance We guarantee no one leaves the Path. He left it. Oh, the damn fool! Ill have to report to the government. They might revoke our license to travel. God knows what he's done to Time, to History!"

"Take it easy, all he did was kick up some dirt."

"How do we know?" cried Travis. "We don't know anything! It's all a damn mystery! Get out there, Eckels!"

Eckels fumbled his shirt. "Ill pay anything. A hundred thousand dollars!"

Travis glared at Eckels' chequebook and spat. "Go out there. The Monster's next to the Path. Stick your arms up to your elbows in his mouth. Then you can come back with us."

"That's unreasonable!"

"The Monsters dead, you yellow bastard. The bullets! The bullets can't be left behind. They don't belong in the
Past; they might change something. Here's my knife. Dig them out!"

The jungle was alive again, full of the old tremorings and bird cries. Eckels turned slowly to regard that primeval garbage dump, that hill of nightmares and terror. After a long time, like a sleepwalker, he shuffled out along the Path. He returned, shuddering, five minutes later, his arms soaked and red to the elbows. He held out his hands. Each held a number of steel bullets. Then he fell. He lay where he fell, not moving.

"You didn't have to make him do that," said Lesperance.

"Didn't I? It's too early to tell." Travis nudged the still body. "He'll live. Next time he won't go hunting game like this. Okay." He jerked his thumb wearily at Lesperance. "Switch on. Let's go home."

1492. 1776. 1812.

They cleaned their hands and faces. They changed their caking shirts and pants. Eckels was up and around again, not speaking. Travis glared at him for a full ten minutes.

"Don't look at me," cried Eckels. "I haven't done anything."

"Who can tell?"

"Just ran off the Path, that's all, a little mud on my shoes what do you want me to get down and pray?"

"We might need it. I'm warning you, Eckels, I might kill you yet. I've got my gun ready."

"I'm innocent. I've done nothing."

1999. 2000. 2055.

The Machine stopped.

"Get out," said Travis.

The room was there as they had left it. But not the same as they had left it. The same man sat behind the same desk. But the same man did not quite sit behind the same desk. Travis looked around swiftly. "Everything okay here?" he snapped.

"Fine. Welcome home!"

Travis did not relax. He seemed to be looking at the very atoms of the air itself, at the way the sun poured through the one high window.

"Okay, Eckels, get out. Don't ever come back."

Eckels could not move.

"You heard me," said Travis. "What're you staring at?"

Eckels stood smelling of the air, and there was a thing to the air, a chemical taint so subtle, so slight, that only a faint cry of his subliminal senses warned him it was there. The colours, white, grey, blue, orange, in the wall, in the furniture, in the sky beyond the window, were...were...And there was a feel. His flesh twitched. His hands twitched. He stood drinking the oddness with the pores of his body. Somewhere, someone must have been screaming one of those whistles that only a dog can hear. His body screamed silence in return. Beyond this room, beyond this wall, beyond this man who was not quite the same man seated at this desk that was not quite the same desk...lay an entire world of streets and people. What sort of world it was now, there was no telling. He could feel them moving there, beyond the walls, almost, like so many chess pieces blown in a dry wind...But the immediate thing was the sign painted on the office wall, the same sign he had read earlier today on first entering. Somehow, the sign had changed:


Eckels felt himself tall into a chair. He fumbled crazily at the thick slime on his boots. He held up a clod of dirt, trembling. "No, it can't be. Not a little thing like that. No!" Embedded in the mud, glistening green and gold and black, was a butterfly, very beautiful, and very dead.

"Not a little thing like that! Not a butterfly!" cried Eckels. It fell to the floor, an exquisite thing, a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes, all down the years across Time. Eckels' mind whirled. It couldn't change things. Killing one butterfly couldn't be that important! Could it? His face was cold. His mouth trembled, asking: "Who won the presidential election yesterday?"

The man behind the desk laughed. "You joking? You know damn well. Deutscher, of course! Who else? Not that damn weakling Keith. We got an iron man now, a man with guts, by God!" The official stopped. "What's wrong?"

Eckels moaned. He dropped to his knees. He scrabbled at the golden butterfly with shaking fingers. "Can't we," he pleaded to the world, to himself, to the officials, to the Machine, "can't we take it back, can't we make it alive again? Can't we start over? Can't we"

He did not move. Eyes shut, he waited, shivering. He heard Travis breathe loud in the room; he heard Travis shift his rifle, click the safety catch, and raise the weapon.

There was a sound of thunder.

(copyright Ray Bradbury 1952)

Current Mood: almost electable

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I want you

He's lying there. And he's talking.

Yeah, we can talk about Love if you want to. Love......."

