Half a poem, half a flash fiction piece, mostly a fragment (800 words): The Smog

The Smog

On Wednesday she nuzzled me awake, like a puppy might,

Her nose cold as a kitten’s, in the air-conditioned cell,
I had rented for ourselves.
We checked the time too late on our phone,
Thought the tone of orange that sliced off one of her thighs,
Suggested 6 AM.
The haze outside had fooled us.
So we were both late for work,
On the bus I read, rather than looked outisde the window at the too thick orange haze,
I could not see through,
Disappointing; I had only just downloaded new music to try.

I had a headache till lunch.
Someone said: “It might rain soon.”

Someone else said: “No that’s just pollution.”

A VP came out and told us proudly that our stock price had gone up 12% today, I pumped my fist, hissed ‘yesss’ and counted two more years before I might get options.

I stayed later than the rest as usual. Except for a secretary who read me snippets of headlines from her phone, her tone perpetually quizzical, like she was discovering events that came as a suprise and that I ought to answer her perpetually rhetoricals: “Did you know that / Wow so / Apparentlies and According To BBC – a bomb exploded somewhere, killing some people, a billionaire did something, billions of dollars went somewhere, the progress of wars, less predictable than the sports scores- sometimes in the hundreds, when casualties crested thousands, that became interesting, though only if they were Europeans or something, Americans maybe.

It seemed that it took about 10 000 dead westerners to shock me as much as say, two hundred thousand blacks from some African country.

“Apparently there is a genocide going on.”

“Wow. That’s fucked up.” I said, and left out: “But I really need to finish this spreadsheet before tomorrow.”

Before temorrow I got to wake her up, pin her to the bed with two of my crab hands in hers, we made two fists, then love, rushed, forceful, racing midnight till we both came first.

I was at the airport Saturday morning. The haze hadn’t moved but we prayed for a typhoon on the train, to come and blow away the smog, at the cost of a few lingering villagers that had not yet moved into government flats. Across from us two mainlanders spoke, and she translated for me via text, writing messages on her phone, as quickly as she could, whilst I read over he shoulder and she never pressed send. The mainlanders were mules, sent here by unfathomably rich businessmen to purchase purses worth a years rent, the decadent, stupid fucking backwards assholes, even they were saying it was perfectly insane, how much money it cost to buy what they thought of as perfectly ugly shoes.

They wore nails flecked with glitter, painted a cacophony, they butterflied them in their mandarin patter, clicking against each other sometimes, a pool of gentle mellodic err shi’s and bou jyos, till a guttural bout of cantonese POG KAI’s invaded the car from an open station, quickly silenced as they noticed other people, and thus everyone bowed their heads politely, into their smart phones.

It was my first time flying business. There was no line at check in. I should have worn a suit, but I told myself that’s how casual I found going business. I asked for champagne twice, the second time as hesitant as when I volunteered my opinion at the meeting yesterday. The stewardesses, so much hotter than her, they took care of themselves, their make up perfect, skin so pale, tall as swans I watched their asses and tried to ignore the waste of a window seat- the orange haze reaching all the way up to the next nearest, waiting plane, obscuring half it’s tail.

The rush of taking off mixed with the distant joke of shot down planes, mad muslims, bad luck, bad weather, shit I’d have to leave behind in the event of an emergency god please don’t let me have to buy another Ipad I fucking loved that thing.

I put down my kindle when we we leveled out and suddenly, the orange was gone. A sea of blue dressed like infinity, above a plain of rolling ice tinged orange, like the cream that came with my berries for dessert. It just went on and I felt something new, up there, where I couldn’t go online, couldn’t message anybody, couldn’t leave my seat, had to stare at how blue, blue, clear it was, how far I could see, how I was not bored by the repetition of sky. Then below, distant through the smog, I saw the flecks of concrete towers, the ant like container ships, the steel, glass, and concrete fruits of progress, across a smoggy field.

And I wondered what the news will say tomorrow.

Buddy Bot Part 4

Mike perused the drafts of previous GUI’s, examined the history of the work they’d been doing, sifting through it the way someone might look at old photos of past events, unaware of what they are looking for, hoping they’d feel something when they found it.
 
*Ahem* Mira simulated in a low tone. She’d learned to do it after only once being told, tentatively, that she had startled him. Not learned. This was the outcome of an algorythym, the input being: ‘told to be less intrusive’ which would be defined, painstakingly, by better programmers than him.
 
