Story Time: 731 Days Later

*Hey Clicky. Is it that time?*

*Hopefully Dear Reader knows my penchant for synchronicity and the number 137 by now… /lights up and smokes…*

Howdy, Dear Reader 😀

I thought today would be a good day to post my short story from Underdog Anthology XVII: The Wrong Kind of Leaves. It sees the return of Harry Egg, last seen in 2020, entering lockdown…

*/drags…*

… And I thought it time for a catch-up, 731 days later…

*******

731 Days Later

By Roo B. Doo

The best thing to come out of the past two years of the Rona pandemic was the shift to working from home. Not my home exactly, but my best friend Lol’s home, as he’d asked me to move in with him to ride out the initial ‘lockdown’. How naïve we all were thinking that sacrificing weeks off work for time on the sofa could ever defeat a virus. At least I didn’t partake in the weekly doorstep pot bashing ritual; that seemed totally medieval to me.

Three weeks ‘to flatten the curve’ inevitably rolled over into six and then nine weeks, and even after we were allowed back to work, restrictions remained. Wave after wave of illness and death were predicted, so that the threat of further lockdowns became endemic and it seemed pointless moving out. Besides, Lol and I rub along together great; we’re like brother and sister but without the fights or incestuous thoughts getting in the way. Even his pampered puss Mr Tibbles now considers me fam.

When the opportunity to work remotely presented itself, I gladly took it. Not that I was afraid of the Rona per se, but the possibility of catching the ‘Stupid’ from my colleagues at F. A. Kontrell has always been a constant fear. Well, from one work colleague in particular – our virtue signalling receptionist Shazza is something of a super-speader when it comes to the ‘Stupid’.

Unfortunately, when I woke up this morning, I discovered the wi-fi was on the fritz; I had to go into the office, breaking my current record of three straight months working from home. Up until now, 2022 was going so well.

“Slava Ukraini!”

Good grief! She’s still wearing a mask? I don’t know why I was surprised; of course Shazza would still be wearing a face-mask. Personally, I was torn on the face-mask issue that had come to dominate so much social interaction during last two years. On the one hand, there was no way the weave of a cloth mask could ever stop an itty-bitty virus passing through it – it’s like using a chain-link fence to stop a mosquito – however, on the other hand, wearing a mask is definitely an improvement for some people. Massively so in Shazza’s case.

“Slava Ukraini!” Shazza repeated, this time with a raised fist. Her face-mask was two-tone: bright blue over gold, like the Ukrainian flag. I wondered how long before the next cause de jour would adorn Shazza’s face. Probably May.

It’s wearing your heart on your sleeve in the new normal, I concluded sadly.

Raising my right forearm, palm outward facing, I smartly snapped my heels together. “Heil Hitler!”

Shazza was shocked. I could tell because one of her chins slipped beneath the bottom edge of her face-mask. “Oh my God, Harry, how could you say that?”

“Say what?” I asked, feigning confusion.

Shazza’s eyes compressed into a glittering squint. “Heil Hitler.”

Sometimes it’s just too easy to wind our airhead receptionist up. “Heil Hitler!” I replied abruptly, this time with a straight arm and accompanying finger moustache.

“Harry!”

The office appeared sparsely populated, so not too many heads poked up at the sound of Shazza’s astonishment. Pammy in Payroll smiled and waved hello. I waved back.

“Aren’t we doing Nazi greetings?” I asked innocently and signed in. “I’m sorry, I thought we were doing Nazi greetings.”

“What are you talking about?” Shazza demanded.

“You do know that Slava Ukraini is neo-Nazi, don’t you?”

Shazza crossed her chunky arms in front of her ample bosom. “No it isn’t,” she replied fiercely.

“Sure it is. You should research it,” I suggested nonchalantly.

Of course Shazza had no idea the month-long war between Russia and Ukraine had actually been going on for a good deal longer; she thinks ‘Crimea’ are the first three words of a Justin Timberlake song. She didn’t move except to furrow her brow and, I assume, purse her thin lips behind the mask: I know that look; best to skedaddle.

“Seriously, you should google it,” I said, moving away from reception. “I’ll be at my desk.”

Shazza mumbled something darkly into her face-mask that I didn’t catch, but no matter. However, whatever she said seemed to greatly amuse her because she cackled loudly as I rounded the corner to my work area.

What the..?!

I stood and stared at dozens of archive boxes surrounding my desk and piled high upon it. A large paper shredding machine stood off to the side, with fat sacks labelled ‘Confidential Waste’ stacked against the wall. Everything was covered in a film of grey dust and ribbons of paper littered the floor.

“I said, you’ll be lucky, Harry,” Shazza laughed from right behind me; for her size, she can be deceptively light on her feet.

“What’s going on?”

“We’re having a clear out.” Shazza couldn’t keep the glee out of her voice at my consternation. “Getting rid of the old crap, you know.”

“And you’re using my desk?”

“Why not? You’ve not been around to use it.”

Shazza had a point – I hadn’t stepped foot inside the place since Christmas – but I didn’t appreciate the total takeover of my work area, nor the snarkiness with which the point was made. “It would have been nice if you’d let me know, just in case I had to come in to work. Like today.”

“Sorry.” Shazza’s apology dripped with insincerity. She was far too happy to be contrite.

Touché, I thought and smirked. I do believe you’ve missed me.

”Apology accepted,” I replied graciously. That was a mistake.

“It is very dusty round here,” Shazza said, wiping a fat finger over the nearest archive box. “I can always lend you a mask.”

Eww. Now she’s getting nasty.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, Shazza, but I’d rather lick a tramp than wear one of your masks,” I replied irritably.

Fortunately our sparring was interrupted by the sound of rolling laughter, as the side door to the office opened. The Fat Kontroller stood holding it open for a young woman I didn’t recognise. She shuffled beneath his outstretched arm, intent on not spilling any tea from either of the mugs she was holding.

“Boss,” I called out.

“Harry!” The Fat Kontroller seemed genuinely happy to see me. “The prodigal assistant returns.”

“’Fraid so.” My eyes swept over the mountain of boxes. “Glad you’ve not let my desk go to waste.”

The young woman carrying the tea stopped and smiled shyly. I’m a sucker for doe eyes and this filly had the biggest doe eyes I’ve ever seen. I could feel the wolf in my loins start to salivate.

“This is Lucy,” the Fat Kontroller said, placing his hands on the young woman’s shoulders. “My wife’s niece.”

Oh shit! I hoped he hadn’t spotted the lascivious look on my face.

“Lucy’s been helping us out with the archiving since the leak,” he said, giving those slender shoulders a squeeze.

“That’s right,Uncle Farn,” she said sweetly.

Lucy must have been all of 18 years old and nubile as fuck. She was petite but fully rounded in all the right places. Her thick, blonde hair was feather cut like a 70s rock chick, but coupled with those doe eyes, she could have walked straight out of manga. Or hentai…

“A leak?” I suddenly felt adrift. “What leak?”

Shazza, was still hovering and eager to join the conversation. “The leak from the roof caused by the storms last month. Rainwater got into the store room. I sent out an email.”

Ouch! Shazza is a prolific sender of emails. They’re usually over punctuated and full of inanities, but I do read them all. Eventually.

“Has the leak been fixed?”

“Oh yes,” the Fat Kontroller said, taking one of the mugs of tea from Lucy. “But we had to move the box files out here while the room was drying out. Your desk was the obvious choice, Harry.”

I couldn’t fault his decision; it’s the logical place to put them.

“No problem. I can work from any desk.” I looked around, trying to work out which one would give me the best view of luscious Lucy at work, but not place me in Shazza’s direct line of sight. I could feel her beady eyes boring into me – I’d already disrespected one of her sacred cows and Shazza had a whole herd of them.

“You can set up in my office, if you like,” the Fat Kontroller offered. “I’ll be out here going through the old paper records with Lucy. I’ve become a dab hand with a shredding machine,” he boasted jovially.

“It’s always nice to see you roll your sleeves up, Mr K,” I gently teased. “Thanks, I’ll go and set myself up. Nice to meet you, Lucy.”

“Yeah, you too.”

Perfect! The glass front of the Fat Kontroller’s office would give me a very good view of Lucy in action. I could feel my nipples stiffen in anticipation; it seemed I was destined not to get any work done today after all.

* * *

“Please tell me you didn’t hit on her, Harry,” Lol asked as he refilled my wine glass. “Not your boss’s niece.”

We were sitting in Dionysus, our regular place of respite after a hard day at our respective grindstones. Or rather it used to be before the Rona turned everyone’s lives upside down. It was still our weekend bar of choice, but this was the first week night Lol and I had pitch up there in quite a while. It wasn’t very busy, which suited me just fine. I’d had enough of people for one day.

“No, of course I didn’t. What kind of idiot do you take me for?”

Lol didn’t look convinced; he knows exactly what kind of idiot I can be.

“Really, I didn’t,” I said, taking a surreptitious sip of wine. “I mostly just looked.”

Lol laughed. “Harry, when you say ‘mostly’, I picture a TV reporter describing a riot as ‘mostly peaceful’, whilst stood in front of a building on fire.”

“Yes, but you fancied the pants off that guy. You were glued to his reports.”

“Well, that’s true, but stop deflecting, Miss Egg. Did you go out of your way to talk to Lucy, the young and impressionable niece of your boss?”

I could feel the wine start to course through my veins and flush the day’s tension away. “No. As a matter of fact she approached me.”

“Really? And where was this?”

“In the kitchen. I was making a coffee and she came in to get some god-awful concoction in a Tupperware box from the fridge. It was her lunch. Ugh, it was full of carrots and beans-”

“Stay on target,” Lol interrupted. “What happened?”

I took a gulp of wine. “Nothing, we just chatted. She’s going to Manchester University in September and we talked about that.”

“Our university? Interesting. Did you give her any tips?”

“On how to become a PA? No.” I placed my glass back on the table.

A look of concern crossed Lol’s face. “Harry, what’s up?”

I wondered if I should tell Lol about the epiphany I’d had whilst talking to Lucy. I thought about it as I emptied the last of the wine into our glasses. Oh fuck it. Just tell him.

“Lol, I want to have a baby.”

To his credit, Lol didn’t spit out his mouthful of wine, although I thought for one moment he was going to choke.

“That’s… that’s…that’s…” he stuttered after he’d swallowed his wine.

“Unexpected? Yeah, for me too.”

Lol was speechless, his bottom jaw hung loose.

“Please don’t hate me for what I’m about to say, but you did ask.” I took a large slug of wine. “Whilst Lucy and I chatted, I could see that her bright and shining future in front of her was exactly what I had in front of me once. And I didn’t take it.”

