Archives for posts with tag: short story

There’s something wrong with me she said. Who is she? Doesn’t matter. The names and faces keep changing. I told her as such the last time. She said that was part of the problem. Or maybe she said it was a symptom. Not that important.

It’s not healthy she said, meaning my appetite for women. A man shouldn’t feel compelled to flit from bird to bird like a tree. He ought to try settle down some and try growing some roots. I might have mixed some of that up. I wasn’t paying much attention. She was beginning to bore me again.

You’re a man whore, one of her said to me once. Something about double standards for men and women, but I never said she couldn’t do the same. I never cared much for what she did outside of when I craved her. What do I care what society thinks you ought to do when I dont care what it thinks what I ought to do? That’s what I told her but she wasn’t satisfied. She made like a tree and left.

Another one sobbed all night in my bed. I slept just fine beside her. Did I feel bad for her? Sure. But I had no part in her self-deceptions. Dont put promises on me that I never made. I never lied once.

It’s a hunger. I tried to explain it in terms she might understand: women eat too right? You crave a thing so you go get it and eat it: I consume women in the same way. I enjoy the experience. Savour the taste of every individual bite. Sometimes one even grabs hold of me and I feast on it for months at a time. It’s nothing personal. Women and men must eat to live.

We are not food, she said. As though she spoke for all of Her with one voice. Of course you’re not food, I’m not an imbecile. But how else do you explain something to someone when it doesnt ever make sense to them? Food is our common ground. You can’t expect every metaphor to work one-for-one. Plus she started it with the talk of my appetite and my being a tree. Or was that me? I get confused sometimes.

I remember her crying another time too. Thinking I’d changed this time. What’s there to change? A hungry man eats and is grateful for the meal. Why should there be an obligation to eat the same meal forever? Or to remember every meal? To remember all her names? I dont understand food. Maybe I dont understand trees or metaphors either. Or women and people. I do get confused sometimes.

They tell you it’s like a flutter in your gut when your feet expect a regular step and miss. Or when you catch yourself on a step that shouldn’t be there. But it’s not. It’s world shattering.

It’s a strange thing to be confronted by reality.

I was happily married to my wife for almost two decades before we divorced. She was a mathematician and I was a physicist. We met in university during a shared lecture on applied maths. It was a small theatre and she caught me staring multiple times. We spoke afterwards, clumsily. She invited me out to a bar crawl and I declined. Instead we spent all night bickering in her common room – what was more fundamental in nature, maths or physics? She was wrong: it’s physics. Our worlds collided that day.

Until near the end, our marriage was largely of little note. We had no children and enjoyed working in each other’s company when we could. There were few arguments. We flirted over playfought existential philosophy – was maths discovered or invented? Would physics ever end?

Then came QMind. It was the most powerful computer ever built and it was built only for one thing: mathematics. QMind was no mere tool: it was a mathematician in its own right. It would conceptualise, connect, prove and journal its billions of findings. It was the atomic bomb to mankind’s pistol and it didn’t take long for it to outproduce our species’ collective contributions in the field.

I suppose QMind shattered my wife’s world. Boom. No more maths. Picture that.

I didn’t understand it then. In fact, I dreamed of living to see the day we fully understood the physical world. I tried to reassure my wife, told her that as we uncovered more of the universe’s fundamental nature, we would have to create more maths. But she knew there was no beating QMind. It broke her.

My wife began to spend long hours at work. It was only then that reality confronted me for the first time.

We live in such a narrow slice of existence and know so very little. We go about our daily lives, not knowing all the pieces in our phones or the human cogs within our institutions. So many trains kept on the tracks, kept on time by so many invisible conductors. And all of them stay invisible so long as it all goes according to plan.

My wife was cheating on me with a colleague of hers. Boom. Her world had shattered and so she’d chosen to shatter mine.

A thing like that sounds trivial when overheard in a pub. So what? Find someone better and move on. But the reality of reality is complicated. Had she changed so much to want to hurt me so? Had she always been this person? How could one act ripple out and disturb so much? I didn’t just question her, but our past, the past itself, and then myself. She wasn’t whom she’d claimed and vowed to be. Our relationship was false, built on unsound foundations. What we had between us was false. All the words and actions shared meant different things now. And who was I that could be so lacking in my judgement? Not the same I I had presumed to be all this time.

