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It’s kind of a strange one, this, came to me out of the blue. I was watching the Truman show, and found myself profoundly creeped out during the beginning, just in the fake cheerful way everyone acted around him, and the way his life is constructed to be so perfect. It’s a nightmare to us, but from an emotionless, objective point of view it’s an almost idyllic existence: guaranteed friends/wife/kids, a pleasant home town where no crimes are committed and everyone is happy. Big brother watching all the time, so nothing bad can happen to you. Sounds like heaven. Right.

Peace

Ben Pienaar

 

There was no longer a sun in the sky, but the day was bright all the same, and Jerry Friedman was smiling as he stepped out into the light. He waved a cheerful good morning to his neighbour Tom, who was also heading to his car for the morning commute, and got a pleasant response.

‘Hey there, buddy. Gonna be a good one, huh?’ He hated Tom. That guy was like this even before good took over. As smug as he was boring. An asshole, perfect in every way. Jerry wanted to drag him into a dark alleyway and tear him to pieces.

‘Oh yes, sir. Looking forward to it.’

The commute was easier, he supposed. You didn’t really drive. You just sat there and watched your car shoot along the roads at an insane speed, somehow navigating crowded intersections with barely a pause, inches to spare yet never so much as a scratch on the paintwork by the end. An hour long journey became ten minutes with such ideal coordination. He was always early. Everyone was.

He was lying out in the back garden when the eye opened in the sky. He had a gun in one hand and a half empty bottle of vodka in the other, celebrating his divorce to Grace. Ten years of hell with that bitch. He cut her loose and it still somehow felt like the worst day of his life. He remembered her sneer the last time he saw her, the familiar way her lip curled up on just one side. ‘At least I don’t have to sneak around with Dean anymore.’ He didn’t know who Dean was and he didn’t ask. ‘He’s my boyfriend. I love him.’

‘I didn’t fucking ask.’ That memory was clear in his mind at the moment the eye blinked open. He sensed it at first, a softening of the light and a cooling, changing from noon to a sunset in a moment. He stared up at the sun – or at least where the sun had been, and there it was, looking right back at him. No iris, just a round white ball with a dilated pupil in the middle.

Watching.

Work was accounting. It didn’t used to be, because he hated maths, but once he started work there – no interview required – he found it so easy that he could let his mind wander while his hands moved the paper. He was doing that a lot lately. His mind usually wandered to happy places, like the place where he had Tom, or maybe Dean, tied up in his basement and he got to work on them with a baseball bat.

He greeted his co-workers, chatted about his new life and how great it was. No need to worry about that paycheck, isn’t that fine? Gene from customer service asked him how his ex wife was doing. He’d been dating her while the divorce was going through. Today, he kept his tone light and his eyes on her face. ‘Not an ex for much longer! We’re getting back together!’ Everything anyone said these days ended in a cheerful exclamation mark, their expression one of perpetual joy.

‘That’s great!’ she said. He felt something break inside him. It wasn’t a new feeling. Every day he woke up and saw that eye he moved one step closer to insanity. It would reach him any day now. He felt like he was in a car with the brakes cut, rolling down a steep incline toward a bottomless canyon. No way to stop. All you could do was hold on tight and watch it come. You didn’t even get to scream.

On that first day, Jerry found himself doing things. He didn’t decide to do them, or ponder them, or motivate himself to do them – he just found himself already doing them. He’d stared at the eye for a minute or so, wondering if he was hallucinating, and then he’d got up from his deck chair, dropped his gun in the dustbin and emptied his vodka into the kitchen sink. Him, who’d rather pour liquid gold down a sink than vodka. Since then, he ate mostly vegetables and lean meat, drank only water, and never overate.

Television was on for exactly half an hour each day, blinking on automatically when he got home for work, and it showed world news. There was no world news. No accidents, no disasters, no new inventions. Statistics, happy news stories. A dog that could talk, a new nature reserve, the tallest building ever built, a world government formulated, another prison closed.

He came home to a pristine house, and Grace had cooked him dinner. They sat down to eat it, talking about their incredibly boring days, and he watched her eyes for signs of life. He thought he saw some hatred in there, and that gave him a little hope. He envisioned sticking his fork in those eyes and popping them into his mouth like meatballs.

‘You know, it’s best for everyone. I mean, I don’t know if it’s God or what. I suppose He must be, to be so powerful.’

‘Could be the devil.’ The words made it all the way out of his mouth and there was a short silence while they pondered what that could mean. She made a funny choking sound and he realised she was trying to swear. Didn’t work. Shit.

‘Anyway,’ she went on as though nothing had happened. ‘It’s a force of good. Everyone guaranteed a hundred years. No pain at all. Nothing bad.’

‘Nothing bad.’ He said. ‘Nothing…’ It was possible, sometimes, to communicate like that. Get across a point without saying it. There were times he was grateful he still had his thoughts, but most of the time he wished he didn’t. That abyss came closer by the day, opening out before him so he could see the emptiness for which he was destined.

‘You have to be thankful that in the end, good won.’ She said, shining him a brilliant white toothed smile. Her smile had never been white, nor cheerful. It had been yellow and mean, like a stray dog with bared teeth.

‘Yes. Good won.’

And the days passed this way, uniform and perfect. They had two kids, and on a daily basis, even as he took care of them and played with them, Jerry envisioned smothering them in their sleep or drowning them in the bath. They weren’t his children, really – they belonged like everything else to the eye in the sky. The only difference was they’d never had it any other way. They had no idea their bodies should be theirs to control, not the insane being that scrutinized their every move.

But there were no suicides, no murders, and the world hummed along without mishap for decades.

Good won, he told himself many times as he saw the face in the mirror, always smiling, grow older, but not weaker, nor senile. He only looked older, but felt like a younger man than the year before. Good won.

The abyss grew larger and darker. Sometimes, when he looked deeply into the eyes of his friends and colleagues he could see that they’d already lost their sanity, and that nothing was left behind the shell that walked the earth. Who knew what thoughts scuttled through the broken things that had once been human minds? What were they now? Toys?

No prisons, no hospitals, no police. Early to bed, early to rise. Board games with the kids. Good won.

He could see inside the abyss, now, and there lay a question there that he didn’t like at all.

Thoughts of destruction. Torture and death and executions. He imagined skinning his family alive and setting fire to his work. He imagined sinking an axe into Dean’s head and shooting Tom in the face. His mind was on fire with thoughts while his body bought groceries and laughed at knock knock jokes.

The question was, if there was a God, wasn’t there also a heaven?

The air was never too cold or too hot. Pain of any kind no longer existed for him or anyone else, nor even discomfort. He ate but was never hungry. He slept but was never tired. Night time never came, only that pleasant orange sunset light.

Good won? Perhaps there hadn’t been a battle, at all. Maybe good had had it from the start.

The abyss was looming now and the screams within him, the thoughts of bloodshed and murder threatening to consume him utterly.

The question was: what had he really done with the gun the day the eye opened in the sky?

Walking towards his car, Tom looked up at him and waved. ‘Hey there, buddy!’

‘Hi, friend! Gonna be a good one, today, huh?’

‘Oh yes sir.’

He smiled at Tom, but though his lips moved, there was nothing behind his eyes. Only the dark, stretching onwards into eternity.

Yet another dream/altered perceptions story, but this one is pretty extreme. At first I was thinking, man I’d love to be able to do that! but by the time I reached the end, I wasn’t so sure. I still think if they had a pill like this I’d try it out every now and again, but the thought of it scares me.

