Cosmetic Surgery

It had taken until four-thirty.

He had started at breakfast.  It had occupied his mind for most of the morning, over his lunch break, and on through the afternoon.

With a head full of twisted barbs, he had almost bulldozed over a small estate car with the gargantuan garbage truck he controlled.

Finally his mind was made up.

She had to be removed.

A swift incision.

Surgical extraction.

Leah was a beautiful woman.  No, more than that;a lithe elven princess, a fairy tale being, a sylph-like waif with wispy blonde hair and storm grey eyes.  A dancer, her presence had flitted through his life like a moonbeam, bringing with it a glistening sparkle, an urgency, a desire to be alive, which had never possessed him before.

Ian was a dark man, in every sense of the word.  Tall and melancholy, heavily built with frozen eyes, he turned away would be opponents in seedy bars with his ominous glare.  His philosophy on life was not idealistic, nor pessimistic, simply realistic.

She told him that if he saw a glass half full, it was always half empty in his perception.  For a little while he had started to believe that she might be right, about the light outweighing the dark, in all ways.  Then the rust invaded.  This time, the glass was half full; half full of poison.

A chance encounter, four months ago, a heated exchange in a crowded bar, had led them to press their sweat soaked bodies together in a cramped attic room.  The fire had mellowed into a deeper contemplation of each other, the kind of bond that might actually survive against the outside world.

She called him every day.

He didn’t mind at first; her musical voice made his senses tingle with anticipation.

Once became twice; three times.

Calls at work became a source of amusement amongst his colleagues, a bone of contention from his supervisor.

A gentle reminder made the persistent calls subside.

Letters and notes replaced them.

In his lunch box, they were cute and romantic.

Slipped under the wipers of his car like a parking ticket they seemed bizarre.  Passionate promises on Post-It notes stuck to his door gathered cryptic glances from his neighbours.

His body ached for her, but she had to give him at least a little privacy.  So he had softly placated her, an endeavour to appreciate her devotion, but highlight the intensity which felt so strong it was as if he were flying close to the sun, and at any moment the heat would kill him.

Gifts arrived, at work and at home.

Flowers, soft toys, chocolates, balloons embellished with romantic messages.

Ian was an immensely private person.  The attention he had relished had now become stifling, like a woman wearing too much heavy perfume.  He felt nauseous.

He needed to breathe.

Leah started to shadow him.  At first, her unexpected appearances seemed coincidental.  Weeks passed.  He became the butt of a thousand work place jokes.  She was everywhere.  Her underwear appeared in the glove compartment of the truck; he could smell her perfume everywhere.  Items had gone missing from his flat; nothing valuable had vanished, only keepsakes, family photographs, clothes.  He knew where he would find them.

Love turned sour.  The fairy dancer had become an albatross hanging around his neck, appearing on every street corner like an unsuccessful whore.

Attempts to reach a compromise had failed.  She would not be chastised now.  Any criticism he made of her obsession was taken as a sign of his lack of commitment.  He thought perhaps love had been denied her, in her childhood, in a time before he had known her, and tried to broach the subject, but she was a closed book he was forever forbidden to read.

There was no alternative.

A necessary sin, guilty as it might make him feel.  He would not sleep soundly again until his existence was decontaminated, and her presence destroyed, leaving nothing but a fading memory.

Work ended.  He drove home, showered and changed into casual clothes.  His apartment was quiet, cold, and still.  It used to seem lonely, but now the peace and quiet of her absence was a welcome release.

Leah had not been invited.  They had made no arrangements, but she would materialize as always.  This night mirrored each one before it.  The doorbell announced her arrival at almost six-thirty.

She breezed in, filling vases with fresh flowers in the kitchen.  He stood staring at her, a cold feeling rising from the pit of his stomach.

Leah was wearing one of his missing shirts.

Given the contrast in the shape and size of their bodies, it looked ludicrous, as if she were a child dressed up in a white sheet as a Halloween ghost.

Her hair had been dyed dark brown, the same shade as his.  Perhaps this was coincidence; he was reading too much into her behaviour, exaggerated as it was.

When she finally stopped moving around in beautifully choreographed steps, and dinner was cooking, and the daffodils and tulips were exhibited proudly in the middle of the kitchen table, she turned to look at him.

“What’s the matter?”

This girl was stalking him, but had no idea why he found her behaviour so unappealing.  Ian pitied her, however uncomfortable she made him feel.

“Leah, sit down.”

“I can’t, I have to keep an eye on dinner.”

“It’ll keep, just for a minute.”  He crossed the room and turned down the gas under the pans.  “Please, just sit down.”

She obeyed him, wearing the expression of a guilty schoolgirl about to be reprimanded by a strict headmaster.

This imagery, with it’s vaguely sensual undertones, did little to ease his apprehension.  He pulled out the chair opposite her.  The vase of flowers stood between them, distracting him from her face.  He was glad of the intervention.

Mercy was pointless here.

Severity was the only satisfactory tool.

“I think we should stop seeing each other.”

There was a moment of silence.  Between the stems and vibrant petals, through the smell of greenery, he watched her expression change, a spirit crushed as easily as screwing a daisy up in his fist, remnants falling out his palm, broken.

“I’m sorry, Leah.”

“Just like that, over?”

Tears decorated her voice, thorns pricking his conscience.

“Why?”

“I need some space.”

“Space, space, all you ever seem to say is that you want space, you need time to yourself, we should take it easy for a while.  Why the hell did we start having a relationship then?”

He opened his mouth to answer, but she spared him the effort.

“What a stupid question!  What do all men want?  I really thought. .  .”  Her face took shelter in her hands. “I thought you were different.”

If this were a play, all of her lines would be predictable.  He had envisaged this moment over and over in his head for most of the day, and so far it was unfolding exactly as he had expected.

“I want. . . I wanted to be.  You wouldn’t let me, Leah.  I wanted to be with you, perhaps always, but you don’t give me room to want you.  You force yourself upon me, in every waking moment.”

“I can change,” she blurted out.

“No.”

“I can try.”

“No!” He swallowed down his impatience.  “I’m sorry.  It’s too late for that.  It just doesn’t feel right anymore.”

Tears made tracks down her face.

He felt like a monster, inhuman, heartless.

“I think it’s better if you leave now.  I don’t want to hurt you, but there’s no point talking.  There’s nothing you can do to change it.  I’m sorry.  Please just go.”

The girl across the table stared at him through the flowers in disbelief, but rose.

“There are some things here I need to. .  .”

“I’ll send them on to you.”

“Okay.  If that’s what you want.”

Ian listened to the sounds of her leaving the room and collecting her coat.  He could feel the emptiness waiting to embrace him, and it felt good, like the promise of an ice cold beer on a sweltering summer afternoon.

Her hands suddenly rested on his shoulders.

“I didn’t mean to scare you.”

He was unsure if she meant by suddenly appearing behind him, or by the way she had silently smothered him throughout their relationship, but either way, he was terrified.

Nimble fingers massaged tense muscles at the base of his neck, loosening his shoulders.

“I know I came on too strong.”  Her voice sounded fragile, empty, shell-shocked.  “I always scare men away.  I thought you would understand.  I never meant to make you feel uncomfortable.  I just wanted to be near you.  I just wanted to love you.”

He closed his eyes, his conscience beckoning, but he refused to allow his resolve to be broken.

“I’ve always been the same, every since I was a child.”

So now she wanted to explain, when he had called her bluff.

“I’m sorry it didn’t work out between us, Leah.  Please go.”

His indifference did not deter her.  Her lips brushed the back of his neck.

“Stop it.  It’s no good!”

“I’m not trying to persuade you to change your mind.  The last thing I want is to force you to be with me, if I only make you unhappy.  But maybe we could. . . just one last time.”

“It’s not a good idea.”

The shape of her breasts was pressed against his skin.  He imagined the soft warmth of her body, and as always, the idea of entering it aroused him.  He turned around, and her lips began to work his instantly.

This was all wrong.

Emergency surgery, all ties severed.

He had planned it all day.

“Just one more time, please.”  Leah murmured.

“It won’t change anything.” He sighed, aware that her fingertips were plying his zipper open.

