Tuesday, November 1, 2022

SHORT STORY: The House Always Wins

        I hate you, I mentally transmit as I step across the threshold and through the great maw of House. 

Past the entrance is a reception area with softly playing muzak that agitates my senses.  This is House’s first attempt to lull me into security, but I won’t waver.  For as long as I must be here, I’ll remain observant, attentive and vigilant.  A small waiting area contains comfortable chairs and a large mural depicting a school of rainbow trout.  Their iridescent scales are striking, they are commonly eaten as food.  I approach a scowling receptionist and ask directions.  She hears me but does not look up from her work.

‘Ward Five.’ she says.

SHORT STORY: The House Always Wins

Drilling my hands into my pockets I proceed down a hallway festooned with directional signage punctuated by obligatory art.  More fish.  I breeze past the hard-working people who prop up House.  Each one is dressed in their appropriate costume, no doubt hard won by years of school.  Matching aqua shirts and pants made from harsh fabric and the occasional white coat.  I imagine what it must be like to casualise this place – to work here every day.  To exist inside this gently undulating organism which dispenses life and death in equal measure.

My thoughts bring me to the dead possum I’d found the other week.  The awful drama of death played out on my front lawn.  I recall with shame how I’d averted my eyes from his pristine corpse.  It was a truth I was still reluctant to accept.  Our bodies fail, and when they do, they end up here, populating the veins and arteries of this House.  Each day, the costumed workers perform their tasks.  Halfway between a butcher shop and a body shop, they punch a clock at the nexus of fate, time and magic.  I hate them and admire them at the same time.

I stare at my shoes as I walk.  They are too tight and they squeak in a manner that annoys me.  Sometimes I think about throwing them into a river, but ultimately, I don’t.  I’d only have to buy new ones, which is always a gamble.  I hate to gamble.   Proceeding as instructed, I walk through a pair of automatic doors that bolt open as I approach.  Discreetly, I steal glances at the rooms that branch off from the hallway and catch sight of sleeping people encased in rough-hewn blankets.  Some of them sit upright in their beds and eat sandwiches, the kind that come in triangular plastic containers.

I take note of words not used in daily vernacular, at least not in the circles I’d come to frequent.  Radiology.  Oncology.  These uncommon words frighten me and conjure vivid images of sickness and prolonged suffering.

Nice try, I tell House.  You can’t scare me with your ten-dollar words.

I am here to see my friend Petrov who’s undergone surgery to remove his gallbladder.  Poor Petrov.  His short stay inside House had punctured his uneventful life.  Now, he’d been moved to a different ward.  As his friend, I was here to visit with him during his convalescence because that’s what decent people do (or so I’m told).  I don’t enjoy my visits with Petrov here.  They’re stilted and different from the usual way we are together.  We talk for about half an hour each time.  Post operative, he sits there in his hospital gown and his underwear, graciously accepting my halting conversation and pretending to like the magazine I’ve brought him.  I don’t know what a gallbladder is exactly, but I find the very idea of it disgusting.  Sedated and alone, Petrov had been taken into a sterile room where he’d been opened with a blade, his innards exposed and adjusted like obscene watch repair.

At fifty-one years of age, the prospect of having to endure such a procedure is fearful inducement to remain healthy.  I do not smoke or drink, take regular exercise and avoid unnecessary sugars.  Such measures are by no means a guarantee of health, and no insurance against injury or accident, but I savour the illusion of superiority.  As though I can permit myself a certain modicum of aggrievement should genetics or fate suddenly serve up cancer or a surprise stomach ulcer.  Despite efforts to conserve my body (begun in earnest in my early twenties), I am tired in a way only a man of my age could be.  Day by day, I perceive my body gradually slowing down, succumbing to the twin bitches of gravity and time.

Further into House, more automatic doors reveal more fearful words against beige and pastel-coloured walls.  The liminal nature of this place stirs the slowly churning anxiety that’s brewing in my belly.  This is how old people exit the world, quickly replaced with newer, fresher versions that assume their place.  Admittedly, death is not always the outcome of an internment here – undisputed marvels of modernity had shrunk mortal injuries into routine outpatient procedures.  One could visit and leave many times during a lifetime – until one didn’t.   My own parents had endured the same process, one followed closely by the other.  No matter how beneficent it seems, the House always wins.  Sooner or later, it summons and digests us all.

I’ll die by the side of the road before I let you take me, I curse under my breath.

Still seeking Petrov, I pass beds containing small bodies, most of them ancient, looking so reduced, cocooned in blankets atop adjustable beds.  Men and women in their seventies, eighties and nineties, the scaffolding of themselves incrementally collapsing under the combined stresses of a life well lived, or at least, well played. 

It’s at this moment, in my periphery, that I see a face I thought impossible.  A face so familiar, I freeze.  Not caring that I am obstructing the doorway to an old man’s room, I gawk at him, slack jawed and disbelieving.  He is much older than I remember, but I do remember.  Vividly and with frequency, his countenance visits me in daydreams when I am low.  When I consider my early childhood a sad and solitary affair, his memory begs to differ.  Every line, every contour and imperfection still present, but distorted, his face affected by the decades like wind upon sand dunes.  It is the face of The Man who was my friend when I had none.  I never thought I would see his like again, let alone here, in the bowels of this creature, being digested himself.


I wait in the kitchen for The Man to arrive like he always does after Mum and Dad leave for work.  Work means they go away in the morning and come home when I am sleeping.  I sit on top of the kitchen table and swing my legs over the edge.  Mum always tells me off when she sees me, but she’s not here to see it.

Nana is in her bedroom, watching her stories.  She tells me not to bother her.  I know she doesn’t care about me, but I don’t mind.  I have my own games I play, and I have The Man.  He lives behind the fridge.  Only I can see him.  He says it’s better that way.  That adults only cause problems.  So I keep him secret. 

‘What do you do all day by yourself?’, Mum would ask sometimes. 

‘Nothing.’ I’d reply. 

I know it’s bad to keep secrets, but if I told them, Mum and Dad would only start yelling.  I hate it when they yell.

The Man is fully grown, and much taller than I am.  He steps out from behind the fridge wearing a black suit and a tie.  He looks very fancy, like he is dressed up special, but he is always that way.  His hair is black and shiny and he always has a cigar.  

‘Not till you’re fifteen.’ he tells me when I ask if I can try it. 

That’s ten years away.  Ten years is forever.  I wonder if I will wear a suit when I’m fifteen?  I don’t know his name, so I just call him The Man.

The Man and I spend our days playing in the house, running through the big corridor being aeroplanes and sometimes trains.  I sit high upon the The Man’s shoulders and pretend that I’m a crane.  I’m never scared when I’m with The Man – I know he’d never let me fall.  Sometimes we are noisy and Nana comes out to yell at me.  I like noises, and I wonder why they’re bad.  It scares me when she yells, but then she stops and I can go back to being an aeroplane.  Nana is very old and her hands are very wrinkly.  Dad says she’s just bitter.

I like The Man more than Dad.  Dad is always tired when I ask him to play.  He comes home late and sits by himself.  I only ever see Dad at night.  I never get a good look at his face, but I think it is sad.  The Man is different.  He is funny and clever and I like to ask him all kinds of questions.  Sometimes the questions are small, other times they are big ones that I think about at night. 

