Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Day 8 - A Childhood Memory

Christmas was always special when I was a child.

The tree would go up in the week before Christmas, decorated with strands of tinsel and all manner of homemade decorations that had been fashioned out of cardboard and glitter. As the week wore on, the presents would start to pile up around its base as they arrived in parcels from our many relatives (there were certainly advantages to having aunties and uncles in double figures – although my parents would probably have disagreed considering the huge number of cousins they needed to buy for in turn). And so, beneath the tree, a plethora of different styles of wrapping paper, and all sorts of shapes and sizes of presents; but you weren’t allowed to touch and you certainly weren’t allowed to peek at the label to see who a present was destined for.

The open fireplace would be cleaned out and we’d have some logs or coal, the fire blazing away on the evenings; the Christmas cards we’d received would start filling the walls and paper garlands we’d made at school would be hung along the ceiling. Christmas was the only week of the year that we’d buy the Radio Times, containing the list of all the TV programmes over the Christmas period, and my sister and I would take turns to go through it and circle all the films that we wanted to watch. It was a different era; before streaming and before our family could afford a video recorder, so this would be our first chance to see many of the movies listed. And, if we were really lucky, my dad was able to borrow a colour TV from work for the Christmas holidays and we’d have a chance to watch things in glorious technicolour.

By Christmas Eve it was time to write our lists for Father Christmas and I’d always be wildly optimistic and ask for whatever cool toys I had seen in the catalogues. At the time, I genuinely believed I was writing to Father Christmas and that he would bring me what I asked (although my mum would tell us that what we ask for is just a guide, and Father Christmas knows best what to give us). We’d hang our stockings (actually, usually football socks) and we’d leave a mince pie and a glass of sherry or brandy on the fireplace for when Father Christmas visited. We even thought of Rudolph and left a carrot for him as well.

Then it was time for bed and the agonising difficulty of getting to sleep. You wanted to sleep, you needed to sleep (because Father Christmas only comes when you are asleep!) but it was so difficult and so I’d huddle beneath the quilt and try to look asleep just in case. Sometimes I’d wake up an hour or two after I’d gone to bed and check the sock on the end of my bed – still empty – and then have to go through the whole tortuous process of getting to sleep again. My imagination, ever fertile, would occasional think it heard scraping sounds on the roof or the jingling of sleigh bells. But, eventually, my body would give in and I’d fall into a deep sleep….

…only to wake at a ridiculously early hour in the morning and, fumbling in the dark, realise that the football sock on the bed was bulging with presents and would quickly jump out of bed and turn the light on. When I was very young, I shared a room with my sister and we’d both clamber out of bed and drag the present sacks that had been left for us onto the bed and begin the process of opening.

There was a clear and defined order. First, the socks had to be emptied. They would be filled with tiny presents (a pack of cards, a bouncy ball) as well as a satsuma, and a little plastic mesh bag containing nuts and raisins. Then, with the content of the socks strewn over our bed covers, we’d take it in turn to pull out presents from the sacks. That they rarely matched what we’d asked Father Christmas for didn’t matter; they were always amazing – books, board games, sometimes even a totally unexpected present like a remote controlled car. It was always this joyous adventure, just seeing what you would get next. And, once all the presents had been unpacked, it was time to run into our parents’ room and wake them to tell them that Father Christmas had been!

Looking back, I don’t know how they managed to do it. We weren’t a rich family by any means, quite the opposite in fact, but we always had so many presents from Father Christmas. So many that I was one of the last children to lose belief in Father Christmas – after all, wasn’t Father Christmas so much more believable than the idea that my parents managed to scrape and save enough money together to buy all of these presents for us? You can only appreciate those kinds of sacrifices in retrospect. In the moment, I was just so glad that Father Christmas had decided I’d been a good boy (after all, if I hadn’t, he’d have just left me a piece of coal!).

At this point, it was 5 or 6am and our parents would tell us to calm down and go back to sleep. Which, of course was utterly impossible. But we’d pretend to – and quietly play with our toys or read our books – and they’d pretend not to know we had stayed up before we finally all met for breakfast a little later in the morning.

Bacon and eggs. One of the few times in the year we would have it, my mouth still waters at the thought of it because it was a true luxury breakfast. We’d eat bacon and eggs, and talk about the presents that we had got, and then we would go and spend the morning and early afternoon playing with our toys and occasionally watching something on TV (although my mum was never keen on us watching TV until after dinner on Christmas Day).

But what about the wrapped presents beneath the tree? Well, they still stayed there like that until after dinner. It was tradition; only after Christmas dinner had been eaten could the presents be opened. Some years it was harder than others, but usually the distraction of the presents from Father Christmas was enough to get us through the day; and, besides, I always looked forward to Christmas Dinner.