“I know.  It doesn’t matter.  Please.”

It was impossible to think clearly when his libido was in overdrive.  The rush of blood that swelled his erection caused a temporary loss of reason.  She was still utterly irresistible.  He had no idea of continuing their relationship, so the bonds which had limited his desire were removed.  A beautiful woman was kissing her way down his body and his guilt was rapidly disappearing, outweighed by more primitive urges.

What harm could it do?

With no further consideration, he ceased to protest, and let it happen.

On his bed, an hour and several hectic couplings later, they lay side by side.

Sexually, she was beyond reproach.

They were equally matched in one respect at least.

Rain had started to patter eagerly against the window.

“I love you.”

The words leaving her lips seemed like a curse.

“Leah, I’m sorry, but . . .” Ian sat up and started to dress, finding it impossible to be stern when stark naked.

“Can’t we talk?”

“No.  You said you wouldn’t try and change my mind.”

“I won’t.”

“Then what is there to talk about?”

Leah put her hand on his bare shoulder.

“I’ll go now.  I’ll never see you again.  Just one more kiss.”

“Leah!”

“Am I so repulsive now?”

“Don’t be stupid!  I just fucked you five times, how can I find you repulsive?”

“Then kiss me goodbye, please.”

He turned back towards the bed, and slid his arms around her.  “I didn’t want this to happen.  You gave me no choice.”

Their lips collided.  Her skin felt strangely warm, feverish.  He tried to break contact, but her arms remained locked around him.

Physically, he was her superior, but he had no desire to hurt her in order to make her let go, so he allowed the embrace to continue.

The kiss seemed to last forever.

He started to feel nauseous, light-headed; an empty feeling arrived in the base of his stomach.  His pulse began thudding wildly.

He pushed her away.

Leah held onto him, her lips welded to his.

It seemed impossible to break free.  The floor seemed to vanish beneath him, his insides churning with fear.  He fought her, tearing at her skin, gouging at her throat in an attempt to fling her away.

He couldn’t move her.

She was half his size, but she clung to him like a sickening parasite, lips burning his, nails penetrating his flesh.

It was becoming harder to breathe.

Her fingers seemed to be sinking beneath his skin, probing around inside, causing sudden and unexpected pain.

Heart pounding, everything seemed to suddenly speed up around him, the world whirring like a hectic fairground ride.  A bizarre nightmare had become real.  He waited to wake, but it didn’t happen.  He realised he had stopped fighting.

His lungs ached.

There was a sharp pain between his ribs, as if claws had reached inside and were searching for his heart.

The last time he had screamed he had been a very small child.  This time, there was no way the sound could escape his body.  She was extracting the air from his lungs, the blood from his veins, the life from his body.

Swift removal.

Surgical precision.

Unbearable pain without the mercy of anaesthetic.

Then he ceased to exist.

Leah got up and dressed in Ian’s white shirt and her own blue jeans.  She stood in front of the mirror in his bathroom and combed her dark brown hair.

Eyes glared back at her, ice blue and malevolent.  They were not her own.  She could feel him inside her, a rat in a cage, screaming, crying, insane, trying to escape her body.

It was a simple operation.

Performed a dozen times before, the swift absorption of every man who had ever tried to leave her life.  At least he would not be alone in there, within her mind, his shape squeezed into her frame, like an overgrown foetus.

Her hand touched her hardened nipples through the white cotton.

His hand, touching her.

The echo of his tormented voice inside her head, amidst a sea of others, made her smile.  She could never be lonely with him here.  She could never be lonely with him living inside of her.

The ultimate love.

Not just to love someone, but to become them.

She was no longer simply in love with him.

She was him.

Leah ran a brush through her hair, pulled on Ian’s jacket, and rushed outside to greet the warm summer rain, feeling his heartbeat thudding loudly inside her.  She carried him out into the open air, to face the world, as part of her.

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AWOL (first published 2006)

Tonight was the night; the first night of the rest of his life.

He had said the same thing over and over, so many times, back down the years, empty promises made to the woman he loved.  Every promise had crumpled into broken fragments of lost hope, just like the crackling brown leaves he crushed under his boots as he walked briskly to the bus stop.  Every time he had told Amy he was leaving, something always held him back, for over twelve years.

But not tonight.  Tonight was real.  Tonight he was never going to look back.  His feet hit the earth with renewed determination, each step one closer to a dream that he had always been just inches away from holding, but had never quite reached.

Rain had passed, leaving the air damp, but as still as the hushed quiet inside a mausoleum.  Glancing upwards, the night sky mirrored the spark of hope which burned in his soul, bright stars bursting out from behind drifting clouds, finally allowed to shine.  He had waited almost forever for his chance to be free, to soar like a lone flier.  Yet he wasn’t running away to be alone.  He was running away to be with her, and he felt not even the slightest hint of insecurity.

Pausing at the bus stop, David was a tall lone figure on the quiet night street, a stone sentinel as he stared motionless up the road, the cold reaching under his clothes to love him with an icy caress.  He travelled light, with only a few clothes stuffed hurriedly into a worn sports bag.  There was little from the life he was leaving behind that he wanted to take with him.  He glanced at his watch.  Almost twenty five minutes past eleven, the digital display informed him.  He was in plenty of time for the last bus.

Somehow, despite his resolve, waiting here made him nervous.  Supposing his wife had woken up, come downstairs, realised he was gone?  He could picture her now, pacing the living room frantically, her lips set in that familiar taut, sour expression, as if she had sucked on a lemon.  She would be rehearsing her lines, preparing to berate him upon his return, for drinking or gambling or whatever else it was she presumed he would be doing.  Working herself up into a frenzy, but one which she would never unleash.

This image of Anne made him smile.  How ironic, he thought, that for so many years of their marriage, before he met Amy, his wife had accused him of infidelity, when he had been totally faithful to her.  Now he was finally doing the very thing she had always accused him of, but probably deep down had thought he never had the guts.

On the highway ahead, a faint spark of headlights became visible through the black.  David strained his eyes (he couldn’t see as well as he used to) to discern the shape of the approaching vehicle.  It was big enough to be a bus, but as it approached it revealed itself as a heavy goods vehicle.  David sighed in the rush of air which touched his skin as it moved past him, and then left him alone again.

This was a fairly peaceful neighbourhood, despite the much discussed rise in crime rates in the city.  At this hour, there were few lights showing from the well-kept houses, and the streetlights did little to penetrate the black.  Only four cars had passed him on the three minute walk to the bus stop.  Standing here on the kerb, squinting into the distance in search of his getaway vehicle, he suddenly felt as if he could be the last man on earth.

But he wasn’t lonely.  He knew all about loneliness, real loneliness.  The loneliness of sharing a bed with someone who hated you, of being with another human being day in, day out, for years, but feeling totally isolated.  The night wasn’t lonely; if anything, he welcomed it like a long lost friend.

David took a step back, startled, as suddenly the bus loomed into view, just a few feet away from him.  His heart danced merrily for a few moments in his chest, reflecting the shock to his system.  How had he not seen it coming?

He must have been daydreaming, preoccupied with his own thoughts, with taking this leap into the unknown.  He stuck out his arm quickly and the bus screeched to a halt, the doors opening with a sound like a steam engine spitting.

“How much into town?” he asked as he climbed aboard, his right hand exploring the back pocket of his jeans for loose chance.

A middle aged black man with a heavily seamed face sat in the driving seat, staring directly at the road ahead.  Behind the new passenger, the doors were already closing and the bus had started up again.  The driver remained constant, focusing upon the route ahead as if his life depended on it, his lips tightly sealed.

“Excuse me, I asked you “how much into town”?”  David moved closer to the glass partition which separated him from the man, the lurching movement of the vehicle causing him to sway drunkenly.

Although he seemed to be steering the vehicle, apart from performing the operation the driver may as well have been a shop dummy.  His eyes appeared glassy, as if he were in some kind of trance.

David sighed, deeply frustrated.  “Can you hear me or what?”  He rapped on the barrier with his knuckles sharply.

