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

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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

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.

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!

 

Living in the Present

‘The present is all we have, yet it is the one thing we will never learn to hold in our hands’ – Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016)

She sits, mug of tea cupped in her hands, and observes. She knows that she is in her home, and that she lives there with her family, but she does not remember their faces, or how she came to be here.

The voice comes from the speaker. ‘Live in the moment.’ She breathes in. Breathes out. Centres herself. Forgets that the speaker is there.

Her children come down the stairs – she knows, now, that there are stairs just outside of the kitchen, but it is something, she realises, that she did not know before this moment. Or maybe she did, and she simply forgot. Everything before this moment seems so cloudy in her mind. She leaves her mug of tea to make her children breakfast, and as soon as her back is turned, it disappears from her mind, as do her children’s faces. Her task remains in mind, and she wonders as she puts the bread in the toaster whether she has ever done this before. She certainly can’t remember doing it if she has.

She has a husband, she knows that for a fact. But she does not remember any of his individualities at all. Why did she marry him? She feels a strange claw grip in her lower abdomen as she realises she does not know where he is.

Her phone screen lights up.

The message on the screen reads ‘Greg’ in bold letters, underneath that, ‘Thinking of you, have a good day xx’.

Of course, her husband is Greg. He has a job. He is at his job. She remembers, although she still has no idea what his job is. Or who he is.

Her children soon leave the house, and she is left with a cold mug of tea wondering what they look like.

The speaker comes on again. ‘Breathe in. Breathe out. Live in the moment.’

She does as she’s told, forgetting the momentary fear about a stranger instructing her movements. As she hoovers the house, she wonders how the mirror got to be on the wall, or how the violet stain came to be so ingrained into the carpet. All her brain comes up with is that it does not matter, but she finds herself unable to stifle the worry. How did she even get to be in this house?

The doorbell’s sharp trill interrupts her thoughts. She turns off the hoover and abandons it.

The silhouette of the man on the other side of the door is visible through the frosted glass. She has a fleeting thought that it could be her husband, but despite still not remembering what he looks like, she knows that this man is not him. A feeling curls its way into her stomach, making her feel nauseous and clammy. She pushes it away and opens the door.

She recognises the man in a blurry sense. He wears a clearly expensive suit, his hair is very carefully styled, his face full of the tell-tale plump that only botox provides. She takes this all in whilst resisting an incredibly strong urge to slam the door in his face and lock herself in. She cannot recall why she feels that way, so she simply stands.

‘Hello, how are you feeling today?’ His voice carries a smooth control that only increases her panic.

‘Confused.’ Something within her tells her that this man knows why she feels this way. And how to stop it. But he simply offers his hand to her.

‘Come with me, I will help you.’

Every part of her screams against it, but she takes his hand and steps out of the house nonetheless. ‘I am still in my slippers!’ she says, suddenly embarrassed.

The man only smiles at her. ‘So you are. Would you like to change into shoes?’

She can sense that it is not a question, but nods anyway. She takes a step backwards, releasing the man’s hand and looking for a pair of shoes that are hers. She slips into a pair, leaving her slippers neatly in a gap.

The speaker fires up again. ‘Live in the moment. Breathe in. Breathe out.’ She obeys.

The man has not moved when she turns back to him, and he proffers his hand again. She takes it, and steps out, squinting at the bright light.

‘Where are we going?’ she asks. She knows there is something wrong with the question before he turns to her with a patronising smile.

‘Do not worry about where we are going. You have been there many times before. Just live in the moment. Appreciate the world.’ He turns away from her as he says this, and does not look at her again. Not as he opens the door to the back of the car, not a glance in the rear-view mirror as he gets in and locks the doors, not as he drives her through winding streets, not even as he opens the door to let her out of the car. He stands aside, lets her climb out and take in her surroundings before closing the door and walking away. She has no choice but to follow him.

