“You need urgent medical attention.”
“No hospitals, they have to report gunshot wounds. to the cops.”
“I know a guy, he’s a veterinarian.”
“Okay, that could work.”
“He’ll put you to sleep.”
Author’s note: This idea feels so obvious I can’t believe I’m the first to have thought of it. I suspect I may have read it somewhere else and forgotten the source.
It was an old but reliable bike, a Raleigh classic with a black painted finish and white flashings on the rear mudguard. Rust crusted through some of the corners but it was still a reliable machine, and the the pedal powered dynamo battery light still worked. Jack saw no reason to change it.
The bus left too late to be useful on weekday mornings, and not at all on the weekend, so he he he took the bike out.
Sunday morning was bright and clear, a crisp day at the beginning of winter, still with the hint of autumn and the last edges of summer in the sunlight. At least, for as long as it stayed cloud free and wind stayed down. Whenever the sun moved behind a cloud though, it quickly became clear that the date was closer to midwinter than midsummer, and the sun was going to stay near the horizon. But for all that, Jack fell good and the brightness felt warm against his face when he closed his eyes and faced the clear sky. He checked his pockets and the satchel on his bike, and headed off towards Inishfall.
Downhill all the way from his cottage to the outskirts of the village, he freewheeled the bike, taking in the familiar views and the shimmer of the sun on the morning tide at the end of the valley. The last of momentum left his wheels as he passed the old dispensary clinic, and he pushed the pedals for the last half mile. He left the bike against the wall bear the barracks, and headed down to see Tommy.
Tommy was out the back when Jack go there. He left his bike resting alongside a ditch, and wandered round. Tommy was securing the back door, cursing indistinctly as the key refused to turn easily in the lock.
‘Where’s Rex?’asked Jack, on seeing the empty kennel in the yard.
‘Left him down with the Buckleys for the day,’ Tommy said. ‘They’ll take care of him until I get back. Wouldn’t be fair to leave him locked up alone all day.’
Tommy’s yard was a well polished concrete square leading off to a shed to the west side, and a large open field running to the north and eventually uphill. Lazy beds ran down one side of the field, the other given over to grass. Beyond well maintained rows of neat hedgerow sheep grazed in the upper fields, somehow finding sustenance between the outcrops of granite and heather.
The shed door was chained open, and inside could be seen an old grey-painted Ford tractor.
To be continued…
Scatter-gun impressions in the shadows, the tictac chittering of something I couldn’t see. Nothing makes sense any more, only bad dreams and broken sleep. Have I dreamed this one before? I don’t think so, this one I would have remembered. Is that a grasshopper? Why does it have fish eyes and white hair? Insects don’t have hair. And they sure as heck don’t stand six foot tall. Wait, is that a needle in its hand?
I slept then. Proper deep sleep. For the first time in weeks, I slept solid and warm, without breaks or interruptions of the strange and irritable distractions that somehow woke me every night and meant I started the next day unrested and unable to concentrate. I slept, and it was like curling up inside a warm envelope.
I felt more alert than I had in a long time. There wasn’t much to see, a plain room, a single table in the corner, and the bed I was lying on.
Not quite a bed either. Like a cabinet top. Pristine and polished whiteness, and a single light sheet. A box of polished wood designed by someone who liked Scandinavian furniture. Surprisingly comfortable though. Light streamed in from a large window, from a small garden outside. Gravel and small plants with long leaves and not much flower. Greens in every corner. The walls in the room were featureless, painted a not quite whiteness that echoed the merest tint of the green and brown hues from the sculpted gardens outside.
What were those things in my dreams? Eldritch weirdness, a room filled with over-sized bugs. I sat up then, but most of my right side forgot to move. I looked down, and saw the scar. I touched it, feeling the strange rubbery sensation of touching numbed skin. Some sort of anesthetic. Pretty effective too. And what am I wearing? Some sort of hospital gown?
I was operated on. What had they done to me?
