Aimée hung her head and sighed. Where had it all gone wrong? She’d tried to be a cosmopolitan woman, and when that didn’t work she took refuge in sex on the beach next to a blue lagoon. That was possibly unwise and in any case ultimately unfulfilling. Manhattan was hardly any better.
Damn all men, and damn one man in particular with his easy smile and warm, gentle hands. She couldn’t forget and she refused to cry.
Though a couple of painkillers helped a little, there was one more thing she could try that might cradle her broken body and ease her suffering. She raised a shaky hand.
Lovely afternoon, perfect for a garden party don’t you think?
She nods and smiles, sips her Pimm’s. Strawberry and orange slices are fine, but cucumber doesn’t belong in a cocktail.
Jeremy made partner and our eldest goes up to Oxford this year. Time flies, doesn’t it?
She wears a new summer dress of fluttering silk with wedge heels. Stilettos and lawns don’t mix, and she won’t make that mistake again. Everything is going well. She talks, smiles, laughs when appropriate, passing among well groomed and apparently happy people.
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Her smile is a rictus grin, concealing scars left by her climb from the grim pits of hell to the favoured, sunny uplands of success. No pain, no gain so they say, but you must hide your wounds under layered politeness so no-one knows.
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A headache forms, throbbing at her temples. They might be in the same place now, but they’re not the same. All these years she thought this was the pinnacle but now, up close and personal, she’s not sure she can fake it any more.
It’s cold at the top and the air is too thin. Her breathing is rapid, shallow.
And she hates Pimm’s.
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I worked my way through each room, bagging things for the trash or for donation. Who knew how much stuff one person could accumulate? Well I did, even then. When I finally escaped that overstuffed space I could finally breathe. My own taste is pretty minimalist. No surprise there.
Now I find myself staring at shelves filled with china ornaments. I always hated those winsome shepherd girls and grinning sailor boys. Mum made me clean them weekly with a feather duster under her eagle-eyed supervision. She said they were Royal Doulton, collector’s items. A collection is pretty meaningless without the one who pulled it together, but maybe she left me something valuable after all.
I check the mark on the base of the nearest one. The words ‘Made in China’ leap out at me. Did she trick me, or did she fool herself? What was it all for?
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry as the figurine slips from my shaky hand and shatters on the floor. The rest make the most satisfying sounds when I hurl them at the wall.
I can’t believe you’d expect me to lay myself on the line for them. I am not the legend I was. I am not as strong, as fast or as foolish as I was and the world has no right to ask any more of me. For God’s sake. I gave up my one and only love, my peace of mind. I risked everything.
Yes, people chanted my name, put my picture on magazines, even made movies about me. But they didn’t want the rest of the story, did they? Didn’t want to know how my spirit was broken. Didn’t want to hear about the nightmares that haunted me day and night. I see all those faces still. They told me it was a price worth paying. Tell that to the ones I couldn’t save.
Yes, I got a medal from the president, but I was alone. I am alone.
So why should I come back now? I’ve had twenty years to figure out that people want you when they need you. And when they don’t need you any more, you’re dead to them. The fate of the planet lies in my hands, and my hands alone? Don’t be absurd. It’s never that simple.
If I take on this fight and win, what’s in it for me? I already know what the world’s gratitude consists of. And if I try and fail, what’s in it for me? I already know the bitter taste of rejection. There are many less painful ways to die.
How dare you come here to weep and beg for my help. How dare you pretend to care about anything other than yourselves. Guilt and fear is written all over you. Save us, you cry. We’re all human, all in it together. Well then.
If that’s true, let us all burn together.
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She moved in on a grey, wet October day, carrying what she’d salvaged from the ruins of her life. Her tears were long dried but her heart wept blood tears unseen as she tried to make a new home. She gave up and settled for a place to lick her wounds in private.
She started cutting back the overgrown garden on a cold, clear December day. New Year’s Eve came and went; no kisses for her.
Instead she donned gloves and hacked away at brambles and nettles. With the right protection, she faced thorns and stings without fear. The compost pile grew. Her muscles strengthened. She transformed pain into something good, something that could feed new possibilities.
And one bright April day, once-hidden daffodils greeted the sun in the spaces she created, happy that their time to bloom had come again.
Shackle your greed and curb your desire, lest all be consumed by brimstone and fire.
Sulphurous air filled my cave, stealing through every gap around the stone door. I lived in almost complete darkness while the sun rose and fell unseen. The earth trembled under the heavy tread of an enraged dragon whose shrieks pierced my ears, even underground. I could not eat the food stored with such care when my stomach was sick with fear.
Eventually my craving for light and the need to know drove me out again. I heaved the stone aside with a great effort, weak from lack of sleep and hunger. And stepped out into a silent hell.
