Monster

The monster first came when Steph was six, hiding under her bed and growling. It was only there at night, and Steph never saw it, and even though the noises were scary, Steph somehow knew it wouldn’t hurt her.

“What is your name?” she asked the monster one night, leaning down and whispering. The monster didn’t answer.

But still she asked, every night, until one night the monster did answer. “I don’t have a name,” it hissed, and Steph frowned.

“How can you not have a name?” she asked, confused, but the monster didn’t answer. “We’ll have to find you a name,” Steph said decidedly. “Are you a girl?”

“Yes,” came the voice, and Steph smiled.

“Good,” she said forcefully. “Boys are stupid.”

By the time Steph was ten, the monster was the closest friend she had, but she still hadn’t found a name. She’d looked in all the books she could read, but although she wrote them all down and read them to the monster, none of them were right.

But still, they talked, and Steph read to the monster from her books, and her parents thought she was talking to herself.

“What is life?” the monster asked, her voice raspy and hoarse from under the bed.

Steph thought about it for a minute before answering. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know the definition. But I can look it up in the big dictionary in the morning, and tell you tomorrow night?”

She came back the next night with the definition written down on a scrap of paper. “There were two definitions,” she said, curled up on her bed, quilt wrapped around her. “1. The condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.” The monster made a strange noise, and Steph laughed. “I had to look up some of those words too,” she said, “I can explain it?” And she did, and the monster was quiet.

“The second definition was shorter,” Steph said, squinting at the paper. “2. The existence of an individual human being or animal.”

The monster didn’t speak for quite some time.

“Have you gone to sleep?” Steph whispered.

“No,” the monster said, but her voice was barely there.

“Are you okay?” asked Steph.

“Do you think I have life?” asked the monster.

Steph thought about it. “Yes,” she said finally, “of course. You exist, don’t you? So you’re alive. And you have life.”

The monster didn’t say anything, but as Steph drifted off into sleep, she thought that the sounds the monster was making seemed much happier than usual.

When Steph was fourteen, she knew that not everyone had a monster under the bed. She didn’t care. The monster was still her best friend. And she still hadn’t found the right name.

When Steph was fifteen, her school friends were talking about boys. Steph didn’t understand the fascination. Neither did the monster. They talked about the stars and the planets and life and animals.

When Steph was sixteen, she went to a sleepover at her friend’s house. She was given their spare bed, and without the noises under her bed, she didn’t get a wink of sleep.

When Steph was seventeen, she got accepted into university, a university far across the country. That night, she went to bed early. Her monster was there.

“Monster?” she asked tentatively. She still hadn’t found the right name.

“Yes?”

“I’m going to uni,” Steph said. “I’m moving away.”

The monster was silent.

“Will you come with me?” Steph asked.

“If you find my name,” said the monster, but she sounded sad.

“I will,” Steph promised, but she didn’t think the monster believed her.

The summer before Steph left for university, she turned eighteen. And that night, she dreamed of her monster, sitting on the bed beside her, and she turned and put her mouth near Sophie’s ear, and whispered a name.

“Freya,” Steph gasped, waking with a jolt, and the monster said it with her, joy in her voice. “Freya.”

The next day, Steph woke up, and instead of a monster under her bed, there was a girl standing beside the bed. A human girl.

Freya.

-Maura Kenny

[17/02/17: Life]

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No Surface All Feeling

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For so long he has stared into mirrors. The passing, fleeting kind: shop windows, car windows, the sunglassed eyes of strangers. What he sees will always follow and taunt him.

It is better when the rain falls and all is blurred and distorted.

“You need to get out your own head for awhile,” is what his flatmate said. It reminds him of his mother, all those years ago, scolding him for the time he spent alone in his room.

“There’s nothing attractive about a narcissist,” she’d chide, poking her head round his door, “you’ll never make friends if you stay like this.”

“I’m sorry,” he’d reply, staring at the floor, “I’ll try harder”. The trouble was, it wasn’t narcissism that kept him trapped inside himself – it was fear.

