Ice

Her heart was still sore from the words Arbek, her stepfather had spoken. “Go,” he had said with a dismissive wave. “Find us some food or don’t bother coming back here. Useless girls have no place at my hearth.”

And so Svarna fled from him with down cast eyes and white knuckles, taking the cumbersome fishing baskets with her across the wide open spaces of the steppes. She walked rapidly with a swinging gait that clearly said she wanted to put distance between herself and the small turf and wood dwelling that she and the others called home. It didn’t matter that she didn’t know where she was headed. She just needed some space and room to breathe and some time to think about what had gone wrong. Out in the open she could do just that. There was no one waiting for the opportunity to criticize her there. She touched the turquoise necklace about her throat, the one her mother had made for her on the dark nights of winter, each bead carved by hand and wondered about the hold Arbek had over her. Why did her normally loving mother remain silent when her new husband harangued and scolded her? Why did she not speak up? Surely their bond could not have been extinguished so easily?

Her breathing eventually became ragged as much from the rising altitude as from the punishing pace she had set herself at the start. But that had obviously served its purpose. Now her more immediate issues were the regrouping of her energies and thoughts so that she could come up with a workable plan of action that would enable her to bring back food for her family. A grassy hillock to the right of her seemed suitable enough for the purpose and she was so tired anyway that when she reached it she did not care much about the tussocks of grass that stuck in her back or the ants that nipped peevishly at her skin. As the clouds scudded by heedless of her sorrows she turned her attention to her failures over the previous weeks. She’d spent most of that time fishing the series of small lakes beyond the forest since they were closer to home and a lot more sheltered. Mostly she’d come back empty handed. But regardless of what Arbek said, that could have been for any number of reasons. Anyone with any sense knew that the gods could take away their blessing from a hunter just as easily as they gave it and that sometimes waters can sour naturally. Otters could have contributed to the problem too, especially if a large enough family moved into an area. Either way she knew she could not afford to come home with nothing again. She must bring home food if it was the last thing she did. Her life depended on it.

So this time she settled on venturing north towards the creaking towers of ice that would one day, many thousands of years into the future be called glaciers by the people who would inhabit these lands. There she would find the mighty salmon that lived in the gentian blue river that issued forth from the glacier itself. Her father had taken her there once, many moons ago. He had told her that they were looking for a medicine man who lived there and that if they could find him he might be able to heal her seizures. They never did find him and for many years afterwards Svarna felt that her father had just been amusing her with his silly game until news reached her of the deaths of two tribesmen. They’d been crushed by falling ice whilst out looking for the very same medicine man. It was then that she realised that it had been no game. The glacier was indeed dangerous and her father must have had good reason to take her there. She would do well to remember that today, she told herself.

After another hour of climbing and walking her efforts bought her within sight of her destination. By that time the twine and willow fishing baskets she carried were starting to chafe her scrawny shoulders, so she paused briefly in the shadow of the ice sheet to balance them. Perhaps it was this seemingly minor action that caused what happened next or maybe it was the increasing warmth of the day. But whatever the case, without any warning whatsoever a great slab of ice sheared off and plunged into a rocky outcrop a mere hundred metres away. The sound was ear splitting. Instinctively she fled, eyes flashing in terror and baskets forgotten; only coming to a stop when she reached the safety of the outer ice field. There she cowered listening to the ricochets bouncing off the nearby cliffs and the smaller pieces that were continuing to break free in the aftermath. Some fell into the river. Some hit the ground below and were turned to powder in an instant. Eventually all was quiet. Her heart slowed and her breathing returned to normal. Then she remembered the baskets. To return without fish would be bad enough but to destroy the only means they had to catch any in the future would be inexcusable. It was this thought alone that gave her the courage to retrace her steps.

They were quite intact actually and when she discovered this, she felt better. She turned them over and over, inspecting them for damage, reattaching the food scraps that she had bought for bait. When she had done this to her satisfaction she gazed up at the cliff the ice had fallen from and saw something that truly horrified her. There was a man up there staring at her from within the ice flow. She stifled a scream and dropped one of the baskets. They stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually she realised he was entombed within the ice, so she moved forward for a better look.

The expression on his face was easily discernible. Although neutral, she imagined it to be kindly. Quite possibly he had brought her luck, she thought – after all the baskets were miraculously undamaged and she herself was not dead. She leaned forward and touched his icy prison, whispering a thank you that could only have been heard by mice.

But she needed to hurry. Daylight did not last long in the upper regions of the northern hemisphere. In just a few short hours the light would falter and night would swiftly follow. There would be no fishing to be done then. With this in mind, she made her way over to the river where she identified a likely spot and dropped one of the baited baskets in. She repeated these actions with the other two at different intervals then stood for what seemed like hours holding onto the rough twine she’d attached to each of them. It was a boring task so not surprisingly her thoughts began to wander. She thought of the ice man and what his life might have been like and where he had come from. She speculated about how he had come to end up locked within the glacier and of how long he might have been trapped. These thoughts triggered a distant memory of a time when her family had lived somewhere warmer. Then she had found another type of ice – but very tiny pieces and globular in shape. This ice was not cold though and neither was it white or blue like the ice that came from the glacier. This warm ice was a deep orangey yellow and yet clear at the same time. It also had the power to capture living things just as the glacier had done. She had found ants inside it, spiders and even a lizard on one occasion. She wondered what would happen if the ice ever melted. Would the things captured like this come to life again once more? Or would they stay inanimate? Who could say? There was much about the world that she did not know yet.

Suddenly there was a loud creak and the overhang Svarna was standing on collapsed, plunging her into the water. The air left her lungs in one explosive gasp. She couldn’t swim so naturally she went under. Panic brought her up again, all thrashing limbs and terror. She sank once more but for longer this time. Without knowing how, she propelled herself up again to the surface. She coughed and spluttered, gagged and sobbed. She cried out to the wilderness, to the gods and her ancestors, ‘somebody save me! I’m dying!’ Her body was under siege from both within and without. The sub zero water seared her flesh. It filled her nose and mouth. She couldn’t think any more. Her mind was too consumed by terror. She battled to breathe, she battled to live. She battled in vain to reach the bank. For several agonising minutes she struggled on valiantly, becoming progressively weaker as time went on. Eventually she was spending more time beneath the surface than she was on top. Her movements grew ever more feeble until finally her blue face sank beneath the surface for one last time, her hair fanning out like the tentacles of a golden anemone as she faded from this life.