‘What is time?’ I ask The Man. 

‘Nobody really knows.’ he says, ‘But you only get so much of it.’

In the living room, The Man and I do drawings in crayon and colour pencil.  Once I ate six crayons and had to go to the doctor.  I ask The Man what work is.  He says that grown-ups have to go away sometimes, but it doesn’t mean they don’t love you.  The Man goes away every day, back to behind the fridge.  He says goodbye and shakes my hand.  The Man treats me like I am a grown up.

When it’s raining and we can’t go outside The Man and I play board games.  The Man likes to play games with Nana’s cards.  One day, he tells me he’ll teach me a card game that grown-ups play.  I bet my set of coloured pencils, twenty cents and a train from my train set.  The Man warns me not to get greedy. 

‘The house always wins.’ he says.

The man has to go away – but he promises he will see me again, sometime in the future.

‘What is the future?’, I ask.

‘The future’s just like the past, only with the lights on.’

‘Will I be there?’

‘Sure you will, but you won’t recognise yourself.’


He was a physical impossibility, an absurd living artefact of a thing I’d since discarded in the wastebin of my mind.  A makeshift big brother, surrogate father, conjured by the nascent psyche of a lonely child.  No matter.  My feelings were real – still simmering warm and bright through the fog of the many decades that separated that moment and this.

As I stare at him, discreetly enquiring after my own sanity, I attempt to apply reason to the situation.  The Man would have been my age when I was a kid, but this poor soul looked a great deal older.  Even so, the resemblance was uncanny, the same slicked back hair (now white) unperturbed by the rumpled pillow.  I move towards his bed to view his chart.  Coronary artery atherosclerosis – loathsome words so jagged I cannot form them in my mouth.  I check for his name: John Doe.

The Man opens his eyes and sees me, so he extends his hand.  I sit with him, beside his bed, Petrov be damned (he could wait).  I speak to him, but I’m not sure he can hear me.  Nearby, a bouquet of devices makes their presence known with a symphony of rhythmic trilling and beeping.  A nurse appears in the doorway, words of admonishment already in her mouth, but she sees me, holding The Man’s hand and hesitates.  Her eyes soften, and her face marked by overwork is awash with understanding.  Quietly, she floats away and goes about her business.

The Man’s eyes are dull and milky and his hand is spotted and ugly with age and bony with protrusions.  My father looked this way just before he’d left us, his path cut short by drink and a deep, abiding sorrow.  Strange that I should conjure him now, in the presence of this stranger, his ample shadow casting ably from the grave.  As I hold the man, I can feel the embers of his flame growing dull.  I stay with him, determined not to let him to be digested all alone in this charnel house.

I ponder how from a certain perspective, the present time can always be regarded as “the future”.  It is a distant, unwritten shore as far away from us as adulthood is to a child.  I consider this notion as I recall The Man’s promise, now fulfilled, as I soak in the exquisite symmetry of the moment.  Here we both were, together, just like he’d prophesised.  I decide then and there the veracity of his identity is immaterial.  He, or at least the ghost of him, had been there for me when I needed him.  Returning the favour was the least I could do.




Friday, June 3, 2022


I can’t wait to go swimming again” was the first stray thought that popped into my mind as it recrystallised.  I had always possessed the facility to conjure sensory information at will.  In this case, it was the thick, acrid smell of chlorinated air – the signature scent of the suburban swimming pool.  Strange that I would be visited by such a random memory at a time like this.


I struggled to open my eyes, crusty as though from a long slumber and focused on the ugly chunks of vomit I’d expelled seconds earlier.  I’d been warned this was a common side effect.  Freshly expelled, the sight of my own sick soaking into nature strip grass created a kaleidoscope of green and viscous yellow. 

I hoisted my body into a standing position, my legs unstable like a newborn calf.  I winced as my eyes adjusted to the harsh daylight as the tide of random thoughts and memories subsided.  I smiled wanly to myself – reminded of a New Year’s Eve – a million years ago – supine on another nature strip gazing up at the stars after too much booze.  I’d thrown up then, too.

From not far away the distinctive hissing sound of water emanating from a garden hose called my attention.  The hose was attached to an old woman who stared at me in disbelief as she watered her front garden.  From her perspective, it must have been quite a sight – a grown man materialising out of thin air.  She stood statuesque, scrutinising me in her mauve quilted nightie (the kind often favoured by the elderly).

From the position of the sun, I guessed that I’d arrived at mid-morning, no later than eleven am.  The aural landscape contained the sounds of cyclists and passing cars propelled by loud petrol engines.  There was little point in using my phone to check the time – its battery had been drained by the transit (another side effect).  Now it was nothing more than an expensive paperweight that wouldn’t know a fresh charge for a couple of decades at the very least.

Finally arriving at alertness, I needed to verify the success of my journey.  I clumsily fished the device out of my pocket.  Comparable in size to my phone, the grey, matte appliance bore a more utilitarian aesthetic while still possessing a user-friendly interface.  Eriksen had gifted it to me somewhat clandestinely, at great pains to explain its numerous applications both anthropological and medical.  I thumbed through the touch screen menu as the old lady continued to watch.  Settings, software update, cycle mode, itinerary.  I selected the most recent entry.  Transfer complete: subjective date – June sixteenth, nineteen ninety-five.

Wary of my anachronistic technology, I discreetly re-pocketed the device and began casually ambling down the sidewalk of the suburban street I presently found myself. 

I was exactly where I wanted to be, the tangible three-dimensional reality of my destination emerging from nostalgia and distorted childhood memory.  This was the street upon which I had grown up. 

Which is not to say that the street itself didn’t exist in the present day – it did – it just looked radically different.  The meagre red brick houses had been cruelly supplanted by blocks of high-rise apartments that lay vacant and unaffordable. 


Like lightning, the name entered my mind.  It belonged to the old woman I’d seen earlier.  She’d been a mainstay of our neighbourhood, the archetypal toffee dispensing septuagenarian.  I cast a rueful glance back at the old dear – still watering.  She’d died after falling in her shower one night.  The black memory of that day played out in my mind’s eye.  My older brother and little sister were only children at the time.  I hoped she’d forgive me for the mess I’d left on her nature strip.

As I tried to shake the sting of her death, I reminded myself that this type of travel was not unlike walking through a cemetery.  People simultaneously alive and dead, purely dependant on the perspective of the observer. 

Suddenly revealed was not the thing I’d made the journey for, but something just as significant.  A banal structure if ever there was one, yet imbued with awe and terror.  My childhood home, resplendent in grey weatherboard accented with brown and orange awnings.  I could still conjure their high-pitched screeching each time we dragged them down over the windows – thick layers of striped canvas providing respite from Australian summers past.

Through translucent white lace curtains, I could see silhouetted figures moving about inside.  Given the time of day I could reasonably infer that one of them would be my late grandmother, enraptured by daytime TV.  For the briefest of moments, I considered appearing at the front door, just to get a look at her.  I could pose as a door-to-door salesman or someone selling Jesus.  Mum and Dad were most likely at work, my older brother at school and my little sister would be far too young to comprehend.  I dismissed the idea, reminding myself that the memory often cheats.  In her relative prime my grandmother would sooner strike a would-be salesman with her cane before engaging in convivial chatter.