Perhaps the driver had a warped sense of humour, but whatever the reason for his refusal to respond, David really wasn’t in the mood.  A little to his right, just before the stairs which led up to the top deck, was a brightly coloured poster displaying all fare stages and the cost from the terminus to each.  He glanced at the list, and then fished a handful of coins out of his pocket.

“Eighty – five!” he announced, slamming the money into the cash slot, the air suddenly filled with the sound of clattering metal as the objects made their way through the contraption.

It spurted out a ticket, and he tore it away sullenly.  “Ignorant twat.” he uttered under his breath, and marched upstairs.

As he reached the top of the bus, he found himself noticing how busy it was.  At this hour, it was customary to find no more than half a dozen passengers, yet tonight his eyes struggled to rest upon an empty seat.  Finally, he noticed a space next to a grey faced old man wearing a Trilby hat, and sat down.  Perhaps there was an event being staged nearby which he hadn’t heard about; after all, his mind hadn’t been focused on much else other than his departure.

Once settled into his seat, he decided it was time to call Amy.  He retrieved his Cellphone from his pocket, the smooth shiny surface reflected in the fluorescent strips overhead.  He found her entry in the address book, and with the press of a button, heard her number being dialled.  It would feel strange, calling her like this, knowing for the first time that he didn’t have to make any excuses.

“Hello.”  Her voice sounded warm enough to stimulate the frigid night air.

“It’s me.”

“David!  Where are you?”

Her voice was excited, hesitant, tense with expectancy, a story of twelve years of longing for him, waiting for him patiently when anyone else would have given him up long ago.

“On the bus into town.”

“The bus?”  It didn’t make sense to her at first, only because he knew that part of her had never truly believed he’d make it.

“I did it, baby.  I left her.”

Silence as reality impregnated her thoughts, as she dared to accept that the dream had become real.  Then suddenly “Oh my God!  Oh my God, I don’t believe it!”  She sounded as if she’d won the Lottery Jackpot.  He didn’t deserve her to love him this much, not after the years of being “the other woman” he’d forced her to endure.  He wanted to be with her, to hold her, to make her understand how much it meant to him, the depth of her love, and how long she had waited for him.  He wanted to make her understand how much he loved her too.

She checked herself now, perhaps not wanting to appear too dependant upon him, in the same way that she had always kept herself under control, because she didn’t want to force him into anything.

Logic took precedence now.  “How did she take it?”  Amy asked him.  She would never use his wife’s name directly, as if by refraining from uttering it aloud she could pretend Anne didn’t exist.

“Well, to tell you the truth, honey, she didn’t say anything.  I just left her a note.”  he explained, almost apologetically.  “I know it’s the coward’s way out, but then I guess I always have been a coward where she’s concerned.  I just didn’t want a scene.”

“You’re not a coward.  She’s just a bitch.”

Emotions were running high tonight, on both sides.  He knew how she felt, how she hated the deception, and her opinion of his wife, but it was uncharacteristic of her to let it show.

“I feel good.” he told her “Really good.  I want to see you.  I want to come over right now.”

“Okay.”  Her voice exuded quiet confidence.  “There’ll be a cold one waiting for you.”

“Just what I need.”

“And a very warm welcome too.”

A smile touched his lips.  “Need that even more.”

“I’ll be here.  Don’t let me down, big guy.”

He suddenly felt choked by emotion.  “I won’t.  I told you I’d made up my mind this time, I told you I’d…”

David’s eyes widened instantly as his surroundings became dark.  Glancing out of the window, he realised the bus was moving swiftly through a tunnel, almost devoid of light.  He frowned.  Where the hell were they?  He knew this journey like the back of his hand, and there was no tunnel anywhere near here.

“Shit!” he said aloud.

“Baby, what’s wrong?”

“I don’t know.  I think maybe I got the wrong bus or there’s been a diversion or something.”  His eyes shifted from side to side anxiously.  “Don’t worry, I’ll still…”

There was a crackling sound, and then the line went dead.

“Damn it!”  He knew Amy, she’d worry if he didn’t call back.  He glanced at his Cellphone wearily.  No reception.  He’d have to call her back as soon as they came out of the underpass.  But where the hell were they?  He didn’t recognise this at all; there was no tunnel of any kind anywhere near this part of the city.

Frustrated, he turned to the elderly man next to him, who stared in front of him as if the head of the woman in front carried untold secrets.  “Excuse me, where is this bus going?”

Silence greeted his question, penetrated only by the hum of the engine.

“Excuse me, I asked you where the bus is going.  I think I’m on the wrong one.”  David reiterated slowly.

The man in the trilby remained motionless, watery grey eyes unblinking.  Just like the driver downstairs, he looked like a participant in a hypnotist’s stage show

Must be deaf.  David shifted his stance and leaned across the aisle.  A young woman, wearing a mask of flawless cosmetic accessories, sat pertly on the seat opposite, a belt posing as a skirt leaving her bare bronzed legs crossed seductively in front of him.  She watched the black in front of them wearing a placid expression, resembling a teenage fashion doll with her slender figure, blonde hair and eyes like translucent blue beads.

“I’m sorry to bother you, but do you know which bus this is?  I haven’t got a clue where I’m going.”

Despite his plea, her eyes refused to leave the featureless horizon, although no light could be glimpsed through the darkness in the distance.

“Can you hear me?”  he said loudly, his hackles rising.  What the hell was wrong with these people?

If the girl heard him, she was determined not to show it.

David swallowed hard.  The tunnel continued, unchanging, a void into the unknown.  Through the nearest window he couldn’t even see a light on the side walls to guide the traffic.

Looking around him, he observed the face of every passenger, young and old, black and white.  He stood up, only two rows away from the front of the bus, and stared back into each pair of unmoving eyes.  The eyes did not follow him, did not acknowledge him, did not even recognise his existence.  They looked into him, and  through him, as if he were a transparent ghost-man who existed only in his own dimension.

Tall and heavily built, although over forty, David considered himself to be fairly strong and fit.  He made the decision that if he couldn’t get an answer out of any of these people politely, then perhaps he ought to employ some other, less appealing methods.

As he stood on the precipice of this action, he was aware that rational thought was slipping away from him, falling behind as if he were losing consciousness and the ground was becoming distant.  The place and time in which he stood seemed to have become separated from reality, and in this new alien world, he might have no more power than a restless spirit after all.  He was a shadow, present in a land devoid of light, which had not the benefit of appreciating his outline in the noonday sun.

In spite of this chill of uncertainty, he wasn’t about to give up without a fight.

“Okay, you people, I don’t know what the fuck is going on here, but somebody better give me an answer, right now!  The next person I ask a question better have something to say!  You got that, all of you?”

Nobody moved in the factory of mannequins.

Sweat breaking out upon his forehead, David picked up his bag.  He marched to the back of the bus and grabbed hold of a youth sitting in the middle of the back seat, between his two companions who modelled almost identical clothes.  He recognised the style, the baggy jeans, boots and obscenely huge gold jewellery; all three looking as if they had walked out of a rap video on MTV.

The kid he had picked on, who had short cropped bleached hair, didn’t even flinch when the older man dragged him from his seat by the collar of his padded jacket.

“Right, you little shit, start talking!  What the hell is going on?”

With their faces so close together, David could see his own reflection in the boys’ cornflower blue eyes.  He could also see that the boy was empty, a machine made of skin and bone which presented itself to the world as a human being, but at the heart of it, there was nobody home.

The boy couldn’t be dead, because he was warm and breathing, and smelt of designer aftershave and cigarettes.

But then, he didn’t seem to be very much alive either.

Around them, nobody else moved, or noticed what had happened.  They would all continue their silent vigil, even if he took the boy and tore him apart with his bare hands, even if he reduced the boy to a pulp of blood and flesh here in front of them.

Overhead, the lighting strips flickered portentously.  Time was running out, he could sense it, fear approaching him like a midnight assailant, harbinger of an unknown danger ahead.

Seeing no answer in the glazed eyes of the youth, David realised that it didn’t matter now that he knew there was going to be no reply.  There was no point venting his anger on any one of these living corpses.  David hit him anyway, his hard knuckles cracking against the bridge of the boy’s nose.  The bone shattered, exploding in a squirt of blood.  Apart from the sickening sound of the fracture, the body made no sound.  If it felt any pain, it was not outwardly displayed.