"I wake up at 10.20, Saturday morning, and, as per usual, roll over to feel her warmth. And find myself falling into the depression left by her body, the lack of her. It's still warm. She hasn't been up long"
"It felt comfortable?" I ask.
"Very" he says, and continues. "mmm, so i lie there a bit, but i can never stay there for long if she isn't lying next to me. Doesn't feel right, you know?"
"She's comfort - warmth?"
"yes, she is, she's a refuge, she's somewhere i can go"
He pauses. His voice catches on the last words. Then it all comes out, slowly at first, but ever stronger.
"We aren't students anymore, but i guess you could say the house where we live is still very much a student house. I don't know, maybe it's something about how relaxed it is, there's books everywhere, always. Or maybe it's something to do with the houses' personality. Maybe it's trivial little shit, you know, where other professional couples would have a tasteful print, we have a giant signed poster of Vic and Bob - stuff like that, you know?"
"yeah, carry on"
"She isn't downstairs either, when i stagger down all bleary eyed and dazed. I'm not much of a morning person, i admit. I go into the kithen, knock on the coffee, and use the remote to switch on the CD."
"I'm sensing that cultural things are important to you"
"Oh yes, definetly. Pop culture, i suppose. Part of it is the way it links you with other people, it links me with her, our shared tastes. Like, the cd that's playing is Bjork. I love Bjork. She loves Bjork. A bond. She got me the album when we first started going out. It's lovely."
"Ok. So, what happens next?"
"Mmm, i'm swilling the coffee round my mouth - industrial strength, and Bjork is singing, beautiful little song called 'like someone in love' - you know it?"
"Not a fan. I'm a bit older than you"
"True. Ah, it's lovely. Anyway, it's playing and i am knocking back the coffee and wandering into the lounge and humming along"
"Ah yes, the lounge"
"I hate that word, don't you? As a room description, i mean"
"Never given it much thought, to be honest with you"
"It's - i don't know - pretentious, i think. You can't even use an argument that says 'you call it the lounge because you lounge there' because if you followed that logic, the bedroom would be called 'the sleep' and you would call the bathroom 'the shitter'"
"I know people who do"
"hah, true. I just find it pretentious and inelegant"
"Fair enough"
"Anyway, in the lounge is where i find her note"
"There, i've said it. Doesn't sound too bad, does it? Could be a note saying 'gone shopping darling, didn't wake up my baby bearkins, love and hugs'. Or it could be more prosaic 'Sam phoned, gone out with her, feed cat' Or just 'don't forget to pay the milkman'. Could be any of those"
"Till you read it"
"yes, till i read it. Until that point, its like that cat in that box, the physicist guy - what was his name?"
"yes, Schroedinger. We don't know whether it's dead - the cat - until we open the box. Likewise, the note. We don't know the notes content until we read it. Schroedingers' uncertainty note, hmmmm?"
I smile at him. He shifts and continues.
"Only we do know, don't we? It's more than a note telling me to pay the milkman, or i wouldn't be lying here on your couch, drinking your coffee - nice by the way - is it Columbian?"
"Heh, always expect PC from someone in your line of work. Anyway, we know that the note is a big deal. We know that the cat, so to speak, is dead."
"The note tells us that"
"It does indeed"
"Tell me about the note"
He sips from the coffee and makes a satisfied noise.
"So, i sit down and i read the note. It has to be done, to satisfy narrative form if nothing else"
I smile again at this. He really is quite entertaining. Considering.
"And you and i both know the result. The note says she's leaving me. It says she doesn't love me anymore. It says she is not sure if she ever did. But, even if she did, she has no idea now what that felt like. It says that she has found someone else, someone who can provide her with all that she doesn't get from me - that 'spark' i believe is the word she uses"
"How does that make you feel?"
He snaps at me.
"Let me finish with the note"
"Ok. sorry"
"Heh, don't be. It says that she will always think of our time together fondly, and that in time my pain will heal, and thats she's sorry, and that i am a special person, and thats she's sorry, and that i should never forget how special i am, and that she's sorry, and that i will be fine once the shock wears off, and thats she's sorry and that she's sorry and that she's sorry."
"Ok, how does that mak"
He interrupts me angrily, raising himself from the couch.
"Let me finish. Let me fucking finish"
I raise my hands to show i am not fighting him and he settles down.
"Who knows how long i sit there, staring at this traitorous piece of paper, feeling - what? - i don't think i can explain it, words are not enough, numb. hollow.empty. angry. sad. numb. depressed. angst-fucking-ridden. numb. incredulous. shocked. hurting. numb. numb."
To be honest, i feel it's a bit rich of me to write "felt numb" down on my pad, but i do.
"You see? I can't. I can't express it. Feeling an incredible pain yet, at the same time, feeling nothing. I felt hollow, as though i had no stomach, and yet, at the same time, i felt incredibly nauseous"
I think it would be unwise of me to ask "how did that make you feel?" at this point, so i just sit there silently waiting for him to carry on.
"As i said, i don't know how long i was there, but when i came out of it, the album had finished. Now there was a silence. A horrible silence."
He stares off into space for a few seconds, then sips the coffee reflectively.
"Can i have a cigarette?"
I reach for my packet and give him one, lighting up myself. He has obviously not smoked for a while because he coughs with the first inhalation, quite nastily.
"The note said she was going to come back in a couple of hours to pick up some stuff, and she would prefer it if i wasn't there"
This time, i can't resist.
"So, what did this make you feel like?"
"Well, at first, i sit there and i think 'hell no! Why should i?' - first i go through anger - this is textbook stuff, by the way, you should be noting this down - Why should i leave the house so she can do this, so she can get away with it, without any of the emotional shit that i get?"
He chuckles. It's not a pleasant sound.
"Then comes an indifferent phase. I'll be sat here, and she'll come in, and she'll be all guilty, and i will be reading a book, or reading the paper, and i will look up and say 'oh, hi' and then return to it, and she will be crushed - CRUSHED - by how calm i was, how little it meant, because - HAH - i am above all that"
He sighs.
"Of course, i am not above all that. Sadly.Then comes the denial phase, late on for such a basic human reaction - we all deny unpleasant truths, don't we? That's how we keep sane, don't you think?"
"I really couldn't comment on that"
"Hah! Surely you of all people could?"
"Mmmm, i would say, really, that denial isn't healthy"
"More fool you then. I'm sitting there an i am thinking she will come in, and she will see me, and something, some resolve, will break in her. She will realise she has been fooling herself, that she loves me, that she always has and always will love me, and she will come to her senses. And, after toying with her for a bit - come on, she's just put me through this, i am getting some sort of revenge in this fantasy - i will forgive her, what true man wouldn't? And we shall stare at each other for a few seconds in rapt, mute, mutual adoration, and then, then we'll rip off each other's clothes, and fuck like animals, all around the house, feverishly, in every nook and cranny, christen every item of furniture. And we'll do all these things in bed i have secretly always wanted to do - bad things, perverse things, obscene things, kinky things, all day and all night for the rest of my life"
"Tell me of the things?"
"Another time. Let me finish this."
"After that, there comes a phase where i am questioning. She's never loved me? Why? Is there something wrong with me? Why is she rejecting me? Am i so bad? What is this spark? It's been fine for the past five years, all through our last year in college and since. Now suddenly she wants a spark? No one told me, see, no one told me they wanted a spark. If i had known that, then for fucksake i would have kindled one, you know? Just why? Why?"
"Do you know why?"
"I'm still baffled by it, to tell the truth. Completely baffled."
"and then, ten minutes or so before she returns.....at just about the wrong time, comes the return of anger. Not the heated, passionate, slightly defensive anger of before. That was a reaction, that was a defence, protecting myself through anger. This is something different"
"Explain how?"
"It's cold. Very cold. Cold and clinical rage"
He stops quietly for a moment.
"You know the rest, i suppose. Otherwise we wouldn't be sitting here, me drinking your very nice Nicaraguan coffee, you smoking those atrocious cigarettes - Gauloise?"
"You'll be able to winkle more stuff out of me given time - heh, thats the one thing i have now, is time"
He looks straight at me for the first time.
"Love?" he says "Love is pain. I think i proved that quite conclusively at the end. I think that was the last lesson she ever learned. I could see it in her eyes"
With that he goes silent, and doesn't speak anymore until the guards come to return him to his cell.
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Again, for an assignment at school.

