Exegesis

Religion is typically one of those things they tell you to avoid at dinner parties so it stands to reason it’s something you should tread lightly on when it comes to writing nonsense short stories. I don’t really do lightly, I do stupid. So, stories about religion. I have to use that degree for something after all, right?

Quam is, obviously, not really based on anything and mostly serves as my go-to made up religion whenever I want to talk about a more general religious subject. Just so you know. If I have recurring elements (and I suppose I do have some) it would be one of them.

[The meaning differs on interpretation, and ours is best]

Quite what the purpose of the gay supermarket was was unclear, though the intentions behind it were well-meaning. It operated much like any supermarket, containing a wide variety of products which those entering it could purchase with money. No boundaries were pushed here.

The only particularly notable thing about it was written into its corporate ethos, which expressed various themes about how adult human beings were basically free to love other adult human beings regardless of gender, and that was cool.

This did not touch on their business practises much, but was important to them so they felt compelled to mention it and drew some degree of attention to it on their premises. Pictures of two men holding hands as they purchased apples, for example, accompanied by a small timeline showing when legislation was passed allowing the two men pictured to actually get married should they so desire. Though oddly enough this picture and timeline was to found in the affordable clothing section, while the picture of the woman wearing the machine-washable suit was in the fresh produce section – this was likely a mistake.

Not many people begrudged them all this, and while most would have been happy to express their support their location was – sadly – just a bit out of the way for most people. This would likely soon see it close, which was a shame really. They’d meant well.

There was nothing stopping other, not-expressly-gay supermarkets from doing the exact same thing of course. Indeed, many already were – having similar sentiments expressed in their bland, boring inclusivity statements available on their websites – but hadn’t thought to call particular attention to it. Given the publicity received by the press release of the gay supermarket these others now felt a bit like they missed a trick, but it was far too late and was all water under the bridge anyway.

They – those who’d opened the gay supermarket (which looks worse the more times it’s repeated, it must be said) – toyed with the idea of calling it the Homotorium but this had been considered perhaps a little on the nose and maybe a little unnecessary. The name they had eventually settled on – Rainbowmart – was so generic and inoffensive it looped all the way back around to offensive by just how boring and risk-averse it was, but that was life.

The name was irrelevant to the members of the Best Church of Quam, who would have been protesting outside no matter what the place was called. It’s mere existence vexed them, and they felt the need to express this to anyone who cared to pay them attention. To this end they had converged outside the main entrance, bearing signs with such searing, inflammatory slogans such as:

“Gays are icky.”
“Ew, men kissing.”
“We don’t talk about lesbians because then we can’t talk about anal sex.”
And:
“I don’t like this one bit.”

These signs were the cause of much consternation to those individuals going in and out of the supermarket, and children were encouraged to avert their eyes. Nearby, every single other person in town was standing there to voice their (loud) disapproval of the demonstration. Not that the Best Church of Quam minded much.

They’d been out picketing there for days now, occasionally popping into the supermarket itself to buy lunch and use the toilets but otherwise refusing to budge. As a group they presented a united front of stubborn, unyielding solidity. They would stay there as long as they felt was needed, the disapproval of every single other human being in a hundred-mile radius be damned!

Len, however, was flagging. He was not waving his sign with the same enthusiasm as the others and he couldn’t keep in time when they started singing their witty and insulting parodies of current popular songs. Eventually, it simply became too much.

“I’m sorry. Sorry guys I just can’t do this anymore,” he said, dumping the sign. The group gasped in shock but were quieted by William their leader who stepped forward.

“What’s the matter Len?” He asked. He did not stop waving the sign with his off-hand as he did this, as not a moment could be wasted when it came to waving signs in front of things he disliked.

“It just doesn’t seem like the sort of thing we should be doing, you know? I mean, is this really the sort of thing we should be spending our time on? This? Aren’t there more productive things we could be doing?” Len asked.

“We’re teaching people the error of their ways! And doing it in accordance with solid, clear-cut theology! We’ve all read the same book – passage fifty-three is very explicit!” William said, those around him nodding. He was mostly right, but also a little wrong.

Passage fifty-three was the go-to bit of the Book of Quam that was used time and again to justify the fact men shouldn’t really harbour feelings for other men. And you could get it to work for women too, if you read it a certain way (no word on bisexuals or anything but it was generally assumed that they were also bad, without the need to get into details). Almost all of them had read passage fifty-three but a good few had just taken the other’s word for what it said. It also wasn’t that explicit, which was part of Len’s problem.

“Yes but that passage was originally about the family ownership of cattle and the translation that’s popularly used now was only put into use two hundred years ago,” Len said. This was true, though not widely known. William’s eyes narrowed.

“Have you been looking into the historical context of the Book of Quam again?” He asked. Len, who for some reason had not expected to be rumbled quite so easily even after spouting a relatively obscure factoid, shifted uncomfortably in place and was unable to meet William’s harsh gaze.

“…maybe,” he said. William sighed.

“What have I told you about that, Len? You look into the context and you realise we’re wildly misusing the select bits of the books that conform to our already-existing prejudices and that just about any possible interpretation and justification is possible if you cherry-pick without consideration to the time in which the book was originally written and how subsequent translations have attempted to shape its meaning to fit what was desirable at the time! You know this!”

William accomplished this sentence in one breath. It was one of the many reasons why he was in charge. He could also hold nearly thirty marbles in his mouth. That was another reason.

“I know, I know…” Len said, shrinking further. William could see that a softer touch was needed to bring the boy back into the fold. He stopped glaring quite as much.

“Remember how the Book of Quam was used to justify slavery?” He asked.

“Yeah…”

“And remember how the Book of Quam was also instrumental in justifying the end of slavery?”

“Yeah…”

“Doesn’t that seem like two very different messages to be able to pull out of one book?”

“Yeah…”

“The minute you start poking and prodding around and trying to understand who wrote it and why and what their influences might have been you open a whole world of ambiguity, and what use is that to anyone? Who wants context and background when they need an answer to a question like ‘is it okay to shout at men holding hands’? That’s why we keep things simple! Every word in the book is true and where it contradicts itself the answer is whichever is closest to the one that means we have to change our view of the world least. Simple, see? I find the idea of men in love with other men disquieting, if I read the book a certain way it gives me a solid justification for my position beyond irrational dislike – everyone wins. See?” William asked. Len raised an eyebrow at quite how open he was being about all this.

“That’s a bit up-front, isn’t it?”

“You’re a smart boy Len, I don’t see the point in lying to you. It might seem cynical but it’s just something to make our lives easier. If we actually tried to parse the proper and intended meaning of the text with a full understand of the history behind it we’d realise that it means many things to many different people and having any one particular group enforce its idea over all the others – not to mention over people who don’t believe at all – is ludicrous and harmful, and then where would we be? Don’t think about it too hard, it’ll only make you upset. Come on Len, pick up the sign. It’s fun, we all know you enjoy it,” William said.

Len fidgeted, shuffled, licked his lips and considered. Then he sighed and stooped and picked his sign back up again, earning himself a hearty (and painful) slap on the back from William.