 

Final Days

 

By Ben Pienaar

 

Six months, they gave him. His final days hung over him like a great dark weight that he could not shake, but somehow, whenever Keith saw him he was smiling. The old man had been working on something for years in his retirement, and Keith suspected this was the cause of his odd exuberance, but he hadn’t said a word about it, yet.

Yesterday, only about a week after he’d been properly conscious following the heart attack, and six days since he was told about his condition, he’d seemed downright excited. Today, he was no different. He looked up from the book he was reading, Narnia, and grinned. That was one thing he had done plenty – read. There was a pile of books by his bedside, and he was still demanding as many as he could get from his family and friends whenever they came to visit.

‘Keith! How are you? Did you bring them?’

‘Yes, Grandpa.’ He lifted the bag in his right hand with difficulty – it contained every one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books ever written.

‘Excellent. Good, good, just leave it there with the others.’

‘Are you sure? You really think you’re going to get through all these before they let you go?’

‘I might be here for a month, maybe two! At one or two books a day, I’ll easily get through it. Besides, once I’m up I’ll need a few to tide me over while I find a good library.’

‘Right, I mean, yeah.’ He wanted to say something, to urge his grandfather to do something instead of just sitting around all day. He knew that if he only had six months to live he’d do everything under the sun in as little time as possible and keep going till he dropped. But he saw the glee in his grandfather’s eyes and decided there was no point.

‘How’re your mother and father, eh? Still good?’

‘Still good.’

‘And school’s over?’

‘Yeah, just finished my finals.’

‘Ah, yes. So the partying will begin?’ He smiled, and Keith couldn’t help but smile back, marvelling at the old man’s vitality, even now.

But there was something bothering him, and all of a sudden the smile disappeared from his face and he craned his neck at the door behind Keith, into the hallway bustling with nurses and visitors.

‘Do me a favour, will you? Shut that door.’

Keith shut it, and when he turned back his grandfather had propped himself up in his bed. He looked horribly sick, although he was recovering from the initial damage. His skin was pallid and there were dark circles under his eyes as though he hadn’t slept at all for days. The eyes, though – they were bright.

‘Listen, come closer, boy. I’ve decided to let you in on a secret.’ He gestured and Keith came over uncertainly to sit on the end of the bed.

‘I need you to listen very carefully, now, and try not to think of me as a crazy, senile old bastard, okay?’

‘I’d never think of you like -’

‘Alright, alright, I know, but I just want you to realise that what I’m going to tell you is very important and also very unbelievable. You understand?’

‘Yeah, I guess.’

‘Right. You might have heard I was working on something in my retirement. Pottering around in the kitchen, some might have said. Dabbling with chemistry sets or whatever. Just because I’m old your par… Some people forget I used to be a chemist. Anyway, to cut a very long story short, I was trying to develop something very specific from the beginning. And before my heart attack, I finished the final product. In fact… You might not know this, Keith, but the discovery was partly responsible for triggering my attack.’

‘What?’

‘I mean, I was so shocked that it actually worked! I was exhilarated beyond belief, and then suddenly I felt that pain in my chest. It was quite horrible. In a way, I’m incredibly lucky – both because I survived the attack and because I made my first batch of keys with six months to spare. Six whole months, Keith, just imagine the possibilities!’

‘I, wait, what do you mean keys? What are keys?’

The old man was fired up now, his right hand grasping Keith’s arm with wiry strength and his voice harsh with excitement.

‘The keys to the doors of perception! Well, specifically one door, by which I mean time. You understand?’

Keith opened his mouth to reply but his grandfather was already talking again.

‘Never mind that. Let me give you the bottom line. Time is a perception, correct? It is a state of mind, nothing more than a sense, like sight or hearing or touch. Come on, you’ve finished high school, you should know this.’

Keith nodded. He dismissed his initial thought that his grandfather was mad. Someone had just put crack in his drip, that was all.

‘So, just as they have drugs to alter our perception of touch, and smell, and sight, why can’t I make one that alters ones perception of time?’

‘I don’t…’

‘But then I thought, that isn’t enough. All that would mean is I’d blunder around in super slow motion – the world would be horribly boring, wouldn’t it? So I needed something else. Some drug or something that would allow me to really travel during this time. But of course we already have that, don’t we?’

‘We do?’

‘Imagination, of course! Dreams! But that’s still not good enough. Dreaming is fine, but one can still have nightmares. No, you need control. What I really needed was an imagination enhancing drug. Something to make me see what was in my mind’s eye with perfect clarity. Something that would make me dream, and yet give me complete control of everything , like a lucid dream, but a very real one, you see. Enhanced imagination.’

He was beginning to think he did see, but it was all fantasy, surely. Even the great Dr. Algernon Hoxner, founder of Hoxner Pharmaceuticals, couldn’t do that. Keith had come close to failing his Chemistry exam, but he knew the line between dreams and reality.

But there was such conviction in his eye, such pure, intelligent, honesty. True or not, he certainly believed in it.

‘You want to believe, I can see you do.’

Keith smiled and shifted on the bed. ‘I dunno, Grandpa. It sounds pretty crazy.’

‘Of course it does! It’s off the wall ridiculous. But here’s the real kicker, boy: I did it. I finished the drug, and it’s better than I ever could have hoped. A million times better.’

‘You already took it?’

He nodded.

‘What was it like?’

When his grandfather smiled, his whole face broke out in wrinkles like a piece of newspaper being crumpled.

‘You want to know the whole story, boy? Everything that happened?’

‘Yes!’

‘I can’t tell it to you. It would take too long. But I can tell you this. The ratio of the effect my drug has on time – reality verses perception. You want to know? One thousand to one.’

He sat back, waiting for a reaction. It took a minute for the number to fully register in Keith’s mind, and when it did his mouth fell open. ‘You mean…’

‘That’s right. Once I take the drug and fall asleep, every second in reality is worth one thousand in my mind. And here’s something else. Each pill lasts eight hours! A night’s sleep! The doctor’s will think I’m just sleeping! They won’t have a clue.’

‘Grandpa, but that’s, I mean this is impossible! Does that mean…’

‘Yes, yes, and yes. But Keith, before we talk any longer, I need you to do something for me. It’s incredibly important. ‘

‘What is it?’

‘I still need to try out one more experiment before I can be sure of it working. There was a problem with the last one, you see. My imagination was good, fantastic in fact, but I discovered something even better: memory. It’s so much clearer, so real that it’s almost exactly like living! And there was something even better than that. My memories of the books I’d read. In my mind, after I took the drug, I could relive – not just remember but relive – every book I’d ever read, in incredible detail. At least, that’s my theory. I’m not entirely sure, I haven’t been reading much for so long, so much of it was faded and foggy. I need a retrial with something fresh.’

‘You want me to get your pills for you, is that it?’

‘Yes.’ He sat up and let go of Keith’s arm, looking concerned for the first time, but still breathless with excitement. ‘And there’s something else. You must promise me you won’t breathe a word of this to your parents. Nothing. Only tell them that I seemed cheerful as ever and that the books are making me happier still. Which, I might add, is perfectly true.’

Keith thought for a minute. Getting drugs for his grandfather. He had no idea what his parents would say about it, but he didn’t think it would be good. But what was the worst that could happen? That his drugs would kill him, six months or so early?

At last, he nodded.

‘Thank God. Alright. I keep them in my bathroom cabinet, the one with the mirror doors, in a container labelled “Calcium supplement”. Oh, and I need you to bring me something else, too. Caffeine tablets, which I keep in a smaller container next to the kettle. That one’s labelled “Artificial Sweetener”.’

