The odd cycle of life and being reborn by William Norberg

Is this it? Joe thought, as the feathers of the birds grazed his face. Shall I finally rest? The wind violently thrusted against his face. Was it the right choice? The bubbles of thoughts circling his head was so loud, that he could not hear the frightened screams below him on the street. The only thing that was clear in his mind at that moment, was one simple question, yet the meaning behind it was immense: Where will I go? A loud ear deafening sound screeched in his ears as he hit the ground below, and then…It was dark.

“It’s a lie… It’s a lie… An illusion! We’re nothing more than bugs before IT!” A shaking voice yelled. Joe awoke frantically, and found himself squeezed in between a sea of naked men and women. Next to him a skinny man with a beard reaching far enough to cover up his genitals, held tightly onto the cell bars and shook his entire body, while mumbling to himself. “We’re dirt…We’re dirt! Insignificant bugs..” The rest of the people around him, did not seem to be saner. Some were banging their heads against the cell bars, others were lying in fetal position and crying.

Joe turned his gaze towards the bearded man, and asked: What is going on here? The man turned towards him, with a broad smile painting his face. “You’re a newcomer, are you not? Ooohoho! I’m jealous of you. Such a clear mind you must poses, filled with hope.” Then the man pointed in a direction. Joe looked over, wishing he hadn’t. A horrible sight it was. 

The creature was colossal. Made out of crimson flesh, fresh and bleeding. It had no legs, it crawled like a worm. A haunting vision, made out of billions of human eyes. It had no mouth, instead it had thousands of arms there, all serving a purpose, as it picked up its next prey, and tore it into pieces. None went to waste as it wore it all. The eyes added to the collection of a billion, arms were added to tear its next victim apart, and the flesh were added to its enormous mass.

It was a slaughter. As the thing reached in to the cell and grabbed the closest person it could reach, its next building block. Suddenly the sea of people around Joe split, like Moses split the red sea, and a long arm reached in and took a crushing grip around his waist. Then it pulled him out, into the vision of the billions of eyes. Then it simply tore him apart, like a doll. Luckily, the agonizing pain was over as swiftly as it began. And then, he was greeted by darkness again, for a while. Until another hand grabbed him in the darkness and pulled him out of it. The light blinded his vision and he screamed as loud as his small lungs would allow him. But then he heard a soft feminine voice: “It’s a boy!”.

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A change of plans by Emaan Shahab

In a valley near the K-2, a mud-brick house stands lit up amongst the dim-lit houses around it. In the death of night, amid the scuffle of running feet, shouting men, and howling winds outside, the wails of a baby pierce through. The infant is quickly wrapped up to save it from the chill piercing through the house. Everything is done so fast, nobody has a chance to verify its sex. They are cutoff from all kinds of medical assistance, thus having no way of predicting the sex beforehand, other than through the guidance of the divine and corrupt, shrouded in holy cloths and called pirs. The mother of this child had visited one of these pirs, and been given full assurance that her first child would most definitely be a boy. The whole tiny town had celebrated this news, a boy bringing the hope of carrying the family name forward, caring for his parents and being the future bread-winner. A man among men. On this fortuitous night, everyone sat tight in their houses, praying for a healthy baby and for joy to the family. The infant will be celebrated as a boy that whole night.
After the news has spread, sweets distributed, and warm hugs exchanged, the tired mother and father of the infant lay down, their little baby in between them on the charpai, exhausted and happy. The night passes peacefully, well, as peaceful as it can get with a baby. In the morning, the chill of the night has passed, and although there is still a kind if crispness in the air, the sun shines brightly upon the valley. Well wishers gather around the infant’s house, singing their prayers from last night to the baby’s grandparents, parents, future non-existent in-laws and future non-existent wife. Meanwhile, the mother, humming happily, takes her new baby for its first bath, accompanied by its maternal grandmother. It is then that the truth is revealed. As the little hand-knitted wrap-around comes off, the new mother gets the shock of her life. Its not there! Where is it? Did it fall off? Turning the baby around, she looks around in confusion. In her panic, she screams for the grandmother, who is checking the temperature of the water. She comes out, wiping her hands on her kameez. The mother moves aside, revealing the bare baby, lain flat on the charpai, sucking its thumb and kicking its now free legs.
The grandmother runs out, ripping her hair, screaming, moaning, and gagging on sobs. The father, who was sitting with the men of the family, drinking cha, rushes to her as she collapses on the floor, mumbling something inaudible.
‘What is it? Is he okay? What happened? For god’s sake woman SPEAK CLEARLY!!’
‘HE’S A GIRLLL!’