We separated quickly and quietly. And then QMind struck again.

The thing about science is it isn’t about the body of knowledge – that list of whats and facts. It’s about the process. You guess at a thing and plug away at disproving what you can. You rule out the ideas one by one, over and over again, clipping off the branches of possibility. And then over a long enough timeline, the approximation of the truth within your model or body of knowledge hopefully approaches the actual Truth. But it’s never the Truth itself. Only the Truth is the Truth. It’s just a giant simulated model.

I wish I could’ve explained that clearly to my wife. Maybe it might have changed things. If she understood that the maths was not the reality but a heuristic – only reality was reality. Most likely it would’ve made no difference.

Even understanding it myself, I shudder at the chaos of unburnished Truth. Beyond our man-made rules and laws is the real thing. It hides during everyday life. A physicist revels in the intellectual thought of approaching Truth. But drop him in the midst of it, and he falls apart. All it takes is one late train.

QMind released its latest findings. Its AI network had been linked to a supercollider around Jupiter. As it processed the data, it reached a consensus. QMind had concluded there were no more fundamental particles to be found beyond what it had discovered. It had unified general relativity and quantum mechanics to build a Theory of Everything. There were no alternative interpretations of the universe left.

And yet there were still some physical anomalies. Anomalies with no higher level explanation available to them now. They simply existed, unaccounted for. Boom.

It drove me mad, again. QMind had divided the universe into something understandable and come up with some truly indivisible parts. I emailed these anomalous remainders to my wife, hoping my despair might be her hope.

It’s a strange thing to be confronted by reality.

Twenty six.

I swore I’d moved on.

‘What?’ cried Selina. The fishing line snapped, whipping the pair of us off our feet. Asses sore and elbows torn from the jagged stone steps of the communal pond.

‘Nothing’, I said and pushed her off me. And soon enough we were back to popping water lily bulbs and counting how many of the tadpoles had grown legs. We were six then.

A few years later we had chased a snake to its nest in our little boat. We killed it with our paddles, one apiece - but not before tipping overboard, all the frenzied thrashing included. As we emerged from the murky pond as victors waving our paddles (boat abandoned for the day), I felt a sharp tug in my foot and yelped. Selina turned around, dead snake draped over her shoulders like a Hollywood starlet’s fur and laughed. Embedded in my sole was our old fishing hook, snapped line and all. 

Her father caught us striding (and limping) into the village. How we cried when he beat us both. My own father nodded in approval as he tended to my foot. Of who, I was never very sure.

‘When I leave this village I’m never coming back.’ That’s what she told me that night. Thunder growled and I believed her. The air was charged and I told her ‘I’ll leave too.’

We were sixteen when my father phoned Selina’s. Theirs was the only telephone in the village at the time. We had been skipping rocks on the way back from school. Selina’s mother damn near dragged us the whole way by the ear when she found us.

‘Tell your mother to pack her things, son. You’re joining me in London.’

I remember how upset Selina was. We stomped puffer fish all week in near silence. ‘You’ll get your visa in no time.’

She didnt say anything. When I left we didn’t say goodbye.

Selina’s family followed not soon after. I remember it was the twenty sixth of a winter month because that was her favourite number.

They moved into a two bedroom flat not six minutes from ours. I shoved her face in the snow, she put it down my neck. I made her eat some. ‘That was fun’, she said and we walked home holding hands.

We went to different colleges but the same university. We kissed and fought and fucked the entire time, like only two halves of a whole could.

We were twenty six soon enough. I had saved a pretty penny for a ring. Christmas day we spent snuggled in bed rewatching old films. And the day after, on a snowy twenty sixth morning, I knelt on one knee and Selina walked away.

I hurt for a long time. The world became incomprehensible. I ran away with my medical degree stateside. Selina seemed to follow. I know because I followed her on social media like a maniac. We both zigzagged around the nation through the years, never within reach and neither of us reaching out. We darted between our respective bases in the US and our families in England and India. Her father wept for me.