‘In here please.’ He steps aside and lets her through a metal door into one of the giant concrete bricks that make up the surrounding landscape.

Flashes of memory come to her now. She knows that she has been here before, she knows that when she left here she never wanted to come back. She knows that there is no turning back now.

Two people wearing all white suits walk up to her, one moving behind her and restraining her arms, the other facing her, wearing a smile.

‘Hello again. I hear you are having some trouble. Are you ready to feel better again?’ The woman standing in front of her is blank faced, talking to her as if she is senile.

‘What are you going to do to me?’ she whispers.

‘Do not worry, you will feel better soon. Come with me now, it will make everything so much easier.’

She does not move. A sharp push in the base of her spine forces her to move, and she realises the person behind her is pushing her forwards, through this empty room, towards the next door. If she thinks about it, she can remember what the person behind her looks like, the way their white suit hangs off their tiny frame, their bleached white hair that perfectly matches the colour of their suit.

She struggles in a vain attempt to get herself free. The grip on her only tightens.

‘Live in the moment. Breathe in. Breathe out.’ The voice stills her, its presence in her ear unexpectedly restrictive. She tries to fight the urge to obey, but all she manages to do is make her breath shake.

She is forced down on to a reclined chair and strapped in at her wrists, chest, and ankles. The two white suits leave the room, and a woman in a lab coat walks in.

‘Hello, Lisa, is it? I’m Georgia.’

Her breath quickens. Is that her name? It sounds right, but how can it be? How can she not remember her own name?

Georgia looks confused. ‘You don’t remember?’

She does not give her an answer. ‘Please don’t do this to me,’ she whispers, ‘I want to remember. I don’t know who I am anymore.’ Her cheeks are wet. Georgia looks at her in shock and offers her a tissue before realising the restraints that encircle her arms. Georgia dabs at her cheeks.

‘It’ll make you feel better, I promise.’ Georgia does not sound as sure as her colleagues.

She is not sure of her memories, but she knows that she has not seen this woman before. She only shakes her head and turns away.

‘Right, the first step, here we go.’

The liquid in the syringe is unnaturally blue, and the fear escalates as it is pushed into her veins. She gasps as vivid memories flood back into her mind, straining against the straps as visions of her family dance behind her eyes. Her name is Lisa. She is thirty-six. She has been married for ten years. ‘Please,’ she gasps out, ‘Please, no more.’

‘Are you in pain?’ Georgia halts the rest of her preparation.

‘No, I remember. I remember everything.’ Her cheeks are wet again. ‘Please don’t take this away from me, please.’

Georgia hesitates. ‘It will make you feel better.’ She sounds as if she is convincing herself more than anyone else.

Lisa shakes her head. ‘No, it won’t, I’m sure of that, please, let me live.’

‘I have to do my job. Please don’t make this any harder than it has to be, we know what’s best for you.’

‘How can you say that when I have no idea who the people I love are unless they are sitting right in front of me?’ Lisa knows she is winning even as her voice shakes – none of the doctors she has met have ever let her talk this much.

‘That is one of the unfortunate side effects of the cure…’

‘Cure? This is torture!’

Georgia breaks. She puts her head in her hands and begins to cry, at which point two others walk into the room. They push past her, pick up the syringe and inject step two into Lisa’s arm as she screams.

A week later, sat at home, she receives a letter that simply reads,

I am so sorry. I will try to fix this.

Georgia

She does not know who Georgia is, or what she is apologising for, but she feels bizarrely content.

The Hotel

People pass through the hotel every day, and one pair of eyes notices every one.

A woman stands and smokes on a balcony, finding solace in the smoke that she cannot seem to find anywhere else. Under the harsh electric light, her skin appears sallow, drooping. As soon as the final ashes fall, she regains her composure and returns to her lover in the bedroom, pasting a sultry smile on to her painted lips, as she has grown to know people expect.

When she had checked in, the receptionist had noticed how white the knuckles on her manicured fingers were as they clutched at her suitcase handle.