Roast turkey. Roast potatoes. Carrots. Sprouts. Stuffing balls. Little sausages wrapped in bacon. All smothered in gravy. It was the best meal of the year, by far. We’d pull the turkey’s wishbone and make a wish. We’d pull crackers, read out the bad jokes inside them, and wear paper party hats. And, after dinner, we’d eat Christmas pudding with custard and see who found the foil wrapped coin hidden inside their portion that was meant to bring us luck.

Finally, utterly sated, we’ve move/waddle from the dining room to the living room and the tree. Someone would be in charge of handing out presents (in the early years my dad, and my mum after he left) and it was conducted in a methodical fashion – one present given to someone, unwrapped and looked at, then another present to someone else. On some afternoons it would take over an hour to get through all the presents, with the biggest present of all always being left to the very last.

Then, after a few hours of playing with a new batch of toys, it was time for tea – cold turkey sandwiches, homemade sausage rolls, and thick slabs of rich fruit Christmas cake (covered in white icing that was rock hard). Maybe a Christmas movie on in the background, the fire crackling away merrily in the corner.

It was always the most perfect of times, always special. I smile inside every time that I think back to it.

* * *

The man stirs lightly in his sleep, but doesn’t wake. My glamour binds him to the world of dreams, whether he likes it or not, and he will only wake when I wish it.

I rest my hand lightly on his chest, my long black nails trailing against his delicate skin. He has provided me with such nourishment these last few weeks but these childish memories are the sweetest of all; I devour them like scooping marrow from the bone. His joy a brief light inside me until it is swallowed up by my infernal darkness.

He is nearly spent now; little more than a withered fruit on the vine. Oh, outwardly he might look fine, but inside he is now grey and hollow. I have slowly savoured each happy moment, night after night, stealing away the light inside of him in order to briefly sate my hunger, but he will soon be of no use to me.

Maybe those around him have noticed the change in his demeanour; the way that he no longer is quick to laugh or smile; the way he keeps his eyes down and trudges his way through life. Some go on like that forever after I am done with them, an endless empty march to the grave. Others sense all that I have taken from them, even if they can’t quite grasp it on anything but the most abstract of levels; they often end it themselves in order to escape the torment of their existence. What will happen to this one, I neither know nor care.

I saved the childish memories until the very end, determined to preserve the sweetest of treats for as long as possible. I remove my hand from him, drawing the last morsels of the memory into myself before slinking, an inky shadow, away into the walls to savour the taste.

After all, childhood memories are the most special of all.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Day 7 - We Will Return

A combination of work and a distinct lack of energy meant that I stayed stuck on Day 7 for quite some time. But I knew what I wanted to write, even if I struggled to turn it into words on the page. However, with the Easter weekend here I've finally had a chance to decompress and relax and the creativity has come flooding back. I'll aim to get back on track with the challenge from this point on...

We Will Return

The oxygen reading is blinking in the red as the escape pod clears patch space and blossoms into reality. I look at it for what feels like the hundredth time, and then wonder for the hundredth time whether the distress signal will reach anyone before my oxygen finally runs out. The pod tumbles through space, tracing an arcing trajectory that will bring it to an Earth re-entry orbit within eight days. Which, if I have done my calculations correctly, will be about seven days and five hours too late.

I try not to think about the probability of this working out. As the old song goes, you’ve got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Besides, after having defied the odds to escape the Proxima before it was destroyed, after having hand-calculated the ridiculously complex equations necessary to escape n-dimensional space, it would seem rather unfair that I ended up being defeated by something as mundane as oxygen.

I rerun the events of Proxima in my head and they don’t quite make sense. The drive was functioning perfectly, we were in patch space and all systems were operating at an optimal level. I was in the engine room, monitoring the diagnostics and we were in the green across the board. There was no reason to believe anything was about to go wrong, even with the benefit of hindsight. But go wrong it did.

Something happened.

I don’t know what that something was because it was so violent that I was flung across the engine room and must have blacked out. When I finally came to, alarms were blaring and the board was red; life support critical, matter-anti matter containment close to failing, structural integrity field far beyond any of the design parameters. Proxima was dying.

I looked at the displays, emotions falling to the wayside as I considered my situation with an icy cold logic. Over an hour had passed since the event that had rendered me unconscious, and even my most optimistic analysis of the situation told me that I had less than five minutes to reach the escape pod or be destroyed along with the ship.

I used the intercom to ping the bridge but there was no answer. Lots of possible scenarios; Mike and Ellen had been killed during whatever happened, they had been unable to contact me and so had to leave me behind, they were still there trapped on the bridge. None of them mattered. It would take me more than fifteen minutes to get from the engine room to the bridge, even assuming that the pylons hadn’t been compromised. Based on the read-outs, there was a good chance that it would be impossible to reach the bridge. I had no choice.

