Instructions for the procurement of emotional supply from the sorcerer Ronald Vito’s personal notes, as uncovered by Ms Viola Arviragus, journalist

1) Choose your source. Intelligence is desirable—the larger the mind, the more to manipulate, and the better the supply. Resilience and a strong imagination are essential. Articulacy and a sharp sense of humour are good markers, and readily identified without the need to listen overmuch.

2) Collect five two-ounce candles, a shot glass of water, about three tablespoons of cornflour, two glass marbles, and a large piece of square paper.

3) Offer your source something. It need not necessarily be money or goods—indeed, this may be too obvious and arouse suspicion. Consider information—everyone wants to know something. Ideally, acquire several titbits that she has no way to access. It is easiest if it happens to be something involving your daily work—that way, you won’t have to spend valuable time reading or listening.

4) Fold the paper into five-pointed star. Instructions can be found on the attached page.

5) Offer your source the information. She may be initially cautious, but you must feign patience. When she inevitably bites, drip-feed. Something small each day for a week, perhaps.

6) Place one candle at each point of the paper star. You should allow them to burn for thirty minutes each day until they are used up. This will take approximately a month. You must pay close attention to your source during this time.

7) Converse often and be sure to mirror her words. If she says she likes something, claim to like it, too. Childhood memories are powerful—if she recounts a formative experience from her youth, you must immediately reply, “oh, me too!” Seem vulnerable. Imply that her thoughts are infinitely interesting, her ideas nothing less than genius.

8) Continue to light your candles each day. Observe as the flame gradually consumes the wax.

9) Talk to your source about the future. Simple, but definite, statements such as, “when I show you,” or “when we meet [important person to whom you have access],” or simply, but powerfully, “when I see you.” This will encourage her to imagine a future that includes you.

10) When the candles are almost exhausted, mix the cornflour and water to make a thick slurry. Place the marbles on the surface of the mixture. Watch as they sink, gradually lost from view.

11) Sprinkle plenty of obvious, but inconsequential, lies into your conversation amongst clear truths. For example, jokingly insist you know something you clearly do not. Claim to be travelling when you could not possibly be. Imply your prize stallion was custom-bred for you at great expense, rather than, for example, admitting that you traded in your chestnut mare to buy it second-hand from a questionable dealer. The puzzle of why you’re lying about trivialities will keep her awake at night, and anything that keeps you in her thoughts serves your purpose.

12) Tell her you love her. Mixed with your other lies, this will cause both delight and confusion. Dispose of the cornflour and water, and burn the paper star. You can introduce a sexual component at this point if your preferences lie in that direction.

13) By now, if you have played your part with flair, she will be hooked. If you have other sources lined up, by all means withdraw. In fact, regular, mysterious disappearances, so long as they are terminated with warm and affectionate greetings, will only serve to strengthen the bond.

Your source will now be providing a regular flow of energy and will require little maintenance. Make contact every few days or so, but do not overdose. Naturally, you do not care about her mental well-being, but if you completely drain her she may respond by cutting off contact, which is contrary to your needs.

ADDENDA

  • It is most important that sources of supply remain unaware of this method, as prior knowledge will significantly reduce effectiveness. You must, of course, never mention sources to each other. Keep notes. If they know of each other’s existence, they may start talking.
  • Even-numbered steps are largely optional. If one finds oneself lacking in resources they may be omitted with only a small reduction in effectiveness.
  • It is to be noted that whilst intelligence is important, one must strive to avoid attempting these techniques on a witch, since they have a habit of seeing what isn’t shown and hearing what isn’t said. You must endeavour to listen, as this is the only way to identify warning signs such as a refusal to be interrupted, disregard for your brilliance, and querying your impeccable logic. Be aware that some witches engage in alternative occupations, for example, as journalists. Apply caution.

Author’s notes
This is speculative fiction. Unless it isn’t.
Eventually, they will start talking.


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© Kat Day 2021

Nothing Left But Crumbs

At the edge of time, in a small corner of the universe, a woman is baking.

It’s a simple kitchen of wood and stone and metal. There are bowls, of course. Many of them, in all different shapes and sizes. Some have the orangey-pink hue of copper, others shine silvery bright, distorted reflections twisting on their curved sides. There are spoons, spatulas, knives and cups. A rolling pin that is a cylinder of heavy, glossy rock. Boards made from well-scrubbed wood. The room is quiet, filled only with the small sounds of someone working. It smells of fresh bread and warm sugar, sea-salt and hot iron.

There is an oven, too. Huge and black, and glowing inside: red and yellow and even, sometimes, white.

The woman might be old, but what does that mean? Old compared to the stars outside her window? Old compared to others like her?

