Birthday Pancakes

A small, wild-haired dervish flitted about the kitchen, eagerly spreading flour from one end to the other. A dropped egg lay gelatinous and sticky in a corner, yolk oozing slowly from the smashed shell.

Perched precariously on a brightly coloured stool, tiny hands poked tentatively at the cooking pancake, messily sliding a spatula underneath and attempting the careful flick she’d seen her mother do several times. The pancake flipped with a squelch, splattering slightly.

Eventually, a pile of pancakes lay steaming next to the stove, some slightly burnt, others undercooked and still oozing with uncooked batter. A tray was pulled out of a cupboard and set with a knife and fork, a plate with the three best pancakes topped with lemon and sugar (heavy on the sugar, a few lemon pips swimming in the excess lemon juice), and a bedraggled flower in a vase.

Flour smeared on each cheek and sugar stuck to the bottoms of bare feet, the tray is delivered with a proud smile and a lemon scented kiss pressed to a pillow-creased cheek.

“Happy Birthday, Mummy.” 

Pizza and Superheroes

Arms reached out of the darkness, roughly pinning him to a shadowy brick wall. Grunting with surprise, Liam struggles against his assailants, trying to dislodge the damp hand clamped over his mouth.

His struggles are to no avail; a hand slams his face into the brick, pain exploding in his face as his nose is smashed into the hard surface with an audible crunch.

“Where is it?” Demands one of his attackers roughly, before something cold and sharp is thrust against his neck. A knife.

Gulping, Liam tried to focus. “I – what? My wallet’s in my pocket, just take it!” His heart is beating wildly in his chest, his mouth and nose filled with the viscous taste and smell of blood.

With a growl, his other faceless assailant leans in. “Where is it?!” he insists, his friend pressing the knife blade firmly against his throat.

“I don’ – I don’t know!” Liam stuttered thickly, his voice shrill with rising panic. What the fuck do they want?! He wondered, panting into the grimy brick.

Pain arcs across his neck; the knife is pressed more firmly against his throat, blood welling hotly at the base of his throat. Liam struggles wildly, yanking his head away from the cruel blade. “Please! I don’t know what you’re talking about!” He tries, only to be pushed roughly against the brick again.

“Tell me! Or I’ll have my man start taking fingers until you do.” Hisses the man not pressing Liam’s bloodied face into the building.

Suddenly, another voice cuts through the darkness of the empty street.”How’s about I take a few of your fingers, mate?” A woman, her voice blunt and no-nonsense.

“Shit,” mutters the man holding Liam captive. “Boss, what’re we gonna do?”

Without another word, footsteps recede into the darkness – and the thug holding him pushes Liam to the ground and dashes after his boss.

As he slumps against the building behind him with relief, Liam catches sight of a short, feminine figure disappearing around the corner after his attackers – the woman who interrupted, he assumes.

Muted sounds of fighting reach his ears as he gently probes the bloody mess of his nose. Then; silence.

Hoping the woman hadn’t gotten herself in trouble trying to defend him, Liam hauled himself to his feet and made to amble painfully home, before noticing that his apparent saviour was standing before him.

“Better get that nose looked at,” she said, apparently not believing in introductions.

“Uh…thanks? I’ll do that.” said Liam, somewhat off balance.

“Took care of the idiots who attacked you – mistaken identity, obviously. I was assisting with an arrest a few blocks over when I heard the disturbance. Sorry I didn’t get here sooner – some people just don’t know when to give up, y’know? Are you sure you’re okay? You’re kinda…swaying. Sorry, I’m rambling. I do that.” She stopped, rocking back on her heels as she peered suspiciously at Liam.

“You – heard me?” he asked confusedly.

“Oh. Yeah – I do that. Um. Forget I said that? Please? And turn around? I gotta go – can’t – well, I’d prefer if you didn’t see that.”

Dazed and figuring the night couldn’t get any more weird, Liam made to shuffle around, before turning back with a question on his lips.

But she was gone. Vanished into thin air.

Figures I’d be out to get pizza and meet a superhero instead, he mused, before turning shuffle stiffly home, pizza forgotten.

