A Dark Art (short story)

This one didn’t scream. I was kinda disappointed, you know? I had set the scene perfectly, just as I outlined yesterday. A sumptuous bed of blonde hay spread across the hard ground of the barn. I’m not sure she appreciated my efforts to keep her skirts clean though. Ungrateful wench. I didn’t bother sprinkling the lavender this time. I loved the amethyst tones, but the perfume was wasted when darker aromas permeated the space.

Shame I couldn’t control the weather. The bright, clear blue skies and blazing sunshine didn’t suit the mood and tone of the scene that I was aspiring to. Some dramatic thunderclouds would have been the consummate touch. Oh, a few stray drops of rain to leak down one perfect cheek! Perhaps I shall take some creative liberty with those. I admit though, I did particularly like the dust mites that danced in the rays of light that wormed their way through the holes in the tin roof. I wonder if I can recreate those with the sense of movement they deserve.

I’ve already processed the film. The photos are hanging in wet sheets in the darkroom. Gorgeous, if I do say so myself. I experimented a little more with some of the manual settings this time, trying to get the right depth of field as well as good level of exposure. I had one where just a single blowfly was in focus. The perfection of it makes me quite quivery. I’ll have to double-check the settings I used so I can duplicate the effect. It was the 50mm f/1.4 I think. I know the photo is just a guide to the canvas I shall create, but I am an artist. It gives me great satisfaction to create art in multiple mediums. Perhaps I should even rouse myself to write a poem, a tantalising ode?

I have kept some souvenirs aside. A few stalks of hay, some strands of hair… They shall meld with my oils and bring my masterpiece to life. Or to death, if you’ll pardon the expression.

I confess, I am getting restless waiting for the photos to dry. Time lags, and I can almost hear the wood borer clicking away the seconds. How utterly dreary. I shall ruminate on my next victim to pass the time. I’m tempted to step outside my comfort zone and experiment with a male this time. It would be a challenge, and lord knows I need one after the silent accusations that this morning’s glazed eyes gave. Dear god, I hope they don’t haunt my sleep. What a terrible thought. No, some good hearty yelling that will fade to a hoarse scratchiness. And groans, I want some deep, masculine groans. That’s it, I’m decided. And oh! Perhaps in the field this time. With the tractor as a backdrop. Yes, I’m a genius.

A small scene…

“I am so sick of sex,” I muttered as I trudged up the front steps of our ranch house.

“What?”

The incredulous exclamation had me spinning around to face my husband.

“I must’ve heard you wrong, I could have sworn you said…” He shook his head.

“I’m sick of sex,” I repeated with a smile.

His confusion was amusing, but I loved that he never even started making wild assumptions or accusations.

“I don’t…” He frowned at me, looking utterly adorable. “But we…” He heaved a big sigh and gestured wildly with his hands. “Why?”

I had to laugh, and tripped back down the stairs to wrap my arms around his waist. “It’s spring. It seems like every animal on this place has got spring fever. Every time I turn around, there’s something having sex.” I lowered my voice to a whisper. “I even saw Bart and Daisy getting it on in the hayshed.” I giggled at the look on his face, his eyebrows nearly disappearing into his hairline. “I’m just sick of it. It seems like everyone except me is having sex, and I’m sick of it.”

“I’m not having sex,” he drawled.

I narrowed my eyes at him. “I should jolly well hope not, if I’m not.”

“Well,” he paused suggestively. “We could solve both our problems. I have it on good authority that the hayshed is mighty comfortable.”

I giggled. “All that prickly hay? We have a perfectly good bed upstairs.” I grabbed his hand, and turned and started back up the stairs, tugging him along behind me. He quickly caught up and we practically raced for the bedroom.

The Search For Inspiration

Silvanna coughed and spluttered as she climbed out of the picture, dripping water all over her antique wooden desk. The other muses, some working hard at their own desks, others chatting, all turned to the back of the room to stare at her. Silvanna flopped down on top of the picture in the puddle of water she had created, just catching her breath for a moment, before dragging herself to the edge of the desk. She sat with her legs dangling over the edge and slumped her shoulders.

“What’s up?” asked Shayla, one of the other muses. One dark, perfectly arched eyebrow rose as she eyed the sodden orange dress Silvanna wore. “Is that…saltwater? You do know you’ve ruined the silk, right?”