“That’s the spirit. Just relax, everything’ll go much more smoothly. Oh, and never, ever disagree with my position on the Book of Quam or I’ll turn everyone you have in your life against you and fill you with a deep and crushing self-loathing that’ll last for years even after you fully distance yourself from us and our movement, there’s a good lad,” William said before leading all of the group – Len included – in a rousing chorus of a deeply offensive, hurtful song.

Later they were driven away by poor weather which was blamed on The Gays, though without solid evidence to back this up.

The supermarket actually lasted longer than anyone expected.

Which was nice.

END

Square Cube

Of all the things I wrote over the last week – and just about everything today is weekly-fresh, barring CHH – this is the least angry. It’s just about giant monsters.

[Weaponise physics]

As was sometimes known to happen a giant monster was causing a disturbance.

Such events had enough inherent excitement that it wasn’t exactly something the general public could just shrug off, what with the destruction of buildings and the danger of being crushed to death and the like. But the novelty of terrifying, towering creatures had worn off a little bit with the repeat performances. Scary yes, cool no.

They were an issue now like any other, and an issue in need of a reliable, practical solution. Fortunately for those citizens presently running for their lives with what few possessions they’d been able to snatch up, there was one such solution available. It was at that very moment being prepared, which would no-doubt have buoyed their enthusiasm immensely had they been aware.

Gunships were being used to agitate and goad the giant monster, the better to steer it in a direction with fewer people and less valuable buildings. Failing that, an area with less valuable people would also suffice. It was mostly to ensure that once that giant monster fell over (dead) it wouldn’t fall on anything particularly important. The gunships irritated the monster greatly with their rocket pods, and it followed them closely, roaring and flailing as was its custom.

Meanwhile, coming in fast, was a missile. It had been launched from many miles away as, being a missile, it had no real reason to be launched from any closer. Earlier giant monster attack techniques had involved flying jets very close indeed and it had gone poorly, leading to official reprimands of those involved and a significant overhaul of policy. Someone had also used tanks, once, and that person was now unemployed. Cruise missiles were now the go-to, and very effective at that.

Giant monsters did not understand missiles, and even if they could (or did; no-one had ever asked them) they were incapable of detecting their approach or maneuvering out of the way in time to dodge. This was something of an inherent weakness of giant monsters, being as how they were also giant targets. As a result, this missile had very little trouble in finding it. This was lucky, as the warhead of the missile was expensive (all of the missile was expensive, but the warhead especially).

What the warhead was designed to do was not to explode. Explosions had very little effect on creatures of this size, which was only to be expected. Something so grossly enormous should not have been able to exist at all – every movement should have seen it coming apart or breaking to pieces by sheer dint of just how big it was. So the ability to maintain structural soundness in spite of external, aggressive forces was a given, really.

This was a well-known phenomenon. The lethality of the warhead depended on it, in fact. The phenomenon had been extensively studied and researched and while it had yet to be effectively replicated what had been perfected was the ability to cancel out the forces involved, if only for a moment. Which is to say – as some of the smarter-arses involved have said – humanity was able to weaponise normal, common-sense physics. That was what the wardhead did. It turned off the special rules the giant monster was playing by, and let the normal rules come rushing back in.

It detonated on contact with the flank of the giant monster, creating a sphere of normalised physics perhaps a good one-hundred feet across in every direction; a perfect sphere of how things should be. It didn’t even last a second but then again it didn’t have to. In that time the monster suffered catastrophic internal damage. It would have taken hours of conventional attack to inflict even half as much; one missile had mortally wounded it in less time than it took to blink.

Following this the giant monster died, though not before inflicting further damage to the local infractrue. Its pain-maddened spasms ruptured water mains and destroyed buried telecommunication cables, much to the dismay of those observing and the delight of those observing who would be being paid to replace them in due time. The giant monster then collapsed, at which point the field keeping it in one piece dissipated altogether and everything became rather messy all of a sudden. Cleanup began immediately.

Post-mortem examination of the giant monster was mostly inconclusive. It almost always was,  on account of rapid physical degradation,but it was postulated with some confidence that – prior to death – the warhead had inflicted damage that exceeded expectations for its model. This was taken as great news.

Later, when it was deemed safe, people were allowed home. Those who no longer had homes were not, and were housed elsewhere. They would remain there until they had homes to return to, though there was no exact date for this yet. ‘Soon’ they were told. ‘Soon’ was the official line regardless of how long it actually took, and this was well-known.

The origins and motivations of the giant monsters remained unclear.

END

Irresistible

Not long ago on the other (more chaotic) blog I mentioned something that started out silly and basically turned into an extended rant. This is it.

I am not going to go into detail explaining it but I will just say that the whole Chad – Ched? Chid? Chod? – Evans case fills me with rage and that if you don’t like seeing stories that just devolve into eight-hundred or so words of spittle-flecked ranting about sexual assault then I would avoid this.

Consider yourself forewarned, I suppose.

[A legal refuge in audacity becomes a rant against society itself]

For everyone watching, the case seemed pretty cut and dry.

The defendant had been found with their personalised, handcrafted and monogrammed knife buried in the chest of the victim. They had also been holding the knife at the time, screaming, and had continued screaming as they’d been arrested and dragged away. Most of what the screaming had contained had been fairly incoherent but a good amount had been gleeful admissions of guilt, lists of the victim’s (imagined) crimes and extensive details on how the (alleged) crime had been committed.

That a ‘not-guilty’ plea had been entered was something of a surprise to all concerned, and all were curious as to what strategy the barrister entrusted with the case would use. Doubly interested because it was the Maverick, and they were always fun to watch. Once, they’d shot a rulebook with a flintlock just to demonstrate that rules weren’t bulletproof (a point no-one had been attempting to argue at the time).

Sweeping into the courtroom with characteristic flourish the Maverick flashed a smile and did the most extravagant twirl they were allowed within the bounds of decency. Things didn’t really get any less theatric from there, even as the court went through the somewhat stuffy formalities. Formalities that the Maverick rankled under, but tolerated. It was plainly obvious they were chomping at the bit and their eagerness made just about everyone present a little bit nervous.

“I wish to enter into evidence the victim’s history of being alive,” said the Maverick the first chance they got, a broad grin splitting their face, bony fingers clutching a thick folder. This earned them some odd looks and the judge shifted in their seat, leaning closer.

“Is that relevant?” They asked.

“Why yes, m’lud! Most relevant,” the Maverick said, their tone wounded.

Unwilling to go through the bother of having to see the Maverick pout their way through the rest of the trial the judge waved a hand and allowed it, much to the Maverick’s obvious glee. With a flourish they whipped the folder open, a perfect number of copies flying out and wafting into the hands of those that needed them. It was all very impressive.

“As you can plainly see the victim has a long and sordid history of not being murdered and indeed of enjoying life to the full! How then can it be that they are now dead? And murdered of all things? It just doesn’t add up! This is not consistent with their previous behaviour at all! Ergo this crime is nothing of the sort!”

This took everyone present a few seconds to try and work out in their head. For one, they weren’t entirely sure this was how a trial was supposed to work. For another, the reasoning involved in this statement was not the sort of reasoning they were used to.

“Is that logic?” The judge asked, hoping someone had an answer.

