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"Miscellaneous stories"


Chapter 1
Beer garden beginnings

By CD Richards

 
 
Although it took place almost two decades ago, the memory of that day is still fresh in my mind.

We'd known each other for a few months, thanks to a shared enthusiasm for an online word game. After discovering that she worked only a few minutes from where I lived, it seemed a no-brainer that we should get together at a pub near her work for lunch one day.

When she arrived, she didn't find me waiting out the front as we'd agreed. Instead, I appeared a couple of minutes later. To this day, she still believes I was waiting inside to see what my as-yet-unseen friend looked like, ready to beat a hasty retreat if I didn't like what I saw. The truth is far less exciting. I had arrived early, then, when she was a couple of minutes late, I'd stepped inside to buy cigarettes.

I think her suspicions are a projection of her own craftiness. I learned later that prior to leaving the office, she'd asked a girlfriend to call her half an hour into her lunch time. The plan was, if our meeting wasn't going well, she would have an excuse to head back to work. Never underestimate the wiles of a woman, especially when operating with an accomplice!

As it turns out, lunch went swimmingly. Her hour break turned into two, then three. Luckily, her work arrangements were very flexible. I didn't want that lunch to end. She had turned her phone off fifteen minutes after we sat down.

For our second date, I made lunch at my place, and we played Crash Bandicoot on my Super Nintendo. You would think, after I supplied a most delicious meal, she'd have let me win. Not a chance.

On our third date, it was lunch again at my place. We didn't get around to Crash Bandicoot.

It was only a matter of weeks, a few months at the most, before she was spending so much time there, I felt she needed her own key. The rest, as they say, is history.

Our lives have changed a lot since then. We are no longer city dwellers, and the pace of our life has slowed somewhat. We have always been relaxed and comfortable together, so I can't say much has altered in that regard. I suppose there are times, as in any long-term relationship, where we take each other for granted. There are also times, not infrequent, when I look at her and feel the same excitement and elation as I did in that sun-drenched beer garden so many years ago. It's then I feel like I'm the luckiest man alive.

Author Notes Image by Mircea Iancu, sourced from Pixabay.

Thanks for reading.


Chapter 2
Almost perfect

By CD Richards

 
The Creator surveyed his handiwork, feeling a slight unease.

A clear blue sky spanned an endless horizon. In the foreground, towering trees, through which golden sunlight streamed, bringing cheer to tiny mammals at play on the forest floor. Bellbird conversations echoed across the canyon.

This is too much perfection, mused the Grand Designer. Without ugliness, how can beauty be appreciated? In the absence of evil, what makes a thing good?

And so, mankind was born.
 

Author Notes
The Genesis account imagines humanity as the crowning glory of creation. This story proposes an alternative explanation.

Thanks for reading.

75 words.

Photo by Karen Woulfe, used unaltered under Creative Commons 2.0 licence
(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/legalcode)


Chapter 3
The survey

By CD Richards


 
"Scan complete, Master Gnut."

"Science Officer, report." The Captain monitored the view scope, noting grey-blue expanses surrounding tiny patches of green, barely visible through the brown-tinged atmosphere.

"Lifeform analysis shows a sixty percent decrease in animal population during the past fifty solar orbits. Extinction of five hundred and eighty-three species observed since the survey of one hundred orbits ago. Current distribution of mammalian life forms: thirty-five percent human, sixty percent human food supply, five percent free-roaming species. Surface temperature: increasing. Atmospheric toxicity: increasing. Habitable environment: decreasing."

"Log entry: 'Survey complete. Signs of intelligent life, minimal.' Set course for Sol 91."


 

Author Notes Exactly 100 words, according to Microsoft Word and the FanStory editor.

Opinions differ on capitalisation of words after colons (also, on spelling of "capitalisation"). I've chosen to follow the rule of using a capital if what follows can be read as a complete sentence.

Sadly, this is a fictitious story based on facts as they stand today. Many regard Earth as entering its sixth mass-extinction phase-- the first to be caused by a species.

Fun fact:

Gnut is the name of the metallic being in the 1940 novella by Harry Bates, Farewell to the Master, which inspired the wonderful 1951 classic filmThe Day the Earth Stood Still.

Spoiler alert:

In the book, a final twist shows that it is Klaatu (the human-looking alien) who is the servant, and Gnut (called Gort in the movie) who is the master. This was not made apparent in the film.

Thanks for reading.


Chapter 4
Lords of Creation

By CD Richards

     
"Daddy..."

"Yes, sweetheart?"

"Why did Homo Sapiens become extinct?"

"It's a sad tale, little one. For a very brief time, they were considered Lords of Creation, the Apex Predator. Then they succumbed to the only thing that posed a serious threat to their existence."

"You mean viruses?"

"No, dear. Greed."
 

Author Notes 50 words.

Thanks for reading.


Chapter 5
The other woman

By CD Richards

 
"Tanya, play James Taylor."

Michelle sang along with Fire and Rain as she reached for the face washer, slowly trailing the warm cloth across the back of her neck and then her face.

"Tanya, turn down the hot water."

"Certainly, Michelle."

"Tanya, I said 'down', not 'up'! Turn it OFF! Release... shower... door... NOW!"

Michelle's voice became a high-pitched scream as the scalding water reached maximum pressure.

"TANYAAAAAAAA! "

* * * * * *

"Hi, honey. Sorry I'm late. The meeting ran overtime, then Carnival called to confirm the cruise details."

"Michelle won't be able to make it, David. It's just you and me now."

Author Notes Image: CC0 licence. No attribution required.

100 words.

Thanks for reading.


Chapter 6
Should God Be Allowed in School?

By CD Richards

 
 
The following question appeared on my Facebook feed recently:
 
Do you believe that God should be allowed in schools?
 
The words were superimposed upon a picture of a classroom of small children, all with hands clasped in front of their faces, eyes closed, heads reverently bowed, praying.
 
The first question that popped into my mind upon seeing this was, “Which one?” After all, many thousands of Gods have been worshipped around the globe over the millennia. Yet, the question appears to allow for the presence in schools of only one. How are we to determine which? Should it perhaps be by popular vote? Should schools be set up to admit different gods, depending on location? Or perhaps the veneration of individual gods could be timetabled – a practice with which schools are already well familiar. Prayers to Odin on Monday, Kali on Tuesday, Apollo on Wednesday, and so on.
 
Another alternative which presents itself is to allow the presence of certain gods only, based on an analysis of how well their attributes and character fit in with the programs and attitudes the school is seeking to encourage. For fun, I decided to run through a mental list of a few of the better-known gods, to see what immediate response they generated in my mind. Below I will share my thoughts on each one with the reader. Before proceeding, I wish to point out that the question of an individual’s right to believe in whatever deity they choose, or none, is not in question here. Nor is the right of believers to gather to share in worship of their chosen god or gods. I fully support these rights.
 
Also, it must be noted, taken in the most literal sense, the question doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If by “God”, we mean some all-powerful being, the question is not relevant. An omnipotent entity doesn’t need to be “allowed” anywhere. They will go wherever they please. The question is really something along the lines of, “Should we acknowledge God, through supplication or veneration, in our schools?” My essay addresses only this question.
 
Ares

I’m afraid this son of Zeus didn’t take long to cull from my list of potential school gods. Schools in the twenty-first century have, in western democracies at least, generally taken a firm stance against bullying and other forms of aggression. The God of War seems a most unwelcome addition to classrooms, or, for that matter, playgrounds.
 
Thor

My opinion is that allowing the God of Thunder into our educational institutions would be a mistake. Fart jokes are already ubiquitous, so I think it best that Odin’s son not be allowed in schools, particularly those attended by girls under ten, or boys of any age.
 
Ra

The Egyptian Sun God would appear to be an unwise choice for admission into our schools. The Cancer Council in this country has spent large amounts of money teaching children the importance of slip-slop-slap (slip on a shirt, slop on a sunscreen, slap on a hat) and teachers have painstakingly been enforcing the rule of wearing hats during recess and lunch time, as well as at all outdoor school activities. Sun worship would be turning the clock back years.

Neptune

I think it would be quite unnerving for most parents to hear from their small child that they spent the day at school engaged in “water sports”. Especially as some younger children will not long have been broken of such habits. Additionally, the Sea God’s trident would be considered a dangerous object at any school, and could well be confiscated by the principal, which might result in who-knows-what sort of calamity? Angry gods are generally not nice gods.
 
Aphrodite

Yes, well… we’ll have none of that in our schools, thank you very much! Our schools are already perfectly capable of instructing their students who they may or may not love. We will fight to preserve the right to expel students who happen to have feelings for those of the wrong gender. We don’t need any misguided she-god spreading her lascivious doctrines in our places of learning.
 
The Triune God

Some might argue that a single-person deity doesn’t present a well-balanced view, and that the only solution is to invite into our schools an all-powerful trinity. However, although Brahma (the creator), and Vishnu (the preserver) might be welcome, should our schools really be accepting Shiva (the destroyer) with open arms? Oh, what’s that you say? You thought I meant another triune god? Well, the destruction theme, unfortunately, seems no less prevalent with that one.
 
This is, I grant, a tiny and non-random sample of the gods available to us, but based on this admittedly small selection, we can see that there are significant issues with choosing the appropriate deity to allow into our classrooms. In the remaining part of this essay, I’d like to address why allowing God in schools (any god) is not a desirable course of action.
 
Schools should teach what is likely to be true

This, for me, is the most compelling reason God should not be allowed into schools (from this point on, if I use the term God, capitalised, with no further indication of which one, it can be interpreted as “any god”). It doesn’t matter which god you believe in – whether it be Vishnu, or Allah or Yahweh, or any other — worldwide, you are statistically in a minority. More people do not believe in your god than do believe in it. Some nations, for example, the US, India and various middle-eastern nations are strongly skewed towards belief in a certain divinity, but globally speaking, this statement is true. If, as most people believe, your god is not real, should schools go to elaborate lengths to involve this deity in their day-to-day activities? 

Allowing God into schools violates the principle of separation of Church and State

This is a foundation stone of the United States constitution, and many western democracies (sadly, not the United Kingdom). The American Founding Fathers, with wisdom and foresight, and no doubt inspired by the circumstances which led to them finding themselves in a new land, clearly expressed the opinion that the State should not meddle in the affairs of religions, and in return, religions should avoid interfering in secular matters. The question of what sort of instruction students should receive in schools established and/or funded by religious institutions is beyond the scope of this essay. I’m referring specifically to State-funded schools, and as far as these are concerned, I am of the opinion the First Amendment, supported by common good sense, indicates religious institutions should butt out of the secular education system.
 
God in schools invites sectarianism and isolation of minorities

When I was in high school (at a State-run public school), weekly religious education was compulsory. Students attended “Scripture”, based on the denomination chosen by their parents. Thus, some students attended Catholic Scripture, some Church of England (Episcopalian, for US readers), and others, Baptist. I believe that was the extent of it. So, if one was of Methodist or Presbyterian or some other broadly Christian persuasion, one generally attended Church of England, and just ignored the relatively minor “heresies”. If a student happened to be Hindu or Muslim, well, they were pretty much out of luck, and got dumped into the “no religion” group with my lot, the true heathens. We were quite lucky, as we got to sit in a classroom (there weren’t many of us) and read books of our choosing, or work on our homework for other subjects. At least we didn’t have to listen to the pompous pontifications of the Baptist lay-preacher who tried so desperately hard to be “hip-cool” to sell his message to teenage boys, or the fire-breathing nonsense emanating from the stuffy old vicar.  I have no idea to what sort of indoctrination the Catholic students were exposed — that, for some reason, was a deep dark secret, forbidden to us. But imagine how those students from Hindu, Muslim and other minority religions must have felt to know that their god wasn’t worthy of admission to this school. How do proponents of Scripture lessons or prayers in schools these days suggest such situations be handled?  Is the answer, “We only cater for the One True God, and the rest of you can like it or lump it?”
 
Schools have enough on their plate

There seems to be an endless, ever-growing, amount of knowledge the community expects schools to impart to their children. Of course, we have always had the core subjects in western education — language (English, naturally, for the English-speaking world), mathematics and science, in its many varieties. Then we have other subjects that are generally included in the curriculum, deemed by most to be of high importance or usefulness. Subjects such as history, geography, music, art and foreign languages. Thirdly, there are the vocationally oriented subjects like woodwork and metalwork, technical drawing, cooking and various craft-based subjects. Lastly, we have things which have traditionally been the province of parents, but which schools have increasingly been called upon to deal with. This would include things such as sex education, drug awareness, respect and non-discrimination, perseverance, self-control — things which might not necessarily warrant subjects of their own but could be included as part of a “personal development” programme or incorporated by other means. And on top of this we want them to include religious instruction and daily prayers? This seems an unnecessary impost, when there are institutions far better equipped and far better motivated to handle these matters. This leads to my final objection to the God in school concept.
 
Religious education belongs at home and in the church

It is important to some parents what their children learn, in terms of religious beliefs. Surely, for those parents, the best source of the “knowledge” they want their children to acquire is themselves. If you want your child brought up with Christian values and beliefs, explain and demonstrate them yourself. Similarly, Islamic parents can teach their children by example. Jewish as well.  In addition to this, many devout followers of one or another religion attend churches, synagogues, mosques, temples or other places where like-minded people gather for fellowship and instruction. They have trained specialists designed to impart the knowledge you want your child to acquire. Is this not enough? Why, on top of home life and institutions designed specifically to provide religious teaching, should schools shoulder the burden as well?
 
Conclusion

As stated early on, this is not an argument against religion or God. I will happily present those arguments in another place at another time. It is an argument against contravening the important idea that public schools should be a non-sectarian place of secular education. Religious education and veneration of deities is adequately catered for elsewhere.
 
When someone suggests, “We need to allow God back into schools,” or something similar, what they are really saying is that they want their religion, their God, to be enshrined in the public education system, to the exclusion of others. This is not only dangerous, it raises concerns which were treated in a somewhat light-hearted way in the earlier part of this essay. They are, nevertheless, quite serious concerns. Whose god should it be that is allowed in, and what does this say about the rights of those who worship a different god, or none?
 
There is a very old saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” At one point in time or another, every religion that exists today, or has ever existed, has been in a minority. Yours might be the flavour of the century today, but one day it may not. How would you feel if your child had to offer prayers to, or be instructed in the worship of, some god you rejected? Many devout people denounce the idea that schools should ally themselves with a specific god or teach a specific religion. I believe they do so for good reason.
 
God’s place is not in our schools.

 

Author Notes 2005 words.

Thanks for reading.


Chapter 7
No way back

By CD Richards

 
Applause filled the auditorium as the door swung open, revealing an empty cabinet. As seconds ticked over into minutes, excited chatter became a confused murmur.

In the other place, the portal's seams dissolved into blackness, and The Astonishing Alex hammered his fist against a door that was no longer there.
 

Author Notes 50 words.


Chapter 8
Bargain basement

By CD Richards

 
 
"It's absolutely gorgeous!" Julie Weiss stared open-mouthed at the white painted timbers and columns of the sprawling house at the end of the path. "Miss Cranley, thank you so much for agreeing to show us the house at this late hour. I know you should be home having dinner with your family."

"It's no trouble at all, Miss Weiss. I know you and Mr Majors both have very busy jobs. Besides, with the owners being overseas, it's not inconveniencing anyone. My Jerry will have dinner waiting for me when I get home, so that's less work for me. We can check out the rest of the grounds later. There is good floodlighting, but for the moment, I presume you'd like to see inside? It's getting a little chilly out here."

"Please, let's." As they set off up the path, with the real estate agent leading the way, Julie playfully pinched her boyfriend on the buttocks, her wide eyes and open mouth removing the need for any further comment. Brent shot a look of mock rebuke sideways, slapping her hand away.

"I think you'll find the owners are willing to consider all reasonable offers," Laura Cranley said, as she worked the key in the lock. "They are quite motivated to sell. Since the accident, things have become—"

"Accident?" Brent's eyebrow arched quizzically.

"Did I say accident?" Laura's brief pause caught Brent's attention. "I'm so sorry, I meant to say incident. Something to do with an IRS investigation, I believe. In any case, I think you'll find there is room for negotiation. Now, the light switch should be just here around the corner..."

A soft click, then a warm glow illuminated the foyer, revealing glass sliding doors to either side and a mahogany staircase directly in front of them.

"Let's have a look at the kitchen first — it's through here to the right."

"Look, Brent! A gas oven and stove top, and a wood-burner as well! I've always wanted one of those. And a walk-in pantry!"

"You won't have any trouble finding wood to keep that stove going. You have fourteen acres of woodland here behind you. There should be plenty for all the fireplaces as well. Now, shall we move on? I think you're going to love the sitting room."

As Brent followed Laura and Julie through the door opposite to the one through which they'd entered, there was a soft, whooshing "pop" sound from behind him.

"What the—?"

"Oh, my goodness!" Laura Cranley stepped past Brent, and made her way to the gas stove, where a ring of orange-tipped blue flame surrounded one of the burners. "How on Earth did that happen? I'm so sorry. I will most certainly have the maintenance people look at that first thing in the morning." She reached over, and turned the knob to the left, extinguishing the flame.

With every room they visited on the ground floor, Laura fell more in love with what she saw. The dining room was more what she thought of as a banquet hall. The downstairs bathroom was a beautiful reconstruction of a turn-of-the-century creation, complete with claw-footed tub and pedestal basin. To the left of the main hallway was a large room filled with musical instruments — a keyboard, several guitars and a banjo. There was also an impressive array of amplifiers, mixers and other electrical equipment. Tall speaker stands occupied each corner.

"What a perfect craft room this will make!" enthused Julie. "I can stand and look out over the garden while I paint."

"Pool room and bar," Brent corrected her, a wry grin on his face.

As they climbed the staircase to the first floor, Brent imagined the faint sound of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" coming from the music room. Julie imagined it too, but neither said anything.

The first floor bathroom was a much more modern affair, with a pleasing array of black and white tiling, creative use of mirrored surfaces, and just the right amount of shiny chrome.

"Through here, we have a special surprise, but I'm saving that for later. Shall we head up to the top level? There are four gorgeous bedrooms you're just going to love." Laura began ascending the stairs, as behind her, Julie interlocked her slender fingers between Brent's.

The master bedroom left the young couple speechless. Neither had ever seen one containing a sunken spa before. The two bedrooms to the right were more simple affairs, the smallest being only half as big again as the master bedroom in their current house.

"I think you might like this." Laura stepped past Brent and Julie, turning the shiny brass knob to the last door. She pushed it open, and stepped inside. A couple of seconds later, after flicking on the lights, she motioned for them to follow.

Julie took in her surroundings. Pastel-coloured murals lined each wall, with pictures of puppies playing on fields of green grass, butterflies sunning their wings on bright flowers, and a deer walking through a rainforest. Over in the corner, a white-painted crib with a couple of fluffy toys sitting on top of the bunny-print quit.

"Any ideas what you might like to do with this room?" Laura directed her question to Julie, her eyes traveling from Julie's face, down to the very noticeable bump in her belly.

Julie smiled broadly at her, opened her mouth to respond, and instead let out a shrill scream, as the unicorn mobile perched over the crib began spinning wildly of its own accord. Two small photo frames perched on the dresser fell flat on their faces. As Julie clutched tightly to Brent, Laura took several large steps over to the window.

"Stupid cleaner. They must have opened this to let in some fresh air, and forgotten to close it." She grabbed the frame at the top of the lower pane, and slid the window down, flipping the latch when she was done.

