“Tow Away Zone” – Sample

Scarlet? Probably.

Imperial? Likely.

Crimson? Possibly.

Spanish? Could be.

Cardinal? Doubtful.

Beckman sighed. He was bored of this game.

It was red, which was the important thing. Except it wasn’t important, not in the slightest. He’d never even seen red—it was merely a word, a concept.

It was a light; a flickering light. That was the important thing—because it was pissing him off. Keeping him awake. Riling him. Mocking him.

He rolled over. The portable alarm clock on the nightstand read 22:11.

The motel was full; no point in trudging down to the grunting oaf on the check-in desk to request a change of room. There’d only be an argument, he’d grow even more awake, and still wind up back in Room 12.

At least there lay a quantum of solace—he’d wangled Room 12.

Yet at the moment, it didn’t feel like such a good peg to hang anything on. Tight as he pulled the curtains to the window edges, the material was much too thin to fully block out the light. A static wash of red—of any shade—he could cope with. This damn irregular flickering though? Torture.

He debated the merit of asking Grunting Oaf for the neon frontage sign to be switched off, but knew he’d come across like a petty jerk.

Instead, he reluctantly threw back the covers, flicked on the ineffectual beside lamp, padded across the thin carpet, and rooted through his open suitcase. Tucked into a side pocket was an eye mask, a freebie relic he’d kept from a TWA flight back aways – a cross-country trip to see Mom, if he remembered right.

Rarely had he found it necessary to sink so low. 

The last time was, what, two years ago? 

He’d run out of gas in the middle of nowhere and spent a night in the back seat of the car. The moonlit hours and incessant cicadas turned out to be a minor inconvenience compared to the litany of aches he woke with. It had been even worse than the nights in the treehouse twenty years earlier.

At least tonight he had a bed.

He avoided thinking about what adventures it might have endured. The long years had inured him to such seeping imaginations and revulsions.

Instead, he slid back under the starchy covers, adjusted the eye mask until his view became blissful darkness, and buried his head as best as he could in the unhelpfully spongey pillow.

The air conditioning unit hummed and, now that the visual distraction had gone, his ears became more attuned to the surroundings. Was the flickering light now making an intermittent buzzing?

‘Oh, snap,’ he breathed in the darkness. Could this night suck even more?

He pulled the edges of the pillow up around his ears and hoped sleep would arrive before cramp set into his arms.

Oh, for the ability to count sheep, he mused. He’d have to count his blessings instead. He got as far as three and stopped.

He lolled his head over. How much time had passed? Would the unpredictable gods of night and slumber grant him morning?

22:21.

He found a fourth blessing; nobody was playing music or TV at an unsocial volume in the adjoining rooms. No yelling. No grunting.

Nevertheless, on such nights, dormant thoughts resurfaced about trading his Buick for a station wagon or an RV. At least that way, he’d be able to make room for a sleeping bag and be certain the courtesy light didn’t have a mind of its own or harbour dreams of a career in a nightclub.

Maybe a different vehicle would give him a new lease of life? Something needed to change.

Or did it?

Blessing One: steady job.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Not every stop-over on the road turned out like this. Tonight was an annoyance, a mosquito. Matter of fact, it was as likely to keep him awake as hearing such a tiny buzzing in the room, even if he couldn’t see the insect. Difference being, he wouldn’t wake up tomorrow with a red welt on his arm.

So, another blessing, surely. By that logic, he could come up with a million more.

Maybe he could count them:

(1) Steady job.

(2) Travel. Lots of travel.

(3) Meet interesting people. Sometimes.

(4) Health.

(5) Loving family. Well, semblance of.

(6) No noisy neighbours.

(7) No mosquito.

(8) A place to call home.

(9) Only four more stamps to go on the loyalty card before the next free coffee.

See—things could be worse. Now, go to sleep Beckman.

Miraculously, the fog began to descend. The world outside slipped into redundancy.

His breathing shallowed.

Sunday crept towards its end.

His cell phone rang. It could have been an air raid siren.

He mentally hauled himself back up the ladder to reality as quickly as he could muster, pushed aside the eye mask, stumbled out of bed with an ‘Oh, snap’, and scooped up the chirruping device from the desk. The off-brand charging cable halted his movement, so he rudely yanked it out and hit the answer key. 