Morning arrived and for the moment everything on and around the glacier was still. A solitary black wisp of smoke drifted above it carrying with it the smell of freshly cooked fish. It had not travelled far. Beneath the ice sheet that had revealed the iceman to Svarna the day before, a camp fire flickered brightly in its efforts consume the damp spruce wood someone had so hastily flung across it. Beside it stood a basket of fish. They were substantial in size and fresh too; in fact some were still flopping about. One of them was already cooked. It steamed on a wooden slab, sending its tantalising aroma into the nostrils of a sleeping girl. She stirred beneath the enormous bison fur blinking twice. Abruptly she sat up, confused.

She had died, her mind protested. How could she still be alive?

The water had swallowed her up and she had sunk to the bottom.

Svarna wrestled with this contradiction until she spotted the fish waiting to be eaten. She devoured it quickly and then sat licking her fingers considering this also.

If she could feel hunger then she definitely wasn’t dead. So someone must have pulled her out and revived her. But who? She called out over and over half expecting someone to come running. Maybe her mother or her brother perhaps…but no one did. She was all alone except for the ice man who stared out at her from his chilly abode. She stumbled towards him lifting up her hand to touch the turquoise beads around her neck as she often did whenever she was upset. But before she even had time to complete that familiar gesture her hand froze in the realisation that her actions were pointless because there in front of her, the beads were slung not around her neck, but around the iceman’s, resting comfortably on the hair of his chest.

Once she got over the shock of what that meant she bravely reached out again. “Thank you,” she said to him, running her fingers across the ice. His only reply was silence and a frozen stare but it was the warmest gesture she had known in many months so she marked it well in her heart.

New Book

So as you may already know, due to recent developments I’ve no publisher and for all intents and purposes I’m riding by the seat of my pants. But I want to let you in on a secret, just a small one – I quite like this situation. I like to do things my own way and under my own steam. And steaming ahead is exactly what I’ve been doing folks! In fact I’ve more than one new book on the way and the old books will be revised and republished just as soon as I can get round to it.

So here’s a little about my new novel; a historical fiction from the Glens of Antrim. It’s based on the life story of certain Thomas McCartney, a 19th century hedgerow teacher who taught in the picturesque town of Whitehead and the surrounding areas. I’ve painted the front cover myself in acrylic on canvas. So you may find that and the first unedited chapter below. Don’t be shy in giving me feedback. I’d love to hear from you no matter who you are. So be brave and fill in that contact form won’t you? Best wishes to you all. Sam x

cover

Prologue

Time is hard to measure in dreams. It could have been several hours or several days since we had first gone down to the Misty Burn to mess about as children do near the old fir tree locals call The Sentry. The wise old evergreen watched us, nodding and shedding its pine needles quietly. In front of it we built our dam using stones and other debris we wrested from the river.

Many years have passed since I dreamt that dream but when I think on it Martha I can still feel the water lapping at my ankles like a multitude of kitten’s tongues supping eagerly at a saucer of milk, only much colder than that. It felt real. It feels real; even though it’s just a memory of a dream dusted off and brought out into the light.

I can see it as clear as day in fact…

In that far off world my mind created, dappled sunlight filtered through the quivering leaves, beaming down on our mud caked shoes lying forgotten on the bank. Inside them, were the socks our mother made on the long winter nights, her needles gleaming in the firelight as they moved faster and faster beneath our somnolent gaze.

“It’s more than they deserve,” our stepfather Lyle would say on such nights, his eyes flitting fractiously between our mother and our outstretched forms playing marbles on the rug. I can see his face now, ruddy, robust and rather striking but always there was something implacable in his eyes, something that told me we would always be found wanting.

He had many unfortunate sayings. The one I personally hated most was,

“Bold boys have no need of kindness, Kaitlin. What they need is discipline and a firm hand.” It was meant to sound authoritative, fatherly even but when it fell upon my ears it filled me with the knowledge that we were but a grain of sand lodged within the cold shell of him, an irritation that could never be purged; an annoyance beyond all imagining. That feeling was mutual. We were locked in our endless battles day and night, year upon year, with no way to escape. We confused each other, wasted so much time. For instance, he had no understanding of what it meant when we used the socks Mother made us to catch tadpoles and turned them into mits when making snowballs. Our ‘naughtiness’ offended him. Later it would enrage him. But for now this story is about the dream I had then and those endlessly darned socks…the rest will make its own way I believe, if we let it.

So down by the Burn I had started to feel that we were soon going to have need of those socks since it was mid afternoon and the air already had a distinctly chilly edge to it. My brother Robert did not seem to pay it any mind though. On slippery bedrock his smaller feet were splayed out in confidence. In his left hand he held a dripping rock and with the other he gestured animatedly at whatever it was that had caught his attention somewhere at the top of the Sentry. It turned out to be a Jay.

As he stared I watched his fascination grow, his long dark lashes fluttering rapidly, the colour growing high in his cheeks like twin sunsets in an autumn sky. In low whispers we speculated about the Passerine and where it had stumbled upon the acorn protruding either side of its beak. We guessed it had to be somewhere near the sheep bridge where the oak trees shivered and brambles grew and the stones roundabout were covered in a thick green velvet moss. Squirrels often stockpiled them there for such times when food was scarce but the odd one was sometimes forgotten or lost in which case it usually became a baby oak or a meal for some other favoured creature. The latter must have happened in this case.

The bird was proud of its prize. He took it to his untidy nest of roots, horse hair and fibres, built in the most precarious of places where his mate waited patiently for her champions return with eyes of shining black. But Robert could not content himself with just this fleeting glimpse of her. He wanted far more than that. He stumbled forward hoping for a better view, then slipped, twisting sideways, dropping the heavy flint beside his chalk white feet sending splinters of it far and wide. Most flew into the rushing water to become precursors of what would one day be sand. The remainder rolled a few feet more gathering momentum till it crashed and demolished a small portion of our afternoon work. With the dam thus compromised the river did the rest.

