Thursday 1 October 2015

Lighting Shadows

By Aline-Mwezi Niyonsenga

“Don’t be like this.”
The wind whipped her braids to her face. Whatever he’d just said had lazily reached her earbuds and evaporated into the trance track booming through her skull.
She sighed and languidly took an earbud out.
“I’m sorry,” she stated.
Placing the earbud back, she watched through drooped lids the way his mouth took on a warping ellipse, growling, snarling. Then he touched her, and she lost it.
She was alone on the roof when it happened, she’d say.
But when what happened?
She was truly alone on the roof.
“These disappearances have happened more frequently over the past month,” the news anchor read.
Kira impatiently flipped strands of her ink black hair over her shoulder, “What are we supposed to do about these?”
Sabine shrugged, taking cashews from a bowl on the kitchen counter. “Exactly what the letter says?”
While her friend groaned, Sabine wiped her hands free of salt and again reached for the lavender-scented parchment paper.
You must think like her.
“We know it’s a she,” Sabine offered hopefully.
“Out of the thousands of women and girls in Kelsey!” Kira switched off the television. “I’m dying. This is ridiculous. I’d actually rather do homework.”
“We could meditate,” Sabine retried, “make a list of the clues the media has shown us.”
“Males have disappeared,” Kira sighed.
“In and around the southeast.”
“High school juniors to college freshmen.”
“Students of Kelsey High and Kelsey Tech.”
“We don’t know Kelsey High kids!” Kira whined.
“Kira,” Sabine wheedled, “yes you do.”
“Can’t we just end on, ‘Those boys deserved it?’” Kira crossed her arms.
“No one deserves to disappear.” Sabine paused, frowning, “Disappear…”
Kira’s phone rang, jolting Sabine from her thoughts. After a few minutes of nodding and yessing, Kira hung up and gave Sabine a tight smile.
“Guess who gets to do work experience at Kelsey High for spring break?”
Magician’s Rite Academy’s Work Experience Program was basically a week of torture that Elite Scholars kids endured by silently counting volunteer hours like crosses against the soul-sucking remarks of spoiled rich kids, according to Kira. It didn’t help that Kira and Sabine were among the few that wore impressive, albeit overly formal uniforms for the occasion of trying to show the world that Magician’s Rite wasn’t the rough, shady school that the Kelsey High kids so readily wrinkled their noses at.
Sabine smiled easily, hoping her dark face would be further obscured by blindingly white teeth. Kira levelled an even gaze at anyone who dared to size her up. Meanwhile, their student ambassador giddily showed them around the school before stopping in front of a door labelled 1A.
“These students really need your help and I mean really,” the ambassador hushed.
Sabine frowned slightly before replying, “Do they get enough support from their teachers?”
“Of course!” The girl squealed. “But even they can’t help them. I was going to mention that you have Mrs. Wilson as a supervisor, if ever you guys need help,” she slyly added.
Suddenly, a girl bumped past Sabine’s shoulder and reached for the door, knocking past the student ambassador as well.
“Hey watch it!”
She ignored the warning and entered the room, black earbuds embedded in her ears. Sabine’s shoulder felt hollow where she was touched.
1A sprawled out like a computer lab with various circular tables scattered around where students in similar antisocial gear including headphones and bangs concentrated hard on their notebooks or snickered at their laptops. Once Sabine and Kira were introduced and started checking up on each student’s work, Sabine patiently gathered her courage for an opportunity to approach earbud girl.
“Hello, what are you working on?”
The girl’s heavily mascaraed lashes never lifted. Sabine had to concentrate hard on her physical presence, for fear her all-black garb would turn her into an inconsequential shadow.
“Are you trying to disappear on me?” she asked.
The girl’s hand, wielding a felt pen that steadily coloured black streaks against the margins of her paper, paused then resumed.
“If you ever need help,” Sabine finally offered, “just ask Kira or me.”
