Daily Archives: July 9, 2006


“Lord of Needles” by Shaun Avery

I think I’ve become a pain addict.

 

That’s what the last few weeks have done to me.

 

And not the namby-pamby physical pain stuff either, because we all know how that heals in time. I’ve dished enough of it out recently to know that. Not that I left them alive long enough to really suffer, but you get my point, I’m sure.

 

It was addiction that kept me going to my mother’s grave more times in a day than was strictly necessary. And at the grave, my task became clear.

 

I have to see my father’s face – the true one, behind the human masks that he wears with such relish – before he dies. I have to see him face to face. I have to know.

 

My mother died a screaming, babbling wreck, ranting stories that only I knew to be true. My adoptive parents told me not to go and see her, unprofessional as that is, and I told them, in reply, to eat shit; I told them I owed them nothing for the years they’d kept me. Seeing her in the ward, with all that screaming, yelling, and weeping… I really felt at home there.

 

Then she died, and I became the proud owner of her diaries, and that was when everything started to make sense. I waited until my adoptive parents were out, let myself into their house, and went and read through the books in the attic. At home, as always, in the dark.

 

I said earlier ‘everything started to make sense,’ but that’s probably too strong a point, as very little in my existence has made much sense – from my incarcerated mother to my complete lack of feeling for my foster parents and others, it’s all been a bit haphazard thus far. So let’s just say that reading my mother’s diaries removed any confusion I may have had about what I should do with my future. Because when I had soaked it in, my vision of the days to come became crystal clear. Not to mention blood red.

 

I lay on my front, reading the book with a torch, and smiled at my mother’s harsh words, soaking in the hate that had consumed her until her dying day. Too right, I agreed in my head. That thing ruined your life, and he’s got away with it for far too long. Well, not any more.

 

I’d read it five times before I decided that I knew enough, and just as I rolled onto my back, turned off the light, and let the darkness eat me up, I heard the front door slam three levels below, and knew that the old timers had returned. Tried to keep me from seeing her, I said to myself, anger burning inside me. Well, I’ll show you, damn it!

 

I dropped down from the attic, landing perfectly. They saw me instantly, and stopped.

 

The old bitch’s eyes welled up. ‘Oh Ben,’ she began, overjoyed to see me. ‘You’ve come home!’

 

‘Save it.’

 

‘Anne.’ The old bastard laid a hand on her shoulder to stop her, seeing that not all was sweetness and light with their darling little foster son. ‘I don’t think he’s staying.’ Give him his due; he met my fierce gaze without flinching. ‘Is he?’

 

Stupid woman didn’t take the hint, though, especially when she noticed the book in my hand. ‘Oh Ben, no, you’ve been reading that horrid woman again!’

 

I was down the stairs in a flash, using one of the many traits that my father gave me, sending the old man flying with one arm, and using the other to pin her up against the wall. ‘One more word, you geriatric slut,’ I hissed into her face, ‘I dare you just to risk one more word about my mother.’ I looked at the fallen father figure, not certain that he was stupid enough to rush me but knowing that you can never be too careful. ‘I dare both of you.’

 

He stood, but there was no fight in his eyes, only a weary acceptance. ‘Just go, Ben,’ he told me. ‘And leave us be.’

 

I let the woman drop. ‘Yeah. I’ll do that.’ I spat on the floor as I left. ‘And, uh, try not to miss me too much, yeah?’

 

The diary and me were out of there.

 

She’d used code names, my mother, the crafty old dame, but none of that mattered, as she was talking to me through these words, guiding me on my path, reaching across the curtain of death to tell me where I needed to go, who I needed to look for. Most of the thoughts and events wouldn’t have made much sense to anyone else, anyway; she’d been drugged too much of the time. I had the feeling that I’d find out the truth for myself on this journey – no matter how nasty it got.

 

In the early hours of the morning, I sneaked away on a holiday bus, using my powers to blind all the passengers to my presence. I sat at the back undisturbed, lifting a few wallets and purses as the need took me, as people boarded and alit. Money was one thing I was going to need; after all, weapons don’t come for cheap.

 

‘I wasn’t expecting real customers.’ As he spoke, Blade-Man Eddie nursed the bloody nose I’d given him. ‘So you can understand my surprise earlier, when you turned up.’

 

Sneering, I looked around his comfortably middle class garage. For as long as I could remember, Blade-Man Eddie’s website had been one of my favourite places to go online; I loved looking at all the stuff he had for sale, and loved reading his vividly over-the-top descriptions of battles he claimed to have fought. On the site, Blade-Man Eddie purported to be a former soldier of fortune, selling off weapons that he’d plucked from the bodies of people he’d killed. In reality, he was a nerdy kid freeloading stuff he’d stolen from his grandfather and other old guys around town, all of whom were too senile to notice. Eddie was putrid. I liked him.

 

‘So who’s the guy in the photo, Eddie?’ I casually ran my finger along a wicked-looking bayonet, drawing a little blood but not really caring. ‘Since it so obviously isn’t you.’

 

‘Some foreign general or something,’ he managed to cough out. ‘I wasn’t expecting someone to turn up here.’

 

‘That’s the problem with asking for payment in the mail to your house. Why didn’t you just set up a PO box? Or a Paypal account?’

 

‘I guess I never thought of that.’

 

‘No, I guess you didn’t.’ My hands curled over some bloody chains hanging by the window, and a charge of sheer power ran through me, like I’d never experienced before. Eddie noticed, too, and gasped. I pulled them down, wrapped one around each arm under my coat sleeves, and told him, ‘purchase number one.’

 

He sunk his face deep into his hands. ‘You think my grandfather’s going to notice?’

 

I can be sympathetic when the mood takes me, and now was such a time. I put a hand on his shoulder, which now bobbed up and down in tandem with his sobs, and said, ‘don’t worry about it too much. You said he was mad, and in my experience mad people don’t tend to notice anything other than their own delusions.’

 

‘I hope so. I mean, he really loves some of this stuff…’

 

My good mood had passed. ‘Tough. I’m still taking lots of it.’

 

I walked out of there with a variety of blades and chains, all of them slotted nicely into the backpack that hung around my shoulder. I also left with the knuckles on one hand slightly grazed from my earlier greeting to Eddie. One thing that hadn’t interested me in his weapon lot was his range of guns; any punishment I had to mete out would come up close and personal. I would bathe in their blood by the time this was over.

 

I slid onto another bus, and the city swallowed me.

 

I’d never seen a real, live pimp before, so Potts wasn’t at all like I was expecting – no bling-bling jewellery, no big fluffy fur coat. But then, he’d moved on from the pimping business by now, according to my mother’s diaries. These days, he was a respectable businessman, selling and buying property – and still running prostitutes and rent boys on the side.

 

I followed him for days, powered by the link with my mother’s past that bonds me to all of my targets, hoping in earnest the whole time for him to park up somewhere and lose the two huge minders that literally never let him out of their sight. But no – Mr. Cautious never stopped, never slept a wink, at least not inside any houses. Instead he cruised from building to building, ferried in the back of a car while those two guardians sat in the front, keeping himself out of harm’s way. I began to despair, and the size of those two bruisers didn’t do me any favours, either; even at the safe distance I kept, they still looked mighty mean.

 

Hiding out on the roof of a shop, I began to rock and wail, moaning to myself, ‘mother, what am I going to do now? How do I get him? How?’

 

I was going at myself so hard that I barely even noticed when I passed out and went sprawling to the floor below.

 

I woke up with a friendly looking, very normal couple standing over me. The man, a business type, clean shaven and short haired, reached out a hand to me, saying, ‘hey, man, you all right?’

 

Groggily, I shook my head. It had been raining that night and my clothes (all black, naturally) were plastered to my skin. The lady, a blonde girl of about eighteen, petite but stacked in all the right places, put her umbrella over me.

 

I immediately decided to use them. ‘I’m an old friend called Ben,’ I said, ‘and you want to take me back to your home and let me stay the night.’

 

Needless to say, with talents like mine, it worked. And so a few hours later I found myself back at their house, lying on the couch while they whiled away in the bedroom – even my powers couldn’t get in the way of their libidos. They went for about an hour, and I got up from where I was lying and walked over to stand outside their room. What am I going to do with them? I asked myself. How else can they help me?

 

I was waiting for them to sleep before I answered the question. But then I heard him, giggling as if he was the girl, say, ‘I don’t think I can again, yet.’

 

‘Really? Then why don’t I put the music channels on? I know how those pop videos get you in the mood.’

 

‘Mmmmm, I like it. Hit that remote, baby.’

 

And that took care of the next hour.

 

Finally they lay there sleeping, and I crept into their room and looked down at their slumbering bodies. Maybe I can practice on them? I asked myself. Having never killed anyone before, perhaps they could be human guinea pigs for me to work my magic upon?

 

I discarded the idea with no small amount of revulsion. Because, don’t get me wrong, I’m no indiscriminate killer. I was doing this all for a reason; Potts and the rest were going down because of what they’d done to my mother. These two souls, though, had done nothing wrong – in fact, they’d been kind to me even before I made them think I was a friend. They’d let me borrow clothes, although he didn’t have another all black-combo for me to take, and they’d let me dry my own drenched outfit, which now was back in my pack with the weaponry, just slightly damp now. So no way would I kill them; they were nice people.

 

Now Potts, on the other hand…

 

I resumed the hunt in new clothes.

 

Potts went into a building at two. He looked worried, scared, as the two minders ushered him in, looking over his shoulder a little too much – was he on to me?

 

I didn’t know. But by four, he hadn’t re-emerged.

 

Two more wasted hours for yours truly.

 

Throwing caution to the wind, I pulled out a chain and a hunting knife, stashed my pack away in some bushes, and went in after him.

 

I was swallowed by darkness even deeper than back in my old attic, a dark so deep that my hand in front of me was a vague shape only. About halfway down, I wrapped the chain tight around my left fist, and tightened my grip on the blade’s handle with my right – I was taking no chances. Not with Potts. Not with a man who had beaten up and sliced many a non-paying customer, and hospitalised a good half dozen of his girls for trying to withhold profits from him. He’d loomed larger than life in my mother’s life story, and though he was far from being the most dangerous foe I had to face (that would be you again, eh, Daddy?) I still needed to watch my back with him.

 

So I walked carefully past a few locked doors that I knew he wasn’t behind, still not seeing anything, moving entirely from instinct.

 

And then the cries hit me, cries and the sound of someone being hit repeatedly, the muted sobs of someone whose pain is kept hidden behind a gag. Right at the bottom of the hall, that’s where they were coming from, and though I ached to charge in there and make my first kill, I knew that running in this pitch black would be suicidal – I’d slip, they’d hear me, and it’d be end of days for me. Instead I marched briskly down the hall, keeping it cool, chain jingling with every step, until I stood at the door, planted my heel against it, U.S. cop style, and booted it open.

 

I saw…

 

Nothing on God’s green earth could have prepared me for what I saw.

 

I’d expected the badass pimp to be doing badass pimp style stuff – whipping someone, maybe, from the sounds I’d heard out in the hall. But instead of seeing this vilest of men in a position of power, putting his cock or his fists to use on some woman, I chanced upon the exact opposite: Potts was tied to a pole in the middle of the room, standing on bare tiptoes with his wrists bound high, stretching out his frail old arms to their full length, while the two guys, who I’d thought were his minders, took it in turns to beat the life out of him, one facing him and one behind him. ‘Shouldn’t have tried to escape again, bud,’ the one in front said as he pulled back for another punch. ‘That means we have to hurt you again.’ The punch flew, and connected. ‘I mean, you think we like doing this to you?’

 

The blood in Potts’s mouth made it kind of hard for him to answer, but I thought the reply he would have given was probably ‘yes.’ Because he had all the signs of someone who’d been beaten for a while; it took getting this close to show me that. The more I thought about it now, the more I saw how obvious the pimp’s real fate was. The way that they drove everywhere, taking it in turns to run the wheel, the way they never left his side, even during the business meetings I’d watched them go to; the truth had been staring me in the face all along.

 

It didn’t faze me. I mean, these weren’t even nice like the couple were, plus they were in my way. So two more boobs to take down, what the hell.

 

Right about now, the one behind Potts saw me. He stopped swinging, grinned, and walked over to a bloodstained baseball bat. ‘Looks like another friend has come to bust you out, Pottsy old boy,’ he said. ‘Remember what happened to the last one?’ At that, both of their ugly, shaven heads spun to a pile of bones in the corner. Then returned to me. ‘You see what happens to freedom fighters, boy?’

 

I spoke simply: ‘I’m not here to free anybody.’

 

He ran, swinging the bat high above his head, yelling ‘fucker!’ I let my beloved chain swing in return, wrapping it around his weapon and yanking him off balance with it, a move that nearly dislocated my shoulder, despite my extra strength. He came crashing into me, and we landed hard, the bat clattering away, my chain still wrapped around it in a lover’s grip. He sat up on me, and instead of going for the choke or the eye gouge I’d expected, he relied on his old friend the fist, pulling it back to whack down into my face.

 

But I didn’t give him the chance. I pulled the knife out from under me and drove it deep into his wrist, slicing it straight down a vein, and I squirmed out from under him just as the blood started to seep and he started to scream.

 

I didn’t see the kick coming from thug number two until it was far too late. I took the blow in the stomach, and it launched me across the room to make yet another undignified landing, this time on my behind. My body, still smarting from my fall off the roof earlier, tried to wave a little white flag, and it was a struggle against time to pick myself up as he stalked towards me, as everything except him started to run in slow motion…

 

I looked around frantically for a way to stall him, since my knife was still stuck in the other guy’s arm and my chain was still wrapped around the bat, and my eyes chanced upon the pile of bones lying in the corner. A grin spread across my face as I shouted a command into the big guy’s head – LOOK AT ME NOW! – and he slowly spun round to see the body. Or rather, to see what I put in his head. Which were the gnarled remains of the hands coming to life, creeping towards him, and the skull leaping through the air towards his throat. He was already screaming and trying to pull them off, powerless now, but I decided to step things up a notch anyway, by having the hands creep slowly up his legs, up and up, further still…

 

When they reached his groin, he fell to his knees. Potts watched it all, amazed and confused.

 

I walked over to the bat, picked it up, and then brought it down on the big guy’s head until his cries had finally stopped. Then I regarded Potts, the first piece of my jigsaw.

 

‘Should I kill him now?’ I asked myself.

 

Nah – let him sweat first, so he’ll suffer more in the long run.

 

It seemed like a plan.

 

After I led him out of his punishment place, I bought him food, (the condemned man’s last food and all that jazz), and I heard the full sordid story: how the two guys, Clarence and Bell, had wiped out all of his associates and heavies long ago but kept him around, letting Potts’s various customers believe that he was still running the slow whilst the whole time holding him a prisoner in his own life. Sometimes he tried to run away or tell someone the truth, and last night had been such a time. He spilled the whole thing to me without much prompting, thinking I was some kind of friend. The fool.

 

The pretence lasted a few hours, but every game must have its end, and so, as we walked through a park, I said casually, ‘I’m here to kill you, Potts.’

 

We stopped; much to my surprise, he didn’t run.

 

‘You what?’

 

‘You heard me, pimp. But first, I’m going to tell you a story. One about a beautiful young woman that you sold to some rock star.’

 

His face went white, realisation setting in. ‘But that was years ago!’