Always he was fighting the mirrors. What was it about their silvery, slippery surface that so taunted him? He hated to see himself, hated the way his cheeks bulged and his stomach poked out like a bag full of water. In the world outside, there was no way of avoiding his reflection. Just being around people was enough: their curious stares provided the chasm of mirrors into which he lost himself. Once, in a supermarket, a young woman pointed at his legs and whispered, loudly, to her mother:

“Gosh, look how skinny he is!”

But she knew nothing. How could she know how wrong she was?

He was only ever happy in the afterglow, the slump against the bathroom wall after puking in the toilet bowl. In the mirror his pallor was otherworldly, and for a moment he felt invincible, having cheated the weakness of his own body.

He drinks in the afternoon with or without his flatmate, watching the sun melt like a flaming ice cube, dripping down the cold blue back of a twilight sky. The alcohol is a solvent, in which sorrow and fear dissolve together. He could do anything when drunk: go dancing, write a song, kiss a girl, stay out all night long, running through the city streets. Instead, he doesn’t. He lies there, supine and unreal in his bladdered paralysis.

In the morning he wakes with a headful of nasty memories. He has to fish them out, one by one, like a child picking unwanted peas from their plate of dinner. He feels purer when he stands at the window. It is raining and the rain covers the streets with sheets of lucent alabaster; almost snowlike, the way it glows in lamplit puddles. The sky, these days, is far too white. He likes to stare into its abyss; seeing not himself cast back in the glass reflection, but a hundred other monsters, blinking their hungry eyes back at him. Feeling, feeling. He knows this is the life he must seek, the life so far that he has missed.

–Maria Sledmere

(Flash Fiction February prompts: rain, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”–Friedrich Nietzsche)

 

The Distant One

I remember so little   of the many lives that I have lived.

The sea-wide echoes   stray in distance,

And return to the shore,   telling stories I have forgotten.

Were those my tales   that thrummed over the waves,

And reached the edges   of the otherworld?

Those plundered dreams,   like pebbles in the surf,

Have a smoother face   when seen anew,

And seem no longer   such a load to bear.

If in another land   a lone figure walks with purpose,

Let it be her   to whom the whispers speak,

For she is in the newer life,   and should I forget all,

The distant one will live,   and I will die gladly.

 

By Rachel Norris

Prompts: memory, distance

Group Micro-Narrative: The Singstar Sleepover

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by Lousie, Nina, Harry, Nelly and Alyssa.

My sweaty fingers gripped the microphone.

The darkness in front of me is full of whispers.

A vase on the fireplace smashed to the floor, knocked over by some unseen hand.

“Be careful, my mum is never going to let me have a Singstar sleepover again if we make a mess!”

I cried, squinting my eyes and hoping to see.

I can’t believe my friends are making me sing this abomination of a song infront of everyone.

They think it’s a bit weird to have a Singstar sleepover as a forty-year old man, but they’re humouring me because I just emerged from my 27-year coma and still thinks of myself as a child.

I constantly crave ice cream and sweets and I wake up every morning ready to go to school but the mirror doesn’t reflect my mind.

I wanted to invite the kids from my local primary school as they are more my age but the local authorities would not let me.

So instead I ended up with a group of middle.aged men who decided to spice up the singstar sleepover with several cans of beer, which of course I am not allowed to drink, which means I am the only sober one in the group.

Everyone is finally at the point where they’re not really paying attention to me anymore. I’ve been waiting to bring in the Big Guns all night. Luckily my mum kept her phone number all this time.

 

 

Strawberries & Cream

Water cascades from the convergence point of the two lids, at the cusp, where the milky white of the sclera turns red and fleshy. The bottom lid puckers slightly, so to allow the liquid to flow in quicker succession. Where the cheekbone protrudes, the drops fall from the face and carelessly into the bowl below, each trickle making a dot in the cream and exposing the corpulent red of the strawberries beneath. The body’s water fuses with the cream, and dilutes it until the consistency wanes. But it does not matter, for her appetite is gone, and her menial portion teases voluptuousness. The stream ebbs now, blotted by a damp and crumpled tissue, which is subsequently tossed aside, to a pile of similar endeavors.

