Black Cat Stories

Blondie’s Nemesis

 

Hissing, spitting, wound up, bound up, looped and tied

Into choices, their choices, I lied

To get an operator, a person

*

Someone real to feel my exasperation but instead

I get another endless list of choices

Their choices

*

Press One for Returns, Press Two for Orders

Press what for steaming, fire breathing, excoriating rage bordering on

Murderous intent

*

All our Operators are busy but we really value your custom so

Please hold

For more

Choices

 

©suzanne conboy-hill 2010

You may share but not sell, alter, substantially extract, or claim as your own.

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Catching Threads

Pads like little radiators, sneaking

Snidely over the bed, catching threads

In stinging claws that shred

With innocence, the satinette covers.

 

©suzanne conboy-hill 2010

You may share but not sell, alter, substantially extract, or claim as your own.

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Trivial Frustration

Trivial Frustration

Punch the keys

Mis-hit – crap! Back three spaces

Screen freezes

*

Ctrl Alt Delete, feet tapping

Impatience, password matches

We’re in!

*

Office, clipboard, Internet Explorer

(Version 9)

So very slowly creeping back

*

How many open windows? Don’t you know

That will screw it? Urgent update to send

In 140 characters

 

©suzanne conboy-hill 2010

You may share but not sell, alter, substantially extract, or claim as your own.

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Tick Tock

Piers is standing alone in a hotel room with a clock in his head which is about to go off. He is waiting for Dylis because he needs a few moments of her sunshine, the way it used to be back in the day, before he gives her the envelope that he will make her promise not to open until she gets home. She will giggle and pretend to rip it apart to get at the contents and he will fix that image in his mind. The last time he saw her though, before the clock when ‘forever’ was another word for ‘future’, she was a monochromatic mother of two dragging unfulfilled ambition around like an empty shopping bag. He worries how she will be today.

Dylis bursts into the room with the gusto of a baby hippo, tossing her bag and coat, scarf, hat, and phone onto assorted items of furniture as she coalesces into place. ‘Not quite the Hilton,’ she remarks, casting eyes younger than her face around the room and twinkling them. ‘So what’s this about then?’ Dylis picks up the scarf and drapes it across her face, making cartoon Marta Hari eyes over the top of it, ‘Are we having an affair?’ The wool makes her sneeze and Piers laughs, ‘Course not,’ he says, and angles his face away in case the heat he feels leaks out as a blush. ‘Got a couple of business meetings here today, it seemed convenient.’ He wonders if she will buy that but also hopes she sees through it so that he can get on with things. But Dylis is in concrete mode, wanting to know what business, what meetings, and ultimately who was paying for it all. ‘My taxes I expect,’ she says, an imp’s grin chasing creases around her face until she lets it go for another question.

‘So what’s the consultation this time – global warming or the salt content of fish fingers?’ She laughs at him and he lets her because suddenly his old job looks ridiculous, but then she says, ‘When these reports come out, I always look to see if it’s one of yours.’ She shuffles briefly on the spot and they both look somewhere else; hands, feet, the carpet. Piers finds an escape route, ‘Coffee?’ he says, and puts the kettle on without finding her face or waiting for an answer, and while he watches it come to the boil a worry bubbles up with it – what if he can’t remember that face after she leaves? He tries burning it into his mind without staring and it blurs the young Dylis into the mother with the neat lipstick before settling into a blank sack of skin with no features. He feels dizzy with it.

‘Where’s the biscuits?’ Dylis says, checking the empty receptacle on the tray next to the teabags and sachets of coffee. She gives him one of her what can you expect from boys looks which he almost misses because of the blank face that is supposed to be Dylis. It’s still there, pink and featureless, but Dylis doesn’t know that and winks, plunging a hand into her copious shopper and coming up with a half packet of chocolate digestives.

‘Some date this is, I’ve even had to bring my own meal.’ She beams into Piers’ fog and holds a biscuit out to him but it crumbles and drops to the floor, each of them chasing it on its way down. Touching hands briefly, Piers comes close to grasping and holding her fingers, but she is up and away with the broken pieces, oblivious to his fumbling. Piers stays crouched while the tattoo beating in his ears begins to subside.

‘You ok?’

‘Give me a break, I am older than you.’ He pulls himself up, one hand on the table top where the kettle sits, the other avoiding Dylis’s as it stretches towards him. The drumming softens to a pulse. He imagines it to be red.

‘Only by three months so come off it. You never did have any stamina though; all brain no brawn.’ She pauses, cocks a glance at him, ‘So what’s this job and why all the cloak and dagger stuff?’

‘Job?’ For a moment, Piers is mystified.

‘You said you were leaving. Where are you going? I bet it’s America! You’ve been head-hunted, right?’ Her eyes are bright and she has her hands clasped in front of her like a child hoping for a present, ‘Well done you!’ she says, ‘Will you blag me a private tour?’

‘Tour?’

‘Of the White House, Dumbo! Goodness but you’re weird today. Male menopause perhaps?’ She giggles at him and feigns bloated stomach cramps.

‘Oh, right, the tour.’ He looks away from her; the game has changed and his service is broken, all he can do now is parry her shots. ‘How many boxed sets of West Wing do you have? You don’t need a tour. And anyway, you’d be disappointed – you do know Whatsisname isn’t really President?’ He turns away to finish the business of coffee while Dylis gets into the swing of embellishing her personal story about his new job at the nerve centre of US government.

‘No more sordid meetings in cheap hotels then, I expect,’ she says, excitement coloured by a touch of envy. She surveys the present surroundings with a chuckle and pulls a face at the swill of black liquid in her cup. ‘Will you have a White House email address? I can’t wait to tell everyone!’

‘I suppose – but it won’t be for personal use so …’

‘Shame. Well, your old one will work won’t it?’ Dylis looks at her watch; a big faced, loudly ticking thing that seems too heavy for her wrist but that accommodates creeping short-sightedness, ‘Jeez, is that the time? Sorry love, got to go; taking the computer to the repair shop and the dog to the vet, and I’d better not get them the wrong way round this time.’ She smiles at him and he thinks he sees the tiniest sign of regret in her eyes. ‘See you soon, Lovely Boy,’ she says, with that vestigial lilt she has.

She plops a maternal kiss on his cheek, gathers up her bits and pieces, and sweeps out of the door taking her baby hippo gusto and all the light and bounce and fun and hope with her. The room goes dark and the image of the bag of skin that is all Piers can find of her goes dark too.