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It probably all started when Jay came home and had to step over the bits of ripped up paper that paved the way from the door to the living room. I say started, I mean, it was always there. I always used to think it was one of the things that held them together, this mutual support mechanism they had going on there. Jay was patient and caring and would encourage Gemma in everything she was doing. And boy, I was Gemma's friend for a while, and trust me, that was no mean feat. Being her boyfriend was a taxing occupation. For her part, Gemma would forgive Jay his wanderlust. Before they got together properly Jay had a steady stream of relationships that never quite got to the 'going steady' stage. However, if we were to start this story anywhere - and I think it's best we do - we should start it with Jay walking into the front room.
Gemma was on the chair. She'd been crying again and looked awful. She was in her third year of a Fine Art degree and well respected amongst her peers and highly thought of by tutors. To see her woring you'd think she was quite prolific, the girl. She rolled out of bed into their living room-cum-study and do nothing for hours but apply paint and collage and charcoal to canvas, leave the house and take photograph after photograph until she'd filled half a dozen digital flash cards. Of course, if you knew Gemma the way we do, you'd know that workrate meant nothing. She would step back from a day of research and creation, mutter explitives and, as they got louder and more veherment, begin the process of destroying everything she had been working on. It took Jay four months of solid talking down from this suicide jump activity to get her to simply put the work away somewhere. You get marks for process, he told her. You might forgive yourself a single square centimeter of some of this one day, you'll need to be able to find it. Save it for me, when you're famous and dead, I'll be able to retire on it.
Sure, it's funny and sensible when I tell you. But he had to tell her every couple of days in new and imaginative ways while cradling her heavy heart for sixteen weeks. Yeah. Exactly.
Don't let's martyr Jay too much here, though. Born Joseph in 1981 - only we called him Jay because we already had a Jo in our group - as I've mentioned, he was responsible for a similarly prolific trail of build and break. I can't remember the last relationship he was in, before Gemma, that he didn't end through some degree of infidelity, always on his part. It was only in Gemma he met someone so happy to have him they would consistently overlook these discrepancies of faith. The more he realised he was hurting her, and the more she would forgive him nonetheless, the greater control Jay took of this habit. He would no longer lie to cover up his movements, he stopped actually sleeping with the other women that caught his eye. But still the slightly too intimate friendships and perhaps inadvisable dinners-for-two continued. With Sarah he was spotted taking a day trip to Edinburgh. With Michelle he was seen exchanging saliva down an alley in Peterborough. And he liked those girls, he enjoyed their company. They never meant as much to him as Gemma, of course, don't get me wrong, he was in love with Gemma. Still. You can probably see how it would cause a problem.

