Surrounding yourself with creativity

Recently, I found myself in a creative slump. I wasn’t motivated to write anything – the ideas for the novel I’m working on were still ticking over in my brain, but I wasn’t actually writing, and I hadn’t even considered writing a poem for months, other than those I had to write for my seminars, and they were turning out flat and lifeless. I lacked motivation, I lacked inspiration, I lacked drive.

And then I went to my local poetry night at the local pub.

It was like a switch was flipped; I got home and immediately wrote two (admittedly godawful) first drafts of poems, and I wrote two more today. Just being in a creative atmosphere made me want to write again. I got my drive back.

It’s worth noting as well that I think it was partially that I was so invested in writing this novel. Not that I don’t want to write it, but I think after being so focused on one thing – especially when it’s taking so long to write given my lack of free time – I needed a little break from it to allow some of the other ideas I’d had in the mean time to work their way out.

So if you’re feeling like you’re in a bit of a writing funk, all I’m saying is that it might be worth stepping back from what you’re working on, and surrounding yourself with people who inspire you with their creativity. Easier said than done sometimes, I know, but it just might be what you need.

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In the clouds

Fog falls over us with misty silence,

twisting and curling its fingers around us

until we’re it and it’s us

and we can’t see our hands in front of our faces for trying, but

I can hear you, and

by hearing you I can see you,

see your laugh

lighting up your face, from

its infant stages as an impish grin

to it’s spread, as it contorts

your whole body in joy and I,

too, laugh,

and smile about how strange we must look,

joy making us glow

as our heads sit

in the clouds.

© Alyx Hurst 2017

The Sim

The world seemed to buzz around me, disintegrating before my eyes. The pavement blurred into the road and the screech of brakes crackled towards me. I looked up and blinked. The walls of a room I didn’t recognise came into focus.

Something started beeping next to me; a high pitched chirp joined it in a disharmony my brain couldn’t process. People ran into the room, I counted three, cloaked in lab coats and lanyards and plastic gloves. I knew none of them.

They talked amongst themselves, barking words at each other that I couldn’t derive any meaning from. I tried to sit up, but my brain didn’t reach my body, and I remained stationary.

The beeping stopped. The people took a breath. They smiled. One of them stepped closer to me, the other two left the room.

‘Hi, Elspeth. How are you feeling?’

I frowned. She checked her notes.

‘Who are you?’

It was their turn to frown. ‘Elspeth, it’s me, May.’

‘Who? Where am I?’

‘You’re in your dorm, Elspeth,’ she said, her voice rising in confusion, ‘do you not remember anything?’

‘I remember a car.’ I grimaced. ‘I remember a lot of pain.’

‘What about before that?’

‘Could you be more specific?’

‘Before your life in the sim, Elspeth, what do you remember?’

‘Life in the what?’

She clutched at a walkie talkie strapped to her waist and spoke into it. ‘Doctor Fisher, I need assistance.’

‘Who’s Doctor Fisher? What is going on?’

Her voice shook slightly as she continued. ‘You don’t remember anything?’

‘I have no idea what you’re talking about! Where am I?!’

‘You’ve just woken up.’

‘What do you mean?’

Another person shrouded in a white entered the room. ‘What appears to be the problem May?’

‘Will someone please tell me where I am?’ The panic swirled in my gut as the two people remained silent, exchanging glances.

The man, who I presumed to be Doctor Fisher, turned to May. ‘Does she not remember anything?’

‘It doesn’t appear so, sir.’

He turned to me. ‘Elspeth, what year are we in?’

‘2016?’

‘What are the names of your parents?’

‘Maggie and Steven.’

‘And your siblings?’

‘I only have one brother. George.’

He turned back to May. ‘This is an unexpected hiccup.’

‘Will someone please tell me what’s going on?’ I yelled, my fear transforming into pure rage. May flinched at my outburst, speechless.

‘You’ve just woken up from a simulation,’ Doctor Fisher explained.

‘What?’

‘You’ve been in a coma for just under six months, during which you have experienced twenty years in a simulation we’ve been running in your brain – like a dream that we can control. It’s been very interesting. But we expected you to wake up and remember your current situation, as you would after waking up from a dream, but as you now know, that is clearly… not the case.’ Fisher’s voice was a monotone, his face remaining emotionless.

My breath quickened. The nausea clawed its way up my throat; a cold feeling spread from my scalp through my body.

‘What do you mean, my life is made up?’

‘The life you think you have is. Your real life is here in 2546. You are twenty-five years old.’ He consulted a clipboard, before snapping it shut, pushing his glasses up his nose and frowning at me. ‘If you wait here, we will decide the best course of action, hopefully reinstate your memory somehow.’

With that, he and May left the room. I tried to get up to follow them, but I found myself unable to move. I removed the blanket covering my legs and I felt the blood drain from my skin as I saw what little was left of my legs. They were reduced to skin and bone, none of the muscle that I had come to know and be so proud of as a triathlete remaining. It dawned on me that I hadn’t actually done that training; the years of hard work and dedication were no more than a dream.

Tears spilled over my cheeks. I tried to move, but my muscles barely twitched.

As I waited, I resolved to attempt to remember my life in this reality. Nothing revealed itself. Whilst I could remember a few times in which the world I knew suggested to me that it was not quite real, I could not remember anything of this one that I had been given as a replacement.

I focused on May – from her reaction, I clearly knew her well. I pictured her face in my head and searched for her somewhere within my memory. I found a glimpse of something, but as I pulled at it I lost the source. I was sure that I had met her before, but where, I did not know.

I looked around, beginning to doubt everything. If I hadn’t noticed that I’d been living in a simulation before, who’s to say I would realise now? The thought began to overwhelm me as the minutes ticked by.

May walked in just as I the walls started shrinking closer.

‘May?’

