Monday 26 November 2012

THE STAIN By Harris Tobias

The Stain
I never would have noticed the stain if Lynn hadn’t walked out on me. When she left, I went into a deep funk and, drinking even more than usual, lay around the house staring at the ceiling from one horizontal position or another. I wasn’t used to being alone. The house seemed so empty without her presence, singing or weeping depending on her mood. And our daughter, my little Sharon, where is my little girl?

I don’t blame her for leaving. I’m not the easiest person to live with. I slipped into a kind of gray zone laying on the bed staring at nothing. That’s how I first noticed the stain. A rusty brown blob with no color and no apparent shape. I watched it for hours. After a couple of days, the stain took on a shape I recognized. Sort of like a baseball diamond. I could, if I tried hard enough, make out the pitcher’s mound and the evenly spaced bases. It reminded me of that time I threatened Lynn with a bat. I was drunk, of course. I never would have actually hit her with it but I could see she was terrified. I did manage to bust up the furniture some and those two lamps her mother gave us. I was awful sorry the next day. Lynn took me back. Good old Lynn.

A couple of days later, the stain took on the aspect of a face, a man’s face, but I couldn’t place it until I noticed the cap. A policeman’s cap complete with badge and everything. I could even make out the badge number—387. It was the face of that young cop who came to the door that time I was so high on booze and pills I could barely stand. I must have taken a swing at him because I woke up in a cell in restraints. That was a bad time and I’m sorry I scared you, honey. You bailed me out yet again. I hardly deserved such loyalty.

The stain grows larger. There must be a leak somewheres though it hasn’t rained in weeks. Today the stain looks like a woman, a very unhappy woman. I can see her sad face. The tears streaming down her cheeks, her hair a tousled mess eyes pleading for me to stop. But I don’t stop, do I? I hit you to make you stop crying. I slap your tears away. I strike our daughter, my precious little girl. And what was it you did to make me so angry? I can’t remember. I am always angry.

I fall asleep staring at the stain. It is definitely bigger now and the color is turning from a rusty brown to a kind of greenish brown. My mind struggles to make a picture of the new shape. It is sinuous and complex. At first I think it’s you standing in the doorway our daughter behind your back. You are shielding her from my fury but that is not it. Then it snaps into focus. It is a dragon, its coils wrapped around its victim, a man, his head inside the dragon’s mouth. Whoever it is is being devoured. Somehow I know it is me. I am being devoured.

As I stare transfixed, the stain detaches itself from the ceiling. Is this a hallucination? When is the last time I had something to eat or drink? I’m sure I’m hallucinating. It’s so real, it’s almost funny. I try to laugh. But my mouth is too dry. I try to scream but whatever sound I manage to make is muffled by the dragon’s moist and toothy maw.

Harris Tobias lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of several novels and dozens of short stories. His fiction has appeared in Ray Gun Revival, Dunesteef Audio Magazine, Literal Translations, FriedFiction, Down In The Dirt, Eclectic Flash, E Fiction and several other obscure publications. His poetry has appeared in Vox Poetica, The poem Factory and The Poetry Super Highway. You can find links to his novels at:

