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hombre_hompson

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  1. This month's word is: Miss

    Rules:

    1. One thousand words or less. More barely any.

    2. The deadline for posting your stories and poems is the end of the month.

    3. The deadline for your votes is midnight on the fifth of April

    4. Criticisms are welcome, but please keep it in the nature of the corner.

    5. Have a go;you don't have to use the word; it's just a guideline.

    6. Good luck!

  2. Some very different entries to last month. Voting seems to get tougher every month - are we collectively improving? Who knows.

    Some thoughts -

    johnjwaters - Enjoyed it, but the tense seemed to change at the last minute, which I found a bit jarring.

    Argh - Considering I'm not really a fan of sci-fi I quite liked this. Interestingly I found the botched teleport and the reaction to it quite comical, which put the rest of the story in a different light. Wonder if this was the intention?

    Danster - You always manage to capture the human side, it always feels like a real story belonging to real people. Excellent

    Jolly - What an ending! Horrific yet tragic.

    Campfire - Lovely in a nasty way. The rewrite seems much better for the short story format, as it focuses more on the core of the tale. Plus the intro links the past to the present nicely, which I think is a key part of it.

    CrispinG - Lots of talk recently about the Ultra-short story, and this was a perfect example of how to leave a lasting impression with so few words.

    Narcissus - Brave and well written. Overall I think it worked, had a real integrity to it.

    Bastion - I'll admit now - I'm a bit of a fan. Your style of writing really sits well with me - intelligent, ambiguous and relevant. This was excellent as always

    Concrete - well written, but didn't really get it. Wonder if I've missed something.

    MankeyMan - again well written, and would have liked to have read more.

    So overall....... I'm giving it to Jolly, for a shocking ending that ultimately gives way to something deeper

  3. They recognise each other immediately. At least they think they do.

    He greets her with the kind of embrace usually reserved for a reunion, which in many ways this feels like. A few nervous minutes pass as they eye each other up, awkwardly trying to label and categorise the person opposite.

    A few jokes about the current predicament serve as mere pleasantries before confirming what the other has already concluded. They do know each other. They just don’t know where from. They share their disbelief at finding each other so familiar and yet so alien. The nature of probability and coincidence isn’t enough - they must have met previously, or at very least made eye contact.

    This distraction from the current situation is most welcome. Thoroughly convinced by each other, she goes first.

    She talks of her fast track career in alignment strategy, recalling all the way back to her first days as a graduate trainee. He listens to her every promotion, every contact, every training seminar – yet is unable to find a common ground where they once may have met. His current career is self-explanatory, like a good logic puzzle, yet his previous career is more varied, providing only numerous dead ends to discover.

    They move on to friends and family, before branching out into the small matter of every single person they have ever met. She describes growing up, born in the Midlands before studying in the North East. Her childhood was Saturday mornings spent browsing in the newsagents, Christmas lights in darkened living rooms. He was born in the West Country, and lived at home for many years before finally settling in Stockholm. His childhood is full of LEDs on oversized toys, the overwriting of copy protection on C90 tapes.

    These fragments lead to many things, but ultimately, they lead to nothing.

    He sits down, offering her a piece of her favourite chewing gum, the air becoming hotter with every passing moment. They don’t know how long they have, so they swap phone numbers, followed by lucky numbers and then PIN numbers, and then any other numbers of any other significance before moving on to the random, anything that might bring together the two branching webs of possibility. They don’t even take turns, merely relaying the first thought or urge that occurs - he struggles to iron twisted pair jeans, she categorises everything by shape, he doesn’t like jokes about rape, she is terrible at mimicking accents, he thinks handclaps make a good song better, she has no real life heroes. And so on.

    Jokingly he checks the usual twists – that this might be the afterlife, that he could be a ghost, that she could be a ghost, that she is a physical manifestation of his guilty conscience, his split personality, his feminine side. She laughs and pinches his arm, as though such fanciful ideas really did need disproving.

    Finally the go deeper and unburden – fundamental beliefs, deepest fears, dirtiest secrets. At one point she cries, at another point he trembles. Yet inwards they delve, slowly unwrapping layer upon layer until nothing is left. Both open, hung and drawn for the other to examine until they have nothing more to give, every possibility as exhausted as they are. Admitting defeat, their focus switches to the current situation. He reaches into the wall and does what he could have done twelve hours ago. The ground shakes with a low rumble as they descend. She claps - it was a five-minute reset after all.

