Sunday, 26 October 2014

Flash Fiction Challenge: Diseased Horror

So I began one of Chuck's FF challenges a couple of weeks ago on Apples (assigned the names of 3 apples by a random number generator and write a story containing all 3) and didn't get anywhere near finishing it.  As penitence I've taken those 3 apples: Melrose, Jewett Red and Malinda and worked them into this week's FF which in the wake of the Ebola panic and Halloween is a disease based horror short.  So here it goes... "Fall"

They only come up here to see Mother on her birthday, when the wind rips through her branches and calls them home.  Come November the sun will still rise over the ruined rooftops of Melrose West, but none of them will be left here to see it.  Just Jewett and me.  Jewett and me’s all that’s left in Melrose.  Us and the trees.  And I seen it.  I seen it all through the cracked pane of my watching post.

Today the wind is chill, but warmed by the last flames of my fire, I watch them come.  They’ve come like this every year since The Fall.  Breakin’ through the warning biohazard barriers and lurchin’ forward over the roots which fill the forested avenue, shuffling through the undergrowth with their strange jerky limbs.

I was here for it all.  The October quake which wrecked the town.  The trick or treat-ers thrown to the ground by the tremors.  The cacophony of house and car alarms in the streets.  The gaping fissure which opened up in the middle of Melrose.  Cleaving the town in two.  Folks homes were destroyed, lit’rally torn in half.  An’ it was half a miracle no-one died right there and then.

I remember when they first found Mother creeping out of the fissure.  Of course she was just a young sapling then, but she shocked everyone by how fast she grew.  Within a week she was as tall as most folk and by the time the December frost hit she looked like one of ‘em Giant Redwoods you get up in the Sierra Nevada.  I remember they put tinsel and baubles on her lower branches for Christmas.  Little did they know then what she was.

You see Christmas came and went and Mother she carried on growin’.  And at the same time the sickness started.  A few folk started noticin’ a painful rash appearin’ and a fair few more complained of stomach cramps.  After a while most of the town had one of t’other of the symptoms and the local crops were tested and found to be infected with an unknown bacteria.  They were burnt.  Every last one.  The farmers were up in arms.  Threatening legal action and the like.

I watch the figures moving towards the edge of town.  By the time they reach the base of Mother and begin their final ascent my fire is waning.  I take a deep breath to savour the smell of the smoke as its warmth begins to fade...

By the time Spring came around Mother was measured as over 100m high.  Her trunk was wide as a bus.  Of course there were problems about having such a big tree in the centre of the town but she was becoming a big tourist draw.  Coachloads of tourists arrived every day to gawp at her size, and folk were getting’ rich off of the business.  Even when it was suggested she was to blame for the rash and cramps, an’ had somehow infected the soil of those crops the talk of tryin’ to cut her down to stop the spread was shouted down.  A few botanists came and tried to take samples but they all left empty handed.  None of their instruments were sharp enough to strip bark from her trunk.  

And it carried on like that for a while with the townsfolk gettin’ rich from cheap “Mother: World’s biggest tree” mugs and t-shirts.  It was only when the town’s streets near Mother’s trunk began to crack and rise up to meet her that folk realised just how large she’d got under the ground.  We were livin’ on the expanding base of where her trunk met her roots and those roots were estimated to stretch for sev’ral miles around.  The theories that it was her roots infectin’ the crops became accepted as fact more or less and what with the town bein’ instable leaning on those roots the tourists soon dried up and folks began packing up and leavin’ their homes.

It was around this time that Mother began to blossom.  Those now famous bright red double-helix pods lined her branches, pods the like of which the world had never seen.  The sickness spread and got worse, the infected areas of skin started hardening and folks’ joints began stiffenin’ up.  The TV was awash with adverts for lotions promisin’ to softening the skin and sooth the pain.  There were only six of us not infected in Melrose and the town was quarantined along with around 12 others with multiple cases.  The odd case was reported elsewhere and hospitals began preparing small isolation wards in case it reached other towns.  The disease was given a name – Malinda.  The media went with the name the Melrose merchandise had coined and began calling her Mother.  A number of companies were hired to try to fell her or cut her back but they still couldn’t find a blade to touch her.