Are you going to the gym tonight?
 
 “Yes. Definitely. I haven’t missed a single of the last five sessions!” Except she’d know that. She has a perfect memory afterall. 
 
That’s great news Mike. Keep up the good work, you’re on your way to becoming your best self! 
 
“I used to hate that phrase.” MIke mumbled. He highlighted population control. Placed it side by side with the latest change. Population management. Anala had stopped by yesterday, placed her hand on his shoulder and squeezed twice and said something like “Thanks for staying late recently, you’re the best at this Mike. You’re the best! Don’t worry, the next change is purely superficial.” 
 
“Be easy then, no sweat ‘Nala.” 
 
Mike said to no one, or perhaps to Mira: “Populaton…management.” Trying it out. What was that Mike?” 
 
Nothing Mira, really.”
 
Okay but if you want to talk about it feel free!
 
A chuckle escaped Mike. He’d heard the others don’t keep old backups close at hand. Archived away somewhere, or just left in some folder no one can remember. What was the use of keeping them? Someone else might have a copy anyway. Someone in legal, or marketing. Mike tracked the change to the logos, the headers, the footers, how one child policy lasted all of several hours before someone gave Cally a history lesson, became the new nuclear family, became the trinity, which was targeted towards South America, towards Italy, accelerated away from Mike when his counterpart, someone called Javier Lee translated the interface across the world. “Which do you think sounds better Mira: ‘The Eden Initiative.” or…”We’re running out of space, food, water, energy and…uh…we’re fucked…” 
 
I don’t really know what those two things are. What do you think Mike?
 
“I don’t Mira. I have my own problems. Nothings changed.”
 
You gotta help yourself before you can help others!
 
“Damn straight. You know, I’m thinking of taking these Yoga lessons to meet…people. And also because it’s good for me. Take the money I was spending on Solwar and like, use it on that.”
 
Yoga is great for you Mike! I know a lot about Yoga, would you like me to list some positive facts?” 
 
“Nah. It’s fine, I’ve already decided.”
 
I can also recommend many licenced venues, gyms, and personal trainers near you, Mike. 
 
Mike continued to highlight jargon, long dead. 

Third Eye Part 2: Asteroids not meteorites.

Note: I think I screwed up the copy and paste and actually missed out the last third of this part…so if you read it without this note it really wasn’t meant to end where it did!

My arm strained as I held the handle bar while the bus careened around the interminable corner.

The sloping angle gave the impression that the bus was perpetually on the verge of tipping over though no one else had tumbled out of their seats and I refused to be the first. A sound traveled into my palm; a tinking percussion from the child behind, who between wheezing coughs tapped Morse into the rail.We straightened out onto a diving slope and plunged towards the center of the city.The bumps in the road set my pill bottle rattling so I smothered it deeper in my pocket, removed my hand and cupped it from the outside of my khakis. Somewhere in my head a dwarf asks: “What madness drove me here?”Across the aisle a thin, decrepit man battled to hold his paper. A headline shuddered to exclaim: Probe Begins Into Incorrect Asteroid Impact Prediction. I could start a conversation, perhaps say to him: no need to call Bruce Willis now! Instead, once my teeth stop chattering: “What are the odds right?” When he asks me what I mean I’ll explain about how unlikely it is that there ever was an asteroid hurtling towards us. Instead he shakes his head, sighs, says: “Not good, not good.” One drooping corner of his translucent page reveals the horse racing section.

“I meant the impact. Freaking everyone out about it is a bit irresponsible.”

And then the light fades as rain attacks the roof, streaming down the windows to blur the city. A fussilade above, the paper, accusing, on one side, and the damn bottle with the unreal taste of meeting Tom behind. I need a dose of sanity. Some Star Trek tonight to cleanse my mind. We settled down into crawling traffic. The decrepit man exclaims: “Says that the whole thing changed direction.”

“Excuse me?”

“In the papers it says the meteorite changed direction.”

“Well, that’s not actually…possible.”

“Read it yourself.” He thrusts the paper out, glaring. I withdraw, conciliatory palms up. Maybe he lost a lot of money. I turn away and take some wires out from my khakis. Plugs in my ears, staring at the windows, I watch the rain trail down in time to the music. The clipboard dances on my knee, stops as a gust of hot air invades the carriage. The seat sags. I shuffle closer to the window. One earplug catches on a button of her jacket sleeve and we’re trapped untangling the thing, muttering apologies to each other.