    The conference lobby has the blessing of fresh air, soiled by the presence of a small waiting crowd. They restrainedly handshake, a gesture more suited to the surroundings, before she leaves with the crowd, back to the career he knows so much about. He watches as she bounces from one random possibility to the next, all the time barely noticing, before she leaves his sight for good.

    Walking back across the car park he feels that emptiness best described by metaphor, a feeling that wants him back, trapped with an almost stranger. Inevitably he takes out his mobile and sends her a text, using her number from memory. He knows what her answer will be, and he knows she’ll take time to answer.

    He places the toolkit in his van, and takes his paperwork from the dashboard, wondering how to account for the eleven hours and fifty-five minutes.

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

    His line manager enters the same lift some forty minutes later, armed with a company complaint assessment form. He can hardly miss the graffiti reported by the centre – it’s everywhere. Two pencil-drawn tree structures branch from the walls adjacent to the door, an ever-growing spread of names, numbers, places, sound bites – covering the entire lift, all the way to the ceiling, and across onto the back wall.

    As the paths increase in number, the details become harder to identify, difficult to conceptualise. Yet the real complexity is how the paths, despite their obvious purpose and direction, never quite meet, extremities occasionally passing each other like two holding hands that never quite touch.

    On the left hand wall he locates the root, the starting point from which everything else forms. Charlotte, it says in small tidy writing. He walks over to the opposite wall, finds the root of the second tree, and rubs out the name with his sleeve.

    He will fire him in the morning.

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

    Charlotte reads the text some fifteen minutes earlier.

    A part of her is hesitant, a part of her that’s tired of turning off the radio at certain songs, a part of her that’s laid herself bare too many times. Yet as she reads will you marry me on the screen, she rejoices, and it’s the other part of her, the part of her that thought he’d never ask.

  4. This month's word is: Lift

    So I'm getting into my car and this bloke says to me 'can you give me a lift?'

    I said 'Sure, you look great, the world's your oyster, go for it.'

    Rules:

    1. One thousand words or less. More barely any.

    2. The deadline for posting your stories and poems is the end of the month.

    3. The deadline for your votes is the end of the fifth of March.

    4. Criticisms are welcome, but please keep it in the nature of the corner.

    5. Have a go;you don't have to use the word; it's just a guideline, and we all like eye food.

    6. Good luck!

  5. A great month all round. Special mentions to Bastion and Barkbat who came very close, but my vote goes to The Emporer's Foot

    It wasn't the most obvious choice as I found it a difficult read, especially the first half. I'm not sure if thats a criticism or just a personal preference - it's so very different to my own style of writing.

    But first and foremost I enjoyed the tale - part Portal, part Poe, part A-Level Physics, and out of all the entries this month, it's the one that stayed with me the most.

  6. I really enjoy the corner also. It's been a positive experience for me and I'm glad I finally plucked up the courage to enter, after being a nervous lurker for months. I'm sure my writing is slowly improving because of it.

    And every month I'm amazed at the high standard. Criticism is always a bit uncomfortable, but I might try and start leaving some feeback. Just not sure I'm any good at it.

  7. It’s unclear if my eyes are shut or simply not working. A quick blink reveals that I’m facing the floor, and a quick raise of the head reveals how reluctant my brain is to move with it. Sight consists of vague shapes strewn across my vision like a desktop memory dump. Colours have the roughness of an eighties video.

    I’ve assumed I’m unable to move, but try anyway - and surprise myself by rolling over, groping in the fuzziness for a hold. The low buzzing I can hear sounds suspiciously internal. Somewhere to my left a protracted groan echoes, sounding all very death fuck. I reach out and feel harsh metal frameworks. My body touches against other slug-like torsos, all rolling around on sodden sheets that cover the floor.

    I vomit all over my hand, tasting my insides.

    I think this is floor seven, and it’s my fault I’m alone, loosing the others somewhere earlier – the LOYALTY floor maybe. I should have sensed our limit, put aside our bravado and stayed in with the orgy. I should have taken whatever pleasures my dinted pride would allow.