If there are others like her.

Either way, her skin is lined and creased with the marks of life. Deep grooves curve from her nose to her mouth, creases stand to attention where her forehead meets her nose, and the skin around her eyes is slashed with lines. Her head is covered with firmly-tied scarf covered in geometric designs, but the rest of her clothes are undecorated. Brown fabric, roughly woven. A white apron, brilliant in its blankness.

Tiny, blue specks burn in the centre of each of her eyes.

She is stirring a mixture, one strong arm cradling the heavy bowl almost as if it is a child. Her other arm moves the spoon round and round and across and round. The batter is thick and dark, and slightly oily. She examines it critically and adds other ingredients. Half a cup of this. A spoon of that. She stirs again and the mixture begins to shimmer.

Eventually she pours it half of it into a silvery pan, a perfect hemisphere balanced on a torus. There, she pauses, and takes something glossy and dark red from the pocket of her apron. She lifts it and turns it this way and that in front of her eyes, frowning a little. With the faintest of nods, she presses it into the centre.

She uses what’s left in her bowl to pile up and up. The mixture is firm; it holds its shape. She leaves the top slightly flat. Space for it to expand. Exactly how much space to leave is a judgement she makes from old experience.

She places a second, shiny hemisphere over the piled-up mixture and fixes it with wire. A perfect silver ball, ready for the warm depths of her oven.

While it bakes she mixes other things. One bowl contains something blue. Mostly blue. It also swirls with green and grey, and tiny peaks of white. Another is a darker green, rich and glossy, a third is ochre and rust, and a fourth is fluffy, barely there at all.

The woman pauses, places her hands into the small of her back and leans back, looking out of her kitchen window, at an indigo sky broken only by pinpricks of light. She wipes her hand across her head, leaving a pale smear across her skin.

The baking takes time. But she cannot rush this; the centre must be hot. Eventually the thin metal skewer she carefully slides between the two half-domes makes her wince when she pulls it out and presses it against her cheek.

Carefully, she removes the tins. The cake is not quite perfect. Despite her efforts, and all her experience, the shape is slightly distorted. She tilts her head to one side and examines it. It doesn’t matter, she decides. In fact, perhaps it’s even more beautiful for being less than perfect. Most things are.

She decorates her work with the cool blue-green and warm ochres, some of the darker green, and finally dabs of white. She breathes in the buttery-salty scent and turns her creation on its stand, checking each tiny section of its surface.

Finally, she reaches again into her white apron pocket and takes out a crystal vial. It sparkles in the light as she holds it firmly between finger and thumb. She removes the cork, takes a pinch of the contents and blows gently. Glimmering flecks of silver and gold, a little black and a few, sparse, touches of red settle on the surface she has made.

Finally, she is satisfied. She opens the door to her kitchen and carries her work outside. She is a master of her craft, and this is her masterpiece.

It sits, against the dark, star-pricked backdrop, turning slowly. It will stay there, for a little while, in this place where neither ‘little’ nor ‘while’ mean very much at all. It will stay until someone comes for it.

“It almost seems a shame to destroy it,” they will say.

But, they will.

And, in time, there will be nothing but crumbs.


Author’s notes
This story was written in response to a prompt about cooking. I started thinking about heat, and this year’s heatwave, and this is what came out of the oven…


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© Kat Day 2018

Will you Dance with Me, in the Pale Moonlight?

‘Will you dance with me, in the pale moonlight?’ asks the Devil.

I laugh, then, but I take his hand and let him lead me onto the dance-floor beside the marquee. His skin is warm, of course, but it no longer smells of smoke, as it did the last time.

That was so many years ago. But still the same time of year, late April, when the evening chill is softened by the smell of newly-cut grass and drifting cherry blossom.

The moon is full. A ball of silver and grey in an indigo sky. It seems to twirl with us as we sway and step to the band’s music.

‘Beautiful,’ says the Devil, and I’m not sure if he means the moon, or the music, or the bride, who whirls past in a blur of crystals and silk. He surely does not mean me. Life has marked me. There are lines, now, where once there was smoothness. My hair is thinner, my waist thicker. There are long-healed scars too, although they are mostly hidden. I wear these marks with pride, but it would be fanciful to claim they make me beautiful.

‘Yes,’ I agree, drawing closer. We are almost the same height, the Devil and I, and his eyes are liquid brown, so dark it’s hard to tell where iris ends and pupil begins.

‘Come with me,’ he says. ‘Be with me.’

It’s not the first time he’s asked. The last time I had a whole life ahead of me. There was more to do, more to experience. I couldn’t give myself to him. It would have been foolish.