He sits. He takes out the letter that he hasn’t given to her and weighs it in his hands. He tears it in half, then half again and drops it into the bin. At least the alarm didn’t go off while she was here.

 

© Suzanne Conboy-Hill 2016

You may share but not sell, alter, substantially extract, or claim as your own.

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Sequenced Heir, Nipped Rind

The ambient light is the colour of swamp fog; I am suspended from the ceiling in a net like a balloon at a solstice party; and there is a worm in my mouth. This has to be the mother of all hangovers.

The worm is squeezed into the space between my upper and lower lips like toothpaste, sealing them shut as effectively as a dollop of glue. There is no smell – earthy or otherwise – and mercifully no taste either, but I have not yet been able to evict it. I have tried blowing but this just puffs out my cheeks and shifts the darned thing not one millimetre. The upside, of course, is that since oral exhalation is ineffective, I can hope that inhalation by the same route is equally impossible so that I will not be further traumatised by ingesting this obscenity. It appears mostly to be dormant although it does loosen its hold a little, periodically, as though about to leave, but then settles quickly back. I have been unable to interpose a finger due to being strung up in this net, helpless as a bridegroom strapped naked to a post in the middle of the town square. I would seem not to be naked on this particular occasion, but the rest feels depressingly familiar.

So, now I have regained some conscious momentum, I am casting my gaze downwards, ignoring the vertigo, and seeking to get the lie of the land. The floor below is tiled. It is polished and glossy and resembles a regal vestibule. It is well-maintained with no scuffing or evidence of foot traffic, and not a crack or a blemish to the glaze anywhere that I can see. Odd then that there is a pile of leaves stacked against the wall in one corner, and as out of place as clogs at a Midsummer ball. I have the faintest feeling that they are significant in some way and normally I would be keen to puzzle it out, but what with dangling aloft and the fact of a fat lumbricoid gumming up my mouth, there would seem to be other priorities.

I have just this minute begun casting about for ideas with regard to an escape plan when a door I had not seen before opens up in the wall, accompanied by a shower of yellow dust and a burst of triumphal music. Some detached part of my mind is intrigued, as with the matter of the leaves, but now I have more pressing concerns because the worm is wriggling, the net has become sticky, and it is pulsating.

While I am pondering this, a young woman with a striking décolletage that is very much in evidence from my exclusive vantage point, enters the room. Or rather has entered the room as I did not see her arrive. Her odd costume and unnatural proportions remind me of a picture book princess and I am just beginning to consider the implications of this when she vanishes again. The worm and the net fall still, but acutely observant as I am, despite the putative hangover, I notice that the leaves have gone. Some unseen force has apparently swept them away, leaving behind a complex display not unlike the map of a maze, randomly arranged. There are also gaps and missing elements, meaning that the map must be incomplete. Obviously, a vandal has broken them, or stolen the parts, and I rather hope it was not me. Perhaps that is why I am being held, because I am the perpetrator of this crime, although suspension in a net is not a form of detention with which I am familiar, never mind gagging by nematode.

At this point, the room goes inexplicably dark and silent.

When the light returns, it is again dull and grey but also faintly suffused with gold, ochre, and red as if passing through frosted glass. There is music somewhere in the distance and the faint tones of a deep male voice expounding to some unidentified other. Looking down, I can see that an ornate key now rests upon the tiles and as this certainly is not mine, then it probably was not me who wrecked the fancy design that still sits in disarray where the leaves had been. The door remains open but the picture book princess is not visible. Oddly, I feel she is nearby, and there seem to be ghosts of her wafting to and fro in the distance where an abundance of new objects has appeared.

And now, frustratingly, everything has gone dark again.

As the light returns once more, it occurs to me that I have no clear sense of the passage of time, and I feel none of the cramps that might be expected from an extended period of restraint. Neither is my bladder expressing any urgency, although if it were, better that there are tiles below than an expensive carpet. But in addition to triumphal music, ghosts, and barely audible conversations, I am distantly aware of unseen forces at work. This, surely, is a sign of incipient and encroaching madness although it also feels entirely rational. The occasional showering of yellow dust over the door, the movements in what now appears to be a courtyard with fountains and exotic plants, and occasional changes in the numbers or orientation of certain elements within this room have me wondering about my sanity, but that it still feels bizarrely familiar is no great comfort.

Most notable of these changes has been the appearance of a suit of armour, the pieces of which have been scattered about the place as if dropped by a thief on the run. There is also a disconcertingly opaque cloud that intermittently swirls in front of me, obscuring my view of everything and giving the impression that it is to be dreaded. In that, it is quite successful, accompanied as it is by a deep thundering chord strike and the feeling that I am not alone. I have a creeping sense that I am the victim of something horrendous so I have been trying to re-orientate myself to see with whom or what else I may have been incarcerated.

But before I can make progress in this enterprise, another grand ta-daa of rising chords pervades the room and my female companion is back, this time to address a small cupboard that has appeared on the wall, using the key I had noticed earlier. Hooray – she is successful! – and now she is turning her attention to the patterns that had been obscured by the leaves. A few deft moves and a hidden recess in the floor springs open, revealing a silver sword which rises into the air and then disappears into a box at her feet. This is quite baffling and I am just considering the purpose of stowing the sword in the box rather than securing it about her person, when the unpleasant sensation of something tapping on my ankle draws my attention. Another tap follows, and then multiple taps up and over my body in a manner my mind recognises but does not wish to acknowledge. The net is swaying and the swirling mist returns; I can no longer see what is happening below.

And then I can no longer see anything at all as the light is extinguished once more.

When light returns and the mist clears, I rather wish it had not. Right there in front of me, rustling up and down so that I am intermittently able to see the princess, now accompanied by a knight in bright armour holding a mighty axe high above him, is a spider. It is at least twice my size (excluding the legs which extend to front and sides over a distance I do not wish to contemplate), and has a body that seems armoured with fluid tectonics. It is behaving like a playhouse monster but it is not made of rubber or painted with lurid gouache. Its bulk is palpable, its colours shifting electric points of iridescence; it throbs, it sways, and it scuttles. Suddenly it shifts without warning to the other side of the web and there it stops, its pulsing abdomen suspended above and behind me, owning me, its head overhanging mine so that I must watch, petrified in position, through its clattering mandibles. These scythe and slash and drip venom, and the lightning that strikes off them threatens to extinguish everyone below.