    I wriggle through the filth, my eyes unable to focus on the rocking, sobbing slug-people. As my desperate hands find a doorway to the eighth floor, I think about dying. Despite my slow clumsy movements, this is too hectic - the rat-faced man had been right all along. It seems so long ago, I can barely remember fragments.

    We found him by the first floor stairs. We’d already explored the ground floor, only to find people loitering around spacious rooms of period green and stripped oak floors. Our invite had been through a friend of the family, to the kind of party you’d normally read about in other people’s lives, yet so far it had been a sobering disappointment - a few rabbit-faced minor celebrities, a better than average sound-system, a fairly unremarkable yet well-organised house party, the kind easily knocked up by students flush with inherited wealth.

    Dissapointed, we’d headed for the upper floors, looking for something more intoxicating to justify the hype we’d been fed. We came across rat-face in the hallway, who warned us to be careful upstairs, to not get out of our depth. He claimed the higher you went, the more hectic it became.

    Hectic sounded just the thing.

    We scampered up the stairway, skipping over the word SUBSTANCE painted on one of the risers, into a first floor that felt very Warp Records. A plain looking girl dressed as a waitress handed us milky drinks in shot glasses – we downed them like liquid sugar. Rooms dense with odour housed low dusty tables, littered with every vice imaginable. The disorientating floor plan offered something new with every confused turn, the waitresses becoming more animal-like with every new offering, our bearings becoming all the more useless with every fresh hit.

    Conscious decision-making gave way to things that just happened - people argued in foreign languages, the tempo of the music doubled, a doorway found us that we laughably struggled to open, revealing another stairway. Passing the word INHABITION on the third riser, we emerged gob-shocked onto a floor of rippling, naked flesh around us.

    That should have been our limit. I know that now.

    The doorway to floor eight feels Wonderland small, the tunnelled stairway only passable by crawling. I manage to drag myself up and away from the shivering bodies, the word REFLECTION coming into focus at eye level as I clear the final step.

    My battered eyes are unable to size the attic, untreated floorboards running the length of a single bare room, the flat roof made entirely of glass. A bright night sky pierces my blurred senses, bringing a single wooden chair and a bug-faced human into focus. Her clothes look too big. It feels like I’m shrinking.

    A door opens on the far wall of unspecified distance away. The breeze feels shocking and alien. In the moonlight I beg her to take me, thankful for the internal buzzing that hides my own desperate sluggish words. I make out her reply - how I’m the new king in charge, how I can’t leave until released, how I must wait for the next, like her before me. The individual words feel familiar, the ordering of them like spaghetti shapes. It’s making even less sense than downstairs.

    She moves to the open doorway like a ballerina, and I think to ask how long she’s been waiting. I hear three weeks, before she dissolves from my mind with a graceful pirouette, and then everything else dissolves with much less grace, and I stop seeing colours.

    The next time I open my eyes I know they’re working, the attic bathed in sunrise. It’s my body clock that’s fucked. It could be hours later, it could be weeks - it feels somewhere in between. The chair seems nearer now, and I drag myself to it, thankful for its structure. I’ll need somewhere comfortable to reflect, assuming I’m to wait for someone else to find and enter Wonderland.

    Assuming they ever do.

    I sit silently, hidden by the rumble of the party below. Focus is returning, much is coming back in a slow, painful comedown. Outside seems impossible to rationalise, conceptually stale. Imprisonment from the daily routine no longer feels reckless or unwise. It feels obvious. It feels so next week.

    I wonder if those below know they’re enduring a structure designed to break structure itself. I wonder if the rule keeping me here really does exist, or if it’s blind faith passed on from previous participants, self-created as a final comfort, a final rule to cling onto before their outside world inevitably changes forever. I wonder if it’s the final test. I wonder how my world is changing with every moment I’m not in it.

    I wonder if I should give a fuck.

    I sit back and soak up the sunrise, waiting for the next ruler to come by and unwittingly take charge.

  8. Strong month this one.

    Really enjoyed entries by Campfire and Danster. The imagery Campfire created was fantastic, with some really creative use of language. Lovely stuff. And Danster summed up the feelings of a workplace perfectly.

    But after lots of thought, my vote goes to Concrete Donkey, purely on the strength of the story.

  9. Something shorter this month due to time constraints.

    She checks her watch and begins to walk, crucially maintaining a straight line. To have any chance of success, she must keep straight.