I’ve told myself that a lot. And it’s true. But it doesn’t help the hot blend of anger and shame that wells up inside me every time I think of my decision to use the escape pod on my own. Of course, one voice in my head reassures me, if you had been able to take them then the oxygen would have run out long before you cleared patch space. Although, chimes in another voice, Ellen was so much better at the maths than you; maybe she’d have done the calculations a lot quicker and got you all home safe.

I can’t ever know. And so it’s just me, tumbling through space and wondering if I will ever get to see my family again. Oxygen reading still blinking red.

I’d promised Diana that I’d make it back, that this test flight wasn’t anywhere near as risky as the press were making it out to be. The automated flights had all gone perfectly, completely by the book. Sure, the press were making it out to be the most dangerous mission in the history of mankind, but we knew different. We knew that we were about to make history as the first humans to orbit another star. We will return, I’d promised her; I won’t leave you and Thomas. And she’d smiled at me and kissed me and believed me. So I held onto that promise, tried to regulate my breathing just as they’d taught us in the simulations even while I felt so very tired. I try not to think about Thomas, just the thought of him makes me well up with tears.

I try hard to keep my eyes open, try to focus, but the desire to close them is just too strong. Just for a second, whispers the voice in my head, just close them for a second and everything will be fine. I let my eyelids close and give into the darkness.

* * *

White light, loud voices. I’m on my back, I think. I try to open my eyes but it’s so very hard and they don’t seem to want to obey my command.

“He’s coming round,” says a voice from somewhere nearby.

“Hit him again,” says another voice.

A warm sensation floods through my body and I give into the blackness again.


“Is he going to wake up?” says a man’s voice from my left.

“Any minute now,” says a woman from somewhere further away, “But, I want it on the record that I was opposed to this and that I am only doing this under duress. I will be registering an official complaint.”

“Feel free to register whatever you want, doctor” says another male voice from my right, this voice colder and calmer than the first, “this is a matter of national security. Now is he going to be lucid?”

“I can’t guarantee anything; his body is still healing, he shouldn’t even be conscious.”

“Whatever it takes,” said the second voice, “You do whatever it takes.”

I try to ask what’s going on, but nothing comes out other than a cracked murmur. My mouth is dry and my throat parched. Eyelids so heavy.

“He’s coming around,” says the first voice.

“He needs water,” says the doctor, and a moment later I feel something hard pressed against my lips; a trickle of water into my mouth that I take in like it’s the most wonderful thing in the world because, in that moment, it is.

My eyes flicker half open, the room blurry. My head feels heavy, like a hangover but worse. Two men in dark suits are standing either side of me. I try to sit up, but I can’t move.

“Don’t bother trying to get up,” says the man on my left, “You’re in restraints.”

I feel bands of pressure over my legs, my waist, my chest. There is a coldness against my wrists, something metallic holding them in place.

“Where am I?” I ask, my voice little more than a hoarse whisper.

“You’re in a secure medical facility,” says the man on my right, “And you are restrained for your own safety and wellbeing.”

From across the room, I hear the doctor scoff.

“That will be all, doctor. Your presence is no longer required. Please leave us alone with the-,” the man pauses for a moment, “-patient.”

My eyesight is gradually improving; I am in a small room surrounded by banks of medical equipment. I am handcuffed to the metal railings of the hospital bed.

“What is this?” I ask, “What’s going on?”

“We’ll be asking the questions,” says the man on my right. He’s in his thirties; square jaw, blonde hair trimmed short; everything about him screams ex-military.

“Dr. Knowles,” says the man on my right, older with greying hair and glasses. “John; I’m Agent Melville and this is Agent Hendricks. We’re just trying to get to the bottom of this, we need to understand exactly what happened.”

My head feels like it is full of cold porridge; it’s a battle just to string two clear thoughts together.

“With the Proxima?”

“Start there,” said Melville, “what do you remember?”

“Patch space,” I said, the words coming slowly, “everything going well. Then something happened. Blacked out. The Proxima was falling apart. I got out-”

“What about Captain Adams and Dr. Cooper?” said Agent Hendricks, interrupting, “Where were they when all of this was going on?”

“The bridge,“ I said, my voice fading with every word, “they were on the bridge.”

“That’s enough,” said the doctor, storming back into the room, “Any more and you could kill him.”

Agent Melville bent over me, looking at me closely.

“One last question,” he says, his face expressionless. “What was the name of your first dog?”

The leap from to the events aboard the Proxima to my first dog, leaves me even more confused than before.


“It’s an easy question,” says Agent Hendricks, “Answer it.”

I dig into my memories, it’s hard to hold onto them but eventually the name comes.

“Jasper,” I say, “his name was Jasper.”