He let the kid go.  He regretted his actions instantly.  The young man, just like everyone else, was trapped here, in a suspended reality from which he could not escape whether he wanted to or not.  He wasn’t to blame. None of them were.

Adrenaline was pumping through him.  He glanced at his Cellphone in the desperate hope that he still might be able to call Amy for help.  No reception.  This came as no surprise.  He wasn’t supposed to reach anybody; not from here.  Once you were here it was obvious you never came back.

The vehicle was gaining speed now, rushing through the black vacuum like an express train.  David had to think fast.  He had to get out, but his mind was a blur of confusion and rage.  Leaving the zombie passengers to their oblivion, he charged down the stairs two at a time.  It came as no shock to see that the ground floor of the bus was also populated by stupefied citizens, all gawping ahead into an eternity of night.  How could he not have noticed when he boarded?

Perspiration drenching his skin, he wrenched open the door which separated the driver from the rest of the bus, and threw the man out of his seat.  The body of the driver hit the gangway next to the ticket machine like a sack of potatoes, motionless, although like all the others still breathing, still alive, although his portrayal of a corpse was Oscar winning.

David’s eyes scanned the dashboard as he sat behind the wheel.  It couldn’t be much different to driving a car really.  He ought to be able to stop the bus, although what the hell he hoped to do afterwards was a matter he hadn’t even considered.

Terrified, the fear had taken control and operated his body.  It was this fuel that had kept him animated, and had prevented his mind from closing down altogether from sheer paranoia.  In the last few minutes he had been swept away from the realisation of a beautiful dream to a nightmarish reality.  Suddenly, everything that had happened since he had boarded the bus seemed like a cruel practical joke, like God playing a grotesque prank on him just for his own amusement.

But he didn’t believe in God, or the Devil.  He didn’t believe in anything much, except for one person, a lone beacon, a sanctuary in the misery of existence.  He believed in Amy, waiting for him, waiting too long, twelve years too damned long.  Whatever bizarre twist of fate had befallen him, she didn’t deserve to wait any longer.

The bus tore through the tunnel now, as if unmanned.  He fought with the brakes, but they refused to respond.  Perhaps the driver hadn’t been in control either, perhaps he too was all part of the game, to make everything appear normal.  The vehicle was still gaining momentum, whizzing through the silence, whisking all of them towards extinction.

He couldn’t give up now.  His hands were trembling and the impenetrable darkness ahead made it hard to see clearly, but he couldn’t just let go.  Not now, of all times, when his children had left home and he could finally be free, finally be with Amy.  This couldn’t happen now, it wasn’t fair.

Whoever said life was supposed to be fair?

Another vehicle came into view on the dim horizon.  From the size he thought it was possibly another bus or heavy good vehicle.  Lights dazzled him, and he strained to make out the approaching nemesis as he struggled with the steering wheel, although he was already aware that even if the bus obeyed him, there was no place to go but forward.  The silhouette ahead became visible in the headlights, a grim reaper emerging stealthily out of the gloom.  It was a passenger train.

He could smell death, although he was as certain as he could be that he was still very much alive.  He wasn’t actually scared of dying all that much.  He was only scared of leaving Amy, without proving to her how much she really meant.

The train was about to meet them head on.  Even if he could have made the vehicle stop, it made no difference now, and they were far too close for the engine driver to brake.  David closed his eyes, and sent a silent message of love to his own guardian angel, the last person who would ever hear his voice.  His ears were filled with the deafening roar of wheels hurtling along the tracks as the train ploughed straight into the front of the double decker.  Afterwards, the blackness was absolute…

He sat up in bed, the sweat pouring down his chest, his breath coming out in short sharp gusts.  The room was quiet, but for the soft ticking of the alarm clock on Anne’s bedside cabinet.  Reality and nightmare had pulled together again, knitting into one the fabric of his life, but leaving him with a dull chill down his spine.

“Jesus Christ!”

The sound of his voice, made louder by the stillness around him, caused the bedside lamp to flick on suddenly.  The shifting of the body in the bed next to him, and she was sitting up, and in full swing as usual.

“What’s the bloody matter with you?  Don’t you know it’s past three o’ clock?  Other people in this house need to sleep, you know!”

“Sorry.”  A sigh slipped from between his parched lips.  “I just had a bad dream.”

“Bad dream?  Well what do you expect when you’re out drinking half the night?”

“I told you that I wasn’t…oh, it doesn’t matter.”

“I don’t know why you’re still here.  I don’t know why you don’t just run off with one of those sluts you hang around with.”

Her body thudded back down onto the mattress, and the light went off, plunging him into a world of darkness again.

“I would, sweetheart.”  David said quietly, as he lay back down and tried to quieten the fear still stirring in his chest.  “It’s just that every time I try, something always seems to hold me back.”

Silence greeted him.  As if she knew exactly what had happened, every single time he ended up back here, waking next to her in his own bed.  Downstairs, he could hear the sound of his Cellphone ringing.  Probably Amy, still waiting for him, wondering what had happened.  He’d gotten so far this time, that he himself had truly believed he was going to make it.

How could he tell her the truth, without making her think he was crazy?  How could he tell her that somehow, no matter how hard he tried, the bitch always found a way to bring him back?

Salvation (first published in 2006)

“Why?”

“Why did you do it?”

The voice of her partner echoed through her ears, but once the sound had dispersed into the air they were left alone again.

Across the table from them, the man in black stared not at the speaker, but at the woman.  His eyes, a cold glacial blue, seemed to move at her, and then through her, as if she were a ghost, or a sheet of glass, to a place in time and space which forever fascinated him, but which no one else could see.

D.I Charsley was silent too, for once.  After half and hour of questioning, of trying every different avenue, from emotional blackmail to threats of physical violence, the man still would not speak.

D.I Morris said nothing either.  She had not been given the opportunity to question the stranger to crack him.  She was not arrogant enough to believe that she would be any more successful than her partner, but would still have relished the opportunity to try.

They waited in the still, slightly chilled room, all three.  All waiting, but for different reasons, and for the man in black, she suspected, the outcome he was anticipating was one far beyond their comprehension.

The radiator made little creaks and rattling noises as water filtered through the pipes.  In the distance outside, the sound of a bus braking at a bus stop was a vague distraction.  Ash fell suddenly from the tip of Charsley’s cigarette where he had placed it, hanging over the edge of the heavy glass ashtray a few moments ago.

D.I Morris was already aware that the man in black had been staring at her, with a fixed expression, continuously, since she and Charsley had entered the room.  Under normal circumstances, this would have made her uneasy, but because she had become aware that this vigil was not concentrated upon her whatsoever, but with that other place, she was not overly concerned, only puzzled.

The room was so devoid of communication as it was of emotion that even the sound of the second hand moving on her wristwatch could be observed if she listened closely.

In the world outside, a nation held its breath, waiting for an answer.  Eight hundred people; men, women and children, from innocent babies to fragile old spinsters, white, black, Muslim, Christian- were all presumed dead.  This figure was only an estimate which had been released to the press; it could rise or fall as the rescue operation continued, attempting to drag bodies out of the rubble which had been a brand new shopping mall in the hope that a few might still exhibit signs of life.  A city mourned; a country silent in awe and horror.

The answer, it seemed, lay with the man in black, but he liked the game, and enjoyed keeping them all guessing.

As the seconds ticked by, Kelly Morris observed his face.  His skin was almost colourless, as pale as the snow-laden sky, but in contrast, his hair was as black as the feathers on a raven’s back.  He was tall and broad; his body appeared immense and powerful underneath a plain black shirt, yet he had not used his imposing physique to resist arrest.  He had walked into the station, as meek as a lamb, without a word, and without a coat to shield him from the icy chill of winter.

They had taken him apart.  They had stripped him naked and searched his clothes for evidence of his crime, his identity, his motive, but the body had given away no more than the mind agreed to reveal.  He did not seem troubled by the deconstruction of his exterior.  He surrendered his body; his freedom, willingly; a sacrifice almost.