 

‘Nearly twenty, to be precise, but who’s counting?’ I pushed him onto a park bench and towered over him, vengeance in black. ‘And not that you care, but do you know what happened to that woman?’

 

‘She married the rock star?’

 

‘No. Oh no.’ I tensed my hands in expectation. ‘She married something completely different. And then she had me. Then she went mad.’ Her life in three sentences, and it made me sad, not mad. But madness was still in charge; make no bones (pardon the pun) about that.

 

‘Well, you can’t blame me for any of that!’

 

I grabbed his shirt, pulled him up face to face, and I saw just how pathetic he was, this fallen prince, this former tyrant. In my mother’s journal, he’d been a huge, steroid-guzzling monster, someone that women lusted after until they discovered his true self. Now he was old and shrunken, with shoulders slumped, beaten down by time, and I realised, as I pushed my eyes deep into his mind, that the person known as Potts was already dead inside. But that wasn’t enough for me.

 

‘That doesn’t let you off the hook, pal. You started this whole thing; now you’re the first to start finishing it.’

 

I throttled him, lifting him high in the air and watching his face until it turned blue, until all life ran out of it, and then I tossed him into the bush, an off-hand throw. Even in death, no trace of his guilt appeared on his features. Sneering, leaving three corpses behind me, I moved on to stage two.

 

I popped in somewhere for food, and hey, what do you know? I saw my father.

 

It’s a pain, chasing someone who can hop bodies at will.

 

There were only five people in the American-style diner when I entered – two chefs out back, a couple and some guy talking on his mobile phone non-stop. Oh, and the waitress, a pretty blonde girl with her hair tied up high on her head. I ordered a burger, paying with money I’d taken from the two dead guys, and since it was late night, and there wasn’t much for her to do, the girl hung around my table, talking to me, being friendly, stealing touches whenever she could. ‘The name’s Sarah,’ she said, pointing to her nametag, drawing my attention to the breast that it was pinned above. ‘What’s yours?’

 

I’m normally short of patience with people, but tonight, after all I’d been through, I decided that I could do with the company. ‘Ben. I’m from out of town.’

 

She smiled at the couple as they left, and then put a hand on my arm and said, ‘I’ll go and check on your food. How would you like a drink with it, no charge?’

 

‘Yeah, why not?’ I watched her go, and then swung my gaze up, to where the guy was still talking on his phone. He smiled at me. Deciding that he was beneath me, I didn’t return it.

 

Sarah came back with a frown on her face. ‘I’m sorry,’ she told me, ‘but we’re having to close early tonight. Maybe you’d like that food to go?’ She fluttered her eyelashes at me to show that wherever my food and I were going, we wouldn’t be going alone.

 

‘Yeah, okay.’

 

‘I’ll meet you outside.’ She looked over at the phone-guy. ‘I just have to empty the place totally first.’

 

I stood and waited, and as attracted to her as I was, I couldn’t get my mind off the mission. Names and really painful ways to die swam in front of my vision, and I kept trying to match one up with the other, and I was having such a full-blown conversation on the inside that I didn’t notice something had happened to me on the outside.

 

Sarah did, though. And she screamed, dropped the food, and pointed.

 

I looked down.

 

Shit!

 

To say that I was scared would be putting it mildly. In the middle of the street, in the glow of a street lamp, I was fading in and out of focus, my legs, torso and neck disappearing until only my head fully remained, not invisible like on the coach and not visible like all other times, but somewhere in-between. I instinctively felt myself, and relief, I was there, but I wasn’t fully actually there; I couldn’t be seen properly. And I knew why. I’d lost too much of my human self to the vengeful, demonic side that comes from my father. This was what happened when I forgot that I’m half and half.

 

Panicking, I yelled ‘sleep!’ at Sarah, and she immediately hit the floor. I was halfway over to catch her when I heard laughing come from the other side of the road. Looking in the window of the diner, I caught the reflection of the man with the phone.

 

And then he disappeared totally.

 

‘You bastard,’ I muttered, running over the road without bothering to look for traffic. I’ve never been scared of being hit by a car or truck, as there’s no way I’m going to die in a vehicle accident. Not a chance, baby; this boy’s going out the same way he does everything: in style. But that’s off the point. The point is, when I reached the other side, I found nothing.

 

Except his phone.

 

Which started to ring.

 

I answered it without a ‘hello.’ Why bother, when I knew who it would be?

 

‘Nice try, kid,’ the voice said. ‘But you’ve got a long way to go yet.’

 

I trashed the phone and returned to Sarah. ‘You don’t remember coming outside,’ I told her, burning it into her brain. ‘You want to come with me now, and do whatever I say.’

 

She obeyed me. When she was back to normal, shaking off her grogginess, I took her hand, led her away from work, and said, ‘do you like rock music?’

 

Stage two was upon me, and with me controlling all she did, Sarah was going to be an invaluable part of it. Hours after meeting her, we took our place amongst the screaming, autograph seeking fans standing outside the local city hall, hoping to get a glimpse of their idol – the man I’d come here to kill. Back when he’d bought my mother from Potts, Jerry Murray had been the lead singer in a shitty bargain basement heavy metal band called Mental Rental Van, but now, a long, long time after going solo, he was one of the world’s biggest music stars, with more fans than I could ever hope to kill. Luckily, I wasn’t interested in the parent-shocking, eardrum-abusing fan base; I just wanted the man himself.

 

And I was getting him via his love of groupies, which my mother’s words had told me about. Pushing my way to the front of the mob, I managed to make Sarah slip a piece of paper containing her mobile number into his hand. He grinned at her and moved towards the limo, and after that, it was just a case of waiting for the call.

 

He arrived half an hour after speaking to Sarah, and the sound of his car door slamming was the sound of my mother’s past merging with my future. I looked up sharply, seeing the taxi he’d arrived in drive off, and turned back to Sarah. ‘Show time,’ I told her. ‘Get naked.’

 

Watching her do so pretty much took my breath away – and it clearly did the same for Jerry, who started disrobing the minute he saw her. I stood watching from the sidelines, out of view thus far, knife ready in my hand. She drew me out by saying, like I’d told her to, ‘you don’t mind if my boyfriend joins in, do you?’

 

He raised an eyebrow. ‘Well, it’s been a while since my last bi experience, but you know me – I’ll try anything!’

 

‘So I hear,’ I said, still standing in the shadows. ‘So tell me: when was the last time you sold some used-up old whore to a demon?’

 

With jeans halfway down his ankles, the stupid grin slid off his face. ‘Oh, Jesus. What is this?’

 

I leapt out, landing in front of him. ‘Revenge, Jerry.’ I backhanded him across the mouth, sending him flying. ‘Want some?’ And kicked him in the side as he squirmed. ‘Tough if not, because I’ve got plenty to give.’

 

He stared up into my eyes, recognising. He wasn’t going anywhere, so I told Sarah to dress, and then sent her to sleep and made her invisible, so no one would disturb her until I got back. When I turned back to Jerry, the prick was grinning at me.

 

‘What’s so funny? You into pain or something?’

 

‘Actually yes, but that’s not why I’m smiling.’

 

‘So what is it?’

 

The grin grew wider. ‘You want to see the video?’

 

Jerry’s luxury hotel suite was bigger than my old house – he signed me in as his ‘friend,’ which struck me as funny. I’d followed him in without thinking, lured by the promise of seeing my father in action, but as soon as I got inside the place, the whole thing started to yell out ‘trap’ to me. I guessed my inexperience was showing.

 

Jerry seemed genuinely interested in showing someone the legendary recording, though, and that intrigued me. I sat down on the huge couch, watching him with an icy gaze as he reached deep into his suitcase. ‘If you pull something out of there,’ I told him, ‘that fires bullets and has a name rhyming with ‘fun,’ then I’m going to take great pleasure in making you eat it.’

 

‘No weapons, man.’ The concept seemed to shock him. ‘I’ve seen what your kind can do when you’re annoyed.’

 

‘Then remember it well.’

 

‘I do, man, I do.’ He finally found the tape, and held it aloft like some kind of prize. ‘Got the little sucker. I went through this whole crazy stage of recording my whole life, every single detail…’

 

‘Save it for the next autobiography, Jerry. I’m on a tight schedule here.’

 

He was so used to being fawned over that my order wiped the smile straight off his face. He looked at my bloody hands, and nodded in agreement. ‘Yeah, I suppose you are. But you gotta take time to watch this, man. You won’t believe it.’

 

It started off with his usual narcissistic waffle – in that much, at least, he hadn’t changed. But then Potts walked through the door of his high security mansion, and everything changed… because of the crazy chick Potts had in tow, who happened to be my mother. He pushed her into a chair as he began business talk with Jerry.

 

‘Hey, man, get that camera out of my face.’

 

‘No can do, Potts. I film everything. I plan to get my own TV show someday.’

 

‘Yeah? Who’d watch a show about some rock star on drugs?’

 

The camera zoomed in on Jerry’s raised eyebrow. ‘You’d be surprised.’

 

Money was then exchanged for drugs, and after Jerry had snorted plenty of the latter into what passed for his brain, I watched his leering gaze fall over my mother. ‘And who is this fine piece of merchandise?’

 

I looked over at the present Jerry, enraged to see him enjoying this memoir. Logically, I knew that I could kill him now and watch the rest of the video with him dead at my feet, but the time just didn’t feel right somehow. So instead I swung the chain around and down, whacking it hard over his thigh. He yelped, and I told him ‘quit the smiling’ before returning to the past.

 

Just in time to see a further transaction between the two – this time for my mother, who didn’t even seem to notice the change in management, so out of it was she. The rest of it was an endless parade of parties and abuse; it was just starting to get boring when he entered the picture.

 

My father, or rather the body he was inhabiting at the time. People knew and feared him even in this guise; he was hiding out in the upper echelons of the music business, and the artists on this recording, Jerry and his equally hedonistic, high life loving friends, were terrified of what he could do to the careers that had become their lives. I have to admit, he came across as pretty cultured and sophisticated – until he laid eyes on my mother. That was when the lust appeared in his eyes, exposing the monster within.

 

It cut to another seedy drug-taking scene, this time with only Jerry and my father present. They were relaxing in a sauna, both naked except for towels, and I noticed a tiny mark of the inhuman on my father that most would have missed: despite the humid surrounding, not a single drop of sweat adorned his body. I tried to ignore how nervous that made me.

 

‘I’m quite fond of that girl in your entourage,’ he said to Jerry. ‘Would you ever consider selling her?’

 

‘You mean Amber? No way, man. You don’t know the things she can do.’

 

‘I do. That’s why I want her.’

 

‘Sorry, pal.’ He snorted a little more. ‘Anyone else you can have, but Amber stays here.’

 

‘I see.’

 

And he pulled off my stunt, bounding across the room faster than the eye or camera could comprehend, shedding his human body, which slid to the floor, skin and clothes all bundled together, and appearing in front of Jerry in his true form, black and flaming. ‘I don’t think you see at all, Jerry,’ he growled into the rock star’s face. ‘When I ask you for something, you give it. Understand?’ The last word was bellowed so loudly that Jerry’s hair was swept back from his head and the camera toppled over and off the tripod that bore it, catching everything that followed from a new position on the floor.

 

To Jerry’s great embarrassment, he started crying as he replied, ‘yes, yes, take her, take whatever you want, just please, don’t hurt me!’

 

With that, normality returned to the scene, the camera sprung back to its former position, moved without hands by my father, and they became just two guys in a sauna again. My father smiled, unnerving me further, and said to Jerry, ‘I’m glad we got that sorted out. Now – want to be my best man?’

 

The wedding, if it could be called that, was an unpleasant as you’d expect – with a bride half dead through drug abuse, sexual abuse and malnourishment, and a groom who kept alternating between human and demon to impress his greedy and selfish congregation, I guessed that this wedding probably hadn’t graced the cover of any celebrity magazines. Some friend of Jerry’s tried to hit on my mother before the ‘ceremony’; they were wed in front of his eviscerated and elevated form, tied up to a board above them, his body covered in the pins and needles that my father enjoyed using so much. Hence the name he was married under: The Lord of Needles.

 

There was a second of lucidity in my mother’s eyes, when the drugs wore off and the real Amber managed to poke her way to the surface. She looked, saw what her life had become, and as she fainted dead away, I knew that this was the second in which her mind had snapped. Totally and utterly gone forever. Which was probably a relief, as my father’s next act was to consummate the marriage in front of everyone. They laughed and hooted, this audience, and then fell into a massive orgy, one that used the newlywed couple as its nucleus, spinning around them in a circle of obscenity. Even the cameraman joined in, putting his work tool on a tripod like he had done in the sauna, and stripping off his clothes to join in the fun. I looked over them all, just before I stopped the tape, and made a promise by my knife: these, too, would pay the price.

 

Without looking at Jerry, keeping my back to him, I said simply, ‘you’re going down.’

 

‘Am I?’ came the reply.

 

Catching the threat in his voice too late, I turned around – just in time for him to empty a can of deodorant straight into my eyes.

 

It went in my mouth, too, and I fell down coughing, blinded, scared beyond belief, fully expecting him to stick a knife through my heart when I was out of commission. But then there was a huge crash, which came from the equally huge window being smashed, and then there was the sound of someone entering through it, despite this being the top floor of the hotel, and it was someone who changed the atmosphere of the place just by entering. The Lord himself; my father. Reaching down through the hotel with my mind, I felt how he affected every single floor, every room: hey, the TV’s gone funny; hey, this food smells off; Jesus, why is it so cold in here? And this was the man I’d come to kill? Had I really thought I was stronger than him? Had you?

 

Jerry clearly hadn’t been expecting him, but he took it all in his stride. ‘This is a surprise.’

 

‘I thought you’d be dead by now.’ From the sound of it, my father was hovering in the air, somewhere in front of me. I rubbed my eyes frantically, trying to will sight back to them, wishing that they could heal as fast as the rest of my body. But I am half-human, after all… and hope sprang in me, as I remembered my invisibility! I tried to turn it on; and my father laughed. ‘That doesn’t work with me, kid. I invented that trick.’

 

Jerry replied to my father, ‘me, offed by some kid? What would the papers say?’

 

‘But this isn’t just any kid,’ my father explained. ‘He’s half me.’

 

‘Still, I could handle him just fine.’

 

‘Really.’

 

Another loud sound split the room – this time of a hand tearing through flesh and bone, of blood exiting a suddenly torn open body at much too fast a pace. ‘No, you bastard!’ I yelled. ‘He was mine to kill! Mine!’

 

A slimy, clammy, skinless hand, covered in Jerry’s blood, stroked my cheek, and I ducked away instinctively, finally admitting to myself how scared I was to be facing this beast without sight, so scared that I was fading in and out of vision again, so scared that I pissed in my pants and whimpered for help that couldn’t come. ‘What’s the harm, boy?’ my father asked. ‘You still have me to kill, don’t you?’ And he laughed at the notion, and was gone.

 

I passed out, glad and surprised that only piss, and not shit, was currently staining my underwear.

 

Sometime later, my sight returned, and I walked to the mirror to check myself. I looked bad; I looked like what should have been lying in my undergarments. My eyes were bloodshot and puffy, and blood and slime dripped from my cheek, where my father had touched me. I removed my clothes, dumping them on the floor like my father had done with his skin on the video, and took a big long bath in Jerry’s suite, letting my mind roam through the hotel once again. He was gone; I knew this because all was peaceful throughout the place. I could relax for a while.