Lol furrowed his brow. “You didn’t want it. You’ve told me before. How does that get to you suddenly wanting to have a baby?”

“Well, that’s the thing. See, as I was telling Lucy about you and our university days and how we’re best friends and that I’d moved in with you at the start of the pandemic.” I paused to check Lol was following along. “She said ‘Lol? He sounds like a laugh’.”

The corners of Lol’s mouth twitched. “I have heard that one before.”

“Well, I hadn’t. In fact, I laughed like a drain when Lucy said it. I think I frightened her.”

Lol shook his head. “But I still don’t understand, Harry. Why would I hate you? I love you.”

“And I love you.” I reached over and placed my hand over his. “Do you realise that today is the two year anniversary of the first lockdown?”

“Is it?”

“Yes, it was on 23rd March 2020, I looked it up. We’ve been living together for two years exactly and they have been the best 731 days of my life. The very best.”

Lol turned his hand over so that he could hold mine. “Me too.”

“And whilst Lucy is gorgeous and vivacious and under different circumstances I could totally plate her, in that moment I knew exactly what I want, like right now want, and that I’ve actually known it for some time.”

I took a deep breath. ”I want to start a family. I want a real baby, Lol, and I really want to make that baby real with you. You would be a fantastic dad. Please don’t hate me.”

Lol stared at me intently before raising an eyebrow. “Is this because you had to go into the office today?”

Now my jaw dropped. Why didn’t I keep my mouth shut. Oh, why didn’t I keep my fucking mouth shut?!

Lol barked out a short laugh and stood up. “You never cease to surprise me, Harry,” he said, holding out his hand. “It’s one of your more endearing qualities.”

I let out a sigh of relief; he didn’t say no.

“I am intrigued to hear your views on the mechanics of your suggestion. Shall we go home and talk about it some more?”

I took his hand and stood up. “Well, I was thinking turkey baster, unless of course you prefer-”

Lol shut me up with a kiss. It was tender and surprising and full of love. Lots of love.

Oh my God, I’m having incestuous thoughts. Who knew the new normal would turn out so perverted?

“Yes, let’s go home, Lol. Mr Tibbles will be wondering where we are.”

*******

*Not for a while yet, Clicky. Harry and Lol will have to conceive first…*

*I have some ideas…*

*We shall see… /stubs butt… Time for a Song, Clicky…*

Until next time, Dear Reader… Have a Song ❤

Did He Say Lennon or Lenin’s On Sale Again?

*/lights up and smokes… Ah, it’s Lennon. Mind you, Lenin works just as well, Clicky, when you consider how much repacked communism is currently being shoved down our throats…*

Hello Dear Reader! 😀

If you saw Clicky’s post yesterday…

… You’ll know that the latest Underdog Anthology of short stories, number 17, has now been published…

… And if you avail yourself of Amazon’s ‘free preview’ button, you will see that my story contribution this time is called ‘731 Days Later…’

*Yes, Clicky, it’s a ‘Harry’ story… /flicks ash… set 731 days after the last one… more or less…*

… And whilst I will publish my new story here at the LoL, Dear Reader, I’ll not do that just yet.

Today I’m gonna give you the Afterword, the ‘dead poets page’, where I butcher and mutilate the words of a deceased poet to tell of some wacky occurrence happening in the world at the time of mangling. However, first you will need to re-familiarize yourself with an old song…

*I had so much fucking fun working on this one, Clicky…*

Afterword

by Roo B. Doo

Whilst in exile in Switzerland, shortly before the start of the Russian revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin said:

“There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen”.

We appear, Dear Reader, to be living through such weeks.

2019 now feels like it occurred at least ten years ago. Pestilence arrived in 2020, closely followed by Death, that has ramped up alarmingly despite the waning Covid pandemic. Then, at the start of this year, War became the main topic of conversation. The demented father of a crack addict installed in the US White House through a ‘fortified’ election keeps threatening to escalate Russia’s military incursion into the Ukraine into World War Three. Broken supply chains and skyrocketing inflation surely mean that Famine can’t be that far off now. Western governments and supranational organisations, such as the World Economic Forum, proclaim that shortly we will ‘have nothing and be happy’, whilst they intend to ‘Build Back Better’. Global corporate media calls anyone in disagreement with this vision a ‘bigot’, whilst waxing lyrical over how nutritious and tasty mealworm is.

All in all, it feels like we’re being gaslit and abused into accepting a dystopian future, one with a lot less of us in it. So it was quite amazing that for most of April and all of May this year, a legal trial was held in Fairfax, Virginia that appeared to be a perfect demonstration of ‘as above, so below’, or Mandlebrot set, if you’re so inclined, for anyone with an internet connection to see it. Every second was televised and millions upon millions of people tuned in to watch the legal teams for two Hollywood millionaire actors battle it out over tawdry allegations of gaslighting, domestic abuse and cancellation. It was glorious.

As I started this afterword with the words of Lenin, I shall finish it with the mutilated words of Lennon, John Lennon to be exact, a dead poet if there ever was one, as I regale you with the ballad of Johnny C Depp II versus Amber Laura Heard*…

The Trial of Johnny & Woko*

Standing in the court in Virginia
Accusations of attempts to defame
The man that played Jack said, “They gave me the sack
All I want is to win back my good name”

Judge, you know it ain’t easy
Giving testimony
But way things were going
Hollywood had crucified me

When Issac took the stand for his friend Johnny
Amber’s crazy cat lady lawyer, Elaine
Asked how he air kissed
Until Issac got pissed
And the watching world cried “Are you fuckin’ insane?!”

Judge, you know it ain’t easy
What if anything is Amica cream?
The way things are goin’
Twitter’s gonna to crucify me

When Johnny testified in his own defense
How Amber’s abuse of him never ceased
When the housekeeper said, “Your wife’s shat in your bed”
I said, “Divorce. I need to get me some peace”

Judge, you know it ain’t easy
When your ex is diagnosed Cluster B
The way things are goin’
Amber’s still trying to crucify me

“Objection!”, “Hearsay!”, “Leading!” the lawyers cried
“Sustained”, “Overruled” replied Judge Azcarate
The gallery sat, patiently enwrapped
Social media was out of control
“Link”

Then Amber got to tell her side of the story
Tales of beatings, drug binges and fear
Full of sound and fury, she mugged to the jury
But couldn’t even shed a fake tear

Judge, you know it ain’t easy
When your dog steps on a bee
The way things are goin’
Tik-Tok is going to crucify me

After six long weeks the trial finally ended
The jury went off to deliberate
When they came back, they said “Amber’s a hack
Have eight million, Johnny, go celebrate”

Judge, you know it ain’t easy
You know how hard it can be
Keep our identities secret
Don’t let the Press crucify me

The way things are goin’
You know they’ll wanna crucify me

*No, but it was worthy of Bowie, Clicky… /stubs butt… That woman really is the Face of Woke…*

As it happens, John Lennon and David Bowie, both deceased poets, did know each other and collaborated on some songs. Most notably one that could have been written for Amber Heard and gets to the heart of her particular addiction.

Dear Reader, have a Song 😉 

CLICK5: A Fourth Turning Tale – Writing ‘731 Days Later’ For Underdog Anthology XVII…

Extended CLICK5… CLICKB8: Synchronicity? *…/scratches head…*

Story Time: Spring Fevers & Bearded, Clammy Hands

*Ain’t that the truth, Clicky. How in the fuck are we meant to be April Fooled this year?*

Hello there, Dear Reader! Long time, no speaky 😉

My good friend Cade Fon Apollyon sent me a tweet last night, depicting a weather event at his ‘old stomping ground’…

*He says that’s Tyson’s Corner in Virginia and tornadoes there are extremely rare…*

… Which reminded me of a bunch of tweets that crossed my Twitter feed earlier this week, all saying the same thing…

*Nice example, Clicky, butt that’s knot someone I follow… /lights up and smokes… Say, did you know there’s a 137 reference in that Tweeter’s bio?*

*Just a happy coincidence, then? Okay…*

… And that whole Oscars ‘Slap Heard Around the World’ scene at the start of the week put me in mind of Cade’s short story from Underdog Anthology XIV: Dark Ides of March, published in the Spring of 2021…

*Oh yeah. It even syncs… /drags… with a couple of your recent posts, Clicky… /exhales smoke…*

… So, I asked Cade if I could publish his story, here, at the LoL today, and he said, ‘Sure’…

*Knockout, Clicky, indeed…*

… So, here is ‘Spring Fevers and Bearded, Clammy Hands’ for your entertainment, Dear Reader. Enjoy! ❤

*******

Spring Fevers and Bearded, Clammy Hands

by
Cade F.O.N Apollyon

If one were to read “A Novice’s Guide to Understanding Jealousy”, the first sentence of Chapter 1, Page 1 would almost absolutely have to immediately address the subject of a lack of self-awareness. In fact, I cannot see how the entire book could ever get around talking about anything except the topic of self-awareness and identifying one’s own shortcomings within the framework of this concept.

Jealousy, seems to place the offended party in some sort of vacuum. Like a shell or some sort of defensive posture where only the individual and their own interests matter. Their computational systems, assuming they have any, also seem to go offline.

“Mateo! Hel..loooo?!? Are you even fucking listening to me?”

My neighbor, John, was already agitated when he borderline accosted me in my car upon my arrival home from work. My zoning out in contemplation whilst being accused by my neighbor of having an affair with his wife is unlikely to assuage his irritation.

“My name is Matthew, Juan, and yes, I am very much listening to you.”

“I apologize, Matthew,” John fired back sarcastically. “Now, are you fucking my wife?”

“No, John, I am not. I’m standing here in the middle of my own front yard holding an empty lunch box, quasi-talking to you, really just hoping to go inside at some point and take my shoes off.”

I’d retorted with my usual dry and unemotional sarcasm. I tried not too sound precocious though as this was an extremely delicate and dangerous situation, and the last thing I need at this point is my friend thinking I’m trying to be cleverly deceptive.

“Have you, at any point, from the beginning of creation, to this very day, ever, fucked my wife?”

John was struggling, choosing his words for clarity; an obvious frustration and impatience in his voice.

“Yeah. But I only stuck my dick in halfway so I’m not fucking her nearly as much as I could be. And when one considers that my dick is only six inches long, it could be argued that I’m not fucking her very much at all.”

The look of shock and disbelief on his face reflected that my retort had caught him completely off guard. But as the initial look of surprise left his face, and his brain began to compute my actual words, his face contorted in confusion, began to relax, and I could tell it may have finally broke some ice as John’s default facial express returned. That expression then started to crack into a smile, it was obvious he was trying to restrain it, and he turned away from me briefly in order to, I assume, stymie a giggle. The slight hunch in the back, a hand to the face, and a couple of shoulder twitches were a dead-giveaway.