We are thirty six now. As usual I am late for my flight. I’m okay with this. There’s something soothing about the dull rush of an airport. I sleep well in them. Still, I power through the travelators with a coffee in hand. There’s something to be said about making an effort.

I see a stewardess at my gate as I approach it. She looks mildly unhappy before she notices me and puts on her professional face. I am clearly the lone straggler they’re waiting on.

That’s when I hear that laugh. The laugh I havent heard in a decade. I would recognise it anywhere in the world. Much to the dismay of the stewardess, I turn around and head to the opposite gate. 

The sound of her voice reels me in. I am caught again on Selina’s hook.

Before I know it, I am hugging her and shaking her husband’s hand. Selina seems embarrassed and the gentleman is confused. I dont remember the words exchanged. Only the feeling of floating on air. It’s electric, like those old thundering nights.

I’m very happy for them, selfishly and selflessly so. I tell them as much, and explain I am very late. My father is ill and England awaits. Selina is headed back to India to visit her in-laws. 

They board their flight. We are separated again. The charged air dissipates and my feet find their way back to solid ground. I have missed my flight.

I am left standing at her gate. Gate twenty six. Thinking. I swore I’d moved on.
robert johnson deal with devil blues

The devil watched the sun creep low from up in his tree. He swished the toothpick about his mouth silently before sticking it back out one side of his lip and sucking. In the distance a woman lugged a large suitcase towards his crossroad.

The sun was falling faster and faster. The woman moved slower and slower. One of the wheels broke and she profaned his names at her poor luck. He couldn’t help but grin. Shadows elongated and the orange streaked sky teased reds and purples. His hour drew closer, as did the dark unsuspecting woman. In minutes he would materialize for the night. As agreed in the covenant of old. The toothpick disappeared back into his gum line.

The woman was still muttering curses when he jumped down in her way.

‘Oh Lord.’ She said, a hand held against her chest.

The devil dusted off his suit and reached into his inner pocket for a comb. ‘I’m sorry if I scared you there, pretty lady.’

She looked him up and down twice over before speaking. ‘What the devil are you doing up in a tree?’ Her voice was the smoothest gravel. She laughed a short laugh before he could answer. ‘For a second I thought maybe this was a sundown town I’d come to, but my God, you’re as black as me. Ain’t that a relief?’

The devil said nothing. He wanted badly to hear that voice again but the woman waited for him to speak now. He pointed to the overpacked suitcase missing a wheel. ‘Must’ve been a bad set to throw you off so bad.’

She narrowed her eyes distrustfully.

‘It’s plain as day you’re a musician with a voice like that, and don’t try telling me you ain’t!’ The devil waved the comb about as he spoke like a wand, each gesture punctuating his words. ‘Why, I can smell out a musician sure as I can pick out a cat from dogs.’

‘You’re awful observant for a man jumping from trees. In a suit and in the damn near dark, no less.’

He soaked in the coffee cream of her voice. ‘I think… I think you know who I am. You look like a smart little lady. You know the price of the trade.’ He coolly put the comb back in his inner pocket.

The woman broke into a deep belly laugh. ‘Mama always told me this would happen, playing the devil hisself’s music.’ She looked at him with steel resolute eyes. ‘I have no fear for you to prey upon, nor any wants that you can false promise.’

His mouth turned to dry cotton. He believed her, by God. ‘You know what I have to offer. Surely you’ve heard the tales. What I’ve given to countless before you. What I may give to your peers if you pass. The great gift!’

She shook her head, all confidence. ‘What I have is God given. My soul is not for sale.’ With that the woman shook her broken suitcase, and trudged on passed the devil.

The sun was gone now and the devil stood alone at the crossroad.

Sadie released the tight grips with which she held onto the bottommost cereal shelf behind her. She had been sat, legs splayed, smeared across the floor and into the shelving for minutes that felt like hours. Her head turned to one side; her eyes glued to the other, to the boy who hovered in her periphery.

“You’ll be able to move soon. I’m sorry for that. I always am.”

The invisible pressure that trampled her let up enough so she could breathe again. Sadie’s hands dropped to the floor and she turned to face the floating boy. She pushed herself more upright and tried to compose herself, a hundred thoughts running past her as she gasped greedily for air.