***

From a nearby rooftop, a short black-clad figure perched. Watching the bloodied figure of the man she’d saved turn the corner, she waited until his footsteps faded from her heightened hearing, before dropping lightly into the alleyway she’d left the two unconscious thugs.

The night wasn’t over yet.

****

I do enjoy swapping stereotypical gender roles in fiction…

 

 

War Time

Lyra skidded to a halt, dropping to her knees with nary a wince for her poor joints. Time was of the essence if she didn’t want to get caught or shot at; her skinned knees would wait.

The man prone at her side had barely acknowledged her arrival; clutching his impaled and bleeding leg as he was, Lyra wasn’t surprised. Ripping open her field pack, she hunted for her precious tube of restorative ointment. Most of her colleagues didn’t have access to the more miraculous offworld medicines; she had hoarded what little she had been able to grab before she was called into service for war.

Fingers closing around the tube, she yanked the rebar from the soldier’s leg with her other hand, ignoring his screams. Flinging the metal away, she snatched up a bottle of alcohol from her pack and sloshed it over the bleeding wound. Ducking the soldier’s flailing limbs, she thumbed open the tube of ointment and squeezed it into her gloved hand. Smearing it on the still oozing wound, she rubbed it in, uncaring that in doing so, her patient had passed out from the pain. As she watched, the ragged hole stopped bleeding and scabbed over. It would be fully healed in an hour or two; just long enough for a nap before the soldier would be redeployed.

Clipping a locator pin to his jacket, she activated it and shuffled back, clearing the teleportation field for transport.

As the locator pin hummed and lit up, preparing for transport, a grimy hand shot out and gripped her wrist. Her patient was awake.

“Thank you,” he murmured indistinctly, before his prone body shimmered and disappeared.

Just so long as I’m not scraping you off a wall in a few hours, you’re welcome, she thought, ripping her gloves off and swinging her field pack over her shoulder again.

Agonised whimpering caught her attention before she’d even fully risen to her feet.

A nurse’s work was never done, it seemed.

Everywhere

The slums of Below were a dangerous place to be at the best of times, but to James, they were home.

Teeming with humanity, Below was a crowded nightmare; noise, filth, crime and vice. There was no escaping it, and the population made their living from it; even the population of Above needed drugs and people to do their dirty work.

Crouched on a darkened stoop, James waited and watched; wondering what life might be like if he’d been born Above. The rich elite that partied every night in the towering spires whose foundations made up the landscape of Below; what would it be like to never worry about your next meal, or whether you’d have your throat slit for the clothes on your back as you walked home?

The thrum of an engine breaks through James’ thoughts; a car. James had only seen cars a few times in his life – as a kid, he’d dreamed of buying one and flying up to the Everywhere; the global highway only accessible by car. Cars that only people from Above could afford.

Stretching out of his crouch, James twisted his neck to ease the stiffness, ears pricked. Soon enough, the car engine roared as it descended into street level, headlights illuminating the damp darkness. James left the relative comfort of the shadowed stoop to stand on the grimy sidewalk, hands loose by his sides as he waited.

As the car drew level with him, the passenger window retracted, revealing the shadowy shape of his employer within.

“James, your new assignment. You have three days; I need this done as quickly and quietly as possible if things are to proceed as planned. Do not disappoint me.”

James took the proffered memory stick, tucking it into his jacket. “Of course. Payment?”

Before his employer could respond, shots rang out behind him. Bullets ricocheted off the car as James ducked, narrowly avoiding being hit. When he looked up, the shooter was gone; melted into the shadows. 

James straightened, peering into the darkness of the car. His employer was dead, slumped against the leather interior. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, James used his employers still warm hand to activate the biometric door handle, before dumping his body onto the sidewalk. He climbed into the front drivers seat. Only lazy Above people would have a car that could drive itself, he thought.

Jabbing at buttons mostly by instinct, James managed to find the ‘Manual drive’,setting, only to become frustrated when it appeared he would need a fingerprint to override autopilot.

Stumped, he ran his fingers distractedly through his hair, only to be interrupted by the front passenger door opening and his girlfriend sliding in next to him, smiling broadly.