She looked up, startled. There was an almost imperceptible glimmer of hope in her eyes. ‘Yes?’

‘If I’ve been living in a simulation for years and had no idea, how do we know that we’re not living in a simulation right now?’

‘We don’t think we are, but who knows?’ Her eyes snapped back to the clipboard she held in her hands as she leafed through the papers attached to it. ‘If we are, then one day we’ll wake up, and that’ll be that.’ She looked at me, her face paling as the words lingered in the air between us.

‘Well. Yeah. Kind of insignificant, I guess.’

When May next spoke, her voice was barely audible. ‘You did choose this.’

‘What?’

‘You volunteered. I can show you the records if you like – Fisher thinks it may be too overwhelming, but…’

‘That should make me feel a bit better, I guess,’ I sighed, ‘but I don’t even know the person I was before this whole situation.’

May let her clipboard drop down to rest against her thighs.

‘She was great.’ May smiled, looking at me, but clearly seeing the me that she knew. She cleared her throat. ‘Anyway, we need to get you into rehab as soon as possible, redevelop your muscles. That’s the only thing the old you was afraid of – you had spent so much time getting as fit as you were. We had no idea how long the experiment was going to last.’

A flash of memory suddenly came to me as May sat there, of a girl, of a blurred night, and a morning spent feeling quite sorry for myself. I felt my cheeks flush.

‘May, how did we – do we – know each other?’

‘We were really good friends.’

‘Just friends?’

It was her turn to blush. ‘Yeah, just friends, why do you ask?’

‘Just something that must have happened in the simulation.’ My mouth fumbled around the word like it was cotton wool, objecting to calling every memory I had fake.

May wouldn’t meet my eyes. ‘I think I know what you mean. Anyway, if you want we can unhook you from this equipment and take you down to rehab now?’

‘So, you saw everything that happened in the simulation?’ My face felt like it was on fire as memories flashed through my mind that I had presumed no-one would ever know about.

‘We had the ability to, but obviously we gave you some privacy.’

I really didn’t want to find out exactly what it was that they had and hadn’t seen, so I dropped the matter. ‘You were saying about rehab?’

‘Yes, shall we go?’

‘Sounds good.’

May slipped the various needles and sensors out of and off me whilst I lay there. I let out a shaky breath as she turned from me, pulling the walkie talkie from her belt and requesting assistance moving me. Two people walked into the room, beaming smiles on their faces.

‘Hi, Elspeth, how’s it going?’ The greeting came from the taller one of the two, his bulky frame nearly too big for the doorway. I had never seen him before in my life.

‘Um, hi.’

The two people looked at each other, frowning. ‘Don’t you recognise me, Elspeth?’

‘Sorry, I don’t.’

‘You recognise me though, right, Elspeth?’ The other person had long hair the colour of daffodils, swept up and out of the way in a ponytail that reached their waist.

‘You look just like my friend Lizzie.’

The woman’s expression transformed, the ends of her smile flopping to her chin, the lines on her forehead deepening.

May sighed. ‘I did warn you she doesn’t remember anything. Elspeth, this is Amanda, and this is Peter.’

The two of them seemed quite lost for words.

‘Hi, nice to meet you. Can we please get to rehab? I’d really like to be able to move again.’

‘Sorry, Elspeth, this is all just a bit strange, is all.’ Amanda was almost speaking through tears. She and the guy took positions at the head of the bed, whilst May grabbed the front.

The rest of the building that I could see as I was wheeled through it was pretty much the same as my room – plain white walls, white linoleum floors, everything spotless. There was an occasional window set into the wall, and I took every opportunity to glance out. All I could see was unreally turquoise blue skies. From this, all I could discern is that we were high up in the building. Not that I was likely to know where we were even if I did see it – Doctor Fisher had said that this world was 500 years farther in the future than anything I had memory of living in.

The building was labyrinthian, with twists, turns, ups, downs, all down corridors that looked no different from each other. The sound of laughter emanated from some of the rooms, cries from others.

‘Where are we?’ I asked.

It was May who answered. ‘London General Hospital.’ With that, we pulled into a large, open room, not dissimilar in appearance to a gym.

I stored the knowledge away that London still existed and tried to focus.

‘See ya, Elspeth, and good luck!’

‘Good luck, Elspeth!’

I smiled at them through the mirror as they waved and left the room. My life must not be too bad here, I thought, if I was friends with them.

‘We have a lot to be going on with, so let me just grab Kim and we’ll be getting on to it.’

My question of ‘Who’s Kim?’ died in my throat as a man I recognised very well walked up to the side of the bed.

‘Hiya, Elspeth.’ He looked uncomfortable, leaning towards me slightly as if to hug me before stopping, halfway down, patting my hand with his and stepping back. ‘I’ve been told you probably don’t remember me?’

‘I have no idea who you are,’ the next words came out before I had a chance to consider them, ‘but I remember dating someone who looked very much like you. In the simulation.’ Sadness washed through me as I remembered that Logan and I hadn’t left things on the best note.

‘You and Kim dated for a couple of years when we were all in school,’ May explained, ‘He’s your physiotherapist.’ She looked over at Kim. ‘Are you all good here?’

‘I think so. Ready to start, Els?’

The nickname made me cringe. ‘Would you call me Elspeth, please?’ I murmured.

He cleared his throat. ‘Right. Sorry. Elspeth.’

‘I’ll leave you to it,’ May said, writing something on her clipboard before turning and leaving the room.

Kim and I struggled through the session. I didn’t know how much he knew about my life in the simulation, but he fed off my awkwardness, touching me as little as he possibly could, which, given that I couldn’t move at all, was still far more than I was comfortable with. We had barely managed to move me out of the bed before May popped her head into the room.