"I think we might have seen enough. The house is beautiful, but we have dinner bookings. How about Brent and I chat about this over dinner, and we can call you in the morning, first thing?" Julie sounded a little shaken.

"No problem. We're pretty much done here anyway. I will just show you that special surprise on the way down, and then you two can go enjoy your dinner."

Back on the middle floor, Laura pushed open the heavy wooden door and turned on the light. She stepped inside, followed by Brent, then Julie. Every wall was lined with bookshelves from floor to ceiling. Thousands upon thousands of volumes ensured there was no vacant space. Against the window was a large, roll-top desk, with a plush leather chair in front of it.

"Welcome to the library. Could a writer such as yourself make use of something like this, Mr Majors?"

"It's... I've... We..."

"I thought you might appreciate it, I have sold many homes, but I haven't seen a better study than this one."

For the second time that evening, Julie screamed, as a large volume fell from the second-to-top shelf on the far wall, crashing loudly to the floor. When three more books followed in quick succession, Brent joined her.

"What the hell is going on?" His arm reached around Julie's shoulder.

"Earth tremor? We get them a couple of times a year in these parts. Damned poor timing."

"I don't—" Brent never finished the sentence, as mayhem broke loose. Books from everywhere began flying off the shelf, some hurtling across the room to slam into the opposite wall. One hit Brent in the shoulder.

Julie, by now, was crouched down low, leaning against the wall, with her hands over her head, sobbing. Brent reached down and took her by the upper arms, gently lifting her to her feet. He embraced her, and whispered something inaudible to the agent into Julie's ear. She nodded, and he took her hand. Without waiting to see what Laura was doing, he yelled back over his shoulder "We're out of here," as he almost dragged Julie off her feet in his haste to make the stairway.

As they descended the stairs, several family portraits flew from the wall, crashing in front of them, to the sound of splintering glass. Brent paused, unsure whether to continue, but when it appeared the barrage of paintings and photos had stopped, he urged his girlfriend onward. Approaching the front door, in the condensation which had formed on the inside of the frosted glass pane, a single word appeared before their eyes — "Bye!"

Julie Weiss and Brent Majors were across the lawn, into their car and a quarter of a mile away by the time Laura Cranley made it to the kitchen. She stood at the servery, poured herself a large shot of straight Brandy and sat at the small table, reaching up to undo the bun and let her long, dark hair fall over her shoulders.

Laura watched as a dark-coloured bottle, two along from her favourite Brandy, raised itself into the air. The bung popped from the bottle and floated to the bench. Then the bottle tipped itself up, and a vibrant blue liquid, looking very similar to Blue Curacao spilled from the rim, seemingly disappearing into thin air. Within a few seconds, a human form slowly began to materialise.

"Well, Jerry Griffin, you certainly outdid yourself this time!" Laura beamed at the naked male figure in front of her. "That's got to be the fastest we've got anyone out of here yet!"

"You weren't too bad yourself, my darling. Earth tremor? Oh, Lord!" They both burst into laughter.

Laura took a swig on her drink. "Well, I would say that could be just about it. I think old Major Templeton has probably had just about enough by now. It seems he can't get a single offer on this place. By the end of the week, I wouldn't be surprised if we can snap it up for half the asking price."

"And the mad scientist and his adorable fiancee lived happily ever after, in the mansion by the forest." Jerry grinned at Laura. "Maybe, they could even get married there. Say, honey — you should try a swig of this potion some time, just think of the mischief you could get up to if you were invisible!"

"Oh, Jerry. I'm a forty-something year old working woman. To half the population, I already am invisible. Now, look at you, standing there without a stitch on. You'll catch your death. Why don't we head up those stairs and see if we can't find a way to warm you up?"

Author Notes My assigned subject was "The Invisible Man".

1775 words.


Chapter 9
Unhappy medium

By CD Richards

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of language.

 
"Hey, that hurt!" Gavin rubbed his shoulder ruefully.

"I don't make fun of your family," Samantha tried her best to look stern, but it didn't quite come off, as she stifled a giggle.

"My mother's aunt isn't a septuagenarian psychic medium with halitosis!"

"You cut that out! She means well, and she was very kind to me and Dave when we were growing up." Samantha's voice grew softer, "It was hard for her to make the trip all the way from Brisbane to be with us."

Gavin decided to push his luck. "So what was that thing with the telegram she read, the one from Uncle Bertie?"

"I thought it was sweet, and he had such lovely things to say about you."

"He's been dead for eight years!"

"Not to her, he hasn't." Sam looked like she might burst into tears.

Gavin reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a small, rectangular package, wrapped in white paper with silver embossed bells, and secured with a neat purple bow. "My guess is a watch — but for me, or you? Or maybe there's one each."

"I hope it's a beautiful strand of pearls. I can't see why she would want to waste her money on someone as heartless as you!" Sam's gaze was firmly fixed on the track ahead, but Gavin felt relief when he saw the corners of her mouth turn up in a faint smile.

Gavin detached the gift tag and read it:

"To Gavantha, Blessings to you both on this special day. Iris."

How sweet, she's even given us a pet name. He tore off the paper, then lifted the lid, before bursting into howls of laughter.

Sam jerked the wheel hard to the right, to avoid the fallen stump that was half blocking the rubble-strewn tracks of the fire trail. "What?"

Removing the shiny object from its container, Gavin held it up for Samantha to see. After settling the Landcruiser back onto the track, she turned her head towards the passenger seat, and saw  a silver-coloured metal object about six inches long. It appeared to have a handle formed from two arms. Between them hung a corkscrew-shaped piece of metal. At the other end, the two parts of the handle merged to form a bulbous shape. On one side of this bulb was a small, sharp-pointed hook, on the other a slightly longer, wedge-shaped blade, with a bevelled edge, like a very small knife.

"A can opener?" 

"Maybe she figured now that we're officially married—"

"Don't go there!"

"Does she even know that for nearly a hundred years, they've been making these things with little wheels, so you don't cut—" Before Gavin could react, Sam's left hand shot out and ripped the object from his grasp. Her arm flashed across her chest, and she hurled the can opener through the open window, into the scrub.

Gavin's highly developed powers of observation warned him he might have gone too far. "I'm sorry, honey. You know I really love your family, including dear old great-aunt Iris. I guess I'm just a little nervous about this trip."

"You, Gavin Morecombe, the Steve Irwin of Ermington, the Alby Mangels of Annandale, nervous? Oh come on! We're 350 miles from the nearest town, headed for some place that isn't even on the map. Riding in a rusty Landcruiser that's been through two clutches in the past six months, traveling a goat track. The only traffic it sees is a ranger once a week. Why would you be nervous? You sure know how to show a girl a good time!"

Looking at her, in her King Gee shirt, Stubbies shorts and Blundstone boots, with her long brunette hair tied in a ponytail, as she expertly guided the 'Cruiser along the dusty track, deftly dodging the biggest potholes to avoid a broken axle, Gavin knew why she was the only girl he could have married. "When we get to Cassandra Creek Station, you'll see what all the fuss is about. It's the nearest place to heaven on Earth. You can make out every star in the Jewel Box, just with binoculars."

"I miss the dark skies and the sound of—"

The windscreen cracked and fell inwards, as a two-hundred pound boomer leapt out of the scrub straight into the path of the oncoming vehicle, missed the bull bar, and flew into the tempered glass. Instinctively jerking her body sideways in response to the oncoming missile, Samatha yanked the wheel hard to the left, shearing off the wing mirror on the trunk of a spotted gum before careening down the embankment at the side of the trail. Collecting a few saplings and part of a termite mound along the way, the truck finally bounced off a large granite tor. It overturned, rolling twice more before coming to rest a couple of hundred feet down the hillside from where it left the road.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

As the fog of unconsciousness lifted, Samantha could feel the warmth of the sun streaming into the cabin from low in the western sky. When she could focus, the first thing she saw was the vacant stare in Gavin's eyes, and the dark red stain that smeared the door pillar and had soaked into the roof lining. There's hardly any on his shirt, that's odd. Darkness returned for a few seconds, and then, That's because we're upside down, stupid. It was another few seconds before the screaming started. It's odd how the brain can react when subjected to severe physical and mental trauma. It was probably a full three or four minutes before the facts had begun assembling themselves inside Sam's head. One — the man I married only yesterday is now hanging beside me, dead. Two — I'm hundreds of miles from the nearest town or phone tower, and most probably won't see another car for days. Three — the searing pain in my right upper arm says it's probably broken. Maybe, if I'm lucky, it's just a dislocated shoulder. I don't feel lucky.

Sam became aware of something dripping onto the front of her shirt. Looking up, she saw the bright red gash in the sun-tanned flesh of her thigh. It was a bad cut. She needed to get out of here fast, and retrieve the first aid kit from the rear. If she didn't, when the vehicle was found, the paramedics would need two body bags. Suddenly it dawned on Samantha why she was not laying in a crumpled heap on the roof of the upturned vehicle. The seat-belt tensioner had jammed, and the belt had her pinned tightly against her seat. She thanked God that her left arm was uninjured as she reached for the seat belt release. Her gratitude turned to despair when she found that the mechanism was stuck, and she could not free the tongue. She struggled to move the sash in an attempt to climb out, but it was too tight. After several minutes of unsuccessfully trying to extricate herself, Sam's shirt was now soaked with blood from the deep gash on her leg, and she was struggling to retain consciousness.

As the last of her strength disappeared with the setting sun, various thoughts flashed through Sam's mind. They were the last thoughts she experienced in this life. If only we'd settled for a honeymoon in Fiji, like normal people... If we'd just chartered a plane to get to Cassandra Creek, instead of driving... If only I had something to cut this stupid sash — like a Stanley knife, or scissors, or even... oh, SHIT!... even a can opener!

 
* * * * * * * * * * *
 
Iris Fielding sat in her wheelchair on the verandah of her Redcliffe home, watching the sun disappear below the horizon, holding the corsage that had been presented to her at the reception. A single tear formed, and rolled down her cheek.
 

Author Notes My assigned object of desire: a can opener (also known as a tin opener).


Chapter 10
Bobby

By CD Richards


Bobby died today. He was six days old.

When he was born, a man took him from his mother, as she screamed her anguish. The man kept him in a box, feeding him formula, until his disposal could be arranged.

Bobby's mother is a dairy cow. So many of her children have been taken this way, she has no tears left to cry.

In the playground, children laugh, and drink the milk made for Bobby.

 

Author Notes I wrote this story this morning for a contest. Sadly, although it was the first thing I've written today, I forgot FS works on a different timezone. And according to US time, it would have been the third piece for the day, which isn't allowed.

Having written it, I thought it a shame to let it go to waste. So, I'm posting it anyway, for the record, but not promoting. Please feel free to skip reviewing.

In Australia alone (a small country population-wise, of only 25 million), 700,000 calves are destroyed within the first few days of life. Worldwide the figure would be in the tens of millions - every year. Dairy cows must be continuously kept pregnant to ensure they can provide milk for human consumption. But there is no use for the babies, especially if they are boys. They are not "fattened" for the table, as meat breeds, not dairy, are much better suited to that purpose. Instead, at a few days of age, after much suffering, they are turned into dog food, or fertiliser.

A few lucky ones live beyond the five or six days, and become "vealers". They will be fed a milk substitute, and sometimes grain for several months, and then slaughtered. In 60% of US operations, these animals will be kept in crates so small, they can't even turn around, and they won't see sunlight (or possibly even another animal) until the day they die. Eight US states have laws prohibiting keeping the calves under those conditions. This means forty-two states don't.

This is the side of the story the dairy industry, through their ads full of happy cows on happy farms eating happy green grass don't want you to know.


Thanks for reading.


Chapter 11
Fugu you

By CD Richards

 
 
 
An obnoxious young diner named Phil

asked the waiter, "Just what was that swill?"

"Fugu is the dish,

our best puffer fish...

cooked like that, it's quite certain to kill."
 
 

 


Chapter 12
Two-thirty-eight

By CD Richards

 
 
"Did you hear that?" Ellen Thompson's voice was a panicked whisper, barely audible above her husband's heavy breathing. "Troy, wake up!" The urgency, though not the volume, increased as Ellen shook her partner roughly by the shoulder. Troy Thompson muttered an unintelligible curse, as his flirtatious conversation with the attractive new cashier was rudely interrupted.

"Wh-what the—?"

"Shhhhhh! Quiet! There's someone in our yard."

Instantly forgetting Aldi's latest recruit, Troy's mind struggled towards lucidity. Opening one eye, he noted the glowing red symbols a couple of feet in front of his face. Two-thirty-eight A.M. "You were dreaming, go back to—" This time it was Troy cutting himself off, as he heard what he was certain were rustling sounds, and at least one subdued voice mumbling something indecipherable in the garden. He threw back the covers and crept to the window of their first-floor bedroom. The light from the half-moon allowed him to make out a couple of objects on the lawn below. How many times does Alicia have to be told to put that bike away? Unfortunately, the large acacia tree directly in front of the window obstructed his view of most of the yard.

From downstairs, in the direction of the living room, came an odd, muffled, scraping sound, followed by an audible thump. Then, softly, but unmistakably, a whispered expletive.

"What are we going to do?" Ellen, who had obviously heard it too, was now sitting bolt upright, holding the covers in front of her. Making his way slowly back to the bed, Troy sat on the edge, pausing to think for a few seconds. He reached down and retrieved the baseball bat that had been gathering dust for several years.

"I need to find out what's going on. You wait until I'm out the door, and count to ten. Then take your cell phone, and go to the girls' room. The three of you get in the closet, and you call the police. But keep it as quiet as you can."

At the mention of Roslyn and Alicia, Ellen shuddered involuntarily, unspeakable images flashing through her mind. "Troy... be careful!"

Not feeling anywhere near as calm as he hoped he was appearing to be, Troy quickly and silently climbed into the jeans and t-shirt he had left on the floor beside the bed. Grabbing the bat, he made his way to the door and onto the landing.

...nine... ten. Ellen finished the silent countdown, then picked up her cell phone from the bedside table. As she made her way out of the door and to the left towards their daughters' room, she could hear the squeak of the noisy step second from the bottom. Troy had reached the ground floor.

Opening the door to Roslyn and Alicia's room, Ellen quickly took stock of the moonlit scene. Thank God — no "Redrum" scrawled on the walls in blood! She approached the 11-year-old first, and was relieved to hear Roslyn's steady, soft breathing. She had to quickly cover the girl's mouth with her hand as she was startled into wakefulness, to prevent her from crying out. Ellen told her daughter not to make a sound, and to stay put, as she turned to rouse Alicia. Though she couldn't make out what was being said, Ellen thought she heard Troy's voice coming from the living room.

Roslyn looked petrified in the glow of the cell phone display as her mother closed the louvered door of the walk-in closet behind them. Alicia, thankfully, was still more asleep than awake. Both did as they were told, and remained silently hunched on the floor as Ellen punched in the 911 code.

"Hello, police? There's someone in my house, and... no, I can't speak up... they are inside, and I have my girls with me, and my husband is—" Ellen paused to take a breath, trying to keep her composure. "Yes, I'm at 22 Rowlands Avenue, in Birchgrove. No, we haven't seen anyone, and no one has made any threats, but—"

"You have been very helpful, ma'am. We already have a car in the area, and it should be there within a few minutes. In the meantime, please try not to panic. Just stay with the girls, as you have been doing, and try to remain out of sight until we get there." The dispatcher's calm voice was mildly reassuring. "This is the seventeenth similar call we've had tonight, and no one has come to harm at this point, so I'm sure you will be fine."

"Seventeen? What the hell is—"

"Tell me, ma'am, before you and your husband retired for the evening, did you happen to leave a glass of beer and a carrot on the dining table?"


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When Ellen saw the blue and red lights flashing in through the bedroom window, she still had not heard or seen anything of her husband. Upon hearing the loud banging on the door, and the single word "police" shouted in an authoritative voice, she took the girls in tow, and cautiously made her way along the landing and down the stairs. Traversing the hallway, what she saw when she entered the living room left her standing in stunned silence. There, sitting on the couch with a vacant stare in his eyes and his mouth hanging open, was her husband Troy. In front of him, beside the tree, under which were now several brightly wrapped parcels, there were black sooty stains on the carpet in front of the fireplace.

Pinned to the tree was a large, brightly-colored sign:

"Merry Christmas to all, and to all — a good night!"

 

Author Notes Image: By Scott Davidson, published under Creative Commons 2.0 licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Thanks for reading.


Chapter 13
The Dishevelled Man

By CD Richards

 
 
The dishevelled man plodded slowly along the Darlinghurst street. He didn't stop to look at the endless parade of terraced houses, some of which dated back almost to the days of the Rum Rebellion. His eyes firmly fixed on the ground, taking in the shimmering heat radiating from the concrete and the ubiquitous cockroaches scurrying hurriedly about their daily business. He paused for a moment, setting his plastic shopping bag down on the pavement. Ignoring the mocking taunts of the children in the house with the freshly-painted green balustrade, he withdrew a crumpled handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the perspiration from his brow. Repocketing the cloth, he picked up the shopping and continued on his way.

Con Stellios, the proprietor of the corner store from which the man had just purchased a loaf of bread, a litre of milk and the daily paper, wondered about the unkempt looking customer. With his unruly salt-and-pepper hair, his white stubble, and sun-bronzed face with its deep lines, he could be anywhere from mid-fifties to late-sixties. The shopkeeper was also intrigued at the man's ill-fitting suit that looked like it had been bought from the local Op Shop. It appeared totally out of place with the tattered white Adidas runners with the cracked blue stripes. In itself, not so unusual, but he couldn't help observing that the man drew a fat bundle of large-denomination notes from his pocket before peeling off a fifty to pay for his purchase.

A couple of houses before the corner, the man stopped and opened the wrought-iron gate of an unobtrusive-looking single-story property, making his way along the red concrete path and up the front steps onto the verandah. Removing the keys from his pocket, he opened the door and stepped inside. Upon reaching the kitchen, he set the shopping bag on the bench. The bread was placed into the bread-keeper, and the milk into a yellowing Westinghouse fridge. The man removed the newspaper before opening the cupboard under the sink to add the plastic bag to the growing collection. Filling the old-style, stove-top kettle, he fetched an ornate china cup and saucer, into which he placed an Earl Grey Breakfast tea bag.

When the brewing process was complete, he proceeded, with cup and saucer in one hand, and newspaper in the other, into the living room. Settling in his Jason recliner, the man glanced around the room. Few people would have picked the painting illuminated by the orange glow of the standard lamp as an Arthur Streeton original. But while they might not have thought his choice in art remarkable, they would more than likely have taken a second look at the collection of newspaper clippings which were taped to the far wall of this cosy little room. "Lindfield mother of three still missing -- police fear the worst," read one. "No clues in Sarah Bryant case," announced a headline from the Daily Telegraph. "Have you seen this woman?" enquired another.

The man took a sip from the steaming cup, and then, removing his reading glasses from his top pocket, unfolded the morning paper.

Author Notes This is for the "character building" prompt.

Photo: Maksym Kozlenko, Creative Commons 3.0 licence.


Chapter 14
A long way from Durham Town

By CD Richards

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of language.
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of sexual content.

 
 
Jennifer awoke to a mouthful of dust, a piercing pain in her head, and the weight of a boot on the small of her back. She tried to move, but the pressure on her back increased, and a gruff voice reached her ears.

