Encountered

Encountered

The whir of colour wheels settled and a familiar sinking announced the return to gravity. Ahead the docking station took shape. AT381. Home. He let out a deep shuddery breath. He was almost there. Out of habit, he glanced at the screens. No one was following.

Docked, he was about to undo the airlock when a second craft drifted into the next bay. His hands froze on the crossbar. Cast off you fool, get out of there. But he was so close. Through the port he caught a glimpse of the aeronaut, a young woman, stern and beautiful, her angular face looking vaguely familiar. Could she be one of those life suckers? They could so easily shift shape. But no. The memory of her was older. Flight school maybe. Intrigued, he opted to risk it.

She had her back turned when he reached the platform, her silver suit helmet wedged under her arm. She was typing in her credentials and taking her time about it. Fear spiked again. Could she be ratting on him? But when she turned, the sight of those black eyes and her pointed ears, had it all come flooding back. Brooke. His first lover. Their little adventure had almost cost him his place at school.

He glanced at his reflection in a porthole. Surely she wouldn’t know him after all he’d been through. She nodded blankly and squeezed past, heading for the space station. How strange to be so close. Sliding his ID into the console, a message flashed up. Who could possibly know he was there? He glanced around, but he was alone. Pulling up the message he read: 381 taken over. Get out while you can. Brooke.

He wrenched his card from the panel and tore down the tunnel after her, but she was nowhere to be seen. He halted short of the reception desk, spotting several guards sporting the latest sigma laser nonsense. Drawing back, he swore under his breath. Blast the woman. How did she know? Could he trust her?

He ran back to the airlock, unlocked the door and climbed inside his craft. He sniffed the air as he glanced around, wary that someone might have entered while he was away. He sensed nothing. Screwing the airlock into place, he hurried to the main console. A hammering came from the safety hatch. Checking the screens, he saw two guards setting about the door with the butts of their guns. The idiots were going to depressurise the whole station.

Releasing the craft’s hold on the dock, he sped her away, rapidly computing hyperspace coordinates as he did. He was about to order the shift when he felt fingers brush his neck. His hand flew to the knife at his belt. Turning his head, he caught sight of Brooke grinning down at him. He relaxed and sheathed the knife. Leaning forward to give her a kiss, he felt her grip his collar and then her teeth sank into his neck.

Flowerpot scientists

Flowerpot

“No. I insist. They hide under flowerpots,” she says, draining most of her cup, turning it upside down and placing it dripping over a solitary sugar lump.

“What are you talking about, my dear?” She can have such wild ideas at times that I find it hard to keep up. And if I can’t keep up, whoever else could? Somebody has to accompany her in her wanderings. She might get lost forever. Then what would I do?

“Scientists of course,” she insists, pointing at the upturned cup. A small puddle of tea has escaped from under its rim making the cup look like a bloated pirogue cut lose in the middle of a tiny pond.

“What scientists?” I ask. Sometimes, if I humour her, I manage to catch the thread of her ideas and can haul myself back along the twisting path of her thoughts to where she is.

“The ones who are studying the hedgehogs,” she says, her tone triumphant, as if it were self-evident and I should have known.

The eruption of the prickly creatures in her story throws me for a moment. I feel cut adrift, unable to decide where to turn next. The muscles of my face slacken, my eyes blur and I sense my jaw slip open.

“Close your mouth,” she says. “A fly might get in. Filthy things.”

I snap my mouth closed, making a noise like a miniature guillotine that resonates in my head.

“There are no flies here,” I reply, my words almost as cutting as the guillotine. Sometimes she can be downright silly. Hospital wards are the last place you’d expect to find a fly.

“They are attracted by the hedgehogs.”

I want to protest that there are no hedgehogs either, but that would be going too far. I would surely lose her then. “And why would hedgehogs attract flies?” I ask, shifting back in my chair in dread of what she might answer.