    The deep snow turns simple walking into a trudge – another factor for her calculations. Even with this consideration, she’s still only confirming how slim the chances of survival are, the curvature of the landscape clearly visible to the naked eye, delicate and deadly.

    It’s freezing, and despite her knowledge otherwise, she never truly expected as such. Her only benchmark is the old-fashioned Christmas cards people used to send, the images always radiating warmth and comfort, despite the wintry scenes depicted. Never did you feel the chill stroking your chin, the crunchiness underfoot, the sound being sucked from existence.

    She continues her walk, pushed on by the new sensation of cold, noting the few distinguishable features she passes. The snowfall has reset the landscape, covering the present with its own image. She pictures a small cottage nestled in the hillside below, smoke from the chimney, lights in the window. The memory of comfort and hope keeps her warm. It helps her forget how alone she thinks she is.

    A few hours pass. She wonders if the snow might be melting – hence her journey shortened. God knows what would happen if the snow started again. Her theory would never be proven, that’s for sure. The novelty of the cold is now long past, she can’t remember not being numb, or not feeling ill prepared. Another hour passes with the same identical landscapes, and still no sign of anyone or anything. She wonders how nice it would be to hear an unidentifiable sound.

    Another hour of walking and she finally spots footprints on the horizon. She quickens her pace, her calculations all but forgotten. It turns out she hasn’t kept entirely straight, so she adjusts by veering slightly to the right. For a split second the footprints look like someone else’s, but she steps into them with a perfect fit, completing her journey, confirming the worst.

    It’s only taken half a day. She thinks about a ninety-degree turn and trying again, but deep down she senses the isolation, and the knowledge she’s craved once again proves useless. She is alone, with no resource or brave new world to continue exploring.

    Even with proof she smiles. Her now shortened life has still been worth something. She’s the first human being in a long time to experience the mood and beauty of real snow. The first time is always something special, even when you know it’s your last.

    She looks in all four directions, each time feeling her own breath on the back of her neck. She rubs her arms, and makes a sound she doesn’t quite identify. Why not? She thinks. She has all the time in this small world.

    Collecting a handful of snow, she rolls it along the curved surface, and begins to make the body.

  10. The envelope has no stamp or address. How wonderful to receive something hand-delivered in this effortless modern age. I’m not even quarter-expecting anything, and yet someone has taken the time to ensure delivery of this small, plain looking package. That might be more significant than the content within.

    Maybe a storyline is waiting outside, brimming with endless threads of possibility. I briefly consider rushing outside, hoping to catch the anonymous sender. All at once life is exciting again. I feel purpose. I’m so happy I think of windmills. Somehow I know my efforts have been rewarded.

    The envelope is of the self-sealing variety, removing the opportunity to sniff any saliva traces. Those were the days. Opening the envelope confirms everything. It contains an understated thank you card with a picture of a windmill on its front cover. Inside the handwritten text is so elegant it could be a font. I read it from beginning to end. An idea finally takes shape, and the story suddenly writes itself.

    It’s a relief as I’ve been struggling for ideas. Usually a basic framework emerges within hours, days at most. This month is different - long nights have drawn a creative blank, whilst the days are spent revisiting every half-written, half-conceived idea, looking for a potential fit. Even dropping the criteria to tenuous hasn’t helped.

    I fell back onto the oldest writing trick - writing about the failure to write. Hoping the quality of writing would find merit, instead of the instant distain that a cop-out usually provokes. A one-off novelty justified by knowledge of how much better I can be. How much better I have been.

    I couldn’t even kid myself. Those long nights grew longer, full of a lazy self-loathing, a failure to cover the cracks in my imagination. With no premise, twist or tale, desperation took hold. Writing in first person, maybe I could engineer something.

    Before such a measure could be justified I tried one last time to find my story, if only to satisfy myself. Three days ago, I took my search into the real world, armed with only a notebook and a non-threatening demeanour. I offered favours to strangers, in return for only their gratitude, hoping than one such gesture would be unique enough to generate an idea, to fill those cracks. I always made my identity known, and always made my motives clear. These weren’t the horrible random acts of kindness discussed on every TV panel show long after being socially relevant. I simply carried out what was being asked. A task oriented approach, for good or for bad, without conscience or debate. The kindness only applicable to the recipient, without wider thought of the implication.

