Another step and I’d have walked by without seeing it, but a quick stumble drew my eyes to the ground and, there, lodged in gravel, was a half-hidden penny. That day I needed luck to get a job before I lost the damn house, so I overcame my concern about the dirt that would spread onto my hands and potentially into my mouth when I ate, and picked it up. I dusted it on my trousers, wiping the worst of the germs away. I expected to see the Queen’s head – my dad called her the ‘Jelly Bean’ in some kind of convoluted not-Cockney slang – but she wasn’t there. Instead, it had a lizard’s head, briefly, before the Queen came back to replace it.
That’s how strung out and jittery the stress had made me: seeing dinosaurs instead of our Queen. But I kept the coin with me, mostly for luck. I took it out of my pocket and gave it a clean. Out of the corner of my eye, the lizard reappeared. I got better at spotting it with time: there was a knack to staring and not-staring at it, like a Magic Eye puzzle. With practice, the lizard grew easier to see. It was some kind of dinosaur, I reckoned, wearing a tiara that pulled its feathers into a frond.
Now, I’m no paleontologist, but I’m pretty sure T-Rex never evolved to wear tiaras.
It all began when I reached out to fix a flaw in the mirror.
“Hey, Sid,” said my reflection.
I leaped back.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“I was trying to fix something on your shirt.”
“It’s on your shirt, you idiot. I’m just a reflection.”
“Oh.” I looked down. “Of course. I wasn’t thinking.”
“I’ve been preoccupied lately. A lot on my mind. Sorry.”
I turned away.
Wait a minute. Did I just have an argument with my reflection? He called me an idiot. That was uncalled for. I wasn’t going to put up with that attitude.
I turned back and stared sternly at myself in the mirror; he stared sternly back at me.
Yeah, a lot of stress lately.
Rag Muscovicz was getting ready for bed when a meme posted on the Brainz social network caused a New Tang (feel the fizz!) billboard satellite to overreact and fire a nuclear warhead on its nearest competitor, Hep Lite (heaven, carbonated).
He saw the explosion through his bathroom window as the flash lit up the night sky, obscuring all other billboards for a brief moment. Shards of advertising hoarding became tiny shooting stars as they fell to earth, burning up in the atmosphere.
Rag knew exactly what all this meant, for he was a Hep man. That’s it, he thought, I’m drafted.
Sure enough, within seconds, he received official notice in the form of a priority message from Hep command.
At the same time, his wife cried out from the next room, “Oh no!”
Rag rushed to her side. “You too, Elid?”
She nodded, tears in her eyes. “Oh darling, whatever will we do?”
I stood by the empty riverbed, watching and waiting, trying not to fall asleep standing up. Birds screeched overhead, swooping in circles, as if they knew something I didn’t.
“You all right, Devad?” the man to my right asked. Nain, his name was. A scout of sorts. He was short and stout with a thick northern accent.
“She’ll be here soon. I hope you’re ready.”
I shivered in response – my badly patched trousers and woollen top were no match for the morning chill. Still, waiting for whatever came next was better than tending to the animals. At fourteen, and as the second son, I was supposed to embrace our hardworking life. Much to Mother’s disappointment, I had not yet done so.
The hood came off and I blinked in the anticipated spotlight. However, it was just a standard Anglepoise and I was cable-tied to a basic wooden chair, not a restraint-cum-waterboarding recliner. That shouted amateur, and amateur can be dodgy.
“Are you Mallory?” The voice was East End London with an undertone of anger. He was a big man in a black rollneck and camelhair car coat. Pretty much a walking cliché if you’re into retro gangland, but no less dangerous for all that.
Still, it never hurts to run your mouth. “I’d better be, buster, for your sake. Whoever hired you will be less than chuffed if you’ve lifted the wrong bloke. And I know you’re just muscle ’cos you and me, we have zero history.”
Rollneck’s gaze shifted to a point over my right shoulder.
“Quite correct, David – may I call you David?” Unseen had an inflection that reminded me of Peter Lorre. “The gentleman in front of you, and his two associates, are here to provide a physical inducement, should reason not prevail.”
The sky was always pink in the Beautiful Place. Maybe because it was Ffion’s favourite colour. The clouds resembled candy floss, the grass was the softest green, and the trees swayed gracefully even when there was no breeze. Birds sang the sweetest songs and bees hummed along. There were no wasps.