 

On my way to Jerry’s wardrobe, I came across a most welcome sight, one that put the smile firmly back on my face: Jerry moaning on the floor, still alive despite the huge split that had divided his body from throat to crotch. Too dumb and drugged up to die.

 

‘Hey, what do you know?’ I said cheerily. ‘Looks like pop isn’t the man after all. How do you fancy death, Jerry?’

 

From the sounds he made as I slowly removed his head, I assumed he hadn’t much fancied it at all.

 

I suited up in Jerry’s stuff and headed back to the park that I’d apprehended him in. Where Sarah became visible and awake again at my command.

 

‘Jesus,’ she said, stroking my face, concern in her voice. ‘What the hell happened to your eyes?’

 

‘I’ll tell you about it. I believe you invited me over to your place?’

 

In her pleasant dwellings, I’ve written all this down. I like Sarah, I must say; like her so much that I may stay here for a few months. Who knows?

 

But don’t think that I’ve given up on the mission, as this is far from the truth. In fact, I’ve kept a close eye on the news, studying newspapers and watching TV obsessively when Sarah is at work, and I’ve seen him three times, each time in a body that has just been found dead. I’d see the face of the deceased, and I’d see him laughing at me from behind it. He’s hopping bodies again, not hiding himself like he did in the diner, enjoying the thrill of being hunted, knowing that I’ll never stop until he’d dead at my feet. And I won’t; if it takes until my hair is grey and my teeth are false, I’ll see the score settled.

 

Are you reading this, are you?

 

There is nowhere you can hide.

 

I’m coming for you, Father.


“Shadow” by Shaun Avery

When I walk tall
My friend does too
But he doesn't have to try

When I feel blue
I guess he does, too
But I've never heard him cry

He's my only friend now
My shadow is
And I'd better not push him away

But behind our love
Is a deep mistrust
And an envy that grows every day

My shadow trails me
Head held high
No eyes look back at me

He's part of me
Without the heart of me
And he knows not what I feel

Because when all went wrong
Within our house
He was nowhere to be found

But now he taunts me
As the days wear on
And he follows me around

He's my only friend now
My shadow is
But he sees not my jealous side

He comes from me
But doesn't cry with me
And that's our biggest divide

Running out in front
Or lagging behind
Why should I expect him to care?

For what is his plain black surface
If not a symbol
Of my despair?

That will never end
With only an hated shadow
For a friend

“Asylum” by Shaun Avery

The left side and the right side of my brain
Got into an argument one day
They told me they would never speak again
I'm tired of going through life without them

So why don't you...
Take away my rights
Because I don't enjoy life?

I started messing all around with pills
I wanted to run far off to the hills
My family threw me inside of a room
I think their help may have come much too soon

But still they...
Took away my rights
Because I don't enjoy life

My friends took me not too seriously
Until that day my wrists began to bleed
Now I guess they don't want me in their club
So I can't tell them about hospital grub

You see they...
Love their rights
And they enjoy life

They're not like...
Me, who sits around and cries,
Who jumps through windows but doesn't fly

I don't want to end up living on the street
But god knows where else they would put me
I'm coming down now out of a bad spell
I still don't know why life is living hell

I gave them...
All my rights
Because I don't enjoy life

They sit and watch me inside of this room
I willingly signed up to living doom
And I want to go outside but I don't know
I worry that might be the final blow

Because...
Before I came here
I lived in fear
I never wanted to wake up each morn
But now I'm so sick of these walls
Of being enslaved when the darkness falls
So maybe it's time to think of being reborn

I think about it every day, escape
I hope my chance of making it is great
But what if I try and I fail again?
I doubt the wounds from that would ever mend

I gave up when I hated life before
But would I rather be suicidal or real bored?
The latter's what I feel inside of here
And now I feel my head begin to clear

Clear up or fear up, I guess it means the same either way

They ask me if I want to be re-tried
I say I'm too scared to go back outside
Inside I know the boredom will consume
But that's better than risking life outside this room

So I let them...
Take away my rights
Because I don't enjoy life

Take away my rights
I don't even want to try

“Blades & Grenades” by Shaun Avery

I see you stacking weapons in the corner of the room
And it's been a good few months since you let my libido threaten your womb
Your family says you'll leave me, but they're biased against me
And before they get their way, you see, we're going to have to bleed

For I'll be waiting for you, in the morn
With arms outstretched and bleeding from the wrists
With blades and grenades strapped to our belts
We'll slowly raise our fists
And before we blow each other up
We'll both say, "I love you"
For there's only one thing worse than arguing
And that's being apart again

Sticks and stones will break our bones
While insults corrode our souls
But that's okay
Because to break each other is our sole goal
Cooking food in the kitchen
I'm sure that if you could, you'd feed me poison
The only thing that stops you
Is that I've hidden all your things

That's why you're waiting for me, in the morn
With arms outstretched and bleeding from the wrists
With blades and grenades strapped to your belt
You'll slowly raise your fists
And before we blow each other up
We'll both say, "I love you"
For there's only one thing worse than arguing
And that's being without each other

The house we built on love is now a war-torn battle planet
And yet we still refuse to leave it
Whilst tearing up my photos of you
It strikes me that I'm missing you
Ever since I kicked you out today
For ruining all my fun

I always knew we'd come at one another
With arms outstretched and bleeding from the wrists
With blades and grenades strapped to our belts
We'd slowly raise our fists
And before we blew each other up
We'd both say, "I love you"
For there'd only be one thing worse than arguing
And that would be if we were apart again

Maybe I don't know, it's a mystery
Why misery is such good comfort to me
But I know why you won't go away
And it's this: no matter what you say
I know it's not just hate you feel
I know there's also love
When you're throwing knives at me

We should set a time, upon the morn
And come with arms outstretched and bleeding from the wrists
With blades and grenades strapped to our belts
We'll slowly raise our fists
And before we blow each other up
We'll both say, "I love you"
For there's only one thing worse than arguing
And that's being apart again

No one knows, to see us walking
That in private there's such passion to our hating
But that's okay, because when we're gone
We'll be the subjects of much talking
When they drag us out in body bags
Everybody will come and marvel
At the corpses of the couple that
Seemed so much in love

They never knew we spent our mornings
Kicking at each other and bleeding from the wrists
They never saw the blades and grenades
That we hid within our fists
When the explosion came they never heard
Our final "I love you"
Or knew that when our death came
It was better than living apart

I remember when we first met
You made me a changed man
You made me believe in an afterlife
And I loved you so much
That the idea of spending eternity with you
Was my idea of heaven
But a year on from that
We hate each other
And now this all makes me wonder
Is heaven a place where the sins we commit
The hurt we cause
All doesn't matter?
Will we hang out together like it all never happened?
Or is it like the Vikings thought?
Just one huge battle perpetually fought
Oh God, that's such a dreadful notion
When you go to heaven, whom can you fall in love with?
Is it the first, or the second, or the third, or the last?
And will your angel come at me with a piece of broken glass?
All these questions I wonder as my ghost floats around
And gazes longingly at your headstone on the ground
And then I see you coming at me,
I see that you're a ghost, just like me
And I remember that our hate spread like a disease
Even though it grew from love
It was the cause of much unease
Especially in the last days before we went too far
And started torturing each other
For our joint broken hearts
And there's a smile on your face
But your hands are behind your back
And as I smile and float towards you,
I'm not sure if you'll attack
For if there are blades and grenades in heaven
How soon after we say, "I love you"
Will we reach for them
And let them off
And destroy these pearly gates?

“Action Hero In a Haunted House” by Shaun Avery

His name was John Rix, and after an exemplary career in the Army that only ended after a messy scandal in his personal life (he discovered that his wife was having an affair, abseiled down the side of the hotel she was being unfaithful in, and took out both wife and lover in a hail of grenades and bullets) he took no shit from anyone. Following that little incident, which had left him unable to remain a soldier, he'd worked as a mercenary, taking down many an inner-city drug cartel or espionage organization, and in the police, where he'd avenged the death of many a murdered partner. In-between all these (busy man, our John) he'd trained up a champion boxer and defeated his own clone. But now he was retiring, and although the man selling him the house was pleasant enough, John would still wrestle him to the ground if he got too greedy.

Luckily, Mr. Burroughs, a gray-haired and mustachioed old gentleman, recognized him from the papers, and knew how blessed he was to be selling his home to such a legend – indeed, there was a certain sycophancy to his manner that John found both pleasing and familiar. "I hear you have a daughter, Mr. Rix. Aren't you worried about old enemies tracking you down here and kidnapping her?"

"No." Nonetheless, he picked up some ornamental piece of tat and discreetly checked it for bugs. "I have another new identity." Satisfied, he placed it back down. "Plus she hasn't spoken to me since a little argument I had in a hotel with her mother."

"Ah, I see." Burroughs ran a hand along the wall, soaking up many a memory. "I've had some good times here, Mr. Rix, I don't mind telling you." He looked up into the eyes of the legend standing in front of him. "And I'm sure you will, too."

Was there some kind of threat contained in those words? Rix returned his gaze long and hard, trying to find out. Satisfied, at last, that there wasn't, he said "yes," and bent down to check the table for explosive devices – you could never be too careful, not with the number of enemies he'd made in the last forty years of using guns, tanks and grenades to make the world a safer, less violent place. "I'm sure I will."

"So... you're interested?" This was going better than Burroughs could ever have imagined, and he decided to push things along to endgame so he could make his way to his new home.

"Yes. I am. Let's talk. I have a suitcase full of money here to open." He'd received that windfall for rescuing a millionaire's daughter from a trio of experienced kidnappers – one whose brother, it turned out, had been killed by Rix many moons ago. After sending all three to their punishment, the girl he'd saved had fallen in love with him, naturally enough after seeing the skill with which he'd taken out the criminals, but Rix mad a point of never mixing business with pleasure, and had so returned her back unmolested. Women could be so much bother, anyway; these days he got more fun polishing his huge collection of guns.

The old man's face practically split when Rix opened up the case. "Why, I've never seen so much money before!"

"This is a nice house. Let's talk trade off."

So they did.



Rix wandered around the house a few days later, feeling alone and vulnerable for reasons he couldn't quite understand. All he could tell was that something about the place bothered him.

No, not the place exactly.

The neighbors.

He'd walked amongst them expecting to be treated like a hero, like the icon he was, but he'd registered only disinterest in the people that hadn't recognized him. As for the people that had... they'd looked at him with something close to terror and disgust. Their fear he could understand, as through the media they'd seen him standing over the dead body of many a bad guy; they'd seen the damage that his hands could do, with or without guns in them. But surely the people of this community knew that the good and just had nothing to fear from John Rix? So why, therefore, were they so disgusted with him?

Maybe they think they're not good enough for me.

That much could be true, he decided. And they were probably right to think that. But part of him still wished that some of them, hell even one of them would take the risk to come and talk to him. He was, after all, a team hero, (even though he tended to be the only good guy left at the end of the mission), and being alone suited him not at all.

He sat down by the phone that never rang, tapped his fingertips against the table in frustration, and tried not to look too lovingly at the weapon room – the biggest in the house.



Gerald Macintosh was, in spite of the many blackheads on his face, considered the leader of his group of friends. This was a questionable accolade, however, as said group of friends consisted entirely of nerds and fellow sci-fi fans. Still, like all true leaders, he took great pleasure in exploiting and subjugating his subjects, and this was something he did now, enjoying the anguish on his friend's face as Gerald laid out a brand new plan.

"I don't know, Gerry," Charlie told him when he'd finished. "It sounds kind of... scary."

"You wimp. It's totally safe, man. We'll do it at night."

"But..." Charlie started and then shut up, reluctant to speak. This infuriated Gerald greatly – in his eyes, if a statement wasn't worth finishing, it wasn't worth starting. And he frequently told his subjects as much.

"But what?"

"But he's a hero, isn't he?"

"That's what makes it so funny. No one has ever played tricks on a hero before. Anyway, I'm an individual; why should I subscribe to society's view of what makes a hero?"

Charlie sighed and kept silent, but inside he was, once again, voicing a few doubts about their choice of commander.



Rix had painted one of the rooms on the third floor in opposing shades of green to remind him of his time in the jungle, and this was where he lay sleeping when he first heard noises from downstairs.

As he came awake and reached for his gun, (all in one move), he wondered which one of his old enemies could have tracked him down here. Colonel Godolphin, perhaps? He'd brought that terrorist in after the madman took over a high-rise building, holding all its inhabitants hostage. Rix had taken his crime, not to mention his negative comments against the country that Rix was proud to be a symbol of, kind of personal, and when he found out that one of the hostages in the building was his wife (before the affair), he'd gone on Attack Overload, wiping out all of Godolphin's henchmen and delivering the ringleader, after a slight beating, of course, to the police. They'd imprisoned the Colonel a long time ago, but Rix's foes had a habit of escaping incarceration and coming after him for revenge every few years. It was a tough life.

Still, the identity of his foe downstairs didn't matter, really; all that mattered was their trespassing here.

The noise in the kitchen, a consistent rattle of pots, pans and plates, grew louder with every step he took towards it, as if the intruder knew he was coming and actually wanted confrontation between them. He tried not to let the din phase him, but when he got to the bottom of the stairs and paused just outside the door, the noise suddenly cut off, plunging the house into a deadly silence.

Deadly for someone, all right. Just not for him.

He had planned, ever since waking, to go in quietly. But then he heard a word, one that blew his cool into fragments more than any grenade ever could:

"Daddy."

He rushed through the door, and he took in the whole scene instantly: his daughter, naked and spread out over the kitchen table, slit open from throat to groin but somehow still alive and groaning, even as the mad, blood-splattered chef raked around in her insides with one hand and raised a cleaver over her throat, ready to chop down, with the other.

Rix, without thinking, issued his standard warning: "drop it!"

The chef sighed wearily, as if he'd been expecting this. "As you wish."

The cleaver fell from his hands, slicing through Sarah Rix's throat and severing her head, which dropped from her rather surprised shoulders and rolled across the floor to lie at her father's feet. Where it started to laugh insanely, features on it running and melting until it was the face of a stranger, one he pointed his gun at and started to think the unthinkable about...



Something was definitely wrong with these people.

No longer was he getting the silent treatment from his neighbors; now he was being successfully alienated from them. It was always the same – they'd grow silent as he passed, then start mumbling about him when he was too far out of earshot to actually make out what they were saying. For reasons he couldn't work out, they didn't want him here.

Ungrateful bastards.

Depression was no friend of his – in fact, if it had been a human enemy, he'd have destroyed it with missiles and a cool one-liner long before now – but he felt it creeping up on him more and more each day. Not to mention the nights, and what visions like the murder of his daughter were doing to him. That chef... that damn chef. He'd chased the white wearing psycho all through the house last night, through the hundreds of rooms and hallways that only seemed to appear after midnight, and he was still no closer to catching the guy. But he would. One day. And then it most definitely would be personal.

This enemy was an enigma. Of all the people he'd had trouble with over the years – terrorists, drug dealers, intergalactic aliens, Communists, spies, robots from the future, anti-gun lobbyists – why was he so perpetually haunted by a cook? He couldn't remember having any problems with the people that brought him food.

To get far enough to discover the answer to that, he needed to do something new with his days, needed to get away from the house instead of just sitting in it watching the clock, waiting for a new nocturnal battle to begin. And he was sitting there mulling over his problems one afternoon when he had an idea: why don't I go out tonight?