‘Time’s up. You don’t want to over-exert yourself.’ She walked over to us. ‘How did the session go?’ The question was directed at me, distracting me as she handed the clipboard over to Kim. He made some quick scribbles.

‘It was alright. Frustrating, mainly,’ I admitted. I glanced at Kim.

‘Well, it’s a long process. We hope to have you walking again in a few months, but we can’t promise anything. You ready to go back?’

May took the helm again as Kim helped her push me back to the room. She hooked me back up to some of the machines, ‘for monitoring purposes’ and pulled up a chair to sit next to the bed.

I noticed someone had placed a bouquet of ruby and yellow gerberas in a vase on the table at the side of the room.

‘Those flowers are beautiful.’

May blushed. ‘I thought they would brighten up your room a little bit.’

‘Aw, thank you!’

‘You’re welcome,’ she said, walking over to the chair against the wall. ‘Dinner will be here in a bit. I thought I could keep you company.’

We both knew that what she really meant was that she was staying to help me eat, but neither of us acknowledged it. ‘Yeah, that would be nice.’ I took a deep breath. ‘Can I ask you a few questions? Y’know, about my life here?’

The question seemed to take May slightly off guard as she placed the chair next to the bed. ‘Of course, what would you like to know?’

I tried to pick from the infinite questions that were whirring through my head.

‘Who are my family? And where are they?’

‘You were an only child. Your parents didn’t quite agree with your decision to pursue the research you were doing, so you haven’t talked to them in five years. I heard that they… they passed last year. Car accident. I’m sorry.’

I mulled this information over in my head. I couldn’t imagine life without my brother; we fought a lot, but he was one of the best people to go to when I needed cheering up. As for my parents, I couldn’t imagine a life without them as a part of it. My simulation self – and myself now – couldn’t contemplate not attempting to reconcile with them after an argument, no matter how big. But we had never had an argument that big.

‘What was the point of this experiment?’

‘That’s a pretty big question.’

I waited for May to continue.

‘Well, it started off as an experiment to see if we could put anyone in a simulation. How much we could control, how much control they had. We designed most of it for you, but anytime someone from this real world, for lack of a better word, appeared in the simulation, it was your subconscious taking over.’

‘So that means that my subconscious remembers everything in this world?’

‘That’s what we think.’

‘So, there’s a chance I’ll remember?’

‘Hopefully. We think it’s likely, but we can’t say for certain yet.’

‘How did we meet?’

‘We’ve been friends since school.’ May rested her head on her arms, folded on the bed. ‘Primary school. We met in the first week, us and Kim. We were inseparable.’

‘Why is Kim no longer our friend then?’

‘I never said-‘

‘You didn’t seem very familiar with him when we saw him earlier.’

There was a knock at the door. May got up and grabbed what looked like mush off the trolley at the door, thanked the person manning the trolley and returned to her seat next to me.

‘Sorry, it doesn’t look very appetising, but it’s the only option really, unless you want to be on a drip.’ She opened the bottle and sniffed. ‘To be honest, it actually smells quite good. Can we try with a straw?’

I opened my mouth and she placed the straw inside. I sucked at it and the mushy liquid hit my tongue – in fairness, it didn’t taste that bad.

‘In answer to your question, once you two broke up, we just kind of… drifted apart. It was hard to stay friends with both of you, you didn’t exactly break up on the most amicable of terms.’

I wanted her to expand, but the straw in my mouth prevented me from saying anything. I tried to prompt an explanation with a confused look, but May just laughed at me. ‘I think that’s enough information for one day.’ She looked at me hopefully. ‘I don’t suppose it’s triggering anything?’

I shook my head as I swallowed the last of the weird smoothie.

‘To be honest, I’m just getting more confused.’

She laughed. ‘Alright. I need to run some errands, but shall I come back after I’m done?’

‘Sure. I could use the company.’

‘See you later then.’ She smiled at me, taking the cup and straw with her as she walked out.

I hardly had a chance to pause for breath before Doctor Fisher walked in. ‘Hello, Elspeth. How are we feeling?’ He twiddled his thumbs and paced awkwardly around the room, checking things but not really looking at anything.

‘As well as I could be.’

‘What a positive outlook.’ He smiled at me. ‘I have a proposition for you.’

His smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. As he looked at me, a feeling of unease slithered its way into my stomach. ‘What?’

‘How would you like to go back into the simulation?’

‘Back into the…’

‘You see, Elspeth, the experiment isn’t really finished.’

‘But I just woke up!’

‘Yes, but you realised you were in a simulation and woke yourself up.’ He spoke slowly, as if to a child, ’We still have more tests to run. Don’t you think some closure would be good for you?’

‘But it’s not real, is it?’

He shrugged. ‘This could all be fake. What’s the point of anything? You were happy in that simulation, Elspeth. Don’t you want to be happy?’

‘Can’t I be happy here?’

He shrugged again. ‘Eventually. We only want to run the sim for a couple more years, until you die naturally in it, that’s all.’

I considered it. I needed closure, at least, it wasn’t so bad to want that, surely?

‘A couple more years, you say?’

‘Yes, that’s all, and then you can live your life here.’

‘Alright.’

‘You’ll do it?’

‘Yes. I’ll do it.’

‘I knew you were more sensible than May! I have the injection ready, let’s get this done quickly now.’

‘Wait, May doesn’t want me to go back under? Why not?’

He came towards me, needle readied, frowning and dismissing my question with a wave of his hand. ‘I don’t know, Elspeth, just hold still now. Focus on the moment before you died in the sim.’

My eyes went to the flowers on the table at the side of the room, and a horrible sense of dread set in as I felt the needle prick my skin. His words brought the moment to my mind, the wind whipping at my face, the dampness of my ankles from cars splashing through the puddles next to the pavement, my phone clutched in my hand…

I looked up from my phone just in time to stop myself from stepping out into the road as a van screeched around the corner. I looked again and crossed the road. As I stepped up onto the pavement the other side, I noticed a bouquet of red and yellow flowers lying on the asphalt. I picked them up and placed them on the bench at the side of the road before continuing with my walk home.