“You say you know me.”

His feet daintily touched the floor one at a time. “In this moment in time, yes. Maybe better than anyone you’ve ever known.”

“And you’re not here to kill me.” Sadie looked around her. The people in the aisle were frozen still. Or moving too slowly to be perceptible. One woman was caught in the process of dropping a soup tin from overhead. It still levitated above her eye-line.

“No. Just needed somebody to talk to.” The boy blushed and looked away.

Sadie wiped her clammy hands on her jeans. “Sure. We can talk. About what? Why me?”

The boy shrugged. “I don’t know why. Out of all the people I’ve ever encountered… You’ve always been the easiest person to talk to. Now, I mean. I’ve tried later and earlier. It never works the same. Even when we’ve met before.”

Sadie got to her feet and looked at the boy. “What’s your name kid? You some kind of time-travelling alien robot?”

“Something like that. My name is Ayo: it means ‘joy’. And I’m the last – or only – of my kind.”

Sadie squat down until they were face to face and held his hands. “I’m so sorry. What happened?”

“I don’t know. There’s no way to ever find out. They just stopped existing. All of them. I go back and forwards but none of them ever were any more. But I remember them. I remember my parents. I don’t think I made all of them up in my head. Or else how would I exist?”

Sadie tried to hide her mental gymnastics. “You exist, Ayo. I can see you.” She looked into his eyes and squeezed his little palms. “And I can feel your warm hands.”

Ayo looked at her like an adoring puppy, waiting for her to say all the right things. Apparently again.

“How many times have we met? Ten? Twenty?”

“Hundreds. Maybe thousands. I don’t count. You’re my best friend.” Ayo considered his next words. “We don’t talk about the same thing.”

Sadie stood up too quick and paid for it with a faint head. “Oh Jesus.” She walked up the aisle unsurely. And then down. Up and down she paced. Thinking. All the while the little boy Ayo waited silently. Expectantly. The woman in the aisle still stood under her tin of soup. She’s stuck and doesn’t even know it, Sadie thought. That’s me. “Ayo. You can’t just keep me trapped here. It’s not right.“

“You’re not a prisoner. You live a full life after this.” The boy seemed startled. “I don’t understand. You’ve never reacted this way before here.” Perhaps he was telling the truth and this wasn’t her prison, but only his sanctuary. If so she had shattered it.

Ayo seemed to grow taller before Sadie’s eyes. His hair stood on end and his shoulders lifted. Sadie realised his heels had come off the ground and he was beginning to float again. Higher and higher.

“What’s happening? Ayo?”

The air became heavier. The boy’s eyes began to roll up as he spoke. “Something’s not right. I have to do it again. I’ve got to run it back. You always say the right thing.”

Sadie reached out, through the thick air, grabbing Ayo by his trouser pocket and pulling him back down to the floor. “No!” The boy’s eyes returned to normal as Sadie shook him. “No more do-overs.”

Ayo’s dainty feet touched the floor one at a time.

“Ayo. Listen to me. I know you’re lonely, but you have to let this moment go. You can’t live in this safe memory over and over. You have to move on.”

They both hugged each other wordlessly for a time. Ayo cried into Sadie’s shoulder. And then he left.

(The tin of soup hit the woman in the eye.)

It never got any easier. He only got better at dealing with it afterwards. Sonny took a deep breath in and put the point of his knife to the stranger’s cheek. Perhaps the man would wake up; some did, others didn’t. It ultimately made no difference. The message was clear either way. As plain as the nose on their faces. They would never bother him again.

None ever retaliated or reported him to the authorities, just like his brother had told him all those years past. The best defence is offence. Sometimes Sonny’d cross paths with one of them by the markets. They were always men. And their gaze would immediately fall to their feet. Sonny would pretend not to see them, ashamed of his still-visible handiwork. And they would go about their days without bothering the other.

Sonny penetrated the skin and pulled down the face in a slow wide arc, his other hand pushing the stranger’s face down and away from him. The man twitched underneath him and moved. He didn’t wake. Sonny adjusted his position to accommodate the movements, riding the chest and shoulder with his knees.