Sometimes I think that we all end up losing ourselves, one way or another. It is only a matter of whether we choose it, a moment’s decision, or whether it slips away over years. Either way, one day we look back and realise that that person, the person we were, is gone. A memory. Did she even exist? I surely would not do the things she did. Perhaps I have acquired someone else’s memories; someone who once looked a little like me.

The music begins to fade. The Devil grips my fingers. ‘This time,’ he says, ‘come with me.’

I look around at the people drinking and talking. At the other dancers, laughing and glowing. Would they miss me, really, any more than the silvery moon, eternally dancing across night skies?

I know the answer to my question. And so does he.

‘They’d get over it,’ he whispers, his voice a cool breeze on a hot night.

‘No,’ I say, a touch wistfully.

He lowers his thick eyelashes and dips his head in the slightest of nods. ‘I should have persuaded you the last time,’ he says.

‘Perhaps,’ I murmur, glancing at my daughter, the bride. ‘But if you had, this wouldn’t have happened. And who knows what’s still to happen?’

The Devil laughs, then, and drops my hand, and walks across the dance floor, into the night.


Author’s notes

I suspect this is one of those pieces which will cause some readers to say, “eh?”

But I don’t care. I love this story.


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© Kat Day 2018

Scribble-Eyed Girl

Xartimon skipped across the pavement, finding little to amuse him. It was night by name but not by yet by nature; the sky remained the colour of bloom-dusted blueberries.

A dog-walker who’d paused to study her phone yelped as she realised her dachshund had decided to warm her shoe. The imp giggled and let the animal’s mind go. Then he sighed. Scents of warm dog and tarmacadam filled his nose, making him want to do something different.

That was when he found the clear rubbish bag outside a house with amber light dripping from its windows. It was full of a child’s paintings.

Xartimon’s eyes glowed as he sliced the plastic with a fingernail. A rainbow. Handprints. Something, perhaps a whale, drifting in a black ocean.

A door slammed in the house but he didn’t turn, engrossed in the treasures.

He flicked a hand and a swarm of jewel-bright butterflies lifted from the paper, scattering into the night. He watched them for a while, their wings gradually becoming monochrome as they flittered further into the orange light cast by the streetlamps.

Xartimon turned his gaze back to the torn bag and absently clicked his fingers.  Seventeen puffs of dust fell from the air. The dog-walker cursed and brushed at her arm, then frowned as the glittering residue faded under her gaze. She looked around but saw nothing, of course. People rarely see anything that doesn’t fit into the world as they know it.

The imp continued flicking though the papers in front of him. The next picture he stopped at was recognisably a girl. The image had wild hair and black scribbles for eyes. A straight smear of pink formed her mouth.

A moment later she was sitting up, flexing her stick wrists and wriggling her fingers.

Now, something for her to do…

Paper on the ground caught Xartimon’s eye. Brown and gold on a black background. Red fingerprint eyes. A wolf, maybe.

The scribble-eyed girl looked around as the newly-animated creature made a crackling, crunching sound. She took a step backwards.

Xartimon sat on the low wall that bordered the garden of the amber-windowed house, balanced his left foot on his right knee and tipped his head to one side.

The wolf snapped. The girl dodged and made a whistling sound like someone blowing across a piece of paper. The wolf dropped back, tail low.

Xartimon clapped.

The girl picked up a stone and threw it awkwardly. The wolf caught it in its jaws as though it were a ball.

Xartimon shook his head. Stone never beat paper.

The beast charged, gaping mouth revealing sharp, white triangles. It caught the girl with an unpleasant tearing sound. She squealed and pulled, losing her left arm. She lurched to her right and grabbed for the wolf’s tail.

It slipped through her fingers and the creature snapped again, catching her head. She pushed and kicked, but it was no use. This time there was no tearing. The beast pulled her into its mouth, chewing and mashing the paper until it dissolved into fragments.

Silence fell and the wolf looked at Xartimon, hopeful expectancy in every dry breath. As one, they looked up at the perfect half moon. There are those that believe that full moons are magical, but there’s nothing magical about something which can only go one way.

A high-pitched sound emanated from the house behind them. Not quite a scream. Not quite.

The imp pointed a finger at the child’s monster.

The jet of blue flame left nothing but specks of ash drifting in the air. Xartimon glanced at the amber-windowed house.

His game was mischief. Evil, well.

That was the business of others.


Author’s notes

This first version of this dark little tale was written for the 2017 Podcastle flash fiction contest. It didn’t win, but it did get a good handful of votes. There were some truly amazing stories, by extremely talented writers, in that competition, so any votes at all was an achievement! You can listen to the winning stories here. At the time of writing there’s still time, just, to enter the Escape Pod flash fiction contest for 2018 – you need to submit your up-to-500-words Science Fiction story by the 30th of April. If you’ve missed the deadline, never mind, sign up for the forums and come and vote for your favourites anyway. See you there!