“Ye daft ejit,” I cried, hurrying over to him. I helped him up and tilted his chin roughly this way and that to check for damage. “Ye almost smashed ye heid in. An’ luk at the state of the dam.”

Water was pouring through the gaps, making wider and wider holes. Logs were dislodged and sticks floated away. He ignored my rebukes and inspected a flapping hole in his trousers. They were beyond repair. We would catch it for that. I told him so.

“Faither ul have ye beat,” I warned.

“He’s nae faither o’ mine,” he snapped.

I decided to say nothing. I could see he was vexed. His jaw still throbbed as he splashed his way over to the trees crinkled girth and looked up sharply no doubt thinking that the bird must be gone by now. But he was wrong.

“There! Do ye see it?” he whispered to me. “The cock bird jus went in an’ fed her agaen. I’ll wager she’s sittin’ on a clutch of eggs.”

But I had no interest in any of that. His words had triggered something strange, something I didn’t expect; a memory or perhaps a premonition. I drew a halting breath and held on to it for several seconds before releasing it and following him over to the tree. Beneath its twisted boughs the deep foreboding continued to grow, spreading like the foulest of moulds. Something was going to happen, I knew it. Something far worse than just the hole in Robert’s trousers or the broken dam. The thought of what it could be chilled me. It was hard to move, hard to breathe. My limbs grew stiff and clumsy. Was the cold I felt actually fear? Or was the fear I felt actually cold?

When you’re a child such things can be difficult to tell. I remember asking myself in the midst of the dream why it should have been fear that I was feeling. After all it was no different than all the other times we had collected eggs as far as I could see and we had done so a great many times. From the moment we were old enough to go out and play in the fields of Glenwherry, Robert and I had collected eggs from the surrounding hedgerows and fields. It was a common pastime for country boys and so was the tree climbing that tended to go hand in hand with it. Yet on this occasion my passion had fled for no apparent reason that I could see.

“Let her be Rabbie. We’ve a dam to fix.”

I hoped that he would listen to me but already he was grasping my shoulders in his eagerness to ascend.

“It’ll only taek a minat.”

Desperately I searched for a reason why he shouldn’t go.

“It’s too high. It’s no safe,” I said.

He looked at me curiously and gave a little laugh.

“Chicken.”

I sighed.

“Come awn then. But see an’ grip taet whaen ye reach the tawp,” I linked my hands for him and braced myself in readiness for his weight.

He scrabbled around and hauled himself up to the lowest branch, puffing and grimacing. From there he planned his advancement to the next.

“Ye look more a feared than me,” he called down.

“See an’ mind what ye’re doin’ instead ae runnin’ off at the mouth like a gulpin,” I retorted.

He laughed at me and bared his lily white bottom.

“Kiss mae erse.”

“Enough of yer cheek! It’ll not be so funny whaen Lyle thrashes it later,” I yelled and threw a handful of sharp gravel with the intention of stinging his buttocks. Hastily he pulled up his breaches and continued his ascent wearing what was admittedly a much happier expression than before.

The climb was challenging enough. But with a little ingenuity and a fair bit of skill (all learnt from me I might add) he reached his destination without incident. At that point I felt all my fears had been for nought. All was safe. Nothing had gone wrong. Then as Robert gently placed the eggs in his cap, I felt something weighty drop into my hands, something unexpected and strangely out of place. For a few seconds I stared dumbly at the axe with its blade curved like a crescent moon. Slowly I turned it around and around. Then I remembered…

Robert was dead or was supposed to be at least. I had killed him twenty years ago.

I called out to him, my voice jagged like the thorns of a sloe bush.

“Robert!”

There was a muffled reply but I couldn’t make it out. The ghost child was too busy figuring out how he was going to descend without breaking the eggs.

“I’m sorry Robert.”

“What? Why are ye sorry? What are ye gan’ on aboot doon thar?”

I had no answers for him, only a terrible compunction. The tree had to come down, even though he – Robert, was still in it. That was the way it was supposed to be.

It bit into the wood with ease, splitting the bark from the cambium. Not surprisingly when he realised what was happening, my younger sibling let out a startled shriek.

“Wayit!” he pleaded, doing his best to get down before the tree was felled. The tears were streaming down both our faces. Mine mingled with sweat as I hacked at the lengthy trunk, Robert’s made it harder for him to see and therefore harder to descend. On the fourth branch from the bottom he lost his grip and hung for several seconds by one hand frantically trying to claw his way back up.

“Heyelp Tommy, please!”

But I couldn’t. All I could do was sob and continue my instinctive chopping like it was the only pastime in the world worth living for – even when Robert lost his hold and fell to the ground with a sickening crack. With the last swing I bowed my head, not caring at all if the falling fir wiped me out also. An elongated creak heralded the ensuing crash and then the old Sentry hit the other side of the Misty Burn sending a cloud of dust and frightened birds into the air. All was still except for the blood in my veins. It hurtled at great velocity, surging and pounding through me as I hurried over to face what I had done. Seeing him was excruciating. I scooped him up and held him to me, my head just grazing his chest. My eyes were squeezed painfully shut, from them tears fell heavy as silver. When they were spent I opened my eyes only to discover that the river was now gone and that we were in a house, in a room of green, with tall stems of bamboo scattered across wallpaper and a rickety unmade bed of brass pushed up against the wall. I recognised it as our old room.

“Rabbie, if only I knew then what I know now” I mumbled to the wasted body. “I could have saved you. But it’s too late.”

Then the slap of sea water commanded that I should wake.

I obeyed with a gasp and coughed hard, glancing about me. Where was I? And why was it so dark and cold?

The roar of the elements remained close so I listened in the darkness to them waiting for answers to come to me. Just when I thought my sanity had fled a flash of lightening illuminated my surroundings. I digested what I’d seen in those split seconds, the meaning of the rock all around me, the rain and the thick woollen blanket. So this was home. This was my cave. There were no duck down pillows here or gently glowing embers to keep me warm. But somehow it felt full of belonging. It was all mine, this place of my own. Here, I answered to none.