I looked around the room. And where is the door?
‘Hello? I anyone there?’
The door opened. How had I not seen it before? Flush with the wall, almost invisible. I blinked, unsure what to say, as light from beyond the door streamed in. The nurse looked to be in her forties, in regular hospital scrubs, carrying herself with that air of industrious competence they always have.
‘Help me get out of here,’ I said.
‘All in good time, don’t you worry. You’ve had quite the narrow escape, but you were lucky. Just take things easy for a while, and everything will be ship shape. You’ve had a burst appendix, and developed peritonitis. All sorts of toxins spilled into your bloodstream, causing infections, fevers, even hallucinations. The doctors had to operate quickly, but you’re going to be fine. You just need some more rest, and then we can send you home.’
I thought about how good it had felt to wake up after a complete night’s sleep. More rest? Sure, I could do that. I could do that a lot.
‘I think my girlfriend doesn’t want to get married. How do I make sure?’
‘What makes you think so.’
‘I’ve had to take care of all the wedding preparations. The guest lists,
the dresses, the flowers, the menus, the seating arrangements, I’ve done
all of it.’
‘So when you proposed —’
‘Oh no. She proposed to me.’
‘I think you just answered your own question.’
The phone call was vague at first. The caller walking around what he wanted to ask, throwing out general questions about the newspaper, and how it could call itself a newspaper when it was only available online.
But something told Rey not to wrap up for call. Let him keep talking, let him relax, let him see what’s on his mind.
‘I’m an informer,’ he said finally. ‘And I think they’re trying to kill me.’
‘I was an informer on the Cassidys.’
Ray knew the Cassidys. Two brothers with the reputation that won’t be unveiling some into sadism. Benny Cassidy in particular like to break fingers.
‘You think the Cassidys are out to kill you?’
‘No. The guards. I think they want to use me to catch the Cassidys.’
‘Okay, start at the beginning. What do I call you?’
‘Call me Dave,’ he said. ‘It’s as good a name as any.’
‘I’m an informer,’ he said after a pause. ‘I didn’t want to be. But now it’s what I am and I’m in danger. I’m in danger because they don’t need me any more. I think they want me to use me as bait.’
‘Tell me about it,’ said Ray.
‘I can’t talk to you. I can’t be seen.’
‘Then tell me where we can go where you won’t be seen. Tell me how you got here.’
‘It started with a traffic ticket. I drove through a red light.
‘That’s not so serious.’
‘Penalty points, you see. That would have put me over the twelve, and that means no licence. No car, no work. No job, no income, no rent. They had me just where they wanted me and they knew it.’
The barrister was uncertain.
‘I thought I was ready to proceed, judge, but apparently my solicitor has been informed that he is to go off record, I am awaiting clarification,’ he said.
‘Is the client here?’
‘I’ll do my own appeal.’
The judge turned to the speaker. Young, much too thin, one of several men cuffed to the boored prison wardens. The young man glanced down again at the several pages of handwritten foolscap notes which he leafed through, eager to begin.
‘That may be a very unwise decision. But it is yours to make,’ said the judge.
On the reporters benches, we put down out pens, waiting to see what would happen. I felt like a ghoul, watching, helpless to stop this young fool from self-destruction.
‘Please judge, I’m his mother,’ cried a voice from the crowd.
That’s new. Never had that before. Usually they’ve cut themselves off from family and friends by this point.
‘Ian, listen to what the judge is saying,’ she cried. ‘The judge –’
But Ian wasn’t listening. Not to the judge, and not to the cries from his family. He was waiting for the judge to finish speaking, so that he could begin.
The defence barrister stood up. ‘I’m not sure if you’re aware, judge. As my learned friend has just this moment gone off record, I do not know for certain if Mr Neill has seen my submissions yet.’
The judge grabbed the lifeline. It was a long shot, he knew, but who could tell? Maybe his mother could talk sense into him before the courts resumed.