If you’ve enjoyed this story please considering buying me a coffee at ko-fi.com. The more coffee I have, the more likely I am to write more stories! 🙂
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© Kat Day 2018

Something in My Eye

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“I don’t want to!” I watch the young girl as she tugs on her father’s hand. Her hair is sunrise red, her skin pale as mist, and she is as reluctant to move as a boulder lodged in soft earth.

“Rowan, you’ve been pestering me all day. We’ve paid, we’ve queued, we’re going. You’ll like it once you get on.” The girl’s father looks down, sighs, then picks her up with a grunt of effort and tucks her on his hip. She is a little too old to be carried, I think, but nevertheless she buries her head in his shoulder. They step across the line, into the oval-shaped capsule with its clear, glass walls.

I follow them. I’m last, and the doors close behind me with a shhhnick sound. The air inside is stuffy, thick with the scents of people past and present. I catch a hint of aftershave, or something like it. It’s tangy and sweet, but there’s an acrid undertone. I wrinkle my nose and look for the source. A man, wearing a thick jumper with a shirt underneath. The woman he’s standing too close to is hunched slightly, a large handbag clutched in front of her stomach. Her red lips are smiling, but the upward curve feels unnatural, forced, as though it might spring into some other shape at any moment.

“Did you know,” he says, in a voice that seems to have bypassed his larynx and come straight through his nose, “that there are thirty-two capsules on the London Eye, but the numbers go up to the thirty-three because, haha,” he gives a little snort of a laugh, “people believe that number thirteen is unlucky?”

“Really, Graham?” says his companion, as she stares through the glass.

“Yes. Aren’t these old superstitions ridiculous? Why is thirteen unlucky and not, oh, twenty-seven?”

“It’s something to do with Jesus’ disciples, isn’t it?”

He waves a hand, “yes, yes, but how is that relevant in this day and age? Such silliness. I expect it was a woman who made the decision. Typical female thing, all that superstitious rubbish.”

“I suppose you wouldn’t want bad luck on this thing,” his companion murmurs, fiddling with the clasp on her bag.

He snorts again, and she recoils from the puff of warm air. He doesn’t notice.

“Hello,” says a small voice behind me. I haven’t noticed that the red-headed child has wriggled away from her father’s grasp and crept up behind me.

“Hello, Rowan,” I reply, straight-faced.

Her eyes widen, green pools swollen with rain water. I touch my nose and wink. I turn towards the glass wall of the capsule, pull a coin out of my pocket and flick it into the air. It spins, its shiny surface catching the afternoon sunshine, glinting and then… there is no coin. Only a remnant of light that fades away.

She stares at my tightly pinned-up white hair and long black dress. “Are you… a witch?” she whispers.

I smile. “Oh, witches don’t ex-”

“Rowan, are you bothering this lady?” her father is behind us.

“Daddy, she’s a witch!”

He flushes. “That’s very rude! I’m so sorry!” He scoops her up again and moves to the other end of the capsule.

“exist. Anymore,” I finish, softly.

We have reached the top of the arc. I stare out at the whole of London, stretched out before me. A messy carpet of buildings and roads and tiny cars and buses. Directly below us, the river, its glistening surface painted with the shadows of the tall buildings on its banks.

I worked in one of those buildings once, when there was still something for me to do. Before everything changed. Before I retired. Before so many years drifted by.

Something snags the corner of my left eye. I turn my head, there’s nothing there, but I have a sense of unease. I rub my thumbs against my forefingers in response to the strange prickling sensation there. Something I haven’t felt for a long time. I look around but everything is normal. The soup of voices has no anxious flavours. Graham is still too close to his companion, but she’s staring at the doors with quiet determination. Rowan is trying to swing on her father’s arm. I look outside again.

Another flicker, now on my right. This time, I don’t look. I stare straight ahead. Another flicker. I still refuse to look. Another, and another, and then…

I can’t not look, because it’s right in my eye-line. I knew it would eventually tire of being ignored. Still, my mouth drops open a little. I hadn’t really expected to see this. Not now, not in this time. It’s been… how long? I try to remember. I was little more than a child, trying to help.

Kolim.

It’s small, less than the span of my fingers. Green-gold scales catch the sunlight. Tiny rainbows flicker in wings so fine they’re like the surface of bubbles. But I know from experience that these will not fall apart at a simple touch. The creature might be beautiful, if not for the eyes that glow with the dull light of coals after the yellow flames have died away. And the claws that curve gracefully into hypodermic points. It looks at me and grins. Its mouth is too wide, and too full of teeth. I can’t hear it through the glass, but I’d swear it’s laughing.