“He’s all yours,” said Agent Melville, standing up and walking to the doorway before pausing “But we’re going to be back and we’re going to have more questions for you. A lot more questions.”

* * *

Agent Melville clicks the record button.

“This is interview seven, commencing,” he says, before looking at me, “Are you ready, Dr. Knowles?”

I nod.

“Let the record show that Dr. Knowles has just nodded his head. Please could you confirm that verbally for the tape?”

“I’m ready,” I say, and sit up in my chair a little. The chains that restrain my hands and ankles jingle lightly as I do so.

“We have been through the timeline of the Proxima with you a number of times, Dr. Knowles, and you have been consistent in your version of events-“

“-because they’re true,” I interrupt, “They’re not my version of events. It’s what happened.”

“As you say,” said Agent Melville, adjusting his glasses on the brim of his nose and peering down at a set of files on the table that I was unable to see from my vantage point. “It’s just there are a number of other inconsistencies with your story. A couple of things that just don’t seem to add up.”

“Look, I’ve told you the truth ten different times and I’ve not changed my story. What things don’t add up? When are you going to let me out of here? When are you going to let me see my family? Why can’t I have a lawyer?”

“What date is it, Dr. Knowles?” asks Agent Hendricks.

“I don’t know,” I reply, angrily, “I don’t know how long I’ve been locked in here. You never turn the lights off so I don’t know what’s day and what’s night anymore.”

“Take a best guess,” he says, “Ballpark figure.”

I do the calculations in my head. The incident on the Proxima had taken place on January 23rd; accounting for the time in transit, the time spent healing, the multiple interview sessions. It had to be at least a month.

“Late February,” I say, “Maybe early March.”

“Interesting,” says Agent Hendricks and jots something down with a pen.

“What’s interesting?”

“What if I told you, it’s October 29th?” said Agent Melville, cocking his head to look at me.

“That’s impossible.”

“Is it?” he says, and pushes a copy of the New York Times across the table to me. I look at it, look at it hard. It says October 29th; the front page is the Cleveland Indians celebrating their first World Series win in a century. 

“What is this?” I ask, “This is a fake, right?”

“What was the name of your best friend at elementary school, John?” asks Agent Hendricks.

“What is it with all this questions about my childhood?” I snap, “My first dog, my first kiss, my best friend? What is this? What does it have to do with anything?”

“What if I told you that Captain Mike Adams and Dr. Ellen Cooper are alive and well?” asks Melville.

“They’re alive? They’re really alive?” For the first time in weeks, I feel hope flourish and my heart swell.

“They’re alive,” says Agent Hendricks. “They arrived into the solar system three days after the incident aboard the Proxima. Their escape pod was badly damaged, our guys say it was a miracle they made it.”

I break into the first smile I’ve had in what feels like months.

“Oh my God, that’s amazing,” I say, emotions washing over me suddenly, “You don’t know how happy I am to hear that.”

“Yeah,” says Hendricks, his face hard. “The funny thing is, you were on board that escape pod as well.”

I frown. “What? No, I was alone in the escape pod.”

“You were alone in the escape pod we found you in, that’s true,” replies Agent Melville, with something of a grimace, “But there was also a Dr. Knowles in the escape pod together with Captain Adams and Dr. Cooper.”

“That’s impossible,” I say, pulling back in my seat and making the chains go taut. “That’s impossible.”

“Certainly is strange,” says Agent Hendricks, “Because, if Dr. Knowles was in that escape pod we rescued back in January then who the hell are you?”

* * *

They say there are five stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

I spent the first few weeks in denial. They showed me the in-module camera footage and I insisted it had to be a fake. They showed me the photos of the rescue, the footage from the parade celebrating their return. I railed against it all.

Then came the anger. The facts kept piling up, and it didn’t make any sense. I was locked up, I couldn’t see my family, I was being treated like a criminal. I refused the interviews, but it seemed that I’d exhausted my value in that sense because they started sending a therapist instead. I refused to talk to them as well, refused to eat for a week even though my stomach was gnawing at me.

Bargaining began in earnest the second week of my hunger strike. I’d lie in bed and promise God that if he would just let me wake up from this nightmare, if he would just put things back the way they were, then I’d do anything he wanted. I’d become a believer, I promised. I’d become an evangelist if that’s what it took. Just give me back my life and my family. But I guess God wasn’t listening as nothing changed.

I ate on the third week.

The therapist came and we finally started talking. They didn’t ask about the Proxima, they asked how I felt about all of this. I told them, truthfully, that I thought I was beyond feeling. I felt numb, like I was looking at myself out-of-body somehow. I felt like I had given all the emotion I had to give and that I was now just an empty vessel. I’d left anger behind and entered depression.

Two weeks later, the therapist came with a portable screen and told me that they wanted to show me something. It was a chart; lots of numbers but I recognised it as a DNA analysis.

