Colour

There was more colour there than usual.

That’s what was different. It had taken him some time, a slow time, to figure it out, but there at last he had it: there was more colour in her cheeks. But it wasn’t just that, not just the gentle rise in pink that chalked her cheekbones, but also the sudden pink paint on her nails, the sudden pink pout of her lips. Her hair, too, looked blonder. The light in her eyes seemed bluer. Her shirt, bright white, reflected the light of her screen like the sun.

No-one else seemed to notice anything was different, but Norman supposed that was normal. Not many people noticed Sarah. Sarah came into the office each day, stuffed her bag under her desk, reached for one cookie only from the cookie jar, dipped it methodically in her morning cup of tea, then proceeded to fill Excel sheet after Excel sheet with numbers. She was quiet and diligent. She rarely spoke up in meetings. She never made eye contact when she joined the others in the kitchen at lunch. She flushed when invited for drinks after work, and stammered that she had to go home. Though Norman and Sarah both were of a similar age, and therefore expected by most to get along, they had barely spoken two words to each other since the day he joined the firm.

Norman was attracted to the colour, surprised by his sudden heightened sensitivity to the space two spaces to his right occupied by Sarah. His own Excel sheet was less than compelling reading. He watched from the corner of his eye as she got up from her desk, stretched and walked past him, then watched her footsteps as she made her way to the bathroom. For a while he gazed after her, thinking vague circling things. When she returned from the bathroom five minutes later Norman cleared his throat and caught her eye.

“You alright this morning, Sarah?” he asked as she nudged her way past him.

“Oh, yes,” she returned with a smile, “I’m wonderful.”

Sarah was wonderful, and she felt a blush settle over her as she sat back in her seat. Though her physical actions were focused on her work, her mind wandered. She imagined things, just little things, like tonight, would he hold the chair out for her as she sat down? Would he offer to pay for dinner? Would they go out afterwards, somewhere where there was music? Would he ask her to dance? Would he hold her hands, closing the gaps between her fingers with his own, cradle her closer, brush her hair from her eyes and face to reveal her laughter?

The laughter would sit on her lips, which he would kiss, she hoped, for he had promised to kiss her. This promise was contained in each kissing emoticon he sent her, each yellow face he shared sharing his excitement and expectation of their meeting, when they would meet for the first time. She had been afraid for a long time to text letters of love to the strangers she swiped right on her screen, but something about his picture made her believe in him. There was something different about him; something about the colour of his hair, lips and eyes that drew her towards him. She knew him intimately; each contour of his face, the shape of his brows and the curve of his profile, details studied and absorbed through pixelated image after image.

Sarah had wished several times to tell her father where she was going that night, but the glaze in his eyes had stopped her. Though he no longer was in a position to prevent her from doing what she wanted, a part of her still belonged to that part of the past where he had power over her.

The glaze that had come into her father’s eyes in recent years had grown as the disease in his brain had grown. It hid his thoughts from view, so she never knew exactly what he knew when he looked at her. Once, he had reached out and taken her hand across the kitchen table. Shaking, his fingers had clasped her own, folding over her knuckles, gripping the gaps. He had looked at her, and said: “I’m sorry, dear, but do I know you?” Later, after they had spoken for some time, his grip had slackened, his expression hardened, and with recognition at last he had said her name, then said something that hurt her.

She didn’t think he really meant to hurt her. It was just that he worried about her. With her mother gone, it was only natural that he should be afraid to lose his daughter to another man, too. Only natural that he should keep her to himself, in the quiet nights, sometimes the noisy nights, depending on his mood. It was better now, really. It was better now he was forgetting because forgetting made him mellow. It was better that he didn’t know about tonight.

Tonight, upon which Sarah had carefully pinned tiny hopes and tiny dreams. Tiny what-if’s that grew into deeper could-be’s. These thoughts energised her, filled her world with colour, and it was with a skip in her step that she left the office that day, rushing, almost running to the place where she would meet him.

And there she waited. And waited some more. The hours, they disappeared, bled into blackness, the empty on-and-on. Her father, waiting for her at the door that night, did not ask where she had been, but simply wanted to know what was for dinner. She made him a sandwich then went to bed.

The next day, when Sarah came into work, Norman didn’t notice her. There was no colour there anymore.

This story was originally published on Medium.

Bottle Fed

Oscar.