“It’s something close, but there seem to be a few key differences,” the other barrister said, still counting on their fingers as they tried to make it all add up. The Maverick threw their hands up in irritation, catching them expertly on the stumps. This was a flourish they had practised for hours. Again, theatrics ruled the day when the Maverick took charge.

“Please! It’s perfectly sound. If we bring a woman’s previous sexual history into account when dealing with allegations of sexual assault – her attire, even! Her bearing and attitude! – I fail to see how we cannot mention how this corpse had a long, well-documented history of not being dead up until the point my client was accusing of stopping them being alive! They were well-known to breathe and move and talk and not be stabbed in the chest and do other activities that are never practised by dead people! And now my client is accused of somehow bringing this to an end? Does being dead sound like something someone who had been so alive would be doing? They’d never been stabbed before, why now? What sort of double-standard are we prepared to defend here?”

“Uh…”

“More to the point! This corpse was obviously asking for it! Flaunting their warm, unmurdered body inside the tantalising safety of their own home! Breathing! Not being stabbed! They knew precisely what it was they were doing! Hypothetically, how was my client to resist? He is but a man! What was he to do? Resist the urge to – allegedly – viciously and repeatedly stab this person? How on earth could he be expected to do that? What sort of human being has the willpower to control themselves? Allegedly. I find it laughable that I even have to explain that it is all the corpse’s fault! Did you see the clothes they were wearing? Not stained with blood in some places! Clearly they wanted to be murdered to death, why else would they have dressed in such a provocative fashion? The harlot.”

Deafening silence greeted this, and no-one could think of a single thing to say. This was just what the Maverick had been hoping for and their grin spread wide enough to split their face in half (the safety pins were there for a reason, after all).

“And for my next trick! A burglary case!” The Maverick announced as their assistant – for they had an assistant – wheeled in something covered in a dust sheet. The wheels squeaked loudly in the courtroom and the assistant shuffled off with quiet whimpers of pain as the Maverick whipped the sheet away to reveal a scale model of the courtroom on a wheeled table. In the model was a whole other jury, gallery and defendant. The Judge squinted.

“Is that…?” They asked, not really sure how to finish that question.

“Yes! It is! Now my other, tinier client here has been accused of robbing a house but – really – is this even a crime in the modern, widely accepted sense of the word?”

“Yes?” The other barrister tentatively asked, not sure what they were doing at this point. They flinched as the Maverick spun and threw a hand at them.

“No! No it is not! And you shall see why,” they said, reeling their hand in and again distributing compelling evidence with ease.

“Plain as the nose on my face you can see that – before this alleged ‘crime’ – the so-called victim had often expressed a desire for ‘fewer possessions’! A desire to ‘declutter’! See here how they donate items from their own home to charity! Are these the actions of an individual who would object to the removal of objects from their life? I think not!”

“There’s a bit of a difference…” the other barrister said, feeling this was so obvious they weren’t sure they even had to mention it.

“THERE IS NOT ONE SHRED OF DIFFERENCE YOU TAKE THAT BACK.”

“It’s still stealing isn’t it?”

“HOW DARE YOU! See! See how my opponents DARES to impugn an innocent man with accusations of stealing? I demand they be stricken from the record!”

“What?” The judge asked, exhausted beyond words, head in their hands. The Maverick sighed.

“Fine! I’ll do it myself!” They said, pulling out a small remote control device and pointing it at the other barrister who promptly vanished from existence to the horrified gasps of all present.

“And with that I can safely assume my client’s innocence will be self-evident,” the Maverick said before flying away on a fucking moonbeam to fight further justice throughout the cosmos – guilty people needed them. Who else would have the courage to stand up and accuse the victim? Someone had to do it. You couldn’t let these people get complacent.

Elsewhere, later, a woman was sexually assaulted and the fact she had been wearing a skirt at the time was used as evidence against her. At the same time, another woman in a similar situation did not report it as she had had a drink prior to the event and knew therefore that she would not be taken seriously.

Because society is fucking broken. Or because women enjoy turning their lives upside down for shits and giggles just to get back at a man, even if in so doing they open themselves up to the scorn of people they’ll never meet, will be dragged through the mud in what is supposed to be a court of law by what are supposed to be educated professionals and of course have the whole affair dog their every step for the rest of their life.

Assuming they don’t kill themselves which does fucking happen but no, you know the women, right? Always making a fuss over nothing, I ask you. They’ll just accuse anyone because that’s what they’re like, right? They’re just bitter about something, probably. Who can understand a woman? That might involve listening to one and oh boy! Can’t have that.

I mean, why would they wait so long before coming forward? Were they, like, scared or something? Scared of what? I mean sure I threatened to come around and attack them again myself but that’s not threatening or aggressive that’s a little joke just to punish them for daring to open their mouth or impugn a man who kicks a ball in a way that I admire. That’s how it’s meant to work, right? What’s wrong with that?

Yeah sure they got their name and their face and their address leaked to just about everyone but my God they don’t stop complaining do they? They’re probably doing it for the money. They’re getting money, right? Someone’s probably paying them. I don’t know who. Someone. The media. The same media that’s calling them a whore for enjoying sex previous to the event of their assault because sex is something that just happens to women, right? The idea that women can enjoy sex as easily and casually as we’re told men are supposed to is terrifying to me so it must not be true, that’s how the world works.

It’s probably a lot of money they’re getting, too, considering that this will basically end their life as they knew up to this point and force them to remember a deeply traumatic event – on top of fresh new traumatic events courtesy of hordes of people saying they should die. Death threats aren’t really a big deal anyway I don’t know what the fuss is about. I fail to see how having hundreds and hundreds of anonymous people telling you that you should die and going into great detail about the best way this should happen is an issue. I fail to see why this is an issue because it’s never happened to me and never will so I assume it’s probably not as bad as they say it is. Women, eh? So fragile.

And some have the temerity to suggest we shouldn’t put all the blame on the woman! Some say the man is somehow responsible! Just because if he hadn’t done anything then everything would have worked out fine! Such a flimsy excuse. Their argument failed the instant they suggested the woman wasn’t somehow to blame. How could a man be culpable in such an instance? He’s a man and therefore instantly imbued with powers of trustworthiness and worthy of respect and deference! Unless he’s the wrong colour, of course, then maybe you could have a point.

As if we could expect men to exercise rational judgement. This is how society is set up. We tell our girls to be careful when they go out and we tell our boys bugger all because boys will be boys and that means – apparently! – they’ll be irresponsible shitbags whose sense of empathy stops abruptly at the tip of their dick. And that’s fine. Why should we change that? A better approach would be to, I don’t know, tell women to stick to lighted area even in daytime and wear quiet shoes so men are not driven wild by the sound of their approach. Yeah. Yeah that sounds like a plan, I like that. Or walk in groups! So they can scatter like gazelle at the first sign of trouble. Or never leave or go outside at all! Ooh that’s good, write that one down. You can keep that one.

So yeah. Pick whichever explanation is the most compelling to you, I don’t fucking know.

Fuck.

I’m quitting being a human being and am going to go and spend the rest of my life as a toadstool. Fuck. That we’re still having to talk about this is a fucking embarrassment.

END

Smoke

Lots of cheap shots at newspapers, still. It’s a favourite topic of mine and one as perennial as the grass on account of me passing by a news-stand sometimes at work and being horrified each and every time.