‘Grandpa! Really?’ He stared, barely able to believe that his own grandfather was capable of such trickery. He almost laughed.

‘And before you say anything about my heart, I know exactly how much caffeine I can and can’t take, believe me.’

‘Okay. I’ll get it for you tonight, and I’ll be back later.’

‘Excellent, good. You’re a good boy, Keith, a very good boy.’

Keith smiled, and they talked for a little while after that, but he couldn’t remember any of it. He left quickly, because he knew his grandfather wanted more than anything to get back to his reading, and he wanted more than anything to get hold of those pills.

Both the caffeine pills and the ‘keys’, looked exactly the same – just tiny white inconspicuous tablets. The only difference was that the caffeine tablets had a line running down the middle of each one.

Keith snuck out the back door, the same way he’d come, and stopped at home just long enough to yell to his parents that he’d left something behind at the hospital and he was just going down to get it.

‘Never mind the cars, I’ll bike it, I don’t mind!’ he called. He then opened the larger container and slipped a small handful of Keys into his pocket. They wouldn’t be missed, and his grandfather hadn’t exactly said he couldn’t try them, after all.

Algernon looked up as soon as Keith entered the room and set his book aside. He was obviously tired but at the sight of his drugs he sat up straight and his eyes gleamed.

‘You got them! You didn’t take any yourself, did you? You know these are still in the experimental phase. They might be incredibly dangerous.’

‘I didn’t take any, Grandpa.’

He nodded and took the two containers from Keith, who shut the door behind him. Without another word, Algernon took one of the keys dry and then stowed both containers on the floor, hiding them under the mountain of books beside his bed. He winked.

‘I’ll let you know how it goes tomorrow, but you best be going now… There’s a heavy sedative in these things, you know. Only way to get you to sleep fast enough.’ Even as he spoke, his eyelids began to droop. Keith nodded and backed out the door, quietly.

 

He didn’t wait long to take the first key. By the time he got home, his mother was asleep and his father was well on the way, sitting in front of the television with his eyes half closed. He tiptoed upstairs and poured himself a glass of water, which he took to his room, locking the door behind him. His heart was beating wild with excitement now, so much that he couldn’t see how there was any way he’d get to sleep in time. He forced himself to lie down on his back and wait, but after ten minutes of staring at the ceiling he was no calmer.

‘A thousand to one,’ he whispered to himself. He tried to remember all of the books he’d ever read, every day dream and fantasy he’d ever had. Well, never mind that – if the Key really did last eight hours, he’d have eight thousand hours to explore his mind. A year.

 He sat up and grabbed the glass of water and one of the little white pills. He turned it over in his finger, mesmerized. ‘The key to the doors of perception,’ he thought. Before he could chicken out, he dropped the pill into his mouth and downed the water in a few gulps.

He was fast asleep before he could even get under the covers.

 

Algernon’s second experiment went much better. He settled back in bed and waited for the world to grow dark and drift away, the sounds of the hospital becoming muffled and far away.

When he opened his eyes, he was in the great room of doors, a place he was already very familiar with. It was a world of his own construction, a place he’d spent hours deliberately imagining during the day so that it would be all the more real at night. It was a largely unnecessary effort, but it made his worlds organized and easier to navigate, and that was good.

This world was nothing but a mansion of doors. Each room was made out of a different material. The mahogany room held doors of mystery; the stone room doors of adventure; the wood room fantasy. He was in the stone room now, and he turned a slow circle, laughing with joy when he saw the new doors that had arrived. Their destinations were engraved on their flat surfaces. THE HOBBIT, said one. TREASURE ISLAND, said another. There were metal ladders leading up the walls, and little square trapdoors lined the ceiling and the floor. Some of these were movies, but Algernon did not like those much. They paled in comparison to the richness of the other worlds.

He wandered through the other rooms of his mind world, hardly able to believe the realness of the place. No, this was not like a dream at all, he thought. He looked down at his wrinkled hand, and thought until the wrinkles vanished and he was young and strong. He wiggled the fingers and they moved.

There were many more doors in his world, after all the time he’d spent reading and remembering and imagining, but still it wasn’t enough. He wouldn’t have nearly enough time to see it all this one night, but there was so much time to fill up in the next six months. This place had to get much bigger before his time grew near. Even if he had to give up sleep, he would: there was much work to be done.

 

He woke a year later, and for a moment he was thrown with a feeling of disorientation. He sat up in bed and tried to jump out, but his body cried out in agony and he stopped. What madness was this? He thought. Last he remembered he’d been on a pirate ship, sailing away from an island that had nearly taken his life, his bright eyes set on his home town and sea spray raining down on him from the rough water.

No. You are not. You are an old man, sick in your bed, and less than six months to live, now. The thought jarred him horribly and for a moment he sat in bed, shaking and thinking, waves of depression rolling over him. It was only after the nurse had come and gone, commenting on his state (Looking a little better today, Dr. Hoxner, finally slept at last?) that he regained his composure. Not six months to live, he reminded himself, much more than that.

Keith was the last of the usual visitors again, and the moment he walked in the door Algernon knew there was something different about his grandson. He believes me now, he thought.

As soon as the door was closed, Keith turned and raised his eyebrows.

Algernon nodded, grinning, and the boy let out a sigh, almost of relief, before coming to sit down on the bed.

‘It worked, then?’

‘Better than you could have imagined, boy. You wouldn’t believe where I went last night. A year, I was gone, a whole year! Just think, I’ve already lived twice as long as the doctors said I would. And what a life it was, too.’

‘So the books were there? In your mind? How did you find them?’

He laughed. ‘Yes, they worked alright. I’m glad you brought my caffeine, boy, because I’m not going to sleep much from now on. The doctors are letting me out at the end of the week, and you’d better watch out, then. I’m going to read every book ever written.’

And that he did. No sooner had the hospital released him, amazed at his speedy recovery, he was at the library, and the same night he retired in front of his fireplace with a suitcase full of books.

The first night he did not sleep at all, and after that if he allowed himself only the eight hours required for the key to take effect. Soon his behaviour became exceedingly strange, and it was only Keith who caught on to what he was doing while the rest of the family started talking about old age homes.

One day, he went to the local ice cream parlour and tasted every flavour, putting each one in his mouth and savouring it, storing the memory away for later. He spent a fortune on every meal and never ate the same thing twice. He took books everywhere and read every spare second of the day with fanatical fervour, and though it was dangerous for his heart, he went to a theme park once and went on every single ride.

‘He’s just having a… late life crisis,’ Keith overheard his mother telling his father. ‘He doesn’t think he’s done enough in his life and now he’s making up for it. It’s a natural reaction.

‘But it’s not like him at all. I mean, the other day I found out he’d gone swimming in the bay. In the bay, and it’s about three degrees outside. He’s going to kill himself.’

‘Well… Look, I hate to say it, but would it make a huge difference? Let him be, Dan. You don’t know what it’s like to have a time limit on your life.’

There was more after that, but Keith didn’t listen. They weren’t going to get in his way, that was the bottom line. It was important, because Keith wanted to know what was going to happen. He wanted to be close to the old man in his final days, because when it was all over, there was still going to be a bucket of keys, and somewhere else would be the recipe for them.

Algernon, meanwhile, was both racing against time and getting impossibly old. Year after year he spent exploring other worlds. Several nights in a row he was captain of a murderous crew of pirates. For a week he was the questing hobbit, and he felt every terror, pain, love and joy in intimate detail. It wasn’t long before he began to see his time spent asleep as his reality, and daily life as the dream. After all, he only spent a tiny fraction of his life awake, now.