"Don't move, bitch, or you'll lose the other hand."


"Eat shit and die, Daesh!"

Matthew (or as he now preferred, Abdul Jabbar) slammed the stock of his rifle down hard on the useless lump of shattered bone, flesh and blood that was once Jennifer's left hand, drawing a bloodcurdling shriek from the prostrate figure. "A friggin' Geordie! I've come all the way to Syria to get me a piece of arse that's probably lived a couple of hours away my entire life."

"In your dreams, freak." As the fog slowly lifted, Jennifer twisted her head slightly and surveyed the IS scout's handiwork. The rough crimson-soaked bandage and crude strapping told her all she needed to know. "You bastard!"

"You won't be needing it to fulfil your new function, slut. Get up!" She felt the weight on her back disappear. A few seconds later the same boot slammed into her left rib cage. "Now! I haven't got all fuckin' day."

Jennifer found herself wishing she were back in Lanchester, sitting outside Kaffeehaus Amadeus enjoying coffee and cake. Almost laughing aloud at the absurdity of that thought, she spat out a mouthful of powdery red dust as she struggled to her feet using her remaining hand for balance. Seeing the body of her friend Ariya on the floor a few feet away, her mottled green fatigues soaked red with blood, Jennifer wanted to cry. Instead, she leaned forward and emptied the contents of her stomach in the dirt.

"There are two more outside," Matthew stated matter-of-factly. "The others are on their way back to Raqqa with my comrades. There, you will all be our very special guests until the end of the week. Following that, you will be taking a final swim in the Euphrates, en-route to Hell. After noticing our obvious connection, my friends kindly decided you could have the pleasure of my company back to the city."

"You and your friends won't see the end of the week. The SDF is closing in from every side, and we have air support. Raqqa will be a smouldering pile of rubble before a single Daesh can get out of there."

"Do you think you can thwart the servants of Allah, infidel? The flag of IS will fly high for all eternity, praise be!"

Jennifer's voice was calm and measured as she stared at the boyish-looking figure in front of her. His face was adorned with patchy orange peach-fuzz, and on his wrist he wore a cheap, plastic digital watch. "Cut the crap, shit-for-brains. We all know you're here because you couldn't get laid in the UK. There's not many camels in downtown Liverpool. A bunch of girls kicked your arse in Kobani, we did it again on Sinjar, and we—" before she had time to take evasive action, the back of Matthew's hand slammed into the side of Jennifer's face.

"Enough! We need to go."

"I have to do something first." She wiped the trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth.

"Oh? Would you like to make a cup of tea, perhaps? Set up to record EastEnders so you can watch it when we get back? Sorry, luv, you're not coming back."

"Unless you want to drive forty miles along Route 4 sitting next to a steaming pile of excrement, we need to make a brief stop."

"Shit."

"That's the general idea, Einstein. It's through there, and to the left." Jennifer pointed through the open doorway and across an empty room, with a dirt floor and mud-brick walls, to a small chamber off to the side. From this little room a golden shaft of sunlight spread across the floor, illuminating a solitary scarab crawling purposefully across the corridor.

Motioning with his AK-47 to Jennifer, Matthew followed her to the other end of the hut. When she stopped, he looked around the corner and saw the crude pit latrine, and the inviting window opening. He doubted that she could climb out, with her shattered hand, but the IS recruit wasn't taking any chances. "Hurry it up. No time to refresh your make-up."

Realising Matthew was not leaving, Jennifer shot him a disgusted look and began fumbling with her belt.

"Need a hand?" Matthew smirked, pleased at his own cleverness.

"Fuck off." Jennifer struggled with her fly. "So, are the stories true?"

"What stories? And get on with it."

"Is it true that if you get killed by a girl, you don't get your seventy-two virgins?"

"That would be the greatest dishonour of all. But you needn't concern yourself with that. There'll be a party tonight, no virgins involved. Certainly not by the time it's over."

Finally, Jennifer freed herself, and allowed the trousers to slide to her ankles. She thought of the thousands of women who had been raped, tortured and killed by the men with whom this pimple-faced degenerate had chosen to align himself. She remembered the dozens of friends and comrades she had lost already, and the sisters of those comrades who had disappeared, never to be seen again. She shuddered contemplating the fate awaiting those who had been captured today. A single tear welled in the corner of her eye, then spilled out onto her cheek.

"Don't be like that — you might like it."

Matthew's mocking tone filled her with rage, but she maintained her composure. "Oh, it's not that."

"Then what, for God's sake?"

"I would rather die than be taken by the likes of you."

"Well, that's too bad, Princess. Because you're unarmed and help is nowhere in sight. Now stop your stalling or I just might grant your wish and put a bullet through your head right now. There are plenty more where you came from. I don't have to get myself an English girl."

"We always knew this day might come."

"Shut up! I'm going to give you until three. One..."

"Just one thing..."

"For Christ's sake — what?"

Jennifer reached down to lift the wooden toilet lid. By the time Matthew saw the wires, it was too late. The YPJ soldier flashed him a last, rueful smile. "Tell the virgins, 'You're welcome.'"

 

* * * * * *

Miles to the east, in the hospital which was now their operational headquarters, the jihadists were blissfully unaware of the explosion in Madan. It would be a couple of hours before they began to wonder what had become of their newest, pale-skinned recruit, and sixteen more before the SDF forces broke through their defences to reclaim the city.

Author Notes The lines which appear in bold at the beginning are the prompt I received for this contest.

Image: Roland Unger [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.


Chapter 15
By Siding Spring - the beginning

By CD Richards

 
 
Twenty miles from a ramshackle town long ago forsaken by both God and men, there was a road, the dust of which vehicles no longer disturbed. Beside that road, in a timber shack even self-respecting rats avoided, David Upton pondered how a day which started out so promising could turn so rapidly to crap. "Bioluminescent fungi" was one explanation for the mysterious lights that appeared to stalk hapless visitors in remote locations. "Atmospheric refraction of vehicle headlights" was another. If only the truth were that simple — or that benign. David hoisted his well-worn knapsack onto the table and removed the tattered spiral binder which was his journal. Rummaging inside, he located the Parker ballpoint his girlfriend had given him for his birthday, and, by the dancing flame of a Hurricane lamp, began to write what he hoped would not be his last entry.

Author Notes From the exercise prompt:

A good opening line or paragraph can make or break a piece. It needs to be engaging, attention grabbing and concise. Craft an opening paragraph which grips your reader in 150 words.


Chapter 16
Not here

By CD Richards

  
 
"Hope you're enjoying solitary, Harry — because until you tell me where you were between nine and eleven on Friday night, this is where you'll be staying. Gruel for breakfast, lunch and dinner." Detective Rogerson yanked angrily at the observation panel. "Still got nothing to say, Harry? Harry? Damn it, Houdini!"

Author Notes 50 words.

Photo : By Anagoria (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.


Chapter 17
Class of 71

By CD Richards

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of language.

 
“Hello, Jeff.”
 
Jeff Ennis began to turn his head to the right, but stopped as a searing bolt of pain shot down his neck and into his shoulder blade. He could just make out the silhouette of Carl Roberts, backlit by the glow of the gibbous moon.
 
“Damned fine predicament you’ve got yourself into here, mate. Lucky for you I happened to be behind you – this road doesn’t get a whole lot of traffic at night. What was Susie thinking when she booked the hall for our reunion all the way out here? Seems the road takes a turn to the right back up there, and you didn’t. No sign of skid marks, either. Luckily the undergrowth slowed you down a bit. If you’d hit this tree at sixty, you’d be pushing up daises. You really should check your brakes more often, old buddy."
 
Ennis struggled to speak as the fog of recent unconsciousness began to lift. “What… hap…”
 
“You’ve banged yourself up a bit on the wheel there, Jeff. You look a right mess. But don’t worry, you’re not going to die– not yet, anyway. You just sit there and let me talk for a bit, while you catch your breath.”
 
A single pull was enough to make it clear the driver’s door was not going to open without a crow bar.  Jeff followed Carl’s progress in the rear view mirror as he made his way behind the car to the passenger side. The door opened with a hefty tug, and Carl slid in beside the older man.
 
“So, old mate… do you remember that day you made me stay back in the classroom when you sent all the other kids out into the playground for lunch?” Carl reached into his jacket pocket, removing a well-used Stanley knife. Ennis’s eyes grew wide as he struggled against the sash of his seat belt, but his legs were wedged under the wheel. “What were you thinking when you walked to the classroom door, and locked it with the key from the inside? When you pulled down every blind so no one could see in? Were you hoping to scare me, Jeff? Did you think maybe I’d piss my pants— the way you are, right now?” Until that moment, Ennis hadn’t noticed the warm, wet patch darkening his trousers. “Well, no such luck, old buddy. Even as a kid, I wasn’t afraid of smarmy, arrogant, two-faced pricks like you.”
 
“You… were… a stupid, loud-mouthed – ” the words were barely audible. Ennis winced between each one, a badly cracked rib making every breath difficult.
 
“I was fucking ten years old! How was I to know the thing you said in class that day wasn’t supposed to be repeated? Did you really need to spend the whole of lunch time beating the crap out of me with a big wooden stick, simply because I naively passed on a stupid remark of yours?”
 
As Roberts raised the knife and leaned across towards his ex-teacher, Jeff Ennis screamed—or  would have, if the lung punctured by his cracked rib had allowed it. Instead, he meekly unleashed a feeble whimper.
 
Carl slashed the sash that had been tightly constraining Ennis’s chest. “Relax, old mate. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m not like you—a pathetic, cowardly bully. Do you remember what else you did? How you went through every single one of my exercise books, and highlighted every single error you’d marked with that red pen of yours, belting me for each one? Well, it didn’t work, Jeff. It could have ruined my life, put me off learning for good—but it didn’t. And no one marks my stories with red ink now. Guess who’s going to receive the first copy of my latest effort? That’s right—your adoring wife. Donna, I believe? She really thinks the world of you, doesn’t she? Should be a real eye-opener for her."
 
From his shirt pocket, Carl retrieved another object. He tapped it several times, then raised it to his face. “Hello, emergency? Please get someone to Twisted Pine Road in Kenthurst, just past the nursery, as soon as you can. Some old fart’s written his car off on a tree, and he’s in pretty bad shape.”
 
As he climbed out of the car, Roberts turned to the older man, fixing him with a look that managed to be both withering and contemptuous at once. “Love to stay and chat more, but I’ve got a story to write. Goodnight, Jeff.”

 

Author Notes Regarding word count: wordcounter.net and www.countofwords.com both regard this story as containing exactly 750 words, as does my own count. Microsoft Word 2013 incorrectly counts 752 words, as it regards two hyphenated terms as two words each. I know this because I tallied paragraph by paragraph. In all cases, I believe it is within the acceptable range (748-752).


Chapter 18
The picnic

By CD Richards

   
"Some people are just pathetic losers." Brian took a swig from his longneck before continuing. "I was disgusted when that nerdy little dentist from Minnesota paid fifty grand to shoot a semi-tame lion to prove what a big man he is. But I'm telling you, Amanda, that photo of the woman posing with her trophy giraffe made me want to puke."

"How could anyone want to harm such beautiful creatures?" Amanda wiped a tear from the corner of her eye.

"It's a sick world."

Brian paused to pour a little extra oil onto the grill. "Rare, medium, or well done?"

 


Chapter 19
Pacific Palms

By CD Richards

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of language.
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of sexual content.

   
The ice pick slowly rotated as it buried itself an inch deeper into Liam Weston’s skull. An explosion of brilliant white light seared the backs of his eyeballs, while the throbbing in his temples felt like his head was going to burst open, sending a crimson cascade of blood and brain matter all down his £4500 Savile Row suit.
 
You fucking whore!
 
He stared unbelievingly at the notebook screen. He couldn’t accept what was in front of him, despite it being the seventh time he had read it that day:
 

Dear Troy,

I simply can’t wait - I’ve been anticipating this for months, and now the night has finally arrived! I’m trembling like a little schoolgirl. Try to be here around seven, and it’s probably best if you park around the corner – the neighbours here aren’t exactly known for their discretion. Don’t forget the Dom Perignon!
 
Love,
Sandy.

 
Ten years. That’s how long he had spent every waking moment of his time adoringly worshiping his former high-school sweetheart. Lavishing every fine thing that his seven-figure portfolio manager’s job allowed upon her. Not that she needed it – her job as an account rep for one of the largest pharmaceuticals in the country didn’t exactly pay peanuts.

But that’s not enough, is it, bitch? Nothing is ever enough for your kind.
 
And then there was Troy. Childhood best friend Troy. Current handball buddy Troy. The same Troy he’d loaned ten grand to when he wanted to go out on his own in the mortgage broking business. THAT Troy –

the one who dated my wife before I did, for Christ’s sake!
 
How fucking stupid am I?

He’d only seen the first signs around three weeks ago. He’d turned up at the local for after work drinks with his wife before they took in their usual Friday night movie – “date night”, they called it – but he’d arrived 15 minutes earlier than usual. Just in time to find Sandy and Troy sitting at opposite sides of a cosy corner booth, foreheads almost touching, giggling like a couple of juveniles. That stopped pretty quick-smart when Sandy looked up and saw Liam making his way over.

Can anyone say “deer in the headlights”?  
 
“Look who happened to drop in, darling.”
 
“And I must be going, Wendy will rip me a new one if I don’t get the shopping done and be home in time for dinner. Later, you two love birds.”

Love birds? Seriously? Couldn’t get out of here fast enough, you slimy turd.
 
Then, of course, there were other signs. Like when Sandy was in the bath and her cell phone rang. “Incoming… Troy.” He’d never given Troy his wife’s number, and she’d never thought to mention Troy had it.

How long has she had it locked with a PIN code?
 
And what a coincidence that Gerry, Sandy’s brother, had just happened to arrange for Liam to visit tonight – of all nights – to go over some of his options contracts, and help him with his hedging arrangements.

Blood is thicker than water, right Gerry?
 
What a stroke of luck the pocket diary containing her poorly encrypted passwords had fallen from Sandy’s Louis Vuitton handbag this morning as she tripped on the bottom stair. How boring Liam’s day could have been without her pathetic, adulterous drivel to read. And what possible reason could she have for keeping her email inbox empty? When he’d hacked in this morning, along with the quarterly electricity bill and an email from BodyFit, her SMTP server had delivered the final piece in the puzzle – all the evidence he needed.
 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
 
 
As he rolled his silver Mercedes S500 to a stop, Liam saw the orange glow on the verandah of the home he shared with Sandra at 225 Appian Way.

At least he’s considerate enough not to stink out my house after sticking it to the love of my life. Hope he’s enjoying it.

Killing the engine and lights, he unbuckled and stepped out of the vehicle. Opening the trunk, he removed two items – one of which he stuck in his belt, and the other he gripped in his right hand as he crossed the street.
 
From his position at the far end of the porch, Troy Donovan was unaware of Liam as he crossed the lawn between the two cocos palms and mounted the verandah steps. He didn’t hear anything at all until Liam was only a few feet away. Hearing the faint footstep behind him, Troy turned, a brief look of recognition appearing on his face. “Liam…”
 
 
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
 
Sandy Weston had been almost at the front door when she heard the first noise. Fearing Troy had tripped and hurt himself in the dark, she hurried her pace. By the time she was half way down, she could make out the shape of her husband’s 6’2” 185 lb frame standing over a form lying on the boards. A hand reached up as the second swing connected with the side of Donovan’s head with a sickening thud. A strangled, confused cry tried unsuccessfully to materialise as she rushed toward her husband. Unable to speak, she flung herself upon him, but he shrugged her off like a rag doll as he smashed the skull of the now limp form of Troy beyond recognition. The still-glowing butt of the cigarette on the ground shed an eerie light on the dark red pool that was slowly spreading on the porch timbers.
 
Struggling to her feet, sobbing uncontrollably, Sandy forced her throat into reluctant compliance. “Liam, why? What d—“
 
“Shut up, you bitch.” Liam tossed the bat into the gardenia bush and removed the filleting knife from his belt.
 
“Honey, NO! I love y—“
 
Liam thrust out his left hand and grabbed a fistful of his wife’s honey blonde hair.

She looks beautiful, for a slut.

Before the thought had completely formed, he jerked her head back, exposing her throat to the moonlight, and drew the knife across it from ear to ear. As he looked into Sandra’s eyes, Liam didn’t see fear, not even anger. What he saw could best be described as total incomprehension. He gazed into them for what seemed an eternity, but was perhaps a few seconds. Her mouth moved as if she were conversing with him, but not a sound came out, other than a faint, wet gurgle. Then the eyes changed, their vacant stare signalling that Sandra had left the building. Liam let go of her hair, and she crumpled to the ground.
 
Still clutching the knife, leaving a bloody trail behind him, Weston slowly walked the twelve feet to the front door, and stepped inside. He knew what he needed to do. He needed to call the police, and have them send the ambulance to remove the filth from his front porch. As he reached the study door, he gripped the brass knob with his left hand and twisted, simultaneously pushing it open.
 
Before he could reach for the switch, the room was flooded with light. Around two dozen voices simultaneously raised in greeting – “SURPRISE!” With a feeling as if he had fallen asleep and woken up on another planet, Liam gazed dumbly around the room. He saw his own parents standing next to Sandy’s on the left hand side of the room. Several work mates were directly in front of him. On the wall behind them was a large gold banner, emblazoned in red with the words “Happy 10th Anniversary Liam & Sandra”.
 
It didn’t take more than a couple of seconds for the shouting and laughter to die down. The sight of Liam with a fishing knife in his hand, covered in blood and gore ensured  that. As the looks on the faces of the guests changed to horror, Liam raised the knife, and placed it below his left ear…
 
* * * * * * * * * *
 
In the office of Donovan Mortgage Solutions, a phone sprang to life. After two rings, the facsimile machine automatically answered. No one was present to read the fax as it appeared:
 

Attn: Mr Troy and Mrs Sandra Smith
 
From: Pacific Palms Resort
 
Your booking for 14th August is confirmed. Your room will be available from 2 pm. Please feel free to check in any time after this. If arriving after 10 pm, please use the intercom to notify staff of your arrival. We hope you have a wonderful stay, please enjoy the complimentary champagne and chocolates you will find in your room. Congratulations to the happy couple!

 


Chapter 20
Your time is up

By CD Richards

 
"Supreme Commander, please reconsider. Give them one more chance, I beg!"

"There can be no more chances. They are out of time — their world is out of time."

"But they can change..."

"They refuse to change. We sent our representative to them decades ago, with our ultimatum, and they murdered him. With each passing day, they wreak more and more destruction, and pile killing upon killing. They seek to start new wars, and don't even understand why."

"But it is such a beautiful world— It has no equal in the galaxy. And all of the other inhabitants..."

One look from the Supreme Commander was all it took to silence his underling, and then his gaze softened before he spoke again.

"The planet itself will survive, and the damage to innocent species will be minimal. Only for humans will the world come to an end. Their time is up. Thousands of species go extinct every year, almost all of them due to the actions of humans. Not only that, but they poison the air, the land and the water, for all life in the future. Their planet cannot survive if they do. And they are spreading, out of control -- like a virus. They must be treated as such. It is the humans, or it is the rest of the life on the planet."

The junior officer's shoulders slumped, as his gaze travelled to his feet. He knew the Supreme Commander was right. His superior turned and pressed the button on the console.