Amidst the bleary chaos, he’d managed to note that the caller was “Office”, and his mood began to nosedive.

Office? On a Sunday? Have I woken in a parallel universe?

‘Spiers,’ he mumbled.

‘Is that you, Beckman?’

He recognised the terse voice, otherwise, given the time of night and his general humour, he’d have taken pains to point out that (1) this was his personal cell phone, so who did the caller think would answer? and (2) the caller had addressed him by name, thereby proving he already understood point (1).

However, knowing the caller wasn’t someone who took kindly to such logic or admonishments, Beckman kept it zipped. ‘Yes, sir, this is me.’

‘Malvolio here.’ Beckman took a calming breath; the words were hardly a revelation.

A Sunday? What fresh hell is this? 

A flourish of downdraft from the meshed duct in the stained false ceiling wafted cool air down his back and raised goosebumps. The room flickered intermittently scarlet or imperial. Or possibly crimson.

‘Yes, Mr Malvolio?’ he enquired.

‘I’ve some good news for you.’

Good? Good! Suddenly, Sunday could go hang.

Beckman waited to hear. And waited. And realised Mr Malvolio was waiting for him to indicate that he was waiting, because what else could possibly be more exciting than to be woken (kind of) in the middle (barely) of the night by a random phone call from your godawful boss, bearing news, which doubtless could wait until the first coffee, or ideally second, of the following day had passed your lips?

‘I’m all ears, sir.’ He scratched his balls.

‘Belcher is dead.’

Beckman waited for more detail. And waited. And realised Mr Malvolio was waiting for him to say something to indicate a reaction to the apparently Good News of someone’s death. Because what could be more sensible than prolonging a phone call in the not middle of the night when you’re standing with itchy balls in a cold breeze in a godawful motel room in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday?

‘Really? How?’ he asked, when of course he wanted to say, “Get bent and call me in the morning, you atrocious slave-driving freak”.

‘He got struck by lightning this afternoon.’ Malvolio said it with the same level of intrigue or sadness as one might when ordering pizza toppings.

‘Wow,’ Beckman managed, even more stupefied than he had been, ‘That’s a bad break.’

‘Not for you, Spiers. That moves you up to number two, now.’ Malvolio had evidently had enough of this heartfelt wallowing in the untimely demise of one of his workforce and was, unexpectedly, getting down to brass tacks. Or, more likely in his case, gold tacks.

‘Sheesh. I guess it does. Poor Belcher.’

‘Sad to see anyone die while they’re still in the race.’

‘Or any time,’ Beckman suggested. His mind was barely half on the call now.

Belcher’s sales volumes were now deemed irrelevant to the race. One of the riders had dropped out.

‘I suppose so. So, get your hiney moving, Spiers. Number Two position—pretty good going for a man like you.’

Such praise. 

Beckman gave the illuminated screen a hard stare. Not that Malvolio had him wrong, but to verbally concede such a fact would have been weakness. So he said nothing.

Would Malvolio take the opportunity to further crack the whip? Beckman mentally wagered his worldly possessions on it.

‘Only five days left,’ the harsh old voice continued. ‘It’s not impossible. Shoulder to the wheel, Spiers, nose to the grindstone. You can make Number One.’

‘Absolutely, sir,’ he lied. ‘I’ll get started tomorrow morning, first light.’

‘That’s what I like to hear.’

Then the phone boop-booped to indicate that the line had been hung up.

Beckman stared at the screen in a casserole of a stupor made up of tiredness, disbelief, revulsion, hope and itchiness.

Esmond Belcher is dead.

I just got promoted to Number Two on the Salesman of the Year chart.

One week to go.

Could I? Could I really make Number One? Finally?

In a pig’s eye.

He gave his balls a good long scratch and went to bed.

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“Sacred Ground” – Sample

“I could get my sidearm and end it all now. It’s so close. The locker’s just behind me.”

He turned his head indolently until his gaze fell upon the row of three grey floor-standing cabinets. The rightmost door glared at him.

“But you can see it. That’s the problem.”

He faced forwards again.