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Life and Death by Odessa Silver

Metal clanged against metal as hundreds of soldiers clashed. Yells of anger and pain, but something was... different. I watched each strike. Blows caught short or landed with no fatalities. A battleground usually was my feast, one I loved to harvest, but there was no death here. 
“What did you do?” I said anger starting to burn through me. “Why is nobody dying?”
“This isn’t for you.” She grinned. “I’m having fun; can you not feel the desperation? I don’t need death getting in my way today. And seeing you squirm, makes it even better.”
“All war is for me,” I scoffed, “just like each life is mine. Let them die already.”
War grinned and gestured to all the soldiers in battle, “these lives are mine. I am the voice in their heads which urges them to fight. I give them the cause to maim and be maimed. You may pick up the pieces after, the husks of broken bodies ready to give up.”
“And after all that, both of you are wrong,” Life interrupted, appearing next to us. “I gave them the essence to begin with. If I hadn’t brought them to life you would have no-one to make fight, or lives to take. All those people out there? They’re mine.”
I watched him carefully, his green hair rustling in the wind and golden skin shimmering in the dying light. 
“You cannot save them forever. Everyone dies. Just you wait, these mortals will be dead before their morning.”
With a smirk I lifted my hand ready to poison the airs around us all, I could kill them in one fell swoop. I’d be the victor from this ridiculous war.
“No you don’t,” Life said taking my cold hand in his. “Have your fun tomorrow. Let these people fight for what they believe in.”
“Believe in? They follow the whispers and the goading of a war-crazed battle hungry being who want to just—”
“At least I don’t want to cease their existence in an instant.” War took a deep breath and added with fervour, “how can you not love the fury and desperation of a man fighting for the last ounce of his life?”
I huffed and glanced at Life, who still held my hand and smiled. “You two are insufferable. And I have mortals to kill.”

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Unusual Dining Experience by Torché Johnson

A homeless young man, Micah finds himself at an unusual restaurant. The guests and employees all appear to be slightly off, the drinks have long and obscure names, and everything is just plain bizarre. After dining in and leaving Micah experiences an indescribable encounter that may change his life forever.

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The necessity of conviction by Brian Yao

Bram woke up early the next morning. In a few days, he would be dead. It was a shame he couldn’t say goodbye to his family; they were across the world in Europe. Having just immigrated recently, he had no friends in the United States either. Perhaps some members of the clones’ rights movement would attend his funeral. Would they be able to continue the movement in his absence? He hoped so.

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Sci fi creative embroilment by Jack Whitehouse

In these slow minds feel slow times, in yet harsh eyes feel knives like fine sculptors; dancing in the eye of oblivion. Crept like villains in the canvas of war, stood amongst many mighty yet they alone were stoic. Knew they a finer future to life than to greet divinities servant at the gate and be subservient as a stag, hate was a harder metal than hope. Passions well read, had spools of space set out and softly so: retold as a binding than a briar. Befallen sins then all falls stopped together and so was set. 
Years to the day, scriptures of sacred statues set out the stars and mapped enigmas – drawing lines between dots drawn by buried scholars. As days became less and fewer, scientists set out from time to truly living; encountered rather than ran from a faster fate, making their final moments a gallery else a tomb for all futures.
Hellfire rode across Earth’s leagues as a curse in chasing, basking vast cobalt oceans in a belt of fire; those living suffered as all Eve’s. Valleys, mountains and monuments of harmony fell into the claws of clouds of dust, bearing down upon all living life with ferocity. In these final moments, a rare few Architects stood together against the winds and confined fragments of life in a small vessel. Encased this in pure obsidian, basalt and compounds of shales in which to preserve its cargo unto the vast depths of space.
Those elder marvels were truly magnificent, far ahead in subjects of science but in the blanket of isolation they bore conflicts of compassion and uttered war into peace where without it was before. You see, there were a many men in so few a sea hence became a great arms race of sorts: telescopes turned to atoms from the cosmos unto means of mass destruction. Emergency broadcasts rang from all homes at all hours till it was as a ticking to the reapers tock; as all death became unlocked, so flocked.