Had he been more aware of the others in his life, he might have noticed that he was beginning to share some characteristics with his grandson. The boy did not behave like a child any more than Algernon behaved like an octogenarian. He seemed to grow bored with life, and now that he was on holiday he spent his days wandering around outside, as if searching for something. The most telling thing, had Algernon thought to look for it, was the look in the boy’s eyes. It was not the look of an eighteen year old, fresh and innocent from school. It was the look of a hard man. A man with sad memories and a violent past. It would have made sense, too, if one took into account that Keith was a big fan of hard boiled mysteries in the style of Raymond Chandler.

At least, he was at first, but two months later his personality changed again, and he was a loud and cheerful boy who had, unbeknownst to his parents, picked up a habit of drinking and smoking.

But Algernon did not notice, lost as he was in his own worlds, and Keith’s parents didn’t see him often, and assumed he was simply at the age where identity is uncertain; he would grow out of it.

Algernon’s situation began to deteriorate as the six months drew to an end. In fact, he didn’t go to hospital until late in the fifth month, and he was certain he was going to outlive the ‘limit’ they’d set for him. Not that he cared either way. He had lived nearly one hundred and fifty years longer than his life expectancy, anyway, which made him – mentally at least – two hundred and thirty, give or take. He had lived many long lives, and though he wasn’t tired of it all yet, he knew that when his final adventure was over, he’d be content.

Keith had done considerably less, since it had become difficult to steal pills from his grandfather without his noticing. Luckily, having spent several years as a professional thief, he knew a trick or two. Nevertheless, when the final days drew near, the two who were now both old men met in the hospital room, completely different people than they had been six months before.

The last days had been painful for Algernon, but thankfully he only spent eighteen hours out of every year able to experience it. Still, when Keith saw him in the hospital bed he was damaged visibly. There was barely an ounce of fat left on his frail bones and his eyes were lined so heavily with dark bruised skin it was as though his pupils stared out from gaping black holes in his face. His grin showed yellow teeth and gums too big, but he grinned wide when he saw Keith.

‘It’s coming to an end, my boy,’ he said when Keith shut the door to the hallway. ‘I doubt I’ll live out the week, you know. Five years, I’d give myself, if you see what I mean.’ He winked.

‘It’s too bad.’ Keith said, honestly sad as he sat down at the end of the bed. He tried to recall the first time he’d done it, the day when Algernon had first told him about the keys, and found he couldn’t. It was so far away – lifetimes ago, like something that happened to another person in another world.

‘No. I don’t think so, to tell the truth. Life should end, and I’ve been lucky: mine has lasted longer than anyone’s should. And I miss your Grandma. I’d very much like to see her again soon. Not only that, but I have the luxury of planning my own end, and what a plan it is.’ He chuckled.

Keith nodded, a small smile playing on his lips. He might have said that he understood, but he realised how wrong that would sound coming from the lips of a boy. He had to remind himself he was only eighteen yet: his whole life was ahead of him. The thought exhausted him.

‘You mean you know what story you’re going to go to, in the end?’

‘Know it? Ha! Look at this.’ From his bedside table he lifted a pile of pages, hundreds of them, scrawled on both sides in tiny handwritten letters. He handed it to Keith.

‘The great adventures of Algernon Hoxner,’ Keith read aloud, smiling as he caught on.

‘You wrote your own life!’

Algernon laughed. ‘Oh, you wouldn’t believe it. I finished this morning, and I tell you I almost had a heart attack. Riveting stuff, Keith. You could sell a million copies once I’m gone, I wouldn’t be surprised.’

‘But when you’re… When you’re in it, won’t you know how it ends?’

‘No, no! Living something you wrote is just as good as living something you read. Only even more real, if you can believe it. I know, I already tried with a few short stories. You get all the way in. When you enter a story, you forget who you really are, except every now and again for a fleeting memory.’

Keith nodded and handed the manuscript back. It was a huge thing. He wondered what kind of mad adventures his grandfather had written for himself.

‘I need you to do one thing for me, boy,’ Algernon went on.

‘Yes, Grandpa. Of course.’

Algernon shifted himself into an upright position. He fixed and held Keith’s eyes, and for the first time he was troubled by what he saw.

‘I will go into a very deep sleep tomorrow night, and after that I’ll be counting on you for many things. They are very important.

‘The first thing I need you to do is put a loudly ticking clock by my bedside. Insist on it, and make sure everyone knows it cannot be moved. That way I’ll know the time, even in my subconscious, and I’ll know when it is time to enter my final adventure.’

‘Alright.’

‘The second thing is this. In my will, I have stated that you will be the one to unplug my life support, and that it must be done at exactly seven thirty five PM and twenty seconds this Sunday. It doesn’t have to be you, Keith, but the timing must be exact, do you understand?’

‘I… Yes, Grandpa.’

‘Good. Then there is one last thing. I also put in my will that you will have possession of all the contents of my basement. That is where I’ve kept the last stores of my pills and the chemicals and notes I used to make them.’

‘Yes,’ he said, beginning to get excited. At last, here was his chance! He would be responsible for giving the drug to the world, passing on the legacy. The profits would be enormous, but that was only a part of it, and so was the fame. Lives would change. Lifespans would shoot into the thousands of years. Scientists would be able to research in their sleep! It was revolutionary.

‘I’ll do it!’ he said.

‘You will?’ Algernon said. ‘You promise you will destroy everything? Burning would be best, but as long as it is all destroyed, it doesn’t matter.’

‘What?’ Keith spluttered, incredulous. ‘You… You want me to destroy them?’

‘Yes. Every last one. And hear me well, boy, don’t you dare take a single one for yourself, either. Not one.’

‘But Grandpa…’

‘No. These things I’ve made have done well for me, but they will only serve to destroy the rest of the world, if you let them.’

‘But how? They are – I mean they’re capable of so much!’ He struggled to make an argument without letting on that he’d already taken more than a handful himself. Whatever happens, he vowed, he would have to stay on his Grandpa’s side, outwardly, or he might change the will.

‘They are addictive, Keith. And they are false, too. Yes, they are… beyond description. But these are not keys to real doors, you must remember that. The worlds are not real worlds, in the end.’

‘But neither are our dreams. Should we stop dreaming, too?’

‘A long time ago I would have agreed with you. But it is not like dreaming at all. When you wake up from a dream, you still know what is real, you are still able to enjoy your life, to experience your day. But with the keys… Life becomes a pale sketch. People will not react well to this drug. It may even be the worst one of all, because it seems harmless. But it is not. Trust an old man. Promise me, you’ll destroy it all, please.’

Keith looked into his grandfather’s old eyes and felt a wave of guilt, because he knew he couldn’t do what the old man asked – never in a million years. But I can still send him off a happy man, he told himself. I owe him that much, at least.

He reached out and put his hand on his grandfather’s shoulder. ‘Alright,’ he said. ‘I promise you that I will destroy it all, and take no more for myself.’ Because in his many long years of adventures, Keith had learned that the best lies revealed a small truth.

His grandfather relaxed visibly. ‘So you have, then? I suspected.’

Keith looked down and nodded.

‘But if I really must…’

‘You do, I insist.’

‘Then I’ll destroy every last pill and recipe.’

Algernon embraced his grandson for the last time, weak with relief. ‘Thank you,’ he said hoarsely. ‘Thank you.’

 

The following night Dr. Algernon Hoxner took a massive but calculated dose of his secret stash of keys, and then blinked in the unnatural fluorescent light for the last time. As his head fell back onto the soft pillow and shadows crept up into the corner of his visions, he felt only a rush of excitement at the thought of what lay ahead.