Meredith

If love could cure, Meredith would walk. She would lean forward and grasp my two outstretched hands and pull herself up onto feet that do not twitch or flop. They would have the strength to support her body. She would hear the words I say to her each day and the meaning behind them. She would heed my yearning for her to be whole, to live the life that her father and I meant for her when we came together night after night to try for the baby we’d always wanted. Her face would twist no longer. And she would smile; a smile that would shine so bright it would eclipse even the brightest stars of heaven. My baby would speak the words her mouth can never say. No more would she be locked inside the shell of a body that has somehow strayed from its blueprint. We would go to places, do things, stuff that really doesn’t matter. I’d take her to the Laundromat and show her my first ever school. The man with the stand in Westport Park, to the right of the old pink pavilion, he would sell us hotdogs drenched in mustard and onions fried to a deep golden brown and an outsized coke big enough to slake the thirst of even the thirstiest person if only it wasn’t mostly ice.

But love cannot cure. There are some things it cannot overcome. Yet we leave the door to our hearts open anyway regardless of the ache. A living death is what one nurse called it. I heard her from in the bathroom. Still she is our daughter, regardless of whether she can move voluntarily or not. Parenthood doesn’t come with a set of rules that our children must uphold in order to be worthy of our love. For thirty seven years I have cared for her and not because she is all I have left of Harold. She is the sun around which my life rotates. She is Meredith, and for me that is enough.

Out of His League

She had once been his. Well not really. He gone out with her for a few months, taken her to all his favourite spots, shown her off to his mates who had admired her greatly as they had downed pints of Guinness down by the Harbour Inn. But she had never really been his. I suppose deep down he had known it was temporary thing. She was too good for him. Too classy.

But he missed her more than words could say.

“Hey Brian! What’s happened with Suzy? I heard yer man took her back again,” shouted a voice from behind him. Brian turned to find Tobias McCarthy tapping his cigarette out on the edge of the pool table.

“Use the feckin’ ashtray there will ya Toby? That’s what they’re there for,” yelled the landlord.

Toby grunted and took his shot, smashing the pack left right and centre across the baize. A blob of ash plopped onto the green. He brushed it away with the back of his hand then potted a red followed by another. The next shot was a foul. He gave a curse and thumped the table.

“Pour this man a whisky,” he boomed, coming over to drape a friendly arm around Brian’s shoulder. The bartender obliged then rather rudely held out his hand.

“That’ll be three ninety.”

As though he was the Sultan of Brunei Toby peeled off a tenner from his wallet and plonked himself down on the stool next to his friend. Saturday was payday.

“So what happened?”

Brian regarded him with sad bloodshot eyes.

“You know the story. He took her from me. It’s a money thing.”

He took a melancholy swig from his dirty glass and looked up at the ceiling as if in search of guidance.

“Yeah but I thought you said you had it all worked out. You could pay for your housing with what you have coming in from your day job and what you earn delivering pizza’s you can use to spoil Suzy. What’s the problem?”

“Come on Tobs! Your turn!” shouted the other pool player, growing impatient. He thumped the thread bare carpet with the end of his pool cue then chalked it with vigorous twists.

“Alright! Alright!”

“The problem is she needs a lot of attention and I don’t have the time or the money. I spent the whole of last weekend taking her out, listening to her, getting her kitted out for summer and touching her up. Cost me a bloody fortune!”

A great lot of cheering and whistling went up at this from those crowded round the bar.

“Dorty bastard!” someone yelled.

Toby clasped him by the shoulder, his handle bar moustache tinged with Guinness foam.

“Seriously Brian, she’s just a feckin’ boat! As soon as you’re solvent you can buy yourself another one.”

“Yeah…but you know I’ve always wanted Suzy.”

“Well, then perhaps you need something to take your mind off it. That hungry looking woman over there has been eyeing you up for ages. How about you go do something about it?”

Brian looked at the woman in the corner warming herself by the peat fire. She was stunning. He couldn’t quite think why he hadn’t noticed her before. But he had now and he was lost.

“You think?”

“Yes I think. For heaven’s sake go to her or else I bloody well will!”

Out of The Blue

images

 

Inbox: Hi J

Hello Suzanne. How are you doing? I couldn’t believe it was you when I saw you the other day! I got the feeling you saw me but perhaps didn’t recognise me? Anyhow, I hope you don’t mind me contacting you like this. I don’t have any other way of getting in touch. When I saw you outside the Kissinger Buildings I figured you might work there so I poked around online for a bit and came across your picture. Lucky for me they also had your email listed too. Look – I have to ask…what’s with the name change? Tell me to mind my own business if you want but I thought we had something good going between us. I know it was almost two years ago now and that we only saw each other a few times but there was a definite spark and I know you felt it too. If you want me to leave you alone just say so, there’s no need to change your name and hide away. Looking forward to hearing from you soon.

Justin x

“Weirdo!” Leah said over Teresa’s shoulder. “Block him.”

“This isn’t Facebook. I can’t block him.”

“Just add his email address to the reject list then. Same thing.”

Teresa’s fingers hovered over the keyboard prompting Leah to give her a funny look. Why the hesitation? Didn’t she realise this guy was probably just chancing his arm? He’d probably sent that message to dozens of women, hoping someone would take the bait.

Beneath her assistant’s scrutiny Teresa flushed a healthy shade of pink. Maybe it was her age. Or maybe it was just a touch of envy that had made the word ‘spark’ catch her eye. What must it be like to have someone desire you on that kind of level? Justin, whoever he was seemed pretty het up over this mystery woman.

Subconsciously she tugged at the hem of her plaid skirt that fell to a modest level just below her knees. Leah was right. Curiosity killed the cat, or so the saying went.

“So, what about funding for the school? Have we got an actual estimate of how much the project will cost yet?” she said, once she’d deleted the email and added her unwanted admirer’s address to the reject list.

“Nothing definite yet, but they’re thinking in the region of $28,000. Similar to the one we did in Angola really.”

“Yes, but that was five years ago. Costs for materials and labour have increased three fold since then. Get on the phone to Father Brinkman and see if you can expedite things at his end.”

“Ok.”

“I need to pop out for some air for a while. Do you need me to bring you anything back?” Teresa asked.

Leah smiled. Sometimes her boss didn’t quite seem to get the concept of what an assistant was.

“I should be asking you that,” she pointed out.

Teresa shrugged and pulled on her cardigan.

“Yeah, I know. But I need a breather. So…do you want anything?”