“See these,” said the therapist, “pointing at two tiny yellow dots in one column, “these represent such a minor anomaly that they would normally never be detected.”

“This is me?”

“This is you compared to Dr. Knowles; the real Dr. Knowles.”

“I am the real Dr. Knowles,” I replied.

“I know,” said the therapist, with what may have been a trace of sympathy in her smile. “I know you believe that, John. But it’s not true. Would you like me to tell you what we believe really happened?”

I shrugged.

“What we believe happened, is that the Proxima was attacked by a third party – an alien race – and that this third party made a copy of Dr. Knowles; a copy not just of his DNA but also his memories and personality. We’ve tested you, you know everything he does down to the most minute detail. And for some time, we’d thought you were 100% identical. But this new test has revealed the tiniest of discrepancies in your DNA profiles. It’s a minute difference, but it is a difference. You contain a fragment of DNA that has never been seen before on this planet.”

I slumped in my seat. It went against everything I knew, everything I believed.

“It doesn’t make sense,” I said finally, “Why go through all of this just to have me sit here?”

“Our current theory is that whoever made you believed they had destroyed the original escape pod. The pod containing the three survivors of the Proxima was recovered in an extremely damaged state. Damage consistent with some kind of external energy discharge. We believe only you were meant to return to Earth.”

“But if this is true, why?” I asked, “I don’t have any plans or mission. I just wanted to come home and see my family…”

“We don’t know. Maybe your mission instructions are buried deep within you. Maybe they are time coded. We don’t know and we can’t take any further risks.”

“What does that mean?”

The therapist stood up and walked to the door, a translucent cube descending around me as she did so.

“It means,” she said, “that it’s been decided you need to be terminated.”

And, finally, acceptance.

* * *

They keep me encased within the cube for the next two days. No food, no drink. Finally, a visitor arrives.

I laugh when I seem him, it all feels somehow ridiculous at this stage. He half smiles and shuts the door behind him, walking across the room and taking a seat beside the cube.

“Dr Knowles,” he says.

“Dr Knowles,” I reply and look him up and down. He’s clean shaven, whereas I now have a beard (they didn’t trust me with a razor), but it’s unmistakably me. It shouldn’t be impossible, but I don’t even have a problem accepting it.

“I insisted that they let me see you,” he says, “you know, before it happens.”

“Before they kill me, you mean?”

“Yeah,” he says, pausing to look me up and down. “This is really strange. Stranger than I thought it would be.”

“Why are you here?”

“I wanted to be here, when they ended it. It felt the right thing to do.”

“And that’s happening soon?”

“It’s already happening,” he says, with a grimace. “They’ve started pumping a nerve agent into the air supply. They’ve assured me that you won’t feel a thing.”

I sigh. So this is it, this is the end. Everything felt wrong about it.

“Look,” he says, “I wanted you to know the truth. It’s only fair.”

“What truth?”

“We put the anomaly into your DNA. We had to be sure that they’d think you were alien.”

My lungs feel heavier than normal, breathing getting a little harder.

“Who did? What?”

“Us,” says the other me, “We can make perfect copies of humans; that was never a problem. But we needed to have you think that you found a way to detect us. That way, we can make sure that anyone who gets in the way of our plans can easily be dealt with; one quick injection and they’ll display the same anomaly, be found to be an alien imposter. We thought of everything.”

“But that means-“

“Yes, that means that you are the real Dr. Knowles.”

I wheezed, my lungs felt like they were lined with sand. My head felt heavy.

“But, Diana?” I gasped. “Thomas?”

“Don’t worry,” he says, “I’ll look after her and Thomas. I’ve got your memories, after all. I know what it means to love them.”

I can’t breathe. Can’t move. My legs give way beneath me. The other me watches as my eyes slowly slide shut.

“I’ll keep your promise,” are the last words I ever hear.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Day 6 - Your First Job

I’d always heard them say that the first one is the hardest; when you have to look them in the eyes and both of you know what’s coming next, that’s when you find out whether you’ve got it, whether you’re cut out for this line of work or not.

The first one for me was Alan Knowles. I can still remember the name, I can still remember his face. He was in his fifties, a normal looking guy – I think maybe he was an accountant – but none of that mattered to me. I’d been paid to do a job and I was going to do it. Sure, I was full of nerves, but I just about managed to hold onto them by keeping my training in my mind.

But while I remember the first one, it wasn’t by any means the hardest. A guy in his fifties, sure you feel sorry for him, but there have been jobs that have been much harder, where I’ve gone home afterwards and found sleep hard to come by. The first time I saw that it was going to be a woman, the first time it was a kid.