“Reproduction.” A broad grin lights up her face, as if she has proved a long and complex proof or won a drawn-out argument.

“Sorry?” I have to admit defeat. I can’t keep up. Her grin broadens even more.

“Do make an effort. You are so slow sometimes,” she retorts, pursuing her advantage. “Hedgehogs need flies to reproduce. Everyone knows that.”

All of a sudden I feel weary, dreadfully weary. My brain is in a muddle and my stomach feels like somebody shifted it slightly sideways. I would willingly close my eyes and escape in a nap, but she barrels on.

“That’s why the scientists are there.” She lifts the cup, revealing a sticky puddle where the sugar lump had once been. “You see. They study how hedgehogs overcome their genderlessness with the help of flies.”

When I sit there staring at the sticky mess, unresponsive, she continues.

“The way things are going, that is how we’ll all end up.”

Devouring folk tales

mouth

Something went wrong, dreadfully wrong, once upon a time.

Von stood alone on a broad open plain, hills of pink dust rolling away in every direction. The sun blazed high in the sky causing waves of heat to ripple over the desert making it look as if it throbbed. No folk were in sight, but danger hung in the air, he could sense it in the pit of his stomach. He wished there were something he could do, but intuition told him that nothing would change this tale. If only he knew what form it would take.

A shudder rocked his body, his lungs heaved and he started to cough so violently he feared his  chest would burst. Then, with a gut-wrenching spasm, his mouth flew open and a tiny girl popped out. She landed feet first on the ground in front of him, perfectly formed and all dressed, rearing to go. Clutching his throat which was raw from the girl’s passage, he stared at her, his mouth fallen open in disbelief.

“Well that’s better,” she said, her piercing voice setting his teeth on edge.  “It was so stuffy in there.” He wanted to ask who she was, but his throat was so hoarse that speaking was out of the question. “Right,” the girl said, licking her lips. “Now let’s sort you out.” He didn’t like the sound of that. There was nothing about him that needed sorting. And the look of greed in her eyes was alarming.

She opened her mouth so wide, he was afraid she was might bite him. Yet the gaping hole continued to grow till he felt giddy and tried to step back. It was then she drew in a deep breath causing the wind to howl around him and he felt himself being sucked forwards. He flung out his arms clutching at memories in a desperate attempt to hold on to all he’d known, but the world slipped through his fingers. He flew into her mouth and  slithered down her throat. His screams only ceased when he thudded to a halt in the slime of a pulsing pink abyss.

The new story index

Story-index

There are now over fifty of Alan McCluskey’s short stories published here. To find your way around, you can use the new Story Index. There’s also a link to the index in the menu to the left of every page.

The colourful bandstand

bandstand02-s

Sun glints off the varnished roof of the bandstand, sending a rainbow of colours showering over the surrounding tiered steps as they climb row upon row high above. Sheltered from the bright light by the bandstand, children in period costumes sit at several small tables sipping tea from bone china cups and nibbling dainty sandwiches. The dull murmur of their conversations mingles with the lazy lapping of the sea around the girders below the pier. Gulls circle overhead cawing to each other. In the distance, a brass band plays a familiar air. Choosing a place midway up the steps, I sit to watch. One by one, then in tight-knit groups, silent people settle on the tiered steps around me, their eyes riveted on the children. There’s a muted sense of excitement in the air to which the players in the pageant continue oblivious. When a man lowers his large frame next to me, I whisper: “What’s happening?” He looks at me blankly, then turns back to watch the children. A foreigner maybe. Or dumb. Or just plain rude. As the silent crowd grows, partially blocking my view, I get to my feet and weave my way between disgruntled spectators till I reach the railing that protects the bandstand. From this close I get a clear view of the intricate lace-trimmed costumes the boys and girls wear. One of the children stands and raises a long tube to her lips. Her cheeks puff out and she blows, causing a glowing white ball of glass to swell at its raised end. The crowd bursts into applause, sending alarmed gulls rising into the air, cawing in complaint. The scene merits a photo. In a panic, I fumble through my cloth sack in search of my camera, but find it nowhere. Could someone have stolen it? The fiery glass ball is now as big as the girl’s head and all the children have risen in salute, their teacups raised. My fingers latch onto something cold and hard in my bag. But when I pull it out, I discover not my camera, but a flat silver tablet encrusted with complex gold markings. At that moment the glass ball explodes showering all in bright light and the world turns white.