“No, I’m good thanks,” replied Leah over her shoulder as she dialled the number for Father Brinkman.

“Ok, I’ll be back just before two.”

A few days later when Teresa was just about to leave the office there was a knock on the door.

“Come in,” Leah called cheerfully.

The person who entered was hard to make out because their entire upper body was obscured by a huge arrangement of flowers.

“Delivery for Miss Teresa Gomez,” said a man’s voice from somewhere behind the fragrant blooms.

Leah took them from him, casting a doubtful glance at her boss.

“They’re beautiful,” she murmured sniffing them. But obviously it was a mistake. They must be meant for someone else.

“Sign here please,” the delivery man said, holding out his clipboard.

“What do you make of that?” said Teresa when he had gone.

“I don’t know.”

They both knew what the other was thinking. That Teresa’s love life was about as lively as a funeral parlour. It simply didn’t exist. She only had time for three things in her life; God, work and her three cats. And maybe the odd bar of chocolate when nobody was looking. So who had sent her the flowers?

“It must be from one of the orphanages I visited last month,” suggested Teresa. “Hang on…there’s a card.”

“Ooo…let me see.”

To Leah’s disappointment she kept it just out of view, cupped within her palm until she’d read it through herself.

“Oh no,” she groaned, holding it out for Leah to read.

 

Dear Suzanne (Or should I say Teresa?) I must say I am deeply disappointed that you have failed to reply to my previous email. Perhaps you misunderstand my motives? In an effort to convey the depth of my feelings towards you I decided to send you these flowers. Please take careful note of the scarlet roses (fittingly they are the Dante’s Inferno variety) with their ever so soft petals. There are sixteen in total. One for each time we made love during our brief time together in Boston.

I hope you remember those times. I certainly do. In vivid detail. I beg you not to throw away our future before it’s even begun. But if you must, why not at least acknowledge our past over quiet drink with me?

Yours Hopefully

Justin

XXX

“Oh my. This is getting serious. You should speak to security,” Leah urged.

Teresa shook her head, unwilling to think badly of anyone.

“No. I’ll take care of this. In the meantime I’d love a coffee.”

Leah saw there was no convincing her.

“Latte?”

“Please.”

“Ok. I’ll be back soon.”

As soon as she was gone Teresa opened up her email account and began to type her response.

 

Inbox:RE: Hi J

Hello Justin. I’m afraid you have me confused with someone else. My name never has been and never will be Suzanne. It’s Teresa.

I just received the flowers and the card you meant for Suzanne. To be honest with you, you’re starting to scare me. I do not wish to offend you but I want you to leave me alone.

Teresa

Disturbingly less than two minutes later a reply appeared in her inbox. She opened it with tremulous hands.

 

Inbox:RE: Hi J

I cannot tell you how good it feels to hear from you! But I must admit I’m crushed at the thought you don’t remember me.

I have thought of you so many times since we first met on that overcrowded late night subway train. In fact I’ve ridden the ‘T’ to and from work virtually every day in the hope that one day we might bump into each other again. Last year my therapist finally helped me to see just how bad it is for me to obsess over you in this way. After a lot of soul searching I decided that if it was meant to be, it would happen regardless of what I did. So I moved to Philadelphia and started a new job. Three months later I saw you again, albeit from a distance.

Unfortunately you seem certain that this is not something you wish to pursue. Although that is difficult for me to accept, I respect your decision. But just in case you change your mind any time here’s my address.

437 Newark Street, Eastbridge, Philadelphia

Yours

Justin

XXX

After reading it a second time, Teresa just sat and stared blankly. When Leah returned she found her boss in an untypically flustered state.

“What are you doing?”

“Tidying my desk.”

Leah set down the coffee and took the pile of sponsorship files from her.

“Well you’re not very good at it. Guess that’s why you’ve got me.”

The two women sat down and looked at each other.

“So I suppose you emailed him then?”

“Yes but it’s not what you think.”

“And how would you know what I think? Here’s your latte.”

Teresa slowly stirred two sugars into it, then swirled it around till it dissolved. Leah grimaced.

“I’m not interested in forming romantic attachments as you well know Leah. My faith takes the ultimate place in my life. My work for the international Christian community is a close second.”

“I know that. It’s up to you what you do. I just don’t want you to put yourself at risk through some misguided attempt at kindness. That’s all.”

“You make me sound so naïve.”

Teresa smiled and they drank their coffee in companionable silence. Leah was about the closest thing she had to a friend right now and admittedly she needed someone in the wings, just in case she got out of her depth. This was unfamiliar territory.

Later that night she puzzled over the persistence of this man whom she’d never even met. By his own admission he was obsessive and that word couldn’t help but send a shiver down her spine. Maybe it was it really was time that she spoke to security. She would talk to Chester Harris on the front desk first thing in the morning she decided.

Blast! What am I thinking? It already is morning!She thought, turning over to look at the neon numbers on the bedside alarm clock. But only just. There was still time for a couple of sleeping pills to work their magic if she bit the bullet so to speak and took them now.

So this is the subject of Justin’s obsession, she thought peering at herself in the mirror. A bedraggled spinster with birds nesthair. What a joke! Not only that, the two pills she’d shaken into the palm of her hand were the wrong ones. They were the tablets she had been given about eighteen months or so ago to combat malaria whilst on her travels. Nefloquine it said on the label or something like that. It was hard to tell without her glasses. As she stood squinting at the bottle under the flickering light, she realised that if she was going to Uganda again in a few weeks’ time to help set up the school, she probably ought to start taking them again. With this in mind she gulped down the last two along with her bright blue sleeping pills and made a mental note to order more in the morning.

Only the morning came and went unnoticed.

“Oh my life! Leah! Why didn’t you call me?” she wailed down the phone at three pm that afternoon.

“If you’d have taken a minute to check your cell you would have seen that I did. About eight times actually.”

“Ok, ok. Sorry. I’m only just up. I feel terrible. Think I’ve had a reaction to some tablets I took. Shouldn’t have mixed them.I’ll tell you all about it when I get there.”

“Uhuh,” said Leah flatly.

“What? What’s up?”

“We just took another delivery from Interfloral. There’s a card too. Want me to read it out?”

Teresa swallowed hard and nodded forgetting that she couldn’t be seen over the phone.