He twisted the knife and arced back to make a giant S, that bled into the man’s eye. S for Sonny.

Their eyelashes always fluttered before they opened their eyes. Sonny waited uneasily, patiently. He felt most nervous at this point. What if he’d flubbed the dosage and they just bench-pressed him clean off? The man took a long moment to register his situation: gagged and immobilized, with a blade to the face.

‘Evening.’

He made throaty sounds with his voice and his nostrils flared frantically. Sonny swapped his hands over, keeping the man’s jaw firmly faced away from himself. He lined the knife with the stranger’s eyeline.

‘You settle down and behave if you want to see to morning.’

He could feel the man’s heart beating away under his right knee. His hard breathing blew gloopy strands of red blood across the floor. But the man didn’t resist.

‘You, sir, have only yourself to blame for this predicament. You prey on the feeble and weak. Do I look weak?’ Sonny turned the man’s face to him with the flat of the knife. ‘Look at me.’

The man shook his head and tears welled in the congealing pooling of blood about his right eye.

‘I swore to my brother that I’d never be prey again. That I would choose to never be a victim ever again. And that means sending a message to predators. Would-be predators.’ Sonny slowly undid the gag on the man’s mouth.

‘I ought to take an ear or nose right now.’ Sonny stood up and pulled the man up with him. ‘There will not be a next time.’ The man was clearly in shock, dusting his patterned shirt off even as fresh blood dripped down his face. ‘Say it.’

‘There will not be a next time.’

‘Good. Now fuck off.’

Sonny waited until the stranger fucked off before tucking away his blade. He got as far as a lamp-post before he had to throw up on a tree.

It never got any easier.

Screenshot of Netflix's Punisher season 1 finale, subtitled: "When you looked at your ugly, mangled face, you're gonna remember what you did."
on that note, Punisher season 2, let’s go

There’s something immediately beautiful about the incomplete. Some visceral unquantifiable quality is lost when an incomplete work of art becomes the polished completed product. And this isn’t to say that one shouldn’t aspire to finish their projects. No. Not at all.

Only that some emotion must inevitably be reigned in and filed down to make a cohesive thing. Honest contradictions must be reconciled, or one prioritized over another, to make a wholly rational statement.

One must have a true endgame in mind to make art. A journey without a destination is aimless wandering (and it should be noted here that aimless wandering can be its own destination). Yet the journey is the essential spirit where the art resides. The destination becomes inconsequential before the desire to reach it. But there must be a desire to reach it.

So the process then, when in servitude to a higher cause, is the master. It is the real true art and mastery. And so, we return to incomplete works of art.

Those works that are stalled before reaching their True North. An unfinished draft; raw video footage or unpolished grain. Half-drawn sketches. Living beating hearts, laid open-breasted upon a table.

And what are our lives but incomplete works of art? Unaccomplished dreams. Grieving loved ones. Shopping lists and chores. Words left unspoken. Nobody leaves this world with every thread resolved and their character arcs concluded. We exit it as untidily and ill-prepared as we came into it.

And so we come to me: the artist at the end of his life. I have been a vagrant upstart. The pale imitator and the disrupter. The visionary prophet and then the establishment. The follower, heretic and mentor. I have been the babe at the teat, and father. Leader, ruler, dictator. Advisor, businessman, monument.

My body of work is beyond reproach. I have sculpted the very heart of man and painted the heavens themselves. I have lived and I have loved and been loved in turn.

I have reached True North. I am sadly complete.

Farewell.

ultronsculpt

Mara stopped in front of the house. She knew it was the right house; could feel it was the right house. She could feel him inside, tossing and turning in his bed. And she knew he could feel her stood outside in the wet darkness. She rang the bell on the bicycle twice and just like that, the curtains in one of the upstairs bedrooms parted. He hadn’t heard the bell of course. That wasn’t why he had come to the window. No, that was pure instinct. A mouse frozen stiff from the scent of a snake.

edwinushiro
The rain was beginning to lash down harder now. It was almost that time of night. She waited on her bicycle for the door to open. This had to be quick. A light came on upstairs. And then downstairs. Slowly the front door opened. It was difficult to make out the details of his face, with most of the brightness behind him drowning out his features but she knew it was him nevertheless. Not that she knew him personally, nor that he knew her, but his kind were all the same. They all smelled the same. Smelled guilty.

