No, not that. The last time I used the sick kid excuse, he actually got sick a few days later. Really sick. Now, I don’t believe in fate, but I don’t want to go tempt the fucker either. I’ve already been to two family funerals this year in far-flung parts of this godforsaken country and it’s only March, so best not to go to the well on that one again. Plus I can’t remember whether it’s my mother or my mother-in-law who I told them snuffed it last year, and I have to imagine this shit gets written down somewhere. I only had the flu, genuinely, straight after Christmas, and if I played the measles or pox card I would have to say it came by way of the kid. And I refer you to point one; he’d end up dying of a lethal one-in-a-million strain of it next week. Is that fate or karma? Whichever. They both have my card marked. No this one is going to have to be on me. And I’m going to have to make it stick. When I come back from “sickness” or “injury” I like to still sport some residual effect. A cough. A limp. But I’m not Daniel Day fucking Lewis. It’s hard to keep that shit in character. And by eleven, I’ll be floating around the office like Fred Astaire. Yeah this one has to stick and stick good. Which means it requires a little, shall we say, realism. Which brings me here to the pedestrian crossing. The one where the mindless lemmings amble out in front of bicycles and buses long after the signal tells them not to, practically begging to be maimed or mangled. Which I see happen from time to time, adrenaline and embarrassment pulling them up off the ground back to their feet and to the side of the road where someone will be busy calling them an ambulance. I curse their stupidity every morning. But now I salute them. In truth they are inspirational geniuses. Like a surfer standing on the beach waiting on the perfect wave, I size up the vehicles preparing for the light to go green and choose my set.
There was something about the walk. That determined yet effortless gait. The purposeful pace. The figure was still too far off to know for sure, and the tracksuit was something his dad would never normally wear, but Swan’s heart bungee-jumped down into the pit of his stomach all the same. It stayed there dangling as he tried to bring the approaching face into focus. He hadn’t seen or spoken to his dad in a long time. Years. Too many years. They hadn’t fallen out, just lost touch, but he had no idea why or what to say – “oh hello” didn’t seem to cut it – if they were to bump into each other like this, by stupid happenstance, now. The man’s fast advancing pace had brought him too close for Swan to turn around and go back the way he came. There were no doorways or gaps between the parked cars big enough to accommodate his escape. Swan swallowed, tested a smile, then thought better of it, wondered whether he should go for hands in or hands out of his pockets. He straightened his hair, shined his right shoe on the back of his left trouser leg and braced for impact. Fifteen feet. Ten. Five. The stranger glanced up from the imaginary line he was following on the sidewalk and looked into Swan’s face, then sidestepped to the left and continued past. Swan’s chest cavity slowly winched his heart back up into its rightful position and he took out his phone, scrolling through the contacts to D.
“Okay, what’s your problem?” said Sonya, coming to a dead stop on the sidewalk and wheeling around.
A tall guy in a black trench coat, five paces behind her, pointed at his chest, looked over his shoulder and then back again. The universal “Who me?”
“Don’t come the innocent,” she said. “I clocked you ages ago, been following me all night.”
She stepped forward. “And this isn’t the first time, is it? I saw you last night.”
The look of puzzlement on his face gave way to a smirk. “Extraordinary,” he said.
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“It means you.” He just stood there, smiling at her. Vacant.
“What are you? Some kind of God botherer?”
He laughed. “Sort of.”
“Why are you following me?” she said.
“It’s my job.”
Andrew reached across the workbench and took the axe down from where it hung on the pegboard. He peeled the protective sleeve off its head and regarded the blade, took in how the light glinted on the steel.
This would make a great story.
He had nowhere to write. He didn’t have a place to call his own, in which to summon the muse. He knew she was there, waiting to descend upon him with the inspiration and the words he craved, but it wasn’t going to happen at a place as mundane and distraction-filled as the kitchen table, was it?
My short stories are what they say on the tin. Short.
Sometimes, really short.
A few hundred words. Maybe fifteen hundred on a good day.
And they are also stories. As in made up.
Often I write about creepy, freaky, scary kids.
This story is about a kid.
But this one is true.
It’s about one of my kids.
And it’s the scariest thing I’ve ever written.