The man stares upward to the ceiling of his room, his fulfilled desire had transpired to sickness; a momentary slip through the fabric of sanity, his senses, for a minute, a separate entity. But they had came together again now, and the realisation tormented him, for he had forced the soul of another unto his, and had stained the inner walls of its cavity. He got up and opened a whiskey bottle, and drank until it dribbled from his mouth. The alcohol deluged him, and cleansed his defiled innards. He continued to drink until the bottle was finished, and not long after did it fall, from the released tension of his fingers.

by Marcus Bechelli
What were your prompts?: Waterfall, Strawberry

The Firefly That Woke Up Too Soon

Coco was in shock. Her world had suddenly been turned inside out and upside down, and her many legs clung desperately to the branch while she stared around her. Coco was one of many suns, illuminating the thick darkness of the swamp. She was also new sun, only now learning her route, the dances and the power of her light. The universe around her was a dark mass that she and her kin illuminated every day. Her world was simply made up of light and dark: but not this kind of light.

Coco had woken up early. The cold light around her was nothing like the fire she carried around everyday and the world suddenly seemed so large. Everything around her now stood out in sharp, weird hues that she had never seen before. Crawling forward, still in shock and still dazed, she reached the edge of the branch and looked down. Coco shuddered and her body flickered uneasily. The world spun around her as she attempted to judge the distance between her and that thing called ground. She dared not look up, as the stories she had heard – but never believed – invaded her mind.

The ‘other’ sun. An even bigger sun than they, which shone a very different kind of light on the world, but a sun that never came out during the day. Coco had never really believed it and now she was afraid that if she looked up it would all be confirmed. She closed her eyes for a minute, then opened them again. The world started spinning, the vertigo gripped her so fiercely this time that she had to back away from the edge. Coco attempted to flex her wings, surely in the air she would be safe? – it was her element after all. But only hoovering over the branch proved impossible. Bewildered and scared she crawled back under her leaf and settled down, blatantly ignoring the light and the colours around her. Feigning sleep she waited for the hideousness to go away, for the darkness to return and her day (and her universe) to be restored once more.

The darkness came not long after and it did not take long before Coco started to forget the light and the vertigo. Although the memory never completely left her. It resided as a faint echo in her mind, occasionally surfacing when she touched down on a new branch or settled down to sleep. It was the faint notion that something else, something bigger, was waiting just beyond the darkness and the trees. But even that soon moved into the realm of legend.

Nina Lindmark-Lie
What were your prompts?: Firefly, Vertigo

Of Agony and Ambience

The carnival was alive with all the coruscations of otherworldly sounds and playful particles of light. A dreamer from another world might be at home here in the terrible pleasures of fiddle litanies, fortune tellers and candy floss spun like the silk of some fantastic spider. Dancers whirled and threw about their lovely muscles upon the stage while children laughed and sang and played. All was a picturesque festival and the village and its people seemed at their happiest.

But happy to those immune to the allure of the magic booth. The sign outside was written in Old English lettering, embossed with gold leaf, and it said that the enchanter inside could read people’s auras. The children were forbidden from entering the booth: to know one’s aura was considered bad luck, and indeed a responsibility too great to be shouldered by the young. Typically, the only people who sought the knowledge of the aura-reader were those faced by some personal crisis: illness, a death in the family, a forbidden or forlorn love, a secret and implacable desire, or perhaps problems with coaxing the harvest to ripe.

They had expected the aura-reader to be some gnarled old woman, possibly wearing a witch’s hat, but certainly with a cat draped on one shoulder and a shimmering shawl of sorts on the other. They had certainly not expected the fresh-faced young man who sat up crossed-legged looking at a dream-catcher on the ceiling, a string of pearls around his neck.

“Welcome,” he murmured as a way of greeting. The villages were to come in two at a time, and leave their donations in a small pot by the tent’s entrance. The soft clink of silver in the pot chimed with the twinkle of metal slivers clicking together on the ends of the dream-catcher. Carefully, a couple took their place upon the rug in front of the aura-reader. They were not married, but in fact brother and sister.