No.  No more indulgences. 

I had to focus on my purpose.  I pressed on, determined to find the person I’d come to see.  I proceeded down the rest of the street – a piece of common suburbia at the outermost edge of the city.  Having admired the old houses, I spared a thought for the deciduous trees whose leaves gently undulated in the breeze.  I wondered how many times they’d each repeated their natural cycle, oblivious to the very passage of my lifetime.

The street came to an abrupt end, giving way to a wild, untamed field of long, dry grass.  Many of the outer suburbs of Melbourne looked this way during the nineties, soon to be overpowered by metropolitan creep.  Though adjacent to houses and schools, these large swathes of undeveloped land were the purview of possums, foxes and other native fauna who enjoyed a parochial existence not a million miles away from the Kmart.

As I stepped off the concrete sidewalk and into the dirt, I could feel the uneven surface through the soles of my shoes.  The melodic birdsong was interrupted by a dog.  A large dog, by the sound of his bark, which grew progressively louder.  I turned to face the source of the sound only to stumble serendipitously upon success.  Right in front of me – rapidly approaching – was the one and only thing I wanted to see.

A boy – riding a bicycle – flanked by a large brown hound who ran excitedly alongside.  No more than ten years old, he was much larger than I’d remembered, with brown wavy hair that fell joyously about his face.  In the midst of an early growth spurt, he rode with reckless abandon, his gangly calves pumping at the pedals as his dog bounded abreast.  Detecting my presence, the canine’s head snapped sharply in my direction and he quickly ran towards me, stick in mouth.

A sinewy hunting dog, his chocolate coat was flecked with small patches of white that caught the sunlight.  Lowering his snout to the ground, he placed the stick at my feet, licked his lips and gazed up at me expectantly.  As I stared into his wistful, yellow eyes my heart felt just as sick as the day he’d died.  I longed to forfeit my masculine composure and permit my face to contort into ugly tears at the very sight of him, so very much alive.

Bringing his bicycle to a halt a few feet from me, the boy clumsily disembarked, his ungainly limbs akimbo.  An urban urchin, his legs were punctuated by well-worn trainers and the knees of his tracksuit pants were dirty and threadbare.  This was a child accustomed to playing outside.  In spite of his suburban milieu, he seemed unperturbed by the presence of a stranger. 

He looked at me through floppy hair, his youthful eyes at once assertive and defiant.  We both stared at each other for what felt like forever, each of us scrutinising the other.  I remembered him, remembered being him. 

Though the idea was impossible, I sensed through our wordless communion that he seemed to recognise me, like a precognition or prophecy of things to come.  Eventually, the dog broke the ice, emitting a low “ruff” – evidently annoyed neither of us had acknowledged his stick.

“I like your dog,” I managed as I crouched to pet the gently panting animal.  The top of his head was warm from exertion and his fur felt silky to the touch.

“Thanks, his name is Toby”, the replied. 

The boy’s cadence was immediately familiar and uncomfortable to my ears, not unlike the sensation of hearing your own voice recorded then played back.

“Are you a friend of my brother’s?” the boy then asked unprompted, his tone curious and his face confused as he tried to place my features.

“Yeah.  Stopped by before, but he wasn’t home”.

It was a white lie, but one I could justify if it meant fostering trust.  Now face to face with my quarry I found myself unexpectedly speechless.  I searched my mind furiously for appropriate conversation to make with a ten-year-old.

“How come you’re not in school?” I enquired.

“What’s it to you?” he spat, defensively.

Of course.  I’d forgotten his spirit.  This was a kid perpetually aggrieved.  Resentful of adults and self-appointed authority figures.  In many ways, it was a tendency I had failed to outgrow.

“Nothing really.  Just making conversation.  You know I grew up round here too.  Used to spend most of my school holidays on my bike.  Had a dog just like this as well.  We’d hang out at Miller’s creek.  One time I even found a severed hand”.

“Cool”, the boy offered begrudgingly, his eyes widening with excitement, “Did you get to keep it?”

I smiled at his question and the idea that a severed limb would present itself as an exciting souvenir.

“Nah.  My Dad wouldn’t let me”.

Silence again.

“Where’s your bike now?”, the boy asked.  

I studied the red bicycle, its frame flimsy and covered with stickers and found myself unable to recall its ultimate fate.

“Gone”, I shook my head, “A long time ago” I replied sadly.

I was a man out of time, literally embedded in a memory, conversing with the past. 

And just like that, I suddenly realised the magnitude of what I’d done, the unmitigated hubris of the journey I had made and its enormous ramifications. The realisation was a knife, as though the human mind was ill designed to perceive reality outside normal linear flow.

“Okay.  See you round then”, the boy said as he clambered back onto his bike and slowly rode off, his faithful quadruped in tow.  Before I could reply, he was gone, the boy and bike and dog growing smaller as they disappeared into the distance.

My original intention had been to remain here and mentor him.  I could be a friend to him, disconnected from family, as he processed all the rage and shame that awaited him in the days and years to come.  But as the moment of our meeting evaporated, I was struck with a different idea.

Medical applications.

Erikson had beleaguered the point.  On certain occasions the device could be used to create a localised stasis field with a finite radius.  Within the perimeter, the decay of organic matter could be slowed by inducing a cyclical temporal state – a living hold.  Seconds.  Minutes.  Hours and even days.  Cycle mode.  Though not the intended use for this technology, this function had been used to save the lives of critically injured persons close to death, yet far away from medical attention.  The idea was that if the patient was alive within a repeating cycle of sixty seconds, for example, their condition wouldn’t deteriorate further.

I extracted the device from my pocket and made my way through the menu settings.  Cycle Mode: hours, designated period: two four zero zero.  I set the radius to five thousand meters.

The brown-haired boy would forever be trapped in a bubble, living out the same day, over and over again.  But I had to act fast, before he moved too far away from me and outside the device’s limited radius.

Now, almost outside my own body, I wondered what would happen to me.  From a subjective standpoint, this would most likely be the last thing I’d ever do.  I had no idea what to expect.  Would I too be trapped in an endless loop, experiencing only a few minutes of consciousness beginning outside Cherry’s house?  Would I simply vanish into oblivion having enabled a terrible paradox?  Would this, in fact, constitute an act of self-termination?

By way of my action, I was manufacturing a timeline in which this boy would never grow up, and his dog would be immortal.  He’d never cast off the mouldy inhibitions of his childhood home and run roaring through the streets with a cigarette searching for himself.

This dour youth, so full of boyish vinegar would never acquaint himself with his smile.  He’d never get a job, learn to drive, have sex, smoke a joint, wear a suit, pay taxes and repeatedly fall in and out of love.  He’d never be afforded the luxury of cultivating taste in music, partake in the share market or express opinions on politics and religion.  He’d never make the cascading series of mistakes that would lead him right back to where I stood, the moment I occupied, standing in a field holding this device looking at him.  A cycle broken and at once complete.  Would this be, in point of fact, a deliberate act of murder?

No.  It was an act of mercy.  He’d be spared his growth into adulthood and forever trapped in the happy amber of childhood.  I inhaled once as I activated the cycle mode, unsure of what to expect, but certain of what I saw before me.  One perfect day, in perpetuity.  A boy and his dog, moving with burning grace, young and alive forever.