[Avoid reporting on reality at all costs]

“Xothor the Devourer is approaching! He’s – well – devouring everything. I mean, what are the odds, right? Clue’s in the name I guess. Anyway, bye,” said an anonymous member of the public before pulling their head back through the door and continuing on their way. Outside, screaming.

“You hear that? Write faster you animals, you dogs!” Howled the Editor, cracking a handful of whips over the backs of the huddling, weeping journalists as they feverishly hammered at the keys of their discount typewriters. One yowled as they lost another fingertip but it didn’t slow them in the slightest.

“The only thing holding back that all-consuming eldritch horror are our stories about migrants, so type faster! Tell the people how many foreigners are coming here! It’s all that’s holding the fabric of space and time together!” The Editor shouted, stomping over to the nearest desk and ripping the still-dripping paper free and bringing it up to their face.

“MIGRANTS SHOWN TO HAVE FACES AND THOUGHTS OF THEIR OWN,” bellowed the article, followed by lots of angry, shouty words and obtuse anecdotes about the deceitfulness, clumsiness and general unattractiveness of people who were not born on the same strip of land as the author.

“Is any part of this story true?” The Editor asked, cramming the page back into the typewriter, breaking it in the process. The journalist frantically started trying to fix it.

“Well, we sourced numbers from the governme-” they spluttered, but they did not finish before the Editor smacked the typewriter from the desk, taking the journalist with it as they had had their hand lodged in its guts at the time.

“Write it again! Only lies! Only lies in the newspaper! Nothing else has any effectiveness!” The Editor said, sloping off to the end of the room and taking position behind their podium. Some of their best intimidation had been doled out from behind that podium and it had the scorch marks to prove it.

“We have a duty to the public to deceive them further! We all told them that the invocations of Xothor were the patriotic thing to do! We all told them to go out and vote in favour of their performance! We misled them about the true costs of those dark, unholy rites and the inevitable results they would entail! Now Xothor and his thousand and one ravenous offspring are consuming all in sight and it’s up to us to keep people’s minds off the problems we tricked them into causing! So lie! Lie for all you’re worth! Lie for your very lives! Lie!”

The Editor hammered their meaty fist against the podium to emphasise the importance of lying, even if most of the Journalists were too busy focussing on writing to pay much attention. The obvious anger in the Editor’s words did much to motivate them, however, and the number of vague truths in their writing dropped to zero almost at once.

Trickles of dust fell from the ceiling as the ground shook, the concussion of something detonating beyond the walls thumping around the room and making the windows flex.  This spurred the journalists on more, each of them knowing it was their sworn and solemn duty to tell the citizens about the dangers posed by people from elsewhere. That and they were being paid to do it, that was also a factor.

“I don’t wish to cause undue alarm, but the fate of the country is riding on each and every one of you. If a word goes in the wrong place, if a headline doesn’t grab attention, if the general public reads your work and remains unconvinced that the major problem facing the nation at the moment is immigration and not the havoc being wrought by Xothor the Devourer and his unholy spawn then you have failed and the world itself is doomed. No pressure. I’m just saying, there’s a lot of pressure. Oh, and for the love of God don’t call them ‘refugees’, people might start remembering they’re human beings…”

Headlines and untrue front pages and frothing, unhinged editorials were churned out at a ferocious pace, spewing white-hot from the typewriters and fluttering into the air. From there they were snatched by scuttling, leaping news-whelps and fed into the monolithic copy-and-distribute machines wherein which they were copied and distributed to an uninterested and disbelieving public. From there they were promptly discarded in whichever bin was closest to hand as print was a dying medium anyway and lying in super-big text on the front page was all it really had left going for it at this point.

“What are the levels looking like?” The Editor asked, leaning back and shouting to the beleaguered technician manning the controls.

“The apathy levels are off the charts! No-one believes anything in anymore!” They replied as sparks and steam belched all about them.

“We’re trying the best we can,” the Editor muttered through gritted teeth.

What else could they possibly do? Warn the public about Xothor? Tell them what they could realistically do in the situation? They were but humble newspapermen! Slaves to the fact it was a job where earning money and maintaining a consistent agenda was more important by far than actually and accurately informing the reader. At least until they were told to change that agenda, of course, but you didn’t really need to mention that part. Their hands were tied! It was just how it worked.

Vicious, blaring headlines assaulted the eyes of anyone who happened to pass a newsstand, knocking many flat on their back with the force of their brazen falsehoods:

“NEW LAW ALLOWS MIGRANTS TO LIVE EVICT YOU FROM YOUR HOUSE IF THEY KNOCK IN A SPECIAL WAY. THEY WILL THEN LIVE IN YOUR HOUSE.”
“MIGRANTS TURN INVISIBLE IN MOONLIGHT THE BETTER TO DRIVE YOU MAD WITH CEASELESS NOCTURNAL HOOTING.”
“MIGRANTS CAN OPEN DOORS NOW. YOUR DOORS.”

None of this seemed to work though. Even when they made the newspaper one big headline with each letter blown to monstrous sizes and given its own page to occupy no-one seemed especially fazed. They just kept on living their lives, paying their taxes, going to their jobs and being consumed alive – whole and screaming – by Xothor the Devourer.

So engrossed in producing this sort of high-quality news-tripe were the journalists and the Editor they barely even reacted when the roof was torn free by a giant hand, a hideous creature older than the stars themselves looming above and staring down with infinite hunger and malice – Xothor himself!

Tugged from the clutches of a news-whelp by the sucking vacuum created by the removal of the roof a frontpage gusted upwards and was caught by one of Xothor’s lesser hands. He peered at the page and sighed, his breath itself a living being that was born, loved, lived and died in a heartbeat.

“Seriously you guys?” Asked Xothor, rubbing his seventeen temples in frustration before leaving, shaking his head. He would devour something a little more worthwhile, he felt. Not these people.

END

Cold Hard Hugs #10_From Bad To Worse

Further blathering in this nonsense tale about nothing

This sort of crisis-management thinking was not my strong point. Everything that had gone wrong today poked and prodded at my brain and the numerous, overwhelming possibilities of everything else that could also happen boiled up from the base of my skull. My jaw clenched.

It was probably a mistake. Had to be a mistake. That explanation made sense. There was no-way Michelle would have ever done anything like that deliberately, at least not with me. Had someone else been sitting where I had been sitting then it might have been deliberate, but they had not, I had been, so it was unthinkable. Definitely a mistake. Had to be a mistake.

This excuse did not get me very far, as even I was only willing to believe so much. There was very little I could do to soften the simple reality that she had, in fact, and in full possession of herself, kissed me. And known it was me when she had done it. It was something she had meant to do. Was it something she’d thought about doing? Had she, perhaps, thought about doing it about as much as I had thought about it? More? I wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to find out, and whether it would help me even if I did. More pressingly, why had she waited exactly until I had an actual, formal, bonafide relationship with someone else before doing anything about it? It wasn’t as if I’d been locked down at any point in me knowing her, and it wasn’t as if she hadn’t known that.