 

To his credit, Keith did not plan to release the drug onto the market until at least a few months after his grandfather’s funeral. This was, however, due mainly to the fact that he was only eighteen and not in any position to release a drug on any market. Either way, he never got the chance.

There were a lot of drugs in that basement. It had simply been easier to make large amounts of keys, because even small quantities of chemicals could make a bucket of the things. Consider that a bucket held as many as ten thousand pills, and that Keith could use the recipe to make as many more as he wanted for an absurdly small amount. He had enough for a lifetime.

The family blamed Keith’s slow mental descent on the death of his grandfather – they had been so close, after all. Still, it didn’t seem enough to explain the boy’s apparent depression: sleeping for twelve hours a day, spending every waking minute reading. Nothing escaped him – romance, mystery, science fiction, action, adventure. Oddly, though he’d once been a fan of horror, he now detested it. As for the rest of his life, everything now came a distant second to his obsession.

‘He wants to escape,’ his mother told his father.

‘From what? He doesn’t have six months to live. He’s not an old man.’

That may not have been true on the outside, but no one who met him failed to mention how mature he seemed, how much older than his years he was. Somehow, it never seemed they meant it as a compliment.

Keith moved out of home before he turned nineteen, and eventually moved to a house in the countryside far North of Ireland, in the most isolated spot he could find. He became a librarian, and books were all he spent money on, besides small amounts of food. He spoke to no one, he did nothing, and one day he threw himself from the top of the great cliffs on the north of the island.

He left a note to his family: I am tired, and I’m going to sleep. Pray you never live as long as I have. This he left in a small bag by the cliff top, for by then his house was nothing but ashes in the wind.

He was twenty two.

 

Excerpt from ‘The Great Adventures of Algernon Hoxville’, Volume 5 of 5, Chapter 47 of 47, Page 269 of 269:

 

A long time ago, in a place far, far away, a man lay bleeding on a green field. Minutes ago, the whole place had been alive with smoke and gunfire and screams, but now it was all silent except for the soft wind in the trees. He felt pain, but like his fear, it was a faraway thing – outshone by the feeling of joy, of triumph.

He rolled over and crawled to a lone tree, using the last of his waning strength to prop himself up against the bark. He’d taken a hit in the side. He didn’t know what was in there but he had a pretty good idea it was vital.

‘Captain! Captain Hoxner! Are you okay?’ It was poor young Jimmy. The boy’d been too young to hold a pistol upright but he’d fought all the same, and he was running over now. Algernon closed his eyes and thanked heaven the kid was okay.

He skidded to a stop at his side and his eyes widened when he saw the gaping hole in Algernon’s side.

‘Captain…’

‘I know. Is she coming? Is she on her way?’

‘Yes, she’s coming now.’

He nodded, wincing, and flashed the kid a grin.

She came a few minutes later, a dark haired beauty running through the grass towards him, concern mingled with relief as she saw him.

When she saw his wound, her face fell, but she said nothing.

‘Listen, Jimmy. Take my pistol. It was a gift from my father, and you’re the closest to a son I’ve ever had.’

‘Captain, I can’t. You’ll make it through, I know you will.’

‘It’s Algernon to you, lad. Now listen. We’ve been through a lot, you and I. We’ve saved worlds, destroyed more evil beasts and villains than I can count. You need to keep on where I left off. Do you promise? Remember what I always told you?’

‘Live well. I promise.’

‘Good. I need you to give us a minute, will you boy? Find the othres, make sure they’re okay.’

‘Alright. Thanks for everything, captain.’

With that the boy was gone, and he was left with her. He saw she was barely holding

back tears.

‘I can’t heal you, Alg.’

‘I know. But we had the past five years and a whole lifetime besides. We saved the universe, today, Dolores. Tell me you weren’t happy.’

‘I was, sure I was.’

‘Good. So was I.’

He heard the chime of a clock like an echo on the wind, and he closed his eyes. Death was coming for him soon, and he found he was glad.

‘Just one more kiss to send me off, Dolores,’ he whispered.

And that moment, he felt, lasted forever.

 

In case you wonder, the place described here is real, and does exist in Meteora, Greece. The Monks who used to live in the monasteries there used to climb up and down the cliffs via ropes. They wouldn’t replace these until God decided to let them break and plunge the unfortunate fellow to his death. Essentially, this story is just because I’ve always been curious about the idea of immortality and what it would be like to live for a very long time. I gave it a nasty twist cos that’s just my thing. How far would you go to become immortal?

The Ancient Man

An old man on a mountain. It was basically the oldest cliché in the book. On the other hand, it was intriguing as hell. It may end up a dead end story, but that didn’t mean that Sean White didn’t want to see his by-line under the title nevertheless. The Ancient Man, he’d call it.

He’d been sent to Greece to report on the current conflict, but it wasn’t as if that was going anywhere right now. Besides, if this ended up being as good as he thought it was, he didn’t think they’d complain much.

The mode of transport, he would have liked to change. When he’d seen the rickety wooden ‘elevator’ on the cliffside, he’d point blank refused to get on it.

‘Do not worry,’ one of the odd monks had told him. ‘The rope does not break until God wishes it.’ That wasn’t much hope for an atheist, but a story was a story, and up he went.

He wasn’t sure they really were monks, now he thought of it. The ones he’d seen on television always wore bright orange, yellow, or brown cloaks, but these had blue ones. He didn’t know what that meant, but he was pretty sure they weren’t the traditional kind of monk.

The rope dragged their rotten wood box up the side of the cliff, bumping on every outcrop and flailing round every edge, and before they were halfway up he wished he’d chosen another career, but at last it was over.

When he stepped out of the cage, he felt like he was on an island. Before him was a wide plateau, and at the peak of it was a large house in typical Greek style, pointed roofs, red tiles and all. Instead of an ocean, they were surrounded by the misty Meteora Mountains.

The plateau itself was pretty straightforward. There was grass up here, amazingly, but mostly it was just snow and rock. There was a pathway leading up to the house, and the two bald monks started up it without so much as a glance backward. He hesitated, took a notebook and a pen out of his jacket pocket, and went after them.

He felt foolish when he heard the rumour a week ago: the man who’d lived for millenniums. It was of course, ridiculous, but the man had a huge following. It was a marvel, really, the way he’d manipulated these people. He had them treating him like a God, now, as though he was really immortal, above everything.

He wasn’t completely decided on the angle his article would take, but Sean was certain it wouldn’t be in favour of the Ancient Man, as they called him. He’d portray him for what he was, an old con man. It would be a social commentary on the gullibility of human beings, but best of all, it would be controversial.

The front doors of the house were golden and heavy. The monks had to put their full weight on them before the massive slabs grated open. They revealed a long entrance hall, the floor made of stone, the walls and ceiling made of solid wood, and a gigantic fire burning at the far end. It was taller than any of them, and as wide as two men lying head to toe.

In front of the great fire was the Ancient Man. He sat cross legged on the stone floor. In front of him were two ceramic cups and a clay jug full of… something. Typical, thought Sean. He’s even got the long white beard and the saggy eyes. This guy is Gandalf in the flesh.

The two monks stood on either side of him. ‘Politeness is essential,’ one whispered. ‘If you want your questions asked, you must be polite. If he offers anything, take it. If he has an opinion, agree. If you ask too many, he will stop answering, and then you must leave.’