Let me tell, you the kids are the hardest. Some of them, they don’t really know what’s going on or what’s about to happen to them, and I do my best to make it quick and painless. But others, they see me and they know; they start crying and screaming and that makes it tough. I don’t want them to suffer, I’m not a monster, but I have a job to do and I always do it.

It’s not for the fainthearted. There are days when you it’s easy; when you are in and out and they hardly even have time to be frightened before its done. But then there are days when it’s tough; when there is blood and suffering and you walk away just wanting to take a shower and to wash the day off you. Sometimes you need a drink just to take the edge of what you’ve done.

Today, it’s a woman. I’ve looked at her file; I know her name and age, but there’s a lot about her I don’t need to know. After all, I’m a professional, I don’t get emotionally attached. But seeing a file and seeing her in the flesh is different.

I check myself in the mirror and then pull on a pair of gloves. I’ve already visualised how this going to go down, and it’s going to be easy. I look through the crack of the door and can she her sat in the next room with her back to me. I wear rubber soled shoes and, together with the fact that I am light footed, they barely make a sound. I’m in the room before she even realises and the first she sees me is when I appear in her peripheral vision.

There is that familiar reaction; the widening of the pupil, the sudden intake of breath, the fear. But I’m used to it now, I’ve been doing this long enough that I can ignore it and just do the job.

“Miss Evans,” I say in my most reassuring voice. “I’ll try to make this as painless as possible.”

And I mean it.

After all, I like to think I’m a pretty good dentist.

Day 5 - The Night Bus

Steve Ralph tumbled out of the doors of Ritz's nightclub laughing, broken pint glass in his hand still dripping with the blood of the man whose face he'd just slashed for spilling his drink.

"That'll teach ya, ya fuckin' twat." he said under his breath as he staggered out onto the pavement, before noticing an old man with a dog up the road staring at him. "What the fuck you lookin' at granddad?" 

The man immediately, turned about and walked quickly back down the road, dragging his dog behind him. "Yeah, that's right," shouted Steve after him, "run away before I give you a fuckin' smack."

It had been a good night and he was well gassed; hitting on a couple of thots, a few hours of chasers and tequila, then the night ended with a punch up. Fucker was lucky he wasn't strapped tonight. Now he just had to work out what to do next. For a moment he thought about heading into town and trying to get a taxi, but most of the firms had banned him. Then he remembered about the night bus that stopped around the corner; he hadn't used it for years but it would drop him off just down the road from where he lived.

He veered out into the road, legs rubbery, and was suddenly blinded by the lights of an oncoming taxi, its horn blaring even as he felt its bonnet smack into him and he was thrown back across the tarmac, tumbling until he finally ended up lying on his back and looking up at the stars.

He clambered to his feet, a little unsteadily but unhurt, and gave the taxi driver and his passenger the finger while they were still trying to get out of the car. Turning away from them and staggering off down the middle of the road even as he heard them shouting “You alright mate?”

They didn’t follow and he made it around the corner without further incident to the bus stop, feeling that maybe someone was looking out for him after all. His head felt clearer after the taxi, that was for sure. Nothing like a brush with death to sober you up. In the distance, he could make out the lights of a bus approaching.

It was a double decker, one of the old ones that he hadn’t ever seen in real life, and as it pulled up alongside him he could see that the driver looked like he was even older than the bus. White hair, cap, the guy must have been eighty if he was a day.  The doors opened slowly with a hiss.

He stepped up. “Look, mate, I got mugged”, he lied, “I ain’t got no money. Can I get like a ticket I can pay for another day?”

The driver smiled at him, “No worries, lad, you just get on board.”

“Thanks,” Steve said, and looked down the aisle of the bus. He could see a load of people were sat in the seats on the lower deck, none of them looking at him, so he decided to climb the stairs to the top deck.

The top deck was empty and he walked all the way to the back of the bus and sat down in the middle of the back seat. As the bus started to move, he fished into his pocket for his iPhone. It wasn’t there.


He felt in all his pockets; it wasn’t just his phone that was missing, he’d somehow lost his wallet and his keys. Was it in Ritz’s? Had someone pick-pocketed him? Or maybe it was when he’d got hit by the taxi? Could everything have come out of his pockets when he’d rolled in the road? Shit, he needed to go back and look.

“Steve,” said a voice from a few rows ahead of him the bus, and he looked up to a see a man in a black suit staring at him. Steve tried to work out how he could have missed seeing the guy when he got on the bus, then he realised the man knew his name.

“Who the fuck are you?”

“Now, now,” said the man, “No use for such language with me; not that I have anything against profanities, obviously.”

The bus slowly edged to a stop.

“I don’t who you are, but I’m getting off this bus,”

“No,” said the man, with a wistful shake of his head, “No, you’re not Steve. Take a look out the window.”