© Alyx Hurst 2017

The Pink Pyjamas

The pyjamas sat, untouched, on the rooftop. Despite the relative suburbia that the roof resided in, very few people noticed them. Those that did thought about them for only the brief period of time that it took until keen eyes were distracted by something else. Anyone who would speculate about them would be highly unlikely to deduce the reason for their rather peculiar placement, for the reason, as would be expected, was as strange as the result.

Tom woke up with a start, covered in a sheen of sweat. He checked the clock. Five hours until he had to get up. Five hours that he knew would be spent lying wide awake.

The nightmares had only recently started. They ranged from horrific, graphic affairs, with maniacs wielding chainsaws and killing everyone he loved, to being trapped in a white room. Well, not trapped, exactly, but with no way out. Endless solitude, in whatever direction he ran screaming. It was one of the latter that had visited him on this particular evening, and he was just shaking himself out of it when he saw her eyes.

They shone in the dim light in such a manner that they appeared to be without a body, just shining white orbs with wide, black pupils in the centre surrounded by violet. They stared at him, unflinching.

Just a dream, just a dream, Tom thought to himself, turning to face the open door of his bedroom. He wriggled restlessly, attempting push the look of those eyes out of his head. Eventually comfortable after much rearranging of the bedding, he turned back to the window, just to check. Just for some peace of mind.

They were still there.

Still staring.

He stared back.

There was something tempting in the eyes, as if they were beckoning him over. Wincing as his feet touched the cold tiles, he shuffled over to the window and looked out.

A giggle flew from the figure before it leapt out of sight, upwards, towards the roof. It was clearly a figure now, for the manner in which it had jumped from the window showed its arms and legs trailing behind it.

Tom opened the window and bent his body to look out, up at the roof. His room sat in the top of the house, but slightly set back from the furthest point that it jutted out, giving him a clear view from his window of the furrow that formed where the two gradients of the roof met. The figure, now merely a shadow, danced around, giggling.

Curiosity sufficiently piqued, he turned away from the window and walked to the ladder that lead up to the loft. Up until the age of eleven, Tom’s favourite place to sit was in the roof furrow. It was only then stopped by his mother, who had stood by the window and screamed at him to come back inside, reaching her hands out to attempt to pull him back inside. As soon as his feet had hit the floor of the converted loft, the window had been locked, the key hidden in his parents’ room. It had taken years for that window to be opened again for fear that he might see it and attempt to climb out. His parents’ faith in his only desired exit method being the front or back door had returned when he had fallen off a climbing wall at the age of fourteen, and immediately lost the desire for climbing anything that was not stairs or a ladder.

Or so they thought. In truth, Tom had revisited the roof a handful of times since that incident, just to think. The key was still semi-hidden, but the under-the-plant-pot hiding place was hardly ground breaking. It took him all of three minutes to get into the loft and get the window open. He switched his torch on as he climbed out, shining it on to the figure.

A young girl appeared in the beam wearing pink cat pyjamas. Her hair seemed to float in the wind, the mousy tendrils flying about of their own accord. Her feet were bare, her lips were dry and cracked; she looked almost feral.

“Hi,” Tom said, confusion making his voice waver.

She simply smiled, extending her hand towards him. He took it and she pulled him across the top of the roof, no hesitation in her steps. He followed gingerly, wishing that he had grabbed a jacket. The t-shirt and boxers that he usually slept in did little to protect him from the chilling wind.

The girl abruptly sat down in the roof furrow, and he joined her, the space not quite big enough for the both of them. “So,” he said, “where do you live?”

The girl turned to him, confusion washing over her features. “Here.” She turned back to looking at the night sky, and Tom considered this meant the conversation was over – besides, he was too afraid of this tiny girl to ask anything more. They sat like that for perhaps five minutes before he felt that sitting there much longer would result in his butt being frozen to the tiles. He got up and turned to leave, navigating the frosty tiles with extreme caution.

“Wait, don’t go!” the girl cried out. As he turned back to her, she slipped.

Her tiny bare feet struggled to find purchase on the roof. Her arms wind-milled wildly. She flew into the air, and just as Tom reached out to her, she turned to dust.

Her pyjamas were all that were left, floating to settle on the roof where she had been sitting moments before.

There was no caution in Tom’s steps now as he rushed to get inside. Lying in bed, he considered the events as he drifted back to sleep.

The daylight brought logic – it must have been a dream. There was no way that something like that could be real. He tried to push all thoughts of it from his mind as he trudged downstairs, ready for the monotony of another day.

Tom peeked into the utility room as he walked past, where he saw his mother, bent over a pair of pink cat pyjamas, sobbing.


© Alyx Hurst 2017

Returning to Square One

As I sat struggling to write chapter four of the novel I’m working on, I had a horrific realisation. I needed to go back and plan again.

There were several issues with the set up of the world (as it is a fantasy novel; I talked about the trials and tribulations of world building in my post here) that needed sorting, and could critically alter the plot depending on what I did; I needed to add to the beginning to fully explain this world, the ending that I had planned felt like it didn’t quite work, and I needed more time for a relationship to build between the characters. So, it was effectively back to square one.

It felt like a defeat, I felt despondent and demotivated. But I got a clean piece of paper and I wrote out everything that needed changing, brainstormed how I was going to change it, and ordered the changes. I’m currently only halfway through them, as they require a lot of working out, and something I always find difficult: important decisions. But I am making my way through them. And I’m very glad for realising the issues at this point, as it has made me rethink the story in many ways, and I have made a lot of changes – some minor, some major – for the better.