    From memory, it went roughly like this:

    I paid off a debt.

    I made an abusive phone call.

    I contacted and reunited two sisters who hadn’t spoken for fourteen years.

    I videotaped a close friend’s wife.

    I went door-to-door looking for a lost pet.

    I helped build a garden shed.

    I poisoned a grey and white rabbit.

    I stole legal drugs to buy some illegal ones.

    I comforted someone to sleep.

    And so on.

    All these things asked, all without question, and yet still no inspiration. I began to write the story based on this process of finding the idea, expanding on the encounters. The chance living, the real life random premise I'm both familiar and comfortable with. In many ways that is this story, but I have no conclusion, I’m missing an arc that makes it whole.

    The best hope I had was a lady who didn’t seem to fit. Deceptively grey hair that made her age impossible to guess, eyes that rolled around in sockets whenever she spoke. Sometimes her eyes would roll upwards before speaking, like she was looking into her own head to retrieve suitable words. She had a face like a skull. She couldn’t instantly be categorised or placed, making her both fascinating and frightening. I imagined she didn’t indicate when driving. I like that sort of person. I thought she’d make a good character in my story.

    Yet she came to nothing, even the non-descript favour barely worth mentioning. After all this searching and false hope, it’s taken a simple card to finally provide the missing premise, the lengthy inscription telling the real story that’s been missing until now. Someone appears to have repaid my favour in the most delightful way. The first line in the card reads the envelope has no stamp or address, and the rest flows easily in that elegant handwritten font, all the way to a penultimate line that at last offers some form of resolution.

    Thank goodness for that.

  11. Wow. Really strong month.

    Couple of honorable mentions-

    Rob Rule - Loved it, and as others have said would like to read more. Not just for the character, but also for the fact that it's written with such style.

    Danster - At first glance it didn't do much for me, but after reading the explanation, it reveals a certain cleverness to it that I really like.

    But my vote goes to Campfire_Burning. Strange one this, as I'm not sure I entirely get it. But it's been floating around in my head all day, with a fuzzy sort of warmth, so it must have done something right.

    Well done to everyone who entered. I enjoyed reading all of them.

  12. Struggled for time this month, so needs an edit. Not sure about the tense either.

    I can’t even decide how to feel – optimistic or desperate. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.

    I’m unprepared for success, and yet less prepared for failure. Knowing that all other creditable options have long since been exhausted this feels like a long shot, and by definition, it’s a longer shot than the last. Surely I’m at the point now, stood here with arms outstretched and legs wide open, where this is my last shot. I’m relying on a glimmer. I’m living in fairy tales.

    I’ve always suffered from what many believe to be some form of depression, despite an inability to either prove or cure such a supposedly straightforward diagnosis. Classic symptoms have no doubt contributed – the unshakeable feeling of emptiness, coupled with the terrifying burden of mortality and the struggle to understand how anyone copes with its enormity. Standard stuff from the textbooks Varmon dismisses as grounded.

    Two other symptoms suggest something less well documented. The first, for now at least, is an inability to make a decision of any kind. Early workplace reviews and more recent personality profiles have confirmed that it’s getting worse. It’s reached a point where unless my own survival is threatened I’m unable to commit, caught in between two options that torment me to choose, mocking in the knowledge that I won’t. Every alternative offers resistance, every molecule in my way fixed with an unmovable density, every route as thick as Bonfire Night.

    Progressing a career is impossible, holding down a mere job was a challenge – just ask Myers Briggs. After every conventional medicine and therapy had been eliminated, I took it upon myself to explore the alternatives, never deciding, always trusting in chance. The supposed best years of my life are a parody, shuffling from one life to the next in the hope of a cure. New belief systems, changes in sexuality, friends I though I’d both like and dislike, numerous fetishes, political swings in every direction, every drug, every art form, every crime I could reasonably get away with.

    It created the loner who stands here now - spawned from randomly living endless possibilities. I only own one pair of jeans. I’m the shadow in the background of spoilt photos. The people I face think terrible things.

    With no process left to follow, and convinced that all possibilities and resources were exhausted, I longed to hibernate. Every variant felt more unlikely, everyone I met felt like someone familiar, a slight distortion of numerous templates already explored. The model simply ran out of scope. My bastard feed had carried me full circle.