Friday, August 13, 2021

Between Writing and Speaking

Why do I write?

I don’t really know.  I do so, sporadically, secretly and typically in solitude.  My output alternately artful and amateurish, but never without ardour for the form itself.  After all, words are such a versatile ingredient, and in the kitchen of my imagination I relish experimenting with the most outlandish combinations possible.  A tasty mystery, their infinite variations of colour, style and complexity allure me with their ability to anger, inspire and arouse.

James Patrik Between Writing and Speaking

However, writing and speaking, while superficially, may seem like common bedfellows but the differences are numerous. 

First and foremost is the element of choice – most of us choose to read, either reflexively or not.  Nestled within this ability is another – that of being able to understand written language itself.  Words make themselves apparent to us a million ways every day, often in the most pedestrian of situations.  Warning signs, food labels, street names and instructions.  These utilitarian words simply “are” and exist only for the conveyance of information.  In tone and delivery, they care not for our feelings or whether or not we subscribe to the ideas they espouse.  Medical reports, exam results, witness statements – all such genres present themselves to us plainly.

Then there are the words we chose to read for pleasure.  Correspondence, love letters and works of fiction both short and long.  These words - arranged in the proper order by a suitably qualified individual - have the ability to transport us from the awful mundanity of our lives to some other more preferable destination.  Such expert wielders of words have held many titles throughout history – a contemporary novelist no different in function to a witch with an incantation.

Of course, the written word can be just as potent when the element of choice is removed.  It’s at this critical juncture that words transform themselves into labels and insults - able to be lobbed vengefully at another person like a clump of wet dirt.  Most people can easily conjure a handful of such words fairly effortlessly.  With their serrated edges, such terms can inflict significant damage to the recipient, and are thusly, rightly expunged from the lexicon.

Written words also carry connotation – an emotional component attached to the use of said word, either good or bad.  This linguistic baggage implores us to use our words considerately, to take heed of how they might be absorbed by those around us.  Lover.  Disabled.  Invited.  How do you feel when you hear these words?

I bring to mind the writer’s process of composing, re-reading and editing – like a recipe being adjusted after each attempt.  Wracked with self-doubt and an honest desire to creatively self-express he or she will tentatively share the fruits of their labour with friends in the hope of garnering praise and adulation - or at the very least - modulated opinion.

So, I ask myself again, why do I write?  Not because I am inherently creative or objectively skilled, but because I am confused.  I write to find purpose.  I write to find therapy and relief from my infuriating, vomit inducing anxiety.  In black and white, my words sit stately on my computer screen composed of trillions of tiny pixels.  As they and their brethren reach forward through time, I have less and less control over how they will be interpreted by any future person who might intercept them.  Their terrifying potential for immortality is an even greater motivation to execute my expression exactly.

Why do I speak?

To ask for what I want, to convey my feelings and ideas and to make an audible sound.  Why then in this particular realm of human communication do I find myself so ill equipped?  So often saying the wrong thing?  When compared to the writer, the speaker is a wild oaf – a clumsy house-guest possessing neither grace or decorum.  If the written word is indeed a finely calibrated tool, then its audible analogue is a bludgeon.  It is as scalpel is to sledgehammer.

Unlike the writer, the speaker need not wait for feedback, as it is often immediate.  The effects of his or her words written plainly upon the faces of their recipients.  Words are short order cooking, conjured spontaneously in the moment with only the paper-thin pretences of decency to prevent us from uttering something catastrophically stupid.

The element of choice plays a role here too, as we can either be talked “to”, or talked “at”.  Who cannot relate to the experience of a harsh word drifting ominously toward our general direction? There it sits at our feet – uninvited – yet able to expertly corrode our self-esteem. 

Equally universal is the scenario of the discourteous dinner guest, spewing words so inappropriate that they are unbelievable.  “I can’t believe he said that!” we gasp through breathless offence, or some other similar idiom connoting disbelief at a poorly timed or acidic remark.  This is one of the truest pitfalls of words – they cannot be taken back, be undone, recovered, deleted or retrieved.  They are sound waves, traversing space and time.  When it becomes apparent that our words have caused some damage, our solution is to issue forth even more words – a socially sanctioned ritual called an apology.

Spoken words also mean the quality of the sound itself – a person’s voice.  Whether rich in timbre, tone, tinny, loud, smoky or of irritating pitch our voices are the unique noise each of us is capable of producing.  Like a sonic fingerprint, each voice is special and capable of evoking colourful emotions.

But it is not merely enough to be able to make noise – most animals have that ability.  Speaking with another person is a transactional exchange, a dance requiring a willing partner of requisite skill.

Our voices change during puberty, prompting us to reconsider our sonic signature, to use our voices more carefully.  Others take a less considered approach, preferring to speak profusely rather than precisely.  Motivated by vanity (or perhaps a fear they will suddenly wink out of existence), they speak only to fill silence and say nothing of any substance at all.

To hear a conversation from the outside is to hear musicians plying their trade, each one exhibiting their relative skill (or lack thereof).  Symphonic or cacophonic, the orchestra of conversation is only as pleasant as the skill of its greatest musician.

Whether written or spoken aloud, words become the threads that knit together the fabric of our lives.  I wonder whether spoken words are merely the three-dimensional renderings of the things I write, or something more – something ephemeral and still outside the bounds of human perception.  At the intersection between writing and speaking lies a third thing – invisible but nonetheless essential.


Thoughts which build our reality, and in their infinite quality allow me to write about my words and speak about my writing.

Friday, June 4, 2021


(This article was originally published in Antipodean Sci Fi Issue 271 in April 2021.  You can read a digital version of the original story here at the Antipodean Sci Fi Archives here:  https://webarchive.nla.gov.au/tep/10063)

It was one of those days.  

One of those days where I’d woken up angry without reason.  I rolled out of bed with a belligerent cloud swirling about my head as I stumbled through my day, seeking amusement or distraction from my stress.  Had I the courage to be honest with myself, it was me I was angry with.  I was frustrated at having risen so late, and for expending so many wasted hours upon my couch, staring blankly at various screens as I beseeched them for stimulation. 

Though a tired truism of a sentiment, I was easily ensnared by the technological marvels that constitute modern life.  Inconceivable to our antecedents, such devices stood ready to sate any human appetite no matter how banal or pornographic.  Now the hour was late, and my morning had evaporated into a hazy afternoon, making me feel worse.  One lazy indulgence compounded by another.

So, craving at least the pretence of productivity, I did what I had always done when feeling restless — I went for a run.  Donning worn trainers and an old t-shirt, I left the house and began my laboured shuffle through the unremarkable streets of my neighbourhood.  The topography was hilly, ordinary streets winding through tiny peaks and troughs.  My body moved with difficulty, ungracefully, as though through water — a punishment for habitual inactivity.  But it moved nonetheless, and for that I was grateful.  I ran past some old ladies on an amiable ramble and past a gaggle of absent-minded dog walkers.  A fellow runner — a shirtless Adonis — sped past me with relative ease and soon disappeared into the distance.