But instead of wielding the sword, now suddenly in her hand, to attack and vanquish this beast, the princess is, quite unbelievably, using it to trace the threads of the web from centre to periphery along a convoluted track, repeatedly poking them with the weapon, and starting again. Tracing, poking, re-starting. How can this possibly be helpful? Surely prodding at this throbbing, heaving, venomous nightmare is only going to make it madder than it already is? I try to shout but I am muted by the worm firmly pressed to my mouth. Then all at once, I see the silver sword flashing in front of my eyes, thrusting, cutting and severing the strands of the web and, without a single sensation of falling, I am on the ground standing free!

Then again, most annoyingly, the world goes black and silent.

Illuminated once more and resuming what feels to be some florid thespian production in which I am an unwitting participant, I am distraught to see a swathe of thick, occult blackness, at once opaque and yet transparent, that writhes and churns between me and the princess. The knight has vanished and I am reliant entirely upon her for my freedom. She has proved resourceful up to now but does she know I am here, and is she equipped to deal with this unholy malevolence? She looks at the box at her feet, opens it, and retrieves a cantaloupe. A cantaloupe, for goodness sakes! What possible use is a cantaloupe in the face of this vile wizardry that comes accompanied by its own dire sound track in a murderous minor key? I try again to shout and I wave my newly freed arms to signal my distress and need of rescue, and she sees me – stretching out her hand towards me. Then with the other, would you believe it, she hurls the cantaloupe at me! But even that is not the most astonishing part, it is what happens next that really astounds me. The worm that has clung so tenaciously to my mouth, now flies through the air towards the cantaloupe where it penetrates the rind and disappears within, leaving my voice completely unimpeded!

‘Get the flowers from the fountain, Princess,’ I shout to her, for no reason I can think of, and she disappears. Within moments she is back with a handful of blooms. She pitches these into the midst of the roiling blackness, which dissipates as if by magic, and I am holding this improbable woman in my arms.

Congratulations Princess Talia, you have rescued the Prince from the Spider Queen and her servant, the Cloak of Death. The Kingdom of the Sparkling Spires is restored!
The ambient light is the colour of swamp fog; I am suspended from the ceiling in a net like a balloon at a solstice party.

© Suzanne Conboy-Hill 2014

You may share but not sell, alter, substantially extract, or claim as your own.

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Three Kinds of Lost

Re-purposed

At the bottom of the shopping bag? No.

Under the sofa? Nada.

Down behind the cushions, then? Oh God, what is that stuff?

Sloshed to papier mâché at 40C in a jeans pocket? Better not be.

Chased down the garden by a freak wind?

In the car, down in the footwell? Your footwell, then? No? Well where?

Keep looking.

You keep looking.

The bird is looking; its beady eyes lasering a line through the branches at the scuttling humans below. It fluffs, pokes around with its beak, and nests its egg on the soft shreds of their wasted effort.

 

_____

Conflicted

The floorboards above creak and shed dust that falls into her face. She battles a cough, swallows it and tries to stifle it within where it can do no damage. But it lurches up and down like a mole rat in a tunnel and finally erupts in a tiny kppff. The footsteps pause in a hung silence that seems to suggest a limb held aloft while the owner listens. She listens back, tries to read what she can’t see and guess who is there. She wants to be found, but not by him.

_____

Contrived

The island that never was, the plane, the bodies, the dead and alive comings and goings, and the endless search for the metaphysical. Do you know how much we hated you for this? For drawing it out, keeping us on your hook and line until we sank into the miasma of your dissemblings? You gave us ghosts when we yearned for flesh so we left you. Are you still there, still searching for a way back? Sorry, we have Mulder and Scully again now.

 

(c) Suzanne Conboy-Hill 2016

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Copied Right

Copied Right

Something odd was happening. The air had been tingling for days; fizzing when he wafted his hand across his face, and just lately leaving a faint after-glow in its trail. He’d taken to drawing out equations in the air to see how long the effect persisted, and if he could get a whole one up there before the first terms disappeared.

‘What’s with all the semaphore, Jeff?’ his pal Don asked from under a cocked eyebrow. He leaned in the doorway and watched as Jeff flailed his arms, like he was landing a jumbo jet in his kitchen.

‘Nothing,’ Jeff said, eyeing the last vestiges of a square root as they drifted off the visible spectrum. Were they gone gone or just shifted along to the next level? Did the faint oranges go to red and then infra-red? Did blue eventually graduate to ultra violet? But if so, why didn’t yellow …?

‘Jeff!’ Don was holding two beers, a can in each hand. ‘You available to earthlings, by any chance?’

‘Oh, yes. Cheers, Don.’ He took one of the cans and an orange glow travelled with him to Don’s hand and back. But what was that? Jeff peered at Don’s wrist – a tiny tendril of light was winding itself around Don’s thumb and sliding up his sleeve.

‘Jeff, for crap’s sake, where are you, man?’

‘Did you see that?’ Jeff said, pointing. ‘Did you feel it? It’s gone right up your sleeve!’

‘What did?’

‘The light, it followed my hand to yours. Take your shirt off!’ Jeff made a dive for Don’s shirt buttons and Don stepped smartly sideways. Or at least one of him did. The other several, popping along behind like colourful after-images, trailed right to left across the kitchen and Jeff lunged straight through the crimson one.

‘You must have seen that!’ Jeff was hopping up and down, staring at the space where the crimson Don had been, and stabbing his fingers at the nothingness that remained.

‘I don’t know what you saw, but I had a whole parade of Jeffs from monochrome to glorious technicolour over there.’ Don was pointing and gaping, neither of which seemed likely to be constructive.

‘How many? I saw about seven of you and just in rainbow colours – like a spectral split.’

‘Dozens, like those cardboard cut-outs they put in front of shops.’

Jeff let his arm make a slow sweep in front of them both. ‘What do you see?’

‘Movie frames – faded to monochrome to colour.’

‘Me too. Now you do it.’ Don mimicked the sweep. ‘Spectral – why the difference?’

‘Maybe mine was spectral until just now, I wasn’t really looking. Actually, what I saw was just one colour at a time.’ He advanced a finger in illustration, and this time a small regiment of them marched behind.