Meanwhile, Kira made the mistake of sitting next to a blast from the past, literally, judging by his air blown fro.
“Hey good-looking,” her ex-creeper-admirer grinned, “you gonna be my teacher for the week?”
Kira’s smile froze. “Yeah, call me when you’re actually doing work.”
“Aww, come on, don’t be like that,” he pouted.
Resisting the urge to groan, Kira zeroed in on an opportunity. “Know any of the guys who’ve disappeared?”
The guy’s smile faded. “No, but I know who’s done it.”
Kira raised an eyebrow, “Really?”
“Ms. Emo over there,” he whispered, jerking his head in the direction of a table that Sabine was leaving.
Kira narrowed her eyes. “Why do you say that?”
“All the dudes that disappeared,” he replied, leaning closer, “she was playing them.”
Kira rolled her eyes, getting up from the table. “Don’t you mean they were stalking her?”
At night she wandered the city. The wind whipped through her braids. Adrenaline pumped a healthy pink across her sallow cheeks. Again, she visited the roof. Again she wasn’t alone.
“Hello,” a shadow detached itself from a chimney wall, dressed in a black skater dress, boots and fingerless gloves, a mask below the odd cat ears. “My name is Sceptre.”
Another shadow crouched in the moonlight, lit by a white jester’s cosplay resonating with the bells on her three-pronged hat as she grinned beneath a white mask. “Jester at your service,” the figure bowed.
Again, the girl lost the words they said, except for a snippet that finally reached her ears.
“We’ve come to help you disappear,” Jester announced.
Suddenly, the girl’s cheeks drained of pink and she shook her head. An earbud fell out and she tried to put it back in, but this proved unexpectedly hard as the earbud slipped and slipped again.
“Ms. Emo needs to go,” Sceptre confirmed, spinning her namesake in one hand. “Played too many boys to stay.”
Jester slipped cards from her sleeves. “Time to play our game.”
The girl lost it.
In a second, the roof was enveloped in black ink and Sceptre and Jester tumbled in its darkness.
“Now what?” Sceptre snapped, unable to glimpse her partner.
“We think like her,” Jester swept her gaze around the darkness, searching for a way out.
“Help!” A voice shouted.
“We’re gonna die,” another whined.
“So this is where the losers went?” Sceptre frowned. “Is this a pocket dimension or…?”
“Yes,” Jester nodded. “It’s like she’s been filing them away…”
“Well obviously she hates the thought of others thinking she played them,” Sceptre deduced, “but why did she pay attention when you said we’d make her disappear?”
“It’s a defence mechanism. Naturally she doesn’t want to, and those boys must have provoked her somehow.”
Sceptre paused, deep in thought.
Jester pondered, “Scared her into thinking they’d make her disappear…”
“But how?”
“I’ll kill you!” A voice shrilled. “I swear!”
“They touched her,” Sceptre realised.
“Really?” Jester frowned.
“Trust me, I know.” 
Taking a deep breath, Sceptre advanced in what she hoped was the direction she last saw the girl.
“They won’t go away,” she stated matter-of-factly, then raised her voice, “They will never go away.”
The darkness tremored. Jester’s heart fluttered, suddenly wary of shifting ground.
“You haven’t let go of them you know,” Sceptre continued. “They’re still here, inside of you, closer than ever. You’ve just pushed them deeper into you.”
Jester tripped as the ground became a wave that heaved her up and dropped her.
“Let them go,” Sceptre calmly ordered. “Let yourself go.”
The air groaned like a beast in a cavern.
“It’s the only way you’ll grow from this. You need to cut loose, pull out the weeds.”
She reached forward and wrapped her arms around the space in front of her.
“And for that you need to rely on someone other than yourself for once.”
Suddenly the darkness became peppered with shimmering dots until it blended with the Kelsey skyline. Sceptre withdrew her arms from the girl’s shoulders, allowing her to dry her tears with her sleeves.
Glancing at the five boys who either lay prone on the ground or blinked in bewilderment, Jester gave the signal and the three of them disappeared behind a screen of smoke.