    Ah yes, my feet - the second symptom. They hurt like hell. Up until this day, I suppose they always have.

    They feel under constant pressure, like wood, expanding and contracting with every footstep. Lead-heavy bones convince me my shoes are two sizes too small. I wake in the morning, hobble to the bathroom, and then curse my feet that have woken me. I limp on talons, curved and squashed out of all proportion. Traditional chiropody and medicine has so far failed, the feet always win. They keep me awake, the never let me rest. I walk dragging an invisible dead body. I despise how they don’t want me to move, or put another way, how they don’t let me choose.

    Life fluctuates. From a chaotic, bohemian lifestyle that many crave but few actually survive, to the dark thoughts of suicide, and the agony of the many techniques available. Throughout the afterlife, my feet would no doubt painfully remind me that I’d made the wrong choice, that I’d dared to choose.

    Until six months ago, when a breakthrough occurred. Two seemingly unrelated symptoms, mentioned by chance in the same consultancy session, leading to a specialist’s office in Stockholm. Here it was here Varmon, in his soothing sarcastic manner, who confirmed his diagnosis.

    ‘Well we’ve found the problem. The test results confirm it, quite obviously really. You’re still stuck.’

    A silence followed. I’m a stickler for detail.

    Stuck. Still stuck in the mud. Never play it at school?’

    And there you had it, like he’d said the sanest thing in the world to the person least able to dispute otherwise.

    ‘The feet confirm it. Can you remember the last time you played? Some time ago I expect? Granted it’s an extreme case. Usually the effects wear off after ten minutes or so, an hour at most. Barely noticeable. I suspect it was a large game with many participants, and when the game ended you were the only one left stuck. The combination of such large factors has merely stayed with you for much longer. You’re still rooted, you have been ever since. It’s a terrible weight you’re carrying, but with an obvious cure…’

    His voice was made for headaches, sounding more like a radio play with every sentence. Was he really going to say the obvious?

    He did. As he asked about my old school friends, he stood up onto feet that barely noticed.

    All of which brings me back here, to an old school yard facing a group of middle-aged men whom I apparently knew before I ruled them all out. The continued sessions with Varmon taught me to reassess possibilities, accept the existence of wider variables. I’ve become less grounded - ironic with feet that feel like fucking lead boots. Six months of intensive research followed - one month tracing, and a further five to convince the old school friends who stand before me that I’m not the lunatic loner they’ve read about. All for the seemingly longest shot, feeling both optimistic and desperate, arms outstretched and legs wide open.

    The first player comes running. I notice that I barely recognise him. He looks unique, like a viable option.

    I decide this is progress.

  13. He stands in silence with the twelve strangers, thankful for the night sky’s clarity. Unlike the awkward silences of earlier, this is a mutual, respectful silence of the countryside, enhanced by the purity of night. They are in awe, reassuringly humbled with such frightening ease.

    It’s difficult to identify individuals in the darkness, the cottage hidden from the flare of the city, deep under the shadows of the Peak District and its ominous, ill-disciplined curves. During these silences he evaluates people into categories of potential – a best friend, a stimulating enemy, a soul mate you could comfortably share a shower with. Yet past experience shows it’s likely to be none of these, bracing himself for the inevitable mediocrity, a twist that never comes – a casual acquaintance, a temporary friendship born through convenience, the lip service exchange of an email.

    The kind of people you might consider sharing a real name with.

    He listens as a tentative discussion emerges, hoping for a common interest he can feign interest in. Astronomy will do just fine. They examine Canes Venatici, deduce how Orion would look when viewed from the Southern Hemisphere, conclude that the Milky Way is the clearest it’s been for a long time. Hearing the relatively knowledgeable thoughts of the group, he’s shocked to realise how little about these people he actually knows. He has no idea what these people are seeking in this isolated limestone cottage, or indeed if he knows himself. Aside from the obvious, he doubts if it really is the Hunting Dogs above.

    A girl to his left, second in line with a haircut to match, suddenly shrieks and points at the sky. It’s the nearest thing to an audible word she’s said since arriving.

    “Look a shooting star!” she gasps almost stalling, “I’ve never seen one before.”