Unpleasant shortcuts

Corridor03

Beware of shortcuts down deserted corridors. There may be a good reason why no one goes that way. You should know. Did you not stumble on an ex-lover drooling over a younger woman in a disused corridor? Disgust. Anger. Pity. What did you feel? Abused. Besmirched. You wanted to cry out, to hammer your fists against his chest, to knee him in the groin. But you opted to retreat, believing it was safer. He hadn’t seen you. He was as bewitched by his prey as she was by him. Yet you did not leave. You couldn’t. You slipped into the safety of the shadows and spied. The young woman stared up at the man, wide-eyed, expectant, the perfect victim, begging to be taken. The sight of it disgusted you. Surely you had not been like that, not you. His eyes were ablaze with triumph. You could sense his greed, his lust. You knew it well. You rubbed your lips as if that could erase the trace of his kisses. His hands trembled as he reached across the table that separated them. The moment his finger touched her face, she snarled and sprang forward. The table flew from between them, crashing down the corridor, sending cups and glasses smashing against the walls. You slunk deeper into the shadows, knowing the noise would bring people running. The woman dug her claws into his face, a feral cry on her lips, ripping, tearing, shredding him apart. Blood spurted everywhere. You closed your eyes, unable to watch, aware only of a whirlwind of screams and muffled thuds. When quiet finally settled and your eyes blinked open, the horror had gone. No trace of him or her. No blood. Nothing. Well, not quite nothing. All that was left was the man’s look of surprise and disbelief hanging disembodied in mid-air.

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The Girl and the Lost Prince

Girl

Sound the trumpets, ring the bells, cry out from the tower tops.
Oh yeah! Oh yeah! A wonder just walked in the door.
Courtiers jostle, elbowing each other to catch a glimpse.
Weaving between bystanders, I yearn to get a look.
I choose to go incognito, otherwise they’d let me through.
Out of the way, cursed adults, I want to see too.
I push and shove till I  burst free and there she stands.
Yellow flowered hemline dancing over calf-length stockings,
Her jacket tight about her waist, all buckles and buttons
Light and airy, a scarf in soft green frames her face.
Her lips, her cheeks, that auburn hair and above all those eyes
Oh radiant original that outshines all these painted imitations.
Is it the light, the warmth, the colour or just the sheer magic?
Her presence sets the room singing, bewitching all who behold her
A force that draws my attention like an in-sucked breath.
The joy of it. No page can rival that swirl of colours, those curves.
Certainly not with the gaudy frippery pages have to wear.
Would that I were like her. Not the man I am destined to be.
Brought up to be an unfeeling lout, all bluster and self-importance,
My days are filled with combat training and prancing displays.
Life as a page has left me ill at ease, estranged from my body.
Whenever I see her, I am transformed, buoyed up, light and free
She has me enthralled, entranced, lost to myself and to the world.
What is this magic I take to be a girl? Is it really her I see?
I celebrate her beauty. I envy her brightly coloured clothes,
The sway of her hips, the grace with which she smiles.
Yet for all my longing, would I really trade places with her?
Prince that I am – albeit seventh in line – I will probably never know.