Light. Morning.
I wake… Mom is there. I feel… good today. Happy.
Mom’s hands are warm she lifts me thumbs in armpits tickles.
I like hugs. She hugs me. I kiss her cheek big kiss touch her ear.
Her ear is like my ear.
We are going to play. But first food.
Please. Please. I say please.
I show my teeth. We brush.
Food?
Yes food! I am a good boy. A very good boy. Bottle food in Mom’s hands Mom holds bottle I suck suck yum yum suck.
No more food. All gone food. Bye-bye food all done for now.
Now we play. I play ball it rolls the ball is red red red there are two balls. New ball blue. I pick blue ball blue I throw Mom she catches ball we throw again.
I raise arms I get tickles noises noises from mouth tickles.
Hug very tight Mom warm skin soft long hair tickles nose a-choo a-choo.
Build blocks very high blocks so high they big bigger than me.
I knock blocks smash funny clap hands Mom laughs. I laugh show teeth. Mom show teeth.
Mom nice smells nice.
Floor cold to toes toes wiggle tickle again tickle tickles.
Lie on back toss turn get back up move around climb Mom Mom shows teeth again again I fly in arms I rock rhythm gentle Mom sounds make very nice very nice I like I like I love.
Mom gently strokes arm slow slow slow pinches arm soft.
I sleep.

Mom.

Oscar seems especially excited this morning when I turn on the lights in the lab. The fluorescent lights flicker, one, two, three, and fill the room with a dull buzzing sound. The chimp shakes the bars of his cage when he sees me and shows his teeth, expressing joy. I reach into the cage and pick him up, checking his diaper (all clean) as he tugs at my ear.

Our initial tests of Beta Sample-175 have been showing promising results. Amongst the infant chimps we have administered the sample to, no ill side-effects have been detected. As part of our daily routine, I give Oscar a physical examination, checking his weight and brushing his teeth, examining his gums closely, checking for discoloration and peeling of the skin. Pavlovian logic has led the chimp to realize that this routine is followed by the administration of Beta Sample-175, which is mixed with formula milk and fed to him by bottle. Oscar is almost ready for solid food and we have been debating what sort of diet would be best to introduce him and the other chimps to, as well as what techniques we should use to encourage him to try different kinds of food. Controlling the dosage level of Beta-Sample 175 is key to the progress of our experiment and introducing Oscar to different foods may impact how easily we can control his dosage intake.

Oscar’s cognitive function seems to be developing normally. He is able to distinguish between the different colored balls I present him with, and he throws and catches easily, appearing to enjoy himself when we engage in play. I am his primary caregiver (other researchers have been assigned to different chimps) and he clearly recognizes me as such, seeking different forms of physical affection from me. Today Oscar shows interest in my ponytail and he tugs on its strands. This hurts, so I set him down on the table and go and fetch the building blocks. For the past several weeks I have been showing him how to stack the blocks, and Oscar is keen to copy this behavior. He also copies me when I clap, and seems to enjoy the process of stacking then knocking the blocks over.

Two labs over, the chimp Sierra is undergoing a very different experience than Oscar. She is kept in relative isolation, bottle fed Beta Sample-175 through a glass cylinder strapped to her cage. Already we see her behavior is much more suspicious towards us, aggressive even, and she has developed the curious habit of holding her face in her hands and rocking back and forth. When we drop balls and other toys in her cage she picks them up and looks at them, but never engages in play. Sierra runs in circles in her cage and makes excited noises when her bottle is filled with her daily formula, and she shakes the bars of her cage when the bottle is removed from her view. Beta Sample-175 seems to affect her mood somewhat, but further tests are necessary to ascertain whether it is the presence of food or the presence of Beta Sample-175 in her bloodstream that is impacting her behavior. Neo, who is kept in a similar environment to Sierra, has not been administered Beta Sample-175, and thus far shows less extremes of anxious and aggressive behavior.

Today I need to put Oscar to sleep in order to take some samples from his hair, blood and skin to test for the presence of Beta Sample-175. He is restless, jumping down and running around the floor, putting his arms in the air and hooting. I catch him, scolding him. He shows excitement, but is overall compliant. Holding his right arm still, I insert the syringe into his forearm and put him to sleep. He closes his eyes and his breathing grows steady. I check his pulse, which is regular and slow, then call the other researchers in so we can begin further testing.

Although discussions are still in progress, the chimps may undergo an MRI scan in order to fully ascertain the impact of Beta Sample-175 on their cognitive function. However, there is a higher likelihood that we will operate and remove their brains in order to examine the full extent of the drug’s impact. Beta Sample-174 significantly shortened the lives of the chimps we administered it to, killing them before they had reached a suitable age to determine the impact of the drug on their development. So far Beta Sample-175 seems to have no such adverse effects, but only time will tell.