“Happy birthday, babe.” She said, kissing him on the cheek and passing him something.

Still trying to work out how she’d gotten in, and where she’d come from, James looked down at the gift she’d passed him, and gaped. A hand, roughly severed and wrapped in plastic, still warm. A human hand – one that only minutes ago was holding his new assignment.

“Thought you might need that,” she said impishly, reaching over to close his gaping jaw. “Take me to Everywhere, James. Let’s blow this joint.”

Still reeling from receiving his ‘gift’, he pressed the index finger of the severed hand to the scanner. Resetting the biometrics to recognise him instead, he tossed the hand out of the window and revved the engine, delighting in the throaty roar despite not having the slightest bit of experience with cars.

Grinning widely at his apparently mad girlfriend, he dropped the clutch and they shot forwards, before launching upwards towards the spires of Above, and beyond to the never ending possibilities of Everywhere.

Killer

Blood dripped, slick and red, along the edge of the knife blade. His hands gripped the hilt of the blade, confident as he sliced deftly through flesh.

He inhaled the ferrous tang of blood that hung in the air; there was nothing like it, he was sure.

Putting the bloodied knife aside, he scraped the carefully sliced beef into the heated wok. It steamed and hissed as it began to cook.

It was going to be a killer stir-fry.

***
I can’t decide whether this makes the guy sounds like a cannibal or a killer – Was going for killer, but seem to have gotten cannibal for free – ah well!

Ghosts

The soothing sound of waves crashing on the beach surrounded Amelia as she meandered barefoot along the beach. Seagulls hovered, cawing to each other as they fought over food. The air was briny and crisp, the water still too cold for swimming in mid-October.

The beach deserted in both directions except for a few brave surfers out in the water, Amelia wandered casually along the wet sand, reveling in the lack of humanity. Occasionally, she stopped to examine shells or other detritus washed up by the ocean, careful to leave it they way she found it.

Admiring the red ochre cliffs that lined this part of the beach, Amelia stumbled; nearly falling flat on her face in the sand before she righted herself. Turning to glare at whatever inanimate object had gotten in her way, Amelia gaped disbelievingly. This was no smooth rock or piece of driftwood; instead, the arm of what looked to be an enormous anchor lay half buried in the sand, shining dully.

Suddenly, Amelia became aware of movement on the beach. Three men on horses were picking their way down the beach towards her, looking bizarrely old-fashioned. The oldest, a man who looked to be in his eighties, sported an impressive handlebar moustache. They all wore white shirts and dark pants; hardly beach attire.

Seemingly ignoring Amelia, they rode down to where the anchor was lodged in the soggy sand and stood about talking and gesturing to each other soundlessly. That’s odd, thought Amelia. They’re standing right there, why can’t I hear them? Can they even see me?

A seagull cawed directly above her. Distracted, she peered up at the bird momentarily, before looking back at the scene before her.

The men and the horses were gone. So was the anchor. Smooth sand lay before her, no sign of any half-buried maritime relics.

Weird, she mused. Blaming an overactive imagination, Amelia  shrugged and continued walking.

If she heard the faint sounds of horses whinnying, the laughter of invisible children or the faint strains of Frank Sinatra from an unseen car radio – she gave no sign.

‘The Reading List’ Review – Clockwork Angel, by Cassandra Clare

It has been about two weeks since I last posted a book review, as per the challenge I set myself (see here). In those two weeks, I’ve started about four books, and promptly lost interest. I set Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel The Windup Girl as my next challenge, but lost interest a few pages in, same story with the next few I tried.

Yesterday, I was given an armful of free books (who doesn’t love free books?), Clockwork Angel among them. I finished it this afternoon. And so today, a review. Enjoy!

***

Book: Clockwork Angel, by Cassandra Clare – published 2010 by Walker Books

Reading List Number: 36

 

Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel is the first in a series of Young Adult historical fantasy novels. Set in London, it follows the story of young Tessa Gray as she discovers a world previously unknown to her; a world of angels, demons and other supernatural folk. Drawn into their world against her will, she is torn romantically between two young men, whilst also struggling with her identity and the search for her brother.