“You can see it. I could… I could say goodbye and let you not see it. I could say goodbye and then do it.”

The silent face eyed him unchangingly.

“If I could say goodbye. You’re days and days away and I can’t say goodbye. I…”

His mind dried up.

Lazy eyes meandered around the dimly lit and expansive cabin. To the two exquisite framed images on the beige wall, their haunting beauty enhanced by the subdued atmosphere. “Sunrise Through Mist Over Keljan City” took on an almost menacing air, the tower tips of the urban jungle were as needles sunk treacherously in a creamy deep-pile carpet. “Tryn From Tryn Station” was a smothering sphere, the planet’s intangible gaseous bulk seeming to reach ever outwards to suppress the sun’s rays which foolishly sought to cascade past its askance northern polar rim.

The scenes were lessons in majesty, the photographs the epitome of perfection, the frames nothing more and nothing less than symbiotic partners for their contents and the environs. 

Trappings of a Captaincy, personality for an anonymous room.

Further. The bed was cold and empty, the stark whiteness of the sheets not wanting to offer refuge from the truth. The bed was simple; it was also large and perfectly sprung. There were mornings (or afternoons or evenings, depending on the shift pattern) that it acted like a gravity well, holding him fast, cocooned, comfortable. Duty was a necessary wrench away from almost foetal contentment and a mind that wandered across open plains and not down well-trodden roads and alleyways.

Further. Through the half-open closet door, a poorly-hangered tunic was a dark form with a glinting eye, the lapel insignia catching light from the recessed ceiling emitter and arrowing it across to the far wall like a fine sepia laser.

His gaze followed the ray’s path to where it impinged on the thick square window pane, then continued beyond, unchallenged, into infinity.

He stood and went to the aperture, naked feet feeling the cool mottled carpet. 

He peered into endlessness.

Only light can survive out there.

Yet it had been home, more or less, for what seemed like, well, forever. Not in a bad way. In a good way then, he supposed. The only way.

No more.

Those who’d never seen deep space leant on inadequate images of emptiness. First timers had their notions of blackness evaporated, their concept of cold, bleak nothing shattered. Yes, interplanetary space was alien, holo-images were amazing, a cold night on a deserted hilltop seemed quiet.

They were a very poor substitute. Laughable.

Sometimes he’d go to the Observation Deck and banish all light from the room, try to make its warm safety an extension of the inhospitable universe without, try to feel lost in it.

It too was laughable. More than once he’d laughed at it. Actually laughed.

It was a blackness without surface, an all-encompassing and utterly intangible void. The fullness of three dimensions didn’t do it justice. It was everywhere and everything because it was everything.

And nothing.

Galaxies were specks. Planets within galaxies were specks inside specks. Colonies teeming with life were fractions of fractions of the specks inside specks.

Home was wherever his feet were, and he and his home were a nothingth of a speck.

He was entirely valuable and wholly insignificant.

The struggle was vital, daily, all-consuming and completely irrelevant.

He sighed.

The stars weren’t moving; the ship was stationary. Sometimes, when you were moving at a decent enough speed, there would be something amidst the nothing to catch your attention. Occasionally it was good enough for a light gasp or a reflective moment.

That was when you felt least like a speck. Or at least lucky to be a speck, witnessing the beauty.

Not now.

His mind churned.

I love this job. 

The locker was still eyeing him ceaselessly as he turned toward it again. The vivid silver-grey door handle was there, calling.

Long moments.

The mute face across the room was still there too, impassive. He sighed.

“So what now if not this? If you were here you’d tell me. But we’d fight. I never see you, and we’d fight. You’d say I was drunk and not worth bothering with—all talk and not myself. Then I’d say I was myself and go to the locker to prove it.”

He took two steps to where the laser pistol lay concealed.

“See? And tell me why not. Peace is death. Peace is nothing for me. What else? What else do I do? What else can I do? I’m Rakkel, shining star of the Fleet! Got a tough job? Get Rakkel—he’s the one. He’s dedicated. He knows where his place is. A quiet life? Never. Betray a colleague and get thrown out? Not Rakkel. Now peace? Live and breathe the Fleet, then take it all away? What? Go home, be nobody, do nothing, see nothing, experience nothing. How?”