She’s got a thick purple jacket on, the puffer kind with the glossy pouches. “Are you warm in there?” I offer. She fingers a nose stud, eyes narrowing to points, she stutters: “I-I thought it would be colder today.” She wraps her arms around herself. Slowly, I pull out the remaining ear phone.

“Well it’s raining now I suppose.” And it is, so I shouldn’t be supposing anything. Tom said I’d kill a woman, and here was one, and I need something to distract me so I say: “Heavy rain too. Should have brought an umbrella myself.” She nods with great conviction, points towards my knees and says:

“You’ll have to use that.”

Turn down the clipboard, turn it upside down. “I can’t. I have to guard these questionnaires with my life.”

Please ask me about the questionnaires.

“Oh, what are those for?” she says.

Relief, I’m back to the real world. “They are for, well, improving the livelihood of the homeless.”

“Amazing! So what are they, summoning spells? Read them out and you summon food? Or a job?” Her smile is a wicked slash, catches me off guard till I’m stumbling: “Well, well, no, of course not, but, it’s important. It’s part of a process. We collect data from the homeless and that way we can decide how best to, well, what policies to enact. It’s part of the process. But in the end it does help. You’d be suprised. Most people don’t know how any of it works but it does, it really does.”

“Most people…”

“Well, yes. For example, with these initial ones we do a census of how many homeless there are, where they are, to learn about them. They are practically invisible otherwise.”

Her throat does a funny thing. She croaks, not unlike a frog. “Barrr-balith.”

“Excuse me?”

“What?”

It might be a tick. No need to press the issue. It would explain her slumping posture, the way she encases herself. I say: “One of the questions is, ‘Where do you sleep?’ The options are a vehicle, the streets, a family’s home, a shelter…and other. Three times I got the same answer in ‘other’: With your mum.”

Her face cracks open, she cackles, then cups her mouth to hide the evidence. She mutters conspiratorially: “Seriously? Can I see?” The top of her jacket presses against my shoulder, her leg against mine- she can probably feel the damn pill bottle, whereas something hard, underneath her shoulderpad, digs into me. I hold as still as I can, make my mouth move only. “I can’t show you, all of this is confidential information. Technically it’d be against the law.” She withdraws. It’s too late to flash a page at her now. Slip my hand in my pocket and re-arrange the bottle, take it out and hide it in my hand. I clasp both together, transfer the bottle, and slip it into the opposite pocket.

Her head turns slowly to face the windshield. I do the same, try not to scan my peripheries. She whips back to face me, “Can I do it?” she asks.

“One of the questionaires? I mean, well, are you homeless?” I could say something corny. About her not being invisible. The words congeal, fail to form a sentence.

“Yes.” She says.

Can’t tell if she’s lying. Being female and homeless, like her. It would be particularly hard. Remember Mira, dessicated beyond her age. Needle pocked, cradling her pregnant belly. It’s too much. Look down and free a paper, hand it to her. It sags in her hands, I proffer the clipboard and she turns it so I’m still holding the makeshift table, placed on my legs, and she writes in the spare moments when the bus is still. From this angle I can see part of a tatoo, poking out of her zipped up collar. Half an ouroboros; one mouth eating one tail. I wait to ask her, when she’s finished, about the tattoo, or her name, or where she’s going, when through the glass behind her head intrudes the smeared sign of St Lorenzo’s children’s hospital. She gets up in a flurry, taking the unfinished questionnaire with her. Her sleeve button catches something under her puffy jacket, a bright yellow string, like the casing of a wire. And then it’s gone, and she turns to look back at me from the stairs, her eyes seeming to be plead. I watch her go, follow her blurry head from my seat. Oblivious to the rain she walks inside the hospital. “Final stop.” The driver reminds me twice, till I calm my pulse and having failed to convince myself that it wasn’t a yellow wire. Perhaps it’s some kind of tool though I cannot think of any that fit.

I get off in time to watch my bus home moon me.

It’ll be at least ten minutes till the next number 21 shows up. Enough time to get her answers. I jog into the hospital, holding the bullets in place so they don’t tumble out.

 

Flash Fiction: The path a song takes.