Silvanna grumbled, but nodded. “I can’t find any inspiration,” she sighed. She kicked her feet, drumming them against the wood below her, aware that the room around her had gone deathly silent.

“Start from the beginning,” Rosa advised, fluttering over to sit near Silvanna, but managing to avoid the damp patches. “What are the requirements?”

“Short story, choice of picture inspirations.” Silvanna sighed again, and didn’t miss Rosa rolling her eyes at the melodramatic sound.

“Show us the pictures.”

Silvanna plucked the pictures from the desk behind her, struggling a little with their unwieldy size, then scattered them on the floor so all the muses could see them. She almost smirked when Farryn shrieked and danced to avoid being sprayed by the last of the water droplets. Her beautiful white silk dress still looked good as new of course.

“Oh, I’ve seen these pictures before!” exclaimed Elliece. “My human had to enter this contest last year. I found inspiration in the cherry blossom picture. You didn’t find anything there?”

“Nope.”

“I’ve seen these pictures before too,” said Kamali. She flashed her feathery golden wings and came to stand behind Silvanna. “Aren’t these for the Once Upon A Time contest?”

Silvanna nodded and tilted her head to look up. “Yeah.”

“My human is working on a story for that contest right now,” commented Shayla. “She asked for inspiration ages ago, and I found some in that picture of the stone circle with the purple lightning. I went for a sci fi horror thing, because she wanted to enter another contest at the same time.”

Kamali frowned down at Silvanna and demanded, “Doesn’t it close in less than 24 hours?” There was a sharp intake of breath from the other muses.

“Yes,” whispered Silvanna, her lower lip trembling.

“Are you serious right now?” asked Alvina from across the room, her kohl-rimmed eyes wide. “Your human has less than 24 hours left to write a short story and you haven’t even given her any inspiration? Woah.”

Silvanna narrowed her eyes, but knew she couldn’t really defend herself.

“Tell us what you’ve done so far,” advised Rosa.

“Yeah, we’ll all help.” Elliece smiled.

“Okay. So I had eleven pictures. I’ve been in them all. I felt sure I’d find something in that one of the owl,” she said, gesturing to a picture of an Eastern Screech Owl camouflaged against a tree trunk. “I left the aquathlon one until last, which is why I’m all wet, but…” She shrugged her shoulders. “Nothing.”

“Are there certain requirements?” asked Rosa. “Genre?”

“Any genre,” replied Silvanna, shivering as a small orange butterfly settled on her shoulder. “Has to be minimum two thousand words, maximum three thousand. Rating has to be 18+ or lower.”

“Two thousand words in less than 24 hours?” squeaked Alvina.

Silvanna rolled her eyes. “The length is pretty irrelevant when I don’t even have an idea for her.”

Kimali looked around the room, then settled her dark gaze back on Silvanna. “If we’re going to do this, we’ll have to do it as a team. And fast. Farryn, grab a whiteboard marker and make notes on the board. The rest of you, take one picture each and start brainstorming.” She looked around the room, counting under her breath. “Cancel that, without Silvanna there are eleven of us and eleven pictures, so just leave the marker there, Farryn. Elliece and Shayla, make sure you don’t go for the same picture that you used for inspiration last time, or there could be issues for Silvanna’s human if we end up with ideas that are too similar. Silvanna, you can make the notes. As soon as you get the inkling of an idea, yell out and we’ll see if we can take it all the way to a decent plot.” She shook her head, her blonde hair swinging. “Your human is going to need all the help she can get.”

One by one, the muses disappeared into the various pictures, leaving Silvanna all alone in the room. She took a moment to dry herself off, then fluttered over to the large whiteboard that dominated one wall.

Blank white space, her favourite starting point. She loved the possibilities that lay within the white nothingness of an empty notebook, a clean slate…a blank whiteboard. Anything could happen. She groaned aloud at her own thoughts. “It’s not much use having screeds of possibilities when you can’t think of a single one to write on the stupid page!” She threw the marker across the room, finding satisfaction in watching it bounce off a desk, until she realized she’d have to go and pick it up. She grumbled all the way there and back, the small butterfly her only audience, but fell silent as the muses started to return.