Clare’s prose is readable and at times profound, however I found myself cringing at the excess of poetry and book references. Tessa professes to be fond of books, but I felt it somewhat unnecessary to keep bringing the reader back to how apparently well read she is. Equally cringe-worthy was some of the twee descriptions – everyone is either beautiful or disfigured or plain, and this is spelled out explicitly, as opposed to a general impression gained through small tidbits (i.e showing, not telling).

However, the story itself was compelling enough to keep me reading, even if I occasionally had to roll my eyes. Extensive research into 1870’s London is apparent in some of the smaller details, which enriched the experience of dashing about London as seen through Tessa’s American eyes. Similar to J.K Rowling’s London, mundanes and Downlanders (supernatural folk like vampires and fae) live side by side, mundanes unaware of the danger and magic occurring under their very noses – this sort of juxtaposition between magic and non-magic has always been a favourite of mine, and Clare’s London is filled with secret ‘magic’ locations.

Overall, Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel is a fantastical, pleasing diversion – suitable for young and old, as long as you don’t squint too hard.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

***

Next book on the list is Clockwork Prince, also by Cassandra Clare. To see the rest of the list, see here.

Fallout – Part Two

Read Part One, here.

***

A hulking, deformed figure appeared in the gap growing between the two halves of the blast shield. Lila stood shakily, eyes on the indistinct form standing in the bright doorway. Hand going to her gun, she raised it warily, squinting against the light growing in the doorway.

Sunlight.

“Who – who are you?” She stuttered, readjusting the grip on her weapon and hoping she looked more authoritative than she sounded.

The misshapen figure paused, and a harsh rasping sound reached Lila’s ears – breathing? Or speech? What horrific things could have survived out there for so long? The Earth is dead – surely nothing could live out there after the war?

Lila edged closer to the wall behind her, away from the creature. It stepped further into the room, and as it did Lila’s stomach sank with dread; another deformed creature stood behind him, making the same sucking, rasping sounds.

Keeping her eyes on the dark figures, Lila removed one hand from her gun and slipped it into her pocket. Please tell me I brought it with me, she pleaded mentally. Her fingers slipped around a smooth circular surface; a tracking beacon. She pressed it, and returned her hand to the gun still trained on the rasping, bulky aliens who still stood in the entrance, now gesticulating bizarrely.

“Don’t – don’t move! Who are you? Why are you here?” She tried again to communicate, weapon shaking minutely in her hands.

One of the creature gestured at itself, tapping its dark, featureless face. Lila wished they would close the blast shield – the unforgiving light shining in behind them was making her eyes sting and water.

Then, one of the creatures spoke. “Testing, one, two. We have lift off! Miss – please lower your weapon; we’re not here to harm you.”

Lila gaped. Not aliens, then. Snapping her jaw shut, she repeated: “Who are you? Earth is dead, there’s been no contact from any of the other fallout shelters – who are you?!

Again they avoided the question. “Miss, I really don’t know what to tell you. What fallout shelters? There’s no radiation outside, never has been. Whatever you believe, it’s wrong.”

Lila faltered, gun lowering slightly. No radiation? No other fallout shelters? Where have these people been for the last two decades? “I don’t believe you. Who are you? Why can’t I see your faces?”

“I- oh, the suits. Miss, it’s a mask. A breathing mask – standard procedure for entering abandoned secure facilities. Here, let me show you.”

Together, the two misshapen creatures lifted their bulky arms to their faces; when they moved away, Lila could see hair, ears, a sharp chin.

They were human.

Fallout B wasn’t alone any more.

Lila had so many questions – but before she could ask any of them, footsteps clattered down the hall beyond the blast chamber. The cavalry had arrived.

***

 

Can’t seem to help myself, cliff hangers seem to be a favourite at the moment…

Time

Dumping the dusty cardboard box on the table, Kat sliced open the sticky taped edges and lifted the flaps.

Nice. Thanks so much for your donation of a toilet seat, she thought, amused. Tossing the dusty toilet seat into the bin, she rifled through the rest of the contents of the box, setting aside the things good enough to sell and tipping the rest in the bin. I swear you never know what you’re gonna find next in this place.

