Guest Post: Shaily Agrawal

Something different from book promotion, today I bring you a guest post, a short story from my Indian blogging friend, Shaily.
Shaily Agrawal is an Instructional Designer with a love of telling stories. This is her first Science fiction.

Shaily is a fully-engaged blogger, and a real part of our community. Please take some time to read her story, and perhaps visit her blog to find out more about her and her work.
https://fishinthetrees.home.blog/

The Phlebologist

2266 AD.

This assignment was a bad idea. The signs were evident right from the beginning—not sure how I missed them all. Maybe, the gold in sight had blinded me with its glare. Now I could do nothing but freak out inside this dark place, waiting for someone to return for me.

I wish I had missed that call from Mikhael, my employer, six days back. He had called me back from my vacation for the fourth time in a row. If I could spit venom, I would have killed his hologram that grew from my watch.

“You better make it worth my time. I’m killing my vacation for you. Again.”

But he knew exactly how to pacify me. “Petra dear, the client promises to weigh you in gold.”

With those golden words, he had all my attention. Nothing motivated me better than money. Love I had too much of—being a tall, curvy blond—and stopped counting after my 25th boyfriend.

“Can’t tell you the name for obvious reasons, but the client is a giant in the Blood Test industry. They own thousands of laboratories across Earth with the annual turnover of several billion dollars. They are looking for information about…”

“…Sangue Heder Labs,” I finished his thought. He nodded.

“Of course! The fastest-growing laboratory chain on Earth…I assume, our client is looking for the ground-breaking technology that diagnoses the complete list of diseases, including Cancer, from a single vial of blood, that too within minutes.” He nodded again.

The breakthrough was nothing short of a miracle and was all over the papers last year. By providing general health check-ups at unbelievably low rates, they had wiped out the smaller competition in a matter of months. Now, even bigger competitors were struggling to stay open.

“I’m on it. I’ll have results in a week or less. Keep that gold ready.”

Day 1

My internet search was the first sign that I should have backed out.

In a universe connected tightly through the Universe Wide Web, celebrities can’t sneeze without someone publishing it. Yet, hardly any information existed about the most successful lab chain on Earth. All I found was that the Sangue Heder Labs were owned by Marco De Rossi, the youngest member of a multi-billionaire family. In 2099, his family was one of the first to move to Proxima Centauri B, the closest habitable planet. They traveled on the legendary Spaceship Noah’s Ark, which was loaded with seeds of all kinds and pairs of all variety of animals in the cryopreserved state. Most of them survived on Proxima, unlike Earth, populating the nearly empty planet in the next 200 years and became a wildlife preserve and favored travel destination for the super-rich celebrities around the known universe. But the family declined to share any pictures publicly throughout its 500 years history on Earth and Proxima, a practice Marco De Rossi seemed to have kept alive till date.

His company was equally elusive. Sangue Heder Labs’ website stated an address on Proxima as headquarter. They mentioned using an “ancient technique” to diagnose diseases from the blood. But there accuracy was up to three decimal digits. Was it possible with anything ancient?

Next, I contacted the patent office, off the record, only to find nothing. Sangue Heder Labs hadn’t patented the “technique”. Or maybe they couldn’t, if it really was ancient. To check whether there was any ‘ancient’ technique offering diagnosis through blood, I deep searched medical sites from Earth and Proxima, but to no avail. Some Proxima health resorts offered ancient healing through local herbs, animal extracts, and solar heat but there was nothing about diagnosis through blood.

The pictures left me wondering how it would be to live on a planet where trees still grew in forests and not pots. Someday, maybe I will too.

Day 2

The next day, I moved to Plan B, looking for the employees of Sangue Heder Labs on Social Media. Employees are a treasure of information. There is always someone complaining about their job and technology challenges. But soon, I realized that they probably had some employee agreement barring them because I found no one.

With a couple of days gone, I decided to contact them personally. Everybody has a price tag: some talk for money, others for ‘love’. But the contacts from the Earth Employee Benefits organization could not dig out a single email, address or phone number since both the organization and its employees were ‘foreign’ and protected by the inter-planetary laws.

I should have stopped then but my reputation as the best Industrial Spy on Earth wasn’t for nothing.

Day 3

I decided to catch an employee during a lunch break and strike a conversation. A couple of drinks and an attentive listener can loosen a tongue easily. Usually, they begin with the rant about too much workload, bad managers and difficult clients, and, with careful steering, can easily overstep the line of discretion and divulge their technology without really knowing.

So, I donned a brunette wig and boarded my trusted faded-grey copter—both common and anonymous. Blonds and stylish rides draw a lot of attention and blending in with the crowd was imperative for my job. I flew to the biggest Sangue Heder Lab and parked in the overcrowded rooftop parking of the Food Court next door. I sat down next to the biggest window and could see the reception of the lab through the glass wall as I ‘worked’ on my palmtop.