Still, I persisted, as my lungs burned and groaned under the strain.  Undeterred, I proceeded without destination, past the well-to-do houses sporting high fences and fancy security systems.  The sight of them set my mind musing on the notion of urban separation as a light sprinkle of rain moistened my face.  Turning from a trickle into a shower, the precipitation soaked through my clothes and underwear endowing the uncomfortable sensation of being both sweaty and wet.

Exhausted, I clumsily came to a halt in front of a house atop a hill and locked eyes with a cream-coloured greyhound.  His graceful countenance offered me a doleful stare through the bars of a corrugated iron fence.  I watched him, for a moment, his patient breathing evident in the gentle rise and fall of his ribcage as I felt my own heart pounding like a jackhammer in my chest. 

My anxious demons exercised and exorcised, I limped home in unspectacular fashion, dropping down upon my front step to cool down as I always would before entering the house.  The brief shower I’d traversed was now concluded, leaving small pools and patches of water upon my driveway.  As my heart rate settled, I lamented my poor fitness and stared vacantly at a potted plant by my front door.  I’d placed it there, years ago.  Unremarkable in every respect, its few droopy leaves were a testament to floral mediocrity.  Upon the leading edge of one of the leaves I spied a single raindrop — a remnant from before — dangling precariously, only seconds from falling.

As my eyes focused on the raindrop, I noticed with simple pleasure how the daylight shimmered through the small quantity of water, a tiny iridescent display one-tenth the size of a fingernail.  As I examined the drop more closely, I was able to discern an image — the face of a newborn baby, scrunched up and tiny.  Before I could question the veracity of my vision, the image had changed and the baby had become a boy who soon became a man.  Like a life on fast forward, the man in the raindrop raced through his days and years as I witnessed them all.  The peaks and troughs of his trajectory through existence — exciting, mundane, revelatory and boring.    

Caught up in my act of curious voyeurism, I couldn’t help but notice the little man looked a lot like me. As I savoured my wonder, he clutched his chest in pain, and collapsed without fanfare.  The awful occurrence was random, and arrived without warning.  Before the man could summon help, the drop of water finally fell from its precarious position and splattered onto the floor, exterminating the man inside.  Startled, I inhaled sharply at the sudden finality of it all.  Just like that, it was over.

Sharp pangs of grief pierced my chest as I remembered the man and his life, lost to me, yet still speaking quietly in my thoughts.  In that moment, I conjured the faces of the dead and remembered strange words spoken to me in my sleep.  He’d always be there as a reminder of my mortality and the ticking clock embedded in my brain.

In a single drop of rain I had seen the futility of my illusions that life was long, and that each one of us was somehow significant, special.  A repudiation of all my self-importance in a simple act of nature.  I sat there, in my running shoes, humbled and terrified by the display, feeling suddenly fragile.  Transient.  As the fear fermented in my stomach, I knew I’d witnessed something extraordinary.  To think it happened on such an ordinary day.

I replayed all the ungrateful moments when I’d wished my life was somewhere else, had wished that I was someone else.  What a fool I’d been.  The man in the raindrop would be with me like an albatross, even when I was petulant or lost in a wretched mood.  Even when I wasted my life.  I wiped wetness from my cheeks, mistaking it for rainwater but instead found tears as I fathomed the enormity of my revelation.  The very nature of what we are.  

What we are is nothing at all.


Monday, April 26, 2021


(This article was originally published in Antipodean Sci Fi Issue 270 in March 2021.  You can read a digital version of the original story here at the Antipodean Sci Fi Archives here:  https://webarchive.nla.gov.au/tep/10063)

Grade six summer camp was always the same. Rustic cabins set in a rural or semi-rural landscape. To a gaggle of angsty pre-teen city kids forcibly separated from our Playstations — it was a fresh kind of hell. Daily activities like bush walking and horse riding existed solely to be endured rather than enjoyed.

James Patrik The Box

The ordeal of this enforced excursion was softened somewhat by the presence of most of my buddies from school. Nicholas Dobson (whose father was having an affair), Michael Cacciatore (whose parents were in the middle of an awful divorce) and Ross Coleman (whose mother took lithium to stabilise her mood).

The first night unfolded mostly without incident. We all ate dinner in a communal mess hall, almost fifty kids all told, boys and girls alike. Unsurprisingly, the food was less than stellar. We often imagined it was surplus from an insane asylum or a nearby men’s prison. Afterwards, there was a giant campfire that made my clothes smell like smoke. I roasted a marshmallow on a stick, not fully comprehending the appeal of the charred, sugary snack served atop a twig.

Lights out was at 10 pm. We slept on ramshackle bunkbeds with mattresses covered in vinyl thick enough to withstand even the most voluminous quantities of urine. The girls and boys were housed in separate cabins and I was lucky enough to be with my friends. Ignoring our curfew, most of us would stay up late into the night, illuminated by flashlight, talking about the kinds of things that could only seem important before puberty.

It was here that our conversation inevitably wound its way towards ghost stories and other tales of the macabre. Our camp in particular was the alleged setting for a particularly bizarre tale in which a camp counsellor had “gone wrong”. Using a cardboard box to conceal his face, he roamed the grounds at night, viciously assaulting campers.

Following a shaving cream attack on the second night by Domenic Bordignon and his goons, my cabin mates and I decided it was high time for some hijinks of our own. On the third night, after lights out, our preparations began in earnest. Clad in our pyjamas and sleepwear, we would burst into the girl’s cabin, brandishing our flashlights, intending to terrify and startle them in any way possible.

Always resourceful, Alex Vasquez (whose mother had committed suicide) had swiped a nondescript cardboard box from the kitchen after dinner. Using a thick black marker, he quickly drew a simple smiley face — two eyes and a mouth — and placed it atop Nick’s head.

Sat on a chair, Nick abruptly froze — his shoulders suddenly going limp. Michael saw the tiny performance unfold and let out an involuntary chortle which soon faded, giving way to stunned silence. Emerging from the bathroom, Ross re-entered the room confused by the surreal scene taking place. Nick Dobson with a box atop his head, now sat seemingly unresponsive while Michael, Alex and I looked on bemused. 

Now inverted atop his head, the smiley face Alex had crudely drawn formed a sickly frown that seemed to stare at us, mockingly. Resembling a puppet with its strings cut, we all wondered if this performance was part of Nick’s sick sense of humour. Was he messing with us?


Michael was the first to call out to him, his prepubescent voice quavering with growing concern. Nick sat there, motionless, frowny box atop his head for what seemed like minutes before someone (I don’t remember who) uttered the obligatory “this isn’t funny anymore”. The universal catchcry of the frightened when a joke has overstepped its bounds.

Weary of this grim jest, Ross crouched before Nick’s chair, locking eyes with his cardboard avatar. In one swift movement Nick suddenly extended one arm, then another, wrapping his hands around Ross’s throat. Startled, the rest of us failed to react out of pure shock, but quickly piled upon Ross, attempting to break Nick’s vice like grip upon his trachea. 

No luck. Nick’s powerful hold was immovable — even the three of us combined couldn’t pry his hands away from Ross whose face was now rapidly turning red. Nick stood up, his movements robotic and his grip unyielding, as Ross’s feet collapsed beneath him. The frowning face of the cardboard box seemed to leer at him, challenging him to fight back as he gasped for air, his cries for help nothing more than the muffled sounds of strangulation.