‘It’s like being in a photocopier,’ Don said, his eyebrows diverging in a look that said this-is-bonkers-what-a-laugh. But the rest of Don didn’t seem convinced. Jeff made another lunge across the room and swivelled, like the dancer he wasn’t, to catch his iterations shuttering along in sequence – faded/monochrome/sepia/tint/full-colour, cher-chunk cher-chunk cher-chunk – then muting out. He started on a comment, but it stalled like an old car on a hill because the last of his clones was still there, and it was looking at him. Then it pulled out of its pocket a gadget that wasn’t a copy of anything Jeff ever owned, and blew a light show into it. Jeff vanished.

Don dropped his beer, rounded up his wits, and made a dash for the door; another trail of copies flicking after him. He got as far as the hall.

Here, Jeff’s neighbour was sitting on the stairs, drifting her hand in front of pupils deep as starlit wells and marvelling at the awesomeness, Man, of the spliff she’d just smoked.

In the street, a child was gazing wide-eyed at her gran, ‘You’re turning into an angel!’ she said, splashing her own colours into the air with her teddy bear.

In Jeff’s kitchen, the copy of Jeff said, in a sunburst of photons, ‘Full integrity achieved, deleting indigenous population job.’

(c) Suzanne Conboy-Hill 2014

You may share but not sell, alter, substantially extract, or claim as your own.

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Incubators

Nick’s body convulsed in a cough that scorched his lungs and expelled a glob of bright, wet material onto the sweaty sheet he held under his chin. He tracked its progress. The group of people clustered in the doorway tracked it too and took an involuntary step backwards.

‘Shouldn’t we have special suits?’ one of them said.

‘It’s only blood and spit,’ someone else remarked, although his laugh was a little strained.

Shannon thought about it; the man looked red and hot but he was shivering. ‘Franklin, are you getting this?’ She angled her head-cam towards Nick and described his condition, ‘Looks flushed, as if he’s hot, but shivering like he’s cold.’

‘What do his remotes say?’

‘All over the place, never seen anything like it.’

‘Get a mini-lab into some of that mucus and patch it through; might give us some ideas.’ Franklin muted the feed at his end and looked at the faces around the table. Two wore expressions that concerned him, ‘Thoughts?’ he said.

Evelyn Holmes certainly had some, ‘First,’ she said, in a voice that could rattle crockery, ‘If we still have hazard suits stashed away somewhere, we need to dig them out immediately.’ She paused, dropped the volume a little, ‘Second, we might already be in serious trouble.’ Holmes was a retired chest physician in her late nineties who had seen the tail end of the ‘dirty’ era of doctoring. The unit’s Director thought Holmes and her ilk might be useful; Franklin thought they might be an impediment. However, he trod carefully, ‘Reason?’

‘I’ve seen infections and he’s showing all the signs of incubating one. If it’s spread by contact, you have to touch it to catch it, but if it’s airborne you only have to breathe the same air. I say suits and now.’

Franklin sighed, it was probably an overreaction but what if she was right? He swiped at the contacts Holmes rapidly pushed through to his screen, nodded, then re-opened the link to Shannon, ‘Hazard Units are on their way. Stay where you are, for now.’ Shannon looked at Nick, coughing and shivering in his bed, ‘Ok,’ she said and closed the uplink. She nodded then to the young bio-tech shifting his feet anxiously at her side, ‘I bet they issue special clothing to janitors for when there’s a mess to clean up, how about you see if you can track something down?’ Jim beamed, ‘On my way,’ he said. It might be fruitless but it at least gave him something more positive to do than stand around watching a man cough his guts out onto his bed. ‘Basement,’ he said, and hurried off to the elevator.

From the depths of a patched up leather chair that had an unsavoury but tolerable smell about it, the janitor was taking a break between jobs with his feet up on the table and a large sandwich in one hand. Releasing the suckers and blowers from their service hatches in the apartments was easy enough, but collecting and emptying them when they were done could be a messy business, especially with these old units. There was always some stinking thing jammed in their guts that need forcing out with a plunger. Maybe if he got properly messed up one day, there’d be compensation.

He was just getting going on his private rant about stupid councils and put-upon workers when the arrival of a medical type asking for ‘special suits’ interrupted his flow. It was an intrusion but a mildly interesting one because here was one of these uppity oy polloys wanting something and him knowing where to get it. That was power. He got up with ponderous effort, kicked on the door to a large metal cabinet where two boiler suits hung, and handed them over. Then he sat back down again to watch the young man struggle into a blue all-in-one. Watching was power too; waiting for them to ask. They weren’t so hi-falutin when the know-it-all tables were turned.

Jim didn’t disappoint. ‘I could do with a hand,’ he said. He was a bit too tall for the suit and it gave him a slight hunch. His hands protruded from the sleeves right up to the middle of his skinny forearms as he fiddled unsuccessfully with the face shield. The janitor heaved himself up again, like he’d just had to drag himself through seven miles of bog for something any idiot could do. He pulled at the elastic straps of the mask, tied a knot in the top one, and pinged it with a thwack onto the back of Jim’s head. ‘Tight enough?’ he said, and sat back down again.

‘Much better, thanks.’ Jim shrugged his shoulders up and down in an effort to settle the suit a bit more comfortably, then picked up the second suit and headed back upstairs. The janitor reacquainted his feet with the table and followed Jim’s departure over the crust of his sandwich. Not so fancy now, was he, that government kid? Most likely never even saw a boiler suit before, or got his hands dirty with proper work. He settled back and punched the vid display – a zombie shoot-em-up would pass the time until the next corridor inspection.

In the doorway of Nick’s apartment, Jim shook out the second suit and helped Shannon climb into it, adjusting her face shield the way the janitor had fixed his. This suit was a better fit and although not in perfect condition with its frayed wrist and ankle cuffs, it would keep the muck off until something better arrived.

Shannon approached Nick’s bedside, ‘Hi,’ she said, ‘I’m Dr Shannon Bradford; are you ok?’ Nick’s chest burned and ached, his limbs were sore and feeble. He was freezing cold and dripping sweat. He clutched the light bedding and bunched it up around his neck; how did you measure ok when no one knew what ill was supposed to feel like? Nick thought for a moment, ‘Yes,’ he said, and then, ‘No.’ Another cough exploded from him before he could add further ambiguity to his response, and Shannon jumped away from the bed.

‘Not overly reassuring!’ Nick tried for a stoical grin and Shannon moved back to the bedside. She was on the point of returning the grin when another fit of coughing shook Nick’s body and deposited more blood-stained sputum on the white bedding. This time she held her ground. ‘Hand me the mini-lab, please,’ she said, holding her hand out behind her so that Jim could drop the device into it. ‘Thanks.’