Sean nodded, his throat suddenly too dry to speak. He took a few steps forward and the monks shut the big doors behind him, sending out a deep thud that echoed throughout the great room. They stood in front of the doors, like guards.

Sean gathered his breath, gripped his notebook, and strode across the wide flagstones. He would be polite, but he didn’t intend to show fear – not to this scam artist.

He stopped five feet from the cross legged man, who still had shown no sign that he was aware of a visitor. His eyebrows were so thick it was hard to tell whether his eyes were open or closed.

Sean hesitated for a moment and then sat down opposite him, cross legged. Wordlessly, the man reached for the jug and filled up their cups. The liquid was thick and black. If he offers you anything, the monk had said, take it. Sean lifted the cup as if in toast and set it down in front of him. Politeness dictated, he was sure, that you didn’t drink or eat until your host did.

But the Ancient Man did nothing but sit. After a minute or so, when Sean was beginning to grow uncomfortable, he spoke. ‘What is your question?’

His English was perfect. Sean realised that he was Asian, as well, which was strange in itself. This was the very heart, the deepest depths of Greece and Greek culture. How was he such a part of it?

‘How old are you?’ He asked. He hadn’t wanted to be unoriginal, but he figured it was best to get through the basics before he got to the interesting things.

‘I am a hundred centuries old. Maybe more, maybe less, that is the rough number.’

‘Where were you born?’

‘In Asia somewhere. I don’t know. It is not important. Stop wasting my time or I will waste yours. I will not speak unless I am of use. I want to enlighten the world, to be your God.’

‘Okay…’ He took a deep breath. ‘What is the meaning of life?’

The ancient man chuckled, a sound as dry and weak as leaves blowing over the road. ‘Why should life have meaning?’ he said.

‘I… Ok. Where did human beings come from? Do you believe in evolution or a religion?’

‘Neither. I believe only in life as it is now. These things do not matter to me.’

‘Right.’ There was silence for some time. This wasn’t as easy as he thought. He’d given plenty of interviews before, but then again he’d never done one where the interviewee threatened to stop as soon as you ceased to be interesting.

‘What is the secret to immortality?’ he said.

The ancient man smiled. ‘Interesting question,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately for you, there is no secret. I was born this way, but I may not be immortal. I have aged on the surface, after all: I may still die years from now. I am vulnerable to damage, too. One of the reasons I have locked myself away in this sanctuary, to avoid hurt so that I may live forever and enlighten the world.’

‘So you want to do good? In what way?’

‘I want to show the world what it is to appreciate life. To truly love every second of your life, no matter how long or short that may be.’

‘I see. And how do you plan to do that?’ He was on a roll now, his hand flying across the notepad. This stuff was gold, whether he was a fraud or not. The guy had a gift of the gab, anyway. No wonder he’d got such a following.

‘I lead by example, mostly. I demonstrate that no matter what the state of your life, time passes, and tragedy and beauty alike die. Time is what allows the phoenix to rise from the ashes. I show people that their lives are meaningless, and because of this they will be happy.’

Sean raised his eyebrows. ‘I see. So the fact that you live happily is proof of this? That it’s all about perspective?’

‘Yes. But also self-interest.’

‘I don’t follow.’

‘I can kill myself if I want. But here I am, after ten thousand years. I’m alive because of self-interest. I want to help the world, but that is self-interest also, you see. Because I will feel good about myself when I achieve that goal, I will feel even more like a God.’

Sean thought that fitted pretty well. It definitely would go well for his article. The Ancient Man is a selfish bastard. Cares only for himself, creates a cult to worship him, lies reflexively. He was like a textbook sociopath. He scribbled these notes in his notebook, keeping it angled away from the Ancient Man’s vision.

‘What is your name?’ he asked.

‘Do you have any comprehension of what it is like to exist for ten thousand years?’ The Ancient Man asked. ‘Do you have any idea what it entails?’

Sean stopped scribbling and looked into his eyes. His eyes, he realised, were incredible. They were infinite. It was like looking into an ocean that had no depth. This man did not see him: he saw a bag of bones and flesh and a beating heart, and every thought.

‘Have you ever met someone over the age of eighty?’ he went on.

‘Yes.’

‘And they knew you, didn’t they? They knew you because they’d met people just like you, over and over. Imagine a man of a thousand. He’s met every kind of person in the world at least once. Now think of me. I’ve met you a hundred times. Those monks standing by the door? They keep their faces neutral at all times, but I can always tell what they’re thinking. Because they are not conscious of the fact that their faces and bodies betray their thoughts every second. You? You aren’t even an open book, you’re a picture. I see you and I see what you are, and I see your thoughts.’

He stopped talking abruptly and took a long sip of the black stuff in his cup. Sean waited, his breath caught in his throat, but the Ancient Man said nothing more.

‘What am I thinking, then?’ He was suddenly aware of the emptiness of the place. It was ridiculous of course – what harm could come to him? This old man didn’t look like he could walk two steps.

‘You are going to write an article about me. It won’t be in my favour.’

‘Not at all. I think you serve a good cause.’

All the smile was gone from his face. ‘I only want to do good, you understand? Bad press is bad.’

Sean nodded seriously and looked down at the stone floor, as if ashamed. The man was a good actor, he thought, but he wasn’t getting out of it that easily. The man was expecting to trick him; well, he would play along.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘It’s just, it doesn’t make sense for someone to be like you. It defies science. It’s reasonable to assume fraud. If you’d rather have your own words… I can tape record the conversation?’

The Ancient Man made that horrible dry sound again. ‘That would be preferable.’ He took another sip of his drink, and this time Sean picked up his own cup, to be polite. He took a sip. It tasted like melted chocolate, cream, and honey. He drained the whole thing on his second gulp. He reached into his pocket and took out his recorder, switching it on and then resting it on the stone floor by his foot.

‘I lied earlier,’ the Ancient Man said, finishing the last of his own cup.

‘Oh?’

‘I am not ten thousand years old.’

This, Sean thought, was the real gold. He didn’t know what prompted the man to confess all of a sudden, but he’d be damned if he’d let it go. He started scribbling fiercely, in case the recorder didn’t get it all. The pen flew over the paper. The Ancient Man didn’t seem to care.

‘I am merely one thousand years of age.’ The pen stopped.

‘There is a secret of immorality, too, which I learned at the age you see me now, of ninety three.’

‘What?’ Whatever was in the cup, it was strong. His vision was already beginning to swim slightly, blurring the bearded face before him.

‘It is a magical thing, I think, but no doubt science would find some interesting explanation for it, too. It’s almost voodoo, but not quite. Simpler than you’d think.’

‘I don’t…’ Suddenly he felt very wrong. He had everything he needed, it was time to get out. I’ve had enough of this interview sir, and I am leaving.’ His words seemed to fall out of his mouth in an inaudible jumble. He stood up to go, but before he’d taken a step he felt his muscles weakening. He couldn’t have made it to the door if he sprinted.

A second later the Ancient Man grabbed his shoulders and pulled him back towards the fire. He laid him down, several feet from the crackling flames, as if setting baby to sleep, and looked into his eyes.

There was a hungry look in there now, Sean saw. It was a look of restraint, also. It was like watching an alcoholic prepare to start on his only beer of the night, because he was trying to cut down.

He struggled to get up, to fight, but his limbs were like sacks of sand that his torso was trying to drag around. It was impossible. He could barely lift his head.

‘Why?’ he managed, through numb lips.

The Ancient Man smiled with strange teeth. They were perfectly square, perfectly space and aligned, completely white. ‘How do you think I’ve lived for so long? Broccoli and jogging?’ He laughed then, a hearty, insane sound.