Picture the scene, it's easy to do: Jay walks in and says, "I thought you had stopped this." Gemma, puffy eyed looks up to him and says, "but it's all shit, all this is shit. I can't be fucking trusted with a paintbrush any more." Jay's heart sinks. What does he do? What would you do?

They strike a deal. Now, this is where we have to suspend our disbelief, because in normal circumstances this is the type of deal that gets broken in the first few days. The type of agreement you make all the time, with others, with yourself more than anything, and can't stick to for the duration of the sentence, let alone any greater period of time. But this accord was all that was going to keep Jay and Gemma together. Two people so very much in love, they had to make this work. You can see that, surely. Good intentions had only got them back to square one. Ah. I can understand why they did it, hindsight or otherwise. What else could they do?

From this point forth, they recited to each other, I, Jay, will have eyes for you and only you. I will need no other. I, Gemma, will have faith in my work. I will believe no nagging doubts.
There you have it. The fateful few sentences that killed Jay and Gemma. Not literally, of course. What actually happened is that they split up some months later. Gemma passed her course, but only just, and only because her tutors knew deep down that she should have passed and gave her the benefit of the doubt. She's now a jobbing artist doing mediocre paintings for corporate walls. And, naturally, she's deeply unhappy. Jay, likewise, is a bitter, lonely man. He still goes from relationship to relationship, but now he never ends them, they are always terminated on him. And he's running out of options. His former lovers say he now weeps into their pillows and grips them just too tightly.
The thing to remember when we judge this story is that even when fighting each other's foibles, Jay and Gemma were ultimately happy together. They loved each other, for goodness sakes. Encouraging her might have been a bitter, relentless chore for him, it might have saddened him to know his girlfriend was so frustrated by her work, but he was willing to do it, because he loved her, and being with her was all that mattered.
Likewise, Gemma got angry with Jay sometimes, shouted and screamed at him, stayed awake crying. But she could rely on him to come home to her, to think only of her always. She knew he belonged to her and that's really all she needed. Because, well, she loved him. That's how it worked. They'd been in love since they met.
Jay stopped going out so much, didn't react, didn't care when girls approached him, ignored their flirting. So they stopped going up to him. He still had us, we still liked him, but prior to the agreement it was pretty much a dead cert that some nineteen year old would spend the entire night hanging off his every word. He was the type of guy most girls really couldn't get enough of. Before. Now he was the type of guy they didn't get any of in the first place. When he'd get home he would always feel deflated, and he didn't know why. So he'd look to Gemma to be everything that was missing in his life. We never thought he had a fragile ego, but that was only because with so many girls doting on you, well, you wouldn't have, would you? Turns out, yikes, he was a shell of a man.
Poor Gemma. He would get so depressed, he became insular and started to suck the life from her. At first, as you'd expect, the extra love she was getting, the extra attention, the fact he needed her more and more, it was flattering. It was probably what she wanted. Then it was a strain. Finally it was exhausting, depletive and ultimately impossible to sustain. That was how it was for Jay from then on. With every other girl he'd try to settle down with. (Settling down was now all Jay had.)
Gemma stayed as prolific as she was. Except nothing got destroyed. She would stand back from her first attempt and say, yes, this is it. This is the one. She hung amazing collages and fantastic murials around their house. She handed in elaborate constructions to lecturers, she fulfilled briefs without her usual tortured delay. She would have an idea and trust it. Jay loved it. She seemed so much more relaxed now. No more crying, no more destruction. Just art. Then her marks started falling. The process to create each individual piece was the same, just, normally there were seventeen pieces that preceded it, each of which was just, not, quite, right. Hey, it turned out that it was this lack of faith in herself that propelled Gemma to make such amazing artwork, it was a burning desire to create exactly what her mind could see. To never, ever, on pain of death, settle for anything but what met some imaginary high standard.
It was never really that Gemma thought she couldn't do it, more, that she knew she could and that anything but it was worthless, a waste of her time, a waste of everyone's ability to see. That's what drove Gemma. That was now gone. The lacklustre acceptance of whatever she made that replaced it was never really going to match it for integrity. Of course, Gemma never realised why she was so hard on herself in the first place (probably because she was too busy being hard on herself), and so now that she didn't feel the need to be hard on herself she even less understood why it wasn't getting the same reception. So she simply continued to ploughed that furrow into obscurity. And that brings us to the present.

