short story

Gone Fishing

Bloody bitch! Mike swore in his head as he slammed the car door. Even now, out here, he couldn’t bring himself to say the words out loud. His hand trembled as he tried to force the key into the ignition, and this time he did let one out.

“Shit!”

She was standing at the window, watching him. She wouldn’t come, though. She never came to him. They’d be watching a documentary when she started the argument, something with David Attenborough and oceans, and suddenly Mike was reminded of those fish with the lights that lured their prey out of the dark depths.

That was Cassandra: an angler fish. She exuded a beautiful, warm light that never failed to ensnare him. But then came the needling teeth, telling him he wasn’t good enough, making him feel like he was something she’d trodden in. She was always trying to change him, mould him into something small, palatable. Digestible.

The car roared into life and he burned out the drive, not bothering to change gears until he was halfway down the road. The change in engine noise as he pushed it straight into third was like a sigh of relief.

“Sorry,” he muttered. The car didn’t deserve to be punished for his mistakes. It was his fault. He slammed his hand on the steering wheel. God, I’m starting to believe her. That wasn’t the worst, though. The worst was he knew he’d be back. Maybe not tonight. Or tomorrow. But at some point that light would catch his attention and he’d go swimming right back to his destruction.

He headed away from suburbia, out onto the main road through the woods. There was a housing development planned and in a couple of years they’d be gone, replaced by neat semis filled with women like Cassandra. The thought made Mike sick.

He pulled over, not the wisest plan, but the road was empty. He hadn’t seen another soul on it. The headlights lit a strip up ahead of the car, and either side of it faded grey to black in just a few metres. There was no colour anywhere.

Mike walked round to the passenger side, sucking in deep breaths of cold air. The night was still, calm. He was not. His heart pounded and his hands shook. He wanted a cigarette more than anything, but of course, she’d binned them all ages ago.

Maybe…

Maybe, just maybe, there might be one in the glove-box. The car was the one thing that was still his, and perhaps, if he was very lucky, one might have escaped her grasp. He opened the door and leaned in, rooting around desperately.

“Help me!”

Mike stood up, slamming his head against the door. Unsuccessfully stifling a cry, he turned to see who had spoken. There was a girl, standing at the edge of the trees, looking at him. She looked to be about seven or eight, though Mike wasn’t very good at guessing that sort of thing, wearing a long white dress, probably a nightie.

“Um, are you okay?” he asked, not knowing what you were supposed to say to small girls who approached you at the side of the road in their night clothes. He looked nervously up and down the road, half hoping someone would come along to take the responsibility off his hands.

“Please, help me. It’s my mummy,” she said, pulling at a blonde pigtail. “She’s fallen down and she won’t get up.”

“Okay. Um. Don’t worry. I’ll call for help.” He reached into the car and then swore. His mobile was still sitting on Cassandra’s couch. She was probably going through his text messages right now. “Um. Sorry.”

The girl’s face seemed to crumble, and her wide eyes glistened.

“Oh, God, don’t cry. Please don’t cry,” Mike begged. “Where’s your mummy?”

She took his hand in hers. It was warm, and soft. Somehow he found himself comforted by it. Come on, he told himself. You can do this. Help this kid and show Cassandra you’re not a permanent fuck-up.

The girl led him deeper into the woods. There was no moon tonight and Mike could barely see more than a few steps ahead of him. She moved confidently, though, tugging on his hand as he tripped and stumbled. It was getting colder, though that may have been down to his anger dissipating. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t long before he was shivering convulsively.

“How much further to your house?” he asked.

“Not much.”

She didn’t sound so scared now, and Mike felt a small glow of pride. He didn’t know what he was going to be able to do for her mother, but at least he had given this little girl some comfort.

“Up here.” She tugged at him, pulling him left and up a slope. Brambles scratched at his ankles, drawing blood. There was a strange sound, like something being dragged ahead of them, but it was too dark to see anything. Mike found his heart beating a bit faster.