‘You’re a bit unusual,’ Shannon said, putting her hand out to Nick and then pulling it back again quickly. Nick noticed and tightened his own hand around the sheets under his chin, ‘That’s me, always out of step.’ Shannon showed him the miniature laboratory; it looked like a fat silver worm. ‘For samples,’ she said. Nick grimaced. ‘Of the stuff on the sheet,’ she added. ‘It’s designed to locate and analyse fluids, not take bits out of people.’ Shannon laughed, initiated the device and dropped it onto the bed. It sat a moment then rose up on the four articulated limbs that emerged from its sides and manoeuvred its way towards the bloody gunk on the sheet. There, it squatted over the patch, projected an array of a microfibrils into it, and hummed steadily until the three red lights on its upper surface turned blue. Then it retreated, emitted a fine spray to clean off the residue, withdrew its limbs, and became inert. Shannon handed it to Jim who put it back in their medkit.

There was a commotion at the door of the apartment as two people, shuffling and wheezing in plastic overalls and helmets, made a clumsy entrance.

‘Suits are here,’ Jim said. The breath of the occupants hissed in and out of tubes connected to a back-pack and their gloves looked like something an astronaut might wear. ‘From the medical museum,’ one slightly metallic voice said. ‘The Curator was the only one knew how to put the parts together.’ The figure indicated suits for Shannon and Jim. ‘I feel like an over-inflated balloon,’ he added, and flapped his arms slowly in emphasis. Shannon and Jim, aided by their colleagues and deterred less by the voluminous museum pieces than their current flimsy garb, peeled off the boiler suits and struggled into the layers of plastic and piping. When they were all wearing the new equipment, Shannon turned back to Nick, ‘We need to get you prepped and out of here,’ she said. ‘Can you get your clothes off for us, do you think, so we can apply the oxygen foam?’ She puffed a breath onto the inside of the helmet’s faceplate and fogged it up, ‘I won’t look!’

‘No problem,’ said Nick, although he thought it would be. Just pulling back the sheets turned his body to ice and set off a fit of shivering.

‘Ok,’ Shannon said to Jim, when Nick was lying naked and slick with cold sweat, ‘Let’s get him oxygen wrapped and ready for removal.’ Jim approached the bed with a pump attached to two bottles and a length of tubing, and Nick allowed him to spray the substance over his body. The foam resolved into a viscous liquid and, with its nanocites and pre-programmed haemato-units, sought out areas where the blood flow was close to the surface of Nick’s skin. It crept into his ears and slicked its way into his mouth, where it probed the soft moist mucosal lining of his gums and tongue. It slid without asking into his groin and anus where it settled, consolidated, and began retrieving carbon dioxide from tired blood cells and replacing it with oxygen. Nick’s physiology began rapidly to pick up as it worked. So too did that of the causal agent.

Franklin considered the images he had seen via the head-cam and shuddered. Since the advent of submolecular genetic manipulation in the twenty-first century and the remote scanning apps built into people’s web-alert implants, doctoring had been a very clean business, but now this. The group of nonagenarians around the table had all been in practise when people contracted conditions that could be passed on; they were suddenly the experts again.

Franklin drew in a deep breath and watched as data bubbled up on the table in front of them – a 3D representation of something isolated from Shannon’s probe.

‘I was right, that’s a virus,’ said Evelyn Holmes, standing and flapping at the image above their coffee cartons. She made a redundant trace of the outline, ‘Look, bigger than a bacterium, and there’s its internal power house. Damn thing is good to go wherever conditions permit.’

‘How is that possible?’ said Franklin. ‘We eliminated viruses, neutered them out of existence.’ The retirees exchanged uncomfortable glances.

‘I think Eve’s right,’ said somebody whose background in post-mortem examination was the closest they could get to a pathologist. ‘I think …’

The thought was interrupted by a call from the team at Nick’s apartment, and Shannon’s face appeared on the screen, ‘Patient is oxygen-wrapped and ready to go. Awaiting instructions,’ she said. ‘Any idea what this is yet?’

Franklin waved a channel open, ‘No, not yet. Stand by.’ He cut the audio with another wave, leaving Shannon’s image hanging mute above them as they turned back to the 3D data. Holmes quietly opened the channel again, ‘Think I know what this thing is,’ she whispered, ‘People got sick all the time back in my day.’ She appended a bedside smile to reassure and reduce the likelihood of anyone panicking, then she waved the link closed and turned back to the group. Another voice had joined the discussion.

‘So, it’s a virus and most likely a mutant we haven’t seen before. How’d he get it?’

Franklin furrowed his brow at the speaker, Hueng Dong Sing, and waited for a counter-argument. But none was forthcoming, which left Holmes’s hypothesis looking alarmingly viable.

‘Where did it come from?’ Hueng said again.

‘Who knows?’ Holmes was scathing, ‘Did anyone think to pull up data about our patient, by any chance?’

‘Coming through now.’ Franklin swiped a link and an automated admin assistant displayed the data.

Dr Nick Jessop, aged 49, Agricultural laboratory, avian disease specialist, principal grade. Married to Professor Suria Finch Jessop, aged 52, medical archaeologist.

‘Completely unrelated professions,’ Franklin said. ‘What about interests, travel, recent social contacts?’ The data assistant projected a list of people, places, images and key words, and cross-referenced them with known incidents of human bio-failure.

‘Not a thing. He’s barely been anywhere but his lab and home for months.’

‘Same with Suria; full-on researchers, the pair of them.’

Holmes brought her hand up towards her mouth, ‘Oh my goodness,’ she said, ‘I didn’t think this could get any worse. What’s bio-security like in those places nowadays?’

‘Minimal since the eradication – why?’

‘Bird flu,’ she said.

‘Bird flu? Poultry, migrating geese? But that’s been -‘

‘Eradicated; yes, you said. But what if a remnant of the last avian epidemic from an agricultural research facility came into contact with a remnant of the 1918 flu outbreak from an archaeological specimen?’ Holmes paused and looked around the table for signs of scepticism; there were none. ‘That pandemic killed millions; combined with bird flu, this would be the most deadly biological organism we’ve ever encountered. That would be eradication for certain, but of us.’

The room fell silent, everyone working to think of a flaw in Holmes’s thinking and coming up blank. Franklin kept his eyes focused on his hands, ‘Incubation period?’