“Yes,” she said eventually.

“Ok. Here goes…”

 

To my darling Suzanne,If you lived a thousand years, you still wouldn’t understand how much it means to me that you changed your mind last night. Although we only had a few hours together it was even better than Boston and much more meaningful to me than anything I’ve experienced before. It was an amazing and unexpected gift. As for our future, I too am looking forward to spending more time getting to know you in every sense of the word. I hope I can see you tonight? Maybe we can actually talk for a change, not that I’m complaining… In the meantime enjoy the flowers and take special note of the fact that there are twenty one scarlet roses this time.

Yours

Justin

XXX

Damn!” she exclaimed, clamping a hand over her mouth. Beneath the duvet, she was pretty much naked or thereabouts.

A closer inspection revealed she was wearing the teeniest of tiny black satin thongs. Where on earth had that come from? And where were her daisy patterned flannelette PJs?

Her breathing was far too fast and she had the curious urge to get in the shower immediately and not come out until she had soaped every inch. Surely there was a reasonable explanation for all of this?

After her shower she decided it was time to take control. This guy was being an absolute nuisance and was messing with her head. Enough was enough. The time had come to speak to Chester.

“This guy sounds like a real creep if you don’t mind my saying so Ma’am.”

After what she’d told him he wasn’t about to take the situation lightly.

“Certainly seems that way. Hopefully he’ll just lose interest,” she said.

Chester regarded her intently, his massive Cuban bulk doing its best to burst its way out of his navy suit.

“That would be advisable,” he rumbled, his chin jutting upwards threateningly.

Teresa unleashed a nervous giggle and then instantly regretted it. It sounded flirtatious and that was the last thing she wanted right now. She was in enough trouble already.

What is wrong with me???

“I’ll leave it in your capable hands then.”

Chester nodded and stood to attention. Tribal drums battered an unforgiving beat inside her head as she made her way towards elevators that had been state of the art ten years ago.

“Oh Terese! You look awful!” cried Leah when she walked in.

“Gee thanks,” she said slumping in her chair.

“Is it really worth it?”

Without waiting to be asked she helped Teresa off with her coat and slipped it onto the hook behind the door.

“I am not going to ask you what you mean by that,” Teresa replied wearily. “All I ask is that you pick me up a seriously strong coffee. No latte nonsense this time. I want something that packs a punch. And I need you to pick me up three dozen of these for the Ugandan trip. I ran out last night.”

She threw the empty brown Nefloquine bottle into her lap and flopped face first onto her desk like a stranded fish.

“You got it. I’ll be back before you know it.”

The next thing Teresa knew her assistant was shaking her arm, rousing her from a state of sleep that wasn’t that far off resembling a coma.

“Hey. Hey! Can you hear me? Oh God. Why did you have to take those pills last night?”

Teresa looked up blearily, unsure of exactly where she was.

“You really weren’t kidding were you?” she mumbled.

“What?”

“You said you’d be back before I knew it. I barely knew you were gone. Did you get the pills? More importantly…did you bring coffee?”

“They wouldn’t let me have them. The pills I mean. I tried and tried to convince them. But they wouldn’t have it. According to their records, the last time you ordered them was two years ago, when you lived in Boston. Since then they’ve been banned in the US. They wanted to know did you have any left and if so they said to dispose of them immediately.”

“So what am I supposed to do now? Did they offer an alternative?”

“Yes they did. They’re in the bag over there. There’s also a letter. Anyone who’s taken Nefloquine is supposed to receive one. Sounds important. I don’t want to panic you but they’re saying that Nefloquine is dangerous honey. Perhaps you should go get checked out.”

Heart thumping, Teresa rifled through the bag till she found the sealed letter.

 

Dear Sir/Madam. This letter has been given to you by reason of the fact that you have at some point been in receipt of the prescription drug Nefloquine – an anti-malarial drug used to combat malaria as well as managing the symptoms.

Unfortunately there are rare occasions when a medication approved by the FDA later turns out to be harmful even though extensive measures have been taken to test the product. In this instance Nefloquine has been found to have some very serious and far reaching side effects in a tiny minority of patients especially when taken in combination with certain hypnotics (sleeping tablets.) Up to this point they include;

    • Headaches. (1 in every 100,000)

 

  • Vomiting. (1 in every 60,000)

 

  • Sexual dysfunction. Including permanent or prolonged male and female sexual arousal and promiscuity. (1 in every 300,000)

 

  • Hallucinations. (1 in every 300,000)

 

  • Mania. (1 in every 80,000)

 

  • Sleep disorders. Insomnia, parasomnia i.e. sleep walking, night terrors, sexsomnia. (1 in every 150,000)

 

  • Delusions. (1 in every 80,000)

 

  • Transient multiple personality disorder. (1 in every 200,000)

 

  • Loss of impulse control. (1 in every 80,000)

 

  • Amnesia. (1 in every 70,000)

 

  • Kidney failure. (1 in every 150,000)

 
Even if you HAVEN’T experienced any of these symptoms the FDA strongly suggests that you have a full spectrum STI and STD test including HIV and AIDS immediately if you have at ANY time taken the drug Nefloquine.

In the meantime please feel free to use another FDA approved drug as recommended by your local pharmacist or GP to prevent and treat the symptoms of malaria.

“I don’t believe it!” cried Teresa, bursting into tears. She screwed up the paper in her fist and hurled it across the room with as much force as she could muster.

“That really is an incredible story,” said Rupert Grimes when she had finished telling him everything. She’d gone to him on the advice of Father Brinkman who knew a little of her plight and wanted very much to get her on the road to Uganda again. Finding the courage to enter the offices of Grimes and Lanyard to tell them all about her suspicions was not the easiest thing in the world to do but she needed to know where she stood legally just in case the blood tests came back positive.

“Do you mind me asking what it is apart from circumstantial evidence that makes you think you and this Justin character engaged in sexual intercourse whilst you were under the influence of this drug? Do you have anything er…concrete?”

“Um, well…no, not really.”

Suddenly she felt very transparent sitting in that great big room on the top floor overlooking the city. Something told her that on some level she actually wanted this to be real. Not the AIDS or HIV part. Just the story of insanely unstoppable passion between two people who just needed to connect. If she could see that she found the idea of this ‘Suzanne’ woman being her alter ego intriguing then maybe Rupert Grimes could too. Maybe he even suspected that she’d made it up? She shifted nervously under his gaze.