The worst of it is, Jay doesn't realise that it was their pact that caused Gemma's fall. He still thinks that, even if other things aren't going right for her, at least she thinks her art is okay. Gemma even goes as far as blaming herself for their splitting up, because now that he is completely faithful, surely he's a better boyfriend.
Hmm, funny how it works out, eh? They're both really nice people still. Obviously unhappy, which takes the edge their personality a bit, but there's something else. Deep within them, when you look closely for some fire in their eyes, you get the impression they're now just, well, really, really bland. Oh well. Better luck next time, Jay, better luck next time, Gemma!

Postscript: Snow Patrol. Velocity Girl.

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Remember when I promised you all that I would torture you with my writing assignments from my short story class this term? Well, turns out I can't read very well and I'm a doofus and what I actually got was not a short story writing class, but instead a short story literature class. And for those of you who may not know, lit classes are basically where you sit around and read a bunch of stories (in this case short stories) and then you talk about them. Talk about their structure, talk about what the author meant when he said X and how that pertains to Y and how Z is a perfect example of that. At it's most basic, lit classes are mental masterbation. Which is definately NOT what I was expecting or what I wanted, but oh well.

But, we still did have one assignment that was actually creative (sorta) where we had to write a variation of one of the stories we'd read. Now, mind you, I disliked to hated every story we've read all term, so my imitation, I feel, is basic and pretty well a piece of crap. But it is what it is, and the instructor liked it, so I mustn't complain too highly.

If you would like to read the story I am imitating, it can be found here. I personally don't care much for it, and I found that the first time I read it, the ending didn't hold a lot of meaning for me so it didn't really make a lot of sense. And by that I mean that I understood what happened in the story, but not why, so the ending was disappointing for me. But if you read it a couple of times, it makes more sense (at least I found that it did).

So, without further ado, I will present my devise of infinite torture and imitation for your pleasure and/or pain (behind the cut, of course).

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Christmas in a seaside town is wonderful. There is no pretence of it ever snowing here; no snowmen, no sleds, no icicles hanging down from white-domed roofs, no snowball fights, no out-of-work actors dressed in Santa outfits and falling down chimneys or running away from worrisome mechanical reindeer.

There’s not even any Christmas cheer.

Christmas in a seaside town in England is wet and windy and grim, and Jack mused that he would have it no other way. The seas are rough, with towering waves crashing into the pebbled shore. The smell of salt is everywhere. It can be tasted on the skin, and on the skin of others, like a cold fevered sweat.

And here he was – up to his waist in it.

The trip to the hospital had affected Jack more than he cared to admit. He was in a psychedelic dream, he told himself; he wandered the earth like a ghost, unfeeling and untouched by the passing of events, filtered from the pain by a cocktail of drugs and alcohol, his vision skewed to an angle of utter obliqueness. But still the reality of existence had broken through.

'Say hello to Mother Superior when you see him.'

The plight of his one-time friend Steve Pollard had disturbed him, the sight of sickness and despair, the sound of false bravado and uncontrollable coughing fits, and the smell of something fundamentally rotten slowly rotting to the core. It was like looking at himself, a future Jack in pyjamas begging for relief from the inevitable conclusion of a dangerous hand of Russian Roulette. And it was these thoughts that followed him as he wandered in his trance-like state, these thoughts that stopped him in his tracks and made him feel again, clinging on with bloody talons as he miserably made his way back to his damp empty flat in the tower block that overlooked the city of perpetual winter. And there Christmas was spent, naked and huddled in a corner, locking in the addiction and locking out the world.

Too dumb to run, too dead to die...

Jack could have run at the beginning when he strayed from the path, running blindly from the life he had chosen when the awful mistake was realised. He could have escaped the clutches of the Mother Superior before the disease of addiction had taken hold. He could have run when he found out the terrible price he would have to pay, his craving sated by the cravings of others. He could have done many things but did nothing instead. Nothing took no effort, it could be eased into and done without conscious thought, like breathing or blinking an eye. Nothing was simply easier.