I’d already answered his initial query as to my ‘fucking his wife’, definitely and without hesitation in the negative. Quite easy to do as I was most certainly not ‘fucking’ his wife. Something very odd was going on here. This had to be one of his stupid, drawn out ‘practical jokes’. Surely some utterly ridiculous punchline, for which I will have to feign a fake laugh, is coming.

“Look John,” I said to his back. I have walked…” I glanced down quickly at the pedometer hanging from my belt to check the distance I had walked at work today; 17.3 miles, holy shit, “…seventeen point three miles today and my feet are feeling every foot of that. I’m going in to put my lunchbox down, take my shoes off, grab a beer, and I’ll be right back out. Do you want one?”

He knows, came a female voice in my head.

I froze. A warm tingling sensation suddenly appeared in my head, and quickly began to run from my crown, down my neck, and into my spine, as another warm and tingly feeling began in my feet and started emanating up my legs.

Great, I thought to myself. That’s all I need at this point…her.

The two opposing tingly feelings continued their creep and met somewhere in my lower back: we were connected now. That warm pulsing tingle of The Connection. We were synced.

Hello Matthew, came the woman’s voice again. I feel The Connection. I needed to speak with you. I needed to let you know that he knows. I needed to speak with you about how best to proceed regarding…

The woman’s voice was cut off as John, apparently having finally regained a composure he was comfortable with, turned back towards me.

“Yeah,” John started as he nodded in agreement. “Yeah, I’ll take a beer if it’s cold Matt. You get your shoes off, and I’ll meet you on your porch in a few. I’m going to go ask Patrice about dinner. Any chance you might wanna pop over? Do you have plans?”

John asking me to join he and his wife for dinner was not unusual. I was, after all, a lonely bachelor. A lonely divorcee. A washed-up burnout who over the past nine years had been fixed up with virtually every single woman John and his wife knew. But dinner tonight did not seem appropriate. I was in no way trying to read John’s intentions regarding this particular invitation as we had too much experience between us for me to read into it as being hostile. But I had to seriously consider it inappropriate under the circumstances.

Jesus, how uncomfortable might that dinner be? I thought to myself.

If you come to dinner, I’ll make you cum, came the woman’s voice again. I’ll cum all over your face Matthew, and you can cum on mine, if you want. It will be nothing but cumming for the both of us if you come to dinner.

Dammit Patrice, can you at least allow me to get my shoes off and grab your husband a beer before I make a decision on dinner?

Sure Matthew. I know my cooking isn’t always that great, but my dessert will make that dark and lonely heart of yours shine like the sun that it actually is. Mmm, I’m getting wet just thinking about having you inside me and seeing your light.

Patrice…

“Matt?” John said, snapping me away from my internal dialogue. “Matt, you’re zoning out again.”

“Sorry John. Been a long day at work and I have an even longer one in store tomorrow. I have a lot of work stuff on my mind,” I said, turning away from my neighbor and heading for the faux safety of my own home.

“Already trying to think of all the stuff I need to do tomorrow. Lemme grab you that beer. About ten minutes.”

I did not glance back to see if John was retreating back to his own property as I neared the relative safety of my own front porch.

Sorry you had a long day. I hope I get a long one tonight, Matthew.

Patrice, I myself would take an explanation of any length as to why your husband is over at my house breaking my balls over allegedly, quote ‘fucking you’, unquote.

I’ll explain in a bit Matt, and it will all make sense. I promise.

As I reached my front door, I tried to put Patrice and her shenanigans out of my head. Just as I began to fumble with my key for the lock, and just as freedom seemed imminent, I heard John call from what sounded like his driveway. I froze, closed my eyes, and tried not to shudder.

“Hey, Matt! Pedometer!” he shouted. “They ought to give those to pedophiles so cops know how many kids they’ve molested!”

I suddenly felt a tinge of fury. My heart knew that I should not be feeling this feeling, but I was. Whatever my neighbor was digging for, and why he was digging for it in me no longer mattered. This asshole has to be begging for a beating, but why he has chosen me to give it to him is a total mystery at this point.

Don’t let him get to you cowboy. You are closer that you know to being free of him forever.

I ignored Patrice’s comment entirely, turned to peek around the corner of my front porch to look over in the direction of the voice. Sure enough, there stood John in his own driveway. Immobile, and looking in my direction with a giant ridiculous smile on his face as if he’d just told the joke of the century and was now eagerly awaiting my guffaws of approval.

“That’s a great idea John,” I said in an absolutely flat tone. “Fantastic in fact. Why don’t you head inside right now and dial 911 and tell them your genius idea. You can tell me all about it when you come back over for your beer.”

The dry and unimpressed nature in my voice appeared to have gotten the message across, as his previously grinning face was now melting into such a pathetic sag that it appeared it may slide off his head.

He turned, looked down and I could tell his face was now twisting with confusion, and began walking dejectedly towards his house.

I turned back towards my front door, inserted my key into the lock, opened it, and stepped inside. Closing the door behind me, I could only think one word…sanctuary.

It may be a sanctuary from John, but not from me. With me, there is no sanctuary Matthew.

I need no sanctuary from you Patrice. You are my sanctuary.

* * *

John and I had become fast ‘friends’ when he and his wife, Patrice, had moved in next door to me a little over nine years ago. ‘Friends’ in the loose sense in that it was quite obvious from the start that John more or less inserted himself into my life whether I wanted him in it or not, and he was the type of fellow that clung to certain others who could provide him with specific things. He had a bombastic way for introducing himself to others, at which point he would size them up for what they could and could not provide.

I never considered him a bad guy, just not exactly a good one. Never seemed to have a thought of his own, which, unfortunately for me and because I was both easily accessible and tolerated his bullshit, just about every crazy idea, weird concept and stupid joke that drifted through John’s transom he would almost certainly parrot to me.

I stood inside my doorway for some time contemplating the nature of my relationship with my neighbors, and wondering what in the hell John was on about. As such, I find myself back at day one of when John and Patrice moved in, and going over every little detail as to how he’s gotten wind of mine and Patrice’s, alleged, affair.

Are you fucking my wife? Who in the hell asks a question like that? He didn’t really seem that peeved or upset. Perhaps the exchange didn’t happen like it does in the movies, and as such, he didn’t know how to react?

You’re contemplating aren’t you Matthew?

Patrice’s voice, in my head again. I’d forgotten we were still actively connected.

Yes Patrice, I am. Can you hear what I’m thinking? Like, the specifics?

No Matt, it’s more of a feeling. When we communicate directly, then yes the information sent along The Connection is very clear. But when you are mumbling internally I get nothing specific. Just maybe a feeling about what it may be regarding.

So, when I jerk off at night, you get no specifics nor details, you simply know I’m masturbating.

Rawr…so saucy Matthew. So aggressive. I like it. And speaking of, what was with that ‘you are my sanctuary Patrice’ nonsense?

For once, Patrice, I guess I just felt I needed to defend myself. The walls were kinda closing in, ya know?

Good on you Matt. That was brilliant. You’ve taken yet another step into…oh wait…John is calling me, needs to talk, he says.

OK, well, I’m going to ground myself and disconnect. I need to get your husband a beer, and I really need to get these fucking shoes off.

Matt, did you really walk seventeen point three miles today?

Yes I did Patrice. It was awful and I’m currently feeling all fifty-five of my years, and then some.

John wants me to come over and talk to you Matt.

What?! You, Patrice? Why you?

He feels that he may have upset you.

He did, Patrice. But that still doesn’t explain why he wants you to come over.

John seems to think that I’ll be able to smooth things over and you’ll come to dinner.

Patrice, I really don’t know if…

Shhhh….Matthew, just, let me come over. I’ll tell John it may take a bit, but I think I can smooth things over.

Patrice, this is weird as hell him sending you over, whom he just accused me of having an affair with. I’m on edge here.

Ground yourself Matt. Grab that beer, and I’ll drink it when I get there.

Patrice wait. Patrice?

“Fuck!” I said aloud.

She’s disconnecting. I could feel the tingly feeling in my back partially unwinding. She was already grounding herself.

I was still standing in the doorway, holding my keys and lunchbox. I felt so alone in the moment. Only recently had I, by some fluke of nature, acquired the ability to speak with anyone, any time, anywhere in the world, and yet at that precise moment I’d never felt more alone.

It didn’t help matters that, for the first six months after discovering my ability, I’d been talking, via thought alone, to a someone who originally told me that they were on the other side of the world. But as it turns out, this distant and seemingly completely harmless someone was actually less than fifty feet away the entire time. Patrice. And boy oh boy, once we discovered who each other actually was, did the tone and topics of the conversations ever change. The small talk and vagaries were gone. She was suddenly a firebrand, passionate, but a rogue, a rebel and downright nasty at times: and I don’t mean just and only sexual stuff either. For the last four months, she had toyed with me and psychologically beaten on me relentlessly. I had no idea what to make of any of it. Still don’t. Perhaps she’ll explain it someday if I can keep myself from tying cinder blocks to my feet and jumping into a lake.

You’re drifting again Matt. You really should ground before some sneaky someone you don’t know tries to connect.

I reached up with the hand holding my key ring, and selected the key that allowed itself to be singled out, as which key I used did not matter. This time it was the key to my one and only padlock.

I don’t even know where in the hell that padlock is, I thought to myself. No idea why I still have the key to it on my key ring.

No response from Patrice, nor anyone else for that matter, doesn’t feel like anyone else is connected nor trying to connect, so now all that remained was for me to close the current connection completely.

I reached out with the key, and touched it to the metal screw holding the face-plate cover to the light switch on the wall. Almost immediately, I could feel the somewhat diminished ball of coursing energy in my back begin to unwind like electrically charged noodles being slurped out via my head and feet, and then vanish completely.

I pulled the key away from the screw; disconnected. With little very little gusto and no thanks given to the key for its additional service, I hung my key ring on the key rack above the light switch, and retreated inward to get my shoes off my aching feet.

* * *

The doorbell rang and my hands suddenly went clammy.

How should I greet her? Should I shake her hand? Just say hello and immediately hand her a beer, while shuffling myself outside so that she does not attempt to come in? Should I go out into my backyard, toss the beer over the roof and into the front yard, and cry ‘My mom says I can’t come out to play right now, but there’s your beer crazy woman! Just like you like it! Shaken and stirred and every other fucking thing!’

It was just now dawning on me that, not only did I not really know my neighbor Patrice, we had never really spoken before. Not at any length, and most certainly never alone. Well, not ‘in person’ anyway. And most of the “remote” stuff was so scattered, unintelligible and seemingly pointless that the fact we’d been speaking almost non-stop for ten months, now too felt more like we’d never spoken at all.