She only screamed as a little girl, never sang, till they made her once in music class. Everyone went silent in a way she could never provoke with mere tantrums. The way they looked at her was a memory that followed her into puberty, into adulthood, across the ocean to another country- the memory shifted slowly, her constant companion, sometimes a mocking, jeering thing, sometimes the sweetest lover, and on the worst days- hope, the last thing that kept the balcony door of her tiny apartment shut.

She spent blood, wrung out of her by abusive boyfriends, and tears, that dripped slowly onto sodden pages full of what she thought of as pastiche-ridden lyrics, on fighting her way to the top of her mountain- a gig at a hotel, where she spent most of her first paycheck on a dress deemed barely acceptable by the pretentious manager that couldn’t keep the disdain out of his voice.

She kept something else in her own voice. A memory of friends and enemies captivated, taken somewhere far from the now, then.

When she was given notice during budget cuts she cried in the staff bathroom and rushed to re-apply her mascara before her final performance in front of indifferent lounge goers eating overpriced food bearing a poor approximation to the salty, home-spun fish dishes of the country she left behind so long ago.

She asked the entire lounge if they could paint with all the colors of the wind. She muttered “and for once never wonder what it’s worth” into the mic, embarrassed, and too aware of the relevance of the line.

When she finished the only person that applauded was one, lone boy of ten, who stood transfixed.

Later she became a waitress and never again sang to a room of more than fifty.

Before the boy clapped he had been running between adult’s legs, straining against his ridiculous dress shirt- all ten years of him aghast at the pomp and ceremony involving the ludicrous buffet. He pestered waiters and defeated his parents attempts to restrain him as he was deeply dissatisfied with the seriousness around him.

The voice of the saddest lady he had ever met stunned him, as she sang his secret- his favorite song from his favorite movie, stolen from his sister’s bedroom and watched after midnight whilst his parents were at a party. When she finished he clapped as loudly as he could manage, slapping his hands red.

He would not stop singing the song in the car ride home till even the chauffeur began to mutter imprecations. He had to Google most of the words, as he did not know what blue corn was, or how the fenced in trees with the laminated labels could have spirits.

Maths and science and his father’s position as vice president of something held little appeal, and could not sway the boy from the path set for him by a wayward song.

So he disappointed everyone who pretended to care about him as he bucked his inheritance and moved to a third-world country after failing his expensive high school education to sing in a small bar near a resort, where he met a beautiful woman who taught him Tagalog and how to fish.

It was sometime after that that he finally thought he understood the lyrics to his favorite song.

Repost of short story: Castles and Dragons

(First time was a failed copy and paste. Repeated paragraphs then missed paragraphs. How frustrating. Reposted properly.)

We had deigned to let her play with us in spite of her penchants for screaming and despite the fact that she was too mentally immature to play properly and irregardless of the unspoken consensus that her manners were annoying because Edward had said we should be nice to her and “That it was a secret why.”

But It was Alexis that taught us the new game in the playground.

“I saw my brother playing it, it’s so cool. I’m not allowed yet but it’s called Skyrim. FUS RO DAAAHH!” He yelled, as loud as Miri ever screamed, and we all stumbled back at the force of it and stared. Alexis laughed in that wierd way of his and confessed: “I’m not allowed to play Skyrim so instead we’re playing Castles and Dragons.”

“Lame.” Ranjeev said. It was a common utterance of his.

Alexis ignored him, as he was considered cool like that and he started telling us our roles whilst the rules of the game developed in that organic way of children’s games. I was to be the thief, called Wallclimber, and I took no little amount of pride in my namesake, one which I thought very important because it meant I could rescue the princess by climbing the tower. Ranjeev was to be the wizard, and we didn’t really know what he could do except cast spells, and so we negotiated that Ranjeev could cast any spell that two out of the four of us knew- Miri did not count as she was female. Thus Ranjeev had the entire arsenal of the Harry Potter movies to draw from, as well as those derived from some obscure texts by a man named Pratchett.

Edward, quiet as always, was told he could be the cleric- a term that meant little to us budding atheists and less to Alexis, who had appropriated the term from another game played by his astoundingly cool brother, and thus it was spake that a cleric had the power to transform into any animal or vehicle. “Like a twansformer.” Miri added, and we all politely tried to ignore her.