He ran a few skewed steps forwards and asked her eyes, his hands wide, pleading, “How?!”

There was no answer. He sat down hard on the chair and felt it, winced. The half-empty glass on the desk reached for his hand, then moved away.

A single red word

RECORDING

beamed out from the terminal screen.

“How to be nothing?”

He ran a hand through short blonde hair, pressed his palm briefly against his skull. The jarring had given impetus to the headache which had been some time brewing. He rested his elbow on the desk, closed his eyes, shook his head gently.

“If only you were here to tell me. But we didn’t choose that. Perhaps… perhaps…”

A tinny bleep issued into the room.

Door.

He closed his eyes. Not now.

He looked down at what state he was in.

Acceptable.

“Yes.”

The last thing he needed was a female form—a very appealing female form—but when the door slid back, that’s what he got. It was going to be one of those evenings. 

It had already been one of those evenings.

He took a breath to try and clear his head, muster the best sobriety he could. “Piya.”

He saw her captivating blue eyes flick to the glass on the desk, knowing she’d say nothing.

“We are standing down from Alert. The whole fleet.”

“As part of a show of… solitude, I guess.”

“Just thought I’d let you know.”

“You could have just called.”

“I was passing.”

He nodded. “Yes. Sorry.”

“I’ll leave you to…” She thought better of insinuation. She corrected herself. “’Night.”

“Yes.” Yet his thoughts were elsewhere.

The door slid open to receive her.

“Piya?” He stood. 

She stopped mid-stride. “Yes?”

“If this really is peace, what will you do?”

“Celebrate.”

“I mean, after.”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“Oh, nothing.”

After an awkward pause she half-shrugged and smiled. “Night.”

“Hmm. Night.”

The door closed and Rakkel was enveloped in silence again.

He sighed a half-drunk self-piteous sigh that was becoming too familiar of late. Only to himself. Couldn’t let this get out amongst the crew.

He pursed his lips. 

If this is peace. If.  And if not?

His head hurt. Still a tiny voice of reason was there, somewhere in the murk. It pulled his stubborn frame into action, almost as if sleepwalking.

He went to the desk and hit a key on the terminal.

OUTGOING MESSAGE DELETED.

The pretty face vanished to a point and was gone.

Rakkel Irr stretched his weary back and went to the window. He had a momentary desire to step outside, breathe deeply of the crisp air in the clear infinity and lighten his dull senses. To walk without stinting as if in a vast garden, to bound unconfined through the stars, to drink in… what was it?

Freedom.

But not freedom from travails. Not freedom from aggression. Freedom from himself.

He glanced over to the now-blank terminal.

“I’m not nothing yet,” he said to the room, turning his attention back to the transparent portal. “But you may wish you’d been here.”

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“Imperfect Isolation” – Sample

Jana was beginning to think that yesterday would have been a better day for it. But then, yesterday was a school day, so it had been out of the question.

Maybe they should just have gone to the zoo.

Her boots sank a full twenty centimetres into the snow. Left. Crunch. Right. Crunch. As used to it as she was, the pain in her calves was beginning.

No such problem for Tomas – he was metres ahead, crunch crunch crunch, little feet punching shallow holes in the whiteness, the seemingly boundless energy of childhood.

At least ten centimetres overnight, Jana reckoned. Harder to walk, and less likely that they would find any animal tracks, but when you promise your son that you will go out ‘hunting animals’, you go.

It was past eleven o’clock, the cool sun not yet overhead in the duck-egg blue, its glare off the white carpet not unduly troubling their unshaded eyes. Close by, the ice crystals reflected almost translucent white; far away, just a tinge of yellow to the undulating landscape. The trees had their fingertips weighed down, gravity and foliage in constant struggle, and over her shoulder, Jana quickly checked that the town was still there; it was that quiet.

Bird tracks were usually a safe bet, a dog, occasionally a wolf, and plenty of footprints. Tomas would follow most things. Neither were natural trackers, and not so much as a catapult accompanied them – to all intents and purposes it was a walk, but it was what it had become, and today it looked like being as close to a random walk as was possible.