The receptionist was a tall gorgeous man with red hair, and suddenly I wanted to visit the lab just so that I could look at him closely. I shook my head to clear it. Where did that come from? A couple of lab technicians—different races but just as breath-taking—collected blood samples. Are all Proxima natives like that? Does fresh air and unprocessed food make you look like Roman Gods?

I waited at the cafeteria all afternoon. The Food court was busy but none of its clients were Lab employees, only the patrons nursing their pinpricks and their attendants. The closest couple was discussing the blood results they had received via email within a couple of minutes of tests. The stream of patients coming for tests never ceased, and nobody came out for lunch. The organization was probably ordering food and drinks for its employees to stop them from leaving their desk to eat. I gave up at midnight.

The facility was the biggest and busiest, so I decided to try at a smaller facility the next day.

Something wasn’t feeling right about this assignment—probably the fact that most of the clientele belonged to the low-income societies. They wouldn’t have been able to afford these tests if it wasn’t for Sangue Heder Labs. They all could have died without a diagnosis.

Conscience pricked me for a short moment.

Then it passed. I could see myself luxuriating at the Proxima resorts, looking like a Goddess, with fresh air and unprocessed food, and preferably with a boyfriend from the same planet.

Day 4

On day four, I took the Airbus to a different city and haunted the streets outside a different facility of the Sangue Heder Labs, on my uber-expensive featherweight ecobike. It was ideal for following people. When needed, I could simply fish it out of my purse, unfold it and get going at a moment’s notice. It removed the need to switch between following on foot or rush to the parking area to retrieve my coptor first.

I had planned to follow any employees out for a coffee or stroll, and meet them ‘by chance’. When the female receptionist ventured out alone late evening, I saw an opening, but as I drew closer, I had an urge to walk over and touch her skin—so flawless that it glowed in the moonlight. Considering I am straight…

By the time I had collected my wits, she was gone and returned shortly with an icebox. The opportunity to strike a conversation had passed. I was exhausted and left for the day.

Day 5

Next day, I tried another facility. While I waited for the employees to walk out to a close by cafe for a break, I searched the employees online by uploading the pictures I had taken the day before. Nothing. One of the pictures resembled one of the war prisoners from the First World War, but I wasn’t interested in ancient history right now.

No employee came out all day. At midnight, they closed the facility and all of them walked out together. I followed from a distance, hoping to catch one of them once they split-up at the Airbus station, but lost them once they turned into a dark street.

I should have given up then, considering the next move was too risky. But I was nothing, if not pig-headed.

Day 6

Now that I had tried everything else, I moved to Plan C—entering the facility. The plan was simple in theory. Get in close to closing time, hide behind something until the place closes up, and spy around after it is empty of people.

Simple…in theory.

In reality, it is too difficult to hide my 5’8” frame in a lab. Huge head offices are simpler with too many unused rooms to hide in, but labs are quite small with less number of rooms and usually no cover. I had seen it before. At that time, I had walked back out pretending I was looking for rest rooms, because Trespassing is a crime. Getting caught could earn me jail time, and my pictures in the news as an Industrial Spy could kill my anonymity and career.

So, I saved it for the most difficult and most paying cases. This one definitely qualified as both.

I had deliberately waited till Sunday, a public holiday, and chose the busiest close of the day hours to ensure that the facility was packed with people to give me the much-needed cover and more time to hunt for information, in case I didn’t get a space to hide.

Three technicians were collecting samples of fifteen patients at a time with three to four minutes between batches. With 75 patients ahead of me, I had 12-15 minutes, if I did not get a cover (which seemed like a greater probability). The hidden cameras in my earrings were already capturing footage. As soon as the technicians took samples from the people in the front, I quietly left my place.

I pretended as if I was looking for the washroom and, stealthily, slipped inside the door with the “Employees only” sign. The short lobby ended in a hall—no cover. I had a couple minutes at the most before the technician came out for more samples and discovered me. I should have turned back right then but the lure was too strong—I was a bat, blind and focused on the target alone.

I peeped in the hall. It looked like all offices. The room was bustling with activity and sounds of chit-chat. Several employees sat on comfortable chairs with the latest Palmtops. Some of them used huge Wall screens with virtual keypad holograms floating close to their fingers. Small racks of labeled blood vials sat atop a drinks table in the middle. There was no microscope in the sight to test the blood. The gray-haired man closest to me had just finished filling a blood report form on his Wall screen and sent it to the patient’s email.

I focused on him as he picked a vial, excited to finally know the trade secret of Sangue Heder Labs.