The Ancient Man lowered his mouth to Sean’s neck and began to eat his throat. When there was none left there, he moved on to the rest of him. Nothing went to waste, not even the bones, and when he was done he fell asleep by the fire, satisfied.

‘More,’ he whispered, feeling the years melt away. His hair browned, his nails shortened, his skin smoothed.

The two monks opened the great doors, left, and shut them again. The Ancient Man smiled with his odd teeth, and waited.

 I wrote this longhand, because it seemed like that kind of story. Also, I didn’t have my computer with me when I started. But I will say that I felt different because of it. Everything took longer, went slower, and I got into the story a lot more. Not entirely sure that’s a good thing, though, when it was done I felt really cold.

The Will

A born hermit, Samuel Frances was only interested in one thing when it came to other human beings: their money. That doesn’t necessarily mean he was a bad person – in fact he had a certain pride in the way he treated everyone with kindness and respect, no matter how much he loathed them. Not generosity, though, never that.

His desire for isolation came simply because he was so different from everyone else. They shied away from him and his eccentricities, and so he was unfriendly. They disliked him for that, and he hated them in return.

No matter where he was, or who he was with (on the rare occasions he was with anyone) he would have at least five pens with him and a notebook which he would scribble in constantly. This tended to put people off somewhat, because while you spoke to him he would continuously write while maintaining eye contact. You got the impression he was either writing down everything you said, or pretending to listen while he wrote about other things.

Then there was the bizarre contradiction he had, where he would compulsively hoard things, but at the same time throw out everything he deemed ‘useless’ or ‘unworthy’. As a young man, his room had been packed full of objects of all kinds, as well as hundreds of notebooks. If you asked him what any of his possessions was for, he’d give you a quite reasonable explanation: either it was very valuable, very useful or very rare. Even stranger, ask him for an item and he’d find it in seconds regardless of how deep in his surprisingly neat stores it was.

These were his most notable characteristics, but Samuel had plenty more weirdness, and not all of it pleasant. That, and the fact that he did everything he could to avoid people meant that he never had any real friends. That was fine by him, but it also meant that the loads of cash he so desired were out of reach for him.

When he moved out of home, he lived in a crummy one room apartment and worked as a freelance writer, which made him enough to eat and pay rent, and little else.

As the years passed he grew bitter, and he resented the human race more and more. Attempt after attempt to make his fortune through honest means failed. His hatred deepened and his mind turned to darker plans.

One day, he began to write some of the plans down in his notebooks, and they grew. At first it was only a fantasy, distant dreams, like the bullied schoolboy who dreams of massacring his school.

But on he wrote, and the plans filled notebook after notebook. Some of them were impossible – some were merely ludicrous. Others, though…

One of these he toyed with, and the more details he wrote down, the more he realised how easy it would be. On his twenty ninth birthday, he did it, and it was just as easy as he thought. No – it was easier, frighteningly so.

Two months later, Samuel moved out of his dingy apartment and into his dream house. It was a sprawling, one story mansion made of heavy wood, and it was located as far away from anyone as he could get: Northern Russia, right on the coast above Archangel. It was ultimately a huge log cabin, battered most of the year by blizzards and snow, and entirely undesirable to most normal people.

Samuel didn’t waste those big empty spaces, though. He filled them up with his great hoardes, his collections of statues from Egypt and paintings from France; Shelves upon shelves of famous, rare and valuable books; even guns.

He spent his days chopping wood for his massive fireplace (kept burning all day and night), hunting red deer in the forest, reading and, of course, writing. For the six months or more before he had to replenish supplies, or go to buy some new desired object, he didn’t see a single human being. For the first time in his life, he was happy.

Until the letter came.

Dear Sammy,

It is good to hear that you’ve made such a nice life for yourself lately. I know I was sometimes greedy, a little obsessed with those pretty rectangles of paper so full of possibility. But I made all my riches honestly. Just remember that.

P.S. Don’t bother trying to reply. I’m still in Australia where you left me, staying under a church.

            Sincerely, Your Conscience.

 

Samuel read it over and over, trying to make sense of it. Actually, what he was really trying to make sense of was the manner of its arrival. While he slept, someone had pushed it through the tiny window in his study, where he did most of his writing. He liked to keep the window open a crack because he found the cold refreshing. What really got to him, though, what really chilled him to the marrow, was the first line: Dear Sammy. There was only one person in his life who’d called him Sammy, and that was his father. ‘Was’, being the operative word – Theodore Frances was nearly three years dead.

He watched the letter burn that night, and decided to forget about it. It was clearly an attempt at blackmail. The real guts of it would come with the next letter or two. It was also, he realised, probably one of his own family members – one of them surely suspected what he did, and now, in typical Frances style, they wanted to cash in.

There was nothing else for two weeks. His life went on, and he was soon lost in the many joys of living completely alone. Every day he woke he remembered the way he used to live, remembered how he’d come to live here instead, and found he had not a single regret. He did, however, get into the habit of locking the window in his study, but by the time the second letter came he had stopped doing this regularly, and he wasn’t sure whether he’d left it open or closed the night before.

Dear Sammy,

 I’m not trying to blackmail you, really. I have a sense of honour that demands that I treat family better than I would a mortal enemy, though that’s what you are. We’re not family in the strictest sense, but I think we should be much closer than we are. People who forget their consciences might do any number of evil things, and we can’t have that.

 P.S. Don’t try to run, I’m much faster than you. I’ve already made it to Indonesia and I can cross oceans easier than jumping puddles.

            Sincerely, Your Conscience

 

Sammy stared from the note to the open window. Had he closed it? He thought so, but for the life of him he couldn’t be sure. Well, he’d be sure next time – he wouldn’t open it for anything from now on.

Not that that made him feel much better. The temperature outside was below zero, and the nearest town was almost a hundred kilometres away. Not only that, but there was no mailman for his address. Anyone who wanted to communicate did it by email, these days, which meant that whoever was delivering these letters lived very close indeed.

Not blackmail? That didn’t convince him, but if they meant what they said then they were almost certainly after revenge instead. Well, he thought darkly, let them try. He burned the letter and locked every door and window and the house. Then, he paid a visit to his gun collection.

Rushing around the house in a fever of activity, he felt like one of those paranoid maniacs you heard about, preparing for judgement day. He looked it, too: now that he was truly free from civilisation he paid no attention to personal grooming or hygiene. His hair hung in long greasy tendrils from his head. His beard was long and ragged, and his teeth were broken and yellow. He smelled like a rat drowned in sewage, and had for so long he no could no longer smell it.

By the time he was done, he felt he could have held off a small army from his house. He had weapons and ammunition hidden in various rooms, pieces of furniture arranged strategically to provide the most cover, and he balanced an empty glass above his front door frame.

When it was all done he sat by the fire in the lounge and thought about it. It occurred to him that he’d gone a bit overboard, especially since he’d only received two letters, neither of which had actually threatened him. Then again, he did not like at all what they were implying. In fact just the strange use of his name meant they must know what he did, there was no other explanation. And there was nothing they could want from him except blackmail or revenge – he was sure of that, too. Either way, if they came here, he was determined they wouldn’t leave alive.

This time he didn’t relax his vigilance at all. He had to take down the glass whenever he went out to hunt or chop wood, but he replaced it as soon as he came in, and always checked the lock on the window in the study.

On the eighth day since the second letter, he stayed in to write. He was working on his autobiography, and after finding disturbingly little to put in it had begun to embellish. He was just recounting his time living in the Siberian wilderness when he noticed the pages of his thick black book were moving slightly. An icy wind blew against his cheek.