“Well, from what I can see there are two things you need to do Miss Gomez,” said the young lawyer, typing away furiously on his laptop. “One, you need to wait and see what the blood tests reveal before you can make a decision as to whether or not you want to file a lawsuit against the drug company and/or the FDA. And secondly…you need to find yourself a new lawyer because I’m afraid we at Grimes and Lanyard find ourselves compromised in this matter.”

“What? But why?”

Rupert looked up as a tall man dressed in a petrol coloured suit joined them. He was perfectly groomed apart from a smattering of stubble along his twitching jaw. Where his blindingly white shirt lay open at the neck, Teresa could see his pulse jumping. The two men exchanged a knowing look and from that moment on the newcomer never took his eyes away from her. Teresa felt bewildered, not to mention a little dizzy.

“Miss Gomez…I want you to meet my friend and partner at law– Mr Justin Lanyard. Something tells me you two have met before,” he said steepling his fingers.“Probably in Boston I believe?”

Darkwood

Darkwood

Humans were a dying breed, so Elkin’tor sixth phase of four told her. Yet here on the forest floor, not a few paces in front of her lay a man, injured and writhing in the inky twilight of the violet hour. It was her second in twenty three years. The other had not been quite so helpless…

The first man had appeared in Darkwood a good many phases ago, armed to the teeth with knives and something her mother had called a ‘gun’. In his belt he also carried fourteen magma grenades all primed to unleash destruction at a moment’s notice. From the shadows she had watched as he alternately cursed and slapped the hand held machine in front of him. The moon glinted off its glass and carbinium surfaces.

“There’s nothing there you stupid piece of crud!” he said angrily. The life sign detector bleeped repeatedly as he waved it to and fro across the clearing where Lumi and her mother stood. They were invisible, undetectable – or rather they would have been, if it weren’t for the energy readings the life sign detector was picking up.

Twelve year old Lumi stiffened and huddled closer to the willow tree.

“It’s ok. He can’t see us,” her mother thought cast to her confidently. “I bet the only information he has to go on are the myths his mother probably passed on to him whilst he suckled at her teat. Humans are all the same. So one dimensional.”

Lumi nodded and offered up a tight little smile. Surely it would be better to just leave then?

“We must remain still. If we move now he will know for sure that the machine really is picking up life sign readings. As it is he may give up eventually and pass it off as a glitch in the system.”

Lumi nodded once more, pretending that she knew what her mother was talking about.

The angry man appeared quite determined. He fussed with his noisy toy, turning dials and pressing buttons. Suddenly his expression changed dramatically. A tiny unintentional shift in Lumi’s position had helped confirm their presence.

“Aha!” he announced triumphantly and pulled out both a blaster and a magma grenade simultaneously.

“Run!” cried her mother, totally abandoning thought speak altogether.

Lumi knew by her mother’s tone that she couldn’t afford to hesitate. Half flying half sprinting above the carpet of ferns and pine needles she fled from the crazed hunter. Although she had not yet reached the fledgling stage she could still move nimbly. But sadly her speed was no match for the arsenal of weapons at his disposal. The fires of hell crackled in his eyes as he tossed not one but three magma grenades in their direction. Liquid energy fell in lethal globs all around them like droplets of the sacred sun they rarely saw. Blaster fire felled trees and gouged great scoops of granite from the rocks increasing the danger levels three fold.

Suddenly Lumi fell to her knees screaming – clawing frantically at a tiny piece of magma that had landed on her translucent abdomen. No sooner had it landed, than it had eaten its way through to the other side where it dropped to the ground only to be lost in the heather. Smoke rose from the gaping hole it had left in her. Gods, how it hurt! Her tortured cries didn’t just split the air. They tore through the abstract realm of thought as well. Even their attacker heard them inside his own deeply primitive bone, flesh and blood cranium. At the sound of her daughter’s terror Uridia stopped just a few feet away from the Poisoned River.

“Lumi!”

She peered through the smoke and broken trees stumps searching for any possible sign of her.

“I’m coming! Just hold on.”

At the sound of her voice the hunter threw another grenade.

BOOM!

Molten magma flew in all directions.

“No! Leave me mother!”

“I shall not!” she howled. Her six sets of wings sliced through the air like butter as she sought to locate her daughter amongst the chaos. On the second pass over the hunter’s target area she spotted Lumi curled up in the shade of a giant Lurksbane leaf. The way her aura kept flickering worried her. If she was going to be saved she would need to be taken to the Seeker – and soon.

Within seconds she was by her daughter’s side and attempting to carry her to safety. Her wings whirred soundlessly, a blur of silver in the otherwise murky gloom. The unwelcome voice of experience told her that Lumi was just too heavy, but still, she had to try. Her elfin features contorted with a fierce determination. A scattering of perspiration appeared like dew on her forehead. Momentarily her feet left the ground and they ascended several inches just brushing the flowering heads of the scorched grasses. But it was nowhere near enough. The strain on the delicate membranes of her wings was colossal. Half expecting to hear them tear, she ignored the danger to herself and poured everything she had into getting them back to the village. That was their only hope. Surprising even herself, she managed to carry them a few feet further until another blast scorched a fiery hole through two of her wings dropping them to the ground like a stone.

Singed and bruised they gasped for air like fish during one of their decade long droughts. For all the good it had done them, camouflage now had to take a backseat. Their bodies were diverting all available energy to repairs and in Uridia’s case a Fei shield.

“You’ve got to come out of there sometime filth!” cried the man, walking warily around the shimmering emerald energy field. His voice sounded muffled. A rock he threw bounced off. It was only then that Lumi discovered just how little can penetrate a full grown Fei’s thought shield. She wondered if her mother had managed to call for help before she had summoned the shield but Lumi knew better than to disrupt her powers of concentration by asking.

What was he doing out there? And why did he want to kill them? Lumi asked herself. She could just about make him out through the rippling green that surrounded them and no more.