He took a long swig of the blood, swirled it in his mouth and started filling the blood report form.

I let out a tiny gasp.

Suddenly, all the eyes in the room zeroed on me. The gray-haired man I had been concentrating on was suddenly behind me and had blocked my retreat. His canines grew. I think I fainted.

I remember hearing a voice from afar. “Set her aside for dinner, Luke. We are trying to concentrate on work here.”

Now I lay inside my coffin, probably six feet underground, complete with fangs and all. Having tried unsuccessfully to claw my way out for a couple of hours, now I wait for them to come back for me. I hope they might give me a job too as a Phlebologist.

A Question Of Communication

This is a fictional short story, in 170 words.

Something’s not right.

It feels different, wrong.

How do I tell them though?

Maybe if I eat a lot more, they will notice?

That didn’t work, so I will try drinking too much instead.

No good, they just gave me more to drink.

I know what to do. I will walk around in front of them, try to get more attention.

Didn’t help, they just gave me a toy.

Tomorrow, I am going to go home early. Just walk off in the direction of the house.

That seemed to work. Caused a bit of a fuss. Got more cuddles.

It’s still not right though, and I wish I knew what it was.

Panting hard got me noticed. That woke them up.

But not enough to do something about it.

Perhaps if I breathe really, really fast, they will do something.

Finally! And now I am in the car.

I can only hope they are taking me to get help.

Dedicated to Ollie, who cannot tell us when he feels ill.

Photo Prompt Story: The Freedom Of Flight

This is a short story, in 620 words.
It was prompted by the above photo, sent to me by Shaily Agrawal.
https://fishinthetrees.home.blog/

I remember it still. That feels weird. I never expected to remember, but I do. All of it, right from the start. My mother holding me as a baby and smiling down on me. Her voice, even the smell of her. I can choose any moment from fifty-eight years, and recall it as if it happened one hour ago.

This wasn’t what I had expected at all.

The day of the diagnosis, we knew it was bad news when the surgeon moved his chair close to mine and leaned forward, clasping his hands between his open legs. “I have to be totally honest, Stephen, we didn’t manage to get it all. The scan shows it is back, I’m afraid. And it’s inoperable this time, as it is in a part of your brain that we cannot possiby remove.”

My hair had only just grown back to a decent length, and I had bought new trousers to wear to the appointment, as the weight loss after months of chemo and radiotherapy had reduced me to a shadow of my former self.
I had been stupidly optimistic as I watched Alice driving me to the hospital that morning. I turned up the radio when one of our favourite songs came on, and sang along badly to it. Alice wasn’t so relaxed. I could tell by the way her smile didn’t move for the whole of the fifty-minute journey.

I asked the obvious question. “How long?” And he shrugged in reply, non-commital. “Hard to say. Months, not years. Perhaps even weeks”.

Alice was crying softly as I shook his hand and took the leaflet from him about the hospice and available palliative care. My only option soon.

There was no bucket list to try to complete. No wild last celebration. No trip of a lifetime. No emotional letters sent to friends or family.

Scott flew back from Singapore to see me. What do you say to your son? “Goodbye” hardly seems appropriate. I settled for “Look after your Mum for me”. He cried, and so did I. I knew he had to go back to his job, and I hoped I would die soon enough so he could support Alice at my funeral.

Alice and I didn’t talk about anything much. There was already a will, and insurance was in place. I said something about never having that sixtieth birthday celebration we had often spoken about, and she cried all day. After that, I left it at pleasantries. We walked around each other as if in a minefield. Our steps precise, and our concentration focused on the moment.

When it began, she wanted to look after me at home. She said Scott would help, but I wanted to be away from them as I lost the power to cope. Lost the ability to clean myself, to speak and see properly. To be Stephen.

They were there when I went. Alice hugging me, Scott sitting in a chair next to the bed weeping openly. They thought I couldn’t see them of course. They had been told that I was unresponsive, but that they should continue to talk to me. They didn’t talk, as they had no idea what to say.

This morning, I woke up feeling light, as if my body weighed nothing. My vision was incredibly sharp, and I was looking down at the garden I had worked hard to keep nice for more than twenty years. I could see Alice sitting in the conservatory, sipping a hot drink from her favourite mug.
I knew she would be okay.

Stretching out my strangely familiar wings, I stepped off into the morning air.
Enjoying the freedom of flight.

Photo-Prompt Story: The Red Door

This is a short story in, 690 words.
It was prompted by the above photo, seen on Sue Judd’s blog. https://suejudd.com/

Ellen thought it was high time the front door was painted. She couldn’t remember when it was that Norman had done it last. Some years before he died, that was for sure. She had never liked the sickly cream colour he had used, but he had half a tin left in the shed, and said it would save money. The door always looked dirty after that, with rain splashes and scuffs standing out clearly on the light colour. But she didn’t have the heart to complain, not even about the brush marks that were so apparent when the light was on it.