    Her voice is suitable for reality television, and he wastes no time in dismissing her because of it.

    “Quickly make a wish!”

    He recognises this voice as a plain-eyed lady from the North. Whilst trying to remember from where exactly, she reiterates, like they’d failed to hear her first time.

    “Quickly, make a wish.”

    “Nah.” comes the reply, “It’s silly.”

    “Can I bagsy it then?”

    A new voice. He can’t match this one to a face, but in trying to do so he’s remembered North West lady comes from Stockport.

    ‘”Yeah, you can have it. My pleasure.”

    The silence changes shape immediately. He can’t tell in the gloom, but he suspects that people may be closing their eyes in anticipation. Out here, superstitious comfort aside, it will make little difference. Out here it’s the new black.

    After an unbearable delay, someone finally breaks etiquette.

    ”Well……what did you wish for?”

    “I wished to see more shooting stars.”

    The silence that follows is a mixture of embarrassment and awareness. He recalls once being asked to describe a favourite album to strangers, all of whom he knew wouldn’t be aware of it. He’d chosen an artist he knew people would be familiar with. It feels a bit like that now.

    The benefactor seems unimpressed with how her gift has been spent.

    “Oh, and what then? Will you make more wishes?”

    “Yes. The same wish with each.”

    “But then you’ll see more and more. Eventually you won’t see anything else.”

    “Exponentially.”

    This word deserves to be the last one, regardless if its usage is correct or not.

    “You’ve ruined it.” a voice says with all the charm of a personalised number plate. “Come on, we should go back in and try to get started again.”

    He senses the mood shatter with such a return to practicality. It’s obvious that no one knows how to get started, that’s why they were all out here, watching someone abuse the privilege of a shooting star. He’d suggested coming outside, remarking how a clear night sky was rarely visible at home. Everyone had agreed, all aware that it was little more than a delaying tactic.

    “I suggest we go back inside, get the fire started, and then take our clothes off. See how it goes from there.”

    He can’t tell by sight, but he guesses on three positive responses, six approving murmurs, two not so approving, and one abstention. Concentrating on these, he forgets to respond himself. Two abstentions, someone else will have noted.

    It’s a consensus of sorts, and knowing it’s as good as they’ll get, they shuffle back towards the cottage, except for the wish maker who remains hopefully fixated on the stars. As they reluctantly trudge back, far from ready, they miss the second shooting star of the evening.

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

    He wakes in his dream, and then wakes again disorientated. He hates that. Something has obviously woken him, but as yet it’s not obvious as to what. His balls itch like hell and his watch is clearly visible - both of these things seem wrong. Four hours in, and already it’s the weirdest Christmas day he's ever spent.

    The dormitory is lighter than it should be, and the beds look empty. He jumps down from his bed and lands onto ankles that confirm he’s no longer top-bunk material. Hobbling over to the door, he half expects this to be a second dream, but his balls and ankles are painfully confirming otherwise. He pulls open the door, expecting his gaze to be met by the dark stare of the hillside, yet he’s blinded instantly, the night awash with sparkle. Unable to see beneath the fluid sky, he hears the applause that has woken him.

  14. Long time lurker, nervous first time entrant.

    I like Natasha, She feels like my childhood. I can't put a finger on why.

    Today as always I have no idea where we’re going. No big deal. Just knowing she’s in the passenger seat is enough to suppress any last minute nerves. I feel giddy, as fresh as the air-con on our faces. As she shifts a little in her seat I can sense she's trying to smile, like she's reading these thoughts from my mind. Our weekends always begin this way - an excitable feeling of unburden, that well-documented sense of nostalgia. It's like I'm bib monitor all over again. She's becoming my earliest memory.

    Maybe symptoms of middle age.

    Becoming older doesn’t worry me - it’s unavoidable, and therefore something I can readily accept. Yet during this process, and despite early indications to suggest the contrary, I’ve somehow become middle-class, and to support this, despite my best intentions, I’ve somehow become middle management.

    I know precisely when this happened.

    Sometime ago I watched a normal-haired girl present our new corporate strategy – to Reach for the Stars. No-one knew how this translated into action, chances are not one of the marketing suits in the room knew they’d spent all that money and managed to pick a fucking S Club track. Watching I’d nodded, initially in agreement, before a clunking acceptance that I’d become the model of everything I’d always though best avoided.