Ffion collected the souls of people who’d lived the hardest lives. The ones tortured by loss or pain or circumstance. Every night before sleep, she drifted on the other plane, looking for those who were lost. She smiled, she held them if they wanted to be held, and she guided them onwards.
The Beautiful Place took them all – even she felt soothed when she visited, though she couldn’t stay for long. When it faded from her grasp, a cold feeling of dread washed over her before she could push it aside and sink into sleep.
Ffion worked in the village bakery. She made cupcakes which were very popular with the locals celebrating occasions such as birthdays and Christenings. She made cupcakes for the village fayre to support the church even though she wasn’t religious. Once, she gave cupcakes to a teenager for free when he claimed they were for his poorly little brother. When she later found this to be untrue, she didn’t demand any money – she simply sighed and gave a sad smile.
The eye never has enough of seeing.
Megan’s mind wasn’t focusing. What was wrong with her?
She was crossing a busy intersection. The WALK light flashed like a beacon of warning. She had only so much time before the light would change. Keep moving. Focus.
Work was getting to her. Too much stress. She needed a change; maybe a new job.
Stop thinking about these things. Concentrate.
Her vision was acting up again. A well-dressed woman, a young man in casual attire, and two men in suits and ties had been walking toward her. A few other people also crossed her line of vision. But now the number of people multiplied several times over until there were dozens.
The images were dizzying.
Was that herself among all those people? She was walking toward herself, as though she were walking toward a mirror.
Harry Holden stumbles through Ballykey Cemetery, blood gushing from his throat, chest heaving with sobs. Faster, faster! Gotta get away! He staggers into a clearing dominated by a hawthorn tree, its every detail rendered sinister by pale moonlight. Despite everything, he shivers at the sight of it, remembering his nana’s oft-repeated warning: Never trust the wee folk, Harry.
The world spins.
As he falls, Harry glimpses thorny branches, blood-red berries and claw-like fissures on brown bark. He hears but doesn’t feel the crack when he lands, the cold already overtaking his body.
His eyes close and he knows they won’t open again. Not in this life, anyway. All his hopes and dreams cut short by the swish of a knife.
“Not… fair…” breathes Harry. His last words and there’s no one around to hear them.
Or so he thinks.
Deep below the house was a lab with walls of cold steel and soft luminescent light. There, a machine sat on a metal chair, cables inserted into the sockets placed within the spine, arms, and legs. A machine in the shape of a human female, with skin of metal and polymer. A gynoid, as was the technical term. It had been weeks since her creator had come to visit her. Thus all the greater was the gynoid’s surprise when her maker stood before her. She stood up, looking into the first eyes she had seen at birth. And now here they were: creation and creator, face to face once more.
“I missed you,” she said.
“I did. I really did. More than anything,” she said. “You know I love you, don’t you?”
Again, only silence and a glance as an answer.
She felt the distraught tension. She wanted to reach out and lock themselves into an embrace like before, but stopped herself. “Is it something I did? Is it because I changed?” she asked. “That I grew is just part of it. You knew that—”
“So it was, sweet friend, that––”
“Ah, dear friend, greatest and dearest of friends, I have distressed thee. Folly it was, folly and worse, for me to tell a story of such darkness. Thy physician’s stern looks rightly rebuke me, and thy grandchildren’s whisperings show clearly how heedless I have been. Let us call in the young ones again and I shall tell tales of happier times for Shir Shaheen and Roshan, such as the day the vintner came and how the sampling of his wares caused such commotion in Paridiz.”
But the old man in the bed, the dying man, will not be turned from his question. He leans forward from the many pillows that support him, determination in his voice, thin and frail as it is. “It was Safar, thy brother, and thou didst kill him?”
His friend, who has been his friend for more than the lifetime of an ordinary mortal, gives way. “Safar was his name,” says Shaheen. “And once he was my brother. But it was evil I destroyed that night, and glad I am I did so.”
The old man, grandfather and great-grandfather, but still in his heart the boy Roshan, falls back against the pillows. “So many hidden things hast thou revealed in thy tales today, all kept so many long years, weighing upon thy soul. Yet they are but trifles compared to this most bitter secret. How it must have pained thee.” He puts his hand, his aged, wizened hand, upon his friend’s. “Thou shouldst have told me this ere now, so I could have shared thy burden.”