I stopped myself short of comparing nice girls to busses with a tendency to appear in clusters, as that was likely something someone would take offence to. Not that anyone had access to my thoughts. But still. It might slip out if I thought it, and then I’d be in trouble. More trouble than I was already in. Oh God, was I in trouble? I probably was. This was the sort of thing that made people upset when they found out about it. Tillie was the sensitive type. Very sensitive. It wouldn’t take much to destroy her. This would do more than that. Oh God.

She’d told me, too. Tillie had said she wanted me to stay away from Michelle and I hadn’t and now this had happened. Did Tillie know this would happen? Maybe she was just afraid something like it would happen. But it did happen! Something like it happened! It wasn’t my fault though, I didn’t know. But that doesn’t matter. I should have known I should have listened. I’m in so much trouble.

Who does that, anyway? Who kisses someone like that? That sort of thing doesn’t actually happen, surely? That it did – and to me! Me! – must be some sign that I’d stumbled into a dream or fantasy. Or maybe this was all a practical joke. That must be it. Not a mistake, a joke. Michelle was like that, wasn’t she? Always with the dopeslaps and the nicking my clothes. Definitely a joke.

I could go back and check. No, no. Terrible idea.

Oh God, what was I supposed to do? This was my fault. I should have known better. I could have just stayed away. Should have done. No cake was worth this. Nothing was worth this! I felt dreadful.

Lord Michelle had been beautiful though.

Now why was I thinking that? That’s not an appropriate thought. You should be thinking of a way to resolve this with saving everyone’s feelings. Your feelings are more or less expendable in this, because they are crude; Tillie and Michelle however should be accommodated. Wait, is that patronising? I mean, they are persons with agency, is it my job to look out for them like that? Yes, yes; this is my fault, after all.

There was no way this was going to go well, what are you thinking.

“Oi.”

It was going to be horrible, naturally. Knowing my abilities of digging myself deeper and ramming my foot in it, there was no way I could be relied upon to talk my way out of it. Ignore it? No, not an option.

“Oi, mate.”

This must be what being an adult felt like. Confusing and stomach churning. Why would anyone want to be an adult, again?

“Oi!”

A hand on my shoulder appeared and I stopped walking. That wasn’t my hand. It took me a second or so to connect the hand with the raised voice I had only half-heard before, and which had apparently been directed at me. Blinking, I looked up and around and saw a group of three lads perhaps my age, one the owner of the hand on my shoulder. All were looking at me.

“Yes?” I asked, bamboozled. Was there something on my face? Chocolate maybe? People didn’t usually stop me to talk to me, and these guys looked like they had a reason for doing so. Maybe even a good one. Maybe.

“Hey yeah, him. I know this guy,” one of them said, wagging a finger in my direction. I pointed to my chest and he nodded.

“You do?” I asked. I could not for the life of me think of where – if anywhere – I had seen this person before. But then again, I didn’t exactly have a good head for faces in the first place. Maybe he was actually my best friend and I’d just forgotten. Then again, maybe not. Looking at him, not wishing to jump to conclusions, I had the impression we probably wouldn’t get on. Just a feeling. Call it a baseless assumption.

“Yeah, I do. He’s that guy who’s fucking the robot.”

Not so baseless anymore. No, I definitely feel we wouldn’t be friends. I had decided this now.

I opened my mouth to reply but really couldn’t actually think of where to start with that. His wrongness was like a perfect sphere; there was no angle of attack that was better than any other, and it was so hard and so dense I’d likely just glance off anyway even if I tried. All efforts at forming a coherent argument in my head having failed I grasped falteringly at the air in front of me and said the only thing left to me:

“Sorry, what?”

“Yeah mate it’s definitely you. I’ve seen you around, you know? I told you it was him,” he said, the last part directed at one of his friends. Maybe it was just because I didn’t really like them, but they all looked vaguely similar to me; as though someone had just grabbed a bunch of features from a sack and thrown them onto mannequins and then copied the results.

Although, as said, this was probably just because I didn’t like them. Whatever rising terror and panic about my current, highly confusing situation I’d had had been almost instantly replaced with mounting irritation, maybe even approaching anger. I hadn’t been properly angry for a while, and the feeling was novel but  Either way, the guy’s friend certainly seemed to think this was something worth chuckling about.

What on earth was happening? First, Michelle, a friend, figures that today is a good day to kiss me out of nowhere, now I’m being accosted by random strangers for dumb reasons. Was I still asleep? Was this a deeply mundane but deeply unpleasant dream I was due to wake up from at any moment? What was wrong with these people?

“Couldn’t find a real girl?” the taller of the two lads hanging back said, doing a great ‘I’m talking quietly but not quietly enough you won’t hear’ voice. I squinted at him, mouthed ‘what’ and pinched the bridge of my nose. How is a person supposed to react to something like? I genuinely had no experience or any real idea. Why would anyone even say that to another person? To what end? This was not a situation I would have been able to parse on a good day, and today had taken a steep dive not long ago into not very good at all.

“I’m sure there’s a riveting and worthwhile conclusion to this but could we cut to that? I’ve got shit to be, places to do,” I said. Far too eloquent. I was starting to sweat in the way I always did in vaguely confrontational situations, not helped by the looks on the faces of the three which made it fairly obvious they weren’t taking this as lightly as I apparently was. The one with his hand – still – on my shoulder looked especially deadpan about it all.

“They’re just not natural, mate. You get me?” He asked.

“Disgusting…” hissed the tall one, who seemed to have very strong feelings on the matter. He was certainly giving me a powerful evil eye, as though my actions had personally harmed him. The remaining one just seemed to enjoy chuckling a lot, to the extent the noise was starting to grate in my ears.

“I really don’t get you, no,” I said. At this point I decided that it would probably be best to walk away. After all, how could they possibly counter that masterstroke?

Turned out, they could counter it by gripping me harder and pulling back. Cunning. Yanked off balance I tottered a bit and probably lost what little dignity I had left at that point. The lad holding me had a look of aggrieved bewilderment on his face, while the tall one looked even angrier than he had before.

“We’re just trying to help you out. A lot of people have noticed, they’re all talking about it, it doesn’t look good,” the first lad said, finally removing his hand. I could not really understand what he had just said. The words made sense, but they conveyed a message that made no sense to me.

“My primary concern isn’t looking good, thanks. Now can you let go of my shoulder so I can move away?”

This, apparently, was the straw that broke the tall boy’s back as the moment I’d finished speaking he pushed forward towards me.

“You’re a fucking disgrace,” he said. Or spat, more accurately.

I did not expect him to hit me. I probably should have done, but I didn’t. My body had been braced from almost the moment it had picked up on the waves of aggression coming off of him but my brain had clearly not accepted that people still hit one another in this day and age. They did. And it hurt when they did, too. That much hadn’t changed since the last time someone had punched me in the face, which admittedly had been some years ago now.

There was that tiny, infinitesimal sliver of time when the body moves away from the impact. Like the instant you fall into freezing water but for a split-second you seem to think everything’s fine until your nerves notice what happened. That was that moment. Then the reflexes that told my skull to move away from the blow came and I jerked back harder. Then the pain happened, and it was fairly considerable. Stumbling back, hands whipping up to my face, I was too stunned to really have any strong feelings about how they came away with blood on them. He’d burst my eyebrow. Ouch. That stung.