It had been a while, he had to admit; the last time he'd been to a good party had been the time he saved the president's wife from two career criminals who'd been hired by a crooked congressman (all three had perished). The people around here were certainly no presidents, but he decided that he could grace them with his presence anyway. All it took was a quick call to find out what was on that night.



A few hours later would find Gerald having the time of his life – again, however, given the quality of his life so far (spying on girls changing, reading about spaceships, drooling about both) this isn't really saying much. In many ways, he was breaking the bonds of his own cowardly image tonight, and this provided him with the greatest thrill of all. The only disappointing thing was that his second-in-command Charles had been too afraid to tag along, so Gerald was lumbered with the ultra slow and lumbering Derek instead. Gerald frowned, thinking, something will have to be done about Charlie. He's a good friend, but if he hasn't the guts for stuff like this, then we'll have to part ways.

It was a harsh judgment but a necessary one. For something, you see, had happened to Gerald when he sneaked out of his house into the dark night. Some change had begun inside him. All this creeping around in the shadows and playing pranks on unsuspecting people had made him feel alive in a way he'd never known, in a way that nothing else ever had, and he liked this new feeling. And he wanted to feel a lot more of it.

He was just putting the much-used spray paint down when he caught a flash of light and slight movement from the corner of his eye, and he stopped suddenly, frozen by fear as he realized he'd been caught. But even as he began to wonder how long it would take to wash the smell of terror from his underpants, the front door of the house merely swung shut again, and no one emerged from it.

False alarm. It was still warning enough, though, that they were pushing their luck here. So he pulled Derek away from the wall and they took off down the road side by side.

It wasn't until Gerald was alone in his room that he had a chance to think about that creepy door opening, but when he did, he found that he couldn't get the event off his mind. The more he thought about, the more it seemed like an invitation.



Elsewhere in town, John Rix stood on a crowded dance floor trying to catch someone's eye.

It was pretty hard going.

He didn't know what fathers were telling their daughters nowadays, but if tonight was anything to go by, it certainly wasn't that they should go for big muscular men wearing combat pants, big army-issue boots, a bullet belt, war-paint on their face and a bandanna to keep the sweat from their eyes. He sighed to himself, and finally managed to make eye contact with a young girl wearing glasses across the room. She didn't look much like his type – in fact she looked like she could even be pro-peace, and he certainly couldn't be doing with that in a potential partner. She was, though, the only one to register any interest in him.

He was out of practice at this. With his ex-wife he'd just talked about his many achievements, then showed her his gun and flexed his muscles and she'd almost swooned. This one looked like she could be slightly more difficult.

"Hey, babe," he said, sitting down next to her. "I noticed you admiring my body."

"Hmm. Yes." She sipped her drink and looked him over. "I was just looking at all your bullet scars."

"Turn you on, do they, baby?" Could go all right, from here.

"No. I was just finding it highly improbable that one person could have so many and still be alive."

It kind of went downhill from there.



At the end of the disco, the most successful scorer was some dancer kid, someone who was thin and unscarred and yet still did better with the ladies than Rix did. The hero sat in his car and watched the wimp leave with a lady on each arm, heading back to some scummy student pit full of illegal drugs, no doubt. Rix watched it all with fury mounting, and sped home to take his frustration out on the ghosts inside his house.

He entered through the back door, and didn't see what had been done to the front of his home.



He had two surprises waiting for him in the morning, neither of them doing much to lighten his mood. First off, he found that everything in his kitchen was covered in mould; worse, the bacteria making it up were speaking to each other, keeping up an illogical discourse about anything and everything that almost drove him mad. So he staggered outside, into the garden, and saw surprise number two: a message that had been spray-painted onto his wall.

Killer OUT! Murderer OUT!

It was something about the lower case/capital letter combination that worried him as he looked around the street, looked at the people that remained all but strangers to him. Heavens, he thought, I haven't been this stressed since the time my wife found out that I was a secret agent, and not really a computer salesman. Even worse did he feel now, weighed down as he was by the oppressive glares and stares of this damn community. How could they be so resentful towards a man that had saved blessed civilization so many times? Didn't they care that he was a hero? He wanted to scream at them all, I'm normal! I am, damn it! I just have more balls than most other man, that's all! I still love to hang out and relax at home when I'm not shooting bad guys, and I still love to fuck! Why must you torture me so? I'm normal, straight, normal!

But he didn't shout at them. Instead he walked back inside, closed the door behind him, and shouted "will you shut up in there?" at the singing mould in his kitchen.



Gerald's fantasy took him back to the house, and while most bizarre visions take place in a dream while the viewer is asleep, he had things a little differently. After homework and a few hours of various sci-fi channels, he started doodling in his notepad and imagining what pranks he would play on the oh-so-brave John Rix tomorrow, and he soon pictured himself standing at the gates of the huge house again, about to step into the garden surrounding it. And then a strange thing happened: he crossed the line into sleep without realizing it, as there was no break in his fantasy – one minute he was in his room and seeing the building only in his head, and the next minute the room had vanished and he really was at the gates. Well, sweet, he thought, and decided not to question things too much. But since it was a dream, he thought he might as well take a quick sneaky peek on the inside.

Which he did, passing the gunroom with considerably less interest than Rix (a spaceship room, on the other hand, would have satisfied him no end) and ended up in what he knew to be the spare room.

Inside it lay his dream woman, the beautiful composite creation of many a TV cyborg, alien and intergalactic freedom fighter. She was tied naked to a bed, whimpering for help as a group of turbaned figures circled her chanting some kind of war cry. Although Gerald would normally have been terrified by full frontal confrontation, tonight seemed different, and he actually found himself longing for a battle with them. If only I had some guns, he thought, observing how heavily armed they were... then he looked down at himself and realized that he had somehow gained one in each hand, not to mention that a handy knife had been hooked to his belt. He was well and truly set, but just needed some way to grab their attention before he dealt with them.

It came to him in the form of a snappy one liner.

"Take your chanting to the Happy Hunting Ground, boys! It's time for payback!"

Okay, two-liner.

Gerald dived across the room, both guns blazing, and as he took out two of them with precise shots to the heart, he noticed something else about the situation that was rather strange; he noticed that none of the men could aim very well, noticed that all of their bullets only seemed to fly around him, hitting nothing but the walls. Only one came close, whistling over Gerald's shoulder as he landed beside the bed, dropped one empty gun, and brought his other up to bear. "Allah may be merciful," he exclaimed, "but I'm not!" Standing, feeling the bullets all around him, he killed the last three, and then turned to the maiden fair.

A little of the real Gerald came back at this point; stress made all of his zits throb simultaneously as he watched the woman, whose struggle to escape her bonds was doing wonderful things to her breasts. Was she his lover? Gerald wondered. She had to be. Who else would he risk his life like that for?

Finally free, she wrapped a sheet around herself and said, "thank you. I'm the luckiest girl in the world..."

Bingo! Gerald thought, and prepared himself for the best – actually the first – kiss of his life.

"...Having you as a brother."

His smile fell off and the house laughed, having played a trick back on him.



"Hello?"

Walter Jackson sounded just as sharp as always, and Rix now knew that he'd done the right thing by calling him. "Hello, Captain."

"Johnny-boy! My man! How's retirement treating you?"

"Not too well." He wrapped the bandage tighter around his hand – whilst chasing ghosts last night/this morning he'd missed a target and accidentally put a knife through his own precious skin; the pain was pretty bad but he'd had worse. "Can you get down here by the end of today?"

"Hey, are you kidding? I'd do anything for the man who went deep undercover with the mob to avenge the death of my son! What kind of trouble have you got, Johnny?"

"It's hard to explain. But it's bad."

"Bad? You mean worse than the time our team was picked off one by one in the jungle by that alien space hunter thing?"

"Even worse, Walt old buddy. And I need your help to beat it."

"You got it, my friend. I'll just go charter a helicopter."

With that, Rix went off to take care of some business of his own.



"I wish to see a Mr. Burroughs."

The receptionist looked him up and down; with some disgust Rix noticed that it was the girl who'd laughed at his bullet scars at the disco the other night. He was dressed the same today, but this time he had guns to go with the bullets. "Are you a relative?" she finally asked.

"No. I bought his house."

"I see. Well, I'm sorry, but you're out of visiting hours so –"

With an ultra-fast punch he sent her flying off her chair and to the floor, and then, noticing that two puny in comparison to himself security guards were coming towards him, he quickly pulled on his gas mask and threw a smoke grenade into the middle of the room. Even as it went off Rix was moving, never stopping until he reached the door marked BURROUGHS.

"Why'd you do it, old man?" He snatched his home's former owner up and growled into his face from behind the mask. "Who paid you off? Was it the Colombians?" As the smoke began to clear, he pulled off the mask so that Burroughs could see who he was.

"Mr. Rix! Good to see you!"

"Don't stall with me, old man, or you'll find your life span considerably cut!" He stuck the barrel of his gun against the man's chin. "Now tell me what you've done to that house!"

As expected, Burroughs's terrified gaze was stuck on the gun at first. But then his eyes strayed to the walls, flicking over Rix, and fixated on something there. Not used to being overlooked, especially when he was feeling this mean, the hero turned to see what was so interesting.

And saw that the walls were covered in shapes. Black shadows of people, bodies, explosions and guns. He saw his wife and her lover gyrating in there, how they'd looked seconds before he obliterated them, and just as he had that thought, the shapes changed, becoming his wife and her lover after he'd punished them, all burnt, torn and mangled. And here, seeing all of this in a gas-filled old people's home, full of panicking pensioners, he finally understood what was happening to him.

And so did Burroughs.

"You brought it all with you. The death follows you around. The house isn't haunting you; you're haunting the house!" He started pummeling Rix with weak blows. "I thought you were a hero." He started weeping. "But you're not!"

"Damn, you're right." Rix pulled the trigger, spraying the room with octogenarian brain cells. Then he sat down and started rifling through the old man's possessions, certain that he'd find something to help him out. He looked for a fruitless five minutes, as the smoke cleared up and his head did quite the opposite, before finally finding a newspaper article that explained one of the biggest mysteries.

WIFE OF NATIONAL HERO FOUND DEAD, screamed the headline. ALONG WITH WORLD FAMOUS CHEF TO THE STARS.

Chef.

His wife's lover, who'd he taken out with his favorite gun, had been a chef.

One who looked very much like the one he'd been chasing for the past few nights.

Nodding his head in recognition, Rix ran back to his car.



He and Walter Jackson returned to a state of sheer bedlam, to a house full of ghost and poltergeist versions of all their former enemies, including the highly formidable alien space hunter thing. With lots of grenades being flung and lots of rooms being decimated and walls being kicked through, it wasn't long before the inevitable happened and Walter fell.

"Tell my wife and kids I love them," he said in a typically moving death scene – no matter how many of them he'd seen (and he'd seen a lot) they always touched Rix. Touched him enough to make him hunt the killers down to a bloody, action-filled showdown every time. "And John... buddy... promise me... you'll... avenge my death."

Rix finally understood it all. He wasn't meant to retire, and now that he had this house to give him everything he needed, he would never have to. Here there were always battles to fight, dead partners to even the score for, new drugs to wipe out, new police officers to be partnered with that he'd hate at first but gradually come to grow a grudging respect for. As long as he had all that, he didn't need the community outside. So fuck 'em.

He was still lacking one thing, though.



Gerald thought he'd woken up in his room. But the strange surroundings said otherwise. For a start, why would his room be full of guns?

It was a mystery, much like the ones they sometimes showed on the sci-fi channels. Still, as soon as he got home he was sure that everything would be okay.

Just as he was thinking that, the door burst open, and through it walked the hugest, most grizzled and fearsome looking man that Gerald had ever seen. I'm dead, he thought. But instead of assassinating him, the owner of the house said simply: "just in time, son. I'm in need of a new sidekick." He tossed a gun to the boy. "Welcome to the Rix corp. Once you're in, you're never out."

Gerald stood. Rix watched him, then readied his gun for a fight that would never end.

"Load up, boy.

"We've got us a chef to catch."

“The Trailer Trash Nightmare” by Shaun Avery

Well hi, and welcome to y'all. I've got a story to tell, and this is how it started: I was enjoying a much-needed girly night out with Brandi, Candy, Chrissie and Kylie, and I only went and saw him. One Dwight D. Donaldson. If I hadn't recognized him from his bloodshot eyes, I'd have done so from his buckteeth, unshaven cheeks and pockmarked face.

God, he was sexy.

And he knew how to dress, too, what with those tracksuit bottoms and all of the gold on him that he'd bought from Argos – ooh, I'm getting wet just thinking about him...

Right, I'm back now. Sorry about that, folks; got a little bit carried away. So, where were we? Oh yes: the night that Dwight waltzed back to the estate a good few years after fathering the twins Beyonce and Brooklyn. I wasn't too thrilled to see him, of course, since I hadn't heard once from the rat in all of those years. I walked over to voice my rage, wobbling drunkenly in the six-inch stiletto heels that I was very proud of and that would be paid off with the catalogue company in just three short months. I stood in front of him and waited for his lecherous gaze to drift up from my ample cleavage to my eyes. Then I hit him with a devastating verbal assault.

"Dwight! Lovely to see ya, honey!"

Well, I tried to.

Thing about Dwight, though, is that he can make your words come out wrong sometimes, and this was such an occasion. And maybe it was a combination of the alcohol and the loud thud of the music, or maybe it was just that the batteries in all of my vibrators were dead and I didn't have the money to buy any new ones, but I ended up spending the rest of the night where I'd fought so hard to escape from back in the old days: wrapped around his little finger. So much so that I invited him round for tea one night.

I'd tell the twins about it as soon as I could.

As soon as my hangover wore off.

"Daddy's coming round, kids!"

"Which one?"

Little Brooklyn had a point. In the years that Dwight had been gone, all eight of them, the louse, I'd tried to fill his space, both in the family and in my big second-hand bed, with any number of temporary uncles that the kids had naturally come to regard as father figures. I had to drag them right back through their memory banks, past John, Peter, Keanu, Christian and Justin (those two being brothers who didn't speak now) to locate their true blood father. They seemed less enthusiastic than me, though, which I suppose was natural after such a long absence from him. But I still smiled at them both, and rushed them out of the house so they wouldn't be late for school again.

With no children, no job, and no pets to look after following that rather nasty animal cruelty charge, my day was kind of empty. So I watched talk shows for a few hours, spoke on the phone to Kylie for a few more, and then decided to doll myself up for Dwight's almighty return.

It never came. Plus, I'm ashamed to say, the kids had predicted his non-showing even though I hadn't. "Stood up again, eh?" little Beyonce said, touching my hand soothingly. "I'm glad that never happens to me."

Quite reflective for an eight-year-old.

I saw both kids off to bed in a right mopey state, and sat up all night wondering just how I'd let myself get suckered again.

And I didn't think things could get any worse, but then the next morning I was proven wrong, when I saw him exiting Brandi's house – with a kiss on her cheek, no less!

I wasn't angry with her, though, not even for a second. After all, she didn't know about Dwight and me, as our affair had been a secret. He'd told me, way back when, that it had to be that way because some very bad men were after him, and would hurt us all if they found him. So I'd always lied to the rest of the girls about the identity of my children's father, inventing names and personalities as the mood took me. I'd actually gotten quite good at the whole lying thing in the end, which came in handy when I had to conjure up an explanation to the kids about what I'd spent their dinner money on that week...