Thursday 15 November 2012

MELTDOWN by Les Morris

TKnC welcomes Les with this tale about one man pushed too far…


The silver BMW crept slowly up and down the seemingly endless lines of cars.  The driver’s head swivelled like it was mounted on a screw thread as he searched for that elusive parking space.
Martin Nicholson had pulled into the car park fifteen minutes earlier and, so far, there was no sign of anyone driving off.  It was ten thirty, his meeting was at eleven.  He’d give it five more minutes and then look somewhere else.  The morning was bright and crisp and the sun was beginning to burn off the early morning spring mist.  He felt good and was looking forward to meeting the sales director for the first time, if only he could find a space.
A middle-aged woman appeared in the car park, this was his chance.  He drove round to where the woman was opening the door of a red hatchback and waited.  She certainly took her time but, eventually, she drove away and Martin claimed his prize.  He’d managed to find a parking space in only twenty minutes. He decided that today was going to be a good day, donned his jacket, picked up his briefcase and locked the car.
He was tall and thin with dark brown hair that was beginning to grey around the temples. His expensive looking suit, briefcase and mobile phone made him look every inch the successful businessman as he strode across the car park towards the office.  Reaching the pedestrian crossing in front of the office block’s main entrance he stopped and waited for the lights to change.  Looking up at the imposing structure, seemingly built entirely of glass, he thought back over the last two months.
He had been unemployed for eighteen months.  Both of his credit cards were up to their limit, he couldn’t even afford the minimum repayment each month.  The building society was about to repossess his house and his wife had been threatening to leave him if he didn't do something to sort the situation out soon.  That was when he saw the advert in the local newspaper.  A pensions and life assurance company were looking for salesmen to join their team.  The wage wasn't great but it was a lot more than his benefits.  He sent off his CV, attended two assessment days and, to his surprise, was taken on to start immediately.  Things were starting to look up.  His first few weeks were filled with paperwork, various courses and learning the ropes.  Now he was ready to meet the big boss.The green man lit up and he crossed to the other side of the busy road.  Entering the air-conditioned office building he looked around for reception.  A girl in her early twenties sat behind a chrome and plastic desk.  The clear perspex sign above her head said "Enquiries" in white etched letters.  He approached and waited for her to finish the phone call she’d taken as he entered the building.  As she replaced the handset he gave his most charming smile.  "My name's Martin Nicholson, I'm here to see Mr Peterson."
She returned his smile. "The lift behind you will take you to the tenth floor; Mr Peterson's office is straight in front of you."
He turned and headed for the lift she had pointed to.   
Entering the lift he pressed button ten and listened to the monotonous piped music for a short while until the doors opened and a disembodied voice announced, "Tenth floor."
The office Martin emerged into was light and airy.  There was lots of chrome and plastic with natural light flooding in from every angle.  Just in front of the lift was a desk similar to reception.  With a row of five seats along one side, it reminded him of a doctor’s waiting room.  Beyond the desk was a double, natural wooden door.  Mr Peterson's office he presumed.  He approached the woman sitting behind the desk and, once again, gave his most charming smile.  "Martin Nicholson, I'm here to see Mr Peterson."
"Take a seat Mr Nicholson and I'll let him know you're here."
He sat on one of the five seats and tried not to look too nervous.    As he was examining his fingernails for what seemed like the hundredth time, the wooden doors beyond the desk burst open and a man stormed out of the office and headed towards the lift.  After pressing the call button three or four times he impatiently turned towards the stairs. 
"Mr Peterson will see you now."
Nicholson jumped out of his seat.  He was nervous to start with and that certainly hadn't helped.  He wiped his clammy palms on his jacket, picked up his briefcase and headed for the doors.
"Come in."
The voice was loud, authorative.  He didn't knock.  He walked in.  The inside of the room was a complete contrast to the decor outside.  Lots of leather and dark wood panelling made it look like the library of a grand country house.  This was the office of a man who considered himself better than everyone else.
On one side of the room was a large aquarium stocked with all manner of brightly coloured tropical fish; the other was taken up by a bookshelf and drinks cabinet.  Opposite the door was a huge mahogany desk.  Sitting behind the desk, in a green leather swivel chair, was the company’s sales director.  Peterson had grey hair and a red face.  He was overweight with a red face and, by the looks of him, not too many years away from a heart attack.