That Summer was a hot one, but Melrose was cool.  Mother had got so big you couldn’t see her top and the shadow she cast kept both sides of the town in shade.  The quarantine hadn’t worked and hospitals up and down the country were overflowing with the infected.  The hard skin had begun to spread, in some cases over the infected’s eyes and mouth, and there were a few deaths from suffocation.  The feet of the sick began to swell up to more than twice their normal size.  All flights were grounded with a worldwide ban on any people or produce leavin’ the country.

With that embargo on exportin’ in place, it didn’t take long for the economy to crash.  Panic set in as tests confirmed that the Malinda pathogen had been found in several reservoirs across the country, and folk not infected started stayin’ indoors when it rained on account of the hydrological cycle.  Deaths from starvation were reported with some people refusin’ to eat in case their food was infected.  Aid packages of food and medical supplies began to be dropped in from other countries.  Mother silently carried on growin’ through it all, covered in her strange red pods, insects buzzing around her and hastening Malinda’s spread.

I start to shiver as the fire burns itself out with only a few embers glowing to warm the watching post.  The last of the figures still moving have begun their climb, leaving a handful behind to watch their progress…

By the time the fall came the WHO had declared an international public health emergency.  Estimates put the numbers of dead in the thousands.  The number of infected was as high as 75% of the country and numerous cases were reported in other countries on other continents. There were countless attempts to cull Mother, to cut her, to burn her, to poison her.  Nothing had any effect.  Emergency summit meetings were announced and nuclear action was discussed.  As the politicians dithered over “appropriate measures”, with all of the other trees Mother shed her blossom.  They drifted from her like sycamore helicopters as she cast her terrible pods for miles around. 

The worst of the infected who’d been spared suffocation from their hardened skin by this stage saw their joints fuse together and they struggled to move at all.  The hard skin covered virtually all of their body and their swollen feet began to crack apart. 

The fall saw the birth of Green religious cults.  They sprang up everywhere.  Payback claimed Malinda was Gaia’s revenge, repaying the decades of abuse we’d inflicted on the earth.  Malianity proclaimed Mother as the bringer of the rapture.  The GIM group (God is Mother) were the most popular of the groups and very quickly established themselves as a major religious and political force.  As October came around they began preaching the virtues of auto-infection, with symbolic baptismal fonts full of infected water and a “return to Mother” slogan.  Jewett and me, by now we were the only two left in Melrose not infected.  We took to our watch posts and saw it all unfold.

October 31st.  A year to the day since the quake had hit Melrose, the wind picked up and blew through Mother’s branches.  The sound was deafening.  A shill whistled call to arms.

The infected took to the streets wherever they were.  The GIM auto-infected return party had by this time reached Melrose and we watched them cut their way through the barriers.  They struggled on towards Mother as across the world cracked swollen feet burst open and the infected began to sprout roots.  People were tethered to the ground where they stood.  The scene was the same in cities around the world as the infected were frozen in place.  Strange ghostly figures.

That was 4 years ago.  Every year the GIM party gets bigger.  This year there must be a few hundred.  I watch them now as I watched them then, clambering up to Mother to join the forest that now fills Melrose’s streets.  One by one they stop, suspended in time, frozen to the ground.  I warm my hands on the last embers of the fire and look back through the cracked glass.  As the sun sets over Melrose, the sky beyond Mother’s branches stains the figure of Jewett red.  He walks through the frozen figures, his axe glinting in the fading light.  Soon we’ll have a new fire to burn.  Even from up here I know I’ll hear the screams.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Flash Fiction Challenge: The first half of a story only - "Redcliff"

...Been a while without any quality internet.  But here's another of Chuck's Flash Fiction Challenges.  This time the 500 word opening of a story for (hopefully!) someone else to finish!


They call me Voltaire. I saw this coming. I may have even started it, but it isn't for me to finish...

..."Hey buddy" croaked the bum by my side. I turned slowly to face him. The rain ran off his greased hair making an oily puddle on the floor.  As our eyes met he began to whine like a hound. His mottled eyes couldn't hold my gaze. They'd seen too much of this for his ruined mind to take. He turned back to the photograph in his hands and spat on the floor, another yellow stain on this yellow world. "Fuuuuck buddy... I neeeed to get movin'. Theeey'lll be baack....."

I looked up through the rain. He was right. The dark wet afternoon was beginning to curdle into evening. Soon it'd be dark. Soon they'd be coming.