But back to Dwight, the creep. He knew, even if Brandi didn't. And since he'd seen me out with the rest of the girls on Saturday night, he also knew that he was messing around with a very good friend of mine. I just didn't know if he was doing it on purpose to hurt me or not.

Over the next week or so, he stayed nights at Chrissie and Candy's, too. I know this because I watched him, from a variety of hiding places. The kids, luckily, could fend for themselves, and my absence from the house during these occasionally lengthy stalk-a-thons was barely even noticed.

As much as I held no blame against, Candy, Brandi and Chrissie, I still felt that the only real friend I had in the world, apart from my vibrator, of course, was Kylie. Now Kylie Oaks was the smartest and prettiest of the whole gang, and these were attributes that she had managed to pass onto her lovely daughter, Holly, who I cared for dearly. Kylie was always full of moneymaking schemes, and her latest one involved the giant trampoline in her garden. She was charging the local kids 50p a go... and if a child couldn't afford that, as so many couldn't around here, then Kylie brought their father into the house, closed the blinds to get some peace, and worked something out with them. I don't know what sort of bargains they made in private, but both father and the elder Oaks always came out of the house smiling!

Of course, my problems were a little greater than hers, what with Dwight still ignoring his family duties. But the more I watched him from afar, the greater my lust for him grew, in spite of his bad behavior towards us. What can I say? Those rotting teeth and that greasy hair really seemed to push the button on Sewerville Estate.

He finally showed up at my house on Thursday, somehow picking a night when I was alone in the house. "If you're expecting an easy time, Dwight D. Donaldson, you can forget it. I know what you've been doing and I – "

He cut me off. "I brought a present for my son." And with that, he pulled something into the room behind him.

A state-of-the-art laptop computer, I found when I opened the box. "D-Dwight," I said, shocked. "How on earth could you afford this?"

He hitched his dungarees up proudly. "I've moved on up in the world, Susie Sue. Only the best for me from now on."

"Does that mean me, then, does it?"

He smiled, revealing the green teeth that drove us all so wild. "You know it, babe."

The computer didn't come as that much of a surprise, really, as there had always been something special, something much classier than any other guy, about Dwight. Whereas all of my boyfriends before him had settled for having sex in the back of cars (stolen ones, normally) or in the back alley behind the bar that I'd just met them in, Dwight had insisted on taking me to a motel on the end of town before giving me a servicing. I hadn't thought about that in years, but it came back to my head without much effort, and I was surprised to find that I remembered every single little detail about that night, which had been our first. I blushed and coughed and tried to stay mad at him.

It didn't work, especially when he gazed out of the window and let a single tear roll down the unusual contours of his face. "I just wish that we could be a proper family, darlin'..."

I nodded, watching him lovingly. "Those really bad men still after you, huh?"

"What?" He seemed confused, his face snapping up sharply for a second, but then understanding dawned on him and he nodded right back. "Oh yeah, that's right. Bad men, yeah, of course."

"You're still a mystery to me, Dwight, after all this time." I rubbed my big gold hoop earring distractedly. "So, you going to spend the night or what?"

The next morning, when Brooklyn came in from wherever he'd been all night, he loved his new computer. And I, without hope of redemption, still loved his father.

Who had dropped a business card before leaving. I found it lying next to my high-heeled shoes, and picked it up to study it. Cheapskate Motel, it said. For all the indiscretions you want kept a secret. Below that bold title, it said in smaller letters, Special rates for politicians and cheating celebrities. Hmm, now that I came to think about it, I did recall seeing a couple of famous faces last time I was there. I decided to visit the place that my love still called home – a little for old times sake, but more because I wanted to catch the bastard doing something I didn't like and then force him to do something I liked very much.

I left immediately. The kids knew better than to ask when I'd be back.

The place was just as I remembered it – but then, not a great deal ever changes in Sewerville. Teenage mothers, like me, keep breeding teenage mothers, with barely a father in sight – although plenty of "uncles."

I wasn't normally so negative about the place I live in, but a few hours before heading out to Cheapskate Motel, I'd heard at the local shop that Chrissie's daughter Cassie was pregnant. Well, I'd rushed over like any good friend would, and asked the soon-to-be grandmother just how she was feeling, and, more importantly, what she'd said to the girl after being told the news.

"Told her she was seventeen," Chrissie had told me. "And at least she was two years older than I was when I got pregnant with her." Then she'd looked me in the eye and asked, "more coffee?"

I declined, and as I left, I found myself confused about how I should feel. Oh, don't get me wrong, I wasn't worried about how little Cassie would cope – after all, she had plenty of people to ask for advice, and it wasn't like getting pregnant at an early age had ever done any of us any harm. No, it was just that something seemed wrong here, with all these events – Dwight's return, his infidelity, and now this – coming all at once and knocking me right off balance. And at the heart of that wrongness seemed to be the object of my desire, whom I still couldn't quite work out. All the signs of familiarity, of him seeming, on the surface, perfect Sewerville material, were there, but they didn't add up right. Something about him niggled with me, from how he could disappear for eight years and just come back like nothing had changed, to how he could afford a computer like the one he'd left the other day when he was still living in a motel. I wanted answers.

I used the kids" pocket money to pay for a room, but that was obviously just a ruse so I could get into Dwight's room. Which I managed to do with relative ease, since the dozy bleeder had left the door open. I waltzed straight into number twenty, and it wasn't until the door was closed behind me that I felt the first bit of unease. Everything about tracking him here had been so simple, and yet he'd managed to evade me for so long beforehand. I needed time to think and –

I suddenly got the feeling that something was going to happen, and looked around the room to see where a surprise could possibly come from. Then I heard a scraping noise right in front of me, and snapped back to attention there.

The noise came from green fingertips caked in slime rapping against the glass of the window. As I watched, it slowly slid up.

And a hand reached in, one covered in scales as well as that oozing slime I mentioned before, and started pulling itself in. I caught a glimpse of a body equally vile, and heard a soft hissing voice say, "it feels so good to get out without all that skin for a change. Oh, this is the life." Then I ran, and because I couldn't make it back to the door without him seeing me and maybe also because I still wanted to know just what was going on here, I looked around for a hiding place, found one and dived into it; I lay under the bed, eyes peering out, and waited for the Dwight-thing to make his next move.


Dwight getting ready in the morning when we were a couple:

He gets up, wobbling a bit from drinking too much the night before. He checks the black eye he got from fighting when drunk. He pulls on first one Reebok sock, then the other. He cooks a full English breakfast, pulls out a fresh tracksuit, and spends a few hours deciding where to go first – the pub, or the job center.


Dwight getting ready in his motel room, as I hid watching him:

He swings open the bathroom door, and there is something hanging up on it. When the lizard thing steps into it, I realize that it is Dwight's body – or what I'd thought was Dwight's body. He speaks some weird words in a strange language, and the skin moulds itself to him, hiding the true creature beneath. Then he sits in front of the mirror, and picks up a facemask in one hand whilst applying low-grade glue to his real skin with the other. He sighs, says "this is the part I hate the most," and sticks the human face back on. He pulls on some fashionable socks and then slides his feet, now looking normal, into some cheap imitation of a designer brand pair of shoes. The transformation is complete, and so seamless is the result that I wonder if I've imagined the whole thing.

He put on a little aftershave and left the room. Where are you going tonight, you bastard? I wondered. And who with? Eh?

But the only answers forthcoming were the ones I would have to find for myself.

I'd been so stupid, believing that only I had given birth to little Dwight juniors; the table was covered in them, and the mirror was surrounded by them: photos of his children. And a lot of them I knew from Sewerville – especially the pictures of Brandi's two kids Cocoa and Strawberry.

"How long have you been doing this?" I said to the room, but really addressing a Dwight that was no longer there. "And how come all of your kids look so totally different?"

Thinking I was alone in the room, I didn't really expect a reply.

But I got one.

"I think I can answer that, miss."

I followed the voice to the cupboard, where earlier my love had pulled his mask from. I swung it open, and gasped. It was full of faces just like the one I knew of him, all totally different, all lying there full of a kind of life that I couldn't understand – and one of them was talking to me. Explaining to me. And when I finally understood, (which took a few explanations), I made a phone call to Kylie, and told her what had been going on as best I could. And then I wrote Dwight a little note, before leaving with a few of his possessions.

His call came a few hours later, and his voice was colder and meaner than I'd ever heard it. "Give me back my faces, Susie Sue. I'll only ask once."

I was in the kitchen at Kylie's house, trying to keep calm by focusing on the well-used trampoline outside. "I've got you sussed, Dwight," I replied to him. "Can't function with just one face, can you, eh? With just one identity? Well, you're going to play my game now, honey. That's right. By my rules." I hung up.

The face he was using to seduce the top computer programmer was, predictably, the smartest. He'd told me about the bizarre relationship between the face and the thing that wore it; how the creature on the inside molded itself to match the skin it was in. What the skin was made of, how it lived and thought and where they all came from weren't things I needed or wanted to know; in fact, I'd only had two questions. Number one: "But why was he using the same face for all of us in Sewerville?"

A spiky-haired face with a heavy-metal look to him coughed up my answer. "He seems to like that one most for your area. Something about the zits and buck teeth, I think."

And number two: "How come my kids, and Brandi's, and Chrissie's, are all normal, and not like him?"

The smartest face of all, the saleswoman-seducing one, answered this one. "His genes are very recessive. And if he wanted to have children that looked just like him, he'd go with the female of his species, not you. He wants his children to look like you."

Even Kylie had to admit, it made a certain amount of sense – have kids with green skin and claws, or have beautiful bouncing children like Cocoa, Brooklyn, Beyonce and Strawberry? It was a no-brainer, even if he didn't exactly go out of his way to see them. I looked over to the older, wiser woman, and she said simply, "phone the rest of them. It's time."

Dwight arrived like a true Sewerville boy – not because he blazed into town way over the speed limit, but because he emerged from the car holding a crowbar and looking like he was ready to use it. He'd changed out of his body suit on the way, and it felt strange seeing him in his true persona, scampering up the path to the house on green, scaled feet, but each of us knew just who he was. He walked through the late night rain, tapping the bar against his open palm, and gently pushed Kylie's front door, which opened just as easily as his motel room door had before. He came through the hall without turning the lights on. "Just hand over my stuff, Susie Sue, and no one will get hurt." He was too arrogant not to add, "but you might still, anyway." We heard him come a little closer. "What if I've grabbed the kids, Susie? Maybe they're in the back of my car now, all tied up and waiting for Mommy to come and save them."

"Please," I couldn't resist replying. "If I don't know where they are, how could you?"

That must have enraged him, as he came crashing into the living room with a roar – and that was when Candy flicked on the light, letting Dwight see what we had in store for him.

It was a cacophony of noise, carrying with it the threat of pain.

A lot of the living faces cried and screamed, knowing what could happen to them if their owner didn't play ball, and if I'm honest, I'll admit that I felt a little sorry for them. But what else could we do? We had to force some responsibility from the man-thing that had fooled us all, and this was the only way.

Each of us held a lighter (borrowed from our kids) in one hand and a face in the other, and we were ready to use the former on the latter. We stood around a chair and lots of rope. "Give it up, Dwight," Kylie warned him. "Or you know what happens."

He dropped the bar immediately, panic falling over his face. Chrissie and Brandi pushed him towards the chair, and Kylie, our leader and the only woman here not to have been duped by the creature, tied him up.

His cockiness was boringly predictable, and as I checked the knots, I wondered how I'd ever been charmed by it in the first place. "You can't hurt me, girls. I'm more than you. I'll be out banging and impregnating in hours, and there's nothing any of you can do to stop me."

"Really?"

"Yes, Susie Sue, really. And may I just say you were a lousy fuck."

"You may." I leant in close to his face. "Now listen. We did a check on you, Dwight. Brandi over there tried to track you down years ago. You know what she found out?"

"What?"

"That you have a police record. Seems you are only human, after all."

"So?" The talk was big, but I could see the panic in his dark eyes. Time to tighten the noose.

"So a man with a record can't ever disappear from us again. Not totally. And we're going to make you pay."

I leant even closer to his face. "We're going to make you pay child support."

Closer still.

"For all of your kids."

He didn't stop screaming for a full twenty minutes.

“A Corpse with Ambition” by Shaun Avery

Day 3

After spotting a fresh set of boils on my chest, I spent a good ten minutes prising one of the filthy bastards off. Hurt like a bitch, but I was past caring.

I guessed I had about a fortnight before it got to my face and I couldn't conceal it anymore. How much fun could I get up to before then? I'm guessing lots.

P.S. The holiday trade is going down the pan at the moment, understandably, but the ads still come thick and fast. I saw one for Butlins holiday camp as I left for work. "Come to life," the perfect-skinned singer says on the jingle. Almost bust a gut laughing. Then I headed to the office.

The drive to work was as amusing as ever, but at least I got to laugh at the fallen landmarks, devastated by enemy bombs, and all the people buzzing around them like flies. Pretty stupid; if they could see what I've got, live with what I've got, you can bet they'd lock themselves at home, safe from mutation. Too late for them, though. And far too late for me.

Work growing duller... or was it just my head doing a turnaround? Yeah, well, whatever, it was still all I could do to stop myself from diving over my table and tearing Mr. Brett's head off.

Mr. Brett.

Oh, how I loathe my boss. He was tedious enough before, or perhaps I was just more tolerant in my pre-decline days, but since the war started he's appointed himself as morale officer, and taken to coming out with all these "we must keep hope" speeches which the rest of the office idiots see as rousing but that I find about as dull and unconvincing as the old British propaganda movies they used to show during World War Two.

Driving back, watching the elite fire squad put out yet another explosion, I found it amazing that we could manage to live, function as normal, during such times. Then I pulled off my tie, unbuttoned my shirt, looked down at my new assortment of boils whilst thinking of the day I'd just sat through, and I sighed, and I believed it.


Day 5

Woke up in the middle of the night with a screaming pain in my head, put my hands to my temples and lay there wincing, unable to move and scared halfway to death that this was my moment, my endgame, that I was going to die before kicking out the jams just one last time, motherfuckers, and made about a thousand promises to myself about things I would do if I survived this night of sheer panic, until it stopped.

The pain was getting steadily worse, starting to take a mental toll as the physical flaws increased, I realised; pretty soon, things would start to fall off.

I was looking forward to it. If I can just keep my head together through the whole mess, I reminded myself, then I'm in for a grand old show.

All this serves me right, I thought as I beat a slow path through some bad (is there any other kind?) traffic later. The thing about war is this: it keeps you scared, but it also removes some dull social restraints and bonds - does that make sense? When I was ten or so, myself and a friend found the body of a dying hobo under a bridge, and we kept coming back every day until he was dead, and then, after watching a TV show about a coroner, we decided to open him up. We had some fun with him and his insides, and we would have carried on having more and more fun, but his bratty little brother followed us one day, and he blabbed to his parents, and they spoke to mine, and needless to say, they put an end to our friendship, both parents blaming the other's child for everything. Mine sent to me to stay with my aunt and uncle for the summer. My uncle was a stern man who took a dim view to my experiments, and many were the nights he came to my room, belt in hand, to vent his fury on me. The day I went home, I pissed in his shoes and then put razor blades in them, just for good measure. They were discovered before he put the shoes on, unfortunately, but no matter. A few years ago, I headed back to the farm, finished off the job on him, then dug up my auntie, who'd been dead for about four years by then, and danced with her in the moonlight to a jolly tune in my head. What can I say? Old habits die hard.