From my point of view, anyway.
Let me tell you a story.
They were coming back.
Hadn’t they had enough?
Didn’t they get tired?
I was exhausted, physically and mentally. The last few weeks had left me spent. And yet here they were back to wring the last of my reserves.
Their feral eyes glinted in the orange evening light reflected in the fresh puddles. I’d hoped, prayed, the afternoon rain would have driven them away for the day. But as soon as it stopped and the sun tore a hole in the cloud overhead, they tore a hole in the silence, howling, squealing, growling and nipping at each other as they returned to dish out more of their onslaught, the very thought of more of this torment a torment all of its own
There’s nowhere I need to be.
And nothing I have to do.
Once, this was the dream. But seeing as I never got round to putting something by for the proverbial rainy day, it’s the farthest thing from.
No matter how much I might have hated the day job, at least it gave me purpose. I’m not going to find much of that strolling along on this actual, non-proverbial rainy day in these depressing, gray woods, but maybe the fresh air will do me some good.
It’s not fresh air I need; it’s a job. And quick. The shitty severance I got isn’t going to last pissing time.
I’m laying the ground work for another sleepless night or ten, doing the mental arithmetic of just how much time pissing time amounts to, when I step ankle-deep into a mud-filled puddle.
Well, of course I do.
Cake, have some icing.
I squelch-limp over to a long-fallen tree and take a seat on one of its broken boughs. I don’t bother taking the shoe off. What’s the point? It’s forty degrees outside. Not like waving my sock around is going to help it dry any. I sit there long enough for it not to matter anymore. Long enough to drift off into my own little world of opaque pointlessness, a world so sealed off from this one I do not see or hear the little boy in the brightly colored raincoat until he’s standing right in front of me.
You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. That’s what my mom used to say. No idea where the hell it comes from, but I know what the hell it means, believe that. So when Flash Harry glides up alongside me in his two hundred thousand dollar ride, the right-hand side of his S-Class overstepping rudely into the bicycle lane, the gleaming black bodywork so close all I have to do is move my knee a bit to the left for it to touch me, I know what I gotta do: tumble to the ground screaming and crying like a soccer player in front of the opposing team’s goal. I tangle my legs up in the frame of the bike as I roll, for optics you understand, as I hear his brakes apply. The car stops on a dime, right the way you’d expect, and Mr. Mercedes climbs out, jogging up to me in his nice blue suit.
My name is now Fintan, it would appear.
I’ve always hated that name. Puts me in mind of unwitting, socially awkward dorks who sit up the front of the class and bring the same sandwiches to school every day in aluminum foil. In other words: sad, boring bastards.
To you and me.
So, for a day or two, until I find someone better, a sad bastard is what I will have to be.
Or maybe not.
Maybe I’ll do all the other Fintans out there hiding in plain sight a favor and stick with it for longer than usual, just for the sake of injecting some personality and life into their insular little lives, maybe increase the stock price in their awful moniker.
Really. Come on. Christen your kid Fintan and you’re basically condemning them to a life of tedium. Not saying calling them Bruce would mold them into an automatic action hero, but it would be a step in the right direction.
If your name is Bruce, you have no choice but to lead an interesting life. The name demands it.
But anyway, look, suck it up, my friend. Fintan it is and Fintan you are.
I tuck the driver’s license back into the wallet, and then the wallet into what is now my new jacket. I tie his backpack around his ankles, fill it with rocks and push him off the ledge into the river below.
I’ve avoided him, since the first day I clocked him, the second time I climbed on to this piece of shit bus, on my third day in this piece of shit job.
And I’ve seen him on board every day since. In the same seat. With the same empty seat next to him.
Because everyone else on this thing avoids him too.
Like a Jehovah’s Witness.
Maybe that’s why he’s laughing, because Jesus, or whoever it is they bang on about, is by his side filling with him the good word, and it is as good as he had hoped. And instead of knocking on your door relentlessly, wanting to share it all and read to you from his good book, he’s decided to keep all that goodness to himself.
That would be one reason why he’s laughing.
But all the time? This guy, he’s laughing every day, every time I see him.
All the goddamn time.
Nobody, including me, looks or stares for fear of making eye contact.