Still he stared, with eyes like daggers, about to open her heart and observe the soft tissue inside.

D.I Morris shivered involuntarily.

The stranger sensed her sudden fear.  For the first time since his arrest, a tiny smirk caused his expression to shift as his lips curved and then all was calm again, his skin frozen, as if he were a statue, an alabaster illusion of a human being.

This strangely convincing waxwork had killed hundreds, perhaps more.  The nation was still waiting, for his blood, if nothing else.

“Come on.”

D.I Charsley grabbed her arm and drew her away from her observation.

“Outside.”

The eyes of the man in black rose with her, until she was forced to tear herself away.  The fire door creaked as they left the room to confer in the corridor outside.

“Bastard.”  Charsley’s lips quivered harshly under his thick greying moustache.

“Don’t let him under your skin, Jack.  He’s playing with us somehow, I know it.”

“Look. .  .”  The detective inspector opened his mouth and then closed it, glancing over his shoulder as a fresh-faced young constable passed by, glancing only once at them before being intimidated by the older man’s observation, and looking away briskly.  Charsley took her arm again and led her into their office down the hall, and slammed the door behind them.  Her senses were drowned in the smell of cigarettes and old paper.

“. . . there are ways of dealing with shit like that.  I can get the truth out of him.”

Kelly sighed.  He was reminding her of a fact she was already well aware of.  She knew exactly what his ways were.

There was so much rubble, and dust filled the air at the heart of the city.  It would take weeks to pull out all of bodies, she thought miserably.  There could be people, trapped in air pockets, who might slowly suffocate or starve before they were found.  Children perhaps, sobbing innocents, just like the baby she had lost herself, only four months old, from Infant Death Syndrome.

The man in black might not be alone.  If he worked with others, as part of a terrorist organisation, there could be so many other men in black, with pale faces and watchful eyes, waiting to tear apart thousands of other lives. . .

Surely someone had to pay, sometimes.

What did a few broken bones, or a rupture spleen matter, if other lives were saved, if perhaps there were other mothers out there who would not have to watch a tiny coffin lowered into the ground as she had?

Surely somehow had to pay. .  .

“I don’t think he’ll respond.”

“What?”

“I’m being honest.  Even if you break every bone in his body, I don’t think he’ll say a word.”

“It might be worth hearing the fucker scream though.”

“True.”  Normally, she didn’t appreciate his style, and even now she despised herself for even considering the underhand techniques her was suggesting, whatever the circumstances.

“Let me try first.”

Charsley gave her a scornful look.  He was a typical old-fashioned detective, and it was a surprising feat that he stooped to working with a woman at all, let alone to consider the suggestion that her approach might succeed where his had failed.

But strangely, Kelly Morris felt he had a sneaking regard for her.  Perhaps it was because she could be hard as nails when she had to be, as tough as any bloke.  A softer side was something she chose not to reveal in the line of duty, to the point that many of her male colleagues considered her to be something of an ice maiden.

“Go ahead.”  He shrugged.  “But you’ll be lucky.”

When Kelly returned to the room alone, it seemed to have grown colder.  She instinctively placed her palm upon the radiator, and drew it away sharply before it charred her flesh.  Perplexed, she pulled out a chair and sat down in front of the man in black.  It was different this time.  His expression still did not change, but her instinct informed her that he was now staring at her, rather than through her, to that dark place which only he could see beyond.

They were alone.  No partner.  No supporting constable present.  Just the two of them, face to face.

Snow had begun to fall outside, caressing the building with an icy affection.  The overhead light suddenly hummed, then started to flicker in an irritating fashion which would cause an epileptic to fear the onset of a seizure, and threatening to set of one of her classic migraines.

“I’ve met men like you before.”

Kelly lit up a cigarette, ignoring his penetrating observation and studying the small barred window, set high up in the wall on the opposite side of the room.  Occasionally she could catch a glimpse of a snowflake flitting past like a fallen angel, swathed in white, falling to the ground in the exterior world.

The city was a place she loved, loathed, but felt accustomed to, like slipping on a well worn coat or favourite sweater.  It was a place where she had grown, where she had pulled herself up out of the slums of Aston, amid factory smoke and rising crime, to become something better, a projected image of the woman she had always longed to be.  This man had reached into the breast of the city, sliding inside the flesh, and had torn it’s squelching, bleeding heart.  She could not help but be affected by this desecration, however much she tried to keep a level head.

She turned her eyes sideways towards the accused man.

“There’s always some reason: injustice; politics; religion.  There’s always an excuse.  So what’s yours?”

He still watched her from his frozen world, studying her, as if she were the prisoner, and he the inquisition.

“Why didn’t you kill yourself too?”  She mused, more to herself than her companion as she took a drag on the cigarette.  “They usually do, suicide bombers, like kamikaze pilots.  Is your cause not worth dying for?  What reason did you have to stick around, to get caught on purpose, to willingly submit to spending the rest of your life behind bars?”

Ash fell into the glass receptacle.  Someone started shouting obscenities in another cell.  Her eyes were buried in the ashtray, remembering the advert she had seen on television recently, a visual documentary of fat clogging up a human artery,  jabbing her conscience with the memory that she might die a little sooner than her non-smoking counterpart.

She was as useless as Charsley.  The man in black would probably never speak again.  Perhaps he was deaf and dumb, a cunningly trained monkey trained by an expert organ grinder who knew he could never reveal the secrets of his design.

“I stayed for you, Kelly.”

His voice, coming at her like an echo from the bottom of a well, caused her to start, and her cigarette fell into the tray below.

How the fuck did he know her name?

She looked up at him.

“Everything is worth dying for.  I died for you once.  I could do it again.  We are all dying, little by little, every day.  But there will be no more death.  This is what I have come to tell you.  There will be no more death.”

So that was it; another lunatic, let out on parole, for care in the community that involved a nice cosy chat once a week with a social worker in a bright, flowery dress who wore a big silly smile.  A danger unleashed upon the unsuspecting world to infect them all with his madness.

Her eyes wondered away from the captive.  She felt oddly repulsed by herself.  Was she disappointed that the enigmatic killer had proven to be as easy to categorize as all of his contemporaries?

“Look at me.”

She took another drag, corrupting her lungs out of habit.  She was convinced that he had nothing meaningful to say, but now that she had prised him open, like Pandora’s box his secrets would escape, whether she wanted to be confronted by them or not.

“Look at me!”

His voice became a roar, and he stood up, pushing back his chair and towering above her.  Kelly rose with him instinctively, ready to call for back up, or defend herself if the need arose.

But then the world seemed to shift, and change, and reality was bent and twisted until the man in black had moulded it into the shape he wanted his audience to behold.

He stood before her, arms outstretched, palms upturned, so that the deep wounds in his wrists were revealed, oozing with dark blood that pumped out of the veins with every convulsion of his heart.  They were a trophy, he exhibited them with pride for her appraisal, almost imploring her.

“Know me.”

In an instant the fabric of reality had begun puckered and distorted.  She backed away against the wall, gaping with wide eyes and lips at the pulsing wounds.  It was impossible.  There was no conceivable way in which he could have concealed a weapon in order to inflict the injuries upon himself whilst he had been left alone.  Yet her eyes told her that they were real.

She had to call for assistance.

“No!”

Kelly froze at the sound of his voice.  The deep lacerations, the holes bored deep into his flesh, suddenly closed up, and disappeared as she continued to stare with warped fascination at the image before her.

“You will stay here with me.”

Her insides had turned liquid.  Her whole life had been built on logic and reason, her career was a trail of deductions leading to the only rational conclusion in each case, and her mind ached at the stretching of her perception.  She tried to tell herself that she was tired, that the strain of the last two years in which she had forced herself to carry on working after the death of her child had taken its toll upon her nerves, but these excuses evaporated like the heat from the desperately clanking radiator.  Reason seemed to be slipping away from her, fading, like light at the end of a tunnel, down into the folds of uncertainty, deep into a well of madness.

“Victoria.”

“What?”

Hardly daring to believe, she watched his lips form the name of her lost child a second time.