He stepped out into the open, still in slippers, and entirely undressed for the worsening weather. Unmoving again, a mouse caught in the glare of a snake. Unbreathing. Mara nodded. The man stepped back inside then came out again in a jacket and shoes, locking the door behind him.

It was the dead of night and everybody was tucked away in bed, deep in sleep, including all of the man’s own people. His partner and children. His neighbours. Mara looked around her. A little further up the road, right at the end it, was a small community garden. It consisted of a metal fence that ringed off some bushes, one lone tree and a most modest patch of grass. A set of benches and what appeared to be daffodils were about as much thoughtful planning as had gone into the garden. Even then, Mara couldn’t be certain the flowers hadn’t sprouted entirely by accident. It would have to suffice, she decided.

Mara gestured at the man and he walked over to the bicycle wordlessly. He was pathetically wet already now, soaked through head-to-toe but for what his jacket covered of his upper torso. She pointed to the garden and then cycled slowly to its gate, waiting for the man to catch up. She reached into her basket and pulled out a knotted jumble of rope. She fished out the wooden handle and began untying the knots until the skipping rope fully untangled and the other end hit the ground. The man reached her in time to catch the handle before it too hit the ground,  and began scooping the rest of the rope off the concrete pavement. Still holding the neatly folded rope length to his chest, he reached into a jacket pocket and took out a bank card. Mara looked at her new trophy with the greatest care, tilting it left and right under the street light to read the embossed name, MR D MANN.

In the small garden, the man, Derek Mann, climbed the solitary tree and hung himself from it with the skipping rope. His body swayed with the increasingly diminishing force of a pendulum. His legs eventually stopped convulsing. Mara didn’t look up from her prized card.

She ran her fingers along the silver writing, feeling his name like braille. It was almost that time again. Mara slipped her newest trophy into her dress pocket and rode off through the worsening downpour, dry as a ghost.


Art by the superdope Edwin Ushiro

Chip’s facial monitor flashed red emoji over and over. Anger. Anger. Anger. He stabbed the point of his longsword into the ground, using it momentarily to steady himself. Chip lifted it overhead with both hands like an executioner, the sword pulsing visible heartbeats of light.

‘And now I am become an instrument of vengeance; nothing more. The swift sword of retribution. The arm of god’s divine will.’

The battered old man raised his hands at the metal-headed youth’s feet and screamed. “Wait I beg you. Please. Spare the life of this old cowardly fool.’ The professor’s bladder had not relented to the same fears that had crippled his colleagues. Fears of disembowelment or decapitation. The old man was pretending.

‘Do you take me for a fool still, old man?’ Chip’s monitor flashed red.

The old professor dropped his pretences and chuckled to himself before slowly standing up tall. ’I’d be the fool if I didn’t try.’ He spat on Chip’s face, the saliva creating a visible streak of magnified pixels as it slid down. ‘You are an abomination. Strike cleanly.’ The man closed his eyes and looked up at the ruined skies above, through eyelids and ceilings alike. ’Don’t bring further shame upon your creator. No more than you already have.’

Chip swung downward, hard, at the old man, slicing him cleanly as requested. The chosen target was not a bare throat, but instead a knee. The professor exploded into blood and anguish as he collapsed to the floor once more.

‘My leg. My leg.’ He repeated to himself uncontrollably, clutching at his stump.

‘Your bombs obliterated my home and murdered my family. You butchered the man that took me in and made me whole again. You took everything away from me. Because of you…’ Chip rapped his blank facial monitor twice. It made the clinking sound of glass.

‘I didn’t make you a freak. I didn’t. I had no such part in your project.’

’The project saved my life. That same work will not save yours. Instead you will die a dog’s death here and now.’

Chip raised the longsword again and again and hacked the defenceless old man into a thousand pieces. His monitor displayed a green smiling emoji.

‘So you’re like the grim reaper? The angel of death?’

Ib looked up from the document in front of him. The woman caught herself playing with her hands and stopped.