‘Anybody’s guess – three, four days maybe.’

‘Options?’ If Franklin’s memory served him, he had half an idea what these might be, and their ramifications.

‘Isolation, disinfection, life support,’ Holmes said.

‘Seal off the area.’ Hueng suggested.

‘Never mind the area, close the borders – Heathrow, Gatwick, the tunnel – no movement in or out of the country until we have this contained.’ Holmes recalled long abandoned strategies, ‘We have to assume everyone involved is infected – patient, team, contacts. We’ll need an isolation unit with full barrier containment.’

Franklin drew a breath – contacts – and opened the link to Shannon and her team, ‘No one leaves,’ he said, ‘Help is on its way.’ He closed the link, opened another, ‘Locate Suria Jessop ASAP,’ and a third, ‘We have a state of emergency, a bio-Security breach. Repeat, state of emergency involving biological threat. I’m handing you over to Dr Evelyn Holmes who will lead on requirements.’ He lifted his head to look at his colleagues and for a moment there was silence as the significance of the task ahead sank in. The next few hours would be critical.

The janitor in his beat-up leather chair listened to the sirens wailing towards his building, then much later, wailing away again. Odds on there was a mess left behind and it would’ve been nice to be told but since when did people like them bother talking to people like him? He scratched his nose, got to his feet and checked his master console; sure enough, in a matrix of clean green and okay orange, number 211 pulsed an urgent red for attention.

The door to 211 was festooned with INCIDENT tape. He ignored it, ducked under to swipe his pass, and entered the room. There were the suits, just by the door; he bagged them. He bagged the filthy bedding too and put it down the chute. He released the service bots, selected a post-trauma deep clean sequence, and set them to work sucking and blowing over the floors, walls, and ceiling. They would be a good while; he could go back to his game and put his feet up again.

Suria Jessop couldn’t put her feet up because her seat was cramped in close to the one in front, but it wouldn’t be for much longer. She sent a holo, ‘About to land at Beijing and not a moment too soon – air’s so dry my throat’s itching. See you next week.’ She pressed her thumb to the Send icon; it left a damp mark and she smiled. After all this time together, thinking of Nick could still make her palms sweat.

(c) Suzanne Conboy-Hill 2016

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This story arose from a pre-publication scientific paper about the delivery of an ssRNA to inhibit viral replication:

Reference : Krishnan V. Chakravarthy, Adela C. Bonoiu, William G. Davis, Priya Ranjan, Hong Ding, Rui Hu, J. Bradford Bowzard, Earl J. Bergey, Jacqueline M. Katz, Paul R. Knight, Suryaprakash Sambhara, and Paras N. Prasad Gold nanorod delivery of an ssRNA immune activator inhibits pandemic H1N1 influenza viral replication. PNAS 2010 107 (22) 10172-10177; published ahead of print May 24, 2010, doi:10.1073/pnas.0914561107

Precision

Jody ran into the house, all pink and breathless, ‘There’s a thing in our garden!’ he announced, coughing slightly on ‘garden’ and having to inhale half way through.

‘Oh, really?’ his mother said, not looking up from the hoover that had just died. Jody recognised this as an adult’s empty communication, although he called it being ignored.

‘A thing, a metallic thing with gadgety arms, flashy lights, and a lid thingy that’s like, going whaawha whoomph!’

Whawha woomph …’ Jody’s mother had begun eviscerating the hoover, so the chances of getting her attention had just dropped below zero. Jody ducked into the living room where his father was reading his paper.

‘Dad, there’s a …’

‘Yes, I heard, a flashy whawha thing with gadgety arms. Really, Jody, if you want to be a scientist when you grow up, you’re going to have to learn about precision. Too much Dr Who, I reckon.’

The doorbell rang.

‘Good afternoon, sir,’ said the chap with the metal box under his arm and worry lines he kept trying to marshal into a smile. ‘I’m wondering if you might have seen anything, erm, unusual today.’

‘What sort of unusual?’ said Jody’s dad. ‘And who are you, just so I know?’

‘My apologies, I’m Dr Tim Blaney, director of the Institute for Advanced Science down the road.’ He waved an arm vaguely towards the old mansion that stood in several acres and had pictures of growling dogs on the gates and fences. ‘A piece of equipment has gone missing and we believe we’ve traced it to this locality.’

‘Oh? What is it then, this equipment? Name? Specs?’ Jody’s dad was in alpha male mode and fluffing up his credentials like a frilled lizard. ‘I’m a scientist myself,’ he said, and fumbled for a business card. Jody’s mother rolled her eyes and Jody waited for the list of accomplishments to be trotted out. ‘Worked on the prototype for the FiC-500. Called something else now, I expect, so it’s easier for lay people to pronounce.’ He lifted his chin and raised disdainful eyebrows.

‘Well, sir,’ said Dr Blaney, parrying the invitation to a shared sneer with a hasty concession, ‘I can see you’re a man of some knowledge and integrity, so I can tell you it’s a 10-series AD drone; also a prototype.’

‘Ah,’ Jody’s dad rocked back on his heels, ‘Serial number?’

‘00000000256978AD20158. Black.’

‘Good. Good. Always going missing, those things, eh? Well, we’ll keep an eye out for it, you can rest assured.’ Jody’s dad shut the door.

‘You’ve no idea what that is, have you?’ Jody’s mother was pulling a face, trying not to laugh.

‘Of course I have. Pretty certain there were a couple at my last lab. Very rare though, and expensive. See Jody? Precision, that’s what you need. Know what something is and you can solve the problem.’

‘Dad, I don’t know what it is but I think I know where it is, it’s …’

‘Jody, this is scientist work, not little boy entertainment. What you saw was hardly likely to be a top secret device.’ He pulled his shoulders back, ‘Best leave it so someone who knows what they’re doing.’ And off he went towards the garage, rolling up his sleeves and muttering numbers under his breath, none of which were satisfactory if his eyebrows were to be believed.

When bedtime came, Jody lay awake in the dark, listening to the banging, scuffling, and bumping as items in the front room, the back room, the kitchen and then the loft went hither and thither, then hither again. It was still going on when he finally fell asleep and in the morning, before breakfast, Jody’s dad came shuffling down the stairs with cobwebs in his hair, dust on his sweater, and a spider hanging off his sleeve.

‘No luck, Dad?’