"Gnut! Set the demolecularizer to human DNA only. Initial coordinates - 40.7128 degrees north, 74.0059 degrees west -- New York city. Activate!

Author Notes Image: public domain.

This was meant to be for a contest, but some silly git forgot to enter it , and just published it as a normal story. Oh well, such is life lol. Please feel free not to review, as I won't be promoting it.


Chapter 21
Kyle

By CD Richards

I remember the day Kyle came to play. I was about four, so it didn't seem strange to me that I should be playing with a boy I had never met before. That was a pretty frequent occurrence in the early 'sixties, at least where I grew up. Being an only child, I never complained about someone wanting to play with me.

That he was wearing his pajamas and robe in the day time didn't seem odd to me, nor that his father carried him through the front door and sat him down in front of me. Four-year-old boys seem to question the oddest of things, while being totally incurious about matters an adult wouldn't let pass.

I vaguely recall we had a fun time playing with my construction set that day, more than fifty years ago. At some later time, possibly that same evening, I was told that Kyle was very sick. That explained the pajamas. A couple of weeks later, my parents informed me that Kyle wouldn't be coming to play any more.

Looking back, my brief friendship with Kyle taught me some things - like how life is such a fragile thing and, for some, so terribly short. What a pity it is that most of us waste so much of it worrying about inconsequential things, like how much money we have, or if our house is the biggest and best in the street, or whether those in our social group think we're clever, or pretty, or cool. The other thing is how others, whether they be those we love or strangers, might be dealing with things of which we have no comprehension. Perhaps it doesn't hurt us to try and exercise kindness where we can. A tiny action on our part that improves someone's day might end up being of great importance to them.

I miss Kyle, even though I only met him once, and I miss a time when life seemed so much simpler.


Chapter 22
True Love

By CD Richards


"Brian..."

"Yes, honey?"

"Do you love me?"

"Of course I do, Ali. Why would you ask such a thing?"

"Because we never argue."

"Pardon?"

"Well, Robert and Sue argue all the time, and look at how happy they are!"

"But I don't want to argue with you."

"So you think I consider myself always right and can't stand to be contradicted... is that it?"

"No, most of the time I agree with what you say, and when I don't, it's not such a big issue that I want to cause trouble."

"So, you do think I'm unable to take criticism!"

"Oh good Lord..."

"Or is it just that you don't care?"

"Of course I care."

"But not enough to have an opinion? Or do you just not listen in the first place?"

"Ali, please, stop!"

"Argue with me."

"What?"

"Humour me... just for once disagree with something I say."

"Like what?"

"I think it looks like rain today."

"The weather bureau says fine through to the weekend, so I don't think so."

"There! That wasn't so hard now, was it?"

"No, dear."

"See, I knew you could do it... you DO love me!"

"No I don't."

"I want a divorce!"

Author Notes 200 words.


Chapter 23
A Fanstorian prayer

By CD Richards

 
Did you know that when Carl Sagan said there are a hundred billion stars in each of a hundred billion galaxies in the known universe, he was wrong? Well, he was. There are far more!

That's right, potentially hundreds of billions of trillions of little specks of dust just like our Earth orbit big gassy balls just like our sun. And yet, have we ever set eyes on even one of these little specs of dust? No! Not once. Not even the Kepler space craft, designed specifically to detect other planetary bodies, has ever actually seen another planet.

And why should this be? Is it an accident of fate? Oh no. In the vast, cold emptiness of space there are these tiny conglomerates of almost insignificant matter, each within spitting distance of a big, bright, shiny, attention-commanding celestial body. All of them sitting there, pondering the fact that if the heavenly breezes had blown in just a slightly different way, perhaps they too could have been a star! They, too, might have shone with more brightness than all of the candles that have ever been produced in the history of human kind.

The great nameless benevolence that is the master of all things has spared us the misery of being able to see these other unfortunate failed star-things. It has taken pity on us, and not given us cause to spend our lives looking at what could never be, despairing over opportunities lost.

And yet you, you despotic commander of this little demi-universe, have in your infinite lack of compassion chosen not to spare us such agony! You tease and taunt us with these little ungainly smatterings of detritus, these bits of superfluous flotsam and jetsam hovering around our ratings, distracting us, obliterating our view of our bright, shiny stars!

You mercilessly remind us of our inadequacies, our failure to live up to our full potential. You might as well be standing on top of the mountain, screaming at us "look what you could have been!"

Have you no heart?

I sincerely pray you will hear the pleas of the downtrodden, the overlooked, the unappreciated, and remove those hideous reminders of our shortcomings. We need every photon of light from those wondrous, glowing orbs to illuminate our way, and empower us to be all we can be!

Have mercy on us, we beseech you.

 

Author Notes If this should be my last post on the site before a perpetual ban, I'd just like to say it's been a blast :)


Chapter 24
Voices

By CD Richards

Author Note:Please read author notes first

 
 
"Norman!"

"Yes, mother?"

"What is she doing here?"

"Sleeping."

"You know very well what I meant."

"She's just visiting, mother."

"You call it visiting, do you? That's the third time this week she's visited you. Did you two spend the whole night visiting? I would think she should be all visited out by now. Trash, that's what she is. A dirty, filthy, sl—"

"Mother!"

"Cheetum & Howe called today. We take possession of the Motel on the 17th. Let's see how you get along without your little girly friend when we're six hundred miles from here!"

"Well the joke is on you, mother, because I asked Charlotte to come with us, to help with the cleaning and room service, and she's agreed. Now, I'm fixing pancakes, do you want some?"


 

* * * * *
 

Charlotte screamed and spun as the breakfast tray clattered to the floor. Oneida knives and forks danced a jig on the wooden floorboards as the silver napkin holder rolled under the dresser in front of which she was standing. Pancake remains soaked up some of the escaping tea as maple syrup made a sticky mess of Norman's shoes.

"You startled me." The preceding scream made Charlotte's comment superfluous.

"What are you doing in here?"

"Well, I've been here three times now and I still haven't met your mother. When I woke up, I thought I'd see if I could find this mystery woman." Now that her heart had almost descended back into her chest cavity, Charlotte managed a smile.

Norman looked past Charlotte, into the mirror on top of the dresser. He noticed the way her smooth, tanned skin contrasted with the stark white of the bra strap. His eyes refocused and he saw a beautiful woman standing in nothing but her underwear and his mother's pearl inlaid gold necklace. He took two steps forward.

Norman's features softened. "I'm sorry for frightening you. Do you like this?" he asked, taking the fine golden chain between his fingers.

"Very much."

"Then why don't you wear it for our trip into town? Mother's gone to visit her sister for the weekend, she won't be needing it. I'm sure she won't mind."

"It's beautiful, thank you."

"Well, I have to clean up this mess, and then sort out the kitchen before we can be underway. In the meantime, why don't you take a shower?"


 
* * * * *
 

In the cellar, the rats paid no heed to the semi-decomposed figure in the rocking chair. With her grey hair tied up in a neat bun, and the hem of her white petticoat just showing at the bottom of her black, full length dress and her neatly laced boots, she looked quite a picture. Of course, it helped if one ignored the larvae making their way nonchalantly from her vacant eye sockets.

The rats had far fresher and tastier fare demanding their attention...

Home-made apple Charlotte.

Author Notes I've written this flash fiction as a prequel to a rather well known movie. If you happen to read these notes prior to the story, see if you can guess which tale it is from the first word.

My inspiration was taken from the first book I opened - Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted World; page 99 paragraph 2:

"Probably a dozen times since their deaths I've heard my mother or father, in a conversational tone of voice, call my name."

480 words, approximately.

* Oneida is a brand of silverware.


Chapter 25
The message

By CD Richards

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of language.

 
Tuesday, August 21, 2029 -- 8:23 am

"What the hell do you mean not possible? You've got a whole fucking squadron of F-16s there, General. Get them in the air now!" The throbbing in his temples told the President this was going to be a bad day.

"I mean sir, respectfully, that we can't get them in the air," General Frank Wilson replied. "Ever since the... object... appeared, none of our aircraft are functional. Not only that, but all of our sea-to-air and land-to-air missile capabilities have been neutralized. Our intelligence is that reports from Moscow, Ankora, Beijing and Seoul have confirmed similar craft in their airspace, and all of their military capabilities have been immobilized. More reports are coming in as we speak."

"Shit!"
 

* * *
 

Tuesday, August 21, 2029 -- 10:54 am

In computer lab B2 at MIT, Thomas Dibley stared at the screen in front of him. Gone was the artificial neural network tutorial which had been only partially successful in keeping him awake for the past forty minutes. In its place was a repeating series of hieroglyphics, scrolling from right to left across his screen. From where he was sitting, Thomas could see that every screen in the lab had the same set of patterns running across its monitor. What he could not see was that every screen on every internet connected computer on the planet was displaying the same message.

Thomas looked at the plasma display on the wall. The sound was muted, but he could see the images flickering from one national capital to another, reporters with microphones in hand standing in front of impressive looking buildings. In the skies above those buildings were huge craft, around the size of a football field at least, and at a guess, about six stories high.

On a whim, Thomas lifted his cell phone from the desk and took a photo of his PC screen. As always when he was in the lab, his phone was in airplane mode, so it was still under his control. He dragged the image and dropped it onto the DecodeThis! applet.

"Let's see what to make of our visitors' message." Beside him, Amanda nodded her consent, but her eyes were glued to the plasma display.

A half minute or so later, Thomas's chuckling broke Amanda's concentration.

"Son of a bitch!"

"What?" Amanda looked at him expectantly.

"They've done it. The message, it might be from aliens, but it's not alien. It's Hebrew!"

Thomas offered Amanda the phone. "We didn't want it, so they've given it to us anyway."

"What are you talking about? What have they given us?" Amanda began reading as Thomas responded:

"Peace."

On the cellular in front of her, Amanda looked at the translated output:

"...they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."
 
* * *
 
Tuesday, August 21, 2029 -- 11:17 am

One hundred and fifty feet below the Kremlin, in a room with concrete walls twelve feet thick, the Russian President pressed the red button. Nothing happened.

Author Notes Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.

Mohandas Gandhi


Chapter 26
Life, the universe and coffee

By CD Richards

"The problem with your kind," he said, "is that you are like a ship without a rudder. How can humans know what is right and wrong without a moral compass to guide them? Without God, there is no absolute morality."

Ignoring the mixed metaphor, Erin contemplated for a moment before giving her reply. "No, I don't suppose I do have an 'absolute morality' that I could speak of. So how do you know what is right and wrong in your absolute world, Ian? Do you hear God's voice in your head? How exactly does it work?".

"God speaks to us through his Divine Word," replied Ian, admiring the attractive fern shape on the top of his cappuccino. "The Bible is His gift to us, so that we may know His will. I need to look no further than there to know what is right or wrong."

"So we just need to follow all that God has commanded in the Bible?" Erin peered at Ian through the steam rising from her Chai latte, and seeing his nod of agreement, she continued. "I'm going to miss them so much."

"Who are you going to miss?" enquired Max, before taking a bite of his raisin toast.

"Why, my husband Paul and my daughter Lisa," responded Erin. "I'm going to have to kill them."

"What on Earth are you talking about?" The look of bewilderment on Ian's face made his words seem superfluous.

"Paul was out all weekend spraying weeds on our property. I'm sure the Old Testament says that anyone who does any work on the Sabbath must be put to death. As for Lisa, she swore at me when I refused to let her go out with her friends until she had cleaned her room. I'm sure that is also a capital offence according to Leviticus. As for our neighbours Adam and Steve..."

"You don't understand," Max said patiently. Erin loved it when people began mansplaining to her. "Things were different in Old Testament times -- more violent. We have no right to judge an ancient culture that existed in different military, judicial and societal conditions. We are under a new covenant now, and the new covenant commands that we be at peace with all men. The blood of Jesus established the new covenant."

Now it was Erin's turn to look bewildered. "So why is it that up until a few hundred years ago, the Christian church, both Catholic and Protestant, were burning people for heresy and apostasy? Why up until this very day are Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland blowing each other up? Where is this new covenant of which you speak?"

It was hard to tell whether the steam was rising from Ian's cup, or his face. "My friend here hasn't told you the whole story. That's probably because he hasn't been to theological college as I have, and doesn't understand the politics of the time. In ancient Israel, there were laws giving death as the punishment for certain crimes such as those you've brought up. But the evidence shows us that these punishments were only rarely enforced. So God is actually merciful in that he gave these commands knowing that in most cases they wouldn't be enacted."

Erin didn't bother to remark either on God's hit-or-miss approach to punishment, or how sneaky it was of Him to show his displeasure by demanding a justice He knew probably wouldn't be carried out.

"So what's your take on it?" Was that contempt in Ian's voice? "How do you decide what's right or wrong in a world with no hard and fast rules?" he demanded.

"Well, firstly..." began Erin, placing her cup back in the saucer, "I think it is obvious that 'absolute morality' is a tenuous proposition. Look around the world, look back through the decades. Our ideas of what is right and wrong change all the time. Circumstances affect our perceptions too. What is right in one context may not be right in another. Courts of law understand this far better than churches. This isn't changed by your insistence on black-and-white-ism, Ian. Abrahamic religions to this very day can't agree whether homosexuality is an offence for which one should be beheaded, or just excommunicated, or whether it's an expression of love which should be embraced as any other. As for myself, I tend to find that the 'golden rule' (which, by the way, predates Jesus' adoption of it by quite a long way) works quite well as a guiding principle. Also, it fits in well with my Darwinian understanding of how things work. Treating other living beings as we would wish to be treated ourselves leads to the preservation and prosperity of all life. And there is nothing wrong in seeking happiness for myself, as long as my happiness doesn't impinge on the happiness of others."

Ian decided now was as good a time as any to change the subject. Swallowing his mouthful of apple Danish, he addressed Erin; "You are approaching this with your fallible human mind, which thanks to the fall is blinded by sin. You are committing idolatry by placing yourself above God. He is omnipotent and omniscient, you must obey His will."

As Erin opened her mouth to speak, a huge peal of thunder shook the windows of the cafe. An omen? She chuckled quietly to herself. "Omnipotent? Omniscient? Could you please explain those terms?"

Max took the opportunity to re-join the conversation. "Omnipotent means that He is all-powerful -- there is nothing that God cannot do (except, by definition, sin -- because that would mean going against His own will, which is impossible); and omniscience means that He knows everything -- all that has ever happened, is happening now, and will ever happen."

"That presents a bit of a paradox, doesn't it?" Erin said to no one in particular as she contemplated the raindrops splashing against the glass.

"How so?" Max licked the tip of his finger before using it to dab the crumbs from his plate.

"Well, if God is all-knowing, according to the definition you just gave, He knows what He is going to do tomorrow, and a hundred years from now, and a thousand years."

"And?"

"So when tomorrow arrives, God has absolutely no choice in what He can do. He can only take one out of an infinite number of possible courses of action, because it is the action He has known for all eternity He would take. That doesn't sound like omnipotence, it sounds like He has no 'free will' at all."

"I'm just curious," responded Max. "Why do you hate God so much? What has happened in your life that has hardened your heart so towards Him?"

"The premise of your question is incorrect," Erin responded without pause. "I don't hate God at all -- any more than I hate the Easter Bunny or the Golden Unicorn, and for the same reason -- I don't believe they exist. Devoting energy to hating something that doesn't exist would just be crazy. I'm not all that fond of the people who invent Him simply to persuade others that their claims and demands need to be heeded, as a 'higher authority' which supposedly gives them the upper hand in any disputes."

"Anyone who says in his heart 'There is no God' is a fool, according to the Psalmist." As she heard the words coming from Ian's lips, Erin could picture him standing at the pulpit, his voice thundering across the pews.

"In science," began Erin, trying not to sound like the high school physics teacher that she was, "it is generally accepted that for a proposition to be considered true, it must first be falsifiable. For example -- let's take the suggestion that the moon is made of mostly rocks, with a layer of dust at many places on its surface. Could such a claim be proven wrong? Certainly it could. We could send a manned rocket to land on it, examine it and take samples to be returned to Earth for analysis. If those samples turned out to be green cheese, then we would know that our hypothesis was wrong. Without any way of testing our claim, it doesn't pay to be adamant about it. Now, you tell me -- what single piece of evidence could I produce that would convince you, beyond any doubt, that God doesn't exist? Think carefully before you answer."

After a pause of several seconds, Max lifted his arm. "Oh my, look at the time. My wife will be wondering what on Earth has become of me!"

"Yes, and the worst of the storm appears to have passed," replied Erin. "I must be on my way too."

"I will pray that God will remove the hardness of your heart, and that you will be saved from an eternity of damnation in the fires of hell," Ian said, quite sincerely, to Erin.

"And I hope that you will come to know the peace and love that Jesus can bring to your life," Max offered. "And a good evening to you too, Ian".

"Have a great evening, boys!"

Author Notes It was important to me in addressing this topic to try and avoid the temptation to make the characters "cardboard cut-outs" of the positions they represent. In other words, I didn't want the atheist to come across as being a heartless creature that doesn't care about anything other than hating God; the extremist as a hate-speech-spewing, sword wielding nut job; and the moderate as a wishy-washy "I just want everyone to agree with me" fence-sitter. I also wanted to show that even people of widely different ideologies, although they may disagree (vehemently at times) can, if they put their minds to it, have a civil discussion. That said, although I have tried not to misrepresent anyone, it no doubt contains my own biases and prejudices.


Chapter 27
Christmas in hell

By CD Richards

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of language.

  
  
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls — Merry Christmas, and welcome to hell!

I have many names: Satan, The Devil, Beelzebub to name a few — but you can call me Nick. I apologize if any of you are feeling uncomfortably hot, we haven't as yet found an air conditioning system that is effective down here.

I'll bet this is the last place any of you expected to be having Christmas dinner — life is full of little surprises, isn't it? Emma Parsons, I see you over there! I'm sure you never thought as you were chatting on your cell phone while driving to McDonald's that you'd be feasting on mealworms instead of a quarter pounder. You seem to be looking for someone. Perhaps it's that little toddler in her pram and her mother that you mowed down as you ran the red light? You won't find them here, they're dining upstairs.

Paul Jervis, wonderful to meet you! I'm surprised we haven't run into each other years ago. Who'd have thought that just thirteen cans of beer at the end-of-year piss-up would impair your driving that much? I guess maybe the old man you left a paraplegic last night, but seriously, who else?

Where's little Tommy Hook? Oh, there you are! I'll bet your sister misses you. A brand shiny new rifle for you, and a lovely pink one for Sandy — what a great Christmas idea, such thoughtful parents. Everyone knows the only thing that stops a bad toddler with a gun is a good toddler with a gun. Perhaps you should have been nicer to your sister.

What's that? Screaming? Oh yes, of course, that's coming from next door, in the "reserved" section. You'll probably meet Father Chet later. He's been here quite a while now. He used to take what might best be termed an "unhealthy interest" in the young boys in his congregation - that is until one of his parishioners found out what had been happening to his son. The crackling you can hear in between the shrieks of agony is the sound of Chet's nuts roasting on an open fire.

Now, I know before your untimely demise, many of you were looking forward to a white Christmas. That's why I've seen a number of you posting messages on your Facebook pages like "turn back the boats", "close the borders" and "today's refugee, tomorrow's terrorist". I can't begin to tell you how proud I am of you! This is exactly the sort of hate-mongering and racism the world needs more of.