Alexis was of course, as was his prerogative the game designer, the knight in shining armor. Miri was told to be the princess.

She did not approve of this. “NOOOOOOOOOooOOOOOOOOO WHYYYYYYYYY. NO WANNA BE THE PRINCESS NEVER EVER. NO.” She started to bawl, her stub nose dribbling, and little tears cleaning away small lines of the muck that perpetually clung to her pig-face. So I thought of her then.

Ranjeev and I decided that in lieu of a princess she made a fine dragon. Thus the two of us retreated to the swings to compose our plan for the assault on the dragon’s tower. As we made our way there we casually began to lay down obstacles in our path- arbitrary rules that leant the whole game savor. It was decided between Ranjeev and I that if the dragon otherwise known as Mira saw us, then we were turned immediately to stone. I asked Ranjeev if he had a spell to counter such a predicament and he gravely revealed to me that there was no cure for stoneing.

Thus stealth would be the order of the day.

It was also decided that we had gathered intelligence in advance that pointed to the location of the princess, who although icky, was heir to a kingdom composed almost entirely of summer holidays and would bequeath her demesne to any heroes bold enough to free her. She would be trapped at the top of the slide, also known as the Dragon’s Tower. Which is when Alexis returned to us. He had sprinted over, in other words, ridden on his noble steed to deliver both good and bad news.

The good news, which was really bad news at first, was that Miri was NOT the dragon. Alexis had folded during the cacophonous negotiations, which Mira had resorted to after her failed argument where she pleaded equality of gender- as at that barbaric age we never would have compromised against our staid prejudice that girls were icky and certainly not policemen- which is what Mira, the next member of our fellowship, had become. She was a dragon-cop.

“If she has a gun it’s unfair.” Remarked Ranjeev.

Alexis concurred, and we won a small consolation- denying her access to firearms which would have been in violation of the mileu. We filled Alexis in on our reconnaissance and he rode his steed away, over to Edward and Mira to spread the information. “WAIT UP MANNNN.” Yelled Ranjeev. I pointed out that he was not as fast as Edward’s black warhorse, to which Ranjeev thoughtfully said “Accio Firebolt!” and sped off after him. He returned later with a sullen expression and transmitted to me the afformentionted bad news. As Mira was no longer the dragon it was deduced that the dragon was not only a fire-breathing stone-turning flying lizard, but that it was also invisible. “Dontcha know an anti-invisible spell?” I inquired of my wizardly companion. He answered in the negative, and I wonder to this day exactly what if any spells he knew that were of any use in an actual crisis.

Thus we approached the dragons tower. There were only two ways in. The tower was situated on a high bluff that emerged out of the child-safe-padding around the slide. The main way was a stair case, trecherously high, and with a lava moat between the nearest padded island and it, as naturally, any non-padded surface was lava- we did not even have to say it out loud, it was as given as gravity. The secondary way up was the wall- a steep climb, but one I, The Wallclimber, was more than capable of making.
Ranjeev insisted that we should first try the stairs, even though I pointed out what a waste of my abilities it was. We pondered the long jump between our island to cross the lava moat. At which point Ranjeev said “Accio Floatness” and we floated merrily across. As we made our way up the stairs, Ranjeev taking point, I started to whisper to him “What we gonna do to the dragon when we find it? Fight it? Maybe we jus’ get the princess.” Ranjeev kept saying he did not know, he did know, he knew nothing- then halfway up the stairs he stopped. I waited for a moment, wondering if we had been spotted. “Ranjeev?” I whispered. He did not even shush me.

We stood like that for some seconds till I poked him. He did not move. “Ranjeev?” I started poking him quite a lot, particularly in the ribs, till through a feat of sheer will, or perhaps magic, Ranjeev defied his fate to mutter, with great difficulty, the reason we had stalled. “The dragon saw me and now I’m stone.” I did not know how to curse effectively at that tender age so I merely said “Doggy balls.” which elicited one final gasp from my striken companion. Shedding no tears- for we were made of the stuff of heroes, I began to ponder our fate. At last an ingenious plan emerged, which I told Ranjeev in case he was in there, somewhere. “Ranjeev I’m gonna hide behind you and use you as a shield.” Since he was stone he could no longer respond despite his utterances to the contrary.