The next day, Julie waved Kira over to her table, shyly murmuring for help with Maths. Beneath the black colouring of the previous day, the words ‘Thank you’ sprawled in generous cursive.

Born of Necessity

© Denis Fitzpatrick, 2015

“Death is an old joke but it comes like new to everyone.” Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

It is no doubt entirely reasonable that Death should have a very high opinion of himself. You too would have an immensely high opinion of yourself if you were the sole sentience responsible for ushering departed souls into the netherworld. To his credit though Death never let his very important role go to his head. He simply saw himself as an ordinary worker even though he was almost always at work. It’s also probably a good thing that he had no time to think as then he would question his origins. Death had neither childhood memories nor anticipations of growing serenely old. No, Death just worked every moment and enjoyed each such moment, revelling in the fact that he was at the crux of Reality, ushering out the old to bring in the new.
     Death’s high opinion of himself though took a slight hit when he met God. He was returning to his one bedroom flat in Chippendaille to have a quick break and a wee tipple of some choice ale. He did not expect to be accosted by his real name when entering his apartment block.
    ‘Death! I say, Death! Over here!’ Death turned around. He was being hailed by an old Man, casually Dressed and with a fulsome Beard.
     ‘I’m not Death,’ replied Death when the old Man was close enough to hear. ‘You must be crazy, old man.’
     ‘I’ve never been saner, Death. And I Know you’re Death because I’m God. We’re both in the same business, more or less.’
    ‘You’re God,’ Death asked incredulously. ‘Then I’m Santa Claus.’
    ‘I am indeed God, or the Maker as I prefer to be called, and I can Prove it simply.’ God then Passed His Hand in front of Himself and Death felt all of his bones separate. He remained conscious, in no pain, and looking at his separated skeleton. To Enforce His point God Clenched His Right Hand into a Fist and Death watched all of his bones except his skull suddenly become piles of powder. He was now only a hovering Death’s mask.
     ‘Do you believe Me, now,’ asked God. He had a smirk whilst asking.
     ‘Maybe,’ replied Death. ‘Put me back together and you will have made your point.’
     God once more Waved His Right Hand in front of Himself and Death found himself hale and hearty.
     ‘Okay, so you’re God. I’ve been wondering where You’ve been throughout eternity, but You’ve probably been too busy to make Yourself Known.’
    ‘Exactly. But I have recently very happily Acquired a Sabbath and Plan to take things a lot easier from now on. Which is what Brings me to you.’
    ‘I don’t need a Sabbath, God, I’m far too happy in my work.’
    ‘No, but all work and no play does eventually make Jack a dull boy. Which is why I want you to take a short holiday. My Own Sabbaths of late have been very, very enjoyable and I Wished to Share the experience with the uninitiated: I instantly Thought of you.  My Son and I will reap the souls whilst you’re away and your job will still be here when you return. The Truth is is that I can’t do without you.’
    ‘And if I refuse?’
    ‘Then you’ll eventually wind up a very a dull and unhappy person, with nothing more than your job to make you happy, completely reliant upon it for your sense of self. Trust me, Death, a break from your work will do you the world of good, as it has Done for Me. Although the First One, or rather the Second One, was somewhat mournful, having lost a new lady friend. But, get out, Death, see a bit of life, before life passes you by and the Universe has eventually torn itself completely apart, leaving you with nothing at all. I don’t Think I shall Create a new one. And to Make the Request all the more tempting you may reside in Paradise while you’re off work.’
     That temptation Death found sweet, very sweet, always having wondered where his harvested souls eventually ended up.
    ‘How many weeks off do You Want me to take?’
    ‘It’s up to you. But I Think four weeks is just the right amount.’ Death considered God’s offer. He soon decided.
     ‘Okay, God . . .’
     ‘Call Me Maker.’
     ‘Well, okay, Maker. Consider me officially on holidays. How do I get to Paradise?’
     ‘Just say, “homeward bound” and you’ll be there in a jiffy. You’ll arrive in a flat I’ve Created for you.’
     ‘Thank you, G…, Maker. I think I’ll start the adventure in Paradise.’
     ‘Suit yourself.’
     And after the invocation Death did indeed find himself in Paradise and in a well-appointed one bedroom flat. He began to plan his holidays.