I know some of you come from a place that has a well known landmark boasting a sign that reads "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore." Others are used to singing a national anthem which includes the words "For those who've come across the seas, We've boundless plains to share". While these might seem to imply that we should exercise compassion and open our hearts, minds and borders to those fleeing persecution, torture, and intolerant, murderous regimes, we know that such a thing can't possibly work. The idea that those fleeing for their lives from middle eastern or African nations today should be offered shelter on our shores whilst our own citizens are paying outrageously high taxes is ridiculous in the extreme!

And so, my dear friends, it's time to wrap this little introduction up. I'm truly happy to see each and every one of you. Your gluttony, greed and lack of empathy for any living thing besides yourselves (oops — ex-living, how insensitive of me) is truly what makes this place what it is, and represents all that is best about the festive season.

Bon appetit!
 
 

 

Author Notes The idea of the devil giving a speech is not new. C.S. Lewis employed it in Screwtape Proposes a Toast. The hilarious Rowan Atkinson used a similar idea in a sketch from his stage show An evening with... I've never seen the technique married with a Christmas theme before, so I thought it might be fun to try.


Chapter 28
By Siding Spring

By CD Richards

 
From the oldest continent on earth comes the newest threat to humanity...


In the Warrumbungle Ranges of outback New South Wales, newlyweds Dean and Gemma Simmons have their camping trip interrupted by an eerie apparition that leads them to a gruesome discovery.

A six-hour drive away, at his home in Croydon Park, a call from his mother disturbs school teacher Alan Morgan's lesson preparation.  It's the first time he has heard from her in nearly seven years - since the day she died.

The strange call leads Alan to seek out Dean and Gemma. Together they discover someone has a secret — a secret people are dying to protect. As the body count rises, they must unravel the truth while avoiding becoming the next victims.

Their success or failure could alter the course of human history.


Chapter 29
Nothing More

By CD Richards

There are numerous interpretations of the concept of immortality. To some (including quite a few writers of horror fiction) it means the idea of cheating death altogether and living forever. Or perhaps we move to some other plane from which we make occasional excursions to the land of the living to frighten the pants off some poor unsuspecting victim. To many religions it means that while our body may die, the soul survives physical death. Others believe that we have multiple lives, our spirit coming back at some future time as a different person or even an animal. I don't want to get bogged down in definitions, my aim here is simply to mention a couple of the interpretations that I don't accept, and to show what the term immortality means to me.

Although I love ghost stories as much as anyone, for me they are simply entertainment— enjoyable precisely because they are an escape from reality. There is no evidence that life continues beyond the grave. Modern science has taught us much about how our minds work. We know that thought and emotions are carried by electrical signals in our brains travelling along neural pathways; we even understand and can predict to a large extent what types of thought capabilities will be lost if certain areas of the brain suffer damage. The idea of consciousness surviving brain death is a concept for which I can find no evidence.

Those who claim to be able to communicate with the spirits of deceased people —often to bring "messages" to loved ones— have been proved repeatedly, without fail, to be frauds. Professional magicians, who know how they accomplish their tricks, have debunked them time and again— from Houdini to Derren Brown and Penn and Teller. James Randi is perhaps the most famous of all, and has in addition offered for many, many years a large cash prize to anyone who can verifiably demonstrate they have any communication with the dead. The fact that (in spite of there being hundreds of thousands of "mediums" worldwide), not once has the prize been claimed, speaks volumes.

Also, I don't buy into the idea that our souls (or resurrected bodies) exist forever, experiencing some form of reward or retribution at the hand of an all-powerful being. In particular, I don't go for the version that says that there is an omniscient creator, who made one species out of millions with which he was going to have a special relationship, in the full knowledge that the vast majority of all that species that ever lived (over 90 billion, by conservative estimates) would spend an eternity in unimaginable torment and suffering. Why? Simply because they never heard of Him, or believed in the wrong version of Him, or didn't devote themselves to being His servants. This just beggars belief.

Whilst the other side of the coin (the righteous getting to live forever in unending joy and happiness, reunited with all their loved ones) is perhaps a bit more palatable, it doesn't strike me as likely. It seems just a bit too much like wish fulfilment. As living beings, the survival instinct is ingrained in our DNA. We don't want to die. If I can manage to make it to the ripe old age of eighty or so, I will have outdone my parents and exceeded my expectations. And as wonderful as life can be, I don't think I would be sorry to relinquish it. Nevertheless, there are times when I experience a tinge of sadness at the thought that the world will continue along quite happily without me, or perhaps it is more the idea that I might miss something of importance. I think it is this sense of regret at missing out on something, plus the fervent wish that "good people like myself" experience some amazing eternal reward, while the "awful people that I don't like" should be made to suffer for all eternity that causes a great many of the world's religions to cling to some form of this belief.

I have to admit that I find the idea of multiple lives, or reincarnation, much more appealing. In particular, the idea that we could return to life as animals has enormous appeal, especially if it happened to be one of the many animals with whom I currently share my accommodations. These animals are amongst the most doted upon on the planet, without doubt. But there are difficulties with this idea. Imagine if we inherited traits from our past lives, and could actually be, for example, a dog in one life and a human in the next. The sight of a human walking along the street cocking his leg at every fire hydrant would raise some eyebrows, I am sure. I apologise if I am being flippant here. This idea is not one of which I have any great knowledge, so I am not in a position to discuss it at any great length. All I will say is that I have not come across any compelling evidence that reincarnation actually happens.

So, I'm basically discounting the idea of any form of life after death, or multiple lives. If we live our four score years and then we are no more, isn't this a sad, depressing view of things? Where is the joy, the poetry in such a view? I believe, as many do, that there is more beauty and wonder in what science, over the millennia, has revealed to be the truth than in any made up story. Here is what I believe immortality means...

1. I am as old as time itself, and I shall exist until the end of time. This is not some pie-in-the-sky, metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, it's simple physics. We know that matter cannot be created or destroyed. Therefore, every sub-atomic particle in my body has always existed, as far back as time has existed. The stuff of which I am made was there at the big bang. Long after my dead body has decayed, parts of me may well be scattered around the globe, even eventually around the cosmos.

2. I am a star. So are you, and so is every person who has ever lived. As Lawrence Krauss points out, the Christian religion tells us that Jesus died so we could live. Cosmology tells us that stars died so that we could live. This is what Carl Sagan meant when he said "we are made of star-stuff". Our bodies are roughly ten percent hydrogen, which has existed since shortly after the big bang, and formed into stars as the universe cooled. Every other element in your body was created inside one of these stars, and flung out into the universe when that star exploded. This is an awesome thought, and it's not legend, it's not poetry, it's fact.

3. When I die, no part of me will cease to exist, and no part of me will be wasted. I will continue to contribute to the universe, albeit in a less selfish way than I do at present. My elements will be absorbed into the soil, where some of them will feed microscopic organisms and some will become fodder for worms. Some of these worms could be eaten by birds, which perhaps might be eaten by people— so bits of me could well become part of another person. The trace elements of nitrogen and phosphorous my body contains might be taken up by plants or grasses, so that part of me could conceivably end up one day as part of a cow. Over time, other bits might become parts of trees or rocks. Along with all other living beings, I am inseparably joined to this universe, and my future is eternally to be part of it.

There is an old saying - "truth is stranger than fiction", to which we could add "It is often also more wonderful". I'd like to wrap up this essay by sharing a couple of quotes. The first is from Richard Dawkins' book Unweaving the Rainbow :

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

The second is from Infidel , by Aayan Hirsi Ali :

Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.

Author Notes A few people have questioned the phrase "beggars belief". My understanding is that it's not in widespread use in the US, however, it's quite common in Britain, Australia, and probably some other Commonwealth countries. Without getting into a long and involved discussion about origins, it simply means that something is so incredible it exhausts our capacity for belief.


Chapter 30
A Rough Night

By CD Richards

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

 
 
Michael Fenwick winced as he placed his hand to the side of his head. He brought it around in front of his eyes, struggling to focus, but he could see well enough the traces of crimson on his fingers. That must have been some whack, he thought, as the fog gradually lifted. He couldn't remember what had hit him, or how he got to be in this sodden pile of leaves and bracken. He tried, but the memories wouldn't materialize. Come to think of it, I can't even recall what I had for breakfast.

"Mike, are you OK?"

He felt his shoulder being shaken and gingerly raised himself onto one elbow.

"Susan? What..."

"We've got to get moving. There's more of them out here."

Michael slowly dragged himself to his feet. His skull throbbed like it had gone ten rounds with a baseball bat, but the bleeding wasn't excessive, and he doubted there was any major damage. In the light of the full moon he could make out the figure of a man lying on the grass. The man's face was disfigured horribly, and on his right hand each finger seemed to dissolve into a deadly looking razor-sharp blade. Half embedded in the man's back was the head of an axe. Michael looked dumbly at Susan McKinnon.

"Paul." Susan explained. "He got here just as old melty-face here slammed you into that tree. A few more seconds and..."

"Where is he now?"

"Right here."

Michael spun, and instantly wished he hadn't, as his head threatened to explode.

"I don't want to sound like a nag, but we really have got to get out of here. You'd better take this." Paul placed his foot at the bottom of the red and black sweater the prone figure was wearing, and grabbed the wooden handle of the axe. Tugging it free, he passed it to Michael. "I have this." he explained, holding up a machete. "Our hockey mask wearing friend over there won't be needing it any more." Michael was only mildly surprised at the sight of the second blood-soaked corpse about twenty feet away.

"Where are we going?" Looking at Susan's fine features in the moonlight, with her long dark hair cascading around her shoulders, Michael worried he might be the next casualty of the night if Paul could read his thoughts. Young men just didn't think those things about their best friend's girlfriend, if they knew what was good for them.

Susan pointed to the west. Looking through the trees, Michael could make out the shape of a two-story cottage, with lights burning in two of the bottom-floor windows.

"That is the only house within half a mile of here, and being on the edge of the woods, they aren't likely to be expecting trick-or-treaters tonight. We need to be ready for a less than welcoming reception."

As the three approached the cottage, it became far more imposing and ominous looking. Weatherboard siding covered the structure, with a portico covering a large entrance door at the front. The shingled roof was very steeply pitched and high, but flat on top. Arched windows surrounded both floors. The ground on which the structure was built was raised some twenty feet from the road that ran across the front of the property. An impressive concrete stairway led up to the house.

Someone is inside watching TV, thought Michael, noticing the light flickering in the window to the left of the main entrance as they stepped onto the portico. It didn't occur to him to wonder what had become of the weapons he and Paul had been carrying a few minutes before as he stepped forward to knock on the door. What seemed like hours, but was probably in fact half a minute, passed before the door opened, and a man in his mid thirties stood in front of them.

"Hi. I'm Mike and this is my friend Paul, and his girlfriend Susan. We were just..." As he said the words, it occurred to Michael that he had no idea what they had been doing prior to ten minutes ago.

"...just heading back from the river when we had a flat tire." finished Susan. "We were wondering whether we could use your phone to call road service."

"It's late to be coming back from the river." The man in the cardigan spoke in a tone that sounded matter-of-fact, not accusatory. "Why don't you all come in? You can call Roadside Assist, and have a nice cup of tea while you wait."

In the foyer just inside the door to the left, a number of chairs were spaced around the wall. To the right was a counter. Susan noticed the large guest book and the silver bell sitting beside it. A few feet away was a tall silver vase filled with carnations, next to an old style black telephone -- one with a dial instead of buttons. "Is this a guest house?"

"You could call it that. We run a small motel business. There's only four guest rooms, and we don't get a lot of business, but Mother enjoys having company from time to time. I'm Norman, by the way."

Of course you are. Michael made a mental note to politely decline if their host offered them use of the shower.

"You folks take a seat, and I'll go put the kettle on."

"That sounds wonderful!" chirped Susan. As soon as their host disappeared from view, she whispered urgently "Paul, call the police."

Michael had just enough time to scan through the open pages of the guest book and notice that the last three guests to check in —a couple two weeks ago, and a single woman four days later— had not checked out, before he heard the receiver being slammed back into its cradle.

"Dead." announced Paul.

I sure hope he's referring to the phone.

Opening his mouth to speak, Michael heard a blood-curdling scream from Susan. He looked at her, and saw her face was white. Her eyes, wide in alarm, were staring straight past him. Spinning around, the sight that he saw had him transfixed. Rushing down the hall toward him was a male doll, no more than three feet high, with bright orange hair and the most impossibly blue eyes he had ever seen. It was dressed in a multi-colored striped sweater and blue dungarees. Its right arm was raised and holding a huge kitchen knife. The look on its face was pure malevolence.

With the doll preparing to strike, Michael was slammed out of the way as Paul hurtled past him, crash-tackling the doll, the knife flying from the possessed toy's grasp. As the two hit the ground, the doll began flailing, struggling to unpin itself. Paul sat astride its chest, raising the metal vase high into the air. He smashed it down into the doll's head, creating a loud cracking sound and a hole the size of a silver dollar in its skull. The doll shrieked in fury and agony as Paul struck again and again with the base of the vase, pulverizing its skull, until there was silence.

Slowly, as his astonishment made way for bemusement, then awareness, the realization came to Michael. Tonight is Halloween, and in the space of half an hour we have encountered Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, Norman Bates and Chucky. I'll be damned, this is all a dream!

It was not, however, until a few moments later, when his gaze shifted to Paul that the awful truth finally dawned on Michael Fenwick. It was not he, but Paul who had killed each and every one of their adversaries this night. Susan was not his girl, but Paul's. Who has a dream and makes someone else the hero with the drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend?

Now he finally understood why he had no recollection of what he had for breakfast, why in fact he had no memory of anything at all prior to the last quarter of an hour. This is not my dream, it's Paul's! Michael had not existed prior to this particularly vivid nightmare which Paul was experiencing.

As the implications of this finally hit home, he could hear knocking. It sounded far off. The last thing Michael Fenwick heard as he faded forever into oblivion was an older female voice calling "Paul... Paul... wake up, it's time for breakfast."


Chapter 31
The (Other) Ring

By CD Richards

 
 
Sergeant Mark Lewis had endured more horrifying experiences in the past few years than most men would in a hundred lifetimes. He had stood his ground, unarmed, whilst a Taliban fighter aimed a Kalashnikov rifle at his chest and screamed at him in words he didn't understand. He had narrowly escaped being blown to pieces when the armored vehicle in which he was travelling ran over a 100 pound IED in Al Anbar, Iraq— an experience which left him feeling what could accurately be described as "mild consternation". His collection of service medals resembled a catalogue of military honours. And now, at age 37, the veteran of countless campaigns in the Middle East, the man his fellow soldiers dubbed "Ice" was, for the first time he could remember, absolutely terrified.

Beads of sweat trickled from his hairline, down the nape of his neck. His palms were clammy and moist, but his throat and mouth were bone dry. He knew a few men who had been in this position before, and had heard stories of several more. Some of those men had survived, but not one had been left unscarred. The battle-hardened soldier stood (amazed that his trembling knees permitted such a feat), and prayed he would not demean himself by urinating all over the floor.

The woman, of course, was at the root of all this. She had a military record at least as impressive, if not more so, than Lewis. She was Kurdish Peshmerga, on the front line of the battle against ISIS. Mark had found her strikingly beautiful— not in a catwalk model sort of way, but in an "I love a woman who can kick my butt" sort of way. She had Stygian eyes that somehow spoke of incredible resolve and toughness, yet deep compassion. He had never dreamed those first intense encounters, the clandestine midnight meetings, would result in this. His friends tried to warn him, of course, but he knew better.

Now, because of this woman, he was captive within this stone-clad prison; his best friends in this world —Private First Class John Munro and Corporal Alan Newcombe— standing feet away, each waiting their turn, silently contemplating how they would behave when their time had come. Lewis knew when their turn came, he would be powerless to help them.

His mind raced through dozens of scenarios he had practised repeatedly during his military training. But there was nowhere to run, and there were too many of them— at least sixty between the three comrades and the two on guard at the door. The heavy stone walls seemed to be closing in on him as he felt the darkness creeping into his mind. He could hear the voice of his interrogator, sounding as if it were disembodied, coming through a fog from hundreds of feet away,  firing questions at him like they were missiles— and yet they were standing face-to-face.

Finally, Mark Lewis could take no more. He realised there was no escape, and he felt the last vestiges of his resolve being crushed to powder. With one last, despairing look around him, he took a deep breath and uttered the words his tormentor demanded to hear:

"I do."

Author Notes From the contest brief:

In this flash fiction contest we are challenging writers to write a flash fiction piece that is between 500 and 800 words on the topic provided. The topic is "fear". What is your character fearful about?


Chapter 32
Ophelia

By CD Richards

 
 
My Dearest Ophelia,

My heart breaks when I see your withered leaves, your weakened, drooping stem, your wilted petals with their tips brown and ragged. I weep when I think back to only days ago and remember your vitality, and the enthusiastic optimism with which you greeted the dawning of each new day.

It seems as if you have simply given up. I beg of you, please don't do this. Think of the times we have spent together. The shared joy of listening to a Bach Sonata as I carefully and lovingly prune your branches, encouraging you to grow and flourish. Do you not feel a wonderful sense of self-worth, knowing the pleasure that you have brought me? Sitting and watching the sunlight as it pours through the window, lighting every beautiful, well formed flower, each exquisite leaf, is one of my greatest delights.

If God had made you in his image, as he did humankind, then I could understand why you might not cherish and embrace this life you have been given. Your existence, full as it is of travails, might seem little but pain and hardship. The constant struggle to find nourishment from the soil in which you sit, the never-ending battle against the parasites that seek to bleed from you the nutrients that course through your veins, might all become too much. Your brief life of struggle might seem insignificant, a mere blink of an eye, compared to a future life of everlasting bliss, where the streets are paved with Osmocote, and bees and ladybugs escort you everywhere you venture (for in plant heaven, all are like triffids, and can move about at will). Why would you not wish for an end to this paltry life, with its disappointments and difficulties, and for a new, endless life of unimaginable happiness and joy to begin?

But, my dear Ophelia, God did not make you in his image. This life you have now is all that there is. There is no celestial nursery, no land flowing with milk and Seasol. The universe has existed for billions of years without you, and when you have breathed your last, it will exist for an eternity to come. Your life is not a dress-rehearsal for something bigger and better, not a chance to fritter and waste all the growing and blossoming you could be doing whilst you wallow in a mire of self-pity and dream of the day you will be perfect.

Seize the day, Ophelia! You have but one life. The time allotted to it is infinitely tiny on a cosmic scale. Embrace this life you have been given. You are surrounded by those who love you, and who derive such pleasure simply from the enjoyment of your company. Make the most of every moment. One day, the sun will rise, and you, Ophelia, will not be there to greet it - but that day is not today! Take strength from those who care for you, understand how they depend on you. Appreciate that the world will be a sadder place without you.

Rise, shine, spread your petals and let us continue to travel this journey together.

Your friend,
Me.

Author Notes Osmocote and Seasol are brands of fertiliser.

Ophelia is a plant - perhaps.


Chapter 33
No Hard Feelings

By CD Richards

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of language.

 
So, you think my magnificent entry wasn't worthy of your puerile competition? The piece of rubbish that won was drier than a dead dingo's donger! What's your criteria for success? Who do I have to sleep with to get a win around here?

The contest committee wouldn't know a perfect piece of prose if it jumped up and bit them on the bum. My spelling is impeckable, and my command of the rules of grammar is something with what which you should have the greatest respect of.