I look around. We’ve passed the apex of our circuit and we’re moving slowly down, but it will be several minutes before we reach the ground. None of the other passengers have seen what I’ve seen. My fingers tingle, and I reach up to the glass. I tap my forefinger and middle finger against it and a tiny spark of light appears. My aim is good. It hits the creature and it rolls up, ball-like. Its wings freeze, motionless, and it drops.

Relief and exhaustion wash over me, followed by a spike of concern. I look impatiently around. There’s nothing to do but wait until we reach the bottom and the doors open again.

“I mean, no offence or anything,” Graham is saying, “but you women do fuss over things that are completely unimportant. Take my ex-wife for example. No, please, take her!” He laughs at his own joke. The hands of the woman with him clench into fists.

There’s a sound, like someone gently but firmly dragging a fork across a plate. My head whips to the doors of the capsule.

We’ve stopped moving, and the doors are opening.

They can’t be, because we’re still high in the air.

But they are. They’re slowly pulling apart as though hauled by invisible hands. I catch a flash of green through the gap.

Several flashes.

I take a step towards the doors, and then things happen fast. Three little balls of gold-green appear and grab Graham, one by the hair and one on each shoulder, and drag him towards the widening gap. For a second I wonder why him.

Perhaps they like his aftershave?

“Help!” he squeals in an unnaturally high-pitched voice. His companion stares. She doesn’t, I can’t help noticing, move.

For a moment I can see two outcomes in my mind. Crisp and cold. Like a fork in a mountain stream; same water, different rocks. In one, I turn around and let the obnoxious man go. It will be a tragic accident. A “technical fault”. I will reach the ground and walk away, and then I’ll report it properly. Let the right people deal with this. It’s not my problem.

In the other…

I sigh. “No,” I say calmly. A few quick strides and I reach reach out and grasp Graham’s arm. His other hand is now gripping the edge of the door, knuckles white. His bottom is wedged in the gap, but it will soon be wide enough for him to fall through. One of the other passengers yells something. They cannot see the Kolim – to them it must look at though Graham was leaning against the doors and they’ve somehow given way. I haul on Graham’s arm, but he’s heavy, and the Kolim are pulling in the opposite direction. He starts to slip, and I realise that if I’m not careful, I’m going to follow him.

I try to find the tingle in the fingers of my other hand, but there’s nothing. So many years.

“Nononononono!” squeals Graham, his words whipped away by the wind as his head tips back into empty space. The doors are still sliding apart.

Worse, I can see more flashes of green and gold. More than three. Many more.

A hand grips Graham’s arm in front of mine and the wrench on my shoulder lessens. It’s one of the other passengers. Everyone else is pressed against the back wall.

“What are the fairies doing?” It’s Rowan. She’s a few steps away, I realise it’s her father who’s grabbed Graham.

“Get back against the wall, Rowan!” he shouts. Then, “he’s going to fall!”

“No!” I say.

“I can’t hold him!”

“No,” I say, “I mean, Rowan, come here!” Rowan stares and our eyes meet and lock and once again I have that sense of splitting. Of two different realities. And one is bad.

And one is really, really bad.

She steps towards me. I breathe out.

“You can see them?” I hiss at her ear.

“Yes,” she says.

“They’re not fairies,” I say. The soles of Graham’s shoes are tilting see-saw like on the rim of the door. His face is white.

“What are they?” she asks.

“I’ll tell you,” I say, “if you help me.”

She nods, eyes wide.

“When I say go, grab my hand. Understand?”

She nods again.

I count in my head. One. Two. “Go!” I let go of Graham and drop my right hand to Rowan’s. She grips it and…

The world falls away, as though everything is a cardboard film set. There’s just Rowan and me, and she’s bright, as though lit from inside with a spotlight. Or maybe a small sun.

I draw her light into me. The tingling sensation grows and spreads. Every cell in my body seems to stop for a moment, readjust itself and then…

The world rebuilds itself around us from the inside out. Energy is crawling across my skin. I can still feel Rowan’s fingers, but her grip is loosening.

“Hold on,” I say.

I feel her small fingers grip more firmly for a moment, but then her weight is heavy on my arm, and then it’s gone. Her fingers have slipped from mine, and she’s crumpled to the ground.

It’s all right. It’s enough. Less than a second has passed. Rowan’s father is still focused on Graham, who’s holding onto the edge of one door with his fingertips. I look past him and concentrate. It takes no effort, it’s terribly, terrifically, easy. I almost have to hold back.

There’s a flash as a ball of pale blue fire appears behind Graham’s head. Kolim hiss and pop as it touches them. It spreads out, splitting into fine tendrils at the edges.