This started a healthy interest in the dead, so when I saw the mass burial mounds waiting to be burned, I couldn't contain myself; I bribed my way past a disgusted-looking soldier, and immediately made my way over to an attractive blonde teen. I mean, come on, guys; how was I to know that her sumptuous young body was riddled with illness?

Midday. Headache had returned, and was certainly not helped by being forced to work with Lucy and Phil. The latter is a local playboy who's humped his way through half the office, and the former is a student working here in her gap year who was only too ready to tell us that she's modelled with some of the world's finest, and it's common knowledge around the place that he's sticking it to her, even though she has a boyfriend who's off fighting somewhere. Personally I'd love to tell said boyfriend just how faithful his partner is being in his absence; if only I could get his number somehow...

Anyway, I just about made it through the day and I was getting ready to make my escape when Mr. Brett called us all together, announcing, with glee sicker than anything I could ever come up with, that we would all go to a karaoke night tonight, to raise morale. "I expect everyone to attend," he said, casting an eye at me, since I was a man notorious for lack of group spirit, a man who'd been forced to pay a fine for non-participation in every charity event we've ever ran here in our oh-so generous office. A grin as wide as your arm spread over his face as he said, "it'll do us all good, right?"

Right.

Damn the man.

I didn't really fancy it - I've heard my co-workers sing many times, and believe me, it's not a sound for the faint-hearted - but I saw no point in causing trouble before the right time, so I dragged myself along. As rank decreed, Mr. Brett went first, singing with Polly, a manager that everyone thinks is a lesbian. Afterwards, he sat beside me, wearing a smug grin on his face. "I sang a little when I was younger."

"Really?" It hadn't shown.

I sarcastically told Phil and Lucy they should do a duet version of that shitty song "Something Stupid," and the two pathetic bastards looked at each other sappily, actually taking my suggestion seriously. The thought of them sitting on chairs singing to each other was intense, and threatened to send me off into waves of violent delirium, but I managed to hold on. Needless to say, my request to do "I Hate Led Zeppelin" didn't go down too well, so I stepped out the back when no one was looking, thankfully missing my chance to see the two reluctant lovers serenade each other.

Unable to sleep, head filled with tangled images of my own diseased body and the terrible state I left my aunt and uncle in so long ago, I soon found myself down by the corpse mound again. But this time I had plans of a different nature, plans that would make Burke and Hare proud. The lovely blonde that gave me the disease had been burned, so I picked another for my purposes, an overweight, ginger-haired housewife. I grinned as I shoved her in the back of the car, thinking of my great idea.

I managed to avoid the heavily armed, heavily armoured soldiers as I made my way to a sleazy motel and booked a room for three nights. "I want total privacy," I told the man. "And no one must enter the room when myself and my friends are not present. Is that clear?" He just shrugged apathetically - as long as I wasn't a pest, what would he care what I did with the room? - and handed me the key.


Day 6

Had the great dream again. In it, I was getting it on with this hooker with massive tits, and, having already taken her up her back passage, I was getting fairly into it as I took her from the front, and I was just biting her neck, which she seemed to love, when it happened: the disease had finally spread, and my tool came dislodged inside her. She didn't know, though, and she just kept writhing on the bed beneath my now incomplete body. I woke up in soggy shorts and sheets, glad that the dream hadn't come true. Yet.

Dinner with Phil.

"Listen, I know you and Lucy must have a hard time finding a place to go." I cut off his protests, his denials of activity with her. "I had a nice weekend away with a girl all sorted, but she's had to pull out; why don't you have the room?"

Had he been in full control of his senses, he might have shot my story down with some well-placed questions. Luckily for me, he wasn't thinking with his head, and he accepted the key with heartfelt thanks. "Forget it," I told him. "What are friends for?"

I followed them the entire way, trailing them from Phil's house, where they spent a good half hour getting re-acquainted with each other's bodies, all the way through cracked streets filled with whining kids, burning houses and broken down parents, to what passes for temporary accommodation in that forlorn part of town near the corpses.

"It was nice of him to let us have the room," Lucy said, and for a moment I was surprised by her gratitude; at work, the thin blonde girl could come off as being very cold with a tendency to look down on everyone except her partner in infidelity here, so this expression came as something of a shock.

Not as much of a shock as the one she got when she went into the room, of course.

Phil and Lucy, expecting a night of illicit passion, found themselves pulling back the bed sheets to reveal the infected body of a middle-aged housewife, one who'd been in a worse enough state before I'd had my fun with her, one whose disease-riddled body lay cut open and spewing out misery and death at them. I watched them run out into the night, Lucy spitting out pieces of vomit as she ran, Phil telling all about what he would do to me tomorrow.

Why wait until then? I thought, and dived out of the shadows and into them.


Day 9

When it happens, it happens fast. Boils all over my chest, making it a real bitch to button my shirt. And as if that wasn't enough, Mr. Brett found out somehow. He called me into the meeting room, and all of the directors were standing around the table, looking grave and solemn in their black ties/white shirts, and I realised, for the first time, that they looked like they were at a funeral. But whose? Use your loaf.

"How long have you had it? Where did you get it? How could you have put all your colleagues, your friends, at risk?" The questions came thick and fast, unlike the solutions. "Don't you feel any guilt for what you've done to Phil and Lucy?" Now how the hell did they know about that one? I shook my head, frantically trying to rid myself of the influence of their words, and it wasn't too hard; all I had to do was think of every office argument I'd fought and lost, every terrible assignment I'd been handed from up on high, and my eventual reply was full of vitriol:

"You've all got it, ha-ha! And now my job's done, I'm out of here!"

I dived onto the table, expecting someone to stop me, but they didn't, and I ran, all the way to the end of the table, and instead of dropping back to the floor, I jumped forward, flying through the air until I met the window and went through it, sprawling into the open air and letting gravity do its work, falling, falling, falling to the ground, to my end, getting the bitter last laugh on the system and the illness...


Day ? anybody's guess

And who should I see upon my awakening but Phil and Lucy, shuffling through a packed hospital, hate in their eyes when they looked at me? "We can cure anything these days," a voice told me. "We can stitch soldier's arms back on and send them back into battle; that's why this war will last a very long time. And they finally found a cure for The Illness. So, when they've given you a nice new body, you can come back and earn your forgiveness. Oh, I know it will be hard and long, but we'll hire the best therapists money can buy, and one day, you and Phil and Lucy will all be able to work together again. We'll be together for a long time yet, my boy."

I looked up. Just in time to see Mr. Brett and the board of directors staring down at me.

“Wife Swap Massacre” by Shaun Avery

It sounded like such a damn hoot; how can you blame me for going along with it as far as I did? I said that much to the jury, though I guess it didn't do much to sway their opinions.

Yeah, I can tell what you're thinking of me. It's as plain and as cold as these chafing handcuffs.

Funny I should remember that. George knew, and had always known, that I had a semi-crush on his wife Sandra - she was a fabulous piece of work, a former model that had settled for relative normality with us, occasionally returning to the cat-walk when the urge came. Not that life in Paradise Heights was always typically normal, of course; last year we had some nasty business with the town's former inhabitants, a bunch of common riff-raff that claimed they'd been forced out of their homes to make way for us. They resorted to terrorist extremes against us, and one of our valued residents, Bill Forester, got himself kidnapped by them. Ever since his escape, he's gotten kind of quiet, which is a sad end to a once great man, a once great teacher, which makes it doubly worse. Anyway, as I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself, because he knew I had a harmless crush on his wife, George took great delight in tormenting me with details of the sexual games he and Sandra got up to. Including, you guessed it, the old bondage/handcuffs/prisoner routine.

Kind of funny, really, in a nasty kind of way. A bit like this whole story.

It goes without saying, though, that I never expected my own wife to go in for such kinky stuff. I mean, you could tell Sandra would be into anything that made her feel good, feel pleasured; it was in her eyes. My wife was different. And things between Eileen and I had been... not exactly boring, but sort of stale of late. Too much work on my part, and too much... well, I didn't know what on her part. We hadn't been talking much, spending too much time in the spaces that can create themselves between people. A sad fact but a true one, and we're all here for the truth, right?
However nasty it might get.

When I finally broached the subject with her, however, over a caviar meal with the very same friends I'd soon be sharing her with, she was more receptive than I'd expected. Later on that night, she was enthused enough to instigate lovemaking, and she arched her back in pleasure, then pushed me over and got on top and whispered in my ear as she writhed and squirmed and drove me further into her, "let's do it" And since we already were doing it, I guessed what she meant. Who was I to argue?

"We'll start off lightly," George was soon telling me, spreading his hands across a sheet full of names as if he were a General and this was a map of a battlefield that must be won. "Just us, you, and a few others. People we can trust."

"A few?"

He looked up at me, surprised by the naivety of my question. "Why, of course! What fun is there in two?"

"You sound like you've done all this before."

He raised an eyebrow. "Never underestimate George Goldstein, my friend."

So yeah, I'd be kidding myself if I said we weren't up for it, Sandra and me and Eileen and George, plus a few others from the influential circles we dabbled in. I was so excited about it that I went to this little meeting he and a few of the other husbands were having about the soiree, where they were debating whether or not we should start including teen wives and mothers in the fun. "I've had a few requests," George said, looking very dapper in an expensive suit with glass of wine in hand, "and I certainly think it's something that bears some thinking about." The rest of the party were nodding their heads in agreement, and despite some concerns I had about dabbling in underage sex, I was swept up enough by the moment to nod along with them.

The mistakes were just mounting up by now.

I was expecting most of the party to be relative strangers, but that was my next shock (the first of many); of the three other couples that turned up, two were family friends that were old hands at this kinky behaviour, and the third were merely acquaintances and, like us, novices. I recognised most of them from their cars before we even got in there. That was when I looked over at Eileen, flashed her my most re-assuring smile. "Nervous?"

"A little, dear."

"It'll be fine." I rubbed her thigh, wondering how Sandra's would compare. "These are our friends."

"I know." She squeezed me back. "Let's give it a whirl."

"That's my girl."

George and me had a quick word in private before he got things under way.

"Hey, isn't that lady over there... isn't it Ruth Hanson?"

"Yes, you know it is." He sounded disinterested and distant, not even bothering to look up from the drink he was pouring. "So?"

"But she's pregnant!"

"My Lord, you really are innocent. Pregnant women are a big fetish nowadays. Our other new-starter can't wait to get his hands on her." On that note, he took the tray of drinks into the living room, and I eventually followed.

You might expect the atmosphere inside to have been tense, solidified by nerves and barely restrained sexual tension, but George was too good a host for that, and he kept the wine flowing, which kept the good feelings rolling until the time was right to begin.

Which happened at around nine, when George removed a glass from Sandra's hand, laid it on the table and then leaned forward in his chair. All conversation and activity stopped; somehow, we all knew what he was going to say.

"Who's feeling in the mood?"

The two hosts let their gaze fall on everyone, and I stared back at Sandra intensely, pleased in the knowledge that, come what may, I would be making it with her before the night was out. What, me unfaithful? Nonsense! It was what we had all come for, Eileen included, and if I had to sleep with someone else, I would rather it was someone I actually knew, was friendly with. It seemed more dignified.

"Who's going to be first to pair off?"

I was acutely aware of the fact that George's wife was resting her head on his shoulder so that it tilted to one side, and that she was staring back at me, a strange look in her eye.

"Who feels that pull?"

No takers, I was thinking downheartedly. Waste of time I was thinking. Never gonna get to score with Sandra, I was especially thinking. Then came the reply from behind us.

"I do."

We all looked around, finally pulled away from hanging on the ringmaster's every word. I was very surprised to see my wife in the limelight; she had beaten her initial apprehension and was now standing with her hand on a guy called Johnny Peterson's chest. Johnny was well built, and he had a bit of a cowboy fixation, always wearing a big hat and spurred heels. It was quite a shock that Eileen found herself attracted to him; after all, he was nothing like me. The first shiver of doubt ran through my insides with the realisation that another man - this man - would soon be putting his thing into my wife; what if he was better than I was and they ended up having an affair because he satisfied her more than I could? But it was too late, because as soon as George had his answer, the room erupted, cheers coming from everyone, all of which attention forced a blush from Eileen...

Who disappeared into a room with Johnny the cowboy, leaving the path well and truly open for me. When everyone else was paired, I wasn't surprised, just very excited, to see Sandra waiting for me, look still in her eye and robe slowly falling open, revealing to me what I'd secretly lusted after for so long.

"I'm glad you finally decided to go through with this, Mike."

So was I. Behind me, George disappeared into a room, hand-in-hand with Ruth Hanson.

You're probably wondering why, since things started out so well, I'm now bothering to write it all down in such lavish detail. Well, hold you water; I'm just getting to that.

Everything was going just fine - hell, better than fine; I was with Sandra, and she was soaring high above the pinnacle of expertise and excellence I'd placed her on - until something happened. Our lust had been so great that we never made it to a bedroom, just dropped to the floor in the top hallway. Consequently, I could see the whole of the first floor, and that was how I saw the man open the back door and stroll right in, without a care in the world.

The stranger.

He looked both mean and oddly out of place here. Tall, bald, built like a steroid-guzzling action movie star with a purple waistcoat open exposing his huge chest, my first instinct was not to feel surprise but to feel jealousy, as he was exactly the type of perfect-bodied sort that I'd envied since I was a scrawny kid - I may have grown a lot in stature and personality since then, but seeing the guy for the first time sent me right back to the playground, where he'd either bully me or be too far up to even know I existed. He stood still for a few seconds, looked around, and that's when his out-of-place-ness struck me: neither sharply-dressed nor undressed, no glass of wine in hand, no sense of excitement around him. Looking at him intensely, forgetting what I was actually supposed to be doing, it struck me that he was too out of place here.

"Come on, honey," Sandra urged me, digging nails into my back. "You're doing just fine."

Considering that she'd probably sampled model meat, I took it as a great compliment. But still a small part of dwelled on the intruder, the strange man still walking among us below me.

"You're not going, are you?" she said when I got to my knees. "I thought we were having fun here, just the two of us."

"We are," I insisted.

"Well, then." That's when she did something that made me realise Eileen must have given her some tips on my buttons. I've always had a foot fetish, and nothing used to get me worked up more than feeling a woman rub her bare foot against my chest. So that's just what she did, and it had the desired effect, and before I knew it we were going round again. Apart from the mystery of the downstairs stranger, the night was going pretty well.

It should have been one of the best nights of my life, what with the drink flowing and the house full of laughter, fun and love. But something about it was no longer working for me; it might not have stopped me getting it on with Sandra - twice - but it certainly soured the experience a little. I could hear cries from Eileen - I recognised them instantly, as I was sure she would recognise mine - but I could also see Johnny the suburban cowboy knocking the ass off Sarah Maguire, the female part of the other first-timers, so that meant my darling wife had taken another lover onboard. So why shouldn't I? There were certainly no shortage of offers, but I just couldn't get back in the mood for it. My good time thrill was now calling itself treachery, and I was left to wander the house like a demented soldier stalking the dead.

And then I saw the guy again.

Not a pretty sight. Especially when I figured out what he was up to.