Evidently not. Something had been out on the hills that morning. Or at least, given Tomas’ cry of excitement, Jana guessed as much. She scrunched off to the left, where the red-coated figure stood, a little finger on a little hand arrowed at the ground.

‘People.’

Jana reached the spot.

‘Person,’ she said, correcting him.

The depressions were footprints – that much was certain, but fresh they were not. The peanut-shaped hollow had smooth sides and was no more than five centimetres deep. That it pre-dated last night’s fall was obvious.

‘These came before the snow, didn’t they Tom?’

‘Yes, they’re very little. It snowed a lot last night. Where did he go?’

The head looked off to the left and with that, he began to scrunch away alongside the trail.

Jana was mildly impressed – the direction of travel was less than glaringly apparent but having come across the trail running perpendicular to his walk, Tomas was both clever and quick enough to set off in search of some answers. She followed, one pace to every two of his new perfect hollows.

It was almost five minutes later when she caught up with the boy, standing stock still in a small evergreen copse, head scanning the ground. She soon saw why. The trail didn’t vanish magically – it wasn’t that sudden, though it did end here. Amongst the trees, where only some drifting snow had blurred history and the footprints were noticeably deeper, the steady left-right march ended in trampled snow and not a single other thing.

‘Where did he go to, mummy?’

‘I don’t know darling.’

Jana cast her eyes back down the trail. Close by, it was apparent that there was no departing trail – the boot imprints clearly showed that. The visitor had not retraced his steps, or at least not without walking backwards in his original forward-facing marks for hundreds, maybe thousands of metres. It was almost as if he’d…vanished.

She scanned the ground, unconvinced by her own conclusion.

‘Maybe he died.’

‘Oh, darling, don’t say that.’ Her voice was tinged with sadness.

‘Maybe he died in the cold.’

‘Or he put on snow shoes for the way back,’ she offered, though without an answer to the question of why he would come here in the first place.

Tomas hadn’t heard. His gloved hands were pawing at the loose surface snow, scrabbling it away in search of a prize that his conscious mind would never truly have wanted him to find. Jana, reaching out a hand to stop him, retracted it, deciding that curiosity was no crime and even if it was morbid curiosity, ten centimetres of drifting snow would never cover a man who had keeled over dead without rhyme or reason.

She knelt down to watch but could not bring herself to help as the boy scooped and scraped, his little fingers surely touched by the cold but too keen to feel it.

A flash of blue appeared.

‘Mummy.’

In the weeks that followed, she wondered whether that had been the moment to haul him to his feet and usher, frog march, carry if necessary, him back across the fields and home. To silence his words and force him to forget what he’d seen, say it was a dream, say it was an old coat someone had left, anything. To deny what they had surely found.

She didn’t. She sat there, on knees and haunches in the cold silence as Tomas, second by second, handful by handful, parted the icy white sea until they were both staring into the cold dead eyes of a man.

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“Reprisals” – Sample

‘Supposing I said “Yes”?’

‘That’s the general idea.’

‘How long have we known each other?’

‘Five months, three weeks, six days.’

‘Could you at least try to not appear desperate?’

‘Not funny.’

‘How many women have there been in your life? To the nearest, say, ten?’

‘Five.’

‘You are so kidding.’

‘I am deadly serious.’

‘But I’m suddenly The One?’ Enna rolled her eyes in mock disdain.

He shrugged. ‘When you know, you know.’

‘And you know.’

‘Yes.’

‘You’re certifiable, Tom Wagner.’

‘Guilty.’

She could see he was a kid on Christmas night, waiting for the big moment. She hated to be such a party pooper, but this wasn’t merely a “What do you fancy for dinner?” This was life-changing.

‘Do I have us so wrong?’ he asked.

‘No,’ she replied comfortingly.

‘How many men have there been in your life?’

‘A lady doesn’t tell.’

‘I think I’m on safe ground when I say you’re no lady.’ He saw her about to interject. ‘And the fact you’re about to tell me to shove that remark where the sun don’t shine proves my point exactly.’

Enna closed her mouth but pushed her eyebrows up a far as they could muster.

He continued. ‘You’re a woman, but no lady. An amazing woman, the kind that—well, you heard the question.’

She thought for a second. ‘And this would mean—what?’