“Motherf-” I started saying, only to have another fist – maybe even the same one, I really couldn’t tell – drive into my gut and double me over.

Being a guy (and maybe ladies do it too, I don’t know) I had of course spent many a fruitful minute daydreaming to myself about what I would do if a fight broke out. You pass that one guy in the street, he stares for no real reason, you consider all the ways you could easily take him in two blows. Three tops.. I’m pretty sure everyone does that. Turns out though that I’m basically a massive wimp, or at least that fighting isn’t as easy as it looks. It’s hard consider one’s next move when all the air has been knocked out one’s lungs.

“It’s broad fucking daylight! What are you doing!” I heard another of the lads growling, seeing feet scuffle from the corner of my (blurred) vision. Peering up and wheezing I saw the tall one being wrestled back by the other two. He struggled against them – for whatever reason, to keep beating me presumably? That’d help the situation – briefly before calming, or at least stopping trying to fight them.

“It’s fine, there’s no-one here, but we should go,” said the one who had up until this point only been chuckling. He had a deeper voice than I expected. He wasn’t wrong, either; the normally busy route to and from uni was, barring us, deserted. How unusual. Obviously a day for the unusual.

I just about managed to resume breathing again properly, but it was uncomfortable, and I certainly didn’t feel like standing up anytime soon. Resting my hands on my thighs I stayed bent, wheezing, feeling my face beginning to swell and throb. That was probably going to leave a mark.

“I’m cool, I’m fine, he just pissed me off, smug fuck,” the tall bay said, straightening himself out as the group turned. He spared me one last glare, jabbing two fingers in my direction “Be watching you, shithead.”

And then they walked away, just like that. I raised one shaking hand to give them as much of a wave as I thought I could manage before I had to return the hand to steadying myself.

“Good talk guys. Really felt like we made a connection. The connection of your fists with my pallid, yielding flesh. Meaningful connection, guys, thanks. Ow ow my face and gut, ow…” I croaked, trailing off into a wince as I tentatively brought the same, shaking hand up to touch at my eyebrow. My eyebrow objected in forceful terms and I winced.

“Ow…broad daylight, man…that guy had some strong opinions…and maybe a strong swing, I have no frame of reference…ow, ow…” I muttered, squatting down to continue catching my breath.

What the hell had that been?

We Have To Go Deeper

“… in the depths of their hearts they uneasily feel that their pleasures are bought by the miseries of others “ – Bertrand Russell

[Suffering built on suffering built on suffering built on-]


All in all, Jim felt that the world was pretty great.Sure it wasn’t perfect. Bits and pieces here or there could probably do with improvement and not everyone was as happy as they could, but that was life, wasn’t it? Things could certainly be a whole lot worse, but they weren’t, so Jim at least was content with his lot.

He wanted for little and what he did want for was only ever a short wait and a small amount of work away, which somehow made it all the sweeter to receive. His problems were few and easily rectified, his friends many and easily entertained. By all accounts he had nothing to complain about, and the world itself seemed simply to burst with joy every time he woke up to greet it.

This began to grate, after a while. Jim didn’t notice when it started, but one day he simply realised that – as great as life was – he wasn’t and couldn’t be satisfied with it. Of course, he had no real idea of what he would be satisfied with or what he should strive towards, but that didn’t stop the feeling from growing. In rather the way a cut doesn’t really hurt until you see it, now that he had noticed he simply couldn’t ignore it.

There had to be more! There had to be a challenge or a struggle that had some depth, had some deeper meaning beyond distraction! His easily entertained friends thought him confused and distressed. They did their best to comfort him, but he would not be mollycoddled. He had something to find, though he knew not what, at least not yet.

His search was clumsy. He had never had to really search for anything before now, and hadn’t the foggiest idea of how to even start. But he gave it his best all the same, boldly going forth and trampling all in his path in his search for something – anything! His search was for the most part utterly fruitless and also exhausting, but it gave him an odd feeling of fulfillment and purpose. He felt like he was doing something, because he hadn’t yet succeeded. This drove him on.

It was only a matter of time before Jim came a cropper. In his aimless wanderings and clueless blunderings it was inevitable he would find something to capture his interest and push him out to investigate further, and this he did. Clues were to be found in the outside world, he discovered. Clues to a deeper meaning in life. This filled him with wild desire. Putting on his best life-affirming-quest coat he launched off beyond his domicile, seeking the places he had learnt about, and the answers they contained.

As it turned out they contained no immediate answers, but rather a hatch. It took Jim some time to even find the hatch, too. Hidden beneath scrub and debris the rusted, forgotten hatch took him by surprise. It looked utterly unlike anything he had ever seen before. Jim’s life – Jim’s world – was one in which things were clean, functional and obvious. This was not clean and not obvious, though it did – after much heaving on Jim’s part – turn out to be functional, and it opened up for him.

Jim stared down the hole he had opened up for himself. It was stark and foreboding, the ladder set into one side simply a set of iron rungs that stretched on downwards into the darkness. Jim could not look away. Fear clutched his heart, but it was a fear tinged with curiosity; something he had never felt before.

He didn’t notice that his feet had moved onto the ladder. His mind was so lost in the possibilities of what he might find down below that he only really realised he was heading that way when he was already halfway down the whole. He was startled, pulled from his reverie, but after a moment to recover he continued down. He felt committed now, turning back would be to admit defeat!

Things got dark quickly, not to mention dank. Jim shivered in the cold and squinted in the gloom but carried on downwards, feet finding the next step where his eyes could not. Sometimes, the rungs would give and his heart would leap, or else they would simply not be there. This slowed him, but did not stop him. He wondered if he would ever reach the bottom. If there was a bottom.

There was, and he did. The ground felt firm and there was light again, but it was grey now, and did not fill him with the same enthusiasm that the sunshine he was familiar did. He shivered again, though this time it wasn’t on account of the cold.

Looking around, Jim began to have misgivings. This didn’t appear to be the sort of place that would give his life any meaning. Or at least, any meaning he would want. Things were gloomy and confusing. Things were unfamiliar. Jim started to feel a little bit frightened, and cast an eye back towards the ladder.

But no! He couldn’t give up now! He had learnt nothing! He had learnt less than nothing, in fact; he had learnt that there were things to learn! And to leave without learning those things and go back knowing he had left them unlearnt was simply ghastly. He couldn’t do that to himself. Girding his loins and tightening his belt he put on his bravest face and put his best foot forward, quickly following it with his second-best foot.

He discovered in short order that this was a world utterly unlike his own. The people were gloomy here, and seemed to do their best to shut themselves in. Though he was obviously a stranger and obviously lost they went out of their way to ignore him and go about their lives, doing things he found inscrutable. The sky – such as it was – loomed low and heavy and the sense of pressure and of being crushed was unbearable. It got much worse when Jim found (quite by accident) what it was everyone did here.

Everyone down here lived solely to support those above. At first Jim wasn’t sure what this meant. Maybe it was metaphorical, maybe he was missing something – his mind could not wrap itself around its literal meaning, and refused to accept it. At least at first. His mind could not hold out against the relentless and rising tide of the facts however, and though it brought a tear to his eyes and he himself to his knees, he had to accept it.