Jack gathered together his stockpile of drugs from all their various hiding places within the flat, from beneath floorboards and behind power points, from inside a stereo system and the dead pipes of a water heater, and took them all in one final hit. "A grand gesture in futility," he whispered to his Frank Capra-style guardian angel as he lay down by the window, watching the rivulets of rain come down from a stormy sky, watching as he sank deeper and deeper and dreamed in colour of an unknown house in an unknown street and an alternate reality… The house, perhaps no more than a rundown semi-detached, was not Jack’s but jointly owned in a communal sense by the others who shared these four walls, and it was night and the curtains were closed and a soft lamp - the only light of the house - was switched on in the lounge, soft and yellow and warm. And draped on the floor and settee were cushions, decorative pillows and throws, softening further the corners of the room. No points or sharp edges here, no hardness, and nothing from the outside world to spoil this melodious hideaway. Jack saw that the lounge is not empty; the floors were not bare, for congregating like so many lazy moths around the warm light were the inhabitants of this house. Two were residing to his right, a man in his forties with a very familiar television face and a woman whose voice he heard with gentle affection. They are cuddling on the low settee and laughing. Jack was sprawled on the floor with a large cellophaned packet of pure white cocaine, which he handed out to them in great sifting scoops. He is not careful; much of what he hand out falls wastefully on the Persian-style carpet. There is so much cocaine in their possession that there is no need to be careful. Jack stretches over and passes another scoop to the woman relaxing before him on a chair. She also has a television face. Her name is Marina Sirtis and in a time beyond this time, in a galaxy not yet explored, she is an empathic counsellor on a ship the size of a small city. Marina is an empath here on this world too because as she licks the coke from her fingers she looks into Jack’s eyes and knows what he is feeling, and Jack must also be an empath because her dark sensual eyes easily betrays her own deep passions. They smile. Everyone smiles. They talk of the future and how nothing before or since can beat this moment of pure unadulterated bliss. And then they fall silent as the record player in the corner softly turns itself on and begins to play the mellow West Coast sounds of Rumours. This blissful encounter, this perfect moment dusted with cocaine has somehow just got better. They are high, they are happy, they are listening to Stevie Nicks beautifully singing Dreams.

...too dead to die...

The attempt at reaching a painless plain of oblivion had failed. Jack had woken up, crying, clutching his aching stomach, longing to return to a universe where music was love and life was easy and addiction was an unheard of malaise, a Grimm fairytale told to scare gullible children into becoming better citizens.

And then there was the other dream, the waking dream, where he left his empty flat in the crumbling concrete tower block and disappeared into a moving wall of humanity shuffling to the January Sales below, pushing and being pushed, bumping into shoulders and shopping bags and being knocked to his feet, hearing the sound of shouting voices and blaring car horns, each used in anger to redirect and hurry his unstable progress out of town towards the coast. A dream where he walked between the diverse streams of traffic on the duel carriageway, barely recognising the shapes of cars and trucks and juggernauts and the cold steel chassis of buses filled with the blank, starring faces of the damned, but seeing the colours so vividly, smiling at the watercolour wash of reds and blues and whites and greens, and the flashing lights and sirens of those rushing to arrest or cut free the guilty and the maimed. A dream where he stood outside the seaside bungalow, knocked on a door and waited, where a misshapen limping form welcomed him in with hunter’s eyes to a lair where he had debased himself for the pleasure of another, where he had stripped and bent and been entered for the sake of a momentary peace and respite from the addiction, smelling the familiar smell of another man, hairy and clammy and unwashed, the insipid taste of something warm expelling itself before him or behind him, splashing, dripping, sticking, the groans and muscle spasms, and the passing of a hidden disease, carried by the hunter and growing unchecked in others in an ever-growing empire of disgust. A dream where he gave not his body as an offering to the cave-dwelling creature standing there but the blade of a knife hidden within his jacket, its stainless steel edge flashing briefly but repeatedly in the gloom, the expression of the other dropping, the mood swinging, the sacrifice changing, the insipid taste of something warm expelling from another place, and another and another as diamond-shaped holes opened up in shoulders, arms and outstretched hands, in the running back and falling legs, in the plump cushion of stomach and thick carpet chest, in a tendon-taught neck and bearded face, slicing through ears and eyes and mouth, cutting into the fatty residues and bouncing off bone, hacking and skinning and ripping into something that was fast becoming unrecognisable as that terrifying figure of evil. A dream of standing in a darkened room puddled in blood, of a bungalow’s interior that would soon become a crime scene, surrounded by more flashing lights and wailing sirens, preserved in the minds of some as a butcher’s yard and to others as a museum of retribution.

And then that dream too was over. Jack woke by the sea, on a pebbled beach some yards away from the undiscovered horror show. The waves were rolling in high and fast, the air ice-cold, bringing with it the taste of salt from lands evermore unvisited. Christmas in a seaside town is wonderful, he thought, because here there is no pretence of it ever snowing; no snowmen, no sleds, no icicles hanging down from white-domed roofs, no snowball fights, no…and then Jack spotted a single snow flake floating down from a heavy slate-coloured sky, a touch of purity, a single flake of Christmas cheer that melted in the roll and wash of the sewer-filled sea, forthright and strident, and vanishing because it stood alone against the great vastness of the English Channel.

Jack began to wade out to where it met its demise, his breath short and sharp, the cold spreading to meet the tide rising around him. He thought about Buddhism and an unknown angel giving him the chance to start his life over again.

Yes, to be born again into something else, something new, something better...

Current Mood: in need of nothing

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"So who were these people who felt the need to silence me? I don't know. I only knew their faces and who they purported to be, but I doubt I shall ever know who they really were."

The young girl curled up on the floor at the old lady's feet. Together they sat for a moment, the mesmerizing flames from the open fire reflected in their eyes.

"In some ways I envy fire. It has such life, such freedom to express itself in whatever manner it desires. It burns so brightly and gives such warmth, but left uncontrolled it can run free and cause so much damage."

"But that's why it needs controlling, surely?" The girl asked.