“Victoria is with me.  She sleeps now, but soon she will wake once more.  They will all awake, all of the dead ones who have passed, leaving their loved ones to mourn.  The tombs will open and their bodies will rise anew, and wonder through paradise on earth.  The sounds of the laughter of children will ring through the air, and sweet birds will sing in high treetops, proclaiming my return.  I am here, Kelly.  I am returned, to bring death, and life, to you, to your child, to all of my children.”

Her hands clutched the back of her chair, so firmly that the bones of her knuckles showed white under the skin, threatened to burst through.

“Who are you?”

“I am the one you have waited for.  The one you have forgotten.  The shepherd seeking his lost sheep.  I am the son of man.  I am the resurrection and the life.  I am here to make the house of my father, on earth, for all eternity.”

As the words left his lips, a sudden glow began to emanate from his body, and fill the room, a soft haze at first, and then a brilliant aura, blinding, filled with tens of millions of dancing golden particles.

“I am risen.”

With hands outstretched, he crossed the room, reaching out to her.

Kelly fell to he knees, her mind blow away, drawn slowly to a place that only the man in front of her could see.

“Do you not yet know me?”

The memory of her loss, of all her losses, of a life of pain, of the church her mother had taken her to as a child, of a silver crucifix which was her birthday gift from a long dead aunt- all of these things suddenly filled her.  Most of all, a vision of beauty she had glimpsed, held deep within her consciousness, perhaps from a time before birth, when she must have been united with that one, that infinite, that source, the divine creator.

“I know you.”  Her voice entered the room but she did not recognise it as her own.  “I know who you are.”

“Who am I?”

Could it be true?  Could he really be here, to take them all from the pain of life, and make each of the again, anew?

“You are. . .”  The new voice stumbled over the words, but then formed them at last.  “You are Christ.”

“Take my hands, Kelly.  Take my hands, like all the others did before you, all of the innocents whose death you mourned today.  Take my hands and go with me into paradise.”

She reached up, child-like, from the cold stained floor, and with tears streaming down her cheeks, took the hands of her saviour.

The world went black instantly. .  .

A shudder, a spasm of pain, burning and shivering through her body, as flames danced up inside her belly, taking heart, her lungs, her mind, her soul.  A sudden scream, and she was gone.

The man in black kicked the pile of ashes on the floor around with the toe of his boot.  A little smirk played on his lips.  So easy to fool; so quick to burn.  God was dead, but his fallen angel was very much alive.  He brushed death from his black shirt, fastened the cuffs neatly, and went outside into the city, to spread salvation.