This whole level, everything on it and every person he saw as he wandered dumbly through it, was dedicated to maintaining the quality of life as it was above. There was nothing else to it. Mechanically, their toil and their labour made the life he had been living possible. He’d had no idea. There had been aspects to his world that he had never fully understood – how things worked sometimes, where they might come from – but he had never given them much thought. Now he knew, and he wished he didn’t.

The misery was abject and all-pervading. Surviving on scraps, every resource and every moment was bent towards making Jim’s life and the life of his easily-entertained friends not only possible but comfortable. Jim was horrified. Why had no-one told him?

Wracked with guilt and confusion Jim wandered for hours. He knew that he was hopelessly lost in the physical sense, but he felt that it gelled well his greater, less-tangible sense of being lost and so stuck with it. He passed mobs of downcast, bedraggled workers and buildings that were being repaired almost as quickly as they were mouldering to rubble. It was all just so overwhelming.

So wrapped up in all this misery was Jim that he failed to notice the second hatch until he literally tripped over it. Rolling onto his rump and rubbing his wounded shin he looked to see the culprit and baulked slightly on seeing that it was, in fact, a hatch. Looking around he found that he had somehow wandered into another disused, forgotten corner bereft of people – seemingly the natural habitat for hatches.

Horror gripped Jim’s heart. Such a hatch could mean only one thing, no amount of denial would make that go away. His options narrowed in his head even as he tried to count them, leaving him with but one by the time he got a grip. He could only go down. Seeing it there meant there was more for him to know. Horrible, life-destroying knowledge beckoned. He knew it would ruin him further, but continuing on and knowing there was yet more hidden from him – always lurking beneath the surface – would be worse. He would be a hollow shell of a man either way, but being a hollow, ignorant shell edged out simply being hollow. Opening the hatch, he wearily descended.

This was a course of action he regretted. The ladder gave way near the bottom and he fell the rest of the way, receiving quite a nasty bump on his arrival and – worse – ruining his only known route back up. It was hard to feel too torn up about this though, as the environment he found himself in was so crushingly depressing that it drove all thoughts other than complete gloom clean out of his head.

By comparison, the layer above had been an idyllic world of joy and his home layer might as well have been a mythical land of milk and honey. This layer was beyond anything he’d seen or even dared to imagine. The people barely looked alive, and the architecture and even the bare landscape itself seemed to have been made to amplify their suffering. Edges were sharp, materials rough, the soil and water bitter. Even the air scratched at his lungs, as though breathing had been decided somewhere along the line to be something that shouldn’t be enjoyed.

Jim didn’t even need to wander or see much beyond the obvious to know immediately that this layer’s sole purpose was the support of the one above, and in turn his own above that. He could feel the truth of this in his bones. The gravity of purpose pressed in on him from all sides.

There was another hatch. Jim didn’t find it for a while, but that there was one was obvious. He didn’t mean to find it, but when he did he couldn’t deny that it was what he’d been looking for. He didn’t even think about it for a moment. Hauling it open, he went down again.

It didn’t take long for Jim to lose count of the layers. Hatches followed hatches, the light grew dimmer and the people more and more downtrodden. At some point they stopped really looking like people at all, and then some time after that it became difficult telling them apart from the world they lived in. And all of it for the benefit of those above. The agony of existence was palpable, even the merest flicker of joy or meaning for life absent. These layers were foundations and engines for those above and that was all, and onwards it went, ever down.

All that drove Jim onwards was the hope – the slim, reedy hope – that maybe there would be an end to it somewhere. Logically, there had to be. It could be a long way away, Jim could accept that, but there had to be an end. That the layers went on forever simply couldn’t be the case. Jim had to reach the end, had to know the sum-total of all the suffering needed for life to work.

There was no end. Jim never accepted it, and died trying to reach it. His body could not keep pace and gave up on him at the bottom of yet another ladder. He left innumerable layers above him, and an infinity of them below.

END

Cold Hard Hugs #9_That Takes The Cake

This has no structure.

Not a massive surprise given it started life as a one-off thing, I suppose, but unhelpful now that it is longer. But there you go.

Thinking further, what gets to me – as I think rather a lot – is my utter lack of devotion to any of my characters. This is the longest thing I’ve done with, like, contiguous characters in it and I feel nothing for any of them.

Is that normal?


Following on, life became by turns average and also sickeningly lovey-dovey – though never at the same time.

When they were average they were average for old, predictable reasons. There was uni work that needed doing, bins that needed taking out when the rubbish finally started to peek out over the top, bills that needed paying and so on. That stuff was dull, but necessary. The lovey-dovey stuff was new and also considerably more fun. The giggling on Tillie and my parts had yet to stop. We couldn’t really help it.

We made an effort to meet up on campus more often. This was primarily my idea. Learning that Tillie’s days at uni tended to consist of her slouching silently from class to class – occasionally hiding in the library if she had reading that needed doing – but generally going home as quickly as possible once she was done had made me a little sad.

I did not like to think of her spending her days there in the quiet and on her own. So I would hang around when my own paltry seminars and lectures were done so I could leap out and walk with her where she needed to go or follow her to the library and bug her when she needed to do reading. I’m not sure she appreciated the second part quite as much, but it was hard to tell. She put up with it, which was enough, and even when me stern looks to be quiet her lights were still a very comforting shade that made me smile. Not that I knew what shade, but that’s a paltry detail.

Today was not one of those days, however. Today I had seen Tillie in the morning before she left and that had been about it. Our schedules did not match today. My schedule did match with Michelle’s though, which was why – following the extremely short-notice illness of the person who was meant to be taking our seminar – we were sat outside waiting for divine inspiration to tell us what to do next. So far, we had nothing.

We’d managed to pick out one of the numerous picnic-type tables that dotted campus for no discernable reason. In fact, our conversation had roamed over why these tables were all over the place, at least once we’d finished kvetching about being left in the lurch at such short notice.

Our combined theory that we’d worked on was that drunk people had moved them from where they supposed to be to where their drunk minds and drunk strength had told them would work better. We both agreed that this explanation was overwhelmingly likely, especially given the otherwise inexplicably isolated location of our particular table, which gave a commanding view of the valley but was otherwise too far away from anything to be of any real use. With that pivotal issue settled we moved on.

“We could have lunch?” I suggested, watching a knot of people I didn’t know meander off into the distance. Their day finished early, if they were going home already. Then again, my day was done at this point too. I was just staying put because I had no real reason not to. From the corner of my eye I saw Michelle shake her head.

“I’m not really hungry,” she said.

“I am…” I said dolefully. I wasn’t, really. I was mostly bored. This amounted to the same thing a lot of the time.

Michelle yawned and stretched and I fought the urge to watch her do it. It was perverse, but I had heard it said then when she stretched all the way up on a big yawn her shirt rode up a little around the middle. I had not of course ever observed this myself. Never. And had no desire to observe it again. Not even a little bit. That would have been unbearably sleazy and made me feel a bit guilty and filthy. I kept my eyes on the hill and the people I did not recognize who were now disappearing from view.