Kamali emerged first, from the picture of the thunderstorm and the stone circle. “Okay, here goes.” She gestured to Silvanna to start taking notes. “Stone circle could be celtic. Think of Stonehenge. Or there are other stone circles on little islands offshore of Scotland. Celtic witches? Some pagan ritual? What about giants who created the stone circle?” She talked rapidly, ignoring the squeak of the marker against the whiteboard as Silvanna tried to keep up. “The thunderstorm could be Thor, god of thunder, having a tantrum. The clouds look purple – could be a sci fi story set on another world. What sort of alien being could live there?” She paused for a moment, thinking. “Um, there was the sea too – a journey nearly at an end, only to be thwarted by a thunderstorm.” She raised her hands, palms to the ceiling. “That’s all I’ve got.”

When Silvanna turned around, she saw several other muses had also returned. She shook her hand to loosen the muscles and pointed to Elliece. “Go.”

“Okay, I did the aquathlon one. Your character has recovered from an injury that led everyone to say she’d never walk again, and she overcomes all her obstacles to compete? A father who doesn’t have custody of his child steals him from the chaotic beach scene? Your character is a photojournalist, looking for her first big break? A mother watches in horror as her child drowns? Ooh, a tsunami comes in to shore, chaos ensues!” She grinned, and watched as Silvanna jotted down the notes.

“Next!” called Silvanna, opening and closing her hand into a fist to try and relax the muscles. She had noticed that Elliece had emerged from the spray of the aquathlon photo without a single drop of water on her. No, it was only ever Silvanna who got dirty, wet, or tore her dress. Typical.

Alvina piped up next. “Cherry blossoms. First thing, obviously, Japan and Asia. Possibly a love story. Could be a multicultural love story. A historical love story? They could be Japanese royalty. Um…”

“The Emperor and Empress,” added Rosa.

“Yes, exactly.” Alvina flashed Rosa a grateful smile. “It could be someone on the search for a special Ming vase, or perhaps tracing the origins of a family heirloom. What about a soldier, going back to the fields of battle where he once fought? Um, looking for a woman he only has a single snapshot photo of?” The other muses sighed at the romanticism. “I could keep going, but I’ll see if someone else sparks your interest. You can come back to me if need be.”

Silvanna nodded, scribbling furiously.

“The owl-“

“Wait!” pleaded Silvanna. “Just let me finish… Okay, go.”

“The owl obviously lends itself to fantasy and mythology,” started Farryn, rubbing her hands together. Everyone knew fantasy was her favourite genre. “You could tell a fantasy tale from the viewpoint of the owl, watching unseen over everything. The owl could be a familiar for a witch or magician. A spy. He could provide guidance. The character could go on an epic journey to seek wisdom or answers from the owl. There could be a hunt on, and only the main character can find the owl, camouflaged against the tree. The hunt could be specifically for the owl, as a kind of challenge. Ah, a challenge to complete a course of study or something. The owl might not be a real owl, it might have morphed into an owl for a certain purpose. It might have been cursed to remain as an owl for doing something naughty or by someone evil.” She paused, watching the words fill up the whiteboard. “I suppose you could do some sort of animal story – the life of an owl, raising its chicks or something.” She shrugged.

“Okay, my turn,” said Fawn. “I had the picture of the fisherman.” She bounced in place while she waiting for a signal to start.

“Calm down,” suggested Kimali, only to receive a flick on the nose from Fawn who giggled at Kimali’s affronted expression.

“Yup, ready,” Silvanna said, feeling like she should be panting, except she was only writing notes, not running a marathon.

“The fisherman made me think of the ‘one that got away’,” said Fawn. “You could have a sort of ‘boy who cried wolf’ theme where the fisherman is always telling tales of the one that got away, and when he finally sees something amazing, no one believes him. Or you could set it in a small fishing village, maybe the people are starving and relying on the food from the sea. Maybe he has a magic fishing net. Maybe he pulls in a bottle from the sea with a message inside.”

“Oh, I love that idea!” Alvina clapped her hands together, her eyes shining. “A message in a bottle! Who could it be for? Who wrote it? What does it say? How exciting!”

Silvanna smiled at her enthusiasm. “Anything else?”

Alvina narrowed her eyes. “What, that doesn’t work for you?”

Silvanna shrugged in reply.