“Go on,” said the man, gesturing to the left window of the bus, “take a look out the window and tell me what you see.”

Despite himself, Steve slid across the back seat and looked out of the window. He could see flashing blue lights, an ambulance, a paramedic turning away from a body with a defeated look on his face.


“Look closer,” said the man.

A second paramedic came to cover the body with a sheet, slid it up over the man. Steve recoiled from the glass as if it were hot.

“What the fuck,” he shouted, “What the fuck is this?”

“That’s you, Steve,” said the man, “That’s you hit by the taxi, dead in the middle of the road.”

“This is a bad dream,” muttered Steve to himself, “A bad trip, something…”

“No Steve; this is what death feels like” said the man, his face seemingly stretching and contorting beneath the waxy yellow light of the bus. “Well, for someone like you anyway.”

“This can’t be real.” said Steve, trying to stand up;, but even as he tried to get to his feet, the red leather hand straps that hung from the ceiling elongated and snaked out towards him like tentacles, wrapping themselves tightly around his arms and then pulled him taut so that he was held in place, spread-eagled. He cried out in agony, the straps stretching him to the point that it felt his arms would be pulled from their sockets.

“Oh, but it is Steve; and there are people here who’ve been looking forward to seeing you.”

Trapped in place, Steve was forced to watch as a stream of hooded figures emerged from the stairwell and walked slowly down the aisle of the bus towards him. Finally, when the leading figure was no more than a few feet from him, it stopped and tugged back its hood.

“That’s not possible,” Steve gasped, “That’s not possible.”

The man before him had a jagged cut across his cheek, fleshed splayed open all the way to his eyeball. It wasn’t possible, but Steve knew it was the man that he’d glassed at Ritz’s.

“These,” said the man in the black suit, his eyes now almost crimson, “are all those that you’ve wronged. There are an awful lot of them.”

The man from the nightclub stared at him in silence, blood pulsing from his ruined face, and then slowly raised a shard of broken glass. He brought it closer and closer to Steve’s face and, although he tried to turn away from it, the glass only came closer until Steve could feel it pressed cold against his skin.

“You’re on the Night Bus, Steve, said the man, and as he smiled Steve could see a twisted smile that revealed row upon row of needle-like teeth. His eyes glowing bright now. “We never charge a fare, and we only have one stop.”

Steve felt the glass bite deep into his flesh and finally began to scream.

“But we’re going to have a hell of a time while we get there…”

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Day 4 - Inspired by the Hero's Journey

Vance Pureheart’s Academy for Heroes was located within a somewhat ramshackle castle that was perched, some would say rather precariously, upon the edge of a soaring cliff. It could only be reached by climbing a set of 853 steps that had been carved by hand into the cliff face. And while this ensured that it was relatively impregnable from attack, it was – even Vance Pureheart himself was prepared to admit - a bit of a bugger when it came to holding Open Days.

“So,” he asked, the caretaker, “how are the numbers looking this year?”

The caretaker pulled an oilskin notepad from his breast pocket and consulted several pages of it, occasionally stopping to count on his fingers.

“Twenty three, sir.”

“Twenty three, eh?” said Pureheart, idly stroking his golden moustache. “Not bad, not bad; it’s a lot more visitors than we had last year…”

“Oh, visitors?” said the caretaker, “I thought you meant people what had fallen to their deaths from the stairs. Visitors is…” he consulted his notebook again, “Two.”



Pureheart sighed. “Very well, send them in.”

The caretaker ducked out of the room for a few minutes and then reappeared, ushering in a middle aged couple; the man was tall and thin and bald, the woman was short and rotund with hair down past her waist. But, importantly, they were expensively dressed. They looked the kind of people who could afford to pay the Academy fees.

“Good morrow,” he said, springing to his feet and lightly dancing across the room. A shake of the hand for the gentleman, hand angled with a tight squeeze to assert dominance, a kiss of the hand for the lady, trying to ignore the fact that it tasted of formaldehyde. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance; I am Vance Pureheart, Slayer of the Great Fire Wyrm of Nuw, Defender of the Holy Crown, Headmaster of the Academy for Heroes.”

“Hello,” said the man, in a voice that was so slow and monotonous that it inspired waves of depression with every word. “I’m Gerald Greenbottom, mortician, and this is my wife Esmerelda, embalmer.”

“And you have, I assume, a child who wishes to attend our Academy?”

“Well, yes,” said Gerald. “Our little Timmy. We received an invitation to enrol him a few months ago…”

“Ah yes,” smiled Vance, “The call to adventure…”

“Quite,” said Gerald, “But I’m not sure if we’ve missed our chance. You see, I lost the invitation…”

“He does that,” said Esmerelda, “Always losing things. Last week he lost someone’s legs.”

“But,” continued Gerald, with a cross look at his wife, “Last week we got another invitation, I just wasn’t sure it was still valid.”