Should I check my breath? Wait a second Matt…this isn’t a date. Relax.

Only now did a calmness fall upon me. The absolute absurdity of being thrown into a tangent over nothing at all. I was rattled over basically, nothing. A married woman is standing at my door, ringing the bell, because her husband, my neighbor, not fifteen minutes ago accused me of having an affair with his wife, the woman in question is now standing at my door, and he now wants her to smooth things over so I’ll come to dinner with them. Simple. I had not a damn thing to worry about. Except…

Patrice and I have not spoken in person about our, less than conventional conversations. Wait, that doesn’t sound very good at all. “Less than conventional’ sounds exactly like what John was just accusing me of.

The doorbell rang again. My chest started to tighten.

Holy hell. It’d never occurred to me that myself and Patrice had not yet talked in person about our abilities. What if…oh my God…what if all this time, I wasn’t actually communicating telepathically with Patrice. What if some malicious asshole with psychic powers has been toying with me this entire time, and passing it off as if I was speaking to a neighbor because of some clue I’ve given away. Some game psychics play to amuse themselves, similar to a cat playing with a mouse.

I felt a very cold chill at the base of my neck, and for the first time in a very long time, I actually felt afraid. My mind was awash and digging through the memory banks for the last time that I’d even seen Patrice, let alone talked to her.

A knock now at the door. They are getting impatient and require a response. Doorbells fail, malfunction and sometimes just go unheard, but not knocks.

Face the music Matt. Grab a beer, this very second, then go answer the door.

“Hey Patrice. How are you?” I attempted to sound as nonchalant as possible as I pushed open the outward-facing glass door and made my way outside.

“Hello Matt. Is that beer for me? Or you.”

I could not tell if she was being playfully ignorant or not, so I just played it as cool as humanly possible for now.

“Why don’t you have a seat on the porch swing, I’ll sit in this chair here opposite you, and we can figure out who this beer is for.”

“Oh, OK, well, I hadn’t planned on staying long, but I guess I can sit for a moment Matt.”

“Whatever you want to do is fine Patrice,” I said while trying not to allow my face to twist with a confused look. “It’s just that I don’t think you’ve ever come over here before, so I guess I just assumed maybe you came to talk a bit, considering the circumstances and recent events.”

Patrice sat on the porch swing opposite me, and once she was seated I chose one of the four porch bar-chairs that were place around a small round table I’d picked up at a garage sale a few years back. The table was small, the chairs uncomfortable and I’d really only purchased the set as decoration as I had no friends to speak of and almost never had guests. For once, the table would come in handy and I placed the unopened can of beer on it.

Hands folded in her lap, Patrice was looking at me almost impatiently as if waiting for me to situate myself. For the first time I noticed that she had very beautiful blue crystalline eyes. I tended not to like blue eyes very much, crystalline blue even less, but in this case they suited her. She was attractive. I snapped out of my study of her form as it suddenly occurred to me that I was in great danger.

My heart was pumping at this point. Not from lust, nor anger, nor even fear nor any other emotion I could think of…this was a feeling of confusion that I’ve never before felt, and it was causing my heart a stress it had never before known. Not even twelve years ago when my wife of eighteen years told me she was through with me and my broken self, did my heart suffer this kind of trauma.

“Matt,” Patrice’s voice snapped me out of my waking coma, “John just told me about what happened earlier, and I must tell you that I am horrified.”

“I admit that I am quite confused as to exactly what just transpired Patrice.”

“Did he really shout out in a very loud voice from across the yard something about pedophiles to you?”

The bottom of the entire Universe just fell out from under me.

“Um, pedophiles?” I was trying to hold it together, but it was now clear that this slimy asshole is playing some kind of twisted game with me. He basically assaults me over adultery with his wife, and he goes home and makes up some bullshit story about a very in poor taste joke, completely omitting the adultery parts? “Yeah Patrice he did, and I guess he was trying to make a joke about the pedometer that I have to wear for work. It wasn’t very funny, was in poor taste, and I admit it upset me. Perhaps more than it should, but I do have to wear this thing every single work day, and to be completely honest and open, his comment is likely going to haunt me for some time for that very reason.”

“Well, I’m sorry that it upset you Matt, but that’s really not my concern nor why I came over,” Patrice said rather flatly.

The entire Universe just exploded. This is the kind of sick twisted games that my ex-wife used to play. Say, anything. Do, anything. Nothing, matters. She, held all the cards, she, was the dealer, and I had to play her games and take whatever she dealt out because I had nothing and no one in all creation, except for her. I was nothing more than a dislodged piece of navel lint in a wind storm.

“Matt, are you okay?” Patrice suddenly sounded exactly like her husband.

“I am contemplating what you’ve said,” I fired back calmly. “Were you expecting me to say something?”

“I guess maybe I expected you to ask me why I came over.”

“You’ve mentioned that you’re aware of something your husband said to me.”

“Yes, but that’s not the real reason I came over.”

“You said that already, Patrice.”

“Matt, are you angry about something?”

The alarm bells were most certainly going off now, full tilt, and this was absolutely turning into a life and death situation.

“Patrice, perhaps you should just tell me what you need since I don’t know you that well, and I’m certainly not a mind-reader.”

Patrice did not really react to my statement, but strangely reached around behind her back, and produced a large, letter-sized envelope. She leaned forward and offered it to me.

“Oh, haha, a mind-reader!” she said in an obviously forced tone, whilst simultaneously urging me with her eyes to take the envelope. “Me and John went to see a mind-reader once, except this one was a hypnotizer. Is that right? Hypnotizer?”

“Hypnotist,” I corrected her as I leaned forward and took the envelope. “I’m quite sure that hypnotists are those who hypnotize people for various reasons.”

A look of relief crossed Patrice’s face as I took the envelope from her hand, and I fell face-first into whatever new game she was now playing.

“Well, me and John went to this show where a hypnotist would pick people from the audience.” After finishing her thought, Patrice raised her hands in an mock envelope-opening type motion, implying that I should open it now, here, in her presence. “Anyway, John of course volunteered us both, and we both got to go up on stage and get hypnotized.”

Only moments before, my fear levels had just about caused my entire existence to seize and stop entirely, but now there was suddenly this strange feeling of…clarity. Perhaps everything leading up to this very moment in time was some kind of test to see if I could in any way handle the horrors that were almost sure to materialize from this envelope’s contents.

I noticed that Patrice was arching her eyebrows as if to hurry me along. I looked for a moment deeply into her eyes, and that gloomy image which was beginning to form of Patrice being John’s soulmate or clone or whatever it was had disappeared. Odd that it continued to rattle on outwardly as I peeled back the flap on the envelope and produced what appeared to be no less than five folded pages.

“John barked like a chicken and clucked like a dog.”

I had only just started to open the letter when it struck me what Patrice had just said.

“He barked like a chicken and clucked like a dog? Don’t you mean that he barked like a dog and clucked like a chicken Patrice?”

“That’s what the hypnotist said Matt. He told John to bark like a chicken and cluck like a dog. I don’t know how John did it, but he did.”

“That’s…frightening, Patrice. I don’t even want to know…”

‘GROUND YOURSELF RIGHT NOW!’

The first line of the first page jumped off the paper and hit me like a lightning bolt. Instinctively I started to reach down and grab one of the metal legs on the small table, but my survival instincts kicked in and I resisted the urge, thinking that this may be a trap of some kind. But almost as quickly as I began to doubt, I remember the odd feelings that I’ve felt during the processes of being grounded, ungrounded and The Connection. Being both an electrician and a semi-amateur radio enthusiast, there are things that have been happening over the past ten months that I can in no way begin to explain.

I looked up from the letter and at Patrice. She gave a small nod, and there was a calmness to her being which provided just enough assurance for me to throw caution to the wind and play along. Knowing that the table’s legs were a poor ground, I reached out and grabbed one anyway and continued to read as Patrice continued to ramble.

“I don’t really remember being hypnotized, but everyone said I was. They said I got trapped in a box that wasn’t there, and I couldn’t get out.”

‘Dear Matthew,

For the time being, please read down only to where it says ‘STOP HERE!’, keep reading until you get there, and I’ll ramble on about hypnotists in the meantime. Also, keep your hand firmly wrapped around that metal leg on the table until we finish here, and please do not begin to wonder internally how I know all of this. I do, and answers will come later.’

“John says that he can remember being hypnotized, and he can remember everything he did, but I don’t remember anything at all,” Patrice continued. “He says he only did what he was told because he knew he was part of the act. But me? He says that I was absolutely terrified and screaming. He said I really honestly thought that I was trapped in a box even though there was no box.”

‘We are both of us in great danger because of our, ‘gifts’. I would ask that you, later at some point this evening, find yourself a proper grounding point, and read the remainder of this letter ONLY when grounded. I will go ahead and tell you that I am a beard. My marriage is an arranged sham so that my husband can collect his inheritance, and myself and John will not be married much longer as he is already arranging the divorce and planning to move to somewhere in Java. I will of course get a piece of his inheritance as payment for services tendered over the past fifteen years of marriage. More on that later though. The Great Magician is awake, and I have reason to believe that The Great Magician has somehow found the both of us…meaning you and I. Does this mean anything to you? I am so very sorry for all of this. Hopefully, the rest of the letter will better explain what I know, and what I don’t. P

STOP HERE!

A quick thumb through the sheets indicated that this letter was approximately eight pages long. Visions of Armageddon suddenly swirled in my head as my mind flashed back to the horrible tales of the end times taught me in church as a youth. But that’s exactly what this moment felt like. I felt like I had just walked out of the sunshine and green grasses onto the burning and bloody fields of Megiddo, and me right in the big middle of the fighting between the warring factions of good and evil.

“Which reminds me, Matt. John did ask me to tell you that he was sorry about his joke he made earlier, but the real reason that I came over was I wanted to know if I could borrow a cup of milk. I’m making John some cornbread for dinner, and I need some milk.”

“Patrice,” I said calmly, looking up from the letter. “Did you know that you can substitute beer for milk in certain baked goods?”

Patrice’s face was aghast. Honestly, aghast and unknowing. I’d hit her with a curve-ball.

“Really?” she said.

I folded the letter and thoughtfully placed it back into the envelope, before sliding the envelope into my shirt pocket as I stood.

“Yeah really really. I have a beer sitting right here, which I am going to give you. I’m going to go inside and get you…how much milk do you need?”

“I only needed one cup of milk. Whole milk if you have it,” she said rather sheepishly.