I began to try to lift the wizard, but alas, he was a stony corpulent spell-slinger, quite overweight which probably explained his leanings towards the arcane as opposed to the physical. After getting red in the face repeatedly I gave up and decided to beat a hasty retreat before the dragon got me too. I backtracked to the base of the tower, saddened by the loss of my companion and our first defeat, yet also emboldened- afterall, an epic finale requires harrowing obstacles first. Even at that age this was obvious to me.

From out of the distance then came the others. I waited, ready to give them the sad news. They reached me, and I explained what had happened. Edward asked where Ranjeev had gone since he’d been turned to stone. Indeed the stairs were devoid of his chubby mass. “The dragon must have moved him.” Offered Alexis.

Edward pointed to our fat friend at the ice scream stall. At which point I felt it nessecary to emphasize, for the sake of the reality we had so painstakingly invested in that “I saw the dragon move him into the tower so he’s gone.” Edward withered under all our stares, including Mira’s, and we promptly forgot about the doppleganger licking his chocolate Magnum near the tennis courts.

We began to plan anew. Presently we surmised that the new plan was that Alexis would ride Edward who would become a jet, all the way up to the dragon and then Alexis would shout it to death. I assumed this would be similar to Mira’s inherant abilities. I asked what my place was in this grand scheme and was promptly informed that I had failed, and lost the party wizard to boot. Edward and Alexis went up. Mira tugged on my shirt. She informed me that their plan was unfortunately destined to fail as well. “Shouting never ever works.” She said with as much conviction as I had ever seen- far more seriously than Edward always was. Somewhat thrilled to know that the limelight was still upon me, even if I were saddled with a girl for a companion, I asked her whatever we were to do.

At which point she launched into a description of the dragon, one that has haunted me to this day.

Apparently it was bright red, with gleaming scales and darkly mirrored eyes. It made a sound as it swooped towards it’s prey, a terrible noise that Mira immitated. I pointed out that the noise sounded a lot like Edward’s jet engine and she did not deny it. The dragon did not merely breathe fire, which was too quick a death- it clawed and bit, and smacked with it’s tail. And it did so to the princess, as well as those that tried to reach her. The dragon told lies, terrible lies that everyone else believed, and it did use fire- usually on your arm (and Mira pointed to her own). She was almost in tears as she said all this, and this scared me terribly. The dragon was no longer a petty threat, waiting for it’s inevitable defeat at the hands of heroes arbitrarily noble and empowered.

It was a Dragon.

Enraptured by Mira’s ability to describe such things I asked her the question I’d been wanting to ask all the others, but felt far too ashamed to broach- though I thought, personally, that it was of paramount importance. At that age it was a ‘girl’s’ question, though later it would certainly become a ‘boy’s’ question.

I asked Mira what the princess looked like. This bought me a smile.

The princess was apparently blond-haired and blue-eyed, with long tresses that reached down to her hip. She was slender and liked to read books, and always soft-spoken. She only cried when she was certain no one could see, and she gave the best hugs. My heart ached at Mira’s passionate description.

I no longer craved glory. I wanted justice.

I asked her whatever we were to do against all that. Mira told me then, that there was a crossbow- a magic crossbow that she suspected would slay the beast. Once more I wanted a description, as she had a way with words far in excess of her age, and ironic considering her habit of nonsensically screaming at the top of her lungs. Perhaps she was so full of words they burst out of her.

The crossbow she described was unlike any crossbow I had learnt of later, though at the time, ignorant as I was, I took her words for granted and assumed all crossbows had short stub-nosed barrels, and revolving chambers for six rounds of ammunition. And that they came in a chest kept in caves underneath a murky sea upon which were the floating wrecks of ceramic ships. The chest was locked, naturally, but Mira held my hand and confided in me that she knew where the key was.

She had it. In her pocket.

It was real. She took it from out of her torn dress. It was small, like a postbox key, and a bit rusty but certainly real. After that it was over- I didn’t stand a chance, I believed her over the others, despite her being an icky girl. She had props for godsakes.

The battle cry of the knight came then, from the top of the tower. We could not tell if they were winning but we assumed that without the information we had, and without the seriousness with which we were taking this quest, that they were certainly doomed. Quickly we formulated yet another plan. Mira was to retrieve the crossbow and start up the stairs. I was to climb from the rear. I would distract the dragon with wierd faces whilst she plugged the wyrm with the crossbow. A sound plan. We separated and started.