"Hey, sexy." Eileen came running out and grabbed me by the shoulders, and then planted a big kiss on my cheeks. "This is great! Thanks for talking me into it!"

I saw her lover walk out of the room, nodded my head in way of greeting, and then decided to speak.

"Hello, Ruth. When's it due?"

So, my wife had decided to experiment with someone of the same sex, and a pregnant one at that. Something kind of funny about it, or is that just my warped sense of humour? A bit of both, I'm thinking.

Anyway, back to the guy. He'd gone into a room when I'd been talking to my wife, and closed the door behind him, and I suppose I knew that I shouldn't peer inside, but an immensely persuasive voice inside, one I couldn't resist, was urging me, and so I quietly pushed the door open, tension building as I did so, and poked my head through the small gap I'd created. I could only see his bare, muscular and sweaty back, so I circled around the door a little, and it was then that I saw the naked legs hanging by his waist, kicking viciously at the wall. It was Alice he was with, Alice Huntington, one of the community's most devout Christians, and, and...

He was throttling her.

I stood watching, disgusted and transfixed, and I harboured innocent ideas about rushing him in my head. But let's be honest, what damage could weedy old me do to this huge, barbell-pumping brute? It was amusing to contemplate, but I was through with being naive.

So I watched. What else could I do, oh silent accuser?

She squirmed about for most of it, her legs and feet working overtime in her struggle, and when she finally stopped, he bent down so that his face touched hers. Then he walked off, while Alice lay still.

'Hey, handsome.' I turned to find Sarah standing there, naked except for an over-sized shirt, probably one of George's. She slid an arm around me, gripped my most sensitive part with a firm, warm hand. 'Coming to bed?'

I turned her so she could see Alice. 'Wow, looks like she had a really good time.'

Ignoring her, thinking only of returning safety to our house of love and grabbing some glory in the process, I ran down the hall to George's study. That was where he kept the gun.

He was in there, bare-chested and tired-looking, pouring himself a drink.

'George! There's a strange man in here!'

He did that eyebrow hoist again, something he did a lot that had never annoyed me until now. 'Michael, there are several.'

'No, damn it, listen for once.' This comment put an annoyed glance on his face, for which I was glad; if he was ready to argue, he was ready to listen. 'This guy – I saw him, uh, hurt Alice Huntington.'

'In what way?'

I got the feeling that he wasn't taking me very seriously, so I pushed him out of the way, pulled open the draw and scouted through it until I found the weapon. Then, praying it wasn't too late and no one else had been hurt, I took off back down the hall, ignoring George's cries of protest.

I caught him with Eileen, oh horror of horrors, doing the same as earlier, and when her eyes fell on me, on the thing I had in my hand, I saw blind panic in them, and I nodded my re-assurance to her that everything was okay now, that I was here to rescue her, that I was finally going to be the big hero that years of failure and self-damage had almost wiped out, and she shook her head no, but I didn't understand, and I saw the huge man bend down towards the neck he was throttling, and I just knew, knew for absolutely damn certain, that he was going to bite it, tear out her throat – man, I even saw it in my head, saw him rip it out like a vampire in some horror movie – so I ran forward towards the scene, feeling like everything was in slow motion, and I swear to you, I only meant to club him with it, knock him out, but I tripped over a couple that were busy on the floor, and as I fell, yelling, my finger squeezed the trigger, and the stranger's face splattered all over my wife's bare shoulder. She screamed.

'It's okay,' I told her. 'He can't hurt you now.'

She looked up at me, shock in her eyes. Death hadn't been my original aim, but I still felt very manly, very heroic. Now all we had to do was break the bad news to Jimmy Huntington... who about then stood up, revealing himself as one of the two lovers that I'd fallen over.

After the slow motion, things started going pretty fast. Everyone rushed in, alerted by the sound of the accidental shot, and I expected glory, even though my prevention of a potential massacre had been pretty much accidental. But all I received was cold, judging, accusing eyes, much like I would soon see from the ladies and gentlemen of the jury. And then, to top things off, Sandra ran in and started crying, cradled the dead body and screamed up at me: 'bastard! You killed my brother!'

Brother?

Whoops.

Alice was fine; she was one of those curious types that enjoy asphyxiation at the height of orgasm. Eileen had been discussing it with her earlier that night, displaying some enthusiasm for the idea, and Alice had told her she knew just the man for the job.

Hey, anyone can make a mistake, right? Right?

So they busted me for it, and I duly got sent down for murder. I ruined one of George and Sandra's star attractions, which they still haven't forgiven me for.

Eileen still comes to visit sometimes, though, and the kids send their love. I guess that's about all you can say for me now: good husband, loving father – lousy wife-swapper.

“An Annual Report Via Songs” by Shaun Avery

The Ketchup Song, Los Ketchup:      Don't ask me how it happens, and it certainly wasn't planned, but as my relationship with my fiancée hurtles towards a messy and explosive end, I find myself becoming best friends with her cousin. Furthermore, we seem to complete each other, me giving her an older, wiser brain to pick, and her bringing out the party-like-there's-no-tomorrow side of me that previously lay dormant, untouched. She's been out of the closet for a year now (a fascinating story in itself, but one for another time) and it's through her that I visit my first gay bar - a truly seminal event in my life. After this night out, we go back to her house, only to find that her cousin, my so-called fiancée, is absolutely livid that we're getting so close, and not quick to hide the fact. She's been living with my new best friend, Lee, for a few months now, the two of them sharing the bills and rent between them, and in an attempt to get back at us both, she decided to tell Lee that she's going to move back to her mother's in the morning, leaving her half of the money unpaid. This catchy summer sing-along song is playing as a massive argument ensues between the two of them, one interspersed at regular intervals with unhelpful comments from me. Not sure what the foreign lyrics mean (is anyone?) but I'm pretty sure that its creators never thought it would be playing as an irate lesbian put her foot straight through her cousin's wooden door.

Ignition (Remix), R. Kelly:      And so begins an ugly family war, with Lee on one side and practically everyone else on the other. Her mother has just died and she really doesn't need this shit, so she decides to go and live with her previously absent father way over in Germany. From a purely selfish standpoint, I'm gutted; she's shown me life for the first time, and I planned to hang out with her for a long time before we went our separate ways. But when I look at things from her perspective, see the way that everyone has taken her cousin's side just because 1: they can't take the fact that she's gay and 2: they think she's betraying the family by being friends with me, I realise that escape is probably a good idea for her. But like we said then and continue to say, "if you're going to leave, do it in style," so the day before she leaves sees her withdraw her last $1000 from the bank and hit the shops, with me in tow. Amongst her many purchases is this song on single, and we listen to it all night, although it's not my usual type of music (more of which later.) It officially becomes the very first Party Song in my head.

Free (Let It Be), Stuart:      Me and Lee, not to mention our two other best friends Shaun and Dani, have arranged a little surprise for Jen, Lee's girlfriend. She's been told that I have a present to give her from her partner, so I meet her in another gay bar and wait there with her, upping the suspense about this non-existent present. She tries to get it out of me, but since I want to be a horror writer I have to learn how to keep things close to my chest, and this looks like good practice. Minutes tick on, and I wonder if I should be disturbed by how much I enjoy tormenting Jen, but finally it happens; Lee, who she thinks is sitting in Germany right now, walks through the door.
     Talk about a surprise.
     But anyway, the night that follows sees me journey deeper into my local scene, and I hear this song and find myself liking it, although I've never liked a dance song before in my life. This leads me to ponder a few things about myself and the past I'm coming from...

Basket Case, Green Day:      Okay, brief history lesson time. This was the first song that I ever truly loved, that totally changed my life, views and outlook on the world, so technically speaking, I guess I'm a punk/rock kid, right? But the thing about the type of crowd that normally like that music, the type of circle I've spun around for years, is that it's so narrow-minded and introverted in its tastes; if it's got a dance routine and doesn't have screaming guitars, they look down their nose at it. I've always found this bizarre considering that most rock bands and pop bands are marketed in the exact same way, but no one else seems to see it - maybe this is part of the reason that I never felt comfortable in rock bars. So anyway, much as I love my punk and rock music, it can't be the sole thing that I feast my ears with anymore. So I wonder, could another totally organic change in me be round the corner? Could my tastes be broadening just that little bit? I certainly hope so.

Jump, Girls Aloud:      And so we come to another life-changing moment.
     The first pop song beloved by me.
     I'm instantly captivated when I see this video/hear this song, and it hasn't even got anything to do with how short their skirts are. I've never watched a TV talent show in my life, and all I know about this band is what my three best mates (all big fans of the group) have told me. But that doesn't matter. I hear the song when I'm changing, going from someone that can't stand who he is to someone that is actually happy, actually enjoys life, and somehow, the song is a big part of this change. It comes at just the right time.
     I just wish it came at the right place.
     When the wheels really came flying off the truck with my former fiancée, my head was in a thousand bits, and anything that took my mind off her seemed like a good idea. So when the guy who'd been my best friend before I met Lee asked if I wanted to move in with him, I'd said yes instantly, not even giving it much thought. But then came this big change in me, and as the video plays on the TV, I peel my eyes away (not an easy task with those short skirts on display) and look around the flat that I pay half for and realise how desperately unhappy I am here. My shifting view of the world, of what's wrong and what's not, puts me totally at odds with my flatmate. For one, he hates the fact that I like "manufactured" music now, refusing to let me listen to Busted on his CD player in the main room, unless he wants to laugh at them. More importantly, though, he's a homophobe; I took him to one of my favourite gay bars a few weeks earlier and he'd gripped his chair so hard that his hands went white, and eyed every passing male, straight and gay, with a suspicion that bordered on the ugly. I don't think my three best friends would be comfortable if they were here at the same time as him, and he's told me before that he would just sit on the couch and not say a word if I had people over. Couple this tension with the fact that he always moans about me coming in late and the fact that I hate his girlfriend, who's never away from the place, and you get some unpleasant results. And you see the way I feel.
     The song ends, but repeats in my head all night. As I leave the flat to meet Lee, I see how glad I was that my flatmate's girlfriend wasn't there when I got in, and how glad I am that I'll not be coming back tonight. This comprehension, unlike the radical changes I'm going through, really does scare me.
     Fast-forward an hour or two. All I'm doing is buying a CD, but I feel like I'm breaking some great taboo; I've been stuck in the Punk Rock Introvert Club so long that I'm expecting a heavily tattooed sniper with a bright blue Mohawk to appear from behind the jazz section and take me down before I can commit this cardinal sin. Nonetheless, I enter the G-section, pick up the CD, and quickly take it to the till - I had to move quickly so the sniper couldn't get the range, you see.
     Voila! An exchange of coins and it's all over. I've officially bought my first pop single: Jump, by Girls Aloud. I give it to Lee as a present, but we head back to my mother's house to hear it, not the flat - anything to keep away from a place that screws up my new found, hard fought for, happiness.

(I've Had) The Time Of My Life, Bill Medley:      As you've probably guessed, not all of the songs were released in the year I'm describing. Especially not this very famous and very annoying track. I loathe the movie it's from with a passion (don't get me started on that one) but find I can deal with the song's existence now that I can attach a happy memory to it.
     The four of us have made it to Manchester for a partying weekend, overcoming all sorts of adversities ranging from lost money to haunted hotels to me almost not getting away from work in time to catch the coach. I'll not bore you with the details of the trip (not this time, at least) but I will say that I'm glad to be here. The only thing that makes me frown is all the lame "gay weekend" jokes that my flatmate felt the need to crack when I told him I was heading to Canal Street with my friends a few times. It is little things like this that seem to be making escape from the flat for more than a weekend into a very pressing concern. Me and him have been friends for a very long time, but the bond's breaking now, and I think that seeing him so miserable and angry about the world while not doing a damn thing to change it is too much like looking at a photo of myself from the past, but a photo that talks and moans, even though no one wants to listen.
     But back to the song. We're in a quite charming little 80's bar when this comes on. So high is my euphoria, so happy am I to be here with my three best friends, that I actually ignore my hate of the film and just enjoy the song. Anyone who knows of my aversion to all Patrick Swayze movies will have to respect that.

Black Velvet, Allanah Myles:      Christmas has come and gone. I spent some of it at home, some with Lee - and very little at my flat. In fact, I've hardly been there at all. There's always something better to do, and it's a big area out there to explore, but way back in the recesses of my head, there's always the niggling knowledge that I'll have to go back there sometime. And sit in a room with two people I can't stand. My flatmate came out with one of the pettiest, most stupidly jealous lines I've ever heard just before Christmas. His brother was talking to me about the presents he'd bought for his father, and said to me, "bet you wouldn't buy something that expensive, eh?" Since I'm not about material goods - me and my mates could buy penny chews for each other and be perfectly happy knowing the love they were given with and the good times we'd have chewing them - I simply replied, "depends who it was for." And my flatmate, who was lying on the couch in a strop about his poor day at work, said, "he would if it was for Lee." I've put that name in italics to try and bring across to you, the reader, just some of the venom that was spoken along with it. Jealousy because I have a new best friend. Not even a girlfriend or anything, a new best friend. Unbelievable.
     Anyway, the night of this song, we're out again, this time supporting a friend who's on a date and a little too nervous to go alone. He's a college tutor, and our own little karaoke king. We go with him to meet this lad, but they hit it off so well that Lee and I start to feel a little superfluous, and head off to the pool table for a couple of games. All of which, since I'm not the most coordinated of guys, I lose.
     But enough of that. The night takes us to a few more bars, and by the time Steve performs Mustang Sally and his date does Black Velvet on the karaoke, I'm having so much fun that I don't want the night to end when all the clubs close. So I suggest to Lee that we head back to my flat, all eight of us.
     She's up for it. But a few minutes later, I wimp out. It's supposed to be half my flat, but I feel like a virtual prisoner in it. I come in at nine and they're sitting with the lights out watching a film, and I just have to sit there quietly until it finishes. He has a massive double room while I'm relegated to this dingy little cave - and we both pay the same! He gave me that threat about making my friends uncomfortable if they were over, and yet his girlfriend, who treats me like something she'd scrape off her shoe, is never away from the place! The living room is full of his photos, including many of her, so I can't escape her even on the rare occasion that she isn't there. I've been walked all over my entire life, and a new voice of rebellion is crying inside for me to stand up for myself. What's more, it speaks with Lee's voice. I have every right to take people back to my flat, she says. In fact, since she knows how intimidated and used I feel there, she practically snarls it. She intends to make sure we go there and make our little stand tonight.
     So we do - me, my best friend, Steve and his date, and four friends all pile back to "my" place, and I'm feeling both nervous and excited as I unlock the door. Of course, the trouble kicks off the moment we're inside - the girlfriend, who everyone else seems to hate on sight as well, storms out of their bedroom (so much bigger than mine) and fumes, "what the hell do you think you're doing, turning the light on?"
     I could point out that the light has to be turned on so that we don't fall over the big bloody mountain bike that her boyfriend so considerately parks right in front of the door, but the fight isn't in me yet, so I just shrug. But I tell you this; I've never felt as much hatred before as I do when I hear that tone she takes with me. And it only gets worse. This is confrontation, you see; this is the point that a book builds up to over a few hundred pages. Lee, who knows how unhappy I've been, knowing I have to come back to this cave eventually, has pushed me to make or break stage - and all I want to do is break. And I do so, spectacularly. My rage increases when she tells me that there's "no smoking in this flat," conveniently forgetting just who pays half the rent, and then when her other half appears and gets a bit handy with his fists, Lee and Steve respond by taking the Christmas tree that's still lying around outside and pushing it through the open window of my room, which causes enough mess and damage to almost be an embodiment of my truly annoyed feelings. When it's all over, I leave with a smile on my face.
     I'm out of here.