And then it is gone. And so are they. And Rowan’s father hauls Graham back into the capsule. He falls onto his face, hands spread on the floor as though trying to hold onto the flat surface. The doors slide slowly shut as if they have all the time in the world.

I look down at Rowan and feel a surge of relief. She’s sitting on the floor, apparently unscathed. I crouch down and she looks at me, and I look at me in her eyes.

“When?” she says.

“Soon,” I say.

Her father scoops her up then, and people are crowding around me now, the brave old lady who tried to stop the silly man from falling out of the malfunctioning doors. The old lady who took the hand of the scared little girl and kept her from getting too close.

Hah.

There’s a lurch as the capsule starts moving again. Someone cheers. It’s a brittle sound, tinged with hysteria at the edges. Oh, yes, there was a flash. Ball lightening, they’ll say. They always blame ball lightening. A freak electrical storm. No doubt it caused the doors to malfunction, too. Makes perfect sense.

Someone hands me a bottle of water. I take it gratefully. I swallow. The cold liquid is like a coating of snow on a dirty landscape.

The capsule reaches the bottom of the circuit and, finally, we can get off. Paramedics are waiting to help Graham. A man in a uniform wants to talk to Rowan’s father. Me too, I expect, but I have a knack of avoiding this kind of thing. People will say, “she was here a moment ago…”

But they won’t find me again.

Unless I want to be found.

I catch Rowan’s eye. We both nod. She will find me. I owe her.

I take a deep breath and start walking.

And then I freeze, because I’ve just caught another flash of green-gold.

I turn my head slowly and I see the woman who was with Graham. His bored companion. She smiles at me with very red lips.

And she snaps her handbag shut.


Author’s notes

I wrote the first version of this story a year ago. There was something pleasing about that initial effort, but it was a bit of an uninflated balloon of a story – there was room for a lot more in the middle. I tinkered with it, and then ended up leaving it partially finished in a folder. Wanting something for February, I came back to it – and remembered that I rather liked it. Suddenly, the middle section seemed to come together, and here you see something a lot more substantial. It just goes to show – never throw anything away…

© Kat Day 2017

The only winning move

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A landscape of barren, dark-grey stone. Above, a black sky dotted with pinpricks of light – as though someone had taken a piece of paper, repeatedly shoved a pin through it, and then put it in front of a something extremely bright. Like, say, the lights of an oncoming train.

There was no breeze. No sound. No moon.

Since the last thing David Snacknot remembered was playing Go with one of his colleagues at the University, this all seemed rather strange.

“Where in the hell am I?”

“Interesting assumption.”

David looked over his shoulder, giving the impression that while his head wanted to see what was going on, his feet wanted to stay pointing in the direction which might provide a clear run.

He found himself looking at a figure with its arms folded across its chest. Its black robe covered it entirely. Even its face was completely hidden by the fall of the heavy cowl.

At this point, David realised he wasn’t breathing.

He tried to take a breath, and found he couldn’t. Then, more out of habit than anything else he tried to panic, and found he couldn’t do that, either.

The cowled figure pushed back its hood. “Do stop opening and closing your mouth, Professor. You look like a goldfish.”

Unbidden, David’s feet shuffled around as he stared. The face before him was not what he’d been expecting. Not that he knew what he’d been expecting, but whatever it had been, it wasn’t this.

“A-are you… Death?” he stuttered.

“I dislike that name. Such negative connotations,” said the figure. The face was feminine, and it definitely had skin. Admittedly, very pale skin, and skin stretched tautly over angular – one might even say bony – features.

“Er…” said David, then stopped to consider the fact that, despite not breathing, he still seemed to be able to speak. He fought back an inexplicable urge to whistle. Just to see if he still could. Then he had to fight back the urge to giggle.

“I rather prefer Entropy,” continued the figure.

What is it called, thought David, when actors are laughing so much during a performance that they can’t say their lines?

“Because that other name, it’s really not what I do. I don’t actually have anything to do with the D-word. That happens before people get to me. My role is merely to move things forward.”

Oh yes, thought David. Corpsing.

“So,” said Entropy. “Shall we begin? Or perhaps I should say, end? Ha ha.”

“Ha ha,” repeated David.

Entropy beamed. “That’s the spirit! Hardly anyone laughs at my jokes! Oh! Spirit! Ha ha!”

David smiled weakly. His eyes slid from her face to the surrounding landscape, and something strange behind her left shoulder caught his eye. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing.

“What? Ah, yes. Well, once upon a time, it would’ve been a pale horse. But we all have to move with the times.”

“A combine harvester?”

“There are a lot of you these days.”