Alone on that slide I began my ascent. I have never forgotten it.

Years later I would run a race in highschool, the finals of a national competition- a hundred meter dash. I had trained for so long for that one race- and I realized at the time that I had begun my training here, on the wall of the tower. As I lined up with the other sprinters and bent down to take my mark I remembered how the cold steel of that slide felt.

With the shouts of Alexis in the foreground I continued up, stealthy as can be, till finally I reached the top.

In the small enclosed tower Alexis swung wildly with his sword, shouting “FUS RO DA FUS RO DA!” Edward had transformed into a mouse, and sat meekly in the corner. The dragon’s back was to me, I thought, probably concentating on Alexis. A sinking feeling possessed me, Alexis never realized, and I felt honor bound to remind him “That it turns things to stone.” So Alexis froze. The inevitable, inviolable nature of the game had taken over. Alexis looked at me, hands plastered down his sides, and with his last ounce of will said “Killit”.

And appearing on the otherside there was Mira.

“BANG BANG!” She said. We gasped.

And her face crumpled into tears. “BANG BANG BANG BANG!” And she froze. Except for her trembling lip and the wet reflection of that invisible dragon in her eyes she was stone.

I found my courage, yelled: “MIRA! THROW IT AT ME.”

And she really did. With one final act she tossed me the crossbow, hurling it with all her little might.

And then she began to fall. The force of her throw had caused that equal and opposite reaction we were too young to know about. She slipped, tumbled back and for a moment hung in mid-air, not unlike in a cartoon. The drop was long, probably fifteen feet. It was a poorly designed playground, and the tower was certainly epic for it. Everything seemed to stop.

I don’t know why I did it, but I ignored the crossbow entirely, and the dragon, and threw myself after her. I caught her by the ankle as she fell backwards, and she banged her head solidly on the steel steps. She started to cry, and Edward helped me get her back up. There was a cut on her arm, and she had cracked her skull quite badly.

And all she kept saying was “WHY DIDN’T YOU SHOOT IT? WHY DIDN’T YOU KILL THE DRAGON? WHY?” She kept asking, over and over and over again. She was inconsolable.

Years later I put it down to her having hit her head, or an overactive imagination.

But even more years after that I learnt the truth, when Mira shared it with me, on our wedding night.

She told me how her mum had come to pick her up afterwards. How they went to the hospital and she got a few stitches, and how jealous she was of her mother there. She had stood in the mirror you see, as the nurses wiped the grime off her short brown hair and the snot from her blunt nose, commenting on how she looked like a boy, whilst a doctor spoke so sweetly to her mother, who years later even I would recognize was beautiful- an awkward discovery. Mira’s mom had golden hair and wore it long. She was incredibly kind and soft-spoken. I used to love going to Mira’s house when I was a teenager, and sitting in their small, makeshift library. The shelves filled with second-hand books painstakingly collected.

I would stare at a picture, completely incongruous, that hung from a wall, of a dark and melancholy forest. It was that picture, and a question about it, that prompted her confession after our weddng.

Mira told me that before, there was no picture there, as there had been no hole to cover up. She told me how after they got home that day with the dragon, how she was so happy, even though she had been hurt- she loved her mum dearly, and somehow she thought that she had really slayed a dragon. When she remembered that we hadn’t finished it she had started to shake and weep. Her mother consoled her, but she also understood the source of Mira’s anxiety.

Mira told me in tears, how she heard the car drive up- how it wasn’t the right day, and yet he came anyway. She told me how she stood in the kitchen window, watching the man with brown hair and a blunt nose she hated so much, walk out of his Farrari wearing his expensive sunglasses, and how he casually came up the drive. She told me how she heard him enter, after Mira’s mum, with a shaking hand, had closed the kitchen door, and told Mira to play. Play in the kitchen, with nothing but knives and soap to keep her company. Mira told me how he saw him take the iron, still hot, and make her mummy scream. Mira told me how she looked at the key, and how she went under the sink, and how she took out the crossbow.

Mira told me how she opened the door and slayed the dragon, leaving only a hole behind a painting that was yet to be hung.

I did not know what to say, so I told her how it was a long time ago, and he was long gone. And she reminded me how real dragons exist in our minds, and how those are not so easily slayed.