"We harness it because we know of the damage it has the capability to cause, much like you'd cage a wild animal." The old lady sipped her tea. "But not everything causes damage, not every animal needs to be caged, and the ability to tell the difference is what's important."

The younger considered this for a moment, her eyes still transfixed on the flames licking the air. The elder felt a rekindling of the embers within. Silently, a solitary liquid flame broke free and rolled down her right cheek.

Current Mood: thoughtful

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It was in a drug-induced psychedelic dream that Jack saw his journeys now. The destinations seemed unimportant to him and the reasons for them seemed of little consequence, because it was only the feeling that mattered now, the feeling and the lasting impression of blurred movement, like seeing the world through a rain-smeared windscreen where people pass by but remain faceless, nameless, an eternal mystery even to themselves. A world stark and yet hidden, lasting and yet transitory, real and yet false somehow, as if his actions were being played out for the amusement of others.

And this journey, this thoughtless destination, was just like all the others, set not in the back of a tavern or a park bench or in an dark alleyway between two dubious points of interest but in a sound stage of cold halls, corridors and wards; the smell of surgical spirit, the movement of uniformed men and women dressed in a uniform white, a place of beds and pyjamas and grapes and jugs of tasteless water and kidney dishes on bedside tables to collect globules of sputum. A place of infections and diseases and of one-time friends with conditions that meant they could travel no more.

Jack sat down on the plastic chair beside the bed and almost immediately the psychedelic dream came to an end. Somewhere inside him an internal pause-button had been pushed, freezing the colours and distortions and all his emotions until another journey was begun. It was replaced by cold and pointless pleasantries with the person he had come to see, the one-time friend that had leached his way into his life on more occasions than he cared to remember. He muttered when he needed to mutter, he nodded when he needed to nod, but most of the time he did not move at all, his face set in granite, looking at the grapes on the bedside table but being put off by the green grape-like expulsions from the man’s lungs.

"...and there was that Maureen and she was quite fun for a while, good for a larf like, especially when drunk, but when you get used to a cranny you have to move on don’t cha? And then there was Maltby’s sister, Gwen. God what a mess, but nice tits like, nipples really stuck out like doorbells. Ring! Ring! Heh. I told Maltby that, told him she was good for a roll in the hay but only if you put a paper bag over her head first. God, you should have seen his face. Bit like hers actually. And then there was Daisy, you know, the one I picked up from the Radio One Party In The Park thing we went to in Brighton. Ugly as hell mind, almost a mong, the kind of girl you would kick out of bed, if you know what I mean. But because she was ugly she was desperate and up for anythin’. And then there was..."

Jack stopped listening then. It had become a contest for Steve Pollard, propped up as he was with half-a-dozen pillows and a tissue in his hand to cover his mouth when he coughed and to catch anything that might inadvertently fall out. For Steve it was not a question of how much you’ve loved but how many you’ve fucked. He was trying to impress Jack with his conquests and to force him to look at his own failures. A contest of who is the bigger man, who has the bigger cock and who, when meeting their maker, would look back with regret at a wasted life. Of course it was a control thing to him. Jack could see Steve lying there on is deathbed in some dilapidated hospice in the country where they would soon be taking him, his thoughts filled not with the rights and wrongs he had committed during his time on earth but how many women he had fucked compared to other men. That was his gauge, his measuring stick on how successful (or otherwise) his life had been.

Someone overhearing the conversation could have said that there was more to life then tricking young naive women into your bed, to taking advantage of those that could not defend themselves, to make vulnerable women drunk and senseless, but that someone wasn’t going to be him. Not now in any case. Not yet. Jack imagined himself sitting by his side in a few months time during those final hours, watching him slowly slip away, too busy fighting for each breath to talk back to him, too weak to object, too vulnerable himself now one could say to stop Jack’s verbal assault. It made him wonder. Could he really deny a deluded man his delusion? Perhaps not, not when it had been held so long and cherished so much. Jack could more easily see himself keeping his council on the matter of his roguish ways and empty encounters and say "Yes, Steve, yours was a full and meaningful existence." A kind-hearted and deliberate lie.

But when they took him away in the ambulance to a place in the country for those dying with Aids and other 20th century diseases that await a 22nd century cure, Jack would not be one of those who mournfully follow him clutching fresh flowers and manufactured good cheer. He had no obligations to him. Even today, he had come not out of friendship or of a past shared but because Steve had phoned his mobile wanting just one last hit. It was business. And because he was trapped in the enclosed world of the hospital he had charged Steve three times more then the current street price. It was a seller’s market, even more so in this clinical prison. It was simply business.

At last Steve brought up the subject of charlie and Jack surreptitiously handed over the tiny packet which disappeared underneath those foul-smelling blankets before the ward sister could suspect anything. And in that same swift action the money was transferred from Steve’s clammy infected palm into his own, just like on the street under the glare of plain-clothed policemen and CCTV cameras. With the deal done and his purpose here fulfilled, Jack stood up and left without another word, without turning back or wishing him the best. There was nothing more to say.