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EVERY BEGINNING HAS AN END. by Philip J M White

4:01am

The silence lay heavy, almost oppressive in its weight - but not quite.

The last clubbers, the late night owls and those who propped up the bars of the evening gone, long since retired to the release of their beds.

No sound, no bodies stir, even the cats of Cambridge avenue have settled behind flaps or squeezed into safe corners behind weathered boards of garden sheds.

Only a few lights remain, those stalwart and silent yellow guardians of the hours no man or woman sees, the pavements and street corners cast stark in black shadow.

And now, the faintest hint, the promise of colour creeps into the air. Distant Spanish city and the rooftops of Oxford street thrown into sharp relief against the whisper of an indigo sky.

I walk down North Parade, feet following the scratched white lines on the middle of the road, the thrill of this most minor of trespassing coursing through my veins.

I am the king of the night, none can challenge my passage.

I stand by the railings, overlooking the silver flashes of the north sea. My hands grasp the cold metal, feeling it slowly warm beneath my fingers. Somewhere, not far away, the air must carry the scent of salt and brine. But here it’s still, holding the last vestiges of warm earth, grass and summer from the night before.

Slowly, silently, the blue is building, adding layer upon layer to that dark canvas above. It steadily trails from its pinnacle eastwards, towards the point where the ocean meets the sky.

A single thin line of yellow has appeared hovering above its edge, stretching from north to south. It is cut from the air, sharply drawn as if rent from the blue. The fresh horizon birthing a new thought.

Just below it, distinct from the yellow stands a bar of the richest and most vibrant red my eyes have ever seen. One can barely believe the world can hold the capacity to imagine such a depth of colour inside it. It burns with brilliance, captivating in its intensity.

They hold together, caught between the glistening sea and the still air. They grow in intensity, a silent crescendo, increasing, stretching, bursting with the colour they can no longer hold. It seems something must surely give, the colours spilling out across the water and dying the sand scarlet and gold if they hold but one moment more.

And then; the sun.

And all the wondering possibilities that the day may yet bring.

“Neil, the bins aren’t out yet, I told you to get that done last night. Get your fat arse out of bed and sort it out!”

A muffled shout in reply, then a slammed door and a few seconds later, the grumble of an unknown car engine starting nearby.

There is still a little time before I see Lucy and the kids. Two hours and fifty-one minutes to be exact. One hundred and seventy-one possible moments waiting to be experienced, should I care to look.

I let out a slow breath, then turn from the railing.

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POWER AND PERVASIVENESS OF LOVE. by Ian Jamieson

ICU

It sits there all sleek, black and shiny. Completely different to starched white sheets. I see it as perfect, except where the cop got all frustrated crazy and kicked my passenger door, denting it and cracking the paintwork. The bloody boofhead bully. No, no, got to slide away smoother than that. The motherfucker. The mudderfuckin pig. That’s better.

Did that cop think it’d make me open my door, maybe slide down my dark tint window, get out and go quietly? Well, it didn’t. I just leaned forward and quickly tapped Trapp’s left shoulder three times and off we sped, V8 roar and squealing tyres, until I leant forward again and one shoulder tap to tell him to pull over, get out and take off the fake plates and put our real ones back on. Ten second job that. Two shoulder taps and we drove off all nice and normal.

See, I’m not always stuck in this bed. My EEG agrees.

You know, I said to Trapp, that cop must’ve recognised me.

Ja, ja, sure did, he answered, nodding his head.

Probably wanted to drag me out of the car, outa da car, and beat the shit outa me, I told Trapp. I got news for him though, it didn’t stop Mailer in Chicago, he still got that book out and it sure wouldn’t stop me no way, make me more determined that’s what, determined to get the truth out, to see what’s happening, to tell what’s happening, to be what’s happening. Yeah, be what’s happening. And if that means getting beat up by the mudderfucker, then that’s what it means. And I’ll tell it like it is.

I feel pretty good whenever I talk like that, Whoa! I feel good, you know with fire and passion, but it wears me out a bit. But like I said it makes me feel good, satisfied like, so I don’t mind it chewin up fuel and leavin me a bit burnt out. Everything gotta cost man and I don’t mind payin ma dues. So I took a good deep breath, closed my eyes and leant my head back against the cool black leather of my seat.