Grey ash blanketed the world. Blackened tree stumps and shattered dwellings were all that remained of the once thriving town. All that remained of its inhabitants were piles of bones huddled together, small and large, remnants of people and their pets, people and their hopes for a better future.
“Enough is better than riches,” I whispered, pulling my scarf tighter over my face. Choking on tainted air, I stumbled back to my cave. There I threw myself down and wept. Grief scoured out my heart and left it hollow.
After three days of mourning I bathed in the stream nearby and combed out my hair, then ate my first meal of porridge and fruit. That night, I slept without nightmares. The next day, I dressed in my work clothes and returned to Kasparenya with a shovel.
Day after day, I buried bones. Amongst the remains of Kasparenya I found gold; jewellery, coins, toys, teeth. I took them to the collapsed church where the golden spire was missing yet the altar remained intact. A miracle, of sorts.
Many exhausting days have passed. The stench of brimstone is faint now but I sense the dragon’s eyes watching me still. Its heartbeat pulses through the ground. The pile of gold on the altar grows daily. I hope my store of food is enough, for I have no time to grow more. I hope my strength is enough, for there is no-one to help me.
When I’m done burying bones and collecting gold, I can rest. The visions have promised me that much.
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There are two kinds of people in this world. Some can’t wait to play in the snow, leaving their tracks all over it, building snowmen and making snow angels. The others prefer to watch from a safe distance, rejoicing in its pristine blankness. All is potential, before you make a mark.
Once upon a time, I watched tiny flakes drift from the sky with joy, maybe while sipping a hot chocolate. Sometimes I stood at the door and tried to catch a snowflake then watched it melt on my palm. Snow covers everything, makes it clean and pure.
These days I wrap up warm against the cold and stay indoors. At the first signs of spring I’ll head north again, seeking higher elevations and staying within the snow line. I can’t be here after the thawing snow uncovers all the bodies.
I grew so tired of those comments by everyone from my mother to well meaning strangers at the supermarket, that I decided to go further. I practically lived in that tattoo shop, getting unique designs from the enigmatic artist. We’d agree on a design and he’d get to work. He never spoke, so I put on headphones and drifted away.
When it came to the last bare patch on my arm, he finally said something.
“I will do this one free. Since you are my best customer.”
“Sweet! I think I’d like—”
“No. I choose. I know what is best for you.”
I shrugged and let him decide, after all ink isn’t cheap and I had a lot of it.
He wrapped it without letting me see. “A surprise for you.”
At home I gasped when I saw it. A woman’s face, so perfect and beautiful in miniature, it was incredible. Everyone commented on it, and I didn’t mind.
Life got hard. I made a wrong turn here and there. Had to change, just to get by. One day I thought the face looked different, but it was just a trick of the light. That night I tossed and turned, a voice stuck in my head reminding me of stuff I’d done. So what, we all have to survive, right?
Gradually the face changed, until it scowled in permanent, terrifying disapproval.
I went back to Spilled Ink but it was gone. Every night the face taunted me with my sins, daring me to do better. When I didn’t listen, she woke the other tattoos up. Flowers turned decayed and nasty smelling. The tiger clawed my back and attacked my lucky rabbit, the stars burned my skin, and the skeleton rattled its bones until sleep was a distant memory. I’d had enough.
I stole enough money to visit another shop. The new artist wouldn’t shut up about the quality and artistry of my ink, especially the face that was somehow beautiful again. I had to pay double for what I wanted, but finally it was done.
I thought covering up would be the answer.
She shouted even louder from behind the crosshatched pattern that obliterated her face. “I can’t see! I can’t see!”
Now I hold a knife to my arm, crying. I want it off me.
She says I’m weak, that I’ll never do it, she’ll never let me forget I blinded her.
“Tattoos are permanent,” she reminds me.
So… how deep must I cut to be sure?
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They say schooldays are the best days of your life. I really hope they aren’t, because if you peak then, what do you have to look forward to? Real life isn’t like high school. Nobody cares that you were the team captain or homecoming queen.
All that stuff they fill your head with is next to useless. When did you last use calculus or algebra in real life? No, if I have kids I’ll make sure they learn practical skills. Oh and they’ll play sports of course, to foster a competitive spirit and the ability to keep swinging until the game is won.
I broke the record for home runs in my last baseball season. I kept the lucky bat I used, which actually is quite useful now. Turns out school was good for something after all. I take a loose, easy stance and hold the grip firmly but not too tight.
Professor Martin might be one of the cleverest people who ever lived, but even he didn’t know for certain how the process would work. And I guess he expected his body would die. I barely managed to get out and lock the lab door before he attacked me. Well, it’s not really him, I remind myself. The frothing, feral creature rampaging through the lab and wrecking the equipment is what was left after he uploaded his mind to the cloud drive. I can hear screaming, but it’s not that animal. It only grunts.
It’s coming from the computer speakers.
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