"Have a seat, Martin."
"Thank you, Mr Peterson."  He put down his briefcase and sat on the edge of the smaller, red leather seat.  “I just want to say how much I’m enjoying my job.  I’ve been looking forward to meeting you since...”
Peterson cut in, "Look Martin, I won't insult you by beating about the bush.  I'm sure you'll appreciate it if I just come straight to the point."
Nicholson could feel his stomach churning.  He didn't like the sound of this.
"The company hasn’t had a very good year.  Profits are down, and in the current financial climate, our shareholders want to see costs cut."
He started to panic.  He could feel the sweat on his back and he wiped away a bead that was running down his face.    
"We've been told that we have to streamline our department and, as you've only been with us two months...."
He was starting to breathe heavily and his heart was pounding.
"...I'm afraid I'll have to let you go."
The words felt like steel talons ripping into his chest.  The air rushed from his lungs and he started to feel faint as his heart was squeezed by an invisible hand.  "I need this job."  His voice was quiet, faltering.
"We all need our jobs Martin.  I'm sure you'll find something else and, of course, if you need a reference..."
"No!"  The word exploded from him, punctuated by his fists slamming onto the desk.  His eyes were wide and his breath rasping, spittle beginning to froth at the corners of his mouth.  “I’ve seen the financial reports.  You got a bonus that was twice my salary, cut that back.”
"My bonus this year was a lot lower than last year.  We’ve all got to tighten our belts.”
Nicholson looked at him with utter contempt. “You have no idea.”
“I think you should leave now, Martin.  Try and get a grip of yourself.  Things aren't as bad as they seem."
Nicholson stood up, slowly turned and headed for the door.
"Martin, you've forgotten your briefcase."
"Keep it.”  He threw open the doors, walked through the outer office and pressed the call button for the lift.  It seemed an age before it arrived but he was determined not to look back.  The doors opened and he stepped in.  As the doors closed behind him he sank to his knees as tears of frustration and rage ran down his face.
With his job gone and the economy wrecked, his house would be repossessed, the credit card companies would be chasing him for payments and, worse of all, his wife would follow through on her threat to leave him and take their son with her.  His marriage was in trouble already but, he feared, this would be the last straw.
The lift doors opened on the ground floor and he slowly got to his feet.  A woman, about to enter the lift, backed off and stood aside as he headed for the exit.
Back out on the street he needed a drink.  Stopping only to buy a half bottle of vodka, he headed straight to the nearest pub.
"Double vodka."  Nicholson’s head was spinning as he sat on the barstool.
"You look like you've had some bed news."  The barman poured the drink and placed it on the bar.  "You want a mixer in that?"
Nicholson threw twenty pounds onto the bar before emptying his glass.  The clear liquid burned as it ran down his throat.  He removed his tie and unbuttoned his collar. "Same again, only this time top it up with tonic."
         "You’re in a bad way, mate, you should take it easy."  The barman placed the glass of vodka and tonic on the bar and took the twenty pound note.
Nicholson walked over to a table in the corner by the front window and sat down.  He placed his head in his hands and tried to think.
"You forgot your change, mate."
The barman put the change onto the table but Nicholson was in a world of his own.  What was he going to do?  Where was he going to find another job quickly enough to dig himself out of the hole he had fallen into? 
The car, he still had the keys to his company car.  He drained his glass and left the bar.
He arrived back at the car and opened the door.  Throwing the bottle he had bought onto the passenger seat, he climbed in and turned the engine over.  If he went home and acted as though nothing had happened then he could at least fool his wife for a couple of days.  Maybe sell the car and get some money to tide them over until he found another job. 
Peterson appeared at the door to the office and walked over to the car park.  He had a reserved slot, of course.  His brand new range rover glinted in the sun.  He threw his briefcase onto the back seat and climbed in.  As Peterson drove away, Nicholson decided to follow him.
Exiting the car park, he pulled in behind the Range Rover.  He followed as close as he dare as they drove through the city and out into the suburbs.  The houses became larger and more expensive the further they went.  The four-wheel drive slowed and pulled into the driveway of a particularly large and expensive looking detached house.  Nicholson stopped at the kerb and watched his former boss park next to an identical car, his and hers Range Rovers, very nice.