‘Nothing quite so grand but you’re free to look at it that way if you’d like.’ The woman looked young and visibly nervous. An inexperienced face putting on a confident front. Ib was more than familiar with the look.

He said nothing. The silence seemed to bother her more than him. She buckled under his gaze and continued on. ‘Think of me as an associate or representative if that helps. It’s not within my job description to be usually making calls out like this but we all do what we can to keep the train on the tracks.’

Ib stared at the woman a little longer, hoping she’d whittle on. She didn’t this time. She had introduced herself as Mag something-or-other but it seemed wrong to refer to her as such in his mind. ‘The woman’ seemed appropriately impersonal so he stuck with that.

‘So he exists then? Death?’

‘So far as a void can exist, yes they exist.’ The woman’s fingers lightly rapped on the tabletop.

‘They.’

‘They, he, she, it. All of the above can work.’

‘But not you.’

‘Like I said, consider me an associate. What I normally deal with is actually a lot less glamorous.’

Ib couldn’t help snickering. ‘You have a desk job.’

The woman stabbed at the paper between them with a brown nail. ‘Sign it.’

Ib looked at the very bottom of the statement, beside his printed name IBRAHEEM YAHYA, at the blank line. ‘Why? What makes me so special?’

‘There is absolutely nothing special about you Ibraheem, I promise.’

‘Nobody else has to sign a consent form before dying. You’re literally asking me to sign my life away.’ Ib wondered if that was the right time to use the word ‘literally’.

‘If all we wanted was you dead, don’t you think you’d already be dead? Please Ibraheem just sign the form so we can both get going.’

Ib picked up the piece of paper and glanced over it. He knew the letters, it felt like. They weren’t in English but nonetheless there was something homely about them. The words almost hovered into comprehension every time he strained his eyes. Almost. ‘You expect me to sign but I can’t even read this hieroglyphic bullshit.’

Mag – the woman – plucked the paper back out of Ib’s hand and waved her own over it before returning it to him. ‘There.’ She said. The paper hadn’t creased at her rough handling. The letters danced, blurred, unfuzzed, into the Queen’s own English.

Ibraheem Yahya, a young man of twenty-three, took his time to read twice the page which detailed fully his current situation and dilemma. He cleared his throat uncomfortably and on cue, a barista re-filled his glass of cucumber water. Someone should tip her, his wandering mind thought for a second.

‘Will I remember any of this?’

‘Nothing from when I contacted you up until the moment the ink dries on the form.’

‘And then I die.’

‘You will walk out of this café and collapse after taking an undisclosed number of steps.’

Ib scratched the bristly shadow of his face and picked at his dry hair. If he had gone to the barbers, he could’ve left a fresher looking corpse behind. ‘And then my family will cry over me and bury me and mourn me. And then I’m just supposed to climb back out of my grave as if nothing ever happened?’

‘As if nothing ever happened. We anticipate some media attention but nothing sticky. The news cycle is shorter than ever.’

‘I still don’t understand why you can’t just let me stay alive. You want to turn my family’s life upside down and then put them through the circus show for what?’

The woman – or girl; she looked much younger now – looked down at her hands. ‘Executive mistakes were made, it is true. Certain cascades were initiated that cannot be rolled back at this point. All we can do is let them run their due course and then fix things afterwards. This is a momentary blip in the system. You can still live a full life.’

Ib found himself staring at the girl’s hands too now. Her fingernails seemed perfectly cut, perfectly coated in brown. ‘Was this what happened to Jesus? That was a joke.’

Mag bowed her head. ‘Please sign the consent form, Mr. Yahya.’ She presented Ib with a ballpoint pen from the inside pocket of her suit jacket.

‘I want an apology from whoever’s responsible first.’

Mag bowed her head lower until it almost hit the coffee table. Ibraheem Yahya of Claremont Road, Moss Side signed his name in red. The girl lifted her head and smiled.

Ib stood up from his table, with only the thought in his head of getting some fresh air. He excused himself to the pretty girl with the nice hands as she asked for their bill. Then Ibraheem Yahya, 23 years old of Claremont Road, walked outside and died for the first time.