What I have now realised is that I never went back to square one. As long as you have something, however much it feels like you’re at square one, you never truly are. Maybe square two, or even square one point five, but you always have more than you started with, and going back can easily launch you a lot further than you were before. Think of it not as regression, but as going up to the line, walking back, and taking a run up.

I won Camp NaNoWriMo 2017! (sort of)

Before this July, I had never done Camp NaNoWriMo. I’d done NaNoWriMo, in November, twice, and won once. I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo this year because I thought the motivation of a concrete goal would be very helpful in my attempt to write the first draft of a novel over this summer – I’d found the same motivation helpful before, so why not now?

The thing I didn’t realise about Camp NaNoWriMo before starting that I absolutely loved is that you set your own goal. In my case, I set it to 30,000 words, and began. Then, once I got my work schedule through, and it got towards the end of the month, I decreased this to 15,000 words to keep me motivated. What happened when I did NaNoWriMo the year before last is that the month got away from me, and halfway through November, I only had 6,000 words, and no feeling that I would be able to achieve the 50,000 word goal, so I gave up. With an editable goal, this is not the case. The only issue with this is that as the month draws to a close, you might be tempted to edit your goal down to what you already have and call it a day. You’ve just got to have the self-discipline not to do that.

The key thing that I took away from this is clear: having a goal kept me motivated. Through writer’s block, through tiredness, through procrastination, through lows, and through sheer laziness, I had a goal to work towards, and so I did. And though I may not have a full novel, I have certainly worked out a lot about the world of it that I hadn’t already thought of through simply having to essentially live in it for a month. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone – at the price of free, it provides the motivation that anyone like me so desparately needs to get your butt into gear and write that novel that’s been sitting in your head all this time. And, if you’re like me, work out quite a few teething issues with your story along the way!

Origami Cranes

Fold one thousand paper cranes in your life, and you will get a wish, so the legend says. Given the amount of time it takes to fold one thousand paper cranes, very few people have completed the task. Amelie was a rare exception.

She had learnt to fold cranes at the age of ten, and found the movement with her hands, having something to do, calming. Initially, she made them just for fun, but before she reached sixteen, the origami had become a coping method, a way to deal with her scrambled brain and butterfly heart. It was the racing heart that had led her to reach for the paper a few minutes before the strange thing appeared in her room.

She had just made the last fold, crisping the edges with her fingernails, when the thing appeared in front of her. It was tall, but looked like it was somehow standing wrong, as if it were a dog standing on its hind legs. It had a nose that came somewhere between an elephant’s trunk and a pig snout, with a mouth just underneath it and two white, aged tusks protruding either side of it. It was covered in iridescent fur, with a stripe of white running down the centre of its back and finishing in a tuft at the end of its tail.

‘Hi there!’ Its voice was a low growl but there was an unmistakable sense of friendliness to it.

‘Um, hi?’ Amelie’s eyebrows furrowed as the creature gave no further explanation of itself, despite a lengthy pause. ‘Can I help you?’

‘Oh, sorry, completely forgot. You just folded your thousandth paper crane! Congratulations!’ It pulled out a party popper from somewhere on its person and set it off so that the strings of paper adorned Amelie’s hair.

‘I’m sorry, what?’

‘You know the legend – fold one thousand paper cranes and you get a wish!’

‘And you are…?’

The creature shook its head, looking briefly at the floor. ‘I always forget to introduce myself! I am your personal wish granter, my name is Baku.’

‘Your name is what and you’re my who?’

The thing’s – Baku’s – smile vanished, replaced with a look of disdain. ‘I am Baku, you folded one thousand paper cranes, I am here to grant you a wish.’ It muttered something about how modern people had no appreciation for the old gods anymore before looking back to Amelie, smile back on its face.

‘And why should I believe you?’

Baku perceptibly rolled its eyes. ‘Look, you see these tusks, and these claws,’ it said, pointing to each of the body parts respectively, ‘if I wanted to kill you, or hurt you, I would have done so by now. I can see you just finished folding a crane, is there anything so crazy about this all really?’

Amelie sat down on to her bed, feeling slightly sick. Her hands instinctively reached for the paper as her breathing quickened, unable to take her eyes of this thing that was in the room. She looked down at the paper, breathing slower, and deeper, with each fold. Her hands had slowed to an almost imperceptible tremor when she asked her next question, her eyes firmly on the crane. ‘So what are my options?’

She slowly looked up to see Baku brighten. ‘Right, let’s get into it then! There are three rules: you cannot wish for anything that would directly harm another person, you cannot wish for anything that would upset the natural order of things, and you cannot corrupt any person’s will.’

One idea jumped to the forefront of her mind immediately. ‘I wish for you to cure my anxiety.’

Baku titled its head, and frowned. ‘I don’t think that would be wise. You see, to do that would require resetting a deep-rooted psychological pathway very suddenly. It’s too dangerous.’

‘So there are more than three rules?’

‘I’d say that one’s more of a guideline.’

Amelie crossed her arms. ‘You won’t do it though. What about super speed?’

‘I can do that! But from what I’ve seen, the novelty does soon wear off. Just a warning.’

Amelie rolled her eyes. ‘I feel like you’re being deliberately obtuse.’ She wouldn’t normally have been this honest with someone that she had just met, but this was a something, not a someone, and besides, the entire situation seemed to have sent her brain into partial shutdown anyway. For now, it was easier to go along with everything and pretend it was all normal. Her fingers still fiddled with the crane she had folded, making the wings flap.

‘All I’m saying is this decision is not one to be made in haste. Wishes can’t be undone, and you would do best to make it worthwhile rather than ending up wishing that you had wished for something better your whole life.’

‘Alright then.’ Amelie slumped back in her chair, placing the origami crane on to her desk, at the end of a row of around ten others. ‘I have some thinking to do.’