As she watered the plants that morning, she decided that now was the time to brighten it up. The walk to the High Street seemed to take much longer than it used to, but she liked to give her business to the local shops. Henderson’s Hardware had been there since before they moved to thr district, and after the old man had died, his son had taken it over. Norman used to say, ‘They have everything in that shop. Anything you need”. The young man behind the counter gave her a friendly smile, as she told him what she needed. “Something bright and colourful. But it must be hard-wearing, as it will be on the front door you see”.

He showed her what they had in stock, and she shook her head at the selection available. Unable to decide, she took some colour charts away, with the young man assuring her they could get anything she needed very quickly. After going through them all at home, Ellen chose her two favourites, and took them outside to look at them against the door in the light. Nodding to confirm her choice, she spoke out loud. “Poppy Red. That’s the one”.

The local free paper arrived the next day, and she looked at the advertisements for painters and decorators. Choosing one with a box around the ad, and a local phone number, she made the call. The young man had a friendly tone to his voice, and told her he could paint her door easily. He said he would pop round tomorrow, and give her a price for the job. He arrived on time, and Ellen showed him the colour chart. “Poppy Red, like this one. You can get it from Henderson’s”. He nodded, and told her he could get a good deal for trade but would need the money first, in case she changed her mind, and he got stuck with the paint. That seemed fair enough to her, so she handed over the cash.

On the Friday, he turned up as arranged. Ellen made him a cup of tea as he got ready. “Two sugars please, and don’t forget not to come out through the door”. She nodded, wondering if she thought being old also made her stupid. Two hours later, he knocked on the door. Ellen opened it to find a strange pinkish colour paint on the door. She pulled a face. “That doesn’t look right to me”. The man smiled. “It’s not finished yet, love. That’s only the first coat. I will come back on Monday when this has dried, rub it down, and get the second coat on. Don’t worry, it will look lovely. But can you give me the money for some more paint, as that one tin won’t be enough? And can you pay me for what I have done today too please?” Ellen set her lip. “Are you sure that’s Poppy Red? Doesn’t look like the one on the chart to me”.

He laughed at her, shaking his head. His reply made her feel silly. “It’s the old colour underneath, ain’t it? It’s not going to look like the one on the chart until the second coat goes on, is it?” Fetching her purse, Ellen handed over the money. Picking up the paint and brushes, he waved as he walked away. “See you Monday”.

As she watered the plants, the dustcart was at the end of the street. That meant it must be Thursday.

And the young man still hadn’t come back to finish the door.

Photo-Prompt Story: The Bench-Table

This is a short story, in 500 words.
It was prompted by the above photo, sent to me by Maggie, from https://fromcavewalls.wordpress.com/

Diana had always loved that bench-table. Keith had made it himself, using moulds purchased from a builder’s merchant, and mixing the concrete in some old buckets no longer used for any other purpose. It had turned out surprisingly well, and was solid and strong. Just like him.

In the garden, it seemed to suit the mood. They never did go for a cultured, or over-manicured look, and other than a few tubs of annuals, tended to let it slide. That natural, slightly overgrown atmosphere pleased them both, and also meant a lot less unnecessary work. Weekends away from the the city could be enjoyed, rather than endured, as there was little to do but relish the surroundings.

Most mornings, they would have their coffee sitting at the bench. And on fine summer evenings, enjoy a glass of wine before and after dinner. Sitting there, feeling the roughness under their clothes, it seemed to be perfect. It went with the surroundings, and gave that feel of something timeless, that would always endure. When the weather was at its best, it was not unknown for them to have both breakfast and dinner at that sturdy table, ignoring the flies, and the occasional wasp.

And just like that bench, their marriage endured. Two kids, lots of happy memories crowded around the table, squashed on the small seats intended for one, but managing to accommodate two on each side. As time went on, work got busy, and they rarely managed once a month around the bench-table. Cherished moments though, as the concrete weathered, mimicking their own ageing. When the kids got older, they made it out to the place when they could, the eventual grandchildren sitting on their laps around the table. Happy days indeed.

Retirement came, and was welcomed. They could give up the apartment in the city, and spend their days enjoying relaxation and peace in their countryside idyll. Keith seemed to be rejuvenated. Diana was so happy, she had never known a time when they had been so relaxed. This was the life that had always hoped for, and a part of them had anticipated. For more than six months of every year, they took their meals around the bench-table, talking of the times when they had hoped to be doing exactly that.