‘I’ll adjourn then, to allow him to review your arguments and consider his position.’
Benny the idiot really wasn’t an idiot, but nobody knew his real name. His sweatshirt had a picture of Jack Benny, so the name stuck in my head.
‘You look lost,’ Quinn said to him, the first time he wandered into her cafe. ‘Can I help you?’
‘All the houses look the same here, but different,’ he’d said. ‘Why am I in a place that’s like a bad copy of home from long ago?’
Quinn couldn’t think of anything useful to say, so she said nothing.
‘Sorry, you must think I’m an idiot’, said Benny He shrugged and ordered a pot of tea with a hand and cheese toastie. After that, he’d show up two or three times a week, one of the semi-regulars.
Mostly, Benny kept to himself. It wasn’t until I arrived at the cafe on a busy day that I found myself sitting opposite him at a small table. There was nowhere else left to sit, and I hate coffee to go. Those fifteen minutes sitting down are precious to me, a rare time to gather thoughts.
Benny smiled when I asked if I could sit in the seat next to him, then nodded his assent. He shut the notebook he was doodling in as I sat down, resting his hands on top of it, fingers intertwined.
‘Why do people ask that?’ he said. ‘Do they think I own an empty chair?’
‘I think politeness,’ I said. ‘Maybe they think you’re holding the chair for someone.’
‘I never am,’ he said. ‘This isn’t where I’m from. I don’t know anyone.’
‘Ray Harper,’ I said, extending my hand. ‘Now you know me.’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I know. You’re the writer?’
‘I’m a reporter. Nothing as literary as a writer. I tell people’s stories.’
‘I can tell you a story, if you pay for lunch. Want to hear a new story?’
‘It’s been almost three months now. A group of us went on a road trip together, a bicycle trip on one of the first good weekends of the Summer. The first thing I can remember is needing to go back because I’d forgotten something, but I can’t remember what it was. That morning we’d cycled together from Shanglin to Inishfall, and whatever it was, it was important enough that I needed to go back for it. So I told the gang to hang on, enjoy themselves around Inishfall for a few hours, and I’d catch up to them in the evening. That was three weeks ago.
‘So I cycled back, and everything went as it usually does. I enjoyed the ride, it was a fine day, the sun was shining and the sky was blue, far better than it had any right to be at the end of September. I switched off, went to autopilot.
‘Except when I got to the top of the hill and crested it, everything was different. I mean, it looked like Shanglin, everything was more or less in the right place, but it was all just a little bit off. Think of a landscape you know like the back of your hand, so much that you can close your eyes and imagine walking around it. An old neighbourhood where you grew up, somewhere you lived so long you know every twist in the road. Then imagine you see an old photograph of it before all the buildings there now were built. Or you see a painting of somewhere else, that looks almost like it. A church tower in exactly the right place, or a shadow of a hill behind the town. But somehow, it’s off. The chock tower is a little too tall. The mountain is too close. The buildings are a little too squat, or too clean, or the paint is too faded.
‘I couldn’t quite place what felt wrong at first. Like I said, it was a glorious day, and I’d been cycling on automatic, letting my thoughts drift. I was halfway down the Castle hill before I really noticed there was something strange happening. Half the houses were gone. All of the older buildings were still there, but the newer extensions, the developments pushing the boundaries out towards the Drum and the Fork were gone. And what was still there wasn’t quite right.
‘I cycled around Shanglin in a strange daze, becoming ever more certain I was in the wrong place. Somehow I’d taken a wrong turn and ended up somewhere I’d never been before, a doppleganger town. When I went to the place I knew best of all, my own home, it was unnerving. Murphy’s was still there at the river turn, but all around it were green fields. And when I turned the final bend, the old town-house was still where it always was, but the landscape around it had changed. The tops of the trees behind it no longer visible over the rooftop. Where there had been a flat patch of green and a road sign, there was a carved boulder, some sort of street artwork. Behind that, where my own home should have been, there was a house I’d never seen before. Beyond that, what should have been a plain two-story block of flats had been redesigned into a strange multi-level series of building blocks, like someone build a staircase out of room-sized cubes. I’d been cycling around for over an hour by then, but it wasn’t until that moment I noticed how quiet it was. I hadn’t seen a single person since I’d arrived.