“Okay Patrice, I’m going to go inside and get you one cup of whole milk, and if you decide that you would like to give the beer a whirl, only use half of a cup of the milk in your cornbread, and use a half of a cup of the beer in substitution for the other half-cup of milk.”

“Will that really work?” Patrice asked disbelievingly. “What…what does this do?

“It gives the cornbread a bit of a different flavor is all. Better in biscuits, but it works with cornbread too. And you’ll have exactly four ounces of beer leftover you can sip on if you want.”

“Sure Matt, I’ll…give that a try. Thank you. Do I need…”

“This beer has already gotten kinda warm,” I said, not letting her finish. “Just make sure you allow it get a little warmer before adding it to the mix. I’ll be right back with your milk.”

I retreated into the house thinking that I had no idea what answers, if any, Patrice’s letter might contain. At this point, it was apparent that her rather substantial looking letter was more likely to contain mystery than clarity. One thing was certain though, I’d had just about enough of being at the mercy of the whims of an assembly of douchebag neighbors and cryptic mystics playing their god games. It was time for me to stop being a leaf in the wind, get serious, and hit the books to start researching this insanity. It was time that I become the storm.

Right after I get Patrice her milk, of course.

*******

*Wait. he tweets out ‘it’s Friday once again’ each week, Clicky… /stubs butt… Doesn’t he?*

*Ah, ya got me…*

We hope you have enjoyed today’s post. If you’d like to read Cade’s story in proper book form, as well as 12 other short stories and a substantial poem from a variety of authors, then Underdog Anthology XIV is available for a staggeringly low price…

*You could get a full set of Underdog Anthologies for well under twenty quid. That’s fantastic value…*

Until next time, Dear Reader, have a Song 😀

CLICK5: Don’t Have A Bercow, Man!

Story Time: In The Grotto

*Clicky! Dear Reader’s here for the latest episode of Ronageddon…/lights up… not an engrossing Woo talk… /drags… on the difference… /streams smoke… between ‘revelation’ and ‘revealing’… /flicks ash… as interesting and pertinent as it may be…*

*Exactly… /pats snout… Btw, that music vid is extremely pertinent too…*

Welcome, Dear Reader! Today is the 21st December and Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year for the northern hemisphere…

*So even though we’re closer to the sun, it’s colder? …/Smokes… Interesting…*

… And also the setting for ‘In The Grotto’, my story for Underdog Anthology XVI: Slay Bells In the Snow

*There’s top notch contributions from all the authors, Clicky…*

… Which I am happy to present for your entertainment, below. Enjoy! 😀

*******

In The Grotto

By Roo B. Doo
To: Death, Grim Reaper Service

From: Father Christmas, Children Services

Date: 13th December 2021

Re: Christmas Wish Annual Check Up

Greetings, Reaper of Souls and Pyschopomp in Chief!

Can you believe it has been a whole year since I granted your Christmas wish, Big D?
Like my sleigh, time flies, eh?


Whenever you have a moment in the next couple of weeks, I would be grateful if you
could pop by the club so we can have a chat and so forth about any wish-making
consequences you may have experienced in the past year. Any evening before
Christmas Eve is fine but Lapland will be hosting the international finals of Elvis Lives:
Karaoke and Striptease Challenge
on the 21st and I would be delighted if you could
make it then.


Whatever date you can manage, I look forward to seeing you again, old friend.

Soda Pops - x

p.s. And speaking of 'suspicious minds', I'd be much obliged if could you come via the
rear entrance as we're trying not to draw attention to our locale from the local killjoys.
As far as the Rona Regime are concerned, everybody, including Elvis, has left the
building. SP

Death read the week-old she-mail from Father Christmas and then opened his PsiCalendar to check his schedule. So far the year had been horrendously busy and its final 11 days were destined to continue in the same vein. If 2020 had entered the annals of history as the ‘Year Of The Rona’, then 2021 would be infamous as the ‘Year Of Unexplained Sudden Passing’. He had attended to a great many of those during the year but to Death, no passing went unexplained.

I do hope 2022, he mused lugubriously, doesn’t become the ‘Year Of The Great Regret’.

He sighed; with so many souls to transition recently, Death was feeling pooped. The ranks of the Grim Reaper Service were in dire need of bolstering to keep up with demand, but if there was one thing Death shunned more than his bulging inbox, it was initiating a new round of recruitment. With billions of candidates to choose from, to describe the vetting and interview processes as laborious would be a colossal understatement.

And now he had been summoned to Lapland. Death’s opinion of the adult entertainment complex where Father Christmas resided 364 days of year was akin to the one he held on the recruitment process and managing his inbox. Although the club’s exterior was as unassuming as the London backstreet where it was located, its interior was dark and alluring, and had an atmosphere so thick with the tang of sex and smoke that Death could quite literally cut with a scythe.

The tacky upholstery doesn’t bear too close an examination either, he reflected disdainfully, as he continued to tap on the PsiPad screen.

“Ah serendipity,” Death said aloud. “It looks like I’m already booked to appear at Lapland tomorrow night. Winter Solstice it is, although I doubt Soda Pops will be as pleased as he expects.”

He closed the cover on his PsiPad and balanced the slim rectangle on the tips of his distil phalanges. Death considered the elegance and efficiency of the new tech he’d been issued with, and marvelled, not for the first time, at just how many deaths he could now hold in the metacarpals of one hand. Elvis lives? Not according to my records.

Death suddenly had an idea. It too was elegant and efficient in that he would be able to complete three tasks in one fell swoop.

I need to ask favour. Or two, he thought. He opened up his PsiPad and proceeded to write his very first she-mail.

***

He asked for what?

God was intrigued.

And he actually put the request in writing? Let me see.

Brian, the pompous goose that ran the God Lobby on behalf of the supreme deity passed the PsiPad he was holding between his wings over to God.

Big D sent it by she-mail?

Brian honked in affirmation.

Interesting.

God looked at the screen.

To: God

From: Death, Grim Reaper Service

Date: 20th December 2021

Re: A Request

Ma'am

I would be grateful if you would grant me use of the Situation Room tomorrow
evening. I promise to return it intact.

Eternally yours

Death

Big D doesn’t say why he wants to use it.

It was not often that God was surprised, but Death’s odd request was one of those times. She passed the PsiPad back to her chief scribe.

Please send the following reply for me, Brian – ‘Granted’.

Brian tapped the message on screen. He was grateful for the brevity of the response; he much preferred quill, ink and parchment over having to use his beak, which he considered most unbecoming.

I require some focus time, Brian. Please, no interruptions for the next hour or so.

Brian bowed his head and honked.

No, that will be all, thank you.

God started to focus.

***

To a casual observer sat in the Piccolo cafe, the lone woman sitting at the back table might be considered to be conducting a wireless telephone conversation during her meal. Her table manners may be labelled as rude but one-sided conversations in public are all too common these days, so not unusual. And even if noticed, the empty child’s booster seat on the chair opposite the lone, loquacious woman, probably would not have been factored in by a casual observer in reaching this wholly incorrect conclusion. Unless of course the casual observer was dead.

“Wait.” War continued to chew on black pudding and fried bread with an open mouth. “Are you asking me out on a date?”

Death silently studied his apocalypse comrade over the plastic, blue check tablecloth between them. On it sat a steaming mug of tea and a full English breakfast that War was gleefully attacking.

“No, as I stated previously,” Death said patiently, “I will be evaluating a new recruit this evening for a position in the Grim Reaper Service. I value your opinion, War, and would be grateful for your presence.”

War arched her eyebrows quizzically and poked some masticated food from between her cheek and gums with her index finger. “And that’s all?” she asked suspiciously, as she sucked at a piece of sausage trapped under her talon-like nail.

“Nothing else,” Death said firmly. “You have egg on your chin.”

“Okay, where and what time?” War rubbed the flecks of grease and egg yoke from her face with a paper napkin. “I’m fully booked until eight o’clock tonight and I can’t cancel any of my clients. I’m charging them double rate over Christmas and New Year.”

“There will be no need to cancel any of your fitness classes, War. I have procured the Situation Room for the evening.”

“Whoa, you got a lend of God’s new wheels?” War asked, forking bacon and baked beans into her mouth. “How’d you manage that?”

Although the Situation Room was more like an invisible cube, capable of moving in any direction and to any place or time, than a motor vehicle, Death concurred with War’s description of ‘God’s new wheels’. It was certainly speedy.

“I asked her.”

“Huh.” War slurped back a mouthful of tea. “I’ll have to try that.”

“Well then.” Death slipped down from the booster seat. “It is agreed. Enjoy the rest of your breakfast, I have people to see. Unfortunately for them.”

“Hey, not so fast, short-arse. You still haven’t told me where we’re going. What’s the dress code?”

“We’ll be attending Soda Pops’ International Elvis Lives Karaoke and Striptease Challenge at Lapland. Apparently it’s the final, ironically enough for someone.”

“Sounds cool,” War said taking a bite of buttered toast. “I’ll just wear my blue suede shoes then.”

War smirked and continued eating.

“Please don’t.” Death paused as he turned to leave. “Incidentally, I have to ask. You’re a fitness guru, War – how can you condone let alone participate in the consumption of such a large, fried meal?”

War continued to stuff her face. “Are you kidding? At the rate I burn through calories, if I don’t eat like this three times a day I’d look just like you.”

“Noted.” Death bowed his head and glided out of the cafe.

***

Before 2020, the final of the International Elvis Lives Karaoke Challenge had been successfully held at Xi Xi Fat’s Lo Fat Cafe, situated just off the seafront at Southend on Sea.

Although the restaurant was mostly ignored by the local populous because of its reputation for inedible food and confrontational waiting staff, it had gained a cult following via the internet for exactly the same reasons. That and Xi Xi’s twice weekly, full rhinestone garb performances of Elvis Presley’s greatest hits, which drew in punters from far and wide. When a particularly poignant rendition of ‘Are you Romsome Tonight‘ was immortalized as a meme on social media, Xi Xi decided to capitalise on his new found fame and founded the ‘International Elvis Lives Karaoke Challenge’. Marketed at catering establishments across in the UK as a way of promoting their business, the only thing international about it was the competitors’ cuisine.

As the reigning two-time champion, Xi Xi hungered to be crowned ‘The King’ for a third time. And he was quite sure he would have were it not for the cruel intervention of the Rona Christmas lockdown in 2020. Like the rest of the hospitality sector in the country, the Lo Fat Cafe was forced to close until the spring.

Xi Xi was determined that he would not be forced to cancel the final again this year, so asked his long-time friend Soda Pops if he would host the 2021 final. Soda Pops ran Lapland, a nightclub in London, with a dubious reputation but the only place Xi Xi knew of that had remained open and free from the government’s Rona molestations throughout the pandemic. He didn’t know how Soda Pops had managed it, only that he had, and assumed some of Lapland’s patrons must be very powerful and important indeed.