I tried to shut out the bum's keening and knelt to adjust the tarpaulin. Beneath it she looked the same as she always did. Bright red lipstick, curled blond ringlets. A real throwback to the Hollywood starlets of the old days. The only thing which spoilt the look was the dogtag I'd given her to wear and the gaping hole in her stomach. Last time it'd been a bullet wound. This time was more messy.  With the raindrops hammering unforgivingly on her shelter no matter how I arranged the sheet, a steady red stream ran from underneath. 

Lifting the photo out of the bum's hands I stood and glanced up to the junction. She was hidden for the moment. The downpour acted as a fog, numbing the streets to a monochrome. All white static and blurred edges as if the world wasn't quite real. 
I touched the brim of my hat muttering a quick Hail Mary, turned up the stiff collar of my coat and gave the bum a head start with my boot.  Pressing on, through the discontent of our winter, I headed back towards the smudged lights of Redcliff.

My office was on the third floor of an old abandoned shoe factory. I set it up here half in the hope that no-one would find me, but somehow they still managed to seek me out. The door was already ajar when I reached it, the worn gold lettering of the legend "Voltaire. Finder of Lost Things" lit in silhouette from inside. I didn't need to open it to work out who'd be waiting for me on the other side but I went ahead in anyway. There's little point trying to avoid life happening to you.

"Mr Voltaire" she crooned from behind my desk. "You found me again didn't you?" She brushed the blond ringlets behind her ear on the left hand side, her dogtag catching the light from the desk lamp.

I gulped and stared at the figure behind my desk, shocked as ever to see her again and gave a small nod.

"...and have you found the people responsible?"
The scar on my neck began itching like it always did when I was on a case - a reminder of how close things had been to being different.  I threw the picture on the desk in front of her.  "Mean anything to you?"

Monday, 28 April 2014

A new flash fiction challenge: 50 Random Character Snidbits

A different challenge this time from Chuck Wendig.  We had to pick 5 character descriptions and include them in a 1500 word piece of short fiction.  I'm afraid I broke the word limit shortly, but here is the result.  But first the 5 characters:

1. the graceful official searching for truth

2. the actor with unexpected depths

3. the puerile aloof smuggler who belongs to a secret organisation

4. the Rude boatman

5. the fear-ridden, short tempered theologian



I remember the doctor well.  Big brown eyes and a shock of white hair, but with a freshness and poise that defied his age.  He looked at me like I was a frog on a dissecting plate.


"Miss Hess, the studio has recommended you for these clinical trials because you are, ahem... let's just say you are a… suitable actress".


"Come on doc, you know as well I do.  It's because I suck"


His graceful demeanor was interrupted for a moment, and then he recovered his composure.  "No.  Your skills are perfectly suited to this kind of test.  The studio will be able to tell immediately the level of their success.”  He began to prepare the syringe.  “Before we begin however, I need to outline the process for you.  We are going to sedate you and..."


"Skip it doc, let's just get on to the part where my bank account fills up"


"...then induce a controlled temporary psychosis.  After you come out of the psychosis you will remain..."


"Come on doc, I've got movies to be in"


" our care for one week of observation and then released to the studio where your contract stipulates..."


"Yeah yeah yeah... 5 movies and 10 million shiny ones."


"...that you will take part in a test shoot and a further 5 feature length pictures." He glid across the hospital floor towards me, each gesture a movement in an invisible dance.  "Miss Hess." he said softly "we are breaking new ground here.  If we succeed you will be the first to experience and share a new reality, a new kind of truth.  However, there are considerable risks.  You have been made aware of the risks involved in this test haven't you?"


I remember how serious his face became.  He was obviously excited to be at the helm of a new breakthrough in medical and entertainment science, but nobody wants blood on their hands.


"Yes doc. I understand"


And after that my memory is a blank. 


When I woke up the doctor was standing over me.  "Back with us Miss Hess."


"How'd it go doc"


"It went well.  There was a minor complication, but these will take care of it."  He handed me my first batch of pills and a card.  "Call this man when you need some more.  You'll need to pay for them, but money shouldn't be a problem ever again."


I remember smiling weakly.  My head felt weird.


That was a year ago.  Now here I was in Salty's shithole of a bar collecting my monthly supply.


Opposite me in the booth Donnie belched loudly and sniggered.  "Here you go sweet cheeks" he said throwing the pills across to me.  It made me sick to look at him, his swollen gut folded in two by the table between us.