“What is it you seek?” The boy’s voice had the uncanny bristle of a man much older. Yet as he spoke, no wrinkles betrayed his age, nor were there frown-lines to ripple his forehead. His face was as smooth as the skin of a ripe apple.

“Well, we came here because you can read auras,” the man said nervously.

“That I can do.”

“Y-yes.” The smell of incense wafted up from a corner of the boot, filling their heads with the dreamy airiness of distant promises.

“But why do you wish me to read your aura?”

“It sounds exciting,” the woman piped in, pulling back a strand of her ashen hair.

“Perhaps it is.” The boy closed his eyes and hummed gently, the sound seeming to illuminate his translucent skin. The man fidgeted and the woman stared at the boy’s long butterfly lashes and wished she’d been blessed with such an asset.

They waited a good hour or so for the boy to speak again. Time was a wispy thing; a silk-sliver dangling upon the streams his dream-catcher. The boy seemed caught in a trance and it would be a sin to wake him. When he opened his eyes, he stared first at the man and then the woman. He sighed deeply. He closed his eyes, then opened them to look one by one at the couple again, his gaze meeting theirs’ in ephemeral recognition.

“One of you will die a most horrific death,” he said after a pause. They waited with bated breath for him to continue.

“I see it in the after-image. Black: little snivelling swirls of it. It catches at your eyes and ears and makes a fool of your lovely soul. Soon you’ll be deep in the ground, cold.” His slow, emphatic tone savoured every word he spoke.

“But which one of us are you referring to?” the man asked with some desperation. Ignoring this inquest, the boy spoke again. It was just then that the couple noticed the shining bead of light emanating from the centre of his forehead. They tried to ignore it, looking up at the dream catcher as his words filled the tight space.

“The other has a most wonderful aura…such a rich, potent red… you are alive with carnal desires, so urgent and so lusty that I would love myself to reach out and touch you…but it would break the spell. You will live long and powerful and have many children, it is certain. Your body gives spark to the vivacity of your spiritual flesh.” He beamed, but his gaze was directed at the space between the man and the woman: the dark velvet of the curtain behind them.

“So one of us will live pleasantly whilst the other shall die?”

“It is perhaps so, as the colours tell me.”

They looked at each other and sorrow filled their souls as they thought of how the sibling bond between them was bound to inevitably burst. The thought of this sadness kindled a flame of rage and frustration, and it was all they could do to prevent themselves ripping at the boy’s throat; for how dare he cast such wicked slander upon their family? How could it be fair that one should live while the other perish in a most unpleasant death? It seemed a knowledge beyond all reason.

And so mania sizzled through their veins as they crawled from the tent, and once again faced the bright darkness, the fairy lights and lively music, the people and their bodies bumping and dancing and spinning.

“We must lose ourselves,” the man said. “It is the only way.” The sister swore to him that she agreed and so they took themselves off into the woods, stopping by at a seedy-looking stall to pick up the necessary paraphernalia. The needle would be sharp and sweet, as such things are destined always to be.

When they were found, dead, the next day, their bodies were swollen with staggering amounts of morphine. Black pocks marked their skin and already hoards of ants and maggots had begun feasting upon the cloth of their bodies. When the boy was called upon to witness them, he buried his head in his hands in a strained display of emotion.

“What a gorgeous aura – such passion and anguish! – and did they not know that an aura is but transience?”

So under the cherry glacé of a summer’s dawn the boy wept until all the sins crawled out of his soul like impatient worms; until he was a crumple upon the undergrowth, his aura black as a midnight sky or the ore of darkest coal. The ooze and cloud came out of every pore until his body joined his soul – so shrivelled and sad and old.

(Prompts: manic, paraphernalia, booth)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Little Lamb

Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

(William Blake, ‘The Lamb’).