“Okay,” Juliana said, looking up from where she was tidying the photos into a neat pile. “I had the Taiwanese people with their traditional face paintings. You could have them painting themselves for war. A fight to the death. For honour? For a girl? For the safety of the womenfolk? Um, you could have them preparing for a performance, where one of them catches the eye of a woman in the audience and knows somehow that she’s his soulmate. You could have a photojournalist doing a documentary on them, but somehow danger stalks him or her, forcing them to take refuge with or from the villagers. A time travel story, going back in time to the traditional days?” She pursed her lips as she thought. “This was a tough one for me.”

Silvanna looked at the words she had written up and frowned. Juliana was dissatisfied with all those ideas? Silvanna hadn’t even come up with a single one. She closed her eyes for a moment, but the next muse started talking, and she quickly took the lid off the marker again.

“I had the lady carrying water in Myanmar,” said Tigerlily. “It was a tricky one. I thought you could do something like Jack and the beanstalk with magic beans that need watering. Um, a small child sent to get water who gets into trouble. Maybe they’re rescued by a dolphin or a hippocampus or something.”

“A what?” The query came from several voices at once.

“A mythical creature, half horse, half sea creature.”

“Ooh, that sounds cool,” commented Farryn. “A hippocampus. I must remember that.”

“A c, not a k,” Tigerlily advised Silvanna who had misspelled the word on the whiteboard.

“Whatever, we know what it means.”

“There could be some sort of biological weapon of war that has poisoned the water. Or something like that Chernobyl disaster. Mutant fish?” Tigerlily cracked her knuckles as she kept talking, ignoring the looks of disgust a few of the muses sent her. “You could do some sort of religious thing where the people are saved from salvation by their god. You could have her fetching water for her daughter who is deathly ill and some handsome Western doctor is going to save her.” She made a few faces before declaring that she was out of ideas.

Flora looked up from where she was painting her nails at her desk. “My turn?” At the nods from the other muses, she capped the purple polish and set it aside, waving her fingers in the air to dry them. “I had the cheetahs on the safari vehicle. Clearly you could have some sort of gory tourist drama where the cats drag them from their vehicle and eat them. You could have a honeymooning couple just to heighten the emotion.” She laughed at the horrified expressions on some of the faces around her. “Okay, what about a young boy who communes with the wild cheetahs, to the point where he can pet them. Everyone is in awe. Or maybe a comedy about a modern day Noah trying desperately to collect two animals of every kind for his ark, but it proving to be a lot more difficult and dangerous than the simple request makes it sound.”

“Ha ha, I like that one!” laughed Rosa. “That one sounds fun.”

Flora grinned. “Or you could do something from the point of view of the cheetahs, maybe they’re disgruntled at the intruders or they’ve set each other a challenge or dare to get something from the tourists to show their bravery or something.”

Silvanna nodded as she wrote, the letters much larger than when she’d first started writing. Her notes were no longer neat and tidy, but her hand was cramping and it was getting harder to keep up with the dictation.

Marelle waited patiently until Silvanna was ready, then started talking, her quiet voice going at a nice slow pace. “The child in my picture is the son of reindeer herders. Of course I thought a Christmas story would be perfect. The people who have to work for Santa? Looking after the reindeer and making sure they’re in tip top shape for their Christmas Eve run? Or maybe he tries to turn one of the real reindeer into Rudolph. Maybe the reindeer are in secret and he watches in amazement as they all disappear on Christmas Eve to go and help Santa, and he follows them. Or something goes wrong on the reindeer farm and there are no reindeer ready to help Santa and this young boy has to save Christmas? Really, the possibilities are endless.”

“I’d love to read any of those stories,” smiled Alvina. “I love feel-good Christmas children’s stories!”

“Me too,” replied Marelle.

Rosa tapped the chewed end of her pencil against the edge of the desk she was perched on, as she waited for Silvanna to be ready. “I had the picture of the tribal woman painted up for a ceremony. You could follow a young girl who was participating for the first time – her nervousness, her anticipation, that sort of thing. You could retell an ancient myth or legend, or even better, make one up. Maybe a child asks why the sky is blue or why their skin is dark or something simple like that and create a myth or legend to explain it.”

“That’s a really good idea,” said Kamali, approval clear in her voice.

Silvanna nodded, then gestured for Rosa to continue.

“You could have a love story where the village girl is preparing for her wedding ceremony. It could be an arranged marriage. Maybe the love of her life asks for the opportunity to fight for her hand.”

Silvanna jotted down the notes, then turned to Shayla with her eyebrows raised. “Go.”