You and the rest of the no-talent hacks around here can take your jumped-up, hootin'-tootin', high-falutin', namby-pamby, haughty-taughty competition and bury it up your colon!

Yours sincerely,

(A writer whose quill you're not worthy to lick)

P.S.

Can I please have my entry fee back?


Chapter 34
Mars and Venus

By CD Richards



Women engage in gender stereotyping, and men don't.


Chapter 35
Happy Birthday, Darling!

By CD Richards

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

*
*

The sign above the door read "Happy Birthday Darling!"

Turning the knob and stepping inside he saw his wife and children beaming at him from next to the huge, lion-shaped cake.

A dozen jubilant voices joining in unison to yell "Surprise!" served to drown out an ominous 
click, then the familiar woosh of a steel-tipped, carbon fibre shaft slicing its way through the air.

The last thing that went through Walt Palmer's mind was an arrow.

 


Chapter 36
The Good Book

By CD Richards

Dear God,

I have a problem. I don't believe you are real. That in itself is not such a problem, except for the fact that talking to people who aren't real is frowned upon by certain sectors of the medical fraternity.

My real problem is this, God. I'm surrounded by people who tell me it's really important I live my life in accordance with your wishes. What I watch when I go to the cinema, what I may or may not wear, what I can or can't say in public (if I don't want to quite literally lose my head), what I can or can't do in the bath and who I can or can't share my bed with are all decisions I must make in accordance with your will.

Well, these spokespeople of yours are all well and good, except that by and large when nobody's looking, they don't behave in the slightest as they tell me I'm supposed to. It seems not a day goes by that one or another doesn't get caught with their pants around their ankles in the process of coveting their neighbour's wife, or getting fiddly with some little boy in the rectory. Or begging and pleading for more and more money to support their spreading of your "message" while they live the life of a jet-setting playboy. And why is it that so many of these God-fearing, Spirit-filled types (at least in your own specially chosen country— no, not Israel, the other one) think that the only way to bring about lasting peace is to arm everyone to the teeth?

But then, these very same people that are quite brilliant at delivering "the message", but really rather poor at following it, provide a solution— and lo-and-behold, it's a book! And then they tell me that if I only follow the instructions you provide in this book, I will have everything I need to live the life you want me to, and avoid being a reluctant guest of honour at a never-ending barbeque where I'm the main course.

Here's the thing, God. This book that you gave us— it's odd. The people I see on my television every Sunday tell me that it contains your message of love and hope and salvation. Well, I've read the thing many times, and to be honest, to me it seems to be all about hatred, intolerance, bigotry and revenge, with a few fluffy bits thrown in to ease the boredom.

According to this book, your grand plan is that you create a species (homo sapiens, or to use the slightly misogynistic term, "man"), giving him a free will. Then, when he exercises that free will in a certain way (which you knew he would do prior to creating him, because you are omniscient), you banish him from paradise and condemn him and every single one of his offspring who will ever be born to eternal damnation. Talk about a bad temper! Why would you create an entire species, knowing in advance the vast majority of them would be doomed to everlasting torment? That's just plain not very nice. Wouldn't you perhaps move on to plan B at that point? After all, you had an infinite number of possibilities at your disposal.

Then a bit later, we have more stories of how you wipe out the entire planet, or occasionally just a city here and there because you're not happy. Furthermore, the Old Testament seems to be little more than a catalogue of sins for which people should be murdered in the most barbaric way. Admittedly, many of these are totally horrendous sins, fully deserving of death— such as talking back to your parents, or working on the Sabbath. But really, isn't this a bit over the top?

It seems that your followers these days really have a hard time dealing with this book you provided. For most of the last few millennia, right up until very recently (say the last three or four hundred years or so) it has actually been acceptable practice to lop the heads off (or stone to death, or burn at the stake) people who don't accept or adhere to its teachings. Of course, in some places this is still de rigueur, but not in the majority of western nations. Indeed, in these dens of iniquity, all sorts of "atrocities" are becoming more and more accepted— including blasphemies such as believing that the Earth perhaps isn't flat, isn't the center of the universe, is a little more than 6,000 years old (ok, a lot more), and wasn't actually created in six days. Or believing that people should have the right to marry whomever they like.

And so, this places your followers in a bit of a dilemma. Clearly society has moved on a bit over the past 6,000 years or so. And if those who claim that this book is your inspired, infallible instruction manual for life continue to insist that every word is to be taken and applied literally, they find themselves at odds with the majority of society. And that isn't good for business.

But they can't just drop the book altogether, that would make the church look pretty silly. Also, we would be back to having no moral compass to guide us on life's journey. So what to do? Here is where we get really sneaky. And this is where the television show I was watching on Sunday night comes in, and in particular the appearance on it of one John G Stackhouse, Jr.

Mr Stackhouse seems like a pleasant enough man. He is a Canadian Christian apologist and scholar. And he has a theory which allows us to accept the teachings of the Bible, whilst not being required to do all those unsavory things it tells us to do— like stoning people to death for adultery (women only, of course), or homosexuality, or working on the Sabbath. You see, according to Mr Stackhouse, the Bible is a complex book. People spend years and years of study to unravel its mysteries. And, just as people wouldn't dare criticize any scientific theory without spending years swotting up on it (oh no, that would never happen), similarly people can't claim to be able to find fault with the Bible unless they have spent many years being professionally trained to understand it. Brilliant! This solves the problem of the Bible containing a lot of what would these days be considered balderdash, while still allowing people to believe in it. They just don't properly comprehend it! I should add, this theory is not the sole property of Mr Stackhouse; I have heard it espoused many times, he is just the latest proponent that I happen to have encountered.

Well, God, I'm sorry, but I just don't buy this line from your messenger one little bit. And there are two main reasons for this:

Firstly, is this the best you can do to encourage people to follow you, and be prepared to sacrifice their lives for you? In the past, you used to walk amongst humankind. And, if you weren't there in person, there were burning bushes or flaming chariots, or parting seas to bolster our belief. Even in New Testament times we had dead people coming back to life, water turning into wine and more. But for the past two thousand odd years, we've had nothing. Zilch. Zippo. Nada. That is unless you accept the stories of statues that bleed, and your Son's image in a piece of toast, and miraculously healing springs, which most of your own followers clearly do not, let alone the heathens. And in the face of all this absence of evidence, the one single, solitary thing you give to us —your book— is so complicated, so steeped in the savagery of tribal barbarians from thousands of years ago, that no one without a theology degree can fathom it. Surely if those who don't follow the instructions you have set down in that book are going to suffer eternal torment, you could provide us with something a bit better, a bit more comprehensible? Maybe beam down a "revised edition" at least?

Secondly, how is the position advocated by your Mr Stackhouse any different from the position of the Catholic Church throughout the dark ages? The entire movement known as the Reformation, which eventually led to every other branch of the Christian religion besides Catholocism, was aimed at taking your book out of the hands of "the illuminati" and putting it into the hands of the common people. John Wycliffe had the temerity to die before the Pope could get his hands on him, but he was subsequently exhumed and burned at the stake for his crimes of heresy— not least of which was translating portions of your book into English. William Tyndale was not so lucky. He was strangled and then burned at the stake for producing an English translation of your book. Why did he do it? So that individual followers would have your words in their own language to read, and wouldn't have to rely on so called "messengers" to tell them what your book meant! To say that your book is not suitable for reading by the common man, or woman, is to turn back the clock to the dark ages.

I'm sorry, God, but as far as I can see we are back to square one. Religious apologists can't have it both ways. Either you have provided the Bible as an instruction manual for following your grand plan, or you haven't. The arguments which modern theologians make for "cherry picking" the parts that suit them and ditching the rest just don't hold water. And since I choose to believe that you don't really want me to go around smiting and laying to waste and utterly destroying those who commit the litany of sins that are catalogued within that book, I just have to conclude that it is the work of men— primitive, barely out of the stone age men at that.

So, as much as it pains me to say, there is no magic book; no collection of popes and prophets and priests and prelates with whom I would trust my lunch money, let alone my life— this one or the next (if there were such a thing). And so I still have no reason to believe you exist.


Yours sincerely,

A. Heathen.

Author Notes This piece is, more than anything else, an experiment.

It was prompted (in part) by the appearance of Canadian theologian John G Stackhouse, Jr on the television program Q&A on 19th July 2015, and his response to a question from a young audience member.


Chapter 37
The Hippo-Cat

By CD Richards

Dear Father Thomas,

When I grow up, I want to be a hippo-cat. That's what my big brother Johnny (he's 14, and he's kissed a girl before) says my parents are.

He says he knows they are hippo-cats because they tell us that fighting is bad and violence doesn't solve anything. But they fight all the time -- mostly when they think we aren't listening -- but not always. And what happens when we do something wrong? They hit us!

My mom got as mad as hell when I told her I got a B in science, but it was really a C-. She made me spend the whole day in my room for lying. But dad told the IRS (I'm not really sure who that is, but they are bad people) that he earns much less than he really does. I guess lying is ok when the people you lie to are bad, or you need a new car.

Mom says that Jesus told us we should love our neighbor. Well, that's cool, because Mrs Watson is really nice. She even throws my ball back when it goes over the fence. And just like mom and dad, she doesn't like wetbacks and towelheads either.

Johnny got belted for stealing dad's cigarettes. I sure hope dad doesn't notice the whiskey that's missing from the bottle in his study.

Anyway, that's all I have to say about that. But one day when I'm big I want to be a hippo-cat too.

From,

Kevin.


P.S. I didn't like that game we played yesterday, it made me feel funny.


Chapter 38
The Lost

By CD Richards



As his brush flies across the canvas, Stephen Benjafield has never felt more inspired. His creation, "The Lost”, appears to be taking on a life of its own. Bold, swirling strokes of umber, ochre, yellow, grey -- five tortured souls reaching pitifully out of the flames.

A flash of lightning, a thunderous rumble shakes the studio. The stench of something unspeakably vile hangs heavy in the air....

On the floor, a brush and a palette; on the easel a canvas. And on that canvas -- pleading for an end to their torment and suffering -- six wretched figures.


 


Chapter 39
Power and Responsibility

By CD Richards

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

.


When I was six months old, they took me away from my mother's breast, never to see her again. I have not been able to get the sound of her despairing cries out of my head. Every instinct in her being was demanding that she protect me, yet she was powerless to do so.


A few weeks later, they removed my testicles with a knife. I wish they'd used anaesthetic -- it hurt like hell. It also stung a bit when they stamped a hole through my ear and hung a heavy tag off it, but not as much as when they slammed that red hot iron onto my ribs. Burning flesh is just about the worst smell there is.


Now I'm crammed onto a cargo vessel headed for the last place I will ever see alive -- if I survive this trip, that is. Invariably, a number of us don't.


If I'm lucky, the metal bolt they shatter my skull with will render me insensible immediately; I'd hate it just to poke out an eye or something, and for them to have to take a second shot; or worse -- to still be awake when they hang me upside down and slash my throat open, like so many of my friends.


Apparently the Alpha-Centaurians think humans taste quite delicious. But I understand -- it's not personal. They are smarter and more powerful than us, so this is the way it must be. Actually, if you ask them, they are proud of themselves for being so loving and kind in their care of us before we become their dinner.


“For what we are about to receive....”


 

Author Notes When we drive through the countryside and see the rolling green hills, and the cattle peacefully grazing, it's easy to think that all is right with the world. It depends on your perspective.


Chapter 40
Mayhem at Maple Crescent

By CD Richards

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.


"My sister says mommy killed her."

These are the words that Officer Paul Davies could not get out of his head as he surveyed the scene before him. He and his partner were first to arrive following the 911 call that had come in only minutes ago. Neighbors had heard screams coming from the house at 23 Maple Crescent.

It occurred to Paul that he may never be able to erase from his mind the image of eight year old Kylie Marshall huddled in the corner of her bedroom, arms wrapped tightly around her knees, staring at the grotesque sight of her brother's broken body. Aidan Marshall lay with his back arched at an impossible angle, his head twisted so that it faced almost backwards, across the small single bed. He was wearing only dark grey pajama shorts. Purplish bruising was visible on almost every exposed part of his body.

Paul could hear muffled voices from the bedroom next door, where Officer Sharon Tyndall had taken Kylie. His eyes swept again across the scene, back to the body of twelve year old Chrissy Marshall, Aidan's twin. She was laying face down; the once pale blue nightdress that covered her slight frame now a deep crimson. The presumed murder weapon -- a wooden handled kitchen knife with a blade around eight inches long, and dripping gore -- lay around six feet away by the metal base of a standard lamp.

As the policeman noted the overturned book case by Chrissy's left hand, the titles were what you'd expect from any normal child's collection -- Charlotte's Web, The Cat in the Hat, A Wrinkle in Time... What didn't look normal was her blood drenched fingers, and in bright red, the letters MO -- presumably painted in the child's own blood as she lay dying. The poor youngster hadn't even had time to complete the word "mommy" before she had succumbed to her horrific wounds.

"Why don't you speak?" was Officer Davies' silent plea to the only known witnesses to this horrific crime. He was addressing the assorted collection of stuffed children's toys and dolls that were scattered around the room. At the head of the bed across which Aidan lay was a doll Paul had christened 'Electrocution Barbie', because of the insane hair that adorned her shiny, smooth, but otherwise flawless head. On the top mattress of the double bunk bed on the other side of the room, was the complete set of Sesame Street characters -- all seemed to be gazing mockingly at the hapless victims, except for Bert and Ernie. They were locked in an embrace, as if seeking each others' protection from the calamity that had been unfolding in front of them. In the "African Quadrant" as the policeman had mentally dubbed it, a giraffe and an elephant with more pink and less grey than seemed likely appeared oblivious to the events that had taken place.

As he turned his attention to the shattered picture frame on the floor, with a photo of Peter and Ellen Marshall -- the childrens' parents -- smiling happily (obscenely) at the chaos surrounding them, Officer Davies wondered to himself what could drive somebody to do something as horrendous as this to their own flesh and blood. The Marshalls were loved and respected members of their community, people whom Paul knew personally. Decent, church-going, Christian folk didn't butcher their own offspring. Peter was a keen member of the local Volunteer Fire Service, and Ellen was active on the school PTA board and several other community organizations. Sure, there had been rumors about Peter and the receptionist at the Real Estate office where he worked; but those who knew him were convinced those rumors were simply the mischief of a disgruntled client -- the result of a sale gone wrong. Ellen had suffered postpartum depression following the birth of her third child, but that was eight years ago now, and anyone who you cared to ask would tell you she was a loving and devoted mother.

Officer Davies reached for his radio handset to call in an APB on the missing couple. Before he could raise the handset to his mouth, there was a frenzied burst of activity behind him. At exactly the same time as his feet were pulled out from under him, he heard the door behind him slam shut. As his chin hit the floor, obliterating the twelve hundred dollars worth of dental work he'd had done only last week, he heard the key turn in the lock. Reaching out, his right hand just fell short of being able to reach the leg of the bed as he felt himself being dragged backwards. With his left hand he lunged for the only thing he could reach -- the wooden side of the overturned bookcase.

As his prone form was tugged along the pile carpet, the last thing that Officer Paul Davies saw in this world was the two previously hidden letters that appeared as the bookcase slid along the floor with him. Kylie Marshall was wrong. On the freshly uncovered carpet in big, bold, red letters was one word:

"ELMO"


Chapter 41
Exhortation to the Faithless

By CD Richards


My Dear Atheist Friends,
 

The first thing you need to understand is that you are never going to "convert" (or should that be de-convert?) a Christian by arguing with them. It just won't happen. You may think you have a perfectly formulated, air-tight, logical case demonstrating that belief in God is unjustified. You might even be right - but it doesn't matter.

You see, Christians do not think in the same way as those of us who don't share their views. Crucial to their belief is a concept known as faith. One of the earliest Christians expressed it this way:

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen 
(Hebrews 11:1).

Most atheists, as you know, believe that holding something as true in spite of apparent evidence to the contrary is being intellectually dishonest (I say "apparent" deliberately, so as not to offend any Christian who might happen across this letter). Yet Christians make a virtue of this very thing. If something leads them to doubt their beliefs, they are encouraged to hold fast to that belief in spite of their doubts. This is "trusting in God". Conversely, they are told that questioning God is committing the sin of pride - how dare you doubt the all-powerful, all-knowing being who created you?

Christians can (and many do) eventually decide that there are aspects of what they are required to believe that don't make sense, or are unpalatable - a large number of atheists were once committed Christians. But if they get to this point, it is far more likely as a result of introspection rather than your clever arguments. Accept that.


Secondly, you need to understand that most Christians will be of the opinion that you, as an atheist, hate their God. I suppose, by extension, some seem to think you must therefore hate them too.

I'm not sure that you can do much to alter their opinion on this. One thing you could try is to ask them if they hate (for example) Thor. They are likely to see this as a ridiculous question. Obviously they don't hate Thor, because Thor doesn't really exist. If they are observant, it might dawn on them that for exactly the same reason, you don't hate their God. It is pointless to spend your time hating something you assume to be imaginary.


Thirdly, don't lose hope for your Christian friends. The reality is, that despite enormous differences between what you believe and what they do, in the end it turns out they are almost as atheistic as you are!

There are literally thousands upon thousands of gods - not just made up names in novels, but all-powerful beings that civilisations and cultures have actually worshipped throughout the centuries:

Norse gods, Roman gods, Greek gods, Egyptian gods, Celtic, Hindu, Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian, Polynesian, Aboriginal, Irish, Welsh, Slavic and pagan gods. Gods of peace, gods of war, gods of love.... You could fill books with their names (as a mercy, I won't).

Realise that, for all of these thousands of deities, your Christian friend believes one hundred percent that they are not real. They are all inventions of our minds - with one exception! How much of a step is it for them to go one god more? Live in the hope that one day, when they understand why they don't believe in these myriads of gods, they will understand why you don't believe in theirs.

Finally, my atheist friends, try not to get dragged into the "litany of sins throughout the ages" debate. Yes, it is really difficult to avoid this, because many Christians will try to take the line that the world is a better place because of religion, and meaningless without it. But do try not to get embroiled, if at all possible.

What will happen if you succumb is that your friend will begin by listing all the wonderful works that churches do - the caring for the poor, the abused, the sick. Then, you will feel obliged to point out the despicable acts that have been carried out in the name of religion - the crusades, the inquisitions, the terrorist atrocities, the sexual abuse of children, the ill-treatment of women. You might even point out the work of secular organisations such as Amnesty International or Doctors Without Borders to show that good works are possible without religious motives.

What both Christians and atheists need to understand is that there are good and bad people who are atheists, and there are good and bad people who claim to be Christians. Somehow, I think almost everyone on both sides does know this in their hearts, but we seldom act as if we do. There are far more important things that define us as people than our religious beliefs, or lack thereof.

You might, as a non-believer, take offence at some of the more fundamentalist Christians you know wanting to condemn you to a life hereafter of eternal torment and suffering because you don't see things their way; after all, it does seem a tad uncharitable. But the thing is, you don't believe that, so don't let it bother you.

Try to get along with your believing friends. Perhaps Voltaire put it as well as anyone:

Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too.


Your friend,

Me


 

Author Notes Please note that this is an imaginary letter from one atheist to others. It therefore makes certain assumptions (e.g. that the atheist position is correct). If you are a Christian, please don't be offended by this. Recognise that there are assumptions that you as a Christian would make if writing to other Christians.