The misbegotten script

DSCN1790

Maxim flung the script across the room where it hit the wall with a satisfying thud and broke apart, showering papers over his desk and onto the floor. The cat, that had been curled up by his desk, took a lazy swipe at several sheets, then, bored with the game, sought refuge in an armchair, from where it stared at him unblinking. He shook an angry fist at it, but his attention quickly returned to the script. Selena should not have been lashed to the stake. In the gloom of early evening, several men were moving forward with flaming torches. No! No! No! That wasn’t what he’d written. She was supposed to escape. Getting down on all fours, he shoved away the cat that was rolling in the discarded sheets, baring it’s hairy belly to the world. Rummaging through the pages, he searched for the last scene, but it was nowhere to be found. Snatching up a sheet, he turned it over and, grabbing a pen from his desk, scribbled on the blank side: Selena shakes off the shackles that bind her… as if writing it again might sway history … but it didn’t work. The smell of smoke was everywhere and he could hear the crackle of flames. Balling up the paper, he tossed it to the floor where the cat pounced on it, tearing it to shreds between claws and teeth. Maxim clamped his hands over his ears when the ripping of paper gave way to a piercing scream. A moan broke from his unwilling lips and tears streamed from his eyes. Smoke curled round him ever denser. “Selena?” he called out. Jeers were the only answer he got. “That’ll teach you, witch!” one man cried out. A fit of coughing had Maxim bent over double as the fire roared ever louder. He sank to the floor, a wave of intense heat washing over him, sapping his strength. Cracking open stinging eyelids, he saw two large, round eyes emerge from the swirling smoke only inches from his face and a tiny pick tongue darted out and licked his nose, its touch rough and wet and reassuring. When the cat turned to leave, despair threatened to overwhelm him, but the animal halted and glanced back, waiting. Gathering what little force he had left, Maxim pushed himself up on all fours and crawled after the cat.

God be blown

The blast flung Scott the length of the corridor, through the back door of the pub and all the way into the yard. When its force finally waned, he crumpled to the ground to a round of applause. Looking up, he saw a row of people arrayed along the wall grinning. What had he done wrong? And what was this clasped in his hand? A brick! Where in blaze’s name had that come from? He clawed his way up the wall then squinted at the object in his hand. Apart from its excessive weight, it seemed quite ordinary, a dull orange pitted with tiny holes. Scratching his head, he tended the brick to the young woman leaning against the wall a few feet from him. “What do you make of it, Louisa?” She might once have been an acclaimed Miss Chichester, but for all her bold colours Louisa was no hero. She shied away, her glass sloshing its sherry over the bank clerk parked in a wheelchair next to her. But Scott insisted. Pulling a hanky from her pocket, she dabbed the sherry from the clerk’s knees then took the brick and, feeling its full weight, almost dropped it before she deposited it in the clerk’s lap. The clerk manoeuvred his wheelchair into a patch of light and examined the brick as if it were a holy relic. “‘Ere. Give it t’ me, Mate,” a young man in paint-stained overalls said, plucking it from the clerk’s lap. He stroked its bevelled edges, a broad smile on his lips. “Now there’s a good un. What d’yer think, Louisa?” She scowled and sipped her sherry. Flexing his biceps, he tossed the brick a short way into the air, sizing it up. “It’s a good un, Reverend,” he said and bowing deeply proffered it in outstretched palms. The vicar grasped it with both hands and shook it vigorously, no doubt expecting a tiny devil to fall out. “If you didn’t drink so much, Walter, you wouldn’t be so amazed by a mere brick.” He looked like he wanted to dispose of it as fast as possible, but that wouldn’t be very Christian, so he bestowed it on the last of those propped against the wall: a boy whose feminine features and frail form were almost angelic. The youth cringed at the feel of the brick, as if it might bewitch him. Flicking the long hair from his eyes, he pulled away from the wall and watched the others slink towards the pub door as if they wanted to have nothing to do with him. Shifting uncomfortably from one foot to another, he screamed and hurled the brick, shattering the window at the back of the police station. The resulting blast blew out the window, frame and all, and hurled the boy back across the yard where he landed at the feet of an astounded group, the brick firmly clasped in his hands.