Baku sat on the floor and curled up like a cat, yawning. ‘Wake me up when you’ve decided.’

Amelie grabbed a piece of paper and began to write ideas for wishes down, scribbling them all out one by one until half an hour later, she was left satisfied.

Unsure how to wake up Baku, she cleared her throat. It didn’t stir, so she poked it, very gently, with her pen cap. It yawned, stretched, and stood up.

‘Ready to make a wish?’

Amelie nodded, and told it.

‘That’s a pretty good wish. And I have heard a fair few wishes in my time.’ Baku raised its two front limbs and closed its eyes. A teal light shone from somewhere behind it, surrounding it. The light disappeared, and Baku opened its eyes and smiled. ‘Your wish is granted.’

‘You know, you have some sort of gift,’ Amelie’s friend said to her as they lounged on a picnic blanket at the park. Three dogs surrounded them, jumping into Amelie’s lap, all fighting for attention, trying to lick her face and laying down on their backs, presenting their stomachs for belly rubs.

The owners came running over, each apologising and trying to get their dogs back. Amelie just smiled at them and pushed the dogs back to their owners.

‘Something like that.’ Amelie smiled to herself, feeling a kind of peace for the first time in years.

The War that Started it All

Innumerable days and nights of fighting, piles of dead bodies, and it had all come down to this. Margaret stood facing Horatio, a battalion of fairies, trolls, dragons, unicorns, and who knew what else behind her, a battalion of human soldiers behind him. A smattering of humans stood beside her, glancing furtively sideways and then back at the heavily armed soldiers behind Horatio, clearly unsure as to whether they had chosen the right side.

‘It doesn’t have to be this way, Horatio. Please, we can live in peace.’ Margaret knew any pleas were futile, but that didn’t stop her trying.

‘We can’t live in peace whilst these beasts,’ he gestured to the creatures standing behind Margaret, ‘insist on trampling our land.’

At the claim over the island, the trolls growled, prompting a roar from one of the dragons that sent a fireball into the sky.

‘It’s not your land Horatio. It’s no-one’s land.’

Horatio smirked. ‘You’re just too weak, Maggie. Too weak to take what’s rightfully yours.’ He put his hand to the hilt of his sword. ‘And that, sister, is what will be your downfall.’ He raised his sword and the human battalion charged forwards. Swords clashed with axes and clubs. Half the soldiers were cooked within their armour.

It only took a few moments before the fighting was over, and the soldiers – the ones who could still stand – retreated. Most of them lay dead or dying; the few who were lucky enough to only be injured sat howling in pain.

The dragons were sitting on their back legs, licking the scratches that the swords had covered their bodies with. The fairies who weren’t injured flitted around, helping the wounded on both sides. The humans had all run, from both sides, leaving only those who could not move on the battlefield.

‘It didn’t have to be this way.’ Margaret was crying now, tears forming rivers through the mud and dirt caked on to her face as she took in the sight off all the bodies. ‘We can live together peacefully.’

Horatio had somehow survived, and other than a gash along the side of his torso which had already stopped bleeding, was unharmed. He sat up, clearly incredulous.

‘Do your eyes not work? Can you not see what these monsters did? How can we co-exist with such violent, dangerous creatures?’ His voice rose to a squeak with the last question as he gestured to the creatures, who were, for the most part, unharmed.

‘You provoked them.’

‘I did no such thing! I only tried to take land that is rightfully mine.’

‘We only arrived here ten moons ago, and you think we have the right to all land on this island? These creatures have existed here peacefully for so long…’

‘These creatures are not as intelligent as us. They don’t deserve the treatment we give them, let alone what you are suggesting.’

Horatio hoisted himself up to standing and climbed on top of his horse. ‘I’m going to protect us, sister. Make sure you’re on the right side of those barriers. There’s still a chance for our stories to remember you fondly.’ The hope in Horatio’s voice was pitiable. His mouth stayed fixed in a frown, but it trembled slightly, like a toddler on the brink of a tantrum.

Margaret had lived with Horatio for so long that she had no hesitation as she said, ‘Don’t worry, brother. I will,’ turned away from him, and walked into the line of the trees.


I’m currently doing CampNaNoWriMo and this serves as a sort of short story precursor to the main body of the novel, and something surprising came out of just starting with an idea in the world and letting myself write! I would recommend it to anyone suffering from writers’ block to move past it and potentially take things in a direction you might not have previously considered! Also Camp NaNoWriMo and NaNoWriMo itself is great motivation for getting that novel that you’re so desperate to write down on the page or screen – and that, so I have been told many a time, is the first and most crucial step in any writing project.

© Alyx Hurst 2017

137th Best Dad

Dean rolled over in bed, keeping his eyes firmly shut in an attempt to convince himself that he was still asleep. He knew he had mere seconds before his four- and seven-year-old alarm clocks went off, especially as he could feel the weight of his wife, Jodie, in the bed next to him. Apparently, a lie in on fathers’ day was too much to ask for.

Right on cue, the bundles of joy burst into the room, bounding on to the bed and bouncing on top of him. ‘Happy Fathers’ Day Daddy!’ they yelled, without even waiting for him to open his eyes.

Pinned to the bed, he turned his head a fraction and blinked a few times to clear the sleep. His daughters’ faces came into view. Poppy, his eldest, was leaning over him so her gap toothed smile was just inches from his nose, whilst his younger daughter, Niamh, was wriggling around the end of the bed.

‘Good morning monsters.’

They shuffled around so they were laying between him and Jodie and he sat up.

‘We have a present for you Daddy!’

Dean saw Jodie subtly pick up a wrapped up box from her side of the bed and hand it to the girls as she sat up. The girls took it and shoved it at their father with boundless glee.