Chapter 42
My Horror-Scope

By CD Richards

Aquarius (January 21 – February 19)

If you are a single Aquarian, you may have been feeling left out in recent months. Never mind, with Mars moving into Gemini your prospects for love will be good until at least June 24. Ideally, you might find a clingy Cancer or poor-me Pisces to hook up with – it's never going to work if both of you are the type to run a mile at any mention of commitment. Why are you even reading this anyway? It's not as if anyone's opinion matters besides your own.


Pisces (February 20 – March 20)

Awards and honors could be coming your way. With Saturn retrograding back into Scorpio, the pressure will begin to ease off at work, allowing you to concentrate on other things – like your navel. June 8 will be a great day health wise, so if you have any medical concerns whatsoever, have your mommy book you an appointment for that day.


Aries (March 21 – April 20)

Indications are that you may be about to conclude a creative project, possibly in the area of publishing or broadcasting. We'll have to remember to look out for the naked selfies on match.com. Friday, June 5 could be a great time to take a trip out of town, with Mars reaching out to Jupiter. As the moon moves into Aquarius, it's even possible that you could find love with someone besides yourself.

Taurus (April 21 – May 21)

June 22 will be a massive day for you. It is your big time for home improvements – focus on repairs and renovations, and you will be richly rewarded. With Venus in Leo on the 27th and 28th, look for chemistry with those you meet – the sparks just might fly. Just remember if you do find your one true love, make sure you let them out of their cage regularly and don't forget to feed them.

Gemini (May 22 – June 21)

This month sees Jupiter becoming your work ally, with the assistance of Mercury. Venus is set to bring great positivity to your relationships (your friends will be positive that you're psychotic). People have a tendency to see you as borderline schizophrenic, but that shouldn't be of concern to either of you. Just do your own thing, as always.

Cancer (June 22 – July 22)

June 2 sees a full moon, so your friends might want to leave town. Early June could also see interesting prospects develop job-wise. As a child of the moon, you believe yourself to be caring and dependable. Those who are honest with you will tell you that you're moody, whining and self-absorbed. If they wanted loyalty, they'd get a puppy. Move on.

Leo (July 23 – August 21)

This month, like every other month, is all about you. With Uranus orbiting in Aries, travel is on the cards for you this month. The full moon in Sagittarius indicates news to do with pregnancy, a baby or child. With luck, yet one more person to worship and adore you. Ain't life grand?


Virgo (August 22 – September 23)

Mercury will be very active for you in June, resulting in astounding prospects for career advancement. June 22 will be one of the greatest days of 2015 for you, if you can get your head out of Uranus long enough to enjoy it. If you're so precise, observant and analytical, why are you still reading this crap?

Libra (September 24 – October 23)

This month, you have exciting prospects for travel and work advancement, just like every other frigging sign. That should suit you down to the ground, because herd mentality really is your thing. Thankfully there will be plenty of others around to make the decisions that you can never force upon yourself, ensuring that you are kept in the style to which you're entitled.

Scorpio (October 24 – November 22)

Things are looking great for you money-wise this month, however you need to exercise great caution before entering into any contracts. At least one type of contract shouldn't be a problem – not many people are foolhardy enough to marry someone who by nature is jealous, suspicious and manipulative. Concentrate on financial and career prospects, and try not to let your OCD get in the way.

Sagittarius (November 23 – December 22)

Astounding progress is possible on the personal front. Romance is set to blossom, so I guess somewhere out there is another brick who is feeling amorous. Jupiter is your ruling planet, ensuring an easy ride on the highway of life this month. If you have been thinking about passports, citizenship or visa matters, or even leaving the country, these issues may very shortly be resolved. If you haven't been considering a permanent move overseas, please do.

Capricorn (December 23 – January 20)

For you, June will be a month of surprises. Plans involving real estate could well be on the cards. June 2nd's full moon is in your twelfth house, and Jupiter is in your eighth – which can only mean one thing: you have too many houses. This month is a good month to focus on fitness. Approach your psychological problems in a positive frame of mind, and try not to be so boring.


Chapter 43
Baby Food

By CD Richards

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

 
December 25, 2019 — 7:15 AM

Linda Howarth reached under the tree to retrieve the last parcel, a brightly wrapped cube of around six inches on each side, tied with a neat silver bow. “I wonder who this could be for….” She rotated the gift around each axis, but no card was attached. Linda looked quizzically at her husband Tim, who simply gave a faint shrug in return. “Michael, Emily… do either of you know how this got here?” 

“I guess Santa left it, like the others,“ offered four-year-old Michael. Emily, aged two, simply continued playing with her newly acquired My Little Pony toy.

“Well, let’s open it and see if we can figure out who it belongs to, shall we?” Linda discarded the bow and paper in less time than would seem appropriate for an adult, to reveal a very attractive looking wooden box. It was made of what looked like red maple, with a walnut stain, and simple but solid-looking brass hinges and clasp. The corner joints were dovetailed, giving a well-crafted appearance. “Quite lovely!” exclaimed Linda, again glancing towards Tim and receiving the same response.

Opening the lid carefully, in case she should be hit in the head by a spring-powered snake, Linda peered inside, then gently removed a single yellow-tinged piece of paper, quite thick and around four inches square. The edges were discoloured and ragged. “I don’t think this is ordinary paper,” commented Linda. “I’ve seen something similar to this in the museum. It looks like papyrus, and the writing appears to have been done with some sort of carbon-based pigment – it’s almost charcoal black. I don’t know what language it is. Doesn’t look Asian. I’m thinking Middle-Eastern origin… maybe even Hebrew.”

“Let me see.” Tim extended his hand, and Linda placed the object gently into it.

“Be careful, it looks very old”.

Tim took his glasses out of his shirt pocket and put them on. He stared at the paper for a few seconds, then burst into laughter. “I thought we were saving the Christmas beverages for lunch time. You’ve been imbibing in secret! It might be a little faded, but this is quite definitely English, you silly girl. Did you have the paper upside down?” He passed the paper back, shaking his head.

Linda turned her eyes again to the writing. “That’s not funny, Tim!” Once again she handed him the paper.

“Well, it’s a bit weird, but I’m sure I’ve heard these words somewhere before.”

“Oh, sure thing, Alan Turing. What does it say?”

It says, “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.”

“OK, well, very funny.” Linda’s tone sounded mostly perplexed and a little aggravated as she took the paper back from Tim and placed it in the box. “Let’s put it over here, until we’ve found out a bit more about this mysterious present from no one.” She set the box down on the mantle, underneath the wall-mounted oak crucifix. 


 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


January 4, 2020 — 3:10 PM

“You’re going to have to do something about Number 27.”

Tim Howarth screwed the lid back on the fuel tank of his Massey-Ferguson and lowered the engine cover. “What’s up with her?”

“She’s off her feed, her milk production’s way down and her condition is poor. Grass tetany, I’m guessing. Or ketosis, maybe.”

“Alright, I’ll take a look.”

“Yep, well nothing I can do," announced Tim from the kitchen door. "She’s no use to us whatsoever as she is, and I can’t see it being worth the time and money to try to fix her, with little chance of success. You get her haltered and put her in the head bail. I’ll get the rifle.”

Tim stood about three feet in front of Number 27’s head. He aimed at the middle of her forehead and pulled the trigger. An ugly red stain immediately appeared and she sank to one knee, her body thrashing, rocking the metal bars of the crush. Tim changed position and fired another round into the side of her head. Both knees were now on the ground, and her rear end collapsed against the side bars. Still, her sides heaved, and somehow she managed to emit a hideous vocalisation. Dropping the rifle, Tim raced to the shed, and returned a minute later with a long bladed knife. He slit 27’s throat from ear to ear and a torrent of blood pumped out. Within two or three minutes all movement and sound had stopped.  Tim almost ended up on his butt as he slipped in the pool of gore while removing the deceased animal’s yellow ear tag.


 
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
 

January 4, 2020 — 8:15 PM

For a reason that wasn’t clear to her, Linda Howarth elected to take the maple wood box down from the mantle and inspect the card. When she did so, the box fell heavily to the floor, but the paper remained firmly in the grasp of her trembling hand. “Tim, look at this! I still can’t make out any of these characters, but I’m sure they’re different, and there’s more of them!”

Tim put down his book and took the yellow, ageing slip from Linda’s outstretched hand. He read aloud from what he observed as perfectly formed English letters: “For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.”

Linda Howarth fainted, but fortunately for the as yet unborn family member she was carrying, landed softly.


 
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


March 19, 2020 — 7:30pm

The blue balloon floated near the ceiling, proudly proclaiming, “It’s a Boy!” Beside it, a bright banner bore congratulations, while the aroma of a brightly coloured floral arrangement joined in to announce the joyous news. Linda Howarth lay on her back, peacefully drifting in and out of consciousness, vaguely aware of the gentle pressure Neal Paul Howarth’s gums were exerting on her left nipple. The bliss of the moment was disturbed by the pleasant voice of Nurse Jenna. “Good evening, Linda. How are you feeling? I see the little one has it all worked out – well done!” She flashed a warm smile at the young woman as she pushed the stand closer.

“I feel amazing. I’m still a bit sore ‘down there’, but, you know, this almost seems to act as a kind of anaesthetic.  I can’t believe how beautiful he is.”

“Aye, that he is. Nurse Evans, would you mind popping over here for a minute and giving me a hand with this?”

As Nurse Jenna picked up Linda’s right arm and placed it beside the railing of her hospital bed, Nurse Evans lifted her left arm from the baby’s head and placed it alongside the other railing. Before a still groggy and confused Linda could get a sentence out, they had finished tightening the leather restraints around  her wrists.

“What’s going on? Why—?”

“Oh, never mind, dear. It’s for your own protection, mainly. We wouldn’t want you harming yourself. That would look bad on our record, too.” Nurse Evans’ smile wasn’t convincing. She moved to the foot of the bed where, after a quick movement, two rope restraints appeared. Shrieking a sequence of partial words that weren’t decipherable, Linda began to thrash, but stopped abruptly when a spluttering noise and a faint cry reminded her of the precious new life that lay on her chest. The nurse quickly had Linda’s ankles secured to the foot of the bed.

Nurse Jenna picked up a plastic object which had been resting on a metal arm attached to the cream-coloured machine. Linda could see that it was made of two clear cones, with an adjustable bar between. Each cone was attached to a transparent tube that fed back into the machine. As nurse Evans lifted baby Neal from Linda’s milk-swollen breast, Nurse Jenna attached the cones and made a quick adjustment to ensure a good fit. 

“What the hell is going on?” demanded Linda, now fully awake and shaking with rage and fear.

"Don’t worry, Linda. This really won’t hurt. In fact, after a few days, you’ll be so glad to see us at the same time every morning and evening…." Nurse Jenna flicked a toggle on the panel of the device. The switch glowed red and Linda became aware of a low-pitched, pulsating hum.

“OH MY GOD! Get this off me and GIVE ME BACK MY BABY!” Linda screamed, as she saw the pearlescent liquid being drawn into the tube and making its way to some unseen reservoir inside the machine.

“I’m sorry dear, we can’t do that. You see, we need the milk more than your baby does.” Nurse Evans explained in a mild, even tone. “You’ve heard of the huge demand overseas for Australian baby formula? Well, I’m afraid research has demonstrated that formula manufactured from cow’s milk whey just isn’t the best thing for little humans. There is a rapidly growing demand for formula produced from human milk. Sure, it’s illegal at the moment, but so was powdered rhino horn at one stage, and this product is going to run rings around that!”

“You’re insane!” My baby will die if he doesn’t feed!”

“No need to concern yourself with that. We will look after him well, and keep him fed on baby formula and synthetic supplements for the next little while. That’s until he is nice and plump at around six to seven weeks, at which time he’ll be baked and served up as a main course in the staff cafeteria. He’ll be delicious with a sprig of Rosemary and some creamy mashed potato. So you see, no wastage. We’ll call him Veal Neal!” Both nurses cackled, as the screaming began in earnest.


 
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


March 19, 2020 — 7:45 PM

With Michael and Emily safely delivered to his sister Shauna’s house, Tim prepared to make his first visit to see his new baby son since he had enjoyed the wonderful experience of helping deliver him. He gathered his wallet and keys, the box of Linda’s favourite liqueur chocolates and the flowers and headed towards the door. On impulse, he turned and strode to the mantle shelf and picked up the box. As he did so, he felt an odd stirring inside, and he could swear it actually grew warmer for a moment. Cradling the other objects in his left elbow, he opened the lid of the box and extracted the papyrus. There, in words which it seems only he could recognise, he found a new inscription:

 
“…for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

 

Author Notes * Americans invariably spell it "aging". British usually spell it "ageing", as do Australians, although the American spelling is officially accepted as well. In keeping with my preference for British/Australian spelling, I've used "ageing" for consistency.

Alan Turing is regarded as arguably one of the greatest cryptographers of all time, having invented the machine that broke the German Enigma code during WWII.


In order for a cow to produce milk, it must give birth to a calf. However, none of the male calves and few of the females born on a dairy farm are of any use to the owners. They are seen as a "waste" product and are treated as such. Most will be killed within days of their birth after being appallingly mistreated. They will be housed with barely enough room to stand and lie down (if they are lucky), fed once a day on artificial supplements, and will spend most of their few miserable hours on Earth screaming for their mothers. Slightly luckier ones will become "vealers". After several weeks to a few months of being kept in a cage and never seeing grass or the light of day, they too will be butchered. A few really lucky ones may get to be raised on grass as steers for slaughter at around two years of age to be sold as "beef".

I hope you've enjoyed my horror story, however, in all honesty, I must admit it is nowhere as horrendous and gruesome as the simple everyday truth about what happens in the livestock industry. For those who are inclined to complain my silly little tale is moralistic, I'll just point out much of the best horror writing is.

As long as Man continues to be the ruthless destroyer of lower living beings, he will never know health or peace. For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love. Pythagoras

1850 words (approx.)

Photo by The Dabblist, used under cc 2.0 licence https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Thanks for reading.


Chapter 44
A Deadly Puzzle

By CD Richards

7:35 PM

Vince Costa turned left into the off-ramp, then left again at the end. My life meant something when we were together–before she turned into a lying, cheating, bed-hopping whore. He considered slamming head-on into the silver Volvo whose driver assumed, incorrectly, he had right of way on the roundabout. Arsehole!  Consider yourself lucky not to get a ticket! Where was I? Oh, that’s right, they need to suffer, just as I have suffered these past two months. As for me, one final party with my old mate Jack Daniels here, and then it’s, ‘So long and thanks for all the fish.’ I miss you, Mr Adams, but we’ll be in the same place soon. A couple of turns later, Costa swung into Paula Tate’s drive, navigated past the long line of trees, and pulled up beside her house. A quick check he had everything, then he made his way up the single step to the front door.
 
“Vince! What’s up? Is it something at the Station?”
 
“Hi, Paula. Nah, everything’s just peachy there.” Vince cringed inwardly, aware he’d probably overdone the sarcastic tone. “Mind if I come in?”
 
Paula hesitated. “Yeah, sure. But it will have to be quick, I’ve got a Skype session with Megs scheduled fifteen minutes from now.”
 
“No worries. This won’t take long at all. I just need a little favour.”
 
Paula closed the door, then walked past the armrest of the couch, to the nearest chair. Turning around, she observed that although the Glock pistol pointed at her chest was standard police issue, the silencer fitted to it was not. “Vince, what the—? Stop mucking around, you know better than to pull crap like that.”
 
“No joke, Paula. Now, about that little favour….” He took two strides forward, removing an object from his left-hand jacket pocket and placing it on the top of the couch’s backrest.
 
“What is that?” Paula asked, her eyes fixed in a wide stare at the syringe filled with clear liquid.
 
“Just something to help you sleep. A little benzodiazepine on steroids.”
 
“You’ve got to be joking. There is no way—"
 
“Do I look like I’m joking? It won’t kill you, I promise. This, however, will.” He gestured by raising the muzzle of the Glock a couple of centimetres and slightly tilting his head. “I’m going to count to five. You will pick up the syringe and inject the full contents into your right glute. On five, I’m either going to catch you or shoot you.”

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *
 
9:50 PM

“Thanks, Jasper, for coming at such short notice. I hate to impose, but you know this one is personal. We need to work fast, and with everyone at our disposal.” Detective Sergeant Ray Jones motioned his visitor to take a seat.
 
“No trouble, Ray. Reruns of I Love Lucy or the chance to be of service to my friends in the New South Wales Police? No contest. So, this is all you have?” Jasper Douglas briefly inspected the light brown envelope both sides, noting that it was addressed to “Detective Constable David Price”, before spreading it open and tipping the contents onto the desk in front of him.
 
“Pretty much. We got an anonymous call at 8:10 pm about trouble at Paula’s house. The patrol car arrived at 8:25 and  Weston found the envelope on the coffee table in Paula’s living room. No sign of a struggle. I had the patrol officers talk with the neighbours immediately after they called in. No one saw or heard anything. Paula’s house is well set back from the street, and hidden from view on both sides.  Costa was well aware of that. I’ve given the details of Costa’s private vehicle to a couple of officers and they are checking servos and any other available CCTV footage near both Constable Tate’s house and Detective Constable Costa’s. No news from them yet.”
 
Jasper unfolded a piece of thin grey cardboard to reveal it was the lid of a jigsaw puzzle depicting the periodic table of elements. Of the 300 pieces the lid said comprised the puzzle, only nine were resting on the desk. There was also a sheet of A4 feint-ruled paper, which he unfolded and read.

 

Price:

Congratulations on getting the girl. I hope you’ve both been very happy together these past two months. Sadly all good things come to an end. For your new relationship and for Paula, that time has come tonight. According to my calculations, by the time someone reads this, she will have just a few hours to live, depending on how she handles herself. I imagine waking up to find oneself in a casket could trigger a certain amount of stress. I hope she doesn’t panic, that will shorten her remaining time considerably. As for you, David, I would just have put a bullet in your head, but I’d rather you spend the rest of your miserable days lamenting the fact you might have been able to help her if you hadn’t been such a lousy detective. You can waste your time looking for me if you like, but I’d suggest you spend it trying to find your girlfriend. I’m not going anywhere far away, and by the time I’m found, nothing you can do will hurt me again.
 
Vince Costa

 
Jasper’s brow furrowed. “That means we have something in the order of three to four hours in which to find her. Has Detective Constable Price been of any assistance?"
 
“We haven’t been able to locate Price as yet.”
 
“Keep on that. Could you please have someone make a copy of this lid, four times magnification, and I’ll need a notepad. Also, a coffee would be great.” Jasper smiled at the Sergeant.
 
When the notepad arrived, Jasper began jotting down the details from each tile of the jigsaw puzzle. On completion, he surveyed the results:
 
Element Symbol Atomic No Atomic Mass
Astatine At 85 210
Gold Au 79 195.9655
Beryllium Be 4 9.01218
Einsteinium Es 99 254
Hydrogen H 1 1.007825
Lanthanum La 57 138.91
Lithium Li 3 6.941
Neon Ne 10 20.179
Phosphorus P 15 31
 
“Anything?” Ray Jones placed the photocopy and coffee in front of Jasper, then slid into a nearby seat.
 
“Not yet. Nothing jumps out at me. A few soft metals, a couple of gases. Can’t see anything obvious to tie them together. Have you run them by the chemists in forensics? The atomic numbers don’t suggest anything immediately. Possibly street numbers. We’ve got ‘La’ for ‘Lane’ and  ‘Es’ could be Esplanade, at a stretch, so maybe combined with the other symbols we could have an address. But why all the extra numbers? I doubt the atomic mass means anything. A long shot would be map coordinates, but again, why so many?”
 