A cloudless morning with the glint of spring and smell of distant woodsmoke. Graham was shifting hay for the horse, the strain in his back wrenching every time he bent and lifted the pitchfork. The horse kicked and snorted in the stable opposite, impatiently awaiting her new abode. Jasmine was a haughty one, a retired racehorse whose bulging muscle helped drag the old carts over the field when the trailer broke down – which, these days, it often did. Every now and then, Graham stopped his work to give Jasmine a Polo mint and a hearty pat on the flank.

“Makes me sad to see you upset,” he cooed to her, “I’ll be finished soon.” Jasmine sniffed.

This was the last spring that Graham would spend on the farm. He was fifty five years old and had lived there all his life. The thought of leaving pained him more than the crick in his spine.

The task was to clean up the land and the barns and sort everything before summer. The architect kept ‘popping round’ to inspect the grounds and survey the house, but aside from dishing out cups of tea, Graham and his family did their best to ignore him. It was unbearable to be reminded of what was soon to happen.

Graham’s wife, Marjorie, had pulled down all the old junk from the loft. There were books with mouldy pages, miniature soldiers, a typewriter they had sold for twenty pounds in a local jumble sale. One of the few things they had kept was a toy lamb. Its label was frayed and it had lost some of its fluff, but was still soft and awfully sweet, with bright little marble eyes. Marjorie had hand-washed it in the sink, gently scrubbing the attic’s must and muck from its fur. Watching her in the kitchen through the twinkling dust particles, Graham felt he had never loved his wife more. Thirty two years and nothing came between them.

Graham decided to give the lamb to his grandchild, Ella. She needed something to remind her of her roots. When his son Andrew had told him he was going for a job in the city, Graham had tried not to show his disappointment.

“It’ll be a good life, Dad,” Andrew had said as they looked out over the wheat fields, “with good pay and security. Times are changing.”

Yes, times were changing. There was no denying that now.

There was the ever-plunging price of dairy; the endless inspections; the cost of upgrading machinery. People leaving the village because rural life simply wasn’t feasible these days.

Once, Graham had held visions of his daughter inheriting Jasmine, galloping across the fields with her glossy copper hair streaming behind her like reeds underwater. There would be homemade jam and Sunday breakfasts, early mornings of pearly dawn, showing his children how to milk and lamb and clean the cows. But his son was a lawyer, and his daughter had died, years ago now. Her ashes were scattered out in the hills, where the wind-turbines went on endlessly spinning. Soon, when they were forced to leave all they had ever known, there would be nothing left of her memory.

It was getting towards twilight now, and Graham had set off to bring the animals in. The sky was darkening with amethyst clouds as the crescent moon revealed herself, tired and wan. He too had never felt so weary. The collie dog was on her best behaviour and soon the sheep were under shelter, but he was having some trouble with the cows. He stood upon the hill shouting as if he were calling to the elements themselves. He shook and howled; he knew he was losing it. Droplets of rain began to fall on his face, mingling with his tears. Growing ever more violent, the crying sky splashed down on the soil and filled the holes in his boots.

Finally the cows were inside and Graham was trudging back towards the farmhouse, soaked to the skin. Just then, he saw a familiar car pull up in the drive. It was his son’s immaculate BMW, now apparently streaked with a line of mud. Graham heard the doors slam shut and the sound of voices. It was Ella, singing! Even with the cold rain dripping down his neck, the simple melody filled him with warmth. He rushed inside to join them.

“Bloody bushes caught the side of my car, you need to get them cut back Dad.” It was the first thing Andrew said to him. This time, however, Graham ignored his whiny voice.

“What’s the point when we’re leaving so soon?” He sighed.

They all sat down for Marjorie’s best steak pie, but when she looked at her plate, Ella protested that she’d become a vegetarian. Surprised but with a smile, Marjorie rustled up some pasta and ruffled the girl’s ginger hair as she served it to her.

“It’s just wrong to hurt animals,” Ella explained as she tucked into her dinner. And as Graham lifted a forkful of pie to his lips, he paused. He thought of the sorrow of market day, the poor beasts he’d had to sell because they were getting next to nothing for their milk. He thought of the chickens killed for their dinners, and the people that came in trailers to take away the lambs.