Now Diana smiled as she saw Keith sitting there, waiting for her to come outside. She took the big mug of coffee, and smiled at her daughter. “I will drink this with your dad, honey”. Melanie watched as her mother walked over to the bench. She didn’t seem to see the too-long grass as she sat down, smiling and chatting.

Feeling a hand on her shoulder, Melanie turned to see her brother Patrick, his eyebrows raised. “Who is mum talking to?”

She patted his hand as he looked over at her mum sitting alone at the bench.

“Dad of course. She still thinks she sees him”.

Featured Blogger: Gary Holdaway

I am happy to feature Gary again. He has completely revised his site, and offers stories to read, as well as services like ghostwriting and copywriting.
https://gdholdaway.com/

A young writer from the UK with big ideas, and an even bigger passion for words. A multigenre author of both novels and short fiction, Gary has a flare for the suspenseful, the frightening, and the unknown.

His post today is a fictional short story.
(It contains some swearing)

Morrisey’s Last Symphony
By Gary Holdaway.

Like most fresh recruits, Morrisey had grand visions of his military prowess on the field.With a Captain-America-like finesse he’d breeze through war zones with excellence and ease, quickly rising through the ranks to shine out among the others. Eventually he’d lead his own unit, and they’d claim victory after victory for his country.

Morrisey could not have been more wrong. He passed out of Lympstone by the skin of his teeth, shocked, though accepting of the fact, that the physical side of things was much harder than it looked. The three year delay before enlisting to start his family had softened him. He hadn’t accounted for the mental and emotional exhaustion that came alongside ‘becoming the best,’ or the longing for home. None of them did.

Now he sat panting with his back pinned to a tree barely wide enough to shield his shoulders, stuck in the middle of a shit-stinking mountaintop gunfight with blood pulsing from a hole in his shoulder. His clavicle was shattered, he could tell from the cold sweat and nausea that rose from the shock.

Afghanistan was a monster all of its own. Not only did the sun draw out every bead ofhydration from each available pore, but the rocky earth tore feet to shreds as if each separate boot-ridge were carved into the skin. All in that moment it became abundantly clear that ‘becoming the best’ meant fuck all against hundreds of untrained insurgents with AKs —some of them no more than teenagers, barely able to take the weight of the gun let alone handle the recoil. They’re kids. Just fucking kids.

His wound painted the dry earth with deep red splatters, his vision blurry through the buildup of tears and dust. He could just make out the features of Tait, or maybe Lilley, a few metres south, firing off ear-shattering rounds from behind an equally pathetic tree. They were done. Mission failure. Already in the fucking earth.

Bullets whistled through the air, smashing bark from trees. Magazines pounded out bullets from M4s, AKs, and whatever else the bastards could get their hands on, empty shells clanging against the ground like metallic raindrops. The impact between bullet and flesh, the thud of lifeless bodies slamming to the ground, played like bass and snare drums to a song nobody wanted to hear.

He drifted to the edge of his consciousness along a torrent of haphazard scenes from the war-movies Jennifer had him watch. He had always struggled with movies. He didn’t hate them, but could hardly sit through a full one without shuffling around, checking his phone, pausing to get food, or engaging in some other interruption that turned a two hour activity into a four hour one. But there was one that hooked him, scared him even, and he couldn’t shake it. Lone Survivor, with Mark Wahlberg. What a fitting movie to dredge up from the darkest corners of his mind while he found himself in a situation of certain death.

He entered a dreamscape between life and death, a surreal blend of memory and movie and book and music. His mind danced between cuts of his short existence, some as recent as yesterday, others distant and scarcely recalled, like slides in some corporate presentation. Lines and moments from a more random collection of movies flicked in and out of his mind. Arnold Schwarzenegger calling the predator an “Ugly Motherfucker’ while Martin Lawrence looks into a fish bowl and slurs the famous line: “This is a nice fish… Big fucking eyes, but a nice fucking fish.”

The sounds of battle around him twisted themselves into Schubert’s most beautiful symphonies, his mind resting on scenes of him typing freely on his laptop, creating escapist worlds of fantasy and horror. He loved to write. He’d spend hours creating vast universes and vibrant characters, with nothing but the delicate sounds of piano playing in the background. Now his mind created the same scene for him, in a transcendent universe where he was able
to watch himself at his desk, content and swaying with the music.

He’d never write again. And how would he write this story anyway? He supposed it’d go a hell of a lot like Lone Survivor, except without the surviving part.

His consciousness pressed on in this fashion, presenting anything but the pain, the noise, the screams and the winces of his brothers-in-arms as they were closed in, shot at, and hit bad. He was acutely aware of those things, like the background noise of Sarah and Freddie running around the house while he clung to that extra ten minutes of sleep each morning. Like the two or three times Jennifer tried to wake him with a cup of tea, her words heard, but not acknowledged. The dream was too captivating for the real world to penetrate its defences.