‘Thank you, girls!’ He ripped into the packaging, revealing the mug in its colourful carboard packaging. He smiled and sighed, before turning it round and reading what was on it. ‘Is that what you think of me then girls?’ He laughed, confused. ‘Where did you find it?’

‘Yeah, we think you’re the number one dad in the whole wide world!’ Niamh shouted, jumping up and down on the bed.

‘No, you think I’m the number one hundred and thirty-seven dad in the whole wide world.’

‘What do you mean?’ Jodie leant over to look at the mug. ‘That’s not the mug I bought.’

‘Huh?’

‘I bought a generic number one dad mug, Dean, and I wrapped up a number one dad mug, just like a million other mums did in preparation for today.’

‘Very funny.’

‘We got you the number one dad mug Daddy, we promise!’ Poppy’s lip quivered. ‘I’m sorry!’

‘I get it, it’s a joke pumpkin, don’t worry, Daddy’s not upset.’

‘But we did though!’

Dean shushed her and turned on the news.

‘We bring you breaking news that many people across the globe seem to have woken up to their “number one dad” mugs becoming slightly less complimentary. Each mug now appears to have a different number on it, and from what our sources can gather, currently there is one number assigned to each father. The cause of this change is not yet known, but it is not considered sinister at this current point in time. Stay tuned for updates.’

Poppy and Niamh had lost focus and were playing a game on their iPad.

Dean narrowed his eyes. ‘That’s weird.’ He shrugged, rolled out of bed and headed for the bathroom. ‘Mind if I hop in the shower first?’

‘Dean. Your mug – and many other mugs across the globe – just mysteriously changed to a random number. Are you not at all concerned?’

‘Nothing we can do about it. Besides, if we do have to deal with some sort of situation, I would prefer to be dressed.’

Jodie turned to the kids, seemingly giving up on her husband, and tried to coax them out of her and Dean’s bed and into their own rooms to get ready.

They left the news on constantly at Jodie’s insistence, waiting for some sort of explanation. None was given.

‘Are we still going out for lunch?’ Dean asked Jodie, looking at her whilst her eyes stayed firmly fixed on the television. ‘The table’s booked for one, and we kind of need to get moving if we’re going to get there on time.’

‘I don’t know, all of this stuff is a little ominous, I’m not sure if I want to go out until we know what it is.’ Jodie chewed her lip, her eyes remaining focused on the reporter who was going through some theories with a scientist of some sort.

‘Well, whatever it is is far more advanced than we are, so I don’t think we’ll be any safer in here than outside. I don’t see why we should let this little mug incident stop us from having a nice lunch.’

Jodie stopped her nervous lip chewing and turned to her husband, incredulous. ‘I don’t understand how you can be so unbothered by this.’

‘Well, I am. Are we going out for lunch or not?’

She rolled her eyes. ‘I suppose so. Do you mind getting the girls ready?’

‘On it.’

Five minutes before they were due to leave there was a ring at the door.

‘I’ll get it!’ Dean called. He pulled open the door and bit back a scream.

Standing in the doorway was a figure around four foot in height, with at least one and a half of those feet made up by a long grey head that bulged slightly to the left and right at the top. There was an eye in either side, and one in the middle, the left one jade, the middle one amber, and the right one sapphire; they blinked independently of each other. From the chin down the creature was a translucent grey blob, from which six arms protruded. It pulled something small and shiny out of itself and pressed a button. The small opening its face that Dean presumed to be its mouth opened and some strange sounds came out. The creature let go of the button and the thing started speaking.

‘I am an official from the Jamoray, here on duty for my peoples with the authority of the Intergalactic Federation. Can I see the father of the house’s rank please?’ The voice was flat and robotic, none of the syllables quite flowing together.

‘My rank?’

The creature held out its shiny thing and listened to it make noise before speaking what Dean presumed was its answer into it.

‘Your father rank.’

This has to be linked to the mugs, Dean thought, maybe if I show him my mug.

‘I’ll get it.’ He turned, debated whether or not to leave the door open for a second before leaving it ajar and dashing to the kitchen. He grabbed the mug off the side, still in its packaging, dashed back to the door and held it to the creature. The creature held out its shiny thing and a light that looked like a scanner came from the device. The creature pulled another device that had also been previously suspended in its gelatinous body and pressed a few buttons. A spotlight seemed to shine over it, and something around the size of a loaf of bread fell from the sky. The creature caught it, and spoke into the device again. The device translated.

‘Father one three seven, this is your charge. Take care of your charge or risk punishment, which can be a substantial fine, jail time, or death depending on your infringement. Thank you and goodbye.’ With that, the creature turned and flew upwards towards the spotlight. The light shut off, and Dean was left holding his “charge”.

He looked down, and what he could only presume to be a baby version of the creature that just gave it to him stared back. As he stared, it transformed, skin becoming opaque and changing colour to match his, head growing smaller and the middle eye disappearing, and a tuft of black hair growing over the top of its head. The middle pair of the arms retracted into its body, whilst the lower pair moved downwards, the hands at the end changing into feet.

Dean almost dropped it.

‘Who was that?’ Jodie said, walking down the stairs, ‘I saw some weird light coming from out…’ The words died on her lips as she saw the bundle in his arms. ‘Dean, what is that?’ The baby creature was focusing on its face now, growing a nose, a human mouth, and ears. It giggled.

‘Could you turn on the news, honey?’ He tried to keep his voice as calm as possible so as not to frighten Poppy and Niamh.  ‘And I think lunch is cancelled.’

‘…just getting reports in that many people are receiving strange baby creatures that have transformative powers. Here is some footage we’re just getting in.’ The news report showed the same thing that Dean had just seen happen on his doorstep happen somewhere else. ‘The creatures are transforming into human babies, and within the blankets they are wrapped in come what appears to be a set of instructions.’

‘Put it down Dean, find the instructions.’