“Aren’t you meant to be having lunch with your, uh, friend?” Michelle asked once she had recovered from her full-body yawn. I was a tiny bit surprised about this, as I didn’t think anyone else had noticed. I certainly hadn’t made a point about telling anyone about that, and it didn’t strike me as particularly likely that Tillie had told Michelle, given her expressed opinions on Michelle. Speaking of which, I realized at that point I was hanging around with Michelle, though I couldn’t remember if I was supposed to be doing that or not. What had Tillie and me decided on? If anything? Should I be nervous about that? Probably best to just ignore it.

“Tillie? Yeah, most days. Just not today. Schedule clash,” I said, not nervous at all or in the slightest.

“Right,” Michelle said with a firm nod and that was that. I wasn’t sure what had just happened.

Nothing was said for a moment or two and I was about to say something – probably something incredibly witty and sparkling and dazzling – when Michelle dropped her bag onto the table with a thump and completely derailed my train of thought.

“If you’re hungry I think I have cake in here,” she said, digging around the depths of her bag. This was not what I expected, but I was not going to question providence when cake was involved.

“You have cake?” I asked.

“I have cake. I think I have cake. Leftover from one I made for a friend. Their birthday or something, you know how it is. Aging.”

“Can I see this cake?” I asked, moving a bit further along the bench. She rolled her eyes.

“Alright. But keep it on the down-low, yeah? Don’t want everyone wanting a piece.”

“Oh, of course not,” I said, flicking my eyes to the various, oblivious people dotted around campus. They were a fair way away from us it was true, but I had my eye on them all the same. Cake-thieves, every last one of them. Probably.

Michelle produced a Tupperware container some moment later and laid it on the table in front of us. Within it lurked tissue and slices of cake, semi-visible through the plastic. Popping the lid off she fished one out and handed it over. I found it dense and hefty, which was rather how I liked my cake, as a rule. Conscious of her watching me I brought it up and, trying a bite, found it utterly wonderful. Not precisely the apex of chocolate cake but certainly up there, at least with my limited experience.

I proceeded to cram the rest in with as little grace as I could manage. It occurred to me that a lesser person might have asked how old the cake was before putting in their mouth. For me, this was not a concern. Only a fool looks gift-cake in the mouth, that’s what I say.

“You made this?” I asked through a mouthful. The very picture of couth sophistication. Michelle gave me a somewhat disapproving smile.

“It’s rude to talk when you’re eating, you know. And yes. Is this a big surprise to you?” She asked. Mindful now of just how much cake was actually in my mouth I chewed as demurely as possible and swallowed. It felt like it took an incredibly long time and I was acutely aware of Michelle’s eyes staying on me the whole time. But I got it done.

“I imagine you could ably turn your hand to just about anything. I’d just never really thought about you baking a cake before,” I said. This was true. Michelle leaned in a little closer, which I did not expect. Her eyes did not leave mine, however much mine might have wanted to maybe look somewhere else. Which they did. Just not much at that moment, for whatever reason. She had big eyes. Must have been gravity. The pull exerted by big, big eyes.

“What have you thought about me doing?”

I swallowed, and still could not look away.

“Has anyone ever told you you have big eyes?” I asked. This did not appear to be what she had expected me to say, as she blinked and cocked her head ever so slightly to the side.

“Is that a good thing?”

“I think so. But that’s me,” I said, finally able to tear my eyes away and glancing casually at just about everything I could that wasn’t her. Grabbing a loose napkin from inside the plastic container – I hadn’t noticed those up until this point, for whatever reason – I dabbed my face to clear up errant chocolate. That stuff could get everywhere.

The bench creaked as Michelle slid closer, eliminating any remaining distance between us. Looking down I saw her leg touching mine and for reasons that were not entirely clear my face got very hot all of a sudden.

Oh dear. I remembered why faces got hot. Tillie had told me. Wait, no, she’d pointed it out, and I’d explained it, I was just ignoring it. I could feel the panic coming back again, however much I tried to shove it down.

“I, uh, yeah. Really good cake. Never had you, ah, uh, down as a baker. Not that I didn’t – you know – think you were capable or anything it was just – I mean, it just wasn’t something I, uh…” I stared at my hands while I babbled uselessly, as it seemed the be the best and safest place to look. I could feel Michelle next to me as this sort of solid, impossible to ignore presence radiating heat. She really was incredibly close; turned my way and leaning in. I could hear her breathing, which did make me worry she could hear mine, too. I glanced up.

“You-“ I started to say, and I would probably have said something quite profound had Michelle not interrupted me. I still trying to put one word in front of the other when she took hold of my head with both hands, tipped my face up to hers and pressing her lips to mine. Filling my face with cake was not an action I thought would have led into, well, anything like this. Getting kissed. Didn’t see that coming.

I would have been lying to myself if I said I’d never thought about it happening.

‘Thought’ perhaps not the right word. Fantasized, maybe. Longed after. Intensely desired. Just a bit. In the irrational, grabby, hedonistic part of the brain that keeps running underneath what your sensible mind tells you life should be like. The part that wants to keep eating even when you’re full or wants to order another drink even though you can barely even pronounce your own name anymore. The part that wants fun without consequences. That part had wanted it to happen.

But the actual, thinking me knew it shouldn’t. Not like this, and not now. Making it worse was that it was far, far better than I had even imagined. Even with it being sudden and unexpected – maybe because of that. It was good. Really, really good. But why did she have to do it now. Why did she have to feel so soft and warm and hold me so tightly so closely to her and look so beautiful with her eyes closed the way they were. My heart felt like it was trying to beat its way out of my ribcage and everything seemed frozen.

The split-second our lips touched seemed to just go on and on and on until I got enough of a grip of myself – after that tortuous, yawning stretch of no time at all – to disentangle myself. Since I was still sitting down, this did not work out in my favour. Catching my legs on the bench I fell flat on my back with a thump I felt in what seemed to be every important part of my body. Ignoring that and also ignoring that I seemed to have knocked all the air from my lungs I scrambled away from the table as quickly as I could (which hurt, but what can you do), frantically grabbed my bag from where it had been quietly sitting and lurched up onto my feet.

“ThankyouforthecakeMichellebutIreallyhavetogonowseeyoulater,” I blurted before leaving as quickly as I could without looking like I was sprinting.

Michelle made no moves to follow me and said nothing. Or at least I didn’t notice either of these things, but then again I was keeping my head down, my eyes on my shoes and trying not to think about turning back to look at her. I watched the grass beneath me turn to tarmac as I hit the path out of campus and followed it on instinct.

Trying and failing to keep my mind solely on what my lower body was doing and nothing else, errant thoughts about what had just happened kept poking and prodding and worming their way in. This was bad. If I started to think about that, I would have to start thinking about what had to happen next, and that would hurt.

Michelle had smelled nice. I’d forgotten about that. Tillie didn’t really smell of anything, and I’d got used to it. I had forgotten that this was unusual, and not the other way around.

I stopped staring at my feet for a moment to look up at the path stretching ahead of me. It disappeared off into woods and some generic housing a bit further ahead. Home seemed a long, long way away, and I knew I’d have to spend the whole way there thinking. Thinking about what to do, and thinking about how horrific anything and everything I could possibly do would be. This was not a situation there was any easy way out of. This I knew with absolute certainty.

Up until that point in my life I had never really understood why people sometimes wished the earth would just swallow them whole. Now I understood it, though I wished I did not.