‘No, Son. I expect some idiot just mislaid it. Always one, even in the best labs. I remember having to put in some pretty keen security protocols myself to stop light-fingered numpties making off with things they didn’t understand.’

The doorbell rang again and Jody’s dad marched away with an air of martyred authority to answer it.

‘Dr Blaney, good morning. Did you find your … your missing item?’ He leaned forwards, lowered his voice and tapped his nose to indicate respect for secrecy, and also to side-step the crucial reference.

‘No, sir. We still believe it’s here somewhere. I take it you’ve been looking?’ Dr Blaney was eyeing the spider on Jody’s dad’s arm and the dust speckling his hair.

‘I have, but of course, those things are the devil to find, once they get hidden. Well, you’d know!’

‘Sir, what is it you believe you’re looking for?’

‘Well, after you said what it was, I naturally checked out the specs from my files, printed out a couple of sheets, and we all set to work.’

‘You checked out the specs …?’

‘Of course, and it’s not here. Goodbye, Dr Blaney.’ Jody’s dad, keen to shut down further enquiries with his search so far fruitless, was shutting the door as Dr Blaney started to consult a small screen he held in his hand. It flashed. When he turned left, it flashed a bit more.

‘I bet it’s a metallic thing with gadgety arms, flashy lights, and a lid thingy that’s like, going whaawha whoomph,’ Jody said, ducking under his dad’s arm and brushing the spider away to look up at Dr Blaney.

‘Jody, ssh!’

‘Yes – that’s precisely what it is! Well done, young man! Now, where is it?’

‘It’s in the garden, I’ll show you. It looks quite sad, actually.’ Jody dodged past his dad and ran off down the garden with Dr Blaney in tow, ‘Is that thing on the top for GPS? I bet the arms are to carry stuff. Does it deliver letters? It’s a delivery drone, isn’t it?’

Jody’s mother stuffed a chortle back into her throat, ‘That precise enough for you?’ She squeezed her husband’s arm, ‘I’m sure they’ll let you look if you ask nicely.’

Suzanne Conboy-Hill

(c) suzanne conboy-hill 2014.

You may share but not sell, alter, substantially extract, or claim as your own.

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Lovely Girls

Amy watches the door, that grimy finger-stained gobbed-on portal to fleeting respite from the ward’s stink. The stink that makes her eyes water and saturates her soul. She tries to shift her bottom, to hold her limbs still for just long enough to hover briefly above the puddle of cold pee that has settled in a trough of rucked-up rubber sheeting. No luck, she sinks back. Flails back, in truth: arms threshing, mouth grimacing and spit flying, right onto the wet sandpaper of the twill draw sheet.

Edie, inches away in the next cot, lets out a guffaw and then shrieks at the air, her hands grappling at something under the sheets. Amy thinks that it is probably a turd, as the night orderly had been too busy with his pet to do a toilet round. She glances over at Julie’s cot in the corner and convulses in a spastic ripple of empathic revulsion.

Amy knows what is going on because she is smart. She is smarter than those people think, with their white coats, their blue epaulettes, and their shiny black, metal-heeled shoes that go clicking and clacking along the mop-damp, foot-stamped corridors. That and she has been a pet.

There is a sliver of enlightenment stealing in through the barred and encrusted god-high windows of the institutions, but not as much as there will be in a decade or so. Even now the smog of crass ignorance in these places is still impenetrable to evidence. Such evidence as would have plucked Amy and her like out of the gloom, re-written their histories and expunged the references to subnormality and idiocy that legitimised their abandonment. Instead here she is, momentarily re-living the crawling nausea of repeated assaults, while looking at poor Julie’s tiny frame, scrambled in its wet sheets where spots of blood are spreading forensically into the soaked up urine.

“Morning, girls.” They are not girls and what does morning mean in a place such as this where time passes in bullet-hard boluses of boredom? But this is Phyllis, and Amy has a soft spot for Phyllis. She convulses again, this time with pleasure, and Phyllis waves. As she does, the waistband of her starched apron rides up with her arm, billowing out the bib so that she looks like a sailing ship. She pulls it all back down again, fusses with the fastenings at the back, and then smooths over the crisp white sheet so it wraps sedately around the sea-green pleats of her uniform, like a manila envelope around an invitation.

Phyllis’s arrival triggers a storm of howling, wailing and clattering as the cot-bound patients seek her attention. Edie hurls the faecal missile she has excavated and it lands with a soft plop on the scuffed linoleum floor. Julie is not howling but she is sitting up, rocking and humming, twiddling the fingers of her left hand in front of her face and gouging at her eye with the thumb of her right.

“Don’t do that, my lovely, or I’ll have to give you sedation and you don’t want that, do you? Big needle in the bottom? Course you don’t.” Phyllis has lots of these one-way conversations and does not seem to worry about the lack of response. She pushes Julie’s hands down and carefully hooks the right one into a leather restraint attached to the side of the cot. Now Julie does howl and starts to hit her face with her free hand, but Phyllis has moved on, having spotted the shit on the floor.

“Mop!” she shouts over her shoulder, and heads off towards the office to get a toilet roll.

We should care about this; we should be shocked and outraged, and we will be, in time, but not now, not in 1963. In 1963, this place is a flagship of progress, an asylum to royalty, and it receives unctuous praise for its modern attitude to the subnormal from the political aristocracy who hope above anything never to have to meet one of its forgotten inmates.

Amy knows it is a sham, but like others here who have been vacant witnesses, she cannot bear witness because her body is not geared to speech. Her body has a brain that makes her look like a marionette in the hands of a four-year-old because Amy has cerebral palsy. But no one will appreciate that for another decade, so no one will take the trouble to ask her how she came to be pregnant in 1945.

The ward door opens again and two men appear, trailing a clanking string of rusty wheelchairs with stained seats. It is bath time. Soon, all Phyllis’s “girls” are stripped naked, dumped into a chair each and trolleyed along the corridor, past kitchens that smell permanently of cabbage, to the industrial checkout of the bath room.

There, a man approaches Edie to heave her out of her chair and deposit her in a vast tub just vacated by someone else. The murky water slops over the edge and pools in the cracks between the stone flags of the floor. “Allyoop, lass,” he says, his breath fogging briefly in the teeth-chattering chill. This is Derek and, while Derek is not quite the full shilling, he is a High Grade, a patient with enough nous to be employed but not enough to notice he does not get paid. He helps with general duties, which, unbelievably, include stripping and washing women who cannot speak. But no matter, these are Low Grades, insensate and so sexually and personally oblivious. Except they are not, but again the few that could object will not be able to do so for many years and by then they will be numb. Not dumb any more, lacking communication and an understanding audience, but numb of heart and will and soul, which will allow hell to freeze in their throats without expression.