He turned to see the window, the same one he’d checked that day, open a tiny crack. A new letter sat in the top corner of the desk, as if it had blown in soundlessly while he wrote. He reached for it with shaking hands.

Dear Sammy

I hope this letter finds you, the post is increasingly unreliable these days. I just wanted to let you know that you are wrong on both counts: It isn’t blackmail OR revenge that I come for – it is justice. As your conscience, I’ve done some thinking and I’ve decided that a man like you should not be allowed to live in this world. A drastic decision, but I am certain it’s the right one. I hope you can see my side of it, but I doubt you will.

 P.S. I’m navigating through Northern China now. It’s confusing, but as they say, where there’s a WILL, there’s a way. Isn’t that what your dear father always used to say?

 Sincerely, Your Conscience

 

No, Samuel thought, that was not what he always used to say. In fact, he’d only said it once that he knew of. It was the image that stuck in his mind when his other nightmares faded, the one that came to him only on those nights when he couldn’t sleep until the early hours. His father, chuckling through his own blood, somehow managing to make that bitter joke his last words.

It’s him, a voice in the back of his mind whispered. He’s come crawling from his grave to take his revenge. In his opinion, the letter couldn’t make it to the fire fast enough.

When it was ashes, he poured himself a whiskey and drank it by the fire, staring through the big window into the blizzard.

It was out there, he thought. An undead thing – no not that, it had to be a ghost. Of course, that was how he travelled so fast, even over oceans, and it was how he stayed invisible. No one was going to miss some rotting thing stagger around Beijing, after all. He laughed, and the sound shocked him in the silence of the big room. He hadn’t heard the sound of his own voice for months.

A ghost. Ridiculous. But it was also true – he knew that as surely as he knew he’d locked that window earlier, and he didn’t want to think about either thing for long. He wouldn’t have to, though. If it was coming, it was coming, and he was ready for it. He’d done it before, and he’d do it again, even if he had to torch this place.

He didn’t think he’d have to, though, because he was sure that ghosts only lived on belief and fear. All he had to do was confront it, face it down. Then, diminished by his fearlessness, he only had to believe that a bullet would end it and it would. That was just how they worked.

Over the next three days, he almost relaxed in the knowledge that he knew how to defeat whatever was coming. Be it a ghost, zombie or avenging family member, he was ready. Then the next letter arrived. He found it neatly placed on the front page of his autobiography.

Dear Sammy,

I’m somewhere North East of Siberia now, and it’s very cold. I think the wind’s picking up – is it this bad where you are? I don’t have guns or fire, and yours won’t work on me, either. I’m hoping you’ll make the right decision before I get there – it’ll be infinitely better that way, believe me. All this cold is making me hungry, and you’re the only meal for miles around.

 P.S. I wonder what YOUR will is going to say? Who will you leave it all to? Better get writing!

            Sincerely, Your Father.

 

That last bit was new, he thought dumbly. It was almost like it was making fun of him. Or perhaps it was meant to hint that it really was his father, in case he hadn’t worked it out yet.

His sense of calm completely shattered, he went back to the lounge and poured himself another tall drink. His hands were shaking so much that the ice blocks rattled in the glass as he lifted it to his mouth. He emptied it and poured another, and then forced himself to stop. Something or someone was coming, and he had to be ready for it. He needed to make more preparations.

First, he moved the telephone into his study. That way, if things got serious he could call the police. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to save him but at least they could catch who did it, and give him a proper burial instead of rotting in this place. For that reason he put the letter in the top drawer of his desk, in case it helped them catch whoever it was. He retrieved every last one of the guns he’d hidden and put them up in the study, so they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Finally, he raided the pantry and dragged up enough canned soup and dry meat to last him another three days, although he doubted he’d need that much. At the current rate, his father would arrive before the end of the second day. Where there’s WILL, there’s a way, he thought madly, and he believed it.

This kind of waiting was torturous. He wasn’t used to being holed up at all, and he grew madder by the second. He whiled away the hours by writing in his rapidly growing autobiography, about his brave deeds during the second world war, and the time he fought off a family of bears single handed with a broken whiskey bottle.

He was so lost in the story that he didn’t notice the next letter fly in through the window and land beside him, until he heard a glass shatter downstairs. It was surely the one he’d balanced on his front door.

He reached for the phone and dialled the police immediately. ‘I’d like to report a murder,’ he said, making himself as clear through his broken Russian as he could. He’d never taken the time to learn the language properly, since he almost never used it. Before the person on the other end could reply, he said his address twice and then hung up. It would take them a while, but maybe Theodore wouldn’t be so keen to come storming in after a few bullets went his way.

Chuckling, Samuel snatched up one of his handguns and flicked off the safety. He took up a position behind his desk and within easy view of the door. Only then did he reach for the letter on the desk. He dropped it and picked it up again, every breath seeming to force its way out of him like it was trying to escape.

Dear Sammy,

 I’m here. Your house is quite something – I never knew you were one for extravagances. I don’t know how you can stand to walk around this place without being reminded of what you did. I don’t know how you can fall asleep at night, either. It’s a good thing I came to sort you out, isn’t it?. Well I’ll see you very soon, although it’ll be hard to find the study in this mess.

 P.S. It isn’t too late to do the right thing. Just remember, if you haven’t done it by the time I walk through that door, I’ll have to do it for you.

            SINCERELY, Your Father

 

He let the letter fall to the floor and put both hands on his gun. He stared down the barrel and tried to keep it steady, aiming for a spot just to the left of the doorknob. Every beat of his heart seemed to set the barrel too high or too low, and it was impossible to aim straight.

For a long time, the only sounds were the howling wind and the hiss of his own breath. Then he heard footsteps moving down the hallway. They were slow, careful steps, but every now and then they made the floorboards creak.

So, he thought, it was a corpse. Or a person, maybe, but he thought it was a corpse. A ghost couldn’t make steps like that, and it would have come straight through the walls, never mind the front door. He imaged his father’s ragged body staggering unevenly towards the study. Mostly bone, with shreds of green skin hanging from him like moth eaten curtains. Empty eye sockets staring at the locked door.

The creaking steps drew closer and closer until they stopped right outside the door. He saw a shadow move in the crack of light beneath the threshold.

‘GO AWAY!’ Samuel shouted. Somehow, his voice didn’t rise above a whisper, and he felt like he was suffocating. Tears ran down his face, but he didn’t notice.

The doorhandle rattled, and began to turn, slowly. His father was taking his time, he knew, to give him his last chance. To let him do what was right, and redeem himself.

Screaming in that terrible whisper, he fired five rounds into the door and watched chunks of it splinter out into the hallway. He couldn’t make out anything through the holes, and everything was dead still.

The doorknob began to turn again, and then stopped. The door began to open.

His ears ringing loud in his head, he put the barrel of the gun into his mouth, his eyes wide with terror. He was still screaming when he pulled the trigger.

The door swung open to reveal a cramped study ankle deep in scattered papers and pens. The open window above Samuel’s bleeding corpse rattled loudly, and the house creaked with the constant gale winds.

On the desk, amidst hundreds of ink covered sheets, sat a half written autobiography. Rather, it wasn’t written at all, though the four hundred page exercise book was certainly half full. Over and over, Samuel had written an account of his father’s murder, followed by a copy of Theodore Frances’s original will and testament.

Only upon close inspection would the police later detect the connection between the author of this strange confession, and the one who wrote the blood spattered letter now lying on the floor: Their handwriting was exactly the same.

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