“Oh, it’s most certainly valid,” said Pureheart, “indeed, it means that young Timmy has successful navigated the first test of being a hero.”

“It does?” asked Gerald.

“Certainly! You see, it is a core tenet of the Hero’s Journey that one should receive a call to adventure, but then refuse it. Indeed, all of the children who accepted the first offer from us were immediately expelled! So, Timmy is already showing strong hero potential…”

“We were just wondering if you could tell us a bit more about the education,” said Esmerelda, “I mean, when I was a girl, there was no such thing as hero academy…”

“Well, times have changed. No longer can you just turn up as a complete nobody, accept the mantle of being a hero, muddle through and somehow win the hand of the princess – oh no! The modern hero has to undergo a complicated series of trainings designed to not only teach a set of core practical skills, but also engage in critical thinking and self-reflection.”

“Sounds impressive,” said Gerald, “Would it be possible for us to see some of the classes?”

“But of course,” said Vance, and beckoned them to follow him through the door and along the corridor, “Follow me!”

They traipsed along several twisting stone corridors that, to the untrained eye looked identical (although it should perhaps be noted that, to the trained eye, they also looked identical since they were in fact identical) before emerging into a large corridor with a number of doors leading off from it. Pureheat led them to the first and slid open a panel so they could peer within.

Inside the Greenbottoms could see a class of children staring enrapt as a grey bearded man sketched out diagrams on a chalk board.

“This is mentor training,” explained Vance, “here the student learn how to receive wisdom that will enable them to unlock the hero within.”

“Sounds fascinating,” said Gerald, in a tone of voice that most people would reserve for telling you that a loved one has died. “And how long does that last?”

“Well, it’s a twenty week course, although it usually finishes by about the fourteenth week.” explained Vance.

“Why’s that?” asked Esmerelda.

“Well,” said Vance, gritting his teeth in an attempt to smile, “we’ve had a bit of a problem with our mentor teachers; they tend to leave us part of the way through the course. Still, let me show you some more.”

Pureheart bounded down the corridor and slid back the panel of another room; inside a child was sat in the corner, being studiously ignored by a group of older children who were practising with wooden swords.

“This,” said Vance, “is a young hero undergoing training in order to learn how to work with allies.”

“But they’re just ignoring him.” said Esmerelda.

“Exactly,” said Vance, “Heroes must learn to accept that when they first encounter allies, they will find that their allies not only don’t trust them but that they also have absolutely zero confidence in their ability to be a hero. At the Academy, we’re preparing them to go out and be a hero in the real world, no wishy-washy study coaching here….”

“And, could you tell me,” asked Gerald, “do you use a project learning based approach?”

“Well, we did experiment with that,” admitted Vance, “but when a group of heroes kills a dragon, there’s the question of knowing exactly who killed the dragon, who joined in (but were utterly ineffectual), and who simply turned, ran, and hid behind a rock. Now we can’t very well give them all the title of Dragon Slayer can we? So, we’ve moved to a system of individual assessment…”

“What kind of dropout rate do you have?”

“Well, the first 65% of applicants answer the first call; so that leaves 35% who refuse and gain access to the Academy. Of that 35%, a further 5% fall on the climb up the steps, while another 15% will simply fail to demonstrate the necessary heroic qualities during their training. That leaves 15%; of which – unfortunately – 5% will be lured onto the path of darkness, leaving a 10% success rate.”

“10% is not bad,” nodded Gerald.

“But what about career prospects?” asked Esmerelda.

“Of those that graduate as heroes from the Academy, a good 75% are engaged in a hero-related industry within twelve months of graduation.”

“Does being a hero pay well?” asked Gerald.

“Well, there are some heroes who strike it rich – winning the hand of the princess, being showered in gold, stealing the treasure of a dragon, etc. – but, as a rule, the reward for being a hero is not in material goods; it is a reward of the soul, of the spirit. It is the reward of knowing that you have gone out and have done good in the world…”

“Hmm.” said Gerald. “At Lord VileFlesh’s School for Dark Lords, they promised there would be substantial amounts of gold in the first twelve months after graduation.”

“Dark Lords do, I admit, tend to see a higher average income in the first five years after graduation.” said Vance. “But do you really want little Timmy to grow up without a strong moral compass?”

“But after Lord Vileflesh’s, he could buy a compass.” said Esmerelda.

“That’s not really what I meant; it’s not an actual compass”

“Well, I think we’d rather have the gold than an imaginary compass,” said Gerald.

“Look, forget the compass” said Vance, “How about I offer you a 10% discount on the study fees, a flail of Timmy’s choosing, and we get his papers processed today?”

“Well, when you put it like that, I think we have a deal,” said Gerald, “Where do we sign?”