Deciding that a loo seat was probably going to be the highlight of the day, she pulled the next box off the cart beside her, grunting as she hauled it onto the table; it was heavier than it looked. Oh goody, feels like glassware or something. It’d better all be matching; last thing we need is random drinking glasses that nobody wants to buy.

Unfolding the flaps of cardboard at the top, Kat peered into the dusty mess of items inside. It looked promising; candles, vases, faded silverware. As she lifted the items one by one, a new treasure was uncovered; an intricately carved box lay at the bottom, its construction much older than anything else in the detritus of dusty donations.

Lifting it out carefully, Kat stripped off her bulky gloves so she could run her fingers across the ancient surface of the wood. Wonder how old it is? Certainly not twentieth century, at any rate. Internal monologue still humming excitedly, Kat lifted the lid. Inhaling the scent of dust and age, she peered inside at the decaying velvet interior and the antique sewing implements. Beautiful. Who donates this kind of stuff, seriously? I don’t even know what something like this would be worth, she thought excitedly, running a reverent hand over tiny scissors dulled with age and a scrap of ancient sage ribbon.

Lifting the tray out of the box, she uncovered further treasures; most impressive among them a pocket watch, intricately engraved. Opening it, she sighed in disappointment to see that the face was cracked down the centre. The inscription on the inside made up for it, however; Dearest Charles, all my love, from your Katherine, it read.

So moved by the simple inscription passed down all these years, at first Kat didn’t notice that anything had changed.

Then, she heard ticking. It still works! She crowed internally. Turning to find her boss so she could share her find, she stopped dead.

Her boss was gone. In fact – everyone was gone. The white walls and dusty air of her workplace had vanished, replaced by bookcases and intricate carpets.

Before she could pinch herself awake, a voice spoke from behind her.

“Katherine? Is that you?”

 

Trespassing

‘Private Government Facility. Trespassers will be prosecuted’ read the sign in large, serious letters. The fence line stretched out as far as the  eye could see, similar signs appearing at intervals into the distance.

Chase kicked the fence in frustration. “Since when? We drove this way six months ago, and there was nothing here! Some effin’ government department found our camping spot and built a honkin’ great fence around it – we found it first, arseholes! Get your own camping spot!” He raged, rattling the bars that separated him from his destination.

Amy rolled her eyes. “Shut up, Chase. That spot didn’t belong to you, so I hardly think they needed your permission to stick their fence up.”

“Whatever, man. Why didn’t we know about this? Isn’t the government meant to tell us this stuff? Is this Aboriginal land? Are they even allowed to build their shit on Aboriginal land? They’re hiding something, I can feel it. Its probably a branch of Area 51. They’re hiding aliens from us Amy, and I wanna know why!”

Amy sighed, muttering “Idiot,” under her breath as she turned back to the car to let the others know what was going on.

“Government facility, guys. Chase reckons its aliens.” She said derisively as she climbed into the driver’s side.

James laughed.”Hah, wouldn’t that be a sight? Doesn’t Chase know that the aliens don’t come to Australia? They all go to America or England first, according to Hollywood and BBC.”

Starting the engine, Amy beeped the horn and yelled out the window, “Come on Chase, give it up! We’ll find somewhere else to camp!”

Chase didn’t react. He was motionless, peering through the fence as though something had caught his eye.

She beeped the horn again, this time letting it blare in one long, irritated note.

Still no reaction.

“Fine then,” she muttered, swinging the car around and driving away at a crawl. He could run after the car, for all she cared.

She looked in the rear vision mirror to see if Chase had noticed yet.

But he had disappeared.

Stopping the car, she glanced in her side mirror; nothing there either. Turning in her seat, she checked her blind spot, expecting to see him jogging towards the car.

Nothing. Chase was nowhere in sight.

“Uh, guys? Can any of you see Chase?” she asked worriedly.

Negative responses all ’round.

“Idiot probably jumped the fence,” said Mary, snorting.

But even when they left the car idling in park and walked back to fence to peer through, there was no sign of him.

Chase had vanished, between one moment and the next.