This story was originally published on Medium.

One Hour To Go

The hallway echoed with the sound of the still-running tap, liquid regular drops hitting the basin, drip-drip-drip. Damp was creeping across the threshold of the open bathroom door. Fog from the shower obscured the lenses of the discarded glasses that sat on the sink. Water spilled over the bottom of the shower and followed the floor’s incline towards the door, seeping into the carpet, staining its colour a darker red.

Amber lay on the bathroom floor. Her skin was clammy and cold to the touch, sticking to the wet pool that slithered around her. The cat had walked in several times to observe her, then walked out again, yowling in complaint. Its noise did not wake her. Her eyes were closed. Her breathing was slow. There was blood leaking from the back of her head into the pool gathering around her.

When Amber was young, perhaps five or six, she had learned to swim with her father holding her head underwater while she kicked her legs. The exercise was supposed to be good for her because she couldn’t walk very well. It was supposed to strengthen her muscles and help her to support herself better. Amber’s shoulders and arms grew strong from the exercise. She could fly back and forth across the monkey bars faster than any other kid in the playground. Her older brother had taught her how to do that; he had held onto her legs as she held onto each rung, until one day, without warning, he had let go and left her to dangle. At first she had screamed in fright and refused to move, but then she had clenched her jaw and forced her way from the middle out, back towards the climbing frame’s support, where she clambered to safety and howled in victory. After that, she had started to venture onto the monkey bars more and more on her own, and soon she was a master, swinging back and forth and up and down until one day she decided to try dangling upside-down holding on with her legs.

She’d swung each limb over, let go with her hands and immediately fallen, landing with a crack that split her head open, bleeding all over the ground below. She didn’t cry when her brother came running over to her. Instead she turned clammy and cold, closing her eyes and breathing heavily as he held her. Her brother pressed his hands into her hair and tried to stem the blood flow and whispered over and over: “It’s okay, Amber, Dad’s called an ambulance. One hour to go, I promise, just hold on…”

Her legs never grew any stronger after that. Amber’s father soon stopped taking her swimming. As she grew older, she couldn’t wear heels because when she wore them, her ankles wobbled and threatened to snap. She usually had to hold onto someone when she walked: the arm of her father, the arm of her brother, the arm of a carer. When she moved into her flat, they installed bars in the bathroom for her to hold onto, bars in the hall and bars that ran the circumference of her bedroom. Her family was nervous to let her live alone but they couldn’t stop her. Though lacking in strength, Amber had always retained the taste for independence that the monkey bars had instilled in her.

In an hour or so, Amber’s brother would let himself into her flat and find her dead. The steady drip-drip sound of the tap reverberated around the hall, echoing in answer to the tic-tic sound of the clock. The cat seemed less than concerned by Amber’s fate. It wondered gloomily when someone was going to feed it, then stalked back up the hall and hid beneath the sofa, where it was warm and the damp couldn’t reach it.

This story was originally published on Medium.

Untidy

It was on the textured layer of her floor, twitching items, colours and threads apart with her toes, that Grace first saw the diamond surface of the button glinting back up at her. Initially she thought it was a trick of the light. She had to push her glasses up the bridge of her nose and bend achingly towards the floor in order to identify what it was. Her back lurched slightly as she bent, her left hand swung round to support it, the right continued to delve into the debris and retrieve the button. With a groan, she then wrenched herself upwards and examined the little diamond she’d discovered.

“Ah!” she exclaimed aloud; a raspy little voice, unaccustomed to use. Surprised by its noise, she pressed a finger to her throat and traced the raise of the jugular and ridges hidden beneath the loose skin of her neck. The skin’s crease displeased her; she tugged it to test how it stretched and remembered the first burning cigarette of her youth. Sixteen years old she’d leaned out the window of a car to cough the first poisonous fumes from her throat. Perhaps had she listened to that cough and recoiled from the urge to light another, her skin wouldn’t hang so old and loose today.

Thinking of cigarettes, she felt into the pocket of her cardigan and enclosed their box with her bony fingers, simultaneously depositing the button in the dust that lay there. Then slowly she shuffled, pausing and picking her way through the debris of her bedroom, pushing apart discarded papers, wrappers and food to find her way out. A rotten apple core rolled in her path and surprised, she looked down and saw the cat crawling across the floor, prodding objects in her path. She hissed at the cat and made a violent movement as though to kick it, but the cat eyed her with malice and let out a slow hiss of its own. Grace hated the animal. Her daughter had forced it upon her, thinking it would provide company for her mother, as well as keeping the rats who lived in the garden at bay, but the cat, knowing itself to be an unwelcome guest in Grace’s life, resented its placement there and spent its days trying to sabotage its elderly owner by pushing objects in front of her and hoping she’d trip.