Amy knows she is a Low Grade because that is what she was told on arrival.
“Where’s this one going?”
“B32 with the other basket cases.”
“She’s a Low Grade?”
“Dead from the neck up, nothing in the attic.” A proprietorial pause. “Plenty going on in the cellar, though, if you know what I mean.” The orderly had cast her a lingering, lascivious look that Amy had understood well enough to know that it was deeply unwelcome. Her body had failed her, though, juddering and jigging, twitching and lunging by way of idiot confirmation while her mind shrieked horrified impotence. One of her flailing limbs had struck the orderly and he had turned his gaze back to her from his barren paperwork. Hard eyes scanned her up and down and hard knuckles cracked across her face, streaking red smears from the tear made by his heavy signet ring. “You’ll behave yourself around me, Missy.” Then he had felt under her clothes, explored the breasts that had just begun to push out from her chest, and run his fingers down into the soft, new nest of sunlight-pale pubic hair that had also just appeared. “You’ll behave yourself very well with me,” he had added, probing a little further and winking inclusively towards his colleague. “And if he plays his cards right, I’ll let him have a go too.”

So Amy had discovered two things that day: first, that she was a Low Grade and of no account anywhere in this bleak, terrifying world; and second, that she had embarked on a career as an orderly’s whore, a facility, a pet.

The “girls” are back, rattling into the ward to be parked around the immense wooden table at its centre. Amy is steered into a gap next to Maureen whose eyes glitter as if with constant amusement while she picks holes in her head and eats the trophies. Amy is beyond nausea, which is fortunate because lunch has arrived and is being dished out by Phyllis and a new probationer nurse.
“Who wants mash and peas?” the probationer is asking over the hubbub of random squawks, hawks, smacks and slaps.
“No need to ask, love,” Phyllis intervenes, her voice kindly, almost mumsy, ‘they all have everything.”  And they do. Mash, mince, peas, rhubarb, custard and a cup of tea. Except it is not in a cup; it is in the one bowl along with everything else. A crude palette of organic slop slowly blending into a homogenous morass of choleric shade and consistency.
“Saves on washing up.” Phyllis is nipping the tender bud of objection about to emerge from the round O of the probationer’s mouth. “All goes down the same way. See, you go and feed Amy now. Be sure she eats it all.”

Amy watches as the young woman approaches. She flinches as the spoon appears suddenly to the left of her involuntarily averted face and is pushed into her mouth. Amy has been choked before by novices and then slapped for choking. She has spent two days tied, hungry as a street dog, to a pillar in the middle of the ward as punishment. Amy does not want to choke. But this girl is gentle. Inexperienced but gentle. Her eyes are kindly, like Phyllis’s eyes, and she looks often to Phyllis as if for reassurance. Amy wonders if this is Phyllis’s daughter but they do not look much alike. If Amy knew how to judge, she would say that Phyllis had the round, ruddy look of a middle-aged Welsh woman for whom hard graft had been her companion and lifelong lover, while this girl was slight and had a dainty look about her. Instead of Phyllis’s faded cassock black crown, there was a powder-puff of fair curls fluffing out from beneath her neat, white, nurse’s cap.

“She your favourite, is she?” Derek has sidled up to them and is giving the probationer a look he learned long ago and has been trying on with the new girls ever since. Amy knows that look and she propels the bowl out of the nurse’s hand in a sudden paroxysm of revulsion. She knows the look and she knows Derek. Oh yes, she knows Derek.

Phyllis comes rushing over, shouting for mops and buckets and telling Derek to “look sharp and get his backside moving, there are canteen trolleys to be shifted.” Derek himself shifts from leery to laconic then mooches off, casting one vaguely hopeful glance over his shoulder at the three women. Phyllis is soothing the probationer and smearing gravy down her apron as she scrubs ineffectually at the mess with a piece of tow from her pocket.
“You just wipe your eyes, Carrie, no bones broken, just a bit of dinner on the floor.” She turns to Amy, “You too, my lovely,” and she reaches out to both of them, her hands momentarily resting on their shoulders and rubbing that comforting rub mothers employ as a universal healer. She looks at Amy and Carrie: “My two beautiful girls.” They all pause there for a second that stretches and reverberates between a time not far from now when the truth will be known, and another way back when Amy barely knows it herself. There is no breathing in this space, no sound. The air echoes with the emptiness of secrets and groans with the burden of them.

A crash. Edie’s wheelchair has capsized, and the world regains its momentum. But not in Amy’s head because Amy has seen something, remembered something, caught the tail of an understanding that has been suppressed by the horror and tedium, nihilism and victimisation of life in the asylum, the safe place, the prison.

A deep darkness broken by a flood of light. A bed flooded by a sluice of hot, salty fluid. The light comes from a torch, the water from inside her, at first hot then cooling rapidly in the sharp cold of the tiled bathroom with its ranks of night silent, mind drowning tubs. Amy’s body contracts, heaves and flails while a deep, deep pain turns her inside out and cascades more hot fluid out of her and onto the rough sheet.
Dark faces flit in and out of the light as the torch is waved around. There is a hissed back-and-forth exchange that comes from another universe as tides of pain pull Amy in and out of consciousness.

“Get her knees out of the way.” A smell of bleach.
“Well, hold the torch steady. Not up there, down here, stupid. Where do you think it’s coming from, her ear?” Sick-making aftershave.
“Can I look?” Sweat and cabbage.
“Piss off, moron!”
Another voice, softer. “Ssh, you’re frightening her.” Then more loudly, “Try to stay still, Amy love, so we can see what we’re doing.” Who..?
“Hush your voice. Do you want the Night Super down here? Jesus!”
Then Amy howls, a lupine cry from the soul that marks a primeval rite of passage. By the time the echoes have faded, a man unknowing becomes a father, a woman becomes a mother, and a mother loses a child.

Suzanne Conboy-Hill

(c) suzanne conboy-hill 2013.

You may share but not sell, alter, substantially extract, or claim as your own.

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Lovely Girls‘ was first published in The Other Room Journal, August 19th, 2011. TORJ is no longer available.

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