It was Alex who finally came to his senses, letting go of Nick’s hands and quickly tearing the cardboard box from his head. As he did so, Nick collapsed into a heap, as Ross, red faced and teary eyed, heaved and thrashed on the floor as he finally inhaled his life saving breath.

Too scared to call for the camp counsellors, we carried Nick to the nearest bed where he slept for many hours. When he awoke, he didn’t remember any of what had happened, least of all trying to throttle one of his friends.

Even as young men, we had been well programmed to follow the dictates of rigid male stoicism. Accordingly, we never spoke much about that night in the months and years that followed. Though he forgave him completely, Ross certainly always looked at Nick askance. Privately, I suppose we all suspected that we’d been party to some kind of paranormal incident, that the box itself had imparted some manner of demonic permission, that Nick had been possessed, infected or unduly influenced. We wanted to believe that the entire occurrence was the purview of some dark agent from beyond the veil, something or someone outside of human influence.

The truth was something far more sinister. A frightening childhood lesson on the power of masks, whether literal or figurative. You see, when we examined the box, it was simply that — pieces of folded cardboard with an inverted smiley face drawn upon it.

It was just a box, nothing more.


Sunday, April 11, 2021

SHORT STORY: The Agony Of Choice


Raymond sat alone at the kitchen table.  Permitting himself a few moments of respite between chores, he stared blankly at the wall, allowing his mind to wander.  It had been three weeks since his master had left for his expedition after promising to return in a matter of days.  Such conduct was unlike his master who’d proven himself fastidious, sometimes ruthlessly so.  Without his presence, the modest house felt empty, with one of its bedrooms and the master’s study now unoccupied.  Except of course for Raymond. 

James Patrik The Agony of Choice

A scarecrow by birth and a servant by nature, Raymond busied himself with housework just as his master had instructed before he had departed.  Gliding from room to room, he rendered the place spotless with the skill and quiet dignity of a practiced domestic servant.  Initially, he complied, fearing punitive measures, but as the days turned into weeks, he undertook his chores with intense fervour. 

What else would I do?  How else do people occupy their time except in service to their masters? he thought as he waxed the wooden floorboards of the corridor.

All food related chores were the first to disappear – as a scarecrow, Raymond had no need to eat.  It was a pleasure denied him by his creator, though he had often marvelled at the transformative nature of food, its innate ability to bestow comfort and satiety.  First tier chores such as sweeping, dusting and the washing of dishes soon gave way to more complicated, second tier tasks like washing windows, cleaning gutters and re-tiling the roof.  Using a not inconsiderable amount of elbow grease (if his body had produced such a substance), Raymond maintained the house spectacularly.

One afternoon, there came a knock at the door.  Raymond was immediately suspicious, knowing that his master would never knock as he rarely left the house without keys.  Curious, he opened the door to reveal a surprising sight – a giant stick insect, stood upright, attired in formal suit and tie.

‘Good afternoon sir’, said the stick insect as he extended his arm in greeting, ‘My name is Julius Wallwork, Esquire.  Might I have a moment of your time?’

‘Of course’, stammered Raymond, as he shook the man’s hand and ushered him into the entranceway.

Remembering his manners, Raymond struggled to suppress his fascination with the strange man’s appearance.  There were of course many and varied sentient creatures in the kingdom, but he had lived a life mostly indoors and had rarely been exposed to such zoological diversity.

Julius Wallwork made his way inside the house, proceeding down the short corridor and into the kitchen where he politely sought permission to sit at a small table.  Raymond replied in the affirmative as Julius placed a scroll and a small wooden box upon the tabletop.  Through his buttoned shirt and sleeves, Raymond could catch glimpses of the man’s peppermint coloured thorax.

‘Mister Raymond, I represent Angus & Altman.  We’re solicitors, specialising in property management and estate planning in this general vicinity’.

‘Okay’, said Raymond hesitantly, still wondering why such an elaborate fancy man would stoop to converse with a lowly scarecrow.

‘I’m afraid it’s my sad duty to inform you of the death of your master, Kevin’, Wallwork announced as he presented Raymond with the box that he had brought with him.

Raymond carefully opened the receptacle.  Inside it was a human heart, the organ partially desiccated and decorated with traces of dried blood about its four chambered structure.  The heart belonged to Kevin, and, had evidently been torn out by whatever agent had caused his demise.

‘I realise this may be a gruesome sight for you, but the presentation of a heart is customary in this circumstance, especially where the transfer of property is concerned’.

Transfer?’ asked Raymond, still enthralled by the grisly sight of his master’s heart in a box.  He was struck by the notion that his master even possessed such an organ, given his sour disposition and proclivity for cruelty.

‘Kevin’s death changes things for you considerably, Mister Raymond.  In the absence of an heir or suitable inheritor, the deed to the current property – this house – legally reverts to any other current occupants.  In this instance – that’s you’.

Julius unfurled the scroll across the kitchen table.  It was an ancient looking document, its text hand written in slanted script that was difficult to read.  At the top of the scroll, in letters larger than the rest were the words ‘Life Transfer Document’, and at the bottom, a straight line presumably reserved for a signature.  At the centre of the scroll was a single human eye, which, as soon as the scroll had been unrolled, blinked into existence, darting about the room. 

Standing to leave, Julius provided Raymond with a final set of instructions.

‘As per local law, you have ten days to sign the document, after which point this house and all its contents will become your legal property.  Should you fail to sign in the allotted time, custody of the house reverts back unto itself, and your rights as a tenant within it will be rescinded’.

Offering a polite bow to excuse himself, Julius made his way to the front door, as Raymond trailed behind him.  This turn of events had been so unexpected and he was brimming with questions for the stick insect lawyer.  But, as evidenced by the brevity of his visit, his time was too valuable for him to linger a moment longer than necessary.  Raymond tried to think of the most pertinent question to ask, but instead his mind went blank.

‘But what about my master?’, he blurted out almost reflexively.

‘Your master is dead, Mr Raymond. You are your own man now.  I suggest you get used to it’.

‘My own man…’ Raymond repeated to himself softly as Julius left the premises.  It was a tremendous concept to digest.


A few days had passed since the lawyer had called on Raymond, casually breezing into his life and leaving seismic new ideas at his feet.  Though not outwardly exhibiting any signs of distress, Raymond had been quite shaken by the visit, and decided it was best to simply ignore everything he’d been told.  As before, he proceeded with his chores, dusting surfaces that were already clean and preparing the house for a master that would never return.

Yet every time he found himself in the kitchen, he’d see the expectant scroll, its unnerving eye watching his every move, waiting for him to either sign (or not sign) his name at the bottom of the page.  The very sight of the offending eye reminded him that things had changed and that Kevin wasn’t coming back.  Not only was he a free man, but if he signed the scroll, he would be a home owner.

Sat in his chair – a brief pleasure that he occasionally allowed himself – Raymond pondered the concept of freedom.  What did it mean?  Kevin had captured and removed him from his family at such a young age that he had never known any other life.  What would he do with his time?  He thought about his family and briefly considered paying them a visit.  From what little he could remember they lived in a small enclave just beyond the forest, but, given the short lifespan of most scarecrows they were most likely deceased.  Later, as he examined the document once more, he pondered the unusual nature of its title – Life Transfer Document.  Was the house somehow alive, and if so, was it a slave to Raymond?