"Donnie, this is only half a fucking week’s worth.  Where’s the rest.  You've got the money for a full month of pills."  When I had first called Donnie the price was 2000, now it was close to 200,000.  I knew if the prices kept rising like they were it'd soon become a problem no matter how much I was earning.   Not that the current rate was an issue.  It was hard to believe that just one year ago 10 million seemed like a lot of money.  I was currently getting at least five times that per picture – the mysterious method actor Mia Hess, so good that no-one believed it was the same actress in each movie.


"Prices are rising sweetheart.  It's getting harder to smuggle them across the border."  Donnie smiled viciously, "but just this once you can get the rest of your month's supply gratis at this address."  He slid a business card across the table to me with one fat finger.  Thick luxuriant paper embossed with a pair of lines in small black type. 




1152 Carthage Street



"Think of it as a good will gesture.  These people have a lot of respect for you missy and they've got a job opportunity waiting."


"Don't fuck about Donnie." I spat, hammering my fist on the table "I don't need a job.  I've got offers coming out of my ears."


I glanced back down at the card and my drink, and took a look around the boating paraphernalia that lined the walls of the bar to try and calm my nerves.  Salty's custom had long since dried up.  There was someplace else everyone had to be 10pm on a Wednesday evening.  I took a deep breath and a long sip of my beer and grimaced.  Maybe there were other reasons for the bar being empty.


I looked back up at Donnie’s face.  Sweat dripped down his myriad of chins and dribbled onto his distended polo shirt.  He just edged the card across the table.  "You'd have to have something wrong with your brain not to go." he sniggered nastily as he pushed out of the booth.  He exited the bar wafting his hand behind his back.  Seconds later my nostrils were burning from the cloud of noxious gas he'd left behind him.  Swallowing the urge to gag, I took the card and my drink up to a stool at the bar hoping that the stench hadn't further tainted the beer.


Salty looked over from behind the bar.  "Hanging with the wrong… WANKER! crowd again... COCK!" he mused


"Needs must" I sighed, repressing a smile at Salty's language.  He said it was Tourette’s, but I sometimes wondered if he wasn’t just making excuses for his foul mouth.  I popped one of the Cannabidiol from the foil pack and swallowed it with another rank sip of beer.


"He's bad... FUCKFACE! news... TOSS POT!"  Salty continued eloquently “He wouldn’t have lasted two minutes on the high sea… DICKBREATH!”


I ignored the old barman the best way I knew how, by reaching in my pocket and pulling out my phone.  I loaded up the map and typed in 1552 Carthage Street.  In the ever expanding city it was hard to keep track of the street names.  It blinked up on the phone, may be half an hour from Salty's. "How much do I owe you?"


"It's my... BASTARD! gift to you darling." he said with a grand sweep of his arm, interrupting it with a sideways tick "PISS FLAPS!"


I shrugged and left him to his shit beer and vulgarities.


Outside the air was cooler.  I pulled a woolen hat over my close cropped blonde hair and slipped a leather jacket over my white vest top.  No taxi would come near this part of town, I'd need to walk over to Carthage Street.  At least no-one would recognise me.  That was the beauty of the experiment.  Sure, when I stopped the anti-psychotics in preparation for a role I got sick.  Nausea and anxiety haunted my days and insomnia my nights.  But when the withdrawal began to ease and the psychosis kicked back in, boy was I good.  I lived the role, I breathed the role.  I existed only as the role.  A new evolution in method acting they called it.  Controlled psychosis allowing actors to actually become their characters.  As far as I knew I was the only success from the studio’s expensive trials.  Tapping into the latent psychosis in all of us.  Projecting my altered reality as a kind of shared psychotic dream.  Whatever the reasons behind it, when I was up on screen no-one saw me.  They saw their ideal, they saw who I'd become.  Meanwhile, I was free to walk around anonymously, no-one any wiser to who I was, to the millions in my bank account.


1552 Carthage Street was an innocuous looking building.  Nothing on its exterior identified what kind of business lay inside.  I peered through the frosted pane in the front door.  There was no light on and through the distorted gloom I tried to make out the fragments of shapes.


A booming voice beside me interrupted my reverie.


"Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you."