Jones’ heavy sigh drew a sympathetic response from Jasper. “Don’t give up yet. We have time, as long as he hasn’t taken her far. Can you get a helicopter on standby, just in case?”
 
“It will tear me apart if we can’t get to her in time, Jasper. She’s a vital part of this station, and very well liked here. I’ll do my best to see about a chopper.”
 
The unofficial Police Consultant drew the enlarged photocopy of the box top close and began placing the tiles according to the picture on the lid. When he had finished, he stood and paced around the table, looking at the partially completed puzzle. “I don’t see any clue in the form of a pattern or picture.” He picked up his coffee and took a sip. “I see a fairly good representation of the Crux constellation, but the nearest Southern Cross Hotel is a fair way from here, and in any case, the pointers are wrong, and why the extra stars? You can see, though, how the picture itself—the table—is a strong grid pattern. That suggests a couple of things. For example, it could be a representation of a set of deposit boxes at a bank, or perhaps an overlay for a district map. But which bank and to what purpose? And which district? Too many possibilities.”
 
Jasper raised the Styrofoam cup to his lips and took another swig of coffee. “Ray, I know it’s late, but perhaps you could try getting in touch with as many of the staff at this station as possible, to see if Detective Constable Costa has said anything to any of them, or if they might know of any place he might be likely to take her. A holiday home, for example?”
 
“Already on it. I have a probie ringing around. I’ll go and check how she’s getting on.”

 
* * * * * * * * * * * *
 
10:43 PM
 
Jasper raised his eyes in response to the knock on the open door of his temporary quarters. She looks remarkably like my daughter, he thought, as he regarded Probationary Constable Pam Worthington expectantly.
 
“Excuse me, Sir. The Detective Sergeant wanted me to let you know that our enquiries with other Station personnel haven’t turned up anything.”
 
“Not to worry. Thanks for letting me know. It’s a bit chilly in here. Where abouts is the air conditioning control?”
 
“It’s in the basement, Sir. Alongside the electrical distribution board.”
 
“Thought it might be, that’s a common location in these old buildings. Would you mind popping down and turning it up two or three degrees? Check with the Detective Sergeant if you think it’s necessary, but I’m sure he won’t mind.”

 
* * * * * * * * * * * *
 
11:26 PM
 
An extremely harried, but relieved-looking, Detective Sergeant Jones strode into the room where Jasper Douglas sat reading a newspaper and sipping a fresh coffee.
 
“She’s very weak and a little dehydrated, but she will be fine. We’ve called an ambulance. Costa’s car has been found by The Gap. He used his gun on himself. There was a lightweight hospital gurney in the basement, and the casket was a DIY affair made from marine ply. We’re assuming he transported it in pieces, along with the gurney, in the back of his van. Paula could have been in the passenger seat. He used the side entrance in Argyle Street, which leads directly into the basement. He probably disabled the alarm just before he finished his shift. It’s rare that anyone goes to the basement from inside the station, and at that time of night during the week, there would be few people around to see anything. Besides, who would expect anything untoward happening at a Police Station? Costa was a clever one. Where is the last place anyone would suspect someone would plot and carry out a murder of this kind?”
 
“A terrible waste of a sharp mind,” replied Jasper. “I’m glad to hear the Constable will be fine.”
 
“Just one more thing…”
 
“How did I know?” Smiling, Jasper pushed a piece of paper across the desk towards Jones. Glancing down, the Detective Sergeant saw the nine jigsaw pieces arranged neatly, as follows:

 
P Au La    Li Es    Be Ne At H
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Author Notes
Object: Incomplete jigsaw puzzle.
Genre: Thriller.
Word count: 1870 approx.
Image by Senjin Pojskic from Pixabay.

Thanks for reading.


Chapter 45
Say what?

By CD Richards

     
I must begin by stating, in all honesty, my partner is a very intelligent woman. "Sharp as a tack", as the saying goes. In case she reads this, I should also mention she is beautiful, kind, generous, funny and extremely forgiving.

One day I brought home a water trough for our animals. The trough is circular, six feet in diameter and two and a half feet high. It holds 1,000 litres (200 gallons). Without so much as blinking or cracking the faintest smile, she looked me in the eye and said: "It's very wide; how will they reach the middle?"

Author Notes 100 words.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. If you have to think about it, you're as bad as she is! ;-)


Chapter 46
Be Careful What You Wish For

By CD Richards

  
  
The boy struggled to free himself from the vice-like grip. "I hate this place! Why can't we go home?" His mother almost spilled the tray of popcorn and drinks in her other hand as she tried to prevent him from escaping.

Young Cedric Hoffman was not impressed by the witches tossing suspicious-looking objects into their bubbling cauldron, the woman with the meat-cleaver embedded in her neck or even the flesh-eating zombie with the talcum-powder hair. He despised the fact he happened to be born on the thirty-first of October. While other kids got to stay home and play with the cool games they got for their birthday, he was stuck with being dragged around this lame old collection of circus freaks.

"You should be thankful, young man. There are so few places that have village celebrations like this any more. Let's go ride the wheel, and you'll feel better." Clara Hoffman gave her five-year-old a hopeful smile.

"I don't want to be here. This place SUCKS!" Cedric almost escaped his mother's grasp. Tears began to well up inside his plastic hockey mask. "I wish there was no such thing as Halloween!"

Behind them and a few feet to the right, the lights in Madame Zelda's cabinet flickered on and smoke billowed in from an unseen pipe in the floor. The eyes of the papier-mache mystic glowed bright red and her mouth began to move, as the following incantation crackled over the speaker at the front of the case:

 

Thirty days has September,
April, June and November.
October once had thirty-one,
Lose a day, it's "Goodbye, Son!"

Clara Hoffman's hand formed a fist as the sudden lack of resistance allowed her fingers to close upon her palm. Looking down, she saw the Jason mask staring up at her from the ground. Some poor child will be upset about losing that. With no idea why she felt slightly confused, Clara cast her eyes around the pavilion. No Madame Zelda. No ghosts, ghouls or goblins. There was a duck-shoot, a row of clowns swallowing ping-pong balls, some guy enticing passers-by to knock down impossibly weighted cans with a bean bag, to win a prize they didn't want. Just the usual county fair stuff.  Shrugging, Clara resumed her trek back to the Ferris wheel, where her husband and daughter were waiting for their popcorn.

Author Notes 390 words.

Thanks for reading,
Happy Halloween!


Chapter 47
A Second Chance

By CD Richards

Tuesday August 16, 1977, 2:55 PM. Somewhere on I-240E, Memphis, Tennessee.
 
“Geezus, Charlie, careful! My Tanya’s gonna be mighty pissed at you if you wipe out her fiancé two weeks before her wedding.” It was just over twenty minutes since the call had come in to Memphis Fire Station Number 29 about an unconscious man found lying on the bathroom floor at 3754 Elvis Presley Boulevard. With Elvis’s personal physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos, in the back performing CPR, EMT Ulysses Jones, Jr. had taken his attention off the pajama-clad patient just long enough to observe driver Charlie Crosby’s near-miss with the large fuel truck.
 

* * * * * * * *
 
Tuesday August 22, 1977, 3:20 PM. Baptist Memorial Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee.
 
Doctor David Albright fixed his gaze intently on the attractive woman with the mousey-blonde hair. “I’m serious, Ginger. Do you know how close you came to losing this man? He died twice on the way to this hospital and once more after arriving. I can’t put it any more plainly than that. It’s only due to the great skill of the Ambulance officers and our ER staff and the benevolence of the Almighty that you are standing there holding his hand today.” The slight, bespectacled man with the greying temples turned to Elvis. “If you want to make good on your promise of announcing your engagement to this lovely woman at your next concert, then you need to make some changes. Big changes. I will arrange for our dietician to visit you at Graceland within the next week. Also, I don’t care what Dr. Nichopoulos told you, he is now part of your past. No more Dilaudid. No Quaaludes, Amatyls or Dexadrine. No Percodan or Demerol either. You will get your codeine from me only, and I will monitor that carefully. Is that understood?” The overweight patient looked more like a scolded schoolboy than the King of Rock and Roll as he nodded his agreement.
 
* * * * * * * *
 
Sunday July 27, 2008, 10:20 AM. Neverland Ranch, Los Olivos, California.
 
“Are you almost finished in there, sweetheart? Be a darling and bring me a couple of Advil, my head hurts so bad.”  Michael Jackson struggled to open his eyes as the sunshine streamed in through the white lace curtains.
 
“It’s your own doing, sugar.” The sympathetic look on Nicholas Cage’s face belied his stern words as he held out the pills and glass of water. “What a fantastic day it was yesterday. The weather was gorgeous, and I don’t think the guests could have been any happier. Especially not Brad and Angelina, I think theirs is a marriage that could go on forever, just as ours will.”
 
Jackson tossed down the pills and followed them quickly with a mouthful of water. One of the tablets lodged itself in his throat sideways, causing a fit of foamy coughing and spluttering. The tumbler bounced noisily on the polished timber floor, but miraculously didn’t break. “That’s embarrassing. It’s a long time since I’ve blown bubbles. So, how many couples could say they both had their ex give them away at their wedding, and be referring to the same person? Lisa Marie looked stunning, don’t you think?”
 
“That she did. But the coup of the century was roping her old man into providing the entertainment for the evening. Stroke of genius that!” Nicholas picked up a pillow and whacked Michael over the head. The Advil hadn’t had enough time to kick in for Jackson to really appreciate it for the loving gesture it was. “Come on, lazy pants, get up. We’ve got a honeymoon to attend to!”
 
* * * * * * * *
 
Sunday September 14, 2008,  11:08 AM. Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee.
 
“You’re a fat, lazy, good-for-nothing layabout. I can’t think what possessed me to marry you. You are the worst husband ever. I should know, I’ve had my share of them. Beats me how you are still here.” Roseanne swept the week’s supply of hamburger wrappers and empty soda cups into the large, black garbage bag.
 
“Thank you very much,” responded Elvis, in his best Elvis voice. “I love you too, Babycakes. I can’t think what possessed you to ditch that Argent dude for a loser like me. Do you think maybe a hundred million or two had something to do with it?”
 
“Well, if you hadn’t gone off the rails with your diet and drug taking so quickly after getting out of hospital, maybe Ginger wouldn’t have been so keen to dump your fat ass. Loser is right. How many bimbos did you go through before we hooked up? Tourists were coming by this place just to see the revolving door. Face it, you’re a has-been. How long did that little ‘supergroup’ of yours last? Three shows, wasn’t it? That Joplin tart always was a brick short of a load, but Jim Morrison and Cass Elliot should have known better than to waste their time and effort with a washed-up schoolgirl pinup. What were you lot called again? Why you couldn’t have taken my advice and gone with The Four Skins is a mystery to me. Or you could have used the name that nice Mr Harrison suggested — The Traveling Wobblies, I think it was. Either would have been better than The Dead Ringers. At least The Highwaymen had one thing you clowns didn’t. And no, I don’t mean a decent dietician, I’m referring to talent.”
 
Elvis snorted. “I suppose you mean what we really needed was for you to be on stage doing lead vocals— because your singing career was such a raging success! O-oh say can you seeeeee…” Roseanne decided that an industrial-sized bag’s worth of garbage complemented the fake rhinestones on her husband’s jumpsuit perfectly. Pretty sad that he’s got to eke out a living doing supermarket appearances impersonating himself and gives away his services for free at weddings.
 
* * * * * * * *
 
Friday February 4, 2022, 7:30 AM. Buffalo, New York.
 
Mark David Chapman packed the final few things into his Adidas travel bag. Deodorant, shaving gear, toothbrush, hairbrush, a very dog-eared copy of The Catcher in the Rye and a fully loaded 0.38 Special revolver. A man can achieve a lot in nearly forty years, especially as a guest of the New York State Department of Corrections. Chapman had accomplished more than most prior to his eleventh parole application being granted. He’d had four decades to digest the work of Einstein, Dyson, Feynman, Hawking and dozens of lesser-known but equally as brilliant physicists. Along the way, he’d managed to earn himself an undergraduate degree in physics, and a Ph.D. in astrophysics. His achievement was especially notable for being the first ever doctorate awarded based on research into time travel. Prior to his study, even the greatest minds hadn’t been game to venture into what many regarded as pure fantasy. Now, he was about to show them how wrong they were.
 
It’s a decade now since Elvis finally succumbed to coronary artery disease, but that seems such a waste. Sure, a few die-hard fans made the obligatory show of inconsolable grief, but it was all over in a week. After that, hardly anybody gave it a second thought.  How much more likely is he to be remembered if his departure from the world is a tragic demise at the hands of a “deranged madman” and, if not exactly in his prime, at least a lot closer to it?  My little encounter with John Lennon made me one of the most famous men in history, but how much more of a household name will I be if I add the King of Rock and Roll to my list? Of course, I can’t know if knocking off Elvis will prevent me from doing in Lennon three years later. It probably will, as I’ll either be in jail or dead. But even if that’s the case, swapping one of the “Fab Four” for the man he idolized is more than worth it.
 
Down in the basement of his rented home, where he had spent most of the past two years since his release constructing his device, Chapman stared at the plain-looking array of dials in front of him. Who needs QD displays, VLSI and nanotechnology when we’ve got analogue gauges, vacuum tubes and potentiometers? It’s far more satisfying to know I’ve created the world’s most advanced machine ever out of ancient army surplus bits. He set the time control to 6 AM on August 14, 1977, two days before his internet research told him Elvis had survived a near-fatal heart attack. That gave him all of Sunday and Monday for a little sightseeing before attending to business. A nice touch of irony, don’t you think?  Then he dialled in the location coordinates —35.0635°N, 90.1110°W— a quiet little nook in the T.O. Fuller State Park in Memphis. No point scaring a lot of unsuspecting locals when I suddenly materialise out of thin air. Flicking the toggle nearest to the right edge of the console, he triggered the 60 second countdown. Smiling, he picked up his travel bag and headed towards the transfer chamber. Time to make history — again.
 
 

Author Notes
Notes:

1, Please read the story above before viewing the notes which follow.

2. The fact I was assigned to portray as false is 'Elvis Presley died in 1977'.

3. In the version of reality we are currently experiencing, Janis Joplin died in 1970, Jim Morrison in 1971 and Mama Cass in 1974. Obviously the disturbance in the spacetime continuum which led to Elvis surviving in 1977 occurred prior to 1970, and resulted in a number of other famous people not meeting their demise at the time we have come to accept. Rumour has it there is a link to the Apollo 11 mission, and the lunar landing on July 24, 1969.

4. Michael Jackson and Nicholas Cage took advantage of a very brief period during which their nuptials could be celebrated in the State of California. Same sex marriage was legalized for the first time in June 2008, but ceased to be legal in November 2008, due to a state constitutional amendment known as Proposition 8. It did not become legal again until 2013, when Proposition 8 was ruled by the US Supreme Court to be unconstitutional.

5. Image is public domain from Wikimedia Commons.

Thanks for reading.


Chapter 48
7 Questions to Ask an Atheist

By CD Richards

This morning I came across an article with much the same title as the one I have used here. I presume it was originally created by a theist of some persuasion, so that like-minded people could have a set of "talking points" with which to engage non-believers in conversation.

I believe the questions are very reasonable and non-loaded. I also think that asking civil questions and receiving civil answers from those with a different viewpoint helps to increase understanding.

With this in mind, I've set out my answers to the questions asked. I've tried to do so in a non-confrontational manner and been as brief as I thought I could be in giving a straightforward, but complete, response. This is not meant to be a learned exposition of atheist philosophy, just a simple response to simple questions. No evidence or proof is offered, as in this article, I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything. Of course, I cannot speak for all atheists, and these answers don't attempt to do that. They are my take on things, and other non-believers will undoubtedly answer the same questions differently. If it helps theists get some insight into possible atheist reactions to these questions, then I consider it "mission accomplished". So without further ado...

1. Why don't you believe in God?

I don't see any evidence for the existence of a god or gods. To put it another way, I don't see any anything in the material or non-material universe which is not equally as well explained, if not better, without the existence of a supernatural being or beings.

2. Do you pray?

No. Since I don't believe in God (any gods), to whom would I be praying?

3. What's your source of hope?

In terms of hope for humanity and the future of life on our planet, I don't hold out a great deal. All the evidence points to the likelihood that humans will destroy themselves and most, if not all, other life. I believe this will happen sooner than many expect. There are some signs that a portion of the world's population are becoming aware of the perilous situation we are in. I think it's too few, too late. I sincerely hope I'm wrong. Even if I believed in a God, I don't see any reason my beliefs in this regard would change. I could believe any number of crazy things about what the future holds and fill my head with visions of any number of utopian paradises, but hoping for things doesn't make them reality. I try to avoid believing something just because it gives me hope or makes me happy.

4. Do you consider atheism your religion?

No, and I take exception when someone tries to insist it is. Atheism is simply non-belief in God. I also don't believe in fairies, unicorns or bigfoot, but no one calls my lack of belief in those things a religion. No one insists my non-belief in Zeus is a religion.

5. Do you think religion can be a positive experience for certain people?

I think certain things people might derive from their practice of religion can be positive experiences for them. For example, a sense of belonging, when surrounded by likeminded people; a sense of purpose, if their religion gives them goals to strive for; happy emotions from communal singing, and so on. However, I believe such experiences can also be obtained outside a religious environment, and are better experienced that way, especially when they don't involve questionable assumptions.

6. What are your views about an afterlife?

I don't believe in one, again, because I don't see evidence to indicate such a thing. I do believe that the "stuff" from which I am made has existed from the beginning of time and will until the end of time. I also believe that bits of me will eventually form parts of rocks, trees, insects, even, potentially, other people. That's a kind of eternal existence, right?

7. Where do you find guidelines for good values, moral and ethical behaviour?

I believe good values were instilled in me by my parents. I think somewhere along the line, our species has evolved a thing known as "empathy", which is present to some degree or other in most of us and is the basis for all the various forms of "the golden rule". To the extent we possess and embrace empathy, we live a moral and ethical life. It really doesn't need to be more complicated than that.

 

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

 

Author Notes I would appreciate it if, when reviewing, you rate based on the quality (or lack of it), rather than the extent to which you agree with the conclusions. That's just my hope, how you choose to evaluate is, of course, up to you.

Thanks for reading.


Chapter 49
The Fiefdom of Tryfonas

By CD Richards

       
        
Once, a bold entrepreneur sired a large family. He arranged frequent contests in which clan members would test their mettle against one another in combat. Before long, things began to go awry. Due to constant complaints about certain people always being the winners in the family jousts, the overlord adopted an "every child wins a prize" philosophy, whereupon contests ceased being judged on merit.

Occasionally, he would concoct new rules mid-game, so he could eliminate the front-runners. When they complained, their ability to earn a place in any contest magically evaporated. If their complaints persisted, they would mysteriously disappear.

Some family members became disenchanted, but by now there was a never-ending stream of new arrivals. The loss of one here and there went largely unnoticed and bothered the patriarch not one iota. He lived a long and happy life, growing fat and rich as the undisputed King of his realm.
 

Author Notes One hundred and fifty words, exactly, as per Microsoft Word and manual count. Hyphenated terms are counted as one word. It would be such a shame to be disqualified, wouldn't it?

All good fairy tales deserve a happy ending.


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