‘I don’t know. Togetherness, happiness, children—if you want, adventures, old age…’ He tailed off. ‘I don’t think this is a new concept.’

‘It’s not the concept. It’s the… reality.’

‘Thanks a bunch.’

‘Sorry. This has just… freaked me a bit, you know?’

‘Thanks a bunch, again.’

‘I should stop digging.’

Tom nodded and rose from the edge of the bed, giving her some physical as well as metaphorical space. The lightness of the gravity remained disconcerting, especially during movement. He wasn’t a natural at this, ever the Earth-bound desk jockey. For him, this had been Peak Romantic Gesture. 

Problem was, it didn’t look like it had been enough.

He looked out of the shallow window, across the undulating grey regolith towards the passenger Spaceport in the distance. He gave a faint chuckle. Here they were, at one sixth weight, and he felt disappointed she wasn’t walking on air. That he wasn’t. The apex of their little getaway was a damp squib, extinguished like a flame exposed to the airless vista outside.

Enna watched him standing there in his jockey shorts, her mind scrambling with reasons why either answer would be simultaneously right and wrong. She felt like a bitch. 

Here they were, the first real break away together for weeks, and she’d popped his balloon. Why was that? 

With every second it felt harder to concede to voicing an answer. If this needed such apparent consideration, how would the decision now pass without scrutiny, by either of them?

This was getting uncomfortable. She needed to say something. ‘I just imagined, somewhere, I don’t know, more romantic.’

He turned to her. Then she realised that the something she’d decided to say had probably been the wrong something.

Jeez, Enna, this has really got you flustered, hasn’t it?

‘So you have thought about it?’ he asked.

‘Generally.’

‘Just not with me,’ he extrapolated.

She sighed.

Come on Enna, stop digging you idiot.

‘I don’t know—Machu Picchu, on a gondola, under the Northern Lights. Damn it, even freaking Niagara Falls.’

‘One shot and I blew it, huh? Does that mean it’s not the question that’s the problem?’

She closed her eyes and shook her head. ‘I don’t know,’ she said with a sigh.

‘I’m sorry. I’ll take it back.’

Her eyes snapped open. ‘No, don’t do that.’

She stepped over to him, wrapped her arms around his waist, pushed her head against his chest. ‘Unless,’ she continued, ‘Well, you realise this is part of what you’d get. Me being…’

‘You,’ he inferred. ‘I said—I get the concept. For better, for worse, yada yada.’

‘I’m a horrible person.’

‘Don’t fish for compliments, Enna. You’re shit at taking them.’

‘Yeah.’ She listened to him breathe. ‘So tell me I’m a horrible person.’

‘Appalling. The worst.’ He squeezed her a little tighter. ‘Hell, I didn’t even get down on one knee.’

‘Maybe that makes you the worst.’

‘Like you’d ever let me beat you at anything.’

‘Part of the package, lover boy.’

She lifted her head and saw in his expression that the storm had passed, so she sought his lips, and that brief encounter passed for a coda to the whole sorry episode.

He broke off, catching sight of something outside.

She tutted. ‘Only you could bring me to the dullest place in the solar system to do some sightseeing.’

‘Worst Person,’ he said with a shrug.

She watched too as a shuttle slowly approached the short landing strip. ‘You’re here to watch me being put out of a job?’

‘Pilot-less ships, they’re going to happen.’

She batted it away. ‘They can test it, but it’s years off.’

‘Tell it to the guys in Big Tech.’

‘Whatever. I’ll find another job somewhere.’

‘Chief cook and bottle washer in the Wagner household.’

‘Up your ass.’

It was as she winked at him that the flash of light in the distance burned and died.

They looked.

There was no sound. The chaos was unreal, eerie.

Decompression had burst the impacting craft like a balloon, debris rising into the black sky, scattering outwards in an arc.

Involuntarily they winced, fearing impact that would shred the complex of buildings where they stood, but mercifully the trajectory was perpendicular to them. Nevertheless, they gazed, transfixed, horrified, as the parabola of destruction rained down on the edge of the Spaceport, puncturing one, then two structures.

Then came the faintest screams of anguish from other occupants of the habitation suite near to where Tom and Enna watched, helpless, in disbelief and sick despair.

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