Before I fell asleep in the Caddy, Black Panther sliding through the streets, I listened to the beep beep machine we busted bodies and coma patients have. Well, not a machine, more a technical gadget even I don’t fully understand. Our beep beep gadget makes this beeping sound (D’oh!) all slow and rhythmical and usually so quiet you have to make an effort to hear it. But if the beep beep gadget senses danger it beeps louder and faster, and if the danger becomes a threat, a clear and present danger, it becomes one continuous loud, screeching beeeeeeeeeep. But sometimes it all happens so quickly, so unexpectedly, I don’t get a chance to do anything and coz I’m all helpless, like I can’t even move, it’s up to Trapp to do everything before the shit hits the fan.

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DO NOT MESS WITH GODDESSES by Moya Green

They crept up the dark drive, the spook, the witch and the vampire. The old house was set back from the road, and only the gleam of a street lamp, shining fitfully through the storm-tossed branches, illuminated their way.

"Do we have to?" muttered Clyde. "I wanna go home." He tripped over the duvet cover which enveloped him from head to foot. He'd cut eyeholes in the front and slits so he could get his hands out, and the effect was quite spooky, if you overlooked the 'Bart Simpson ' pattern.

"Shurrup!" snarled Jordan. "We'll finish when I say. This one has it coming. He wouldn't let me have my ball back once, miserable old git."

Replacing his fangs and pulling the Dracula mask over his face, he strode to the door, lifted the knocker and brought it down with a noise like thunder. Nothing happened. The house stayed dark.

"Perhaps he's not in?" whispered Kayleigh.

"He never goes out." Jordan banged on the door again, and this time was rewarded by a faint light through the frosted glass panel, and the sound of bolts being pulled back. The door opened.

"Who is it?" a voice creaked.

"Trick or treat!" yelled Jordan, pushing forward, so that the old man was forced to take a step back.

"But - but it's not Hallowe'en yet," he quavered, "not till tomorrow night."

"Yeah, well, we're starting early. Like, we got a proposition for you." Jordan took another step, the other two crowding in behind.

"Wait," the old man protested. "You can't come in here."

But they were in. The old bloke was a pushover, looked like he'd fall over if you stared at him hard. Jordan's eyes flicked over the thick carpets and antique furniture and strange carved figurines, of men with the heads of animals. Not short of a bob or two either.

"Please, mister, can we use your toilet?" Kayleigh gazed up at him. "I really really need to go."

"Well, er - "

"Thanks ever so." She darted past, followed by Clyde.

"No, come back, you can't - " The old man turned to follow.

Jordan seized his arm. "What you do, see, is you pay us, then we put the word around. None of the other kids will bother you. You'll have a nice quiet Hallowe'en, no trouble at all."

"I never have any trouble.” He looked round frantically. “Where have they gone?"

Jordan tightened his grip, although touching the old man gave him the creeps. Old! He looked more like he'd been dead ten years, and he smelled like something dug up.

"Always a first time. Now for you, I'll do a special rate. How about a fiver? Each."

"Fifteen pounds? But that's outrageous. Let me go. Get out of my house, all of you, before I call the police!"

From one of the doors leading from the hallway there came a terrified scream, a crash, then a wail like a thousand banshee in unison.

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HE WAS ALONE by Layne Ewing

The girl had only rooted herself on the rough wooden floors.

And now?

The woman only rooted herself on the emerald veined floors.

His taking of her weapons was supposed to be his way of showing her he would protect her. Could protect her. Instead, he thrust her back to that morning eight years ago, where he had failed her.

Neither of them was in any mental state to dance. Morgan stepped closer and wrapped his arms around her shoulders. Hera, willingly accepting, tucked her hands up under her chin as her head rested on Morgan's shoulder. He swayed gently, as he hummed quietly with the music looking out on the other dancers. For a moment he wished that could have been them. He wished she didn't have to be afraid. He wished that a carefree childhood would have been a possibility.

She would have been a marvelous dancer.

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ESCAPING A DYSTOPIAN FUTURE by Ellie Nodder

The conversation suddenly became too much, too small yet too great at the same time. How could the whole world rest on this, on this practically comical conversation? How could she make him understand, something so basic yet so monumental?