After spending the day washing linen, Raymond was met with the uneasy feeling that his tasks no longer felt as fulfilling as they once did.  As dusk arrived, he allowed himself to stand on the front porch of the house and admire the beauty of the plants and trees around him.  Previously, such stolen moments had been forbidden, but now Raymond wondered if he could occasionally permit himself some rudimentary moments of pleasure.

‘Beautiful evening, isn’t it?’ came a voice from a few feet away.

It was Mrs Gale, the next-door neighbour who was sitting on her own porch evidently doing precisely what Raymond had been doing as well.

‘Oh, hello Mrs Gale’ offered Raymond politely. 

He had rarely had occasion to speak with the old woman, forever beholden to his duties, but he liked her.  She always spoke to him warmly and, despite being confined to a wheelchair, nearly always displayed a sunny demeanour.

‘Kevin is dead’, he blurted out without thinking.

‘I know, dear.  I felt him die.  A shame really, such an angry young man’.

Kevin had often been churlish with Mrs Gale, annoyed by her dumpy countenance and her propensity for dispensing unsolicited homespun wisdom.

‘I was visited by a lawyer who said that I’d inherit the house if I sign a scroll’.

‘Was that the green gentleman I saw the other day?’

‘Yes, that’s right’.

‘So, what are you waiting for, dear?  Sign the contract, and we’ll be neighbours fair and square’.

‘It’s not that simple’.

‘Sounds simple enough to me.  Do you need to borrow a pen?’

‘It’s not that – I already have a pen.  I just keep staring at that scroll, and it stares back at me.  Without instruction, I’m frozen and afraid.  I’ve never known choice, or decision.  I’m scared of doing the wrong thing, so instead, I do nothing at all.  How do you know what to do Mrs Gale?’

The old woman looked pensive for a moment, taking a few seconds to formulate a thoughtful response.

‘I’m not sure, dear.  I suppose I use past experience to guide me.  You have to make your own future – one day at a time’.

‘But I have no past experience.  My whole life I’ve been a slave’.

‘Well then’, smiled Mrs Gale, ‘Its time you started making some choices, dear’. 

She tilted her head in the direction of the nearby tree line where, almost as if the universe had anticipated his need, a rat with a bindle sauntered past their houses.  He walked upright, with his possessions slung across his shoulder.  Moving cheerfully despite his bedraggled appearance, his feet were bare and blistered and his eyes looked weary from travelling.

Sensing a new emotion coalescing within him, Raymond tried his utmost to comprehend the new sensation.  Impulsiveness – the need to act spontaneously and without forethought.  The sensation travelled upwards from his belly, up into his chest and into his mouth where it eventually formed words.

‘You there’, he called out to the rat man, ‘Do you need a place to live?’


Life with Percival was very different to life with Kevin.  Transient by nature, Percival just so happened to be walking past Mrs Gale and Raymond at the very moment in which Raymond had been inspired to make a choice.  Acting in an uncharacteristically spontaneous manner, he’d invited the wandering rat to cohabitate with him.  It was a perfectly equitable arrangement - the rat man occupying Kevin’s former bedroom which had remained vacant for some time.  The terms of his tenancy were loosely defined, with no fixed end point agreed upon in advance.  Refusing to accept any of the rat man’s money, Raymond agreed to be paid in household duties, and his new housemate readily obliged.

The perfect lodger, Percival’s jovial demeanour and colourful tales from the road made him a pleasure to be with.  For his part, he was happy to have a stable home, at least for a time.  He treated Raymond with decency, never once verbally scolding him, threatening his life or setting fire to his extremities.            

After a few days and nights, the two housemates had settled into an agreeable routine.  They would share a meal together, recounting humorous or significant moments from their day.  Percival had recently discovered what he considered to be a superlative fishing hole and frequently returned to the house with fresh Twilo fish.  Raymond, sans digestive system, would happily sit with his rodent companion, so as to politely share the dining experience.  After they had cleaned their plates, they would retire to the living room and read, or sometimes listen to music.  One such evening, as Raymond read, Percival smoked the bark of the Carboline tree.

‘Why do you smoke that?’, Raymond asked.

‘Because it makes me happy’, replied Percival flatly.

Raymond had not been prepared for the simplicity of his companion’s response.

‘What is happiness?’, Raymond ventured, after a few moments.

‘Happiness is that which I pursue’.


‘Because it is the purpose of my life.  To find those things and people that bring me the greatest joy’.

‘What does it feel like?  Happiness, I mean.  Is it painful?’.

Percival took a drag of the burning bark and allowed his gaze to melt away into the distance as his mind conjured images of past pleasures.

‘It feels like a stillness of my thoughts and an easiness in my body’.

‘That sounds complicated’, lamented Raymond.

‘It’s not’, replied Percival who now turned his attention to Raymond whose questions seemed unusually wistful, ‘What makes you happy?’

‘I’m unsure what will make me happy’.

‘What have you tried so far?’

‘Nothing.  I can’t be certain that any of the things I choose will lead to happiness and so I choose nothing.  Instead, I simply sit in my chair and stare at the wall, and that in itself seems like an indulgence’.

‘Is that why you haven’t signed the scroll?’

‘Yes.  I’m not sure if it’s the correct course of action’.

‘You know I’d sign it for you, but the eye sees all.  And besides, for me, a house would only be an impediment to my happiness’.

Though his intuition where people were concerned was underdeveloped, Raymond believed him.  There was no conceivable way that a creature such as Percival would settle down as a home owner.  He would stay for a while, but his inquisitive nature and nomadic spirit meant that the road ahead was always calling his name.

‘Perhaps it’s time you sought advice from a higher power?’, offered Percival with a raised eyebrow.


The following day Raymond decided to heed Percival’s suggestion.  Over breakfast, he informed his housemate that he intended to visit the area’s foremost seer, the Lady in Waiting.

‘Okay then, but be careful’, cautioned Percival, ‘You want to keep well clear of those dreadful Simians’.               

He was right to be apprehensive – Simian Sands was a valley occupied by a tribe of crazed apes, well known for their extreme violence towards intruders.  Best avoided, they were rumoured to have all been driven mad through exposure to industrial waste.

Summoning his courage, Raymond left the house for the first time in many years.  Using a crude map he’d found in Kevin’s writing desk, he made his way through a brief wooded section, past several physical landmarks to the Lady in Waiting’s residence. His former master had availed himself of her services often enough, holding her counsel in high esteem.  Raymond hoped that she’d be equally useful to him as he trekked through the forest, trying his best to stave off the overwhelming fear he felt at so many new sights and the ominous sounds of the screech owls above.

Soon enough, a large, hollowed out tree presented itself.  Its proportions were gigantic, with its base several meters in diameter.  It was the largest tree Raymond had ever seen, although he had not had cause to see very many in his life.  He entered warily, through a passageway just large enough for him to squeeze his body.  As the darkness of the inside of the tree enveloped him, he nervously announced himself, expectantly hoping that the lady residing within would reassure him with an acknowledgement.  Proceeding further into the tree he came to a generous circular space, dimly lit by candles.

‘Enter, and be seated’, came a voice from somewhere inside the room. 