Death decided to start his adventures in Melbourne, a city that he had always preferred above all others in the world, a mix of the artistic and the relaxed and easy going. He had dressed in his most expensive suit and entered the Arthouse CafĂ©, a pub in North Melbourne, feeling glad that he had acquiesced to the Maker’s wish and surprisingly enjoying have his own time completely at his own disposal.
     ‘A schooner of Carlton Draught,’ he said to the barman. The barman though looked at Death with his mouth open, having no intention of pouring Death his schooner.
     ‘You don’t need a schooner, mate,’ he said to Death, ‘you look like you really need a good feed. You’re all skin and bones. When was the last time you had a decent meal? How many years? You look like you’ve been living on schooners.’
     ‘Fine,’ said Death, ‘just give me a midi.’
     ‘Sorry, mate, can’t do. You look like you’d die over the drink. Man cannot live by wine alone. If you buy a couple of pies beforehand I’ll probably give you a midi.’
     And that was how Death started his vacation, being constantly refused intoxicants on the grounds that he was all skin and bones and that a beer was the last thing he needed. He eventually left each pub when they offered him a pie, gratis. By now Death had become fixated on having a beer to celebrate his freedom from work and eventually succumbed to the plethora of bar staff refusing him service. He found a Chinese BBQ place in Brunswick and ordered half a roast duck. He ravenously ate all of it but doing so was perhaps unwise as he soon ejected the masticated bird in a secluded alley. Once having recovered himself he thought tenderly of the pies he’d been offered and the ensuing ale he’d been promised. Ah well, he thought, he’ll go back to one of the pubs that had refused him and take up their offer of a free pie before a drink. The duck had taken the last of his money though and after checking to make sure he had an ATM card (which he had very rarely used but was miraculously always activated) he found an ATM and entered his PIN.
     The machine, after Death had only entered his PIN incorrectly twice, swallowed his card.
     ‘This freakin’ vacation is a freakin’ nightmare,’ he said to himself. But it was the thought of his free access to Paradise that made him stick with it and not return to the saner world of reaping souls. But without money there was no holiday, and he couldn’t ask anyone in Paradise for a loan as he knew no-one there. He was also unable to ask the Maker for a loan as he had absolutely no idea on how to contact Him. He was in a fix.
     A busker outside a supermarket in Brunswick gave him an idea as to how to get the needed money. He could simply use his small sickle, which was always on his person, to perform tricks for the needed cash. He would reap souls for small change, slaying a volunteer and then returning them to life the next instant. It seemed like a great idea. Thus he took up a station outside the Brunswick Library, removed his coat and placed it by his feet, addressing the passing crowd.
     ‘Good people of beautiful Melbourne, witness the impossible!’ Some people turned to stare at the madman and Death approached one at random.
     ‘Madam, may I impose upon you for a small bit?’ The young lady replied,
     ‘I’m sorry, but . . .’ Before she finished her sentence though Death drew his sickle across each of the carotid arteries at the sides of her neck. She reached up to stem a flow that did not appear, even though she had felt keen, stinging cuts, and felt the arteries close under her hand. Some young men approached the damsel in distress but she held them off with an upraised hand, looking enquiringly at Death.
     ‘Be not surprised, young lady, this plain golden sickle has the power to take or give life at my choosing. It has been wrought with ancient magicks and a spare dollar or two will go far in keeping its edge keen.’ The lady felt her neck again. Completely healed.
     ‘Do that again,’ she said to Death. He obliged and when once more she had confirmed that no harm had been done she left a five dollar note on his jacket. One of the young men who had come to her assistance placed a couple of two dollar coins on top of it to stop the note floating away, and asked to examine the small sickle. Death naturally obliged.
     ‘Do that to me,’ said this young man. Death slashed the man’s arteries and he was likewise unharmed, leaving the presence of the mad busker with the conviction that life was indeed a greater mystery than he had given it credit for.
     Death plied his trade for an hour, at the end of which he had a small stunned crowd around him and $150 piled atop his jacket. It was time to call it a day.
     ‘Good people of beautiful Melbourne, your generosity has been a great boon but this secret sickle must return to obscurity. Fear not though, its magicks will continue to do no harm, giving pleasure instead.’ Which was in a sense true: Death, upon resuming his work, would continue to ease others into their respective eternities.
     After escaping his fans with some difficulty he headed back to one of the pubs that had offered him a free pie before a drink. He asked for and received the pie and a beer shandy midi, with lemon squash instead of lemonade. The barmaid however would only give him his shandy after he consumed the pie. That done he chose a table near a window and sat back luxuriantly, surprisingly satisfied at having had to earn his ale. When it was finished he ordered another pie and shandy and ate the pie under the barmaid’s supervision. His second ale was even finer than the first.
     This then was how Death spent his holidays: performing his tricks for about an hour at which point he had enough money for two or three days. He spent it in pubs all over inner city Melbourne alternately eating and drinking. Near the end of his vacation his favourite pubs allowed him the shandy without first forcing him to eat something. He was looking forward to his next holidays and upon returning to Paradise for the final time he managed to track down the Maker who gladly Granted him permission for a vacation each year. Next year he plans on visiting the Northern Territory, a far warmer clime than Melbourne and thus a more relaxed locale. He plans to busk once again even though he usually has plenty of money on his ATM card: the busking was half the fun of the vacation. He expects to make a lot more money, his potential audience being even more easy going than in Melbourne.
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