Reaching the hall unharmed, Grace passed down its dusty carpet to the front door. Stale sunlight slanted across her face as she, breathing heavily and fingering in her pocket for a lighter, pressed the front door open. It was mid-morning; an early breeze was rustling the leaves of next door’s tree. Grace leaned heavily against the frame of her door, grappling with limited dexterity for her cigarette and lighter. The stony drive she stared down as she sucked on the smoking stub failed to interest her, it was so grey and flat. She pulled the button from the pocket where it had been deposited and twirled it in the sun, watching its diamond side flit to its grey side and back again, over and over, a spinning emblem. As it spun, sunlight caught its diamond half and a spectrum arose, dazzling Grace’s bespectacled eyes with movement and colour. The cat slunk outside and hissed again before crawling like a snake up the neighbour’s wall and out of sight. Grace let her cigarette drop to the ground but retained her use of the button, still spinning.

Where did it come from, the little diamond in the rough of her floor? Her daughter was convinced there was nothing there left to find and ignored Grace’s belief that there was still something of value there, still buried beneath. Grace was constantly uncovering old sketches, paintings her husband had spent many an hour ruminating over, and stitched badges and embroidered cushions and knitted scarves, old newspapers, toys and boxes. A life of their craftsmanship… and of course, this button, cut loose from an old frock or perhaps from the front of a blazer. She imagined herself at sixteen again, this time dressed in her old brown coat, a cap screwed on her head as she marched down the road hand-in-hand with her late husband. He was the one who gave her that first cigarette. She remembered how he had lit it for her in the darkness, how he had teased her for her coughing. Smoking had killed him eventually. Blood clots had blotted and bled into one another, weaving a web of blockage, bubbling his arteries with air.

Her daughter believed that Grace could no longer look after herself or keep living on in her late husband’s home. True, the world had grown untidy since he had left her. Little patches of mould gathered in the corners. Dishes towered in stacks in the kitchen. Spread all about the rooms were things pulled from ancient attic trunks, examined, discarded then rediscovered again, all pouring everywhere till the place was carpeted with items. She remembered how her late husband had looked when they first met. It had been a day like this one, the gentle breeze, the first breath of autumn. His face had been smooth and young, very young, blank and unblemished as her own. By years and degrees its features had hollowed and sank, the jowl had dribbled loose, the teeth had come unstuck, his skin had coloured in patches purple and yellow, his hair had gone grey and his eyes had gone bloody. With wonder she had spent their last days wandering his old face with her fingers, gently tracing each fold and crease. “How we’ve changed!” she said to him.

Blinking a little, he’d said: “But Grace, you haven’t changed at all!”

The cat came crawling back over the wall and jumped down. Its movement shocked Grace and the button fell out of her hand, landing diamond side down, its grey blending with the grey of her driveway. In despair Grace sought with weak eyes for some sign of the button, but it was lost amongst the stones, no diamond to guide her.

“You evil animal!” she rasped at the cat and it stared right back, flicking its tail as it watched her slowly, achingly bend and begin to search.

And once she had bent so far, she could not bend back up. When her daughter came to visit her a few hours later, she found her mother crooked at the doorway, back rigid and unwilling to wrench itself up. She brought Grace inside and helped her to straighten, wrinkling her nose at the stale smell that surrounded them as they entered her mother’s home. The place was disgusting- couldn’t her mother see that she lived on a pile of rubbish? Honestly, this had gone on long enough. She would call someone- do something tonight. There was a care home nearby- back up the road near the shopping centre- that wouldn’t be too much of a change for her old mother. Maybe that would keep her satisfied.

This story was originally published on Medium.

Simon Stood

The cyclical waves mounted then fell, tumbling over each other onto the sand where they clung, panting, before the others dragged them back into the endless torrent of the ocean. Simon stood transfixed, his wellies sinking fast into the sand, watching the waves wash about his shoes and cling to his ankles before being pulled back again. Above the wavering surface, a storm was brewing. Blue sky hovered directly above him, but it cowered in the wake of the ocean sky, which like the waves seemed desperate to reach land. The wind picked up a little and whipped his scarf into his face, blinding him.

“Oh, Simon!” the warmth of his mother’s hand swept the scarf from his eyes. His vision was met by her face bending to his, her smile as she fixed his scarf about him, tucking it a little more firmly into his coat. “There we go, that’s better now, isn’t it? Come on, shall we go for a walk?”