When Soda Pops agreed to his request, Xi Xi decided to include a striptease element to the competition in honour of his generous friend. Nothing was going to stop Xi Xi from achieving his hat-trick this year, even if he had to wear nothing at all.

***

Soft, glowing twilight had settling throughout the God Lobby. From the platform office overlooking the swelling expanse of souls, God watched as the sea rippled and parted, allowing two figures to appear. The first figure, was very short and carried a glowing scythe, lighting their path. He glided ahead of the second much taller figure, who walked along behind. Both wore the unmistakable hooded, ebony robes of the Grim Reaper Service. Not a word passed between the two as they exited the soul sea, which collapsed in their wake, and made their way to the elevator that would bring them up to the office where God was waiting.

*bing*

The elevator doors silently opened and the two figures emerged.

Hello Big D.

“Ma’am.” Death was startled by God’s unexpected greeting but covered it well, although he doubted he had been smooth enough. “I was not expecting to see you this evening.”

God smiled.

I can see that. Who is this with you?

“This is…” Death paused. “Aron. He’s a candidate for the Grim Reaper Service. I will be evaluating his performance in a real-death scenario this evening.”

Hello Aron.

Aron shook beneath his heavy robes. God gently placed her hand on the sleeve of his shaking arm.

Are you shy?

“Uh-huh.”

Don’t be. I promise to take good care of you this evening.

This time Death didn’t try to hide his surprise. “Ma’am? You will be coming with us?” he gasped.

Indeed. I pay very close attention to your she-mail requests.

Death thought for a moment. “But I’d never send a she-mail before.”

Exactly. Now, where is Aron’s evaluation to take place?

Death was nonplussed by the unexpected turn of events; he hadn’t anticipated God’s involvement and strictly speaking, the candidate was not meant to know the time or place of his evaluation. “Ma’am, could I speak to you for one moment in private?”

Of course, Big D.

God led Death aside and then slid into a crouch so that the diminutive Grim Reaper could whisper in her ear.

“Ma’am, Aron must have no foreknowledge of the real-death scenario. It is imperative that he doesn’t gain an advantage over any other possible candidates.”

God nodded her agreement.

I understand. Rigour must be upheld.

“I would also suggest that it is best that you refrain from speaking or communicating with the candidate entirely until the evaluation is over.”

Agreed. So where are we going?

Death cupped his skeletal hand in front of his cowl and whispered into God’s ear, “Lapland-”

Oh goodie. I do so love visiting Soda Pops.

God’s exuberance surprised Death for a third time in the span of as many minutes. “You do?”

Why, yes. I have been taking instruction on pole dancing at Lapland.

Death wondered how many more times God was going to surprise him this evening.

It’s tremendous exercise for developing flexibility and strengthening the inner core.

“I see,” Death replied somewhat sceptically.

I have become quite proficient.

“Good for you, Ma’am. Practice makes perfect.”

I’m glad you agree, Big D and I hope you keep that in mind when evaluating Aron.

“Ma’am?”

I think my presence has made him nervous, and for that I apologise.

Death felt his rib cage expand at the kind wisdom in God’s apology. “I will.”

God stood up with smooth fluidity.

Shall we go? I’ll drive.

“Oh, one more thing,” Death said. God slid back down into a crouch again. “We will need to collect War along the way.”

War will be joining us? Excellent news. You are full of surprises tonight, Big D.

***

“Mm mm mm, mm, yay, yay, yay… I’m all shook up!

The audience at Lapland erupted into thunderous applause as Hector Rodrigues completed his set. Sweat streamed down Hector’s face as he struck his final pose under the hot spotlight, and bounced off the gold medallion nestled in the thick fur matting that cover his swarthy, naked chest.

From the stage wings, Xi Xi watched Hector’s performance. He considered it adequate overall, with a sufficient amount of hip swivels and knee kicks to garner Hector high marks from the judges, although Xi Xi thought Hector’s decision to play it safe and keep his trousers on would lower his final score.

Xi Xi looked out toward the judges table, situated in front of the the audience, to gauge their response. He was most impressed by the caliber of the judging line up Soda Pops had assembled: there was an actual High Court Judge; a former Speaker of the House of Commons and the person Xi Xi wanted to impress the most – TV chef and food campaigner, Freddie Calendar. Freddie could make or break any Michelin Star wannabe’s career and although Xi Xi knew his food could never pass muster, he hoped the ambiance of the Lo Fat Cafe would one day win it a top accolade.

Hector was still milking the applause as Soda Pops bounced onto the stage, one arm outstretched and the other holding a microphone to his lips. “Give it up for Hector Rodrigues of the Jumping Bean Bistro in Weston-Super-Mare, our penultimate competitor. Well, done, Hector!”

Hector took a last bow and left the stage in Xi Xi’s direction.

“Good job, Jumping Bean,” Xi Xi said, clapping Hector on the back several times and handing him a towel.

Hector wiped the sweat from his face. “Gracias, Lo Fat. It is a good crowd tonight.”

Xi Xi jumped up and down and ran rapidly on the spot. He crooked his head until the bones in his neck popped. “Thank you for warming them up.”

“Now then, now then, boys and girls,” Soda Pops address the room. “It’s been a hell of a competition so far, but the question is, have we left the best to last?”

Oh yes you have!” the audience replied in unison.

Soda Pops chuckled into the mic. “We’ll see, we’ll see.” He wandered to the front of the stage, cracking the mic flex like a whip. He pointed to the judges’ table and snapped the flex again. “No, that’s for later. Am I right, Mr Speaker?”

“Oh no you’re not!” the dapper, but well watered politician bellowed in return.

Order! Order!” The audience responded with roars of laughter and the sound of palms slapping on tabletops.

Soda Pops flapped his hands, signalling the audience to calm down. “Now, our last competitor tonight is not just any old competitor. No, no. Singing his signature success, ‘Are You Romsome Tonight’ and ‘Way Down’, would you please welcome the two-time reigning champion to the stage. The one and only Xi Xi Fat!”

Hector draped the rolled up towel around his neck. “Good luck, Lo Fat,” he told Xi Xi.

Xi Xi turned to his fellow competitor and curled his lip. “Rock and roll, Jumping Bean,” he drawled before jogging out to the spotlight.

***

“I’d forgotten what a tight squeeze this is,” War complained loudly, as she entered the Situation Room. She tried maneuvering for space but could only standing crooked, with the right side of her face pushed up against the ceiling. “Hold up, I’ll take my boots off.”

Her crimson, patent leather catsuit creaked as she kneeled down to unzipped her matching boots.

Good evening, War.

“Oh hello, Ma’am. I didn’t see you standing there behind…” War indicated to the tall, hooded figure looming over her. “Are you looking at my tits?”

The would be reaper’s hooded head snapped up from it’s down-turned position, as if to attention. “Pardon me, miss.”

“Nah, you’re alright,” War laughed. She pulled the zip on the front of her skintight catsuit down a notch and studied her cleavage. “Hello, boys!”

“War, this is Aron, this evening’s candidate for evaluation,” Death explained. “Aron, this is War. You should both refrain from interacting with each other until after the test.”

“That might prove difficult in here,” War said, standing up with boots in hand. She was still taller than the ceiling height, but only slightly so that she now only needed to tilt her head. “Ma’am, did you ever consider making the Situation Room a convertible?”

I have not.

Death eyed the wicked sharp stiletto heels of War’s boots, held just in front of his cowl. “War, those heels are lethal.”

“Well, you should know.” War turned her head and winked at Aron. “Are we picking anyone else up?”

“No,” Death replied.

“Good. Let’s get to Lap-”

Don’t-” Death started to tell War not to divulge their destination, but was interrupted when God pulled on the light bulb cord hanging down from the centre of the ceiling. For a moment, darkness was all.

“-land. Whoa there!” War burst into raucous laughter at the sight of the quivering, naked buttocks presented before them. “I was not expecting that!”

Way down where it feels so good,” Xi Xi sang lustily, “Way down where I hoped it would.”

“Ma’am, we seem to be at the back of the stage,” Death informed God.

It is where I normally park when I come for my pole-dancing lessons, Big D.

Out front, Xi Xi Fat had worked the Lapland audience into a fever pitch with his performance, and was about to reach the climax of his second song. He was naked, stripped of all clothing save for his cowboy boots, sunglasses and a glittering, sequin thong. He removed his sunglasses and flung them into the whooping audience.

Way down where I never could. Way down, down.” Xi Xi whipped off his thong and the audience went wild.

“Oh…my…fucking…word…” War continued to stare at singer’s backside, as he bowed from the waist to the ecstatic audience before him. “I can see right up the crack of his-”

“Is that..?” Death peered forward for a closer look. “That’s Famine.”

Famine had been missing since Halloween the previous year, when War had inadvertently eaten him whilst they were travelling in the back of a London taxi, driven by Satan. Pestilence, too, had been eaten and was still missing since that day, although Death had become keenly aware throughout the course of the year that Pesto was very much at large and active. Somewhere.

“What?! Where?” War shifted her gaze away from the singer’s bottom. “No way!

Xi Xi turned to face the back of the stage, unaware of the invisible Situation Room and the ethereal audience it contained. He smiled rapturously and laughed with joy and relief. Lifting his arms above his head, the thong still tightly in his grip, he punched the air. “Yesss!!

“It is! It fucking is, an’ all! Famine! Famine!” War shouted and banged the palm of her hand on the transparent wall, trying to get Xi Xi’s attention.

God placed a hand on War’s shoulder.

Famine cannot see or hear us, War.

Soda Pops ran on stage. “Splendid! Splendid!” he boomed into the mic, and wrapped his ermine trimmed, red velvet cloak around Xi Xi’s shoulders. “Xi Xi Fat, ladies and gentlemen! The true naked chef!”

The audience were on their feet cheering and calling for more. Xi Xi’s fellow competitors, who had crowded into the stage wings to watch his electric and revealing performance, now spilled out onto the stage, clapping and calling for an encore.

Xi Xi kissed his sequin thong and held it aloft before throwing it out into the darkness. It landed on the judge’s table, where Freddie Calendar quickly seized it and placed it over his face, to everyone’s great amusement.

Freddie got to his feet unsteadily; he’d taken full advantage of the complimentary booze that came with his judging responsibilities. With the thong stretched tight across his face he announced, “We the dudges are unam…unanamanapus.” He pulled the thong to one side of his nose and mouth to breath. “Ugh, this smells… Where was I? …Umanamus…yes we are, we have decided! We have, we have…Shush, everyone… Decided that G…Cheeky Fat is the winner!”