His eyes closed as he saw their faces for the last time. Each expression, each freckle, analysed and explored. The too-close-for-comfort BANG of a grenade set the inside of his eyelids to burst into multicoloured shapes. A rainbow shattering like a mirror, each fragment a separate screen playing memories of his family and friends.

He heard their voices say ‘I love you, Morrisey.’ He said the words back, as raw and as real as they could ever be said.

Morrisey’s body relaxed as he drifted into nothingness, the expert fingers of Schubert playing in tune with his final breath.

Story: The Dog And His Man

Shaily wrote a story just for me, about Ollie and me.
How wonderful is that?

Short Stories | Fish-eye Perspective

alex-motoc-YzOhaPkU-E8-unsplashI take him for a walk first thing in the morning. He needs one.

He may complain about the early hours, the rainy weather and the muddy footprints on the floor but he loves them too. I’ve seen how he inhales the freshness in the air, not yet tainted by the traffic of the rush hour. I know he loves the dragonflies at the river, so I pull him there too. I splash around while he grumbles, until the old man gets his toes wet and relaxes visibly.

He sometimes protests that he is getting too old for this, but well, so am I. It is not easy to chase a deer anymore, but I do that anyway. How else will he get his exercise?

He may give me only one sausage a day and be a scrooge-ish when it comes to my biscuits. But I love him anyway, so…

View original post 43 more words

Photo Prompt Story: Transport

This is a short story, in 1132 words.
It was prompted by the above photo, seen on Sue Judd’s Blog.

https://suejudd.com/

Rosa didn’t listen to anything the kids said. She was going, and that was that. Yes, she was getting old now, and yes, she had never been on an airplane. But she didn’t care. If she didn’t do this now, she might never do it. Herman took her to the airport, sitting in the heavy afternoon traffic trying to talk her out of it at the last minute. She suspected he was worried about the money she was spending. Her oldest son seemed to mention money a lot these days. Well, he would get his share, less what she spent on what might be her one and only trip back to Europe.

The first stop was Paris, but she had no time to visit the famous French city, other than the airport. The flight had been strange, and tiring, but the stewardesses had been nice. The couple she was sat next to had spent the whole time looking at screens, or lying back with headphones in their ears. She hadn’t minded that at all, as she didn’t really want to make small talk. Sometimes, it seemed that she had spent her adult life making nothing but small talk.

The next flight had been shorter, and it was colder than in France when she arrived. The taxi driver taking her to the hotel confrmed he had been booked for the morning too, and would take her where she wanted to go. He had trouble understanding her accent, as it has been a lifetime since she had spoken her own language. The hotel was basic, but clean, and the food served for dinner made tears appear in her eyes as she remembered eating the same things in what seemed like another life. Herman had told her to call from the hotel, but she switched off her phone, not wanting to talk to anyone. Especially Herman.

Breakfast was strange now. Black bread, mixed fatty meats, and a bland cheese. But the coffee was good, much stronger than at home.

She felt chilly, so put on the long black coat that Herman had said she wouldn’t need. She loved him, because he was her son. But she wished she could have liked him more. She had liked Joe, little Joseph. But he had gone to Vietnam, and had never come home. Levi was never the same after that, even young Rachel couldn’t improve his mood. He used to walk to the park in Greenpoint, and sit crying on a bench. Now Levi was long gone, Rachel was in Maryland, and Herman never stopped nagging her. The cab was already there when she walked outside.

When the driver stopped at the place, she didn’t recognise it. Why would she? It was such a long time ago. He said he would wait as long as it took, and opened a book as she got out of the taxi. After ten minutes, she froze. This was it. The tracks and sleepers had gone, but she could still tell it had once been a railway line. That railway line. With no effort on her part, it all came flooding back.

They had told mama and papa it was ‘resettlement’. A short trip by train, they said. No personal things, and only one small item of luggage. The Kapos rounded them up, making sure they had the yellow stars on their clothes for all to see. Then they were marched through the town, with the local kids cat-calling, throwing garbage, and running their fingers across their thoats as they laughed. Some of them even spit on the long column of people as they shuffled along.

It wasn’t a train like Rosa had ever seen. Just empty trucks, with straw on the floor, one bucket in a corner, and too many people in each one. The short trip they had mentioned took longer than expected, with stops to cram in yet more people, until it was almost impossible to breathe. Rosa closed her eyes for a moment, trying to shut out the worst memories of that trip. Then the train stopped. Some inside already were dead, there were dogs barking outisde, and men shouting in a foreign language. She was fourteen, and old enough to understand that this was nothing at all like the promised resettlement.