‘I’m telling you this, Terry, because you don’t want to know why it is that you should believe me. You don’t want to hear about the world that I left behind, if you can even call it that.’ Her desperation sank into every syllable, her eyes fluttering closed as she tried to repel the images that pulled at her mind. But she would never stop seeing it; the destruction. ‘You don’t want to believe that the entire world burns, how it feels like the sky is falling. You don’t want to know about how our world leaders, the people who are supposed to protect us, to lead us, instead ignored us and sought their own refuge. And you definitely don’t want to hear about the untold death count, how they simply stopped counting because nobody could bear to hear about any more.’

The enormity of her words sank into them both, neither wanting to dispel the silence that had settled around them. She felt her hands shaking, hearing the words that had taunted her, pulled at her until she could barely stand. But she could no longer live in her or anyone else’s insecurities, or deny the people she had left behind their last chance at asylum, at life.

She allowed herself to take in Terry’s face then, for the first time since she had entered this timeline. Her eyes clasped onto the unscarred cheeks, the burn-free arms. She felt her inwards collapse slightly, wishing she could take this version of Terry back with her. Maybe then she could forget his screams as his flesh singed under the flames, while she clamped her own mouth shut as she tried to peel the infected skin away.

She shook her head. She couldn’t think about that now. She felt the enormity of the situation settle itself around her shoulders, feeling lifted by the memories of everyone she loved and everything that they had sacrificed in order for her to be here, in this moment. And to hell if she didn’t damn well fight for them.

‘Terry, I am your best friend. And we fight to save the world together, okay?’

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SELF DECEPTION - MULTI PERSPECTIVE by Daniel Paton

what Happened

Nathan

I admit that I did hesitate before I left them. I did question whether it was the right thing to do. But they seemed alright. Kim looked like she knew what she doing. Yeah, she was in control. Joe was more drunk than her. Quite a lot more drunk actually. I’d seen him get through a 4-pack before we’d even left pres. She wasn’t exactly sober though either. Drinking straight from that little bottle of vodka she brought out. I couldn’t drink like that. Straight spirit makes me sick. Yeah, they were probably the drunkest people in our group. And some people do weird things after a few drinks don’t they?

It started at ours. We hosted pre-drinks. Just us lads. Then met up with the girls later. Joe was the first to get to ours actually. He seemed alright though. Only met him a few times - friend of my housemate. But he always seems chatty and sociable enough, good laugh really. One of those people that can just talk to anyone. So it didn’t seem unreasonable that she would be into him. He’d boasted about his luck with girls. And it’s true, whenever I saw him out he seemed to be dancing with a different one. Didn’t think he was much of a looker, not that I am either, but he’s got that typical scrawny beard thing going on and he’s not exactly thin. Must be his personality.

But yeah, so we met up with everyone at Spoons. It’s a classy spoons though to be fair, converted from an old cinema. It’s massive, with red carpets and a really high ceiling; gives cheap drinking an unexpected grandeur. Seemed to be about half the uni there, it was packed. I said hi to Kim - she’s on my course, one of those people that everyone wants to be friends with. Well, probably more than friends to be honest. I think it’s the hair. It’s long and looks like shiny chocolate; I actually want eat it. And her skin is perfect, or her make-up skills are just amazing, who knows? But who cares? She’s always nice enough, asks me how I’m doing and whatever, but I wouldn’t say we’re close. Always see her out though, with her housemates, with other coursemates, or just randomers. Proper party girl, which is cool. I can’t hack it much myself. One hangover a week is enough for me.

So yeah, we were all getting on well and stuff, getting nice and tipsy, then some of us headed to Instinct. Grim little club but it’s cheap so you can’t complain. Anyway it was me, my house, then of course Joe and one of his mates I think. Then Kim and a couple of her mates. By that point they were talking a lot. The two of them led the way, chatting and getting close and stuff. Everyone was whispering about them.

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LOVE AND LOSS by G A Quinn

This isn’t pain.

When someone says to me ‘I can’t imagine the pain you must feel’, I know it’s true, because if they could imagine it, if they knew what it was like, they would know that pain isn’t an adequate description. Pain is what you feel when you hit your thumb with a hammer. When you twist an ankle. When a relationship ends. When someone breaks your heart. And pain, even emotional pain, can be managed. Can be controlled. Can be overcome, lived with, blocked out. Pain can be described and diagnosed and understood. Can be medicated against. Pain and its causes can even, given time, be forgotten about.