“I had the image of a lady playing the piano on a street in New Zealand in front of a sea or harbour or something.” Shayla absently shuffled the cards she held as she talked. “There was a young girl sitting on the wall. You could write about the woman and the songs she’s singing. A lament to the girl’s father who is lost away at sea.”

“You lot are all hopeless romantics,” laughed Flora.

“You could have some gentleman hear the siren call…” Shayla laughed at the exaggerated expression on Flora’s face.

“Hush!” Everyone turned to Kamali who turned serious eyes on Silvanna. “You’re too late.”

“Too late? But I’ve still got…” Silvanna looked around for a clock.

“She’s already written the story,” explained Kamali.

“Without me? Without her muse? She can’t do that!” wailed Silvanna.

“Listen to this.” Kamali cleared her throat, then started reading from a piece of paper she held. “Silvanna coughed and spluttered as she climbed out of the picture, dripping water all over her antique wooden desk. The other muses, some working hard at their own desks, others chatting, all turned to the back of the room to stare at her.”

“Ohh…” breathed Silvanna. “She’s written about me!”

Kamali grinned. “All of us. You know, I think I kind of like this human of yours

A figurative language exercise

Finally, I was safe. I savoured the refreshingly cool taste of freedom. The realisation that I could relax, could be myself for a short time, was sweet. I lay back, my aches and pains cushioned by a bed of clover and dandelions. The night reached out a warm hand to stroke my forehead and far above me a multitude of stars winked and flirted.

Damn, I was tired. Tired of running. Tired of hiding. Tired of pretending to be someone I wasn’t. I closed my eyes and tried to let some of the night’s serenity soak in, but as much as my body wanted to sleep, my mind wouldn’t stop whirring. Scenes replayed like old B grade movies. Conversations whispered. But there was no point dwelling on the past. I had to make plans. My very survival depending on me being prepared, being one step ahead. I had to take this moment to decide what to do next.

I looked up and wondered if the wise old moon held the answers I needed. “What should I do?” My whisper floated away and even though I knew it was my own imagination, the answer came back to me.
“Relax. Your body needs the break. You don’t know when you’ll get another opportunity, so take the moment and rest.”

The moon smiled serenely down at me, dressed in gossamer folds of wispy clouds. How could I take advice from someone dressed in their night clothes? I snorted, then fought the urge to giggle, punch drunk with exhaustion. She was right though. I needed to sleep.

Under The Small Top

As the opening chords began to swell, a hush fell over the audience. Anticipation weaved with the smell of popcorn and crackers to fill the tent. Sammy wriggled forward in his seat, finding it impossible to sit still now that the long awaited moment had nearly arrived. It felt like he’d waited years for summer, even though he knew it had only been a matter of months.

A figure trotted out onto the elevated stage and a beam of brilliant light pierced the dimness to illuminate the ringmaster.

“Welcome to Mouse Circus!”

A cheer went up from the audience and Sammy grinned.

“Tonight, we bring you our super summer show,” announced the ringmaster. “You’ll see acrobats,” and one arm was flung towards the canvas far above their heads. “And cat tamers!”

Cat tamers! That was what Sammy most longed to see. He waited through the remainder of the ringmaster’s spiel and settled back to enjoy the show.

The acrobats were astonishing. Sammy could hardly believe what they were able to do with just the same four feet and tail that he had. Beneath multicoloured lights, they flew through the air on the trapeze and performed extraordinary feats of balance and agility. Sammy clapped loudly and called encouragement.

Finally it was time for the cat tamers. The stage was cleared and a clear wall of glass or plastic, Sammy couldn’t tell which, rose from a hidden cavity in the floor to surround the perimeter of the stage. Sammy assumed it was to protect the audience from the cats. He’d seen cats before, but never this close. Would they be fat, lazy cats that weren’t too much of a danger, or were these tamers the real deal? He could hardly wait to find out.

At the first hiss, a deathly silence fell over the assembled mice. Too many knew that deadly sound. Sammy felt his hackles rise, and his whiskers twitch. It was hard to sit still.

The cat slunk onto the stage, causing the entire first two rows of mice to lean backwards in their seats, despite the safety of the barrier.

When the tamer entered the ring, the low feline growl sent shivers up Sammy’s spine. How could that mouse dare to be in the same space as that fearsome creature? A long, furry tail swished and Sammy swore he could almost feel the breeze from it washing across his face.