“You know, that reminds me of something.” Decisively, he put down his knife and fork and pushed away his plate. He left the room and Andrew and Marjorie exchanged confused glances, though nothing would keep them from their food.

A few moments later, Graham returned with the cuddly lamb. Something Ella had said struck a chord in his memory.

“I’ve got a little present for you,” he knelt by his granddaughter’s chair as he handed it to her, “I think you should have it, more than anyone else in the world.” Ella looked at him with shining eyes as she took the lamb and pressed its softness to her pink cheeks.

“Oh she’s lovely!”

“Lovely indeed,” Graham agreed. The toy had, of course, belonged to his own daughter. It was the missing piece; the only thing they could take away when they had to leave. And in Ella’s hands, Graham knew she would live on in the sweet innocence that had so suddenly been stolen from her.

Jasmine, now, would only live on as long as her legs weren’t lame, and the other animals would probably be taken away. The land might be tainted with steel and concrete. But at least Graham could leave behind the cruelties he now recognised. He could pass on the tiny piece of spirit that would never leave these hills. The spirit of sunlight and sadness, freedom and laughter; the spirit of his daughter.

(Prompts: rain, pitchfork)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Golder’s Green

Home to the ashes of Enid Blyton, Doris Lessing and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. A shabby grandeur adorns the forest canopy, the winding trails of graves, the cuts of light casting gold on the ground. There’s a peculiar magic to the lush peridot leaves that flourish with life amidst so much death. You suppose that here perhaps death has its own tangibility. How easy to disappear, to sink into the soil and join the rest of them. The trees speak to you with their distinct whisper that only you can hear; they have heard centuries of voices speak to them, hushed and yearning, from beyond the grave.  You feel now all those voices echo hollow, rising up through the sweet earth beneath your feet.

“James!” she screamed, her voice a shrill cry through the dappled light. Startled birds scattered from the clearing that she stood in. She clung to the key hung around her neck and tried to stay calm. All that returned to her was the echo of her own shout, her own shout that you can still hear, even now.

She tried to look, tried to look for hours. She wandered down many a forgotten path, overgrown with nettles that gnarled at her bare legs with vicious rashes. She kept calling, calling your name. She lifted up bramble branches and stumbled over headstones, great slabs of granite and crumbling rocks from long ago. Gothic designs and Celtic knots, chunks of greenish mould eating into what was once precious stone. The falls were painful more from shame than anything else. She found herself lying behind some humble tomb, the thorns of rotting roses piercing her thighs as she kept trying to call out your name, her voice growing hoarser and hoarser until it was hardly a whisper. If only she were less solid, then you could have watched her.

You know that this place holds the remains of Sigmund Freud?

You know that there is a certain grave which, when lifted, holds only a void?

You know that this is sacred soil; that serene strains of magic seep through the top moss and the undergrowth? You might walk through it now and you will notice the fungus thriving in the damp tree bark, the robins twittering cheerily from the tallest memorial, unaware that their song is lost in the deep presence of death. Nature here is a darkness that you cannot touch.

But it touches her, it touches her harshly. She feels it in the lashes and rashes and purple bruises that mark her legs, in the rain that now pours from the sky and coldly scolds her flushed cheeks. The place where now the woodlice and squirrels will eat her key, until the winter takes it with layers of frost. She feels the dead mocking her; for if they are one thing it is not lost.

She is wrong of course. For you will never be settled as they are; you will never return home as you forever wander the forest. And she will call for you, but still you will not hear her cry.

Prompts: graveyard photo, lost, key

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Depth

The twisted ribs of a cruise liner, clouding over with life. Creeping things with claws and tendrils jut from cracks in the hull, and the deep bears down on bodies, long lost to sun and breeze and laughter. Day and night are foreign whimpers.

The rumble of ancient depths- The loud void unfolds in every direction, hiding buried terrors and towering phantoms. A wail, a magnificent, droning wail, drifts through vast shadows, telling of a titan unseen. The abyss shakes as another howl sounds out over the metal corpse- Perhaps some private elegy for bones that sleep in sand and rust.

What were your prompts?: Recordings of whale-song

by Paul Inglis