He did as Jodie told him to, and found a piece of paper that said exactly what the creature had told him, with a couple of ‘guidance notes’ underneath

‘This baby will transform to look like one of your own species. Do not be alarmed, this may take a few days. After a week, your charge will be entirely human [human was bolded and slightly separate from the rest of the text] and you can treat it as such. Until then, please feed it only a designated portion from the food packet enclosed.’

On moving the baby, which was now only slightly gelatinous in form, Jodie found a foil wrapped packet, which was segmented into twenty-one sections.

‘Good luck with your charge, and as always, best wishes from the Intergalactic Federation,’ the instructions finished, along with a stamp that was a crude cartoonish drawing of three planets and a rocket ship.

They turned back to the television. ‘The numbers we reported earlier appear to be a global ranking of fathers, from best to worst.’

‘If they’re a ranking, that means I’m one hundred and thirty-seventh best dad in the world. That’s not too shabby,’ Dean smiled, clearly pleased with himself.

Jodie rolled her eyes. ‘Well done. Can we now please deal with the matter at hand?’

At that point, the girls clearly got bored of whatever they were doing and came running in, stopping short when they saw the squirming creature sitting on the side.

‘Mummy, Daddy, what’s that?’ Poppy asked, pointing to it.

‘This is your new brother. Surprise!’ Dean told them, quickly wrapping it back up in the blanket and picking it up. It looked like a boy, he had to presume it was one for the minute.

‘A baby!’ Niamh squealed, running over to them. Jodie grabbed the papers and food packet off the side with one hand, and guided Niamh with the other.

‘Yes, a baby brother. Shall we have some lunch now?’ Jodie said to the girls, putting the creature’s things on top of the fridge on her way to the table.

Niamh and Poppy sat at the table, but the questions did not stop. ‘But your tummy didn’t get big Mummy?’

‘No, because this baby is special.’

Special is one way to describe it, Dean thought as he stared down at the face of the creature, which now looked almost fully human, with just a slight ripple under the surface of its skin. He sighed, pulled out a chair, and sat down cradling the baby, hoping, as part of him would hope for the rest of his life, that this was all just some sort of weird elaborate dream.


I’m currently working on a longer form novel so this is just something short and silly that I thought appropriate as it’s Fathers’ Day this Sunday! I got the idea from this prompt on the writing prompts tumblr account, and I just thought it was a funny idea, started writing, and this is where it went. Hope you enjoyed it!

 

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: brilliant inside and out

I had heard about The Girl of Ink and Stars many times from many people before I met Kiran Millwood Hargrave – it was Children’s Book of the Month not once but twice at Waterstones, (later going on to win Children’s Book of the Year), was a Financial Times Book of the Year, the British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year, was nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Award, and was shortlisted for both the Jhalak Prize and the Branford Boase Award. Not only that, but many people I trust for book recommendations and follow online, such as Carrie Hope Fletcher on YouTube, read it and recommended it. And I, as an aspiring young adult author, really wanted to read it.

Initially, many other books got in my way. Naturally, studying an English and Creative Writing degree, I had a lot of poems, novels, short stories, and plays to read for my course, and these obviously took precedence. Everytime I walked into my local Waterstones, there was a lovely display of copies of the book, in windows or on the tables, and I desparately wanted to pick up a copy, but just… didn’t.

But then I met Kiran Millwood Hargrave. She came to do a guest lecture at my university about writing “children’s” fiction was inspiring, especially for someone like me who sits working on my young adult novel whilst my friends work on amazing pieces that sit nicely under the label of ‘literary fiction’. She was incredibly lovely, no pretenses that the process was easy as she projected the word counts of her numerous drafts to show how the first draft was never the finished product, frank talk about the effect of mental illness on her writing process and how she battled through it, and information about the way things are done publishing-wise either side of the pond. She also discussed with us how ridiculous it is that some books are considered better than others due to their genre, a sentiment I very much share. Needless to say, The Girl of Ink and Stars jumped up my reading list, and I bought a copy almost immediately. And I am so glad I did.

The first thing that amazed me was the beauty of the whole book. The cover itself is gorgeous, but the pages themselves are where the true amazement lies. Each page is decorated like a map in keeping with the protagonist Isabella’s dreams and her father’s job as a cartographer. The result is that every page feels like a step on the journey that the characters undertake, mapping out the unknown of their island. I’ve never seen pages like it, and I urge you to pick up the book if only to see the pages.

The only potential issue with a gorgeous cover is that sometimes the contents don’t quite live up to their presentation.

This book definitely did not have that issue.

The story centres around the character of Isabella, who volunteers to guide a search for her friend after she gets lost in what the people of her village call ‘The Forgotten Territories’. More than eager to explore the island and chart it on a map, following in the footsteps of her father, a cartographer, she ventures in to the Forgotten Territories with the search party, and finds herself facing a lot more trouble than she initially expected.

The exposition of the story is slow and subtle, revealing a world that is not too dissimilar from our own – after all, Kiran Millwood Hargrave does say that the places in all of her novels are real places, but they obviously feature some slight embellishments. The relationships between the characters are great – I particularly enjoyed seeing the friendship between Isabella and Lupe, as a focus on friendship rather than romance is so refreshing to see. The mythic elements were really interesting, and tied well into the rest of the plot.

The only complaint I have about this book is that I feel it could have been a little longer. As it was, at just over 200 pages, I felt the world wasn’t explored to its full potential. I would love to have seen adventures spanning over the whole island in depth, as there are some villages displayed on the map that are barely visited, only for a page or two, and some that are not visited at all. The world of the book was so great, it just seemed a shame to leave it at what felt almost like the bare minimum exploration, especially when the protagonist talks about how much she wants to explore the entire island of Joya throughout the novel.

Overall,  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy and adventure, and wants to read something refreshing.