“Your room is 240, madam, turn right when you reach the second floor and walk along that corridor. It will be on your left.”

“Thank you.” The woman didn’t look as she took the key, eyes shifting around the room. She waved away the bell hop, climbed into the lift, said, “Two please.” Her eyes swivel to the ceiling and the lift pulls away. When she returns her keys, she has another woman in tow, one whose eyes glance around as she adjusts her fur coat, winking at those who catch her eye. The first woman shifts uncomfortably, staring at the desk as she slides the keys over.

“Thank you, I hope you enjoyed your stay. See you again soon!”

“Thank you, goodbye.” She looks up. Smiles. Looks back down. Her companion lingers as she walks, revelling in the stares.

A man arrives in the lobby, top hat and overcoat making people stare, as if they believe that walking down the hotel’s centuries old grand central staircase has transported them back in time. Some wave, some smile, seeing the man’s dress as an invitation to acknowledge him – he did not want this to be the case, and yet, it is. He nods to the bellhop, who takes his suitcase from his grasp, walks to the lift and sinks against the wall, breathing. He knows how full this weekend will be, and the receptionist can’t help but feel sorry for him, despite the air of confidence he talks with the next day. He still sinks into the lift when it’s over.

He slides the keys over the desk.

“Thank you Sir, I hope you enjoyed your stay.”

He looks up at the receptionist and shakes his head. “The hotel is lovely. Now back to the wife and kids.” The smile he attempts turns his lips to a thin line as he raises his eyebrows, picks up his case and walks out, the threadbare hems of his trousers catching on his soles.

The hotel is closed for the weekend for a wedding, and as the receptionist welcomes the bridal party, he can’t help but notice the bride’s thinly preserved smile as two older women direct things behind her.

“Your key, madam. Room 67 for the first night. The honeymoon suite will be ready for you tomorrow.”

“Thank you Sir, everything looks perfect.” She smiles and nods with such genuine warmth that the receptionist can’t help but smile, and sends her an extra bottle of champagne, on the house.

The day of her wedding, she stands in the room soon to be filled with guests, looking around as her train falls behind her. She sees the tablecloths and seat covers that her mother in law to be picked out, the set up for the DJ that her father insisted would be better than a band, despite the bride’s best friend offering to play with their band for free, the flowers that her aunt insisted on, as she wears the gown that her mother picked out, insisting it was the most flattering to her figure. She finds her cheeks wet, and as the receptionist passes the room he makes a mental note to send chocolates up with the champagne that evening. Hours later, as she is spun about the room, she laughs, the sound brittle and hollow in her ears. The party continues long after she slips away from the wedding with her husband, into their room where they devour the chocolates before collapsing into bed.

She slides the two sets of keys over the desk as the sun is wiping the sleep from its eyes.

“Thank you for all the hard work you put in this weekend, it was fantastic.”

The receptionist thinks of the drunken wedding guests that had stumbled through the hall minutes before and smiles. “It was a beautiful wedding; I am glad you enjoyed your stay. Congratulations.”

The bride smiles as the groom stares at her, transfixed. “No doubt we will be staying here again soon. Auf Wiedersehen!”

“Goodbye.” The receptionist smiles to himself later when a maid hands him a handful of banknotes and a note that reads, ‘Thank you for the chocolate xx’

Many people visit the hotel, and the receptionist notices every one.

This is a piece a wrote for which the brief was to write a piece that you could storyboard, in order to make it very visual. I found a very striking picture online of a woman leaning on a very grand bannister in a hotel, smoking, and I was fascinated in what this woman was doing, and began thinking about how for most people, a hotel is a temporary place, but for some, it is their life (or at least part of) and these people get to witness such a wide variety of people passing through all the time.

At the moment I am working on quite a few pieces for uni, some may reach here, some may not, so expect some works in progress in the not-so-distant future!