Raymond’s eyes darted about until they landed upon a human woman sitting at a small wooden table.  She wore a faded Victorian gown, frilly and ornate and had laid out a deck of tarot cards on the table before her.  He approached, intending to occupy the vacant seat opposite the lady, but as he moved closer, he realised he’d failed to observe a key feature of the woman, or rather, a lack thereof.  She had no head.  By the looks of things, it had been shorn clear off - by what method he was unsure - but the wound appeared cauterised and bloodless.

‘Be seated’, the woman repeated in a clear tone that only now Raymond realised was occurring completely in his mind. 

This was the Lady in Waiting, and even though decapitated, she was still able to communicate using only her thoughts.  Raymond obliged and took the seat, consciously averting his gaze from her headless stump.  Slowly, deliberately, the lady began turning over her strange tarot cards.  The first one – The Sickly Magician – revealed itself.  Bearing the image of a well-dressed man vomiting upon a green pasture, it made Raymond feel uneasy.

‘Interesting’, remarked the lady, mostly to herself before turning over a subsequent card. 

This one was entitled The Pregnant Mule and depicted the eponymous creature with its belly distended.  Without a head, Raymond suspected by the lady’s body language that she was deep in thought.

‘What do they mean?’, he asked tentatively after a few moments of silence.

‘Crossroads’, she began, speaking clearly inside his head, ‘A time of rebirth and great change’.

Turning over a third card, the lady let out an audible gasp at its appearance: The Unbroken Line – the illustration depicting a straight red line rendered in blood.  The lady was silent for a moment, and without a face, Raymond couldn’t read her expression.

‘What does it mean?  Is it bad?’ he ventured, eager to hear her interpretation.  The lady reached across the table, urgently clasping Raymond’s forearm.

‘The time is now, and the message is urgent’, she gasped as her fingernails dug into his skin, ‘You must act now – the eye will not remain open forever!’.

Shaking free of her grip, Raymond stumbled backwards, knocking over his chair.  Her words had shaken him, frightened him, wound themselves around a hidden part of his subconscious that only he could see, and he was petrified - so much so that he ran all the way back to the house and sealed himself in his bedroom.

DAY 10

Early the next day, Percival, somewhat concerned having not seen his housemate in some time gently wrapped upon his bedroom door.

‘Raymond?  Are you okay in there?’, he asked gently. 

He was accustomed to his new friend behaving skittishly, but this was something new.  Raymond had led such a sheltered life after all, and Percival was worried that his visit to the Lady in Waiting had gone poorly.  He lingered a few moments, but there was no response.

‘Okay then.  I just wanted to let you know that I’m going fishing.  I’ll return when the sun goes to sleep’.

Inside his bedroom, Raymond could hear the sound of Percival leaving the house.  He’d had a sleepless night, and he didn’t wish to burden Percival with his problems.  But the Lady in Waiting’s prophecy had disturbed him, in a manner more deeply than he’d ever known.  He was still only new to his freedom, and yet so much was being asked of him already.  So many decisions to make.  Around noon, after a few hours brooding alone, he exited and proceeded to the kitchen where the scroll, with its single eye, was still sat upon the table.  Locating a pen – an ornate one that once belonged to Kevin - he stood before the waiting document, his arm outstretched, determined to finally sign it. 

As he forced his hand closer to the paper, his mind was aflame with the pain of his own crippling indecision – a mental tug of war fought only with himself.  All of the questions of the last ten days flashed into existence once more as the moment of ultimate choice stood before him.  Would signing be the right thing to do?  Did he even want to be a home owner?  What if the decision he made today had terrible ramifications later on? Could he forgive himself for making such a grievous mistake?

As the overwhelming anxiety of the moment overcame him, Raymond’s arms began to tremble.  He sat down on the floor, bracing his back against the wall, but soon realised that not he – but the house – was shaking.  He cast an incidental glance over at the scroll on the table just in time to witness the single eye at the centre of the page close, slowly and with alarming finality.  In that moment he recalled the words of the esteemed Julius Wallwork, Esquire:

‘…Custody of the house reverts back unto itself, and your rights as a tenant within it will be rescinded’.

A low rumble became thunderous as plates and cups and other sundry items flew from their perches, smashing into a million pieces as the doors and walls of the house convulsed.  Leaping to his feet, Raymond ran from room to room, struggling to understand the precise nature of what was happening. 

Outside, the house shook itself free from its foundations and sprouted two enormous three toed feet.  Sheathed in reptilian scales and strong enough to support the house’s considerable bulk, the feet began walking, taking the house along with it. 

 Sat on her front porch, Mrs Gale witnessed the entire occurrence unfold.  She marvelled as the house next door simply walked away on giant feet, leaving a trail of flotsam and jetsam in its wake.  As it moved, each step it took produced a mighty thud that reverberated through the earth.

Inside the moving house, Raymond struggled to stay on his feet, buffeted about by the turbulent journey.  He looked out a window to see a strange moving vista as the house walked itself deeper into the woods, deftly avoiding collision with trees and bushes as it made its way down a steep decline.  Gathering momentum, the house accelerated, moving past the hollow tree where Raymond had been just the previous day.  Past the place where these very events had been foretold. 

The journey had thus far lasted minutes, but to Raymond it seemed like hours as the contents of the house showered down upon him as he surrendered to unyielding terror, screaming until his voice was hoarse.  Moving down into a sandy gully, the house finally came to a complete stop, at which time Raymond, still cowering, managed to drag himself to a nearby window in order to survey his location.

The house had taken him to a part of the woods he’d never seen before.  Mostly devoid of vegetation, the ground appeared dry and cracked, and the landscape barren and dotted with jagged rocks.  From the vague descriptions he had heard over the years, it could only be one place – Simian Sands.  It was indeed, a place no sensible person would hope to find himself.  Within seconds, Raymond’s worst fears were confirmed as he heard an awful screeching coming from outside the house, followed shortly after by a pounding on the walls.  It was the simians, and from the sounds they produced, it sounded as though they were numerous. 

Finding his last shred of courage, Raymond sprang to his feet and made for the kitchen, intending to find a weapon with which to defend himself.  A knife, or any other kitchen utensil would do in a pinch.  As he entered the room, he heard the sound of shattering glass behind him as a balled-up simian smashed his way through one of the windows.  Hunched over and tightly muscled, the simian’s teeth appeared razor sharp and his eyes were filled with blood lust.  Grabbing one of the chairs from the kitchen table, Raymond swung the piece of furniture at the horrible creature, striking it clean across its face.  No result – the chair merely smashed into smithereens and the hideous ape only roared in anger.  It leapt forward, in one sudden motion, its powerful hands clawing at Raymond’s face. 

Soon, another simian had broken into the house, then another and then another.  All of them dove for Raymond, who was now pinned to the floor, desperately fighting for his life.  One of the beasts latched onto his left leg and tore it clean off, while the others used their hands to rip into his midsection like a knife through hot butter.  In the midst of his death throes, Raymond howled out in agony, as the simians tore him apart, limb from limb.

And that was how poor Raymond met his final end.  The entire, unpleasant affair could have been easily avoided had he simply made a decision.  He spurned the gift that had been lovingly bestowed upon him by the universe – that of free will and choice – and lost his life as a result.  For if we do not make our choices ourselves, others will surely make them for us.




SHORT STORY: The House Always Wins