    Acceptance gave way to an admission of defeat – my textbook ideal would never be more than just that. That other me would right now be smashing the system, living a life that refused to obey the strategies and scorecards of necessity. I simply never had the inner strength. That part of me feels like an embarrassment, a guilty secret that was never meant to become. Token conservation weekends once a year don’t change who I am. My three-hundred grand mortgage tells its own story - I simply couldn’t give it up.

    I like Natasha, she feels like my childhood. I can't put a finger on why. Maybe it’s the smell of her banana milkshake.

    The standard mid-life crisis assumes Natasha to be the kind of carefree blur we’d all someday like to meet, let alone bed. Not so here. In many ways she’s unremarkable, a marketing nobody presenting corporate taglines. As she delivered our new corporate strategy under the ambiguous glare of a bullet-point, we discovered how ready we were to discover the remarkable.

    Occasionally we’ve slept together, just to confirm we shouldn’t, in the same way I’ve occasionally slept with my nemesis Helen, just to prove I can. Sometimes I wonder about getting them both in bed together, but have since concluded such an event could possibly rupture something in my own personal timeline. It’s too risky bringing such extremes together, despite the potential pleasure. Maybe that’s my problem.

    I like Natasha, she feels like my childhood. I can't put a finger on why. Maybe it’s our weekends when we go to our special places, and run far from all those stars.

    It's coarse to describe such places as simply old-fashioned, run-down or simply rough. Natasha calls them forgotten, existing in a skewed version of our own middle-class world, created by time-line ruptures of the subtlest kind. Seafront hotels off-peak. Public houses deep within industrial estates. The fading hopes of a new town. Blink and you’ll miss them, like they the never existed. Blink hard enough one day and suddenly you’ll see millions. We see them everywhere, they engulf us.

    Around mid-day we pick one such location at random, humbly settle down into a corner and begin drinking. By mid-afternoon we've settled into our routine - drinking, mocking, reminiscing. Early evening and we’ve usually snared some bemused locals. Sometimes they make us uncomfortable; sometimes we’re making others feel the same. By late evening the drink has done its damage. At some point Natasha usually ends up dancing, sometimes there'll even be music playing.

    During these periods of regression we meet the many characters that frequent these realities. Viewed as a passing novelty we’re dragged into other places, keenly accompanied through the lucid dreams of others. Drink renders us unable to assess safety, to reflect, yet normally, with the exception of that unfortunate glassing incident, we wake the following morning hung-over, enlightened, released. Diceliving, whilst keeping up with regular mortgage repayments.

    No one knows where we go or what we do. We spend our week days discussing floor-sanding and equity, avoiding the longing to talk of sexual inadequacy and stagnant career paths, only as a means to pass the time, to fit. Always random locations, but far enough from our weekly lives to avoid chance encounters. This isn't a once yearly conservation holiday - this is every weekend. It's who we are, a deliberate and measured strategy to become something else by sidestepping our intended destination. As with all new genres we’ll inevitably become a cliché, the prospect laughably welcome.

    I’d like to think we're becoming two of the characters we meet, and that all these characters are born deliberately forming away from the norm. Maybe one day our exploits will be someone else’s story – the street with every house for sale, the time we came up smelling of onions, the red wine glass pushed into Natasha’s perfect tearable face.

    Natasha likes me. Even though she can't smile and her speech is somewhat difficult, in many ways it's written all over her face. She feels like my childhood, I can't put a finger on why. Maybe it's all of these things. I suspect maybe it's because she looks like a twelve-year-old boy.

    Today as always I have no idea where we’re going.

  15. I quite liked the early stages, loving the Citadel self destructing, the alien architecture, that desperate run across the walkway with that strong force blowing across it, the core's centre, managing to take out a load of Combine using the Gravity Gun and a metal panel etc...

    My disappointment wasn't with the quality of the Citadel levels as such, but more that out of all the potential areas to choose from the original (and the possibility of new areas), the Citadel was given such focus in what was a relatively short episode. I think in the original it worked as a final chapter, especially when given the new weapon as reward, but here it felt a little out of context, like I was always itching to get back to the street levels.

    But agreed, the levels were indeed enjoyable stuff. Glad you liked the review, cheers for the feedback. :)

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