“Come on!” Her nails dug into his hand like thorns. “Nearly there!”

It was getting lighter. Mike assumed they were approaching a housing estate, until the emerged in a clearing. Everything was still grey, but the trees and bushes were no longer a black, indistinguishable mass. Something else was visible. He blinked, just to make sure, but his vision remained the same.

There was a woman lying in the centre of the clearing.

“Mummy,” the girl said, pointing. Mike nodded, his throat dry. What was he supposed to do here? He wasn’t a doctor, and the closest he came to first aid was knowing you were supposed to do CPR to the rhythm of Nelly the Elephant. He swallowed, feeling his palms growing slick against hers.

Mike let go of the girl and took a step towards her mother. She was lying with her back to him, her long, black hair loose and spilling onto the forest floor. He tried to speak, but all that came out was a cough. Mike cleared his throat and tried again.

“Ma’am? Can you hear me?”

There was no answer, so he took another step, and then another, until he was kneeling by her side. She did not seem to be breathing.  He put a hand on her shoulder, terrified it would be cold and stiff, but it was soft and giving. It didn’t feel much like flesh. He tugged gently and she rolled over.

Mike felt his heart seize up. Every drop of blood in his veins turned to ice and the air rushed from his lungs in a long hiss. He tried to back away, but his limbs were rubbery and useless.

It wasn’t a woman. He didn’t know what it was, but it wasn’t human. Running down her body, from the base of her neck to her belly-button, was a long slit. As Mike watched in horror, it started to widen, and before long he could see long, razor sharp teeth emerging. It pushed itself up, so it was standing crab-wise on hands and feet, and came towards him. The thing’s head twisted to stare at him with dead eyes.

Mike scrabbled against the ground, desperately trying to get to his feet. The thing stalked towards him slowly, unconcerned by his actions. Just as its hand was reaching for him, he managed to push up and stumbled back the way he had come, unable to take his eyes off the thing.

“Mummy! Help my Mummy!”

The girl was laughing, dancing around him. Her features were twisted in a ghoulish smile that made Mike’s stomach clench. He turned to run and fell flat on his face. Mike cried out in pain and fear. Looking over his shoulder, he could see something wrapped around his ankle. There was a cord, almost invisible, and when he followed it he could see one end ran from the girl and the other to her “mother”.

The thing was the mouth was getting closer. He could smell it now, a mixture of spoiled meat and rotting sea-weed. Desperately he clawed at the ground, trying to get purchase, but he could not pull himself to his feet. He screamed, begged, prayed for someone, anyone, find him, until words merged together and he was babbling incoherently.

The long, needle-like teeth of the creature closed on his legs, turning Mike into fishfood.

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The Worst Kidnapping in the Galaxy – Short Story

This …was not going to plan.

I stared at the body in front of me, dribbling dark red blood onto my cream Antarian leather upholstery.  That was going to stain, no doubt about it. I took a deep breath. Stains were really not the most important thing here.

No, the important thing was that I had a human rock-star in my spaceship and I wasn’t sure if he was still alive. I tried to remember that module of xeno-biology I had taken in the first year. It was a struggle, because I’d mostly taken it to ogle the beautiful silicate life-form from Epsilon-Perseii IX. The memory of her sand-coloured body and scent like the cliffs looking over the beach at home filled my mind, driving out any thought of human anatomy.

“Uuugh…”

That was a good sign, right? They didn’t do that if they were dead, right? I forced away the memory of Raffitia, and looked back at Zayne: human, rock-star, drop dead gorgeous. I liked to think of myself as an appreciator of the greatest art-form there is: the living being. I didn’t like saying that out loud though, because it made me sound unbearably pretentious.