An attractive woman, in her late forties, and two teenage girls came out of the house to welcome Peterson home.  He had everything that Nicholson didn’t.  He had a large house, two nice cars, a loving family and, most of all, a job.  People like him didn’t understand what it was like living on next to no money.  What it felt like to be unable to pay bills or provide for your family.
He was staring, intently, at the family reunion when the woman looked over and pointed at him.  Peterson, recognising him, started walking down the driveway.
“Nicholson...What is it?  Nicholson!”
He was aware that he was revving the engine loudly as the man approached the car.  Peterson stopped suddenly, sensing a threat.  Nicholson released the clutch, the wheels spun and smoked as he sped away.
Driving towards the motorway, his head was full of bad thoughts of how wrong everything had gone.  He didn't see the lights change to red.  Driving straight across the junction, he clipped another car and almost ran down a young girl on a crossing.  He tried to brake but the damage had already been done.  Over the limit and in no state to be driving, he kept going.  He couldn't afford to be breathalysed now on top of everything else.
Hearing a siren in the distance he panicked, weaving through the traffic and accelerating.  Joining the motorway he couldn't see any flashing lights.  It wasn't far to his house, perhaps if his luck held out...
Then he spotted it, a police Volvo about two hundred yards behind him.  Keep calm, stick to the speed limit and they will just go past.  The car’s blue lights came on, maybe it wasn't him they wanted, keep calm, keep calm.  The Volvo pulled in behind him, there was no doubt now.  He floored the accelerator.  If he could put some traffic between them he could come off at the next exit and lay low for a few hours, report the car stolen or deny moving it from the car park.
He was getting desperate now; he knew he didn't stand a chance of losing the police.  No job and now he was going to lose his licence at least, probably end up in prison.  His world was collapsing around him.
Reaching over to the passenger seat he picked up the bottle of vodka, opened it and took a long drink.  There was only one thing he could do.
He pushed the car to 110mph but the police were still gaining on him, he didn't have long.  The junction was just ahead.  He veered sharply left and onto the slip road.  He wasn’t worried about the other traffic and sped straight across the roundabout, through a red light without stopping and caused a pile up as three cars slammed on their brakes to avoid him.
With the sound of horns blaring behind him Nicholson zigzagged his way through the busy traffic.  Blue lights flashing, the police car’s siren wailed but Nicholson wasn’t stopping now.  He went straight through another red light, then another, across a mini roundabout and turned left into an industrial estate.  He sideswiped a parked car as he took the sharp bend at forty.  Two more turns and, with the police car still behind him, he turned into the dead end at the far side of the estate, the side that bordered the dual carriageway.  His only option now was to ditch the car and run.
The police car screeched to a halt as Nicholson slammed into the chain link fence at the end of the road.  Shaken and bleeding from a gash on his forehead he kicked open the door of the BMW.  The first policeman from the patrol car grabbed him but Nicholson was too fast.  Driving the point of his elbow backwards into the man’s face he dropped him to the floor with blood streaming from his broken nose.
Climbing onto the bonnet of the car, he vaulted the fence as the second policeman tried to grab his legs.  He landed heavily and scrambled up the grass bank.  On the other side of the dual carriageway was a housing estate, a rabbit warren of back yards, gardens and alleyways for him to hide in.  He could rest for a while and think. 
He jumped over the crash barrier and stumbled onto the road.  The driver of the truck would later tell police that he did his best to brake and swerve but it was too late.  Any luck that Nicholson had left had run out.  He had nowhere to go.
At Martin Nicholson’s funeral he was described as a hard working and loving family man.  The police report said that he had suffered some kind of breakdown and acted totally out of character.  His death was a tragic accident. 
His former employers sent a wreath but there was nothing from Peterson.  He didn’t attend or even send a card.  After all, he wasn’t to blame; everyone was suffering because of the financial crisis. Weren’t they?

It was while Les Morris was at school in Cumbria that, inspired and encouraged by his English teacher, he developed a lifelong love of books and made his first attempts to create his own stories. At 16 he left school and spent most of the 80s and 90s in the Royal Navy where reading and writing helped pass the long, often boring, days and nights at sea. Since then, he has worked in many industries but always continued to write when time allowed. More recently he started to concentrate on writing thrillers and had a short story, "Blood on Their Hands", published in Matt Hilton's anthology "ACTION: Pulse Pounding Tales Volume 1". He is currently working on completing a trilogy of stories involving the same character. He lives in Cumbria with his wife and children.