So, no, this isn’t pain. This is … amputation. I am missing a piece. And it wasn’t removed surgically. It wasn’t a decision. This wasn’t some necessary medical procedure to prevent a rapidly spreading infection. No, this was a hatchet job. I was butchered. The piece was ripped from me, hacked off while my back was turned. And no opioid is going to help. Acupuncture won’t make it better. This cannot be massaged away. Its absence is impossible to forget, and no amount of time will reattach it.

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MAKING SOMETHING GOOD OUT OF SOMETHING SAD by Ken Frape

Victorian Puddle.

Henry Wiggins became an orphan suddenly and unexpectedly. It was sudden, as the number 42 bus, with the driver slumped at the wheel, neatly plucked Henry’s parents off the pavement at the bus stop. It was unexpected, as it wasn’t their bus. They were waiting for the number 43. A bemused Henry was left standing on the pavement unscathed and parentless, his empty hand no longer holding his mother’s hand.

Since then, Henry had made a surprisingly good start to managing on his own. Routine had always been a very important aspect of Henry’s family life and now he embraced it like a life raft. True, it was the routine imposed upon him by his overprotective parents but no one who knew Henry could blame them for that. Now that they had gone only the routine remained and Henry Arthur Wiggins, aged 39, simply carried on doing the same things at the same times as he always had.

Until now.

Henry was a little puzzled for he was sure that he had never seen the Empire Emporium before even though he walked this way frequently. He felt quite sure that it wasn’t there the last time he had walked by but he couldn’t swear to it. Then again, quite clearly, it was there now, its entrance situated up one of the town’s narrow side streets in Back Lane, its swinging sign creaking in the breeze above the door as it proudly proclaimed:

THE EMPIRE EMPORIUM

Bric –a- brac

Quality GOODS

Victoriana

For the discerning customer

Henry only looked at bric-a-brac on Fridays as Friday was bric-a-brac day. Monday was shopping day, Tuesday was coffee with Uncle Bill day, Wednesday was laundry day and Thursday was Museum and Library volunteering day. Saturdays and Sundays were for fishing with Dad, reading, watching the television and for playing on his X-box. Routine was everything for Henry and he didn’t cope well with change. Fishing was now off the agenda, although he could still read, watch television and play on his X-box, even without parents.

On this occasion, it was a Monday and Henry was walking home with three carrier bags of shopping. Some unseen force caused him to stop, glance into the window, then propel him sharply into the alley. He changed direction so swiftly that his trilby fell off his head. He replaced his hat and turned his eager gaze back to the window and confirmed what he thought he had already seen. It was a puddle, lying there on the shelf in the window, surrounded by its own patch of turf and rough soil and neatly framed like a piece of art. Beside it was a carefully positioned manila cardboard sales tag, upside down, thus making it hard to read without entering the shop. The tag read,

Victorian Puddle, circa 1853. £250

On the back, in pencil, were the words,

The Empire Emporium,

Back Lane,

Middleton.

Henry and his parents had been avid bric-a-brackers for years and Henry was wise enough to know that things put up for sale in some of these shops weren’t always what they were cracked up to be so he was not convinced by the label.

“ You can’t sell a puddle!”

And yet, as if to disprove that, here was a puddle and it was for sale for £250.00.

Henry did not remember entering the shop but nonetheless he found himself inside, gazing down at the puddle and feeling a little unsteady on his feet. His routine had been broken and he felt the most overwhelming urge to buy this strange artefact. Almost without thinking, he found himself fingering the lining of his hat where he kept a plentiful supply of the £20 notes that his parents had stashed away in their bedroom.

Luckily, for Henry, his parents had never trusted banks so they had left their only child somewhat cash rich. He was still amazed at just how much money they had managed to stash away under their mattress. It was £17,585.43, to be precise. Henry knew this as he had counted it twice, just to be sure. In fact, he counted it twice every day since his parents had died. There were 879 twenty pound notes, one fiver, two twenty pence coins and three pennies, the odd £5.43 being the change from their last shopping trip, when they had bought £14.57’s worth of food. Henry reasoned that they had been making provision for their old age and now, as they did not have that to look forward to, being dead, then it must be his to do with as he wished.