There were woods behind the tracks, but up ahead was an iron gate, wire fences, rows of huts, and huge brick chimneys. As they walked in the direction of the gate, they were stopped and examined. Mama was sent one way, papa another. She was told to follow some older women and join the queue to the left.

That was the last time she ever saw either of them.

It was two years before the troops came and told them they were free. Two years during which Rosa had seen things. Unspeakable things. Two years where she had done things. Very bad things. Like stealing a quarter-slice of bread from an old lady who would die. Allowing the sickening attentions of a Lithuanian guard in return for three slices of sausage. Being examined intimately by doctors who were interested in her reproductive organs. It meant one more day of life. One more sunrise.

She told the soldier she had relatives in New York. He didn’t seem to believe her, but wrote it down anyway. Clutching at straws, she had used the name of the local shopkeeper, knowing he had left for America in thirty-five. Mama had mentioned he and his family had settled in New York. So she claimed to be the cousin of Israel Stern of Greenpoint. Even so, it took two long years. Sweden was first. Then more questions. Then England, with more questions, followed by a letter to Mr Stern. More camps, slightly better food, and a teenage girl who had grown strong in adversity.

She could never thank Mr Stern enough. He let her sleep on his couch, and got her a job with his daughter, working as a seamstress. That’s how she met her husband Levi, who was a tailor. She couldn’t say she had ever really loved him. But he gave her security, as well as three children.

Looking around the ground where the tracks had been, she chose two nice round stones. Rosa walked forward to the place here the gates had once stood, and placed one each side of the gap. In memory of mama and papa. Then she turned and walked back to the waiting taxi.

As they drove back to the hotel, she suddenly remembered something. It was what the Nazis had called them. Not people, never prisoners, not even just Jews.

Transport.

They had called them ‘Transport’.

In memory of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, liberated this day, in 1945. And of every other camp.

Lockdown Fiction: Gerald

This is a short story, in 675 words.
Something quick to read during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Gerald had always been a planner. He had planned ahead for a comfortable retirment, and made sure to pay his house off when he was still working. He had enough money to change his car every two years too, so no worries about something unreliable that kept breaking down.

The best technology went without saying. A 4-K televison that had a screen which would not look out of place in a small cinema, connected to the complete cable package that included every single viewing option. Then there was the sleek laptop, with the latest mobile phone amd tablet all in sync. His Internet connection was fibre-optic, and unlimited. He smiled at the fact that he hadn’t even asked how much that cost every month.

No need to stint himself on food either. Only the best ingredients, and finest locally-produced meat too. All prepared using the best professional utensils money could buy, on a double oven range cooker that cost as much as a small car.

However, there was one thing he had failed to plan for. He had nobody to share this luxury lifestyle with. Marriage to Jean had only lasted four years, and she had been paid off decades ago. Since then, Gerald had never met anyone else suitable. At least nobody that matched his standards. And he was not about to lower those.

So life alone seemed to be his only option. He decided he would manage very nicely, thank you.

Walking around in town was not something he liked to do. Too many beggars, for his liking. He had no truck with the so-called ‘homeless’. They should do as he had done; get a job, make a career, prepare for a comfortable retirement. Even though he might have had two hundred pounds in his wallet at any given time, he was never going to part with so much as a penny for those shirkers.

And there were those shabby-looking shoppers too. Shuffling around pushing worn-out shoppers-on-wheels, making a bee-line for the disgusting shops that sold everything for one pound, then having lunch in a local bakery, stuffing greasy pies into their chomping jowls. Many were tailed by a gang of noisy, dirty-looking children too. Small wonder they had no money, when they had no idea about family planning. And the tattos they were covered in no doubt cost more than the food they had just bought.

He crossed the street to avoid the queues outside the various fast-food establishments. The smell from those places made him retch, and the sight of cutomers emerging then cramming food into their mouths in public made him feel physically ill.

Honestly, there were times when Gerald wondered if he was even the same species as those people.

Instead of venturing into town, he began to shop online. Everything could be delivered whenever you wanted it to be, as long as you had the money to pay for it, and the Internet connection to order it.

It wasn’t long before Gerald had no need to go outside at all. A gardener came to take care of his small plot, and a window cleaner kept all the windows shiny. Both were paid by bank transfer, online of course. When he realised that he hadn’t used his car for four months, Gerald contacted the dealer and sold it back to them. It seemed pointless to bother to keep it, even though he took a substantial loss on the sale. They came to collect it. No need for him to drive all that way.