The tamer taunted and teased the cat. “Whose a pretty kitty?” he snickered. Sammy held his breath, watching that twitching tail, much as he’d watch a snake, waiting for the strike.

When the cat finally pounced, Sammy squeaked in alarm, along with most of his fellow spectators. He was sure the tamer was done for. Long, sharp claws reached for the small furry mouse, but an odd noise sent the cat snarling back against the wall. Sammy tried to figure out what the tamer had done, but couldn’t see him clearly enough. As the two creatures played a traditional game of tag, they moved around the ring, giving all the spectators a chance to view the show from a variety of angles. Sammy finally realised the mouse had a spray bottle of water that he was using to keep the cat under control. Sammy shook his head in wonder. To face such a fearsome foe with so little protection was awe inspiring.

A wave of shock rippled through the audience and Sammy craned his head to see what had happened. The cat had his back to Sammy, and the tamer was nowhere in sight. Mice starting standing up to get a better view, and Sammy did too. He finally saw the reason for all the consternation – the cat had trapped the tamer’s tail beneath one large paw. The tamer was squirting the cat with the water, but to no avail. Sammy held his breath. Would he really witness a tragedy, this fine summer’s evening?

Sammy looked up at the clear barrier. It was designed to keep a cat in, but it also kept the mice out. There was no way Sammy or any of the other spectators could rush to help the trapped tamer. Heads were turning in every direction and the multitude of squeaks from all around was becoming deafening.

A low rumble started from somewhere near Sammy. He turned with his fellow mice to try and find the source of the sound. The loud bark sent mice toppling off seats and scurrying out of the tent. Sammy spun towards the stage to see that the cat had also been startled by the bark. It had leaped to the far side of the ring, freeing the tamer. Another low growl vibrated through the seats and with some of them now empty, Sammy spied the speakers hidden near the floor.

When the tamer had escaped the stage and was safely being tended to, the ringmaster’s voice came over the speakers. “My fellow mice, I apologise for the scare you’ve had. As you have witnessed, our brave cat tamers take real risks to bring you such thrilling shows. We are grateful that our recorded dog noises have been able to save the day today. Three cheers for Christoff the cat tamer!”

Sammy cheered with everyone else, relieved that everything had turned out well. He’d certainly had his ticket’s worth of excitement, though he wasn’t sure the price of the entry fee was worth the danger these circus performers faced. One thing he did know – he never wanted to be so close to a cat ever again. His mother had been right with all those lectures he’d had to sit through. Now he had seen for himself how fast the situation could turn bad. As he watched the cat being carefully guided off the stage, Sammy wondered if the rest of the show would prove to be as exciting.

The Phoenix

Prompt: Pink

The door chimes to indicate a customer, and I stroll out to the front desk. He’s a young guy, maybe late teens, although I suppose he could be early twenties. He looks to be a little shorter than me, maybe a fraction under six feet, with his straight brown hair cut conservatively. Jeans, t-shirt, hoodie and sneakers. Pretty typical for this neighbourhood, but he doesn’t look like trouble and that’s something.

“Can I help you?”

His eyes flick to me, then back to the designs plastered all over the walls. He seems nervous. Fuck, I hope he’s not high.

“I want a tattoo,” he mumbles.

No shit Sherlock. I roll my eyes, though he’s not looking at me. “Any idea what you want?” It always amazes me when people come into the shop without any idea of what they want done. Don’t they realise a tattoo is permanent? Well, I suppose there are ways and means these days of removing them, but still…

He shuffles his feet, and glances at me from the corner of his eye. “I need it on my back. I’ve got…” He drags in a deep breath and I raise an eyebrow in expectation. “Scars,” he whispers. He clears his throat. “I’ve got scars on my back,” he says a little louder. “I need a tattoo to cover them.”

I nod. Scars are tricky to tattoo, but it’s doable. “Sure. Any idea what design you want?”

He shakes his head. “I was hoping you might be able to come up with something for me. I don’t know what will work, you know?”

I gesture to a small table flanked by cheap metal chairs. “Take a seat.” I grab a pad of paper and a pencil and sit opposite him. “Take your shirt off.” I gesture with my chin to the t-shirt and hoodie he’s wearing.