Everybody on stage and in the audience roared their approval at the judge’s decision. Everybody except Freddie, who was suddenly still. A look of confusion crossed his face and his head wobbled.

“I…” Freddie started to say, as his eyes glazed over, and he dropped to the floor in a dead slump.

*Bing!*

Death pulled the vibrating PsiPad from his robes. “Aron, would you please follow me. Your real-death test is about to begin.”

As Aron started to follow Death out of the Situation Room and onto the stage, God placed her hand once again on the sleeve of his robe and whispered.

Good luck.

“Ma’am, thank you very much.”

“What’s occurring?” Soda Pops boomed into the mic. He shielded his eyes from the spotlight to try and see what the commotion was in the audience. “Is someone being naughty?”

Nobody laughed. Instead the squeal of scraping chair legs and sober concern filled the room.

“He’s collapsed,” a voice called from the audience.

“Somebody call for an ambulance,” pleaded another.

“Who’s collapsed?” Xi Xi asked Soda Pops.

“That would be celebrity chef, Frederick Trevor Calendar,” Death announced. He appeared between Xi Xi and Soda Pops as they looked out into the audience. Death closed the cover on his PsiPad and passed it to a taller grim reaper standing behind him. “You’ll find him over there,” he said and pointed his scythe in the direction of the melee.

Aron jumped off the stage.

“One moment,” Death said, passing down his scythe. “You’ll need this.”

“Okay, boss.”

Presumptuous, Death thought.

“Death?” Xi Xi’s eyes bulged; his face was tight with shock as he stared down at Death. He looked like he’d seen a ghost.

“Hello Famine. We’ve been looking for you.”

Soda Pop’s scowled. “I knew it. It couldn’t just be pleasure for you, Big D, could it? It had to be business.”

“Regrettable though my presence may be, Soda Pops” Death said solemnly, “I really did appreciate receiving your invitation and I fully intend on making it up to you.”

“Oh yes, when?”

Death nodded out to the darkness. “As soon as my colleague down there reaps his first soul and you clear the rest of the premises.”

“That’ll be easy,” Soda Pops exclaimed. “Look, half of them have already left.”

It was true. Although a more than decent number of people were still rubber-necking, a steady stream of audience members were already making their way out of the exits. In the distance, a faint pierce of sirens could be detected.

“Oh bugger!” Soda Pops swore. “It may take a little longer if the Rona Regime turn up. What is it you have planned, Big D?”

Death plucked a stray thong sequin from the cuff of his robe. “Something spectacular.”

***

It was the longest night of the year and Lapland was finally quiet and still. The cabaret room was in darkness, except for its stage which was brightly lit. Death silently glided into the centre of the spotlight and addressed the small and select audience of four sitting in the front row.

“I will keep my introduction short-”

Soda Pops burst into guffaws; he found Death’s vertically challenging stature endlessly amusing.

Death sighed. “I should say brief-”

“Get on with it,” War shouted.

God held up her hand for quiet.

Please. All of you.

“I didn’t say anything,” Famine grumbled.

Carry on, Big D.

Death nodded. “Ma’am. I would just like to introduce you all to the Grim Reaper Service’s newest recruit. As you know, the service have been extremely busy of late and-”

Get on with it!

Death bowed his head. “Ladies and gentlemen…”

A rumbling of kettle drums and crash of cymbals suddenly poured forth from the speakers at the side of the stage.

“You met him earlier as Aron, but tonight…” Death continued.

The sound of a full orchestra filled the room as Aron emerged from the Situation Room and began to sing with a dark, soulful voice. “When no-one else can understand me…

“Elvis Presley is in the room.”

Death bowed.

*******

*Wait… That just happened? …/stubs butt… Gotta love synchronicity, Clicky…*

We hope you’re enjoying the Ronageddon series. The story will continue in Underdog Anthology XVII, in spring 2022 with ‘Pale Glider’ 😉

And remember, Dear Reader, that however dark Winter Solstice gets, once passed, life starts to get lighter. Have a Song ❤

*♫…That’s the wonder, the wonder of woo…♫*

CLICK5: Adventures In Remote Viewing – Candle, Book & Bell Sync…

Story Time: OK Charon!

*Thanks, Clicky… /lights up… We should probably mention… /drags… ‘Christmas Death Wish’ and… /streams smoke… ‘Walk I, With You’ as well…*

*Already done? Excellent…*

Happy Halloween, Dear Reader. Today is in fact Sunday 31st October 2021 and I hope you remembered to put your clocks back last night…

*S’okay, Clicky, I did it… /flicks ash… I made sure after reading Leggy’s story…*

… As promised, the latest installment in my Ronageddon series, ‘OK Charon!’, from Underdog Anthology XV is presented for your enjoyment, below…

*******

OK Charon!

by Roo B. Doo

Death was feeling anxious. Until a year ago the Grim Reaper was incapable of feeling anything, but that was before Halloween 2020 when the Devil had given him a front seat to the start of the attempted apocalypse. Since then, Death had developed, if not exactly feelings and emotions, then certainly intuitions. Right now he was intuiting anxiety and he didn’t like it.

“Where is she?” He demanded, pulling his PsiPad from the folds in his robe. He held it out so that Brian, the haughty goose overseeing the God Lobby, could see the on-screen flashing message. “See that? It’s an emergency audience request from God.”

Death squared his shoulders and gave Brian his most menacing death-stare, but to no avail; Brian was not easily intimidated, least not by a homunculus grim reaper, no taller than himself.

Honk!

“You said that ten minutes ago,” Death fumed, “And ten minutes before that.” He casually extended the retractable scythe from his sleeve so that the feathered receptionist could get a good look at the blade and the sparks of electricity that buzzed along its keen edge. “Some of us have work to do.”

Brian hissed and reluctantly pulled the PA microphone on his desk closer to his beak and switched it on.

HONK!!!…ONK!!…Onk!…

The sound reverberated around the vast God Lobby, bouncing off the walls and ricocheting into silence. The swelling sea of souls beneath the elevated position of the reception area seemed to collectively hold its breath for a moment before continuing its low moan.

“There,” Death said, retracting his scythe, “that wasn’t difficult now, was it?”

Brian gave Death a withering look and flapped his wing, indicating that Death should take a seat.

Honk Honk.

“No thank you. Liquids go straight through me,” Death replied drily and sat down. He placed the PsiPad on the seat next to him and drummed his bony digits against the cover. From his island vantage point at the centre of the vast cavern that stretched far beyond the horizon, he watched the tides of souls ebb and flow with hypnotic sway. All was rhythmic movement and soft murmur, dampened by the rolling Mists of Time.

Death attempted to meditate while he waited, inviting calm to flush out his anxiety, but still the phalanges of his skeletal hand beat out a steady tempo. It wasn’t God’s emergency request or even Brian’s truculence that caused Death such disquiet, although neither were particularly helpful. He suddenly had a flashback to the previous year when he’d sat impotently in the front of a London taxi cab, driven by the Devil, listening to the destruction of Famine and Pestilence as War savaged them in the backseat. He’d experienced his first bout of anxiety then and knew the cause of his anxiety now – it was the date; Death was haunted by Halloween.

A deep shadow loomed over him…

***

“I’m sorry, but times have changed and we have to change with them,” Jocasta Darling’s manager informed her from the safe distancing of a computer screen. “If you don’t agree to get vaccinated, you will not be able to work for us any more.”

Although it had been universally accepted that everybody’s lives had significantly changed with the advent of the Rona, the rogue virus that in less than two years had shuttered businesses, relationships and minds worldwide, Jocasta was precisely aware of when change had come to her. It had been back at the beginning of spring, on a cold, bright morning in April, when a chance encounter with her repugnant Member of Parliament had afforded the usually placid Jocasta the opportunity to serve up a piece of her mind. It turned out to be a generous slice, as a cold fury took possession of her. She had let rip, and the recipient had promptly dropped down dead. The experience had changed Jocasta alright.

“But I had the Rona last year, Suzie, you know I did.”

“Yes-”

“I caught it at work.”

“We know-”

“As a consequence, my natural immunity is far superior to anything a vaccine can provide.”

“It’s company policy-”

There was no stopping Jocasta; she was on a roll. “Then do what you have to do, because I refuse to consent. I don’t agree to having my immune system dumbed down by an experimental drug that’s still being tested. And I’m certainly not going to take it just so you can keep your fat salary job.”

“Now, that’s unfair,” the image of Suzie wailed.

“Well, so’s my backside. Deal with it.” Jocasta terminated the zoom call and snapped the lid down on her laptop. Her hands were shaking but her voice was steady. “For God’s sake!”

Tiny fingers plucked at Jocasta’s sleeve, demanding attention. Molly, her daughter, stood next to her in silence, but her eyes were full of questions.

‘Everything is fine. Do not worry,’ Jocasta signed. She got up from the kitchen table and walked over to the sink.

‘Are you sure?’ Molly signed back. ‘You look angry.’

Jocasta sighed as she let the icy flow from the cold water tap beat down upon her wrists. She was angry and she needed to calm down and cool off. She did not relish having to find a new job, not if vaccination against the Rona was to be a prerequisite for future employment, but right now she felt far worse for the residents of Frampton Lodge, the retirement home where she worked.

Jocasta had gotten to know the old folks there as she cleaned their rooms, listening to them tell their stories of past glories, complain about the food or simply wonder when their families would visit. On weekend shifts, she used to take Molly along and the residents simply adored her, especially Mrs Roundtree. In fact Molly and Mrs Roundtree had struck a deal in which lessons in signing were exchanged for reading aloud. Both thrived in the attention given to each other, but especially Molly, who’s speech had developed to such a level that her profound deafness wasn’t so readily apparent when she spoke.

But that was before the Rona and lockdowns had arrived. Now the residents were more like inmates. Where they were previously starved of visitors at the best of times, now no visitors were allowed at all, and on top of that, a shortage of staff meant basic needs at the home were barely being met. Jocasta shuddered when she thought about what lay in store for the old dears, and all because a stupid virus had managed to scare half of the world batshit crazy.

She turned off the tap and dried her hands on a tea-towel before turning to Molly. ‘A little bit but I am mostly sad. Do not worry, it will pass soon enough. Now, should you not be getting ready? It is getting late.’

Molly didn’t move but continued to stare at her mother. ‘We do not have to go.’

‘Of course we do; it is Halloween. We never miss trick or treating.’

Molly didn’t look convinced. ‘I do not want you to get into any trouble.’

‘Me, get into trouble? Never. Besides, it is all arranged. We are going to have a lovely time tonight.’ Jocasta playfully shooed Molly from the kitchen with a flick of the tea-towel, before following her into the hallway. “And we won’t let the bastards grind us down either,” she said over her daughter’s head.