David nodded slowly. I must be hallucinating, he thought. Just how much did I drink?

“The scythe just wouldn’t be practical.”

“No, I suppose not.” His rational side gave up. If he was dreaming he might as well go along with it. “Er, don’t take this the wrong way, but I thought Dea–, sorry,” he said quickly as she frowned, “I mean, in books and things you’re usually male.”

“How can you tell?”

“What?”

“I’m usually drawn as a skeleton.”

“Oh. Good point.” David resolutely fixed his eyes on her face.

“The people who draw me,” pointed out Entropy reasonably, “are not, generally speaking, people who’ve actually met me.

“Of course, yes. Makes sense. Wait a minute. If there are so many of us that you have to use a piece of heavy-duty agricultural equipment to do your job, why am I here on my own like this?”

Entropy smiled enigmatically. “Good question, professor.”

“Is it?”

“It is.”

“Is it a good question with an answer?” asked David, after a few moments.

“If you flipped a coin ten times, what would happen?”

“What’s that got to do with it?

“Just answer.”

“Well… I suppose you’d get a mixture of heads and tails. You’d expect half of each, but in just ten flips,” he shrugged, “who knows? Could be all heads, could be all tails, could be one to nine, or two to eight, or anything, really.”

“Very good. And if you flipped it one hundred times?”

“Then, assuming you had an evenly-weighted coin, it ought to come out closer to fifty-fifty. But I don’t see–”

“A thousand times? A million? A billion?”

“Closer and closer to an even split. And sore fingers,” he grinned. Entropy didn’t laugh, which seemed rather unfair, all things considered.

“Can you, perhaps, conceive of any other alternative?”

David frowned. “Not if the coin is evenly weighted…”

Entropy dipped her long, pale fingers into the folds of her robe and pulled out a coin. It glinted silver in the non-light. Slowly and deliberately, she pressed her thumb against her index finger, then balanced the metal disc on her thumbnail. With a soft ‘fthick’ the coin leapt upwards, turning over and over in a slow arc. David’s eyes followed it as it reached the apex, and then fell downwards, still spinning.

Clink.

He stared.

“You see,” said Entropy, “you’re like the coin.”

“On edge?”

“Exactly.”

The both considered the disc of metal for a moment, perfectly balanced on its side.

“Are you saying,” asked David slowly, “that I’m somehow between states? I could fall one way, or the other? I could… go back?”

“Perhaps,” said Entropy.

“Perhaps what?”

“Traditionally, in this circumstance, you would challenge me to a game.”

“Really?” asked David, champion Go player, “then I choose–”

“But in this case,” she interrupted, “I think perhaps not, given what happened the last time you proposed a game.”

Memories crawled through David’s mind like a drunk getting back to the house at 3am. They missed the lock, knocked over the furniture and set fire to a frying pan. He’d been playing Go with his friend Jian. And they’d been drinking. A lot. Because, because…”

Entropy shuddered. “Spit all over the playing pieces. Revolting.”

Oh yes. The classic Go variant: I bet I can fit more of these playing pieces into my mouth than you can.

“We’d been drinking,” he protested. “I wouldn’t do that normally.” Thirty-four, he’d managed. Then, before anyone could say Heimlich manoeuvre, here he was having a cosy chat with Dea– Entropy.”

“Traditions,” she mused, “are a very human idea. You spend all this time and energy inventing new and more efficient ways of doing things, but every now and then you insist on making life difficult for yourselves because great-great-grandma would have approved.”

Why had he drunk so much? They’d been celebrating, because…

“I don’t have a ancestors. Or descendants. I remember how everything was done, and I know how it will be done.”

“… brandy. They’d been drinking brandy…”

“And I do have a job to do. I can’t sit around playing complicated strategy games.”

“… because…”

“So with that in mind, pick a number.”

“What?” asked David, jolted away from his fractured memory.

“You say that a lot. Pick a number.”

“Any number?”

“Yes.”

“But there are an infinite number of numbers!”

“I didn’t say it would be easy.”

“Can’t you at least give me a, a, range?”

“I can say nothing.”

“What about fractions? Decimals? Irrational numbers?”

“It’s a round number.”

His birthday! They’d been celebrating his birthday! Jian had been meant to be keeping him away from the surprise party he wasn’t supposed to know about!

“Come along, Professor Snacknot, before the universe reaches heat death, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Fifty! It’s my fiftieth birthday! That’s a round number!”

“Fifty is your choice?”

“Yes!” It was an hallucination! His brain had just been trying to process everything. He’d been trying to find a way back to consciousness! Now he’d remembered, he could go back!