He hesitates, his mouth turning down, before he shrugs and tugs the sleeves of the grey hoodie. He drops it on the floor, then reaches over his head, grabbing a handful of his t-shirt and drawing it over his head. He turns without looking at me, his gaze lowered to the floor.

“Oh wow,” I breathe. I stand and let my gaze wander over the extensive scarring that covers two thirds of his back. “What happened?”

“Burns.”

His tone doesn’t invite further questions, but I can’t resist. “What happened?”

Turning, he draws his t-shirt back on and shrugs. “Some guys took a disliking to me,” he mumbles.

I wave him back into his chair. “Seriously? Someone did that to you on purpose? What sort of a fucked up person do you have to be to do something like that?”

His shoulders move again and I roll my eyes. I pick up my pencil and start tapping on the paper pad. “Listen, I can do a design for you. Tattooing scar tissue is different to tattooing regular skin, and it takes longer. The ink doesn’t absorb the same way. But I’ve done it before, and we can certainly come up with something for your back. But a tattoo is personal, man. And a tattoo that big? You don’t want something generic. You want something that’s you, that’s right for you and you alone. Okay?”

He makes a face at me. It might as well have been another bloody shrug.

I sigh and lean forward, resting my elbows on the table. “Talk,” I say, pointing the pencil at him. “Tell me about yourself, and I’ll create something for you.”

His lips curl in a sneer. “Like what? I don’t have some sort of speech prepared. What do you want to know?”

“How long ago were you injured?”

“Is that relevant?”

“Yes,” I reply.

“How?”

“Because,” I explain, “the more I understand about what you’ve been through, how long it took you to get to this point, and how it changed you, the better your design will be.”

He leans back in his chair, stretching his legs to one side of the table and tipping his head back to stare at the ceiling. “About a year and a half ago. I had to wait for it to heal properly before I could come and see about a tattoo.”

“Did you know them? The guys who did it?”

“Sort of,” he grunts. “We weren’t mates or anything, but I knew who they were.”

“Why’d they do it?”

He glares at me. “They said I was gay. Some kind of faggot who likes other boys.”

I raise my eyebrows. “Do you like guys?”

“Fuck off,” he snarls. “I ain’t a faggot.”

“That’s an awful word. And I don’t care whether you like boys or you like girls or you’re not into anyone at all. What difference could it possibly make to me?” I wait for his reply.

“It’s sick,” he hisses.

“Is it?” I ask mildly. “You might wanna reconsider where you’re getting your tattoo from then, because I’m gay.”

His eyes widen. “You…what?”

“I’m gay. I like other boys.” I smile. “Men, really. Not into boys so much,” I grin.

He stares at me, then glances around the room. I’m not sure if he’s checking to see if there are hidden cameras or people waiting in the non-existent wings or what. “You’re…gay?” he questions.

“Yup.” I turn my arm over, exposing the tattoo on the inside of my wrist. I hold it out towards him.

He stares at it before looking back up at me. “I don’t get it. It’s a card?”

“The ace of spades,” I smirk. “My mum was horrified that I was gay, but my dad, he’d just tell her to get over it. ‘That boy’s as queer as the ace of spades, Ruth, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.’ Hence,” I gesture at the card inked on my arm, “the ace of spades.”

He opens his mouth as if he’s going to speak, then closes it again. His eyebrows draw down in a frown, like he doesn’t quite know what to make of me. “You’re… You’re okay with being gay?”

I laugh. I can’t help it. “Wouldn’t make a bloody bit of difference either way, would it? I could spend my days hating myself, or I can accept it. I don’t like women. I like men. All the denial in the world won’t change that, so yeah, I’m okay with it. I figure God wouldn’t have made me this way if he didn’t want me to be this way.”

He nods slowly.

I take a chance. “How about you?”

His eyes meet mine, but he doesn’t answer.

“What sort of person do you find attractive? Men? Women? Both? Neither?”

He shifts in his chair, looking away from me. “I dunno.”

“Really? You’re how old?”

“Fine!” he snarls. “I like…” He screws his eyes shut. “I like men,” he whispers.

“Cool. Me too.” I smile and he gives me a weak smile in return.

I look down at the pad of paper and screw my mouth up. “How about…a phoenix?”

“What’s that?” he asks with narrowed eyes.

“Don’t be so suspicious,” I chuckle. “A phoenix is a mythical bird which is reborn out of fire. Which seems appropriate, don’t you think?”