A man stood beside me.  He was a colossus.  A completely bald head shone above me like a beacon in the night and his eyes were piercing behind a pair of small round glasses.  Around his neck a priest's dog collar was fixed.  How long he had been there I could not say.


I narrowed my eyes "Are you the man with the pills?" I asked uncertainly.


He angrily fixed me with a steely blue gaze "What if I told you that you won't need to take another pill ever again?" 


I began to feel the rancid beer clotting with nerves in my stomach, this man was clearly a lunatic.  "Then I'd say you obviously don't know shit."


He turned the key in the lock, and flung open the door "Such eloquence." he snapped.  "We are in the end times my dear.  I am fearful, but we must be ready, for it comes at an hour you will not expect." He moodily led the way through the darkness.


I had obviously upset this giant, and I was torn as to whether to follow him or not, but I knew that my few days stash of pills would never last me and my feet were following him through the dark entrance hall and down an equally dark corridor before I'd had a chance to think it over.  We stopped in front of a solid door fixed with a gold crucifix.


The room behind the door was big - full of large heavy furniture and lit by a huge antique lamp on a heavy oak desk.  The bald man lit a cigar and turned away from me to look out of a massive picture window into the night.  His back was wide and muscular beneath his priest's garb, a stream of smoke trailed over his shoulder from the lit smoke in his left hand.  He walked over to the desk and opened a drawer to pull out a remote control.  At the push of a button the TV in the corner flicked on. 


A familiar sight appeared, one of my pivotal scenes in the movie Hang Loose.  I watched silently waiting for my entrance.  On screen a door opened and in strutted my character.  As always I was struck with that strange sense of disconnect watching one of my performances.  Even before I spoke, I was incredible.  The character on screen was far taller than me, and more voluptuous.  A real screen siren.  She didn't look like an actor at all, she was the ultimate femme fatale.  She immediately drew you in – it was in her eyes, in her walk.  As ever, I was completely transfixed by this stranger walking in my shoes.  The large man pointed the remote again and the screen went blank.  I turned back to face him.


He was examining the end of his smoke with great interest. 

"Your talent Miss Hess, precedes you"


"I... just want my pills"


"Your pills Miss Hess.  Or may I call you Mia?"  He reached into a drawer in the desk and pulled out a huge pack of Cannabidiol.  "I have plenty of 'your' pills".  But hear me out first.  I meant what I said outside.  I have a proposition for you.  A proposition that would mean an end to..." he gestured at the pack of pills "...your little addiction".


He took a big puff of his cigar and blew out a cloud of blue smoke.  "Would you care for a cigar Mia?"  I shook my head impatiently "Very well."


"I am afraid for the world" he continued "you know perhaps ever better than I do the intransience of truth.  People will believe what they want to believe."


I put on a show of bravado "Look Mr, I'm all out of listening.  Do I get the fucking pills or not." I hissed through gritted teeth.


"Mia” he silenced me with a withering glance.  “Mia, look out there".  He gestured with a large hand at the window behind him.  "Every day, and every night our streets are full of sin.  And when people need faith today, they turn to false idols."  He fixed me again with that stare. "They turn to you.  A measly actor playing pointless roles in meaningless films."


I swallowed hard at the insult.  "Does the truth hurt you Mia?"


I tried to think of a reply and opened my mouth but nothing came out.


"What the world needs is for you to play a different role.  The role I am offering.  The greatest role in all of history.  It is no cheap trick in a measly film.  It is a part which through your deceit will create a truth to unite the world.  It will make you an idol in the true meaning of that word." He paused for effect. "The role I am offering you Mia, is nothing less than God, Yahweh, Allah, the almighty.  We both know what you are.  How good you are.  This is the logical step.  The next role in your career.  The final role of your career.  The role of your life."


He led me around to the side of the room and to a hidden alcove where a mini television studio was set up.  "Sometimes to give people the truth we must sell the greatest lie.  Stop the pills for good.  Become your own reality Mia.  Become our God"


“What if I say no?” I asked weakly “I kinda like being me once in a while”.


Again anger crossed the large man’s face.  He tutted. “You’ve been given a gift Mia. I’m afraid I can’t allow you to waste it on sentimentality.”


I glanced down and saw a gun had materialized in his hand.  I looked from the weapon to the studio and back again.  Whichever path I took, I was going to have to wish Mia Hess goodbye.  In a way, perhaps I already had.