Short Story: The Finalist

The man can hear muffled voices coming from outside. The sounds reach through the door, having already gone past the thick blue curtain that he will soon pass. The man rubs his hands together, and mutters to himself, that he will not cry, he will not cry, he will not cry. He paces inside the waiting room. So quiet, but considering the walls there must be thousands of them watching. He sits down on the small chair provided then immediately gets up and resumes pacing. He knows some of the ones outside want to see him fail. He can imagine their cutting words- so casually cruel, they will grab hold of anything at all; his hair, his weight, whatever it takes to reduce him. So he says to himself: a giant attracts many stones.

There is a round mirror on the wall, in front of the man’s inhaler, his lucky dice and the baseball cap he’s worn to every game since he was thirteen years old. He tries to avoid his reflection. Even back when he was thirteen he took it more seriously than the others. Over a decade of people telling him he wasn’t good enough. Countless memories of mockery and naysayers. Oh god what are they saying outside? He wonders if she’s there- I mean no chance, he rebukes himself for daring to hope. Too late, the flame catches, and it’s igniting- that enthusiastic voice inside himself says: She’s there. She’ll be watching, even if she doesn’t understand. Besides they may mock him, sure, they always have. But they aren’t up here. And also, some of them will cheer.

A lot of them will cheer.

The man punches his hand, once, twice, three times. The same old sweat on his forehead. Music plays inside his mind- old tunes, like the sound of horns. Battle songs. His heart is racing, chest bursting, the fear is cackling now. He goes towards the door of the trailer, puts one clammy hand on the steel knob and turns. Sound rushes past him, fills the empty place he’s leaving. This is it, this is the point. This is everything he’s ever wanted. He approaches the velvet wall. The curtain is there, soft beneath his clammy hand- big and blue, and behind that the spectators. He waits. He’s got to wait for his turn now. The fear grabs at his gut, and pummels him with questions- what if’s. What if you forget the build. What if you’re too slow. What if you slip and what if you choke. There are no two ways around it, he either clenches hard, somewhere inside, and lets the doubts have their moment, or he finds some kind of inspiration to overide the niggling fears. He is a samurai preparing for battle.

The voice that led him all the way here says: In order to win you must be prepared to die.

Everyone told him it was just a game. He always knew it wasn’t just a game. It was The Game. He’s died so many times, and he’s always felt it. The man is prepared. Now, thousands of people outside sit on the edge of their plastic chairs, hoping or cursing him. And all smiling with anticipation. His name is called through the velvet curtain. Not the name his parents gave him but the one he defined, the one he chose, the one that people know, even if they’ve never seen his face, when his name comes up on the screen they know. They call his name. The curtain begins to part so slowly, and for a moment the entire thing overwhelms him. He never dared to dream, as he spent so many sleepless nights training, that one day he would be here, at the top. A history of insults, of self-doubt, of tears that no one thought were worthy of shedding and finally….

Big bright white stars on his face. He resists the urge to bring up an arm. They told him during the rehearsal that there would be a glare. The what if’s stop. The fear settles, coils, hardens into that adrenaline moment, that sheer edge. That’s his blade- concentration, skill, and courage. He walks towards his seat. An ocean of cheers vibrate around him, flowing like a cape. All that he’s worked for, and still, it isn’t enough. He’s not the best yet. Not unless he wins. He takes his seat in front of the computer. Puts on his headphones and gives his mouse a few clicks. He couldn’t explain to most people how the game works. The voice says: Just like cricket. Or ice hockey. Or shogi. The man couldn’t easily explain about last hitting, or micro, or good openng strategy. He couldn’t tell a layperson exactly what he was about to do- only someone that played might understand.

And yet as the crowd began to coil, into silence, and wait, he realized that right now, for these few minutes, he shared a moment with champions. With anyone that’s ever had to contend with the exhilaration and the final challenge. For a moment he was kin to boxers, gladiators, olympians and chess masters. With anyone that has had to measure a lifetime against one opponent. The man’s opponent takes his seat, recieves his share of cheers. His opponent is the only reflection worth comparing himself to. The man imagines she’s watching, and even if she does not understand the game, she’ll understand what this is like- the moments before.

He nods, and types: GL HF.

The rules are different. The game is different. The feelings have always been the same.

He smiles, feeling the phantom hands of winners on his shoulder.

In front of thousands, with his headphones on he mouths:

Let’s dance.