‘I was lost in a world that felt like an echo, that’s the only way I can describe it. If I had taken a wrong turn, I could understand how I might have gone down a road I’d never been on before, arrived at the wrong place. The physical geography of two places could be similar, I guess, so that everything looks vaguely familiar. But the buildings? The roads? Bridges? How could that happen? How could two valleys have almost identical patterns?
‘Finally, I turned back, went to catch up with the gang in Inishfall. But when I got back here, there was no sign of the gang any more. I decided to stay here, it’s as good a place as any. So here I am. This isn’t my world, but it’s the world I’ve been given. I don’t know how I got here. And I don’t know how to get back.’
He paused for a moment as Quinn arrived with a fresh pot of tea, and finished off the last of the cheese toastie in a couple of bites as she poured a fresh cup.
‘There’s a theory that every time there’s a choice, the world divides in two. Tea or coffee, heads or tails, left or right? In one universe, you order tea, in the other, coffee. I think I fell through a crack in the world somewhere. Travelling down the road I switched off my brain and stopped making all those small decisions you don’t even think about. And when I stopped thinking, and I started slipping between all the worlds created by different decisions, and I ended up here. Almost the same as where I came from, just a few different coin tosses from home.
‘So what do you think. Was the story worth the price of admission?’
‘Is it true?’
‘Doesn’t matter, does it. All that matters is whether you think it was worth the price of admission.’
I paid for his lunch.
Knife: Flash Fiction
Afterwards, no one could remember seeing the knife. Everyone knew the Geeks had a knife all right, they heard it said. No one saw it though. When we tracked back who heard about the knife, and who told who, all the rumours started with Denny, but Denny made himself scare afterwards, so nobody could talk to him.
The Geeks arrived in town just as the bank holiday weekend was kicking off, a collection of well dressed young lads in clean shirts and slacks, sharing three cars between a dozen of them. They rented the Howland house, set up a barbecue on the lawn, an invited us in when we headed down to check them out. It was fun, everyone had a good time, nobody was going to ague with free beer and burgers. But Julie got talking to one of the Geeks, and Denny didn’t even like it when Julie talked to one of us.
I didn’t go to the pub that night, so I was still sober at midnight. Two minutes after midnight, the door got a battering. When I answered it, half a dozen Geeks were there, along with Kate and Carrie. They didn’t wait for me to say hello, instead they barged in, and closed the door behind. One of the Geeks was injured, two of the others were carrying him.
Kate took the injured Geek over to the couch, and lay him down there. Carrie turned down the lights before going to the window.
‘They attacked us outside the Hall car park. Stones came flying from everywhere. I couldn’t get to the car. I just ran,’ the Geek said.
We didn’t call the cops. What was the point. We had nothing to tell them, only that a hail of stones were thrown as strangers. Cops were unlikely to give a damn about the Geeks. Certainly not enough of a damn to tackle the local lads. So I put on a kettle, and we waited. Eventually the Geeks slept.
A while before daybreak, I went for a walk, first to Drum and then over to the Iron bridge, then back by the Hound’s Corner. Everywhere was quiet. Kate was still up, but Carrie was asleep when I got back. I made breakfast when Kate woke the others. We walked down to Howland’s together, escorting the Geeks. There was no trouble, hough we took out time, the injured Geek was feeling better but he still walked with a hobble. I put on a kettle again when we got there, while the Geeks tied and packed up. They left before lunchtime. I spent the next couple of days piecing together what happened, asking who saw what and who heard what, and listening carefully to the answers.
Julie left Denny the following weekend. Someone told me she moved to Geektown.