Zayne groaned again and I leaned closer. His skin was a shade paler than my expensive leather seats and it probably wasn’t due to being coated in makeup. His glossy, dark hair fell in soft waves over his neck and shoulders, with a few locks straying over his face. I had an irresistible urge to brush them away, so I could see his long, delicate eyelashes and sharp cheekbones.

I was just reaching for him, when Zayne opened his eyes. He blinked twice, made a choking sound and spewed a foul-smelling liquid all over my boots. I was pretty sure that wasn’t a good sign. I leapt back as he sat up, added to the puddle twice more, and then lay back down again, resting a hand over his eyes.

“Um, Zayne?”

He sat up again and blinked slowly, squinting around him. His eyes, dark as an empty patch of space, seemed blank and unfocused. He groaned and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Where am I?”

His voice sounded different to how I remembered it. It still had that melodic quality that made it ring, but it sounded weaker now, and there was a trace of an accent that hadn’t been there before.

“You’re…” There didn’t seem much point in hiding it now. “You’re aboard my spaceship.”

If he heard me, I don’t think he understood. His eyes settled on me and I felt my hearts quiver slightly. A delicious shiver ran down my left-hand spine.

“Tom. What the hell did you slip me?”

“Slip you?” I wished I’d studied harder before coming here. Then I might be more familiar with the local idioms. Then I might not have a semi-conscious rock-star in my ship and his breakfast all over my shoes.

“Yeah. You drugged me, didn’t you? Someone did.”

I thought he might be annoyed at this, or maybe frightened, but he sounded resigned.

“So, what’s the ransom this time? Let’s get this over with quickly.”

“Ransom?” I repeated, hating myself for sounding so stupid. There was just something about this man that turned my very core to a quivering mess, like fresh slatch-cake.

Zayne sighed, gently probing at the cut on his forehead with an elegant finger. It had mostly stopped leaking now, at least. “You know, Tom, you may be an even worse kidnapper than you were photographer.” He reached into the pocket of his tight leather trousers and tossed something silver at me. “Go on, make the call. I’ve got better things to do than sit here surrounded by my blood and puke.”

I looked down at the little silver rectangle in my hand. “Zayne, I have a confession to make. I’m not a photographer, and I’m not a kidnapper.”

He laughed, though I couldn’t detect any humour in it. “The first one I guessed. The second one is going to require some more explanation.”

“Can you walk?” I asked him, offering my hand. He gripped it and stood up slowly. Zayne took an experimental step forward, but stumbled and ended up clutching my arm tightly. That shiver was racing up and down both my spines now. “Are… are you all right?”

He nodded, though his face was not just pale but vaguely green now. “I’m good. Are you sure you didn’t drug me?”

“No, I hit you with a mic stand.” I hung my head. “Sorry about that.”

“What did you do that for?”  Now he sounded annoyed and I couldn’t really blame him. He was still gripping my arm like a tractor beam, though.

“I wasn’t aiming for you! It all got a bit out of hand after I kissed you.”

We had been slowly moving across the deck of the ship towards the main screen. Zayne was concentrating on his feet, every now and then making these odd coughing-hiccup sounds that were both adorable and alarming. Now he looked up and his face went whiter than the sky on Rigel VII.

“Tom…That’s the Earth,” he murmured, pointing at the screen. “Why is the Earth down there? Where are we, Tom? Where the hell are we?” His fingers dug into my arm.

I took a deep breath. No one ever taught me how to deal with situations like this at university. “We’re in orbit around the Earth. On my spaceship. And my name isn’t Tom. It’s Xct.”

“Now I know you drugged me!” Zayne laughed, his eyes wide. “No way am I actually orbiting the Earth on a spaceship with an alien named Zit.”

“Xct. It’s pronounced Xct.”

“I don’t think I can pronounce that.”

“It’s possible. You do lack an Olfman’s organ.”

Zayne stared at me, as if he had forgotten how to blink. Then his eyes rolled up in their sockets and he collapsed in my arms with a soft sigh.