He knew he really ought to stick to his routine and turn around and come back on a bric-a-brac Friday but his feet wouldn’t let him retrace his steps. He tried. The puddle was contained in a 6 feet by 4 feet wooden frame about eight inches deep. The irregularly shaped watery section, the puddle itself, was about 4 feet by three feet and surrounded by grass and soil. It certainly looked like a puddle. Henry dipped his fingers into the water gingerly and did a little finger wiggle. The greeny-brown water swirled around and then settled again into a caramel-like slab, entombing a tiny fly that really should have known better. Henry rescued the fly with the corner of a piece of paper from his pocket and left it to dry out on the dusty sill. He couldn’t abide suffering with any creature.

Henry’s feet marched him up to a young man leaning on the counter. He wore braces to hold up his grubby denims and sported splendid mutton chop whiskers. His attention was divided between his phone, the newspaper, open at the horseracing pages and a tiny TV screen mounted on the wall.

Henry coughed gently and the young man looked up, as if only just registering his presence.

”Can I help you?” he asked.

“Er, yes,” said Henry. “That puddle in the window...”

“What you mean the Victorian one, circa 1854..?

“It says 1853,” Henry corrected him.

“Yeah, yeah, that’s right 1853. You wanna buy it, or what? There aren’t many like that one about, you know. It’s fully authenticated by the Victorian Artefact Society of Great Britain with a certificate to prove it,” he said. As if anticipating Henry’s next question he rummaged around in the drawer under the counter.

“Aha, here it is,” he said taking out a certificate-like piece of yellowing paper.

“There you are, see,” said the young man, unfolding the certificate and waving it in front of Henry.

As Henry had never actually seen any Victorian puddles previously, or certificates of provenance, he couldn’t argue about the veracity of this particular example. To gain thinking time, he copied his father’s old trick, sucking a sharp intake of breath through his teeth whilst stroking his chin ruminatively. He was concerned about potential routine maintenance issues, he explained.

“What if it dries up, for instance? Puddles do that all the time, don’t they?”

“Nah, simple really,” said the young man, sensing a sale, including his commission. “Just top it up every now and then and it’ll go for another hundred years or more!”

“What, you mean just add water?” Henry asked, his naivety on display like a badge on a jumper. ”Any old water?”

“Nah, don’t be daft, mate. Can’t do that! Old water, certainly but not ANY old water! This is a genuine Victorian puddle, you know! You need to get the top- up water from another puddle and the older the better! Victorian, ideally, of course. None of this modern stuff will do.“

He clicked his tongue in derision.

“Don’t you know nothing about puddles?”

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THE END OF YOUTH by Michael Button

We thought the manticore hunt would an in-out job, a few hours there, a few hours back. But we’re professionals. Thorough. We came equipped for an over-nighter. Still. Three days was pushing it. By the end of the second night in that miserable, mosquito-ridden forest, even the most experienced of us – to wit, myself – were starting to suffer. A weird combination of boredom and tension.

Some poxy village elders had hired us to do the job after the beast had been spotted on the outskirts of their town, and one of their own had gone missing. We’d tracked our quarry to a cave, on a woody hillside. Sleeping in shifts, we watched the cave entrance. Restless sleep that did nothing to relieve our fatigue, knowing the kick in the ribs could come at any time. We argued and argued again whether the money was worth it. But we are men of our word. When we say we’re going to do a job, we do it.

On day three, she emerged.

Chokewater saw her first. The old rascal seemed to survive on air alone, so seldom did he leave his post, wedged between two boulders on an outcrop not twenty yards from the cave. I was whittling away at my nails with an old knife. Just happened to look up to see Chokewater raise his hand. Three fingers held aloft.

Time to work.

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DEATH AND LOSS by Darcia Gonzalez Laucerica

A father broken down by the fact that his daughter is dying turns to dark ways to save her. His pain and frustration sends him to a train station in which he tries to understand things beyond his reasoning and where he boards a train in which is possible to establish a deal with the underworld.

Instead, he's forced to face the reality of how unstoppable death is, no matter what you do, including merging into the supernatural. He is also confronted with his past as a religious man and his mother’s still religious beliefs and outlook on how to support her daughter, who waits for him in a hospital bed and might not reach the end of the month in her condition.

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