“A bird? That sounds a bit…” I can see him searching for another word other than ‘gay’.

“Trust me.” I start sketching, and can feel his eyes watching me.

“Have you ever… had a boyfriend?” he asks quietly.

I nod, continuing to draw. “Yup. I’m no different to other guys my age. They have girlfriends, I have boyfriends. They have sex, I have sex.” I grin, but don’t look up from my work.

“Have you ever been with a girl?”

I grimace. “Er, no.” I scrunch up my nose. “Not my thing.”

“Not even a kiss?”

“Nope. I always knew I was gay. In high school I was eyeing up guys’ chests in the locker room while they were all talking about boobs.” I hear a breath huff out of him like he’s amused. “You?”

“I’ve kissed a girl.”

“Did you like it?” I ask, trying desperately not to break out into a Katy Perry tune.

“It was okay.”

I hum a response. “What about a guy?”

“Naw,” he says, shifting in his seat. “You’re the first person I’ve ever told.”

I lift my head then and look at him. “I appreciate your trust.”

He smiles. “How do you know if another guy is gay? You don’t wanna be making the moves on some straight guy, right?” He leans forward, waiting for my answer.

“This is a big tattoo,” I say, tapping my pencil against the drawing.

He leans back and folds his arms across his chest. Geez, the guy is an open book.

“It’s going to take a while to ink this onto your back. We’ll have lots of time to talk. I’m happy to tell you whatever I can.”

His arms relax. “Really?”

“Yeah. Now what do you think?” I hold the pad so it’s facing him.

“Oh, that is wicked,” he breathes. “Dude, you are crazy talented.”

“You like? Not too girly?” I smirk.

His eyes meet mine. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Now, I was thinking about doing it in bright pink.” I laugh and duck as he reaches out to smack my head. “No?” I laugh harder at the scowl on his face, but I see a little tilt to his lips that says that just maybe he’s going to be okay.

Waiting

I’m still waiting. As the seasons change and tattered scraps of autumnal leaves lie discarded beneath skeletal branches, I still watch for you. The cold rain slides in miserable drips down the splintered wood of this dilapidated park bench, skirting cracked paint and jagged splinters, to dampen my spirits, but not my skirts. The nights grow longer and frigid, and a wet fog lurks around the naked ankles of the holly shrubs, but my breath takes no form despite the chilly air. I have long since faded from the world, like a black and white family photograph that has felt the gentle caress of too many sunny days as it languished in its frame. No, there is no sunshine in my life now, no gentle caresses. Just the bite of a bitter wind as it rushes past to destinations unknown. Perhaps I didn’t fade at all, but was washed away by time like a child’s chalk drawing on the footpath.

You took my heart with you when you left, but you never came back. As time went by, I slowly grew used to the bleak emptiness of your side of the bed. The faint scent of your aftershave clung to your pillow, bringing a small degree of comfort as I clutched it each night, but now that’s gone too. The memory of your laughter that used to play in my mind as a comforting refrain has been absent for so long now that I can’t be sure if it was ever there at all. As I sit here, waiting, watching, weeping, the sky weeps too and the park feels devoid of life.

Every day became an exercise in fear and hope as I watched from behind net curtains, the delivery boys and girls in their neat postal uniforms cycling up the streets delivering telegrams full of grief and anguish to heartbroken housewives. As youthful legs pedalled hard and the wheels spun by without stopping at my door, I reminded myself that you would come home. Then the following morning the young messengers and I would dance the same macabre dance all over again. No telegram. The relief left me shaking and giddy, but I couldn’t smile. For the next day we danced again.

The newspaper headlines screamed that the war had ended, and strangers in the streets shared shouts of exultation and dizzying dances of celebration. Hope bloomed as I dusted the house and baked your favourite treats. I waited. I watched as husbands and fathers returned with desolate eyes and grim expressions, with scars that told sad tales. Life slowly returned to the neighbourhood, but I waited for you.

Weeds have choked the tulips and daffodils that bore witness to our courting in this very park an eternity ago. The paving stones, where we stood on numerous occasions to share tender moments, are cracked, and the wrought iron fences have fallen drunkenly and lie shrouded beneath unkempt grass. No one comes here anymore. I hear hushed whispers echoing that this deserted little park is haunted. I have seen no ghosts. There is no one here but me. Watching. Waiting.