After a delightful meal of the finest venison in a casserole, accompanied by two glasses of Nuits Saint Georges, Gerald relaxed in his favourite leather armchair, cradling a tumbler of the very best single malt money could buy. He switched on the television, and scrolled through the available options. Settling on a potentially interesting legal drama, he raised the leg rest on the chair using the electronic control.

It didn’t even cross his mind that it was only one-thirty in the afternoon.

Lockdown Fiction: Stumpy

This is a short story, in 1,000 words.
Something quick to read during the lockdown.

Tony always hated the holdays. At least at school he had something to do. But the Easter break stretched out ahead of him, knowing his mum and stepdad would not be taking him anyhwere, and with no pocket money to do anyting, even to go and see a film. Mum still made him go out, so he didn’t disturb Cliff. He worked nights, and slept all day. She told him to go out and play. That was all very well, if you had someone to play with, and somewhere to go.

It was hard to make friends when they were never allowed to come round your house, and you were told you couldn’t go to theirs. Tony had tried walking across to the park, see if he could get in on a game of football, or just hang around with the others in the dip under the big tree. But they only nodded at him as he watched from the side. They all had bikes too, and he couldn’t have one because mum said she couldn’t afford it. So when they all jumped on their bikes and rode off laughing and shouting, all he could do was watch.

You can only sit on a bench for so long. Only walk along by the canal for so long. At least when the weather was bad, he could sit under one of the tunnels to stay dry. But trying to find something to do until four in the afternoon every day was really hard.

The old hospital was a good place to explore, though Tony had almost played out every opportunity that had to offer. Scheduled for demolition, and surrounded by a high fence, he could easily slip in under the locked gates when nobody was working on the site. Wandering around the huge empty rooms, switching plug sockets on and off, looking inside the piles of old filing cabinets to see if anything useful or valuable had been forgotten. A couple of times he had thrown things at the windows, just to hear the glass break.

That afternoon, he decided to go there again, as he knew the workmen wouldn’t be around over Easter. At the side entrance that he always used was a huge skip, always packed out with wrecked plasterboard, miles of electrical wiring, and splintered wood. As he walked past it to enter through the doorway marked ‘Do Not Enter’, he heard a whimpering sound. Between the back of he skip and the wall, he saw a small puppy. It was trembling, and backed away as he walked over and picked it up.

Hard to tell what breed it was, it had tan and white patches, and too-large floppy ears the size of sliced bread. Tony slipped the tiny dog inside his coat, and walked inside. One of the old wooden cabinets was perfect. He ripped the doors off, and laid it on the floor. Taking off his sweatshirt, he bundled it up and placed it in inside the cupboard to make a nice bed. The puppy licked his hand as he placed it onto the shirt, rolling over to show its soft belly.

What to call it? It had patches, but Patch was a boring name. And the big ears suggested Dumbo, but that was an elephant’s name. The small legs didn’t look big enough for the pup, almost like stumps. So Stumpy it was. Tony went back outside to the site works, and turned on a tap connected to a rubber hose. Using an end cap from some old guttering, he filled it with water and went back in. Stumpy was thirsty, and lapped up at least half of the water. Finding a roll of new insulating material dumped around the back, Tony made a better effort with the bed, lining it out nicely, and covering one half of the cupboard to create a little dark place for Stumpy to sleep in. As the little dog dropped off to sleep, he was curled up on Tony’s shirt, so he left it under the pup.

Walking through the door almost on the stroke of four, he was glad to hear mum say that it was ham egg and chips for tea. She plonked his plate down in front of him, then went upstairs to wake up Cliff. Tony wolfed down the eggs and over half the chips, then wrapped the rest up in a tea towel and quickly left the house before anyone asked where he was going.

Stumpy was whimpering again by the time he got back. He could just about hear it as he slipped under the gate. Although it was only very small, the pup ate the three slices of ham in record time, sniffing around looking for more. Tony tried him with one of the chips, and he ate that too. He decided to leave the rest of them at one end of Stumpy’s cupboard bed. If he was hungry later, they would fill him up. Making sure he topped up the dog’s water, he had a little play with him before settling him back in his bed for the night. The tiny teeth were like needles, as he chewed on Tony’s hand.

As he turned into his street on the way home, Tony noticed something sellotaped around the lamp-post at the end. The same thing was on all the lamp-posts along the street, standing out against the dull concrete pillars. He stopped and looked at the photo. It was Stumpy, unmistakable with his floppy ears, and colour patches. He read what it said underneath the photo.

LOST DOG
Henry. Four Months Old.
Lost this morning.
Please find him and bring him home.

There was a phone number underneath to ring if anyone had seen it.

Going straight up to his bedroom, Tony thought about the poster. He would never be allowed to have a dog at home, mum had said that. He kicked off his shoes, and picked up an old comic.

He would decide what to do tomorrow.