Under Glass

A mirror or a window.
Both are made of glass, yet their qualities are vastly different.
In a mirror, you see only a reflection, an image; of your face, you body, the room, although everything is an opposite of reality, so whilst what you witness in the mirror appears to be true, upon close inspection the deception is unmasked. Hold a book up to the glass and the letters will be reversed. Everything is the same, and yet different, just as Alice discovered in Through the Looking Glass.
A window, however, is an entirely different animal. At first glance, there appears to be no illusion whatsoever. Look through the glass and allow your eyes to permeate an almost invisible barrier, and you may view the world like a voyeur, operating from a place of safety. Yet the barrier itself is an illusion, just like the looking glass world. One sharp blow and your defence is shattered, leaving you unprotected, vulnerable, ready for the outside to seep in and take you.
Sometimes, at night, the window changes. Looking through the cold hard surface you can glimpse something of the dark, shadowy outside, and also a reflection of the space within. The two seem to merge together, creating a false reality, a blurred fantasy landscape within the glass.
These were the thoughts that swarmed behind Becky’s eyes as she sat opposite the huge window which formed the back wall of the University canteen, clutching a white polystyrene cup, her knees crammed under the formica topped table, spine pressed against a hard plastic seat.
Tom was a lot like glass too. On the surface he had appeared to be her perfect soul mate, her opposite number, the love of her life, but underneath, they were worlds apart. Inside he was like glass too, hard and cold and devoid of emotion, where she had imagined him to be soft and warm.
It was over now.
She had cried bright translucent tears, trickling down her cheek, like the droplets of rain which moved down the outside of the window pane in sparkling rivers in the world beyond. Her eyes were hollow and empty, red rimmed through sleep not taken. The bright intrusive fluorescent stare of the overhead lights made it impossible for her to see anything through the window, only her reflection in the glass; a dark, sad, pale girl with lank brown hair and sad eyes.
It was over because Tom was moving away, to work in New York. There had never been any indication that it was going to happen. It was their final year together at University, and the majority of students already had an eye on the job market, but he had said nothing of a desire to work abroad, let alone that he had already applied for a vacancy on the other side of the Atlantic ocean.
In a brightly lit Indian restaurant, among the smell of spice and the sounds of sitar music mingling with the clatter of plates and distant traffic, where the waiters all hurried around, fussing over patrons, struggling to breath against impossibly tight collars, he had told her. She had waited with wide eyes for the big news he had promised to reveal, unprepared for the fact that it would metaphorically rip her heart out.
Lukewarm coffee passed her lips and slipped down Becky’s throat. She had barely eaten in three days, but felt no pangs of hunger, only the mild nausea which often accompanied emotional turmoil.
It was over for Tom.
It was impossible, at this moment, for her to see a point in the future when it would ever be over for her. Logic informed her that the pain of loss would fade, but currently it felt as if the shredding of her emotions would never stop, a knife constantly twisted in her soul.
In the canteen behind her, some of the lights had been extinguished. Counter assistants and kitchen staff were preparing to close for the night. It was almost eight, and the majority of students who studied late had already disappeared, trickling out into student bars to drink, talk, and find a way to satisfy their lust for life. Becky realised that apart from the staff she was alone in the huge maze of plastic seating, white tables and artificial plants.
She had no strong desire to leave.
It occurred to her that she had been staring, mesmerized, at the window for the past ten minutes, eyes drawn to the blurred confusion of her form, the room and the night. Try as she might, she could recognise little beyond the reflection. Occasionally, a gust of wind made branches outside come to life, swaying clutching black limbs, clawed hands reaching for the shadow girl in the glass through the dark.
If only she had seen beyond the surface of Tom, at some point in the last six months, perhaps she might have discovered that he would be leaving, or at least the reason why.
More of the fluorescent tubes stuttered and then went out. As the light from each disintegrated, swallowed by shadow, a little more of the night behind the glass became clear. Wind sent another shower to punish the surface. Was the girl in the reflection really her?
As if in response to her unspoken question, the dark eyes girl opened her mouth and her features contorted into the image of a scream, although now sound accompanied it, turning her into a living copy of the bizarre Munch painting.
Becky jumped, blinked, looked back at the reflection.
It revealed nothing more now than the girl in the baggy brown sweater and frayed jeans, lips pressed tightly into a frown.
Had she screamed?
Becky glanced around her. The kitchen staff were still clearing away, and a cleaner with a bucket of water laden with strong disinfectant began mopping the floor near the counter, loud swish- slop fracturing the silence. No-one was looking in the direction of the window. She could be invisible as far as the rest of the world was concerned.
Even so, a scream would have been noticed, remarked upon, considered.
So either she really was invisible, a sad ghost-girl, or she had not screamed at all.
As if in admission that her tired eyes must be playing tricks on her, Becky ground them with her fist, grazing already sore and gritty lids. She couldn’t stay here all night. In a few moments one of the staff would probably come over to politely remind her that it was closing time. She gulped down the last dregs of her coffee, a syrupy mixture, the sugar having remained stubbornly at the bottom. Her fist crumbled the polystyrene cup. Time to go, to face her room alone, for the first of many nights.
Before she stood up, she threw a final glance out at the night. Her eyes instantly widened, startled. The surface of the glass appeared to be moving, like rippled expanding across water, a reflection in a pool stirred by a curious Narcissus.
She blinked hard.
Harder, rubbing her eyes.
The ripples were still moving, increasing, shifting and changing her countenance, ujnti her reflection looked like a distorted abstract painting, a Dali figure, a misshapen mixture of interior and girl.
Sleep.
Sleep was what she needed, to set her mind straight. She knew the effect sleep deprivation could have on body and mind. A sane and rational individual might become irritable, jumpy and depressed. A person never prone to letting their imagination run wild could see faces in shadows, objects moving just out of their line of visions, or feel unseen presences. All of these were tricks of the tired subconscious, just like the living glass with the liquid surface.
Becky pulled on her coat, a dark denim lined with fur. Standing up, she felt oddly disorientated. The room was deserted, shutters had been pulled down over the service area, and as if one cue, the rest of the lights were smothered. She hoisted her rucksack onto her shoulders and picked up the remains of the cup.
Best not to look out of the window again.
Just go home.
Curiosity overpowered her.
The surface of the glass was smooth again now, as perfect as fabric after the creases have been removed with a hot iron. The black world beyond was revealed, but it was not any that could exist on the planet she inhabited. This was a new terrain, a land of twisting arms and writhing torsos, dark forms, barely discernible, yet unreal, moving in a bizarre landscape, a mountain of bodies, shifting, struggling and slithering together.
The reflection of the room was still there too, intertwined with the wriggling forms. A body lay on a table. Two shapes were knotted together, bones wrenched into impossible shapes to connect the limbs. Bright eyes peered out through a series of metal shutters. Each of these images swirled in the gloom, then retreated before she could observe it more closely, disintegrating into the black.
Only Becky was missing. Perhaps she was not missing at all, but simply changed to suit the landscape, her body moulder and shaped into the image of Tom, her former lover, who sat in a plastic seat in the foreground of this bizarre mural, staring at her through the glass, his lips curved into that characteristic half smile she was so fond of.
Bewildered, trembling, Becky allowed the rucksack to fall from her shoulders onto the white faded surface of the table, and moved cautiously towards the window. The glass seemed solid, clean, and unbreakable almost. She stood so closed to it that her nose almost touched it, and Tom stood up and did the same, still smiling at her.
Her senses reeled. Was she dreaming? Maybe everything that had happened in the last couple of days had been a dream too, even down to Tom deciding to walk out of her life.
She lifted one hand, and gingerly allowed it to touch the surface of the window. It was cool against her palm, and a little moist with condensation. In the world beyond the window, Tom imitated her movements. Only the glass prevented their flesh being joined together, connecting as it had so many times before, with a kiss, a touch, or sex. He seemed too real to be an illusion, his eyes so green and filled with laughter, the sprinkling of freckles upon the bridge of his nose, even a tiny crescent shaped scar just above his upper lip where a piece of coal had leapt out of his grandmother’s open fire and burned him as an infant.
Becky’s fingers pressed against the pane harder, with fear, with wonder, with longing.
She had the sensation of being an onlooker, a voyeur, like a solitary stranger at a museum exhibition, gazing upon the recreation of some long dead civilisation, made real under glass. She felt strangely isolated. She didn’t want to be alone out here anymore. She wanted to be part of the world behind the window, part of a world in which Tom might still be hers.
Harder, harder. . .
There was a moment when it felt as if she had dipped her hand into bowl of ice cold water, and then the warmth, as her hand moved through the glass and touched her lover’s in the world beyond.
Becky stared at her hand in disbelief. It looked now as if it had been amputated at the wrist, leaving her a perfectly finished stump, which was pressed against the glass, designed so exquisitely that it might even be possible to believe she had been born this way. Yet in the land behind the window, her hand continued, holding Tom’s, feeling the heat of his skin, the blood pulsing through his veins.
As she stood transfixed, marvelling at the way in which her body still worked perfectly with the lost hand, and how the appendage itself functioned alone, little noises became audible through the glass. Cautiously, she placed her ear against the glass and listened. A million sounds, laughter, screams, shouts, cries, sobs, wails, cackles, singing, hissing, clucking, baying, mewing, whispering. . . the cacophony was the symphony of a world, a world filled with a myriad of lives, an eternity of emotions, exactly like the one she knew, and yet different.
Her other hand moved up to join its partner, slipping easily through the wet, cold surface and into the warmth beyond as he took hold of it too. They faced each other now, she and Tom, eye to eye, holding hands through the glass.
“Come in.”
Tom’s voice met her through the transparent wall, muffled, but plainly audible.
“Come in and stay with me. In here, I don’t have to leave. In her, we can stay together.”
Water trickled down the pane. She realised it was not the rain, but a reflection of her own tears, somehow moving through the landscape of this changed world.
She didn’t want to stay in a world in which he had to leave.
She wanted to live in a world in which they were always together.
Shivering, she moved into the glass. Her senses responded to the feeling of being immersed in cold, clear water, causing her limbs to ache and her blood to sting through her veins. For a moment, lost in the cold clear water veil, she felt afraid. Then she emerged with a sigh, ready to meet the lover she had glimpsed through the window.
As soon as she arrived in this new terrain, Tom vanished, like an image from a projector exterminated at the flick of a switch. Becky stood with her back pressed against the hard surface of the glass her body had penetrated and surveyed the new territory.
The shadowy forms she had observed from the other side of the window could be seen clearly now, hideous black things with bright, eager eyes and wickedly sharp, crooked teeth. They slipped and tripped and leapt over each other, writhing across a cracked and broken landscape, the surface of which was scarred and pitted with chasms and smoke filled fissures. Leathery skins scraped together as the population of this violent land acknowledged the arrival of a traveller, a newcomer, and alien. In the sky overhead, huge reptilian beasts the size of passenger planes swept across a horizon the colour of blood. Numbers of the black scurrying beings leapt out of craters and caves to greet her, hissing and screaming, teeth chattering together nosily, swarming towards her like a pack of rats.
“No.” She muttered wearily. “No, no, no , no.”
Her mind screamed denial the word repeated over and over in her head and on her lips, as if it were a magic charm to repel the creatures that clawed and scrabbled across the barren planet towards her.
Beneath her panic, she suddenly recovered the memory of the glass, which she was still pressed against. Perhaps she was not trapped at all. If she had come here through the window, she could return the same way, back to the world she knew where everything was in it’s place, and the illusions were not quite as terrifying.
The predators were moving swiftly, a black arms like huge beetles surrounding her on three sides. A horrible thought entered her head. What if she couldn’t return? What if it was all part of a trap, to lure her in, where she would be unable to leave, to become nothing but fresh meat?
She forced the paralysis of her fear to the back of her mind, and turned away from the dark hoards as they leered towards her with twisted faces. Behind her, the restaurant looked exactly the same as it always had, in the time before her daydreams had become nightmares. The white painted walls and formica topped tables beckoned her, a beacon of light, a safe haven. She reached out and pressed the glass again. It was solid at first, as before, but as she pried further, that same sensation of clammy moistness returned. Heart thudding, Becky slid back into the icy lake of uncertainty, leaving behind yelps of anger and disappointment.
Suspended in this ocean through which she had reached the dark shore, she pressed on towards the room she had left behind. She could feel it now, she could pressed against the surface of the glass as if she were moving inside a bubble, about the break through and find herself again on the other side.
Then a sudden scream left her lips, echoing through both worlds before being silenced.

Bright light filtered through the windows as Eileen Beesley plodded through the corridor, keys dangling in her hand, ready to open the restaurant. A worn black leather bag was slung over her shoulder, and her flip-flops slapped against the hard skin on her heels as she walked. She had worked up a sweat running for the bus which had stayed with her for the whole journey, and moisture made her shirt cling to her armpits.
Reaching the double doors of the canteen, the keys played a jingle-jangle song as she fitted them into the lock and snapped it open. She slipped through, and crossed the room to unlock the shutters, before dropping her bag into the staffroom next to the kitchen and hanging up her coat. Humming briskly, she stood behind the counter and unlocked the cash register to empty bags of change into the metal compartments. In doing so, she briefly glanced across the room to greet the sunlight which cascaded in through the huge windows.
A scream died in her throat.
The bags fell to the floor, loose change thudding onto plastic tiling.
It looked like a bizarre work of art, a three dimensional stained glass window. Despite the bile rising in her stomach, she was forced to walk around the counter and towards the window to convince herself that she was not imagining the existence of the creation before her.
Eileen recognised some of the material used to make the design; an arm, a leg, the upper part of a face which she remembered, although she could not place the name of the girl it belonged to. A strand of hair moved in an undetected breeze as frozen pale blue eyes stared down through the clear hard surface of the window. The body and the window had become one, a single entity. Blood which had seeped out of the body had formed intricate patterns in the pane.
It was a girl; a girl suspended in glass.
A glass statue.
A window.
An image drawn from the world beyond.