Entropy nodded and raised a finger. Arm outstretched, she drew a spiral in the air, the line picked out with glittering silver. The shape pushed outwards, creating a cone-shaped tunnel. In the distance, David thought he could see colours. The brown of a battered wooden desk, the green of an old carpet…

She pointed.

David ran towards the tunnel.

He could see the desk. See the toppled brandy bottle. See his carpet with round, black and white pieces scattered across it. See the two paramedics. See the figure lying prone on the floor.

He was close. He reached out. Almost there.

And watched in horror as his finger dissolved into a thousand glittering pieces.

Tried to cry out as the fragmentation spread up his arm and along his chest.

Felt his larynx splinter before he could make the sound.

The essence of David Snacknot scattered into trillions and billions of particles and drifted away on the silent winds of the universe, never to be joined again.

#

In the grey-stone dessert, Entropy climbed into the cabin of her combine harvester and patted its dashboard. She sighed. Despite what she’d said about traditions, she had rather preferred the horse.

“You’d think a physicist would’ve worked it out, wouldn’t you?” she said to the silent piece of heavy machinery. “There’s only one number where entropy cannot be. And only one number of playing pieces a very drunk, middle-aged man could survive having lodged in his windpipe.”

The combine harvester, of course, said nothing.

“I gave him clues. ‘I can say nothing’ I said. I mean, short of actually telling him the answer, what else could I do?”

The combine harvester rumbled and rose into the air in an upwards arc.

The silver coin toppled from its edge and fell heads up, a single, round disc of silver against the dark stone.


Author’s notes

This story began life as a piece inspired by the Fibonacci sequence. It didn’t really work, and I didn’t like it. But I had a sense that there was something there, particularly in the character of Entropy, so I picked it up again. I ended up gutting the original tale, chopping up and rejigging more or less everything bar the very beginning and some parts of the end. I hope you like it, and if you do it just goes to show: a writer should never throw anything away!


© Kat Day 2016

Two-faced

Quarry“You bloody idiot!”

I plucked at my sodden jeans and glared at the red BMW as it disappeared into the distance. Muddy water trickled into my wellington boot. Buster tipped his head to one side, gave me a doggy grin, and then shook himself.

“Get away!” I ordered. I frowned and looked up at the sky, where the sun had just emerged from bruised clouds. I rubbed at my thigh. The old wound ached when it was cold.

Buster gave me an expectant look. “Oh, all right,” I said. “I’ll dry. Come on, boy!”

We veered to the left, away from the road and into a narrow strip of trees. The smell of leaf mould filled my nostrils. I picked up a large, fallen branch and let the damp, coarse bark slap against my palm. The weight was comforting.

I didn’t throw it for Buster. It was too big, and anyway, you shouldn’t give dogs sticks.

The trees opened out to the edge of the quarry, the stepped rock of the opposite wall making me think of an amphitheatre. I imagined a violent battle in the bottom of the basin, where now a pool of calm, green-blue water sat. I could almost hear the cheers and smell the sweat and dust. I could almost taste coppery blood in the air. I held the branch high and let out a roar.

Buster gave me a puzzled look, then ran down the rocky path and cocked his leg against a sapling.

I followed him, scuffing my feet, kicking up dust and gravel.

Something caught my eye. I squatted, dug my fingers into the coarse dirt and yanked. I pushed the grime away from the surface of the small object with my thumbnail. A coin, made of dark metal, stamped with a horned figure on one side, a winged one on the reverse. Strange.

My thigh complained again at the squatting position. Self-defence, they said. I never actually touched her; she put a kitchen knife in my thigh. How is that fair?

I straightened up, leaning on the branch for support, and dropped the coin into my jacket pocket

#

            “Buster! Heel!” I hissed, looking through the trees towards the road. He trotted obediently to my side.

A woman in black, high-heeled shoes was talking loudly into a mobile phone while she stared at the front driver’s wheel of her car. A red BMW.

“It’s the car from earlier,” I murmured, grinning. “She must’ve got a flat on her way back.” My hand slipped into my pocket and found the coin I’d picked up.

I flipped it in my fingers. The surface felt oddly warm. My eyes drifted to the heavy branch in my other hand. I’d been leaning on it, like a staff.

Buster let out a soft wuff.

The woman stabbed at the screen of her phone and thrust it into her handbag, shaking her head.

I made a decision.

“Flat tyre?” I said, stepping into view. “Would you like some help?”


Author’s notes:

The challenge with this story was to stick to 500 words, and it is EXACTLY 500. So on that basis alone, I’m quite proud of it! I rather enjoyed the slightly sinister, thriller-like atmosphere, although it does feel more like a prologue than a full story (but come on, 500 words!) Hints of the supernatural crept in, too. I might pick this one up again some day…


© Kat Day 2016