Cha Cha Slide, DJ Casper:      It's the happiest birthday of my life, one spent with the best friends I could ask for. I receive this single twice, once from my mother and again as a group present from Lee, Dani and Shaun. Everything comes together on this day, and I finally start kicking away the remains of the old me that hated everything and didn't realise there was such a thing as happiness. And my enjoyment of the day has nothing to do with the fact I get a lap dance from Dani's very sexy cousin...

This Is The World We Live In, Alcazar:      So now we're up to date. I've gone from being downtrodden misery guts in a flat where he felt worthless to someone with a wild, loved life that never knows where the day is going to take him. I'm writing and being published more than ever, and closer to making peace with myself (everyone's true life aim, in my eyes) than ever before, and I even get more interest from the opposite sex now that I actually give a shit about what I look like, how I dress, and the trips I've made to Manchester (for Gay Pride) and Northampton (for a Valentine's Day surprise that didn't quite go as planned) have made me see that there's a big world existing there beyond the everyday. And I want to see it all.
     Oh yes. And when I do, you'll be the first to know.

“Little Big Me” by Shaun Avery

That shrivelled up old witch!

Of all the curses she could have put on him, she'd certainly hit the nail on the head with this one.

For here was Jack, a man who ran a very successful business despite being crippled with self-loathing issues, and she'd chosen to curse him, in way of punishment, with a miniature version of himself. One that sat beside him silently, aping his every move but never saying a word. Where once he could have silenced the hating voices inside by simply not looking in the mirror, now he had his own face behind him every minute of the day, and it was driving him up the wall, to the point of no return. He'd tried to beat the little monster away yesterday, but it was just no fun beating on something that only came up to his knees. So he was stuck with it.

Unless, that is, his secretary Julie had some good news for him. He found her in the library, checking books for a remedy. 'Is there anything you can do yet?'

'Sorry, Jack.' She struggled to suppress a smile, and noticing this tore Jack up inside – as her boss, he felt he should berate her for not taking this more seriously, but as her friend, one who knew just how bad her life had been, he was gladdened too much by her grin to mention anything. 'I've checked through hundreds of texts, and there's nothing.' She slammed an old book shut, spewing dust everywhere, and looked him straight in the eye. 'I'm starting to suspect it must be an original spell, 'cos there's nothing in any of these about any kind of antidote.'

'Just great.' He looked at his double, and as always, seeing his own face stare back at him without the aid of a mirror was a tremendously disturbing experience. He didn't know how much of this he could take, but his determination would win through. 'Well, I'll think of something. No way any old woman is going to get the better of me.'

'Of course,' Rob said in the canteen, 'you could just apologise to her.'

Rob, a stigmatic telekinetic from somewhere up North, had tried to float little Jack out of the room earlier, but the sprite had remained rooted to the floor, resistant to the powers of anyone other than his creator.

'No way,' Jack replied. 'I want her working here. I need new staff.'

'Is it really worth this, though?' He pointed at the double to emphasise his point.

Jack didn't answer at first, as he was too busy thinking of his meetings with the woman that had placed this curse on him. It was normal for people to end up in his care when their unusual abilities – telekinesis and stigmata like Rob, psychic powers like Julie's – drove them to the point of attempted suicide; that was when he found them, lying in hospitals with no one to visit them, or bleeding their lives away on a street corner somewhere, alone and unloved. But the woman he was thinking of, one Mary Reginald, seemed different somehow; from what he could tell (and he was pretty good at working people out), she was genuinely happy with her life, with her marriage, striking a happy balance between loving wife and. well, someone who could do this sort of thing to him. There was one thing about her that intrigued him, though – she didn't want kids. Which was interesting, if you followed it a little deeper, if you made a few assumptions: could it be that she wasn't totally at ease with her talents? Could she, in fact, be scared of passing them on to any offspring?

It required some thought.

He'd been nice, on the first visit. Second time round, he'd been a bully, which had been infinitely more enjoyable. Third time, she's waved some sort of relic at him, whilst threatening something about 'divine retribution.' Thinking of an event from his recent past, he'd replied, 'lady, I've taken down idols before, so don't bother.'

Then she'd hit him with the curse. Which made him wonder why she hadn't just got her husband, who was a big, scary guy, to sort him out. Even two black eyes and a couple ov lacerations would have been better than this little silent midget!

Jack stared down at his hands, suddenly feeling sorry for his harassment of the woman. Maybe Rob was right; maybe he should just say sorry. Come to think of it, maybe he should go one step further and leave her alone.

He wavered for a few seconds, wondering, but then the old Jack Peters self-defeating stubbornness kicked in, making him say, 'no. No apologies. I'll kick this bug myself. And I'll get her to sign up here. Just you wait and see.' With that, he stood and left, followed by his burden.

Rob watched his retreat, feeling more than a little sorry for him. As bosses went, Jack was okay, and Rob thought it was good to have a job here where he depended on his talent, rather than do some piddly little everyday job where he had to hide it away and pretend to be normal, but there was still something a little untrustworthy about the man that had brought them all here... no matter how much he tried to hide it.

Adjusting to your Abnormality in Today's World; Dealing with your Dilemmas and Dishwashing your Demons; Problems with your Parents? – they had nearly as many advice leaflets as inmates – sorry, employees – here, and Jack flicked idly through some now, as his double sat at the other end of the table watching him. The one regarding parents made him ponder his own; how would they feel, he wondered, if they knew what he did now? He imagined telling them: hi, Mom and Dad! What's my job? Well, let's see, I'm in charge of a business that rents out people with abnormal powers to solve problems that normal people can't – speak to their departed loves, predict their future, that sort of thing. And how did I get this job? Well, brace yourself, cos this one's going to come as something of a shock: I'm abnormal, too! I'm a healer. But some wounds heal harder than others.

One particularly hard to deal with wound was the memory of what he'd done to his best – and only – friend when he first got the job. But that was a different story, one with no happy ending.

Despite all of this, he liked to think that he was a success. He knew that others had doubts, though. One had once asked him, 'how can you even hope to be a good leader when you can't stand yourself?' This Jack wondered about now – as he dropped the leaflets and threw darts at a photo of himself.

Not liking the roads that these thoughts were leading him down, he sat down at the table so hard that the double flinched. For just a second, there was a tiny flicker on its face. It was brief, but in that instant another face appeared behind the Jack-one it was wearing, a face that was grey and not quite human. It transformed back straight away, slipping back behind the mask, but by then Jack was already smiling, feeling power slip into his court once more.

'Can't be much fun for you, eh?' Staring at himself was creepy, but eye contact with the thing was absolutely essential. 'Her just calling you up from wherever and making you wear whatever face she wants you to wear?'

Stony silence. This was going to be tougher than he'd thought.

'You know how many better people you could look like?' He tossed one of Julie's gossip magazines, one full of hot and hip singers and actresses, at the form. It held out for a full minute before Jack caught its – his – eyes creep down to the magazine. Jack's grin grew wider; if there was one thing that supernatural beings loved, it was knowing what those famous human types were up to. Well, good supernatural beings, at least – the bad ones were more likely to gut you and eat you. All of which supposition led him to believe that the being currently leafing through a fashion bible was basically good-natured. He was glad; there were few activities he enjoyed more than manipulating good nature. He raised an eyebrow when the double finally looked up, and nodded when it pointed to an actress and said:

'Her... pretty.'

Jack's agreement was fake, as he thought that most actresses were mingers. 'Bet you'd like to look like her, eh?'

It nodded Jack's head.

'Yeah, and I bet it can't be much fun following me around every day, either. There's a much bigger world out there, you know.'

'Is there?'

'Yeah.' Jack sighed. 'But I guess you're stuck as me now...'

It was easy after that. The double wrote down the spell and then transformed into its natural (if that's the right word) state, which was a pile of funny looking ash. Then Jack took it through to Julie, and made her cast the same spell that had given it Jack's face. Soon it was a solid lump of grey clay, wearing the face that Jack had momentarily witnessed earlier. 'All we need now is a face,' Julie told him. 'Shame. It's kind of cute this way.'

'It'll be even cuter in a minute.' Jack handed her a picture of the face he wanted on it. Then settled down to wait.

Day one brought nothing. Which was fine, as he had plenty of other things to keep him occupied.

Day two was a bit slower, and he found himself hanging round the table watching the clock a lot.

Day three, however, brought her pleading to his door, a broken, sobbing woman. 'Please call it off! I give! I'll do anything you want!'

'Good.' The curse couldn't be reversed as such; you could only persuade the form to go and hassle somebody else. And it seemed that Mary Reginald didn't have the persuasive skills that he did. 'Just sign here,' he said, handing her a copy of The Contract. 'Welcome to the business, Mary. I'm sure you're going to love it here.'

He held out his arms, and the woman's double jumped into them, clinging to Jack like an infant. He smiled at yet another victory – now this was what he called winning in style.


untitled by Joe Machetto

a
 taste

new    york

this
     sub
         philosophy

or so      was so

as we sat          blankly

              on
     pillows
of                 concrete slum



bullied with
world

untitled by Joe Machetto

netherworld:

          gumshoe ringlets
          earwax decibals

SQUAWK BOX LOUD LUV

lioness flaunt o' trailer park
heart o' space wasp

tiny z woven
rat swarm tongue
flicking tattoo
soup bone slurp
brown thigh curve
at rusted sink

grime of bare bulb
fist initiate

wrist slice of
industrial sky

cryptbones of mercury
lewd at the helm

“Dirt and Daisies” by William Blacksmith

The breath stops
the heart stops
all in good time
and it's the cold Earth
or the hot furnace
for us, everyone
The brain goes
as the soul goes
sadness and tears
dirt and daisies
bleached in the sun
Words are said
prayers are said
all keeping time
while the band tunes
a last sour note
for us, drifting
The brain knows
what the sould knows
that each drop of rain
holds the sound of
Heaven... uplifting.

“Nothing More Than a Mosquito” by Nahal Z.

Nothing More Than a Mosquito

I'm the mosquito you don't notice on the wall
I'm the one you don't think about at all
You think I'm annoying because I talk so much
You don't even like me to invite me to lunch
You think the things I say are stupid or dumb
You think you know me as well as your thumb
You think my rhyme is stupid, but you don't know
I'll succeed in life; you'll be standing, saying whoa

Why do you think I bite when you sleep?
Why do you think at night, I lay and weep?
It's you that squashes me because I'm so weak
Its you that squashes me so I cant even speak
I know I'm a target because I don't look smart
But I am, I'm more than a bug, I too have a heart
You think my bites are bad? Try having one in your brain
Every time you talk, the blood rushes down my vein
You hurt me like no one else has before
And your bite stings, yet I come back for more
The bite stings forever, your words inside of me
You want to itch your bite, but you can't let it be

I'm different from you, different in every way
I look at you and realize it every day
I don't have wings, and you don't have a heart
If you did, you wouldn't be tearing me apart
I try so hard to make you see what I am
Yet, you don't even look up you stay shut like a clam
You think you know, but you have no clue
In my head things are running like inside of a zoo

Don't you realize? Don't you know why I fly?
Its cause I want to get away, I just want to die
I want to get away from the pain you give me

I want to get away, and I will, you'll see
It's not like I haven't ran from home before
It's not like I don't know how to close your door
I know where to bite you and where it hurts you bad
I know what to say and what gets you mad
I fly all the time, into people's lives, everyday

I see people kissing each other in every way
And I sit there and think, am I normal to not have that?
Then again the word normal, is like some hat
It has billions of forms and no definite meaning
Saying you're normal is like mind cleaning
You think you're normal, but you're the furthest thing from it
You think I'm crazy, psycho, but I'm the one that's lit
I'm the one that's blessed by g-d in my mind
I'm the one who won't be left behind
I'm the one with values, respect, morals and all
I'm the one who will always be standing tall

Then again, are they friends or, things in and out of my life?
Are they secretly hurting me and backstabbing me with a knife?
Are you the one keeping me in the hall all the time?
Are you worth my time, worth my money, even a dime?
Having my teacher calling me in the hall
Do you think of me a human or am I doll?
Do you even think of me when you lay in bed at night?
Or do you only think of me flying away like a kite
Do you want me like I want you? Or am I still a mosquito in your eyes
Is everything you tell me from the heart, or is it just a whole bunch of lies

Every time we talk, I feel so great, because for a moment I crossed your mind
I'm still a mosquito you're going to play with and you're going to leave behind
That is what I feel like, a mosquito being used, being used for your pleasure
You're more than that to me; you're my life, my every thing, my treasure
You think I'll give you malaria, you think I have a disease of some sort
You think I'm weird, obnoxious but you'll never see me in court
I'm a good one; I follow rules to make sure I succeed in life
I'm not saying I'm perfect; here and there I have strife
Actually, I have a lot of them; I seem to always be flying away
Everything could be going well, until something ruins my day
Of my four stages of life, I spend larva and pupal in water
I spend half of it wild and half as a good daughter

I stay hidden in water for water is where I'm safe
Water is clear, healthy, and away from strafe
I lay my eggs near water, as close to safety and health I can get

My eggs are my creations, my poems, the only real things I've met
I'm attracted to you because of your warmth, what keeps me coming back
Your perspiration, body odor, the light, yeah its whack
But the truth is, so are you, you're what's so weird and strange
Why do I love you? And why don't my feelings change
Why is it that only female's bite, and why do we bite on the bad things

Why can't we find one good thing to forever bite on, each with our rings?
Through sickness and health, rich or poor, together as one
But that doesn't happen too often, they last 2 weeks and then it's done
A day in my life is harder than you think, and you'll never know
You'll never know the feeling I get, but from the feeling I grow
Do you want to know how my average day goes?
I wake up in the morning, and take a while to put on clothes
Clothes, number one thing I get judged on
If it's not cute, the reputation I have already won
She must be poor; she dresses like a slut, whatever they say
I sit there and just wonder, so to g-d I pray
Did I sin? Because they talk about me all the time
The mosquito they talk about, like being around is a crime
I keep walking though, through the school hallways
In life people will talk, it will never end, it'll be around always

Then I settle down in my class and look around
I have found a spot to sit, yet I still just look at the ground
I try to do my best through out it all then its time for lunch
Who do I go to sit with, who won't give me that punch
The punch of failure, and disregard to care for me
The punch of someone saying I'm more annoying than a bee
But I'm a mosquito I say, nothing more in your eyes
You look at me, and think I'm trash, others think I'm a prize
Others value me, you'd be surprised people actually care
They actually care about a little mosquito that's there
And I wonder, do you think all the things you say don't hurt?
Do you think you can hate me just cause I'm a flirt?

The truth is, yes you intimidate me, and yes I feel low
But why would you even begin to call me a hoe
So, the second I open my eyes to see you stand there
Your mouth opens and I see your hand just come close to my hair
Then to my head, and then BAM! I'm smashed out of here

I'm gone forever because of my one and only fear
The unknown, you, everything about you, I'm gone
Are you happy now? I'm dead a little mosquito on a lawn
I hope you feel powerful for killing something so small
I didn't know, you were so strong that I would finally fall