Although the clearing around him was alight, their assailant showed no sign of leaving. More than ever he wanted to capture a real live Fei so that he could have its beautiful wings for a trophy. He had many different species hanging on his wall back home in Hyrangar – the last city on Earth. But none quite showcased his genius to the same degree that the body of a fully mature Fei would. Few humans had ever seen one, especially since mankind had retreated behind the walls of Hyrangar to sit out the ten thousand year decontamination period. And no one to his knowledge had ever captured a live one – until now.

As Lumi watched him pacing, she could feel herself slipping. It was the hole in her side that was the problem. She covered it with her hand in an effort to stymie the flow. But the essence of her found its way through her fingers no matter what she did.

“Wait till that fool Jaylan sees my Fei,” chuckled the man to himself.

He bent at the knees to lift a branch, unaware that the sky above him had just turned a shade darker. His plan was to gather kindling and place it in front of the shield and then lob all his magma grenades at it in one fell swoop. The resulting conflagration would hopefully be enough to force the Fei inside to drop their defences rather than incinerate them entirely. It was quite a gamble to take, but he was willing to accept the risk.

With one eye on his captives and one eye on ground in search of suitable kindling he failed to see the Seeker and his legion of fellow Fei approaching. The air in the clearing crackled with energy unseen until every hair on the hunters body stood on end. He ignored it, passing it off as an after effect of being so close to the shield. His hand patted his side to check for the presence of his blade. He would need it to hack off the wings and head, the parts that he generally favoured for mounting on his wall.

His unguarded thoughts filtered through to the would be rescuers of the beleaguered pair. To them his barbarous notions appeared black like tar. Snake like and evil – pregnant with the promise of death. Sickened by the man’s blood lust, a certain Fei flying alongside the Seeker flew like a deadly sunbeam straight through the trunk of his body and then back again. The human’s eyes widened in astonishment. Totally unaware of what had just befallen him he folded up in the middle and fell to the ground. Every cell the Fei had passed through was now seared to the point of implosion. His liver, stomach, kidneys and gut were all trashed beyond recovery. He lasted all of a nanosecond.

“Seize him,” said the Seeker, pointing his staff at the Fei who had just taken it upon himself to execute a human.

Two powerful looking male Fei grasped an arm either side of him. He struggled desperately to free himself. But it was a waste of time. Unlike the human, their power consisted of far more than bone, sinew and muscle.

“Help them,” he pleaded, nodding towards Lumi and Uridia who were still encapsulated inside the glowing orb. “She is dying.”

“I intend to,” replied the Seeker serenely.

As though he had all the time in the world he fluttered over and lightly touched the top of the thought field created in desperation by Uridia. Immediately it vanished leaving the two women blinking in confusion. Now that the shield was down he could ascertain the severity of Lumi’s injuries. What he found was deeply troubling. The damage was so severe she would have to be renewed. As the others looked on in awe, he began to spin a complex energy thread from the tips of his fingers and thumbs. This he attached to her midriff by way of a flick of the wrist. Using the thread like a silk worm uses its silk he wrapped her over and over creating a powerful healing cocoon. Once he was satisfied that she was still alive and completely encased, he ordered that she be carried back with the utmost care to the village of Darkwood.

What happened after that was only known to her by virtue of the fact her mother had seen fit to break one of Darkwood’s most ancient laws. No one was supposed to speak of the banished ones. But Uridia was a Fei of deep emotion, who did not understand how in all fairness she could keep the truth from her daughter. Two weeks after Lumi had hatched from the cocoon reborn and restored, her mother had given her the news; her father had received the mark and the penalty of banishment for killing the man who had attacked them.

To say that Lumi hated mankind after that day was an understatement. But all the hate in the world could never bring her father back. Events could not be changed. Every day she thought about why the human had come. Were they all so evil and twisted? Or were they all different just like her own people the Fei?

She gazed at the injured human in front of her – the second human she had laid eyes on in twenty three years, wondering if she had the strength to find out the answers to her questions.

She took a step closer and then relaxed her camouflage briefly. The man flinched. She knew immediately that he had seen her.

“Lumi? Is that you?”

Startled to hear her name fall so tenderly from the lips of a species she hated, she immediately reverted to her camouflaged form. The man groaned in pain. The wind stirred the leaves on the forest floor. Many of them were stained with blood. That meant his bio suit was breeched.

“How do you know my name?” she demanded, reminding herself to remain concealed.

“Take…a…look…at my face,” he suggested with great effort. Clearly he was in great pain.

To do this she had to make herself manifest. She stepped forward and cautiously touched his faceplate. It was cold and smooth, like ice on the far side lake in winter.

“If I remove this, you will die.”

“I’m going to die anyway Lumi. My back is broken.”

“Why did you come here? And why do you keep calling me Lumi?” she snapped, crouching down on her haunches next to him.

He remained calm.

“Just take off my faceplate and you will see.”

Afraid yet curious she did as he suggested. The mask fell from her hands as she uncovered his true nature.

“Father!”

He smiled then began to tremble as though a violent seizure was imminent.

“Stay with me,” she begged, grabbing him by the shoulders.

“Please!” she sobbed.

He seemed to recover himself for a moment and laid a hand on her shimmering arm.

“I have missed you.”

“I missed you too,” she said, shaking her head.

“But I don’t understand. How are you…well, human? How is that possible?”

“I received the mark. The mark is actually de-evolvement to an earlier version of ourselves. I’ve been living amongst them in their last and only city.”

“That’s not possible. We are Fei. We have always been Fei.”

“If only that were so Lumi. Humans are one of our ancestral forms. We are their descendants. Even now they stand poised on the brink of destruction. All they know is death and destruction. Look at what they have done to our world with their wars.”

“They are so determined to reign supreme and survive that they’ve ensured they most certainly won’t,” murmured Lumi.

“Yes.”

“And that’s why The Seeker banished you, because if we are to survive we must purge the inclination to destroy from amongst ourselves, lest we become like them.”

“Yes,” he whispered.

Five minutes of poison air inside his lungs had turned his lips an ugly shade of purple. He drew his breath in shallow gulps since the lower sections of his lungs were now compromised.

“I’m going Lumi,” he choked, with a nauseating burbling sound.

“Yes I know.”

She held his hand and watched him battle, doing all he could to buy them just a couple more minutes. Eventually his nostrils stilled so she left him where she found him knowing that Darkwood would do the rest.