Zayne woke up about five minutes later, and I was careful to keep my boots away this time. Fortunately he didn’t seem too bad and was able to sit up and watch me with a guarded expression almost immediately after coming round.

“So, Tom or Zit or whatever your name is. Perhaps you better start from the beginning.”

I nodded slowly, feeling strangely nervous. I was aboard my ship; I wasn’t injured; in fact everything was in my control. But I felt terrified at revealing my true self to Zayne. What if he didn’t like what he heard?

“My name’s Xct, and I’m a second year student at Betelgeuse University,” I said, not meeting his eye. “I won a sports scholarship, as I’m not exactly what you would call academic. Last year I took a module in pan-galactic music because it sounded easy and the lecturer was hot. I heard your songs and they… they were like nothing I’d ever heard before. They were like… like…a storm in a nebular crossed with your first kiss crossed with the most painful memory imaginable. They spoke to me, and that was really strange because I didn’t understand the words.”

Zayne frowned, but his expression had softened somewhat. “You’re a fan? I have an alien fan?”

“Oh, you’ve got lots of fans, but I’m your biggest.”

“They all say that,” he laughed. “Go on.”

“Well, I really wanted to see you in person, and this year I found a way. There was a journalism module that included a project to make a report on something outside your own culture. I got my father to pull some strings – planets which don’t have official contact are generally off limits – and he set me up as a photographer for this music magazine who was doing an interview with you.”

Zayne was starting to believe me, I could tell. His eyes were still wide, and his cute mouth was hanging open, but somehow I knew he didn’t think I was lying.

“That… that explains why you were in my dressing room, and why you took such lousy photographs. But not why you hit me with a mic stand. That bit’s still a little hazy.”

I looked down at my boots. I’d cleaned the mess off them, but they still reminded me of my shame. “I…er… I didn’t mean to hit you. You have to believe me on that. You’d just started singing a few lines of your newest track, and I lost it. I just had to kiss you. Have you ever felt like that? Like your life will end right there and then if you can’t touch a person?”

“I can’t say that I have,” he admitted, rubbing the back of his neck. There was a blush of red across his narrow cheeks and I hoped that wasn’t another bad sign.

“Well, one day you will. It’s powerful. You need to feel it for yourself.” I cleared my throat. I was getting away from the point. “I had to kiss you and so I did and you looked shocked, but you didn’t pull away. And then suddenly there was this man in the room and he was yelling, and you were yelling, and then you were crying and I just knew I had to stop him. So I grabbed the mic stand and I swung at him. Unfortunately, you tripped and got in my way and I knocked you out. You fell into my arms and I panicked, so I teleported back to my ship.”

Zayne licked his lips. “I do remember that. That was my dad who was yelling. My music is aimed at the teenage girl market, and he doesn’t like anything that jeopardises said teenage girls idolizing me. Kissing another man in front of a reporter was pretty much the ultimate sin. Wonder what he’d say if he knew you were actually an alien.”  He looked up at me with those big, deep eyes that just seem to pull me in. “So what happens now?”

“I’ll have to get everything cleaned up. There will need to be memory-wiping, and any camera footage erased. I’ll get into a lot of trouble. They might even kick me out of university.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“It was worth it,” I replied and I meant every word.

“Will they have to wipe my memory too?” he asked quietly. “I… I don’t think I want that.”

“Sorry, it’s the rules.”

“But I don’t want to forget!” he cried out, clenching his fists. “I never wanted to be a rock-star. I wanted to be an astronomer. Or maybe one of those people that wave ping-pong bats in front of aircraft. I hate crowds and stage lights make my head hurt. My name isn’t even Zayne. It’s Roger. Roger Davis. Not very rock-star, is it?”

He was breathing heavily, his face scrunched up. I hated to seem him hurt, and hated more that I was the cause of it. But what could I do to make things right? Maybe… I reached out and touched his hand, which made him look up sharply.