She straightened up and pulled his gloved hand into hers, holding onto the material of his fingers rather than his palm. His wellies squelched as they were sucked from their spot and Simon watched his feet squash each wave struggling for breath on the sand.

They had been following the ocean trail for some time now. Simon’s mother was chattering on the phone, occasionally turning and smiling at Simon, saying: “Yes, we’re having a lovely day, aren’t we?”

Simon looked gravely back. He wondered who it was she was talking to, if it was Dad, and whether Dad was going to be bringing them Chinese food later. Simon liked to get the chicken balls in batter. He liked to cut them into quarters and dip each segment in sauce.

This wasn’t a very big beach. There was scraggy yellow grass at its border and a car park close in the distance. Rocks threw themselves up towards the end of this stretch, sharp black shapes, littered with shells, dirt and birds. Sometimes children climbed on those rocks, shouted and jumped. Simon didn’t like to join them, though he was often encouraged to by his mother. He didn’t like to get his hands dirty.

An old man appeared from behind the rocks. At first he seemed to hold a stick, but then Simon realised it was one of those long objects that people use to throw balls for dogs. A gentle rain was beginning to fall. Simon’s mother looked up at the sky, then down at Simon, and let go of his hand to give his head a pat.

“You okay, Simon? Shall we go back to the car?”

Simon did not respond. He was watching the little terrier dog which had appeared, yapping and jumping, by the old man’s side. The old man was laughing, saying something the wind sucked up into its hollow void, and raised the object. Delighted, the dog sprang on its hind legs to beg. The man tossed the ball into the air and the dog chased after it.

Simon’s mother was growing impatient. “Simon. I would like you to come back to the car with me.”

Simon curled his fists, digging his fingernails into his palms, reopening old cuts. “No.” He was still watching the dog, which jumped in the waves with the ball in its mouth.

“Simon, I mean it.”

Perhaps she did mean it. Her hands were placed on her hips and she was looking very angry.

The dog ran back to its owner and dropped the ball at his feet, wagging its tail. The old man did not have to bend, but used the object to scoop and toss the ball. The dog caught it, landed with a splash and set it down, barking for the man to throw it again. The man repeated this action twice, before all of a sudden throwing the ball hard into the ocean. The dog plunged after it, clambering over clinging waves. Simon felt his heart tremble. He watched the tennis ball floating into the distance, watched the little dog swimming against the waves as they reached up and tried to draw him under.

“Simon,” his mother shook him. “Simon, that’s it. I’m going to give you a countdown.”

Simon knew he was in trouble now. Maybe they wouldn’t let him have his chicken balls in batter. Well, if they wouldn’t let him have Chinese, he would make a fuss and cry. Sometimes when he smashed chairs or broke toys, his parents relented in their endless list of punishments and rules. The psychologist had told them that rules were good for Simon. He knew this because he had hidden behind the curtain and heard them talking. The psychologist said Simon was a special boy and he needed structure. Ever since then, his parents had been making up more and more rules to punish him.

“If you don’t move within the next ten seconds, you will not be allowed to come back to this beach again. Ten… nine…”

Simon watched the little dog with mounting trepidation. The waves were growing in height. They splashed over the dog’s head and pulled him down. Several times the dog disappeared altogether, then reappeared, still yapping. The waves tugged the tennis ball further away from him. The old man stood watching. Simon wondered what his face said, like when the psychologist showed him the book of cartoon faces and asked him what each one said. Did it say, ‘happy’, ‘worried’ or ‘sad’?

“… six… five…”

The dog panted and was sucked under. Simon stared at the ocean. Did the waves dance in triumph, toss their heads into the air and shout with laughter?

“… three… two…”

The surface broke. The dog’s mouth emerged and latched onto the tennis ball. The man on the beach cheered and the dog came paddling back, pushing apart waves as though they were nothing. His mother reached the end of her countdown as the dog was still in approach. Simon wanted to see the end of its journey. He wanted to watch it shake itself dry, he liked it when dogs did that. But all of a sudden, he felt himself hoisted by the arm and given a good shake.

“That’s it, Simon! You are never coming back here again! I will not tolerate this kind of behaviour, do you understand me?”

He had no words. He looked at the ocean waves. Now that he’d seen such a small animal conquer them, he felt less transfixed by their power. He raised a gloved hand towards his mother in submission.

Breathing heavily, she said, “Now that’s more like it,” and brought him back to the car.

This story was originally published on Medium.