"Say hello to Mother Superior when you see him," Steve called sarcastically.

It was like the final twist of a knife in his back. But Jack said nothing. Jack wished him nothing. Jack felt nothing.

It wasn’t until Jack was out again in the cold December air, watching the rain clouds gather above his head for another downpour, that he allowed the internal button to un-pause itself and continue with it’s psychedelic dream. Jack was on a different plain of existence now where it was safe to feel and explore his senses. With his hands stuffed in the pockets of his denim jacket, surrounded by the cold, the growing dark and the leaves that danced in the wind, Jack began another journey into the unknown.

Current Mood: in need of a walk

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"You know what else is pink, don’t you?" Maltby was saying.

Jack had met up with the others later after the sordid deal had been struck in the Greek-like interior of the seaside bungalow, Greek and mythological and alive with hairy trolls. He could hear himself sighing absently to Maltby’s question, just as he had to the previous forgotten statement, but his mind was elsewhere, still trapped in that sea salt cave of impossible creatures. Mother Superior’s price had been the same as always and he had paid it without too much thought of the consequences. Jack reminded himself that consequences were for other people, normal people, idolised stereotypes seen on the television or in the gossip pages of glossy magazines, not for those with insatiable cravings. They bore little relation to what was happening in his world. Somehow, by a chance meeting or a chance word, he had strayed far from the path of normality and was now hopelessly lost.

"My shit after I’ve drunk paraffin."

Everyone laughed. And when that had died down they began to discuss the technicalities of it, like morticians gathered around a dead body.

I met up with the others later... Jack thought how innocent that sentence sounded and how heavy those words felt in his heart. The others being an assortment of rogues and co-dependants and none of them friends, and later being the weekend and the traditional time to sum up one’s weekly adventures in hell. And it was just these kinds of people that had steered him away from the life he knew, just these people who took his arm and pulled him from the path, away from the sunlight and from the things he loved.

"Actually," Wheeler said, "I think paraffin would bleach your shit."
"It would turn it white," said another.
"Like white chocolate," added a third.

They were resting in a darkened corner of the Mainline Tavern, slumped in a corner of cigarette smoke and empty beer bottles. The rest of the clientele kept their distance, through fear of infection if nothing else. They were the older gents, from a different generation and time who, like them, preferred the atmosphere of pubs in the afternoon before the real riff-raff arrived. But where the gang played with baggies the old men played with cards, where the gang traded useful tips on how to get high the old men traded war stories and how they survived Rommel and his mobile desert army. A different generation. And almost a different species.

"Yeah, but don’t be fooled," Maltby said and winked deliberately. They all laughed again and started calling him The Milky Bar Kid as if this was the funniest joke in the world.

It was at times like these that Jack felt mildly superior to them, even though he looked the same and dressed the same and smelt the same, even though he begged and stole and sold his soul again and again for a fleeting moment of peace that shrunk in size with every hit. Jack was convinced he was different; he was above their inane chatter and junkie lives. Even his addiction was of purer stock compared to their workhouse nature of dirty needles and silver foil. But that was until he decided to open his mouth and spoil his own illusions.

To keep the running joke of the Milky Bar Kid alive you had to mention a name, any name, and equate it to the legendary boy from the Nestles adverts; gangly, bespectacled, but with that oh-so winning smile. Jack could think of no one that matched that description, though he knew it was not a requirement of the game. Desperate to say something, anything, to be a part of this social gathering however degraded its members, he struggled to find the common denominator that would connect them all, a person that everyone knew and everyone could laugh at. And instead of the landlord or the buxom barmaid, instead of the older gents playing five-card brag over the glint of their war medals, or one of a number of undercover detectives that were always on their trail, he blurted out the real identity of Mother Superior. At first everyone laughed, thinking it was just another name to add to that ever-growing list, but it was short-lived and empty as the enormity of the name sunk in. The funniest joke in the world was no longer funny. Mentioning in public the moniker of that limping troglodyte had drained all traces of the alcoholic vigour flushing their cheeks. For a while they had seemed healthy and happy and quite like their former selves, and now reality had once again closed in to reclaim them.

The time inside mother Superior’s seaside bungalow had passed in a daze, as did his trip home on the bus. All Jack had left now were fragments of a broken mirror, each shard having captured on its surface a horrific image in still life. And like splinters of glass embedded in the skin it had cut through this momentary spell of happiness.

Time passed. The fear was calmed, the tension relaxed, the nameless name was forgotten and became once again an unspoken whisper on the northern wind. The smoking and the drinking continued in earnest, Maltby and Wheeler came up with yet another side-splitting joke on modern culture and Jack could have easily slipped away without too many heads being turned. But Jack remained reclined and silent and at one with the beasts. He stayed and he listened and he talked with those he hated because he was one of them now. He too had tugged the arm of a friend and pulled them down into the depths of infectious despair, away from the sun and the path of normality, he too had cheated and lied and committed acts of cruelty in the name of a selfish addiction. And he too was hated.

Current Mood: in need of a drink

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