“Want to run away for a bit? We’ll probably get in even more trouble, but this is a pretty sweet ship and I think I can show you a few things before they catch up with us.” It wouldn’t fix anything. In fact, it would make everything a thousand times worse. Looking in his eyes, though, I could see he was thinking the same thing. And like me, he didn’t give a damn.

“That… that sounds amazing. Can we see Saturn? And the storm on Jupiter? And get up close to a comet?”

“Anything you want.” His enthusiasm was adorable. “Let me show you the galaxy, Roger Davis.”

“You know, I was wrong about you, Zit,” he said, squeezing my hand. I let out an involuntary squeak. “You’re the best kidnapper I’ve ever had.”

Dead Oak – a short story

I had to face up to it: I was lost. The forest stretched all around me, an identical mosaic of green and brown, as though I was seeing the same photograph on every side. There was no path, no sign of civilisation at all. I might have been the last man alive or the first to visit this God-forsaken place for all I knew. If I didn’t find Siskin, or someone, soon then I was going to be in real trouble.

I do not know what man sees in nature. Give me a pipe, an open fire, and a good measure of aged scotch and I am the happiest man alive. Fresh air causes chills, I’m sure of it. But Siskin had insisted on a “ramble” as he called it, and I did so want to make a good impression, for a number of reasons. So I borrowed his walking shoes and put on a coat and hat too good for the occasion, then followed him out into the great outdoors.

And promptly lost him.

Goodness knows how it happened. One minute we were side by side, discussing some oddity of English law, and the next he was nowhere in sight. I admit I had been watching my feet, rather than him, because I was concerned about the mud. It seemed to me that it would have been terribly rude to spoil a fellow’s shoes, even if they were his second pair. Suddenly there was only silence, broken once by the harsh call of a magpie. I haven’t heard a living soul since.

There wasn’t even anywhere to sit down and bemoan my fate. I wrapped my arms around me, trying not to shiver. The evening was drawing in, and the sun, coloured like a poached egg, was sinking lower in the sky. Siskin had promised we would just be out for an hour or so and would be back before tea was served. His dear, sweet sister, Lucy – one of the reason for wanting to make a good impression – waved us off at the doorstep and called “Watch out for the Witch!” Siskin had laughed it off as a local superstition when I queried her words, and told me not to worry about it.

I think I would rather face a witch than this forest, I thought to myself. At least she could make me some hot eye-of-newt soup! It was such a silly thought, it made me laugh out loud, which was a terrible mistake. My voice sounded harsh and unnatural, and suddenly I was aware that everything would now know where I was. I could feel hundreds of eyes watching me from the undergrowth, which sent a shudder down my spine.

I set off, not really caring which way I went. The sound of my feet in the dead leaves was like whispering, harsh and cruel, and the feeling of being watched only grew stronger. The shadows were growing longer, deeper, reaching for me. I had to stop and give myself a stern talking-to. There had not been wolves or bears in this country for hundreds of years and never anything worse. Still, I crossed myself, just to be sure.

Up ahead, I saw something that gave me heart. It was an old, dead oak tree, standing in the centre of a clearing. This was something new, something I could use to prove I was not simply walking round in circles. How large can this forest be? I wondered. Surely if I walk with my back to the tree I will come across civilization before very long. I found myself walking faster in anticipation of a hot supper.

The oak tree was clearly once a magnificent specimen, even a city man such as myself could see that. I wondered how many years it had stood, how many kings and queens had reigned during its lifetime. It had been struck by lightning, splitting the tree in half right down to just able the height of a man. The branches that remained were bleached white, jutting out like fleshless limbs. There was no moss anywhere on the tree, and nothing grew at all for about fifteen feet around it. The air was still and silent as a graveyard.

Despite the eerie atmosphere of the place, my spirits were raised. I filled my time pondering what would be for supper. I hoped it would be something warm, as the night was almost upon me and there was a distinct nip in the air. Picking up my pace, I thought of Lucy, waiting with concern on the doorstep. Oh, how I longed to see her sweet face again.