Snapshot (first published in 2004)

The camera was not expensive.

In these days of digital photography, instant cameras were out of fashion, but for this kind of work they were an absolute necessity.

A sudden click, a few minutes of nervous anticipation, and he would find her; a strange girl who belonged to him, if only as an image on glossy paper.

Automatically he closed the window.

A barrier of glass was placed between the watcher and the subject; the girl became smaller upon the horizon as she jogged away through the park, breath imprinting patches of fog upon the cold, clear morning.

In his hand, a square piece of white photographic paper stared back at him.  When time had elapsed, just like the shutter click of the machine, he would know the truth about her, a secret drying in the bright light that hindered his eyes as he sat in the driving seat.

Just a few seconds more, and all would be revealed. . .

******

Daffodils.

Bright yellow princesses with delicate paler lemon skirts.

Now they were wrinkled and brown like aging skin.

They found their way into the waste bin as she cleared the table.  Another meal eaten in silence, after two years of living alone she should be accustomed to the empty space in the apartment, but wasn’t.

Lovers came and went, breezing into her life, bright and new, then discarded like dead flowers.  They still flickered through her dreams occasionally, but did not return.  She was not much concerned by their departure; their individual entities bore no relevance.  Only the hole in her life which they left behind had any meaning.

Water continued to drip from the faucet at the kitchen sink long after soapy water had been guzzled down the drain.  This and the sound of the ticking clock were the only noises anywhere in her section of the converted Victorian building.  Traffic was a faint undercurrent, too far away to prove disruptive.

The girl stood in the middle of the room, staring at the space where the green glass vase had held the dying daffodils moments ago.  She considered other space, vacant places yet to be filled in her existence.

An answer to an unspoken prayer, the telephone rang.  A friend, her mother, a former lover, a stream of endless possibilities flooded her senses.

The sound came from the main room, a chamber filled with more empty spaces, and modern furniture made up of angular geometric forms trying to occupy them.

“Hello.”

“I can see you.”

“Who is this?”

“I know you.  I know everything about you.  I know.”

Arteries vibrated with the rush of blood her thudding heart projected.

A career girl, with ambition and beautifully pressed suits, this alien voice was unwelcome in her world.  She severed the connection, but remained in the white room, peering through the blinds at the dark city, looking for something to console her.

Another day, another night.

Another meal spent as the solitary guest at dinner.

Her world had changed.  The spaces were welcome now that privacy had taken a higher place on her agenda of necessities.  It was better to be alone than to be invaded.

The clock ticked endlessly, hours disappearing.

Perhaps tonight would differ from the last seven.  Perhaps the call wouldn’t come.  Perhaps she would be able to eat and sleep and think and breathe like a real person again.

A museum exhibit.

A stuffed animal or a dead Egyptian under glass.

She felt empathy with these objects because in one week, she had been transformed from one of the many, an insignificant number on the face of the planet, to the one, the only one, a freak show, a circus act, for a faceless audience of one.

He knew.

He knew the licence number of her car.  He knew the names of men who had thrust back and forth inside of her.  He knew what time she left for work, and when she came home.  He knew her mother’s maiden name.  He knew the hour at which her alarm sounded each morning, what brand of perfume she wore, and how much rent she paid each month on the apartment.

He knew.

He even knew the dates of her menstrual cycle.

People came and filled the space temporarily; a man and a woman, strangers in uniform.  They left with the type written letters he had sent to be filed away as evidence, and they had contacted the phone company, but it was apparent that although to him she was the one, the ultimate, to them she was still just a number.  It happened every day, to somebody, somewhere.  Unless he made himself known to her, there was little to be done.

The doctor gave her sleeping pills.

If she took them, he could break into the house whilst she was oblivious.  He could take and twist and cut and tear; he could make her his one and only, his victim.  Her name would be recorded on file, another statistic.

So she had left the pills in their bottle, uncontaminated.  She had entered a bizarre, sleeping waking world, where nothing seemed real.  She drank black coffee.  She cried unexpectedly for no apparent reason.  Her career had become irrelevant and her suits were badly pressed.

When she looked in the mirror, she did not recognise the face staring back at her.  A shadow now, she had become a faded parody of herself.

The telephone rang.

Over and over and over and over, the volume seemed to increase as the sound grew more insistent.  This was a trick of her imagination, of course.

Pressure seemed to be building inside of her skull.

The world was fading away; his dark landscape was reaching out to her.

“Hello.”

She couldn’t even remember answering the phone.

“I see you.”

“Please, leave me alone. . .”

There was no mercy.  She had tried this approach before; her tears were irrelevant to him.

“I know you.”

“Who are you?”

“Who are you?”

“You know who I am.  You know everything about me.”

“Yes, but do you know?  Do you know who you are?”

“What?”

“I know you.  I know everything about you.”

Her world seemed to implode.

“I know what you are.”

******

A sudden movement, and she was captured again.  Her eyes had become hollow pits for sleeplessness; he was destroying her slowly.

A smile found his lips.

The image on the white photographic card was emerging out of thin air as he collected his thoughts; another piece of evidence.

Her life was disintegrating, he was making her weak.  It was a surprise to see her jogging in the park on this bitterly cold morning, especially in her current state of mind.

He had a surprise for her too.

The car shadowed her as she left the park.  He knew the way.  She had taken it a hundred times.

A few moments of her life.

It wouldn’t take much longer than that, to watch her come undone.

His hands made the steering wheel obey, bringing the machine alongside of her.  The touch of a button forced the glass barrier to retreat, and the cold kissed his skin.

“Excuse me, Miss Sellars.”

“Yes, officer.”

The girl stopped in her tracks and stood gasping against the icy air.  She would trust him.  The stripes and the badge which were his cover provided perfect camouflage.

“I understand you’ve been having some trouble.”

“Yes.”

“There’s something I need you to look at.”

The passenger door opened; winter roared into the warm car with the young woman.

He locked the doors.  She did not comment upon it, feeling safe in his company.  They moved for a few moments in silence.

“Have you found him?”

Away from the busy street, he made the car become still.  They stood motionless upon the gravel drive at the back entrance to the park.  Mist hung in the air here.  At this hour, the spot was deserted.  He knew it well.

“Not exactly.”

The glove compartment opened.  Her blue eyes followed his hands, which moved too quickly for her to accurately identify their cargo.

“I’ve found you.”

Her lips parted.

“I don’t understand.”

“I know who you are.”

Confusion became surprise, and then fear.  Terror.  He liked to see it appear on their faces, like the black surprise in the eyes of cattle on their way to slaughter.

“Take it.”

With trembling fingers, her frame shivering against the chill, the girl took the photograph.  She stared at it for a long time.  He watched with mild fascination as she registered her own form, captured just a short space in time before they had met.  He tried to imagine how she felt, seeing herself the way the camera did, the way he did, through the lens, for the first time.

It wasn’t a picture of a girl, although the clothes and the location would force her to accept that she was the subject.  It was a photograph of a thin, grey, vaguely humanoid being, a smoky shadow, an image of the way she appeared, under the mask of her skin.

The camera couldn’t lie.

She was one of them, one of the invaders.

The gun left his pocket.  The specially constructed bullet it contained, manufactured in concealed laboratories in secret locations across the United States and Europe, had so far proved to be the only effective way of annihilating the alien menace.

A scream escaped the girl’s lips.

“I know what you are.”

With a flick of the trigger, one more hybrid disappeared into extinction.

The first flurries of snow left the sky and hit the bonnet of the patrol car as it pulled away, and transported a new specimen back to laboratory for examination.  He assumed it was identical to all of the others he had collected, although scientists would prod and poke at it all the same.  He knew the first time he saw it moving through the park.

He knew.