And then I stopped.

There, up ahead of me, was a familiar sight. Through the otherwise identical green vegetation I could see the tips of the old, dead oak. It couldn’t be, though, could it? Looking back over my shoulder, I saw only green, but I was certain I had not been turned around. It must surely be another dead tree.

But it was.

Not only was the tree identical, but there on the dark earth, were my footprints. I placed my shoe in one, just to be sure, and it was a perfect match. My heart was starting to pound in my chest and I was shaking like a new-born lamb. Oh, how I wished for a good stiff drink to settle my nerves! I followed my footprints across the clearing to where they disappeared into the forest.

I must have gotten turned around. That was the only explanation. I decided not to try the same thing again, but set off out the exit on the left hand side of the clearing. As I passed, I noticed a strange shadow below one of the lower branches. I couldn’t see what was causing it, but decided not to dwell on the matter. The sun had almost set by now, and the forest was growing steadily darker. In my haste, I tripped repeatedly over roots and fallen branches, catching my clothes and skin on the vicious vegetation. The whole damn forest seemed to be out to get me.

Head down and arms up to protect myself, I ploughed on through the forest, sustaining myself only on thoughts of Lucy. It was almost completely dark, now the sun had set, but every now and then a sliver of moonlight would break free from behind the clouds to grant me a brief moment of illumination. I was exhausted, cold and thoroughly miserable by then. I would have sold my own grandmother for the way home by that point.

There it was again!

I was quite sure I was going mad now. In front of me was that oak tree, pale and menacing, and there were my footprints, criss-crossing across the clearing. My heart was slamming against my breast, trying to break free no doubt. This couldn’t be happening! Tremors wracked my frightened body and I’m sure my eyes were as wide as teacups. Was this my doom? To find myself forever in the shadow of this dead tree?

As I looked up, the dark shape I had noticed the last time seemed sharper, more defined, even in the gloom of night. It was a little way below the branch, and seemed to twist slightly in the air as a watched in growing horror. I thought of Lucy and her telling the story of the witch as we sat talking after dinner yesterday. No, wait, that wasn’t right. She’d mentioned it on the door-step? Hadn’t she?

I clutched at my head, feeling sick with fear. Not only was my direction all twisted up, but my memories seemed to be, too. I was forgetting something. Something important.. With a cry, I took to my heels, running blindly into the depths of the forest. Twigs and thorns snatched at me like grasping fingers. Roots leaped up from the floor, trying to pull me down or break my ankle. I sobbed like a frightened child in a thunderstorm.

What was happening to me? What had I done to deserve such a fate? I had a sudden vision of Lucy, her sweet face contorted in shock. But I would never do anything to hurt her? Why, I had come to the house with the very idea of seeking permission to court her from her brother. Tears ran down my face, and I could scarcely breath for the terror that gripped at my chest.

My foot snagged and spilled onto the ground, my knees sinking into the cold, dark earth. I shut my eyes, for I knew all too well what I would see when I opened them. There was a strange noise, a creaking sound almost, rhythmic. The moon emerged; I could see its milky light from behind the shade of my eyelids. Though my body shook and the tears fell freely, I lifted my head and saw it, swinging above me.

I remembered everything. I remembered broaching the subject of courtship with Siskin, and him laughing at me. When he saw my shock and anger at his reaction, saw that I was serious, he told me there were other suitors lined up for Lucy, and to let the matter lie. I flew into such a rage, demanding to know why I was not good enough, what right he had to judge me so. We quarrelled, loudly and violently, and the dark rage over came me. I pulled out my gun and I shot him dead, just as poor, sweet Lucy walked into the room to see what all the fuss was about. Seeing what I had done to her, I fled the house with one thing on my mind.

There was a body, hanging from a noose on the dead oak tree. And what was more… It was mine.