Jocasta flopped down on the front room sofa and switched on the TV whilst she waited for Molly to change into her Halloween outfit. She immediately regretted it when the jowly, grim faced Prime Minister filled the screen. He had all the appearance and gravitas of an obese Wurzel Gummidge.

“Not another bloody press conference,” Jocasta moaned and stabbed the off button on the TV remote. “Begone, you bloviating baboon. And brush your bloody hair.”

She remembered that day in the park and the stricken look on her ex-MP’s face as she berated him, just before he died. Oh yes, if I ever get the Prime Minister alone, Jocasta thought, I won’t hesitate to tell him a thing or two.

***

“Ey up, Chuck, is this seat taken?”

Death glanced around at the rest of the empty chairs in the deserted reception before looking up at the source of the shadow. “Hello, Marge. Be my guest.” he said, picking up his PsiPad.

Humans once believed that babies were delivered by stork, although Death doubted they had anything quite like Marge Gerana in mind. To be certain, she had the long legs, slender neck and stiletto-sharp beak of the order Ciconiiformes, but the stripy stockings, chiffon scarf and pince-nez she wore are not generally found on specimens in the wild. Neither do they carry oversized carpet bags like the one Marge clutched in front of her body, accessorization not making the list of priorities for storks.

“Did you get the emergency alert too?” Marge asked, sitting down and carefully placing the bag by her partially webbed feet. A muffled wail came from within. “Shush now,” she crooned at the bag. “I was – am – in the middle of a delivery. Have you been waiting long?”

“Yes, I’ve been here for 25…No, 26 minutes,” Death replied tersely. Tardiness is not tolerated in the Grim Reaper Service, he thought to himself.

“Oh well, we in Newborn Deliveries can be a tad more flexible than your lot,” Marge said, reading his mind. “Do you know if we’re waiting for anybody else to turn up?”

“I wasn’t aware that I was waiting for you.”

Marge lifted her beak disdainfully. “I am surprised. Didn’t you read the She-mail that came with the alert?”

Death hadn’t; he rarely ventured into his inbox after the first foray, when he had balked at the sheer quantity of spectral spam he was expected to wade through. He switched on his PsiPad and tapped the winged envelope icon. He scrolled down the list until he found a She-mail entitled ‘DEATHCON ONE’, opened it, and read:

Would you be so kind as to make your way to the God Lobby immediately. The situation with humanity has significantly worsened and a high-level conflab is in order.

Regards

God

p.s. Additionally I will also send an alert direct to all of your PsiPads as I am aware that some – Big D – do not keep up to date on She-mails. G

“She’s got you sussed,” Marge smirked.

Death scrolled back up to the addressee line but the names of the other invitees were missing. “There’s no indication of who else has been summoned,” he sighed. “I hope they turn up soon whoever they are; I have a schedule to maintain.”

Marge adjusted her pince-nez and coquettishly crossed her long, stockinged legs. “Do you think he’ll know?” she asked Death, raising a plucked eye brow as she directed his attention with an obvious glance in a specific direction.

Death followed Marge’s eye-line to the reception desk where Brian stared back, preening himself. “Possibly.”

“Shall I go ask?” she whispered conspiratorially, without taking her eyes off Brian who was now slicking back the feathers on his head.

“Perhaps you will have more duck, I mean luck, than I,” Death replied. “Brian has been less than forth-”

“Okay I will,” Marge cut him off. She stood up and slid her carpet bag in Death’s direction. “Watch this for me.” She puffed out her plumage and sashayed seductively toward the reception desk.

Death was impressed. Mardi Gras Passistas have nothing on you, Marge, he thought.

The carpet bag wailed again. At first Death ignored the cries that came from within, but as he watched Marge and Brian flirt with each other, he grew more and more irritated at the length of time Marge was taking to illicit any pertinent information. Eventually Death had had enough.

“There, there,” Death cooed as he extracted a crying baby from the bag. “I agree – waiting around and being ignored can be very, very annoying.”

Death cradled the babe in the crook of his bony arm and gently rocked the fleshy bundle. Gradually the baby’s cries transformed into whimpers and then a gurgle.

My goodness, Big D, you’re a natural.

Still holding the now yawning baby, Death slid down from his chair and bowed his head. “Ma’am.”

God had finally arrived and she wasn’t alone.

“Well, fuck me. That’s not something you see everyday.” War mocked from behind God. She was dressed in tight, lycra shorts and an even tighter tee-shirt. The name of her earthly side-business ‘Fighting Fit’ was emblazoned across her ample bosom. “That’s a proper Kodak moment, that is.”

Pass the child to me, Big D.

Death handed the now mostly silent baby over to God.

You’re a cutie, aren’t you? Yesh you are, oh yesh you are.

“Hello War,” Death greeted his long-time teammate. “Still doing the keep fit? I thought you would be leading several armies by now.”

Death had last seen War in the spring when he transitioned one of her conscripts, who’d suffered a fatal heart-attack following a punishing workout.

“I do, short-arse. I have a franchise now,” War sneered. “Who knew a politician’s death would prove so popular? Fighting Fit now has a presence across the UK and I have plans to take it global at the start of next year. It’s gonna be brutal.”

Indeed. That’s why I’ve invited War along to this meeting. I apologise for being late, Big D; I know how much you value punctuality, but for some reason War isn’t on the CCNN network, so I had to go and collect her.

“Yeah, I was in the middle of a mega-high intensity workout class and I couldn’t just bail half-way.”

War made me run, Big D.

“But you feel so much better for it, Ma’am,” War said, as she clucked at the baby in God’s arms.

God remained silent.

“Ma’am, are we expecting many more to join us?” Death asked.

No. I take it from the presence of this little one that Marge Gerana has also arrived. Ah, I see she’s somewhat engaged with Brian. Shall we head for the Situation Room?

Death and War exchanged glances. “I didn’t know we had a Situation Room,” Death said slowly.

We didn’t. I created one this morning specifically for this meeting. Come along.

Death collected the carpet bag and PsiPad from the seating area and followed in the wake of God – with babe in arms – and War to the reception desk.

Good to see you Marge.

“Ma’am,” Marge whispered hoarsely and curtsied.

I believe this is one of yours?

“Yes. How ever did you escape, little one?” she asked the baby jovially, whilst shooting Death, who was still lugging the empty carpet bag behind him, an evil stare. “I’d be happy to relieve you of the child now, Ma’am.”

That’s quite alright. I’m enjoying the cuddle.

Death dropped the bag at Marge’s feet. “You’re welcome.”

Could you buzz us through please, Brian?

Brian reached under his desk and pressed a button.

The air behind reception began to coruscate and a set of glowing gates appeared. The gates, inlaid with iridescent nacre, shimmered with a rainbow lustre that only mother of pearl can provide. Brian hit the button again, and the gates slowly opened.

This way.

The baby blinked as if in agreement and blew a spit bubble as it cooed.

One by one, God, War, Death and the Great Birthing Stork Marge Gerana walked into the luminous cloud of aether that lay beyond, and disappeared.

***

The rain was starting to come down harder by the time Jocasta and Molly arrived at their destination. The evening was already dark, and although there was plenty of traffic on the journey over, the pavements were completely deserted. No groups of trick or treaters this year, lockdown having put paid to any of that, and the poor weather was lending an assist in keeping any brave or rebellious souls in their homes. People are still afraid or have simply forgotten, Jocasta thought sadly as she parked up at the rear of Frampton Lodge.

She looked over at her daughter sat in the front passenger seat, who had a look of nervous excitement on her face. She was dressed all in black, with a pointy hat and cape. Jocasta crossed her fingers and held them up for Molly to see. “Ready?”

Molly nodded vigorously, so that the witch’s hat shifted backwards and forwards on her head.

Jocasta couldn’t help but smile. “Go,” she said, punching both index fingers forward.

Molly exited the car, unknowingly slamming the door, then ran towards the back of the building, dodging the raindrops as she went; her mother remained in the car and looking on, smiling ever wider as her daughter progressed. Once Molly had made it to the staff entrance, Jocasta reached over to the back seat and grabbed the straw broom and Halloween goodie bag that were laying there. She drew a deep breath and opened the car door, plunging herself into the downpour. She reached the entrance in a far soggier state than Molly had. Jocasta pressed the intercom button.

“Hello?” a tinny voice replied from the speaker.

“It’s Jocasta and Molly.”

The door made a long buzzing sound before opening. They pushed against it to get inside and out of the rain.

Jocasta’s colleague, Mary, was waiting for them. “Oh my god, look at you two.” She waved at Molly. “How long do you have left, Jo?”

Jocasta flung an arm around Mary’s neck and kissed her cheek. “A month.”

Mary placed her hand on Jocasta’s swollen belly. “I must say, you’re looking very well.”

“I’m doing okay, thanks. Getting the odd twinge now and then but other than that… Is the coast clear?”

“Oh yes,” Mary replied, helping Jocasta out of her wet coat. “It’s Sunday. Skeleton staffing, you know, and management have already pissed off for the night.”

Jocasta was relieved. She positioned herself so that she could speak directly to Mary without Molly being able to read her lips. “Suzie zoom called me today. I’m not going to be allowed back after my maternity leave, not unless I get jabbed.”

Mary frowned. “I’m so sorry. That’s totally fucked up.”

“It’s the way the world is right now,” Jocasta replied.

“But will you get it?”

“No, I’ll still be breastfeeding.”

“I’m thinking of jacking it all in,” Mary confided. “I know I’m double jabbed but it’s all just getting too much.”

Jocasta’s face fell. “That bad?”

“It’s only the residents that keep me going.”

Abrupt silence fell between the two women. Molly looked up from one to the other, before tugging on her mother’s sleeve.

“Oh my goodness, we have some trick or treating to do,” Mary cried. “Molly, your outfit looks fantastic. Very witchy.”

Molly beamed a gap-tooth smile and took the bag from her mother. She held it open for Mary to look inside; it was full of chocolates and sweets and paperback books.

“Thank you,” Mary said, pulling out a chocolate bar. “That’s my favourite. I will have that with a cup of tea later,”she said, placing it in her pocket. “Now, we had better get moving before the residents go to bed.”

Molly gave the bag back to Jocasta and took the straw broom. She slipped her free hand inside Mary’s outstretched hand and the three of them took the stairs to go trick or treating.

***

It is a fact that the vast majority of humanity never have, nor ever will, step foot inside a Situation Room. If asked, a person might describe such a room as having a huge table dominating the space, dozens of chairs around it for generals and other important types to sit in. Moreover, there will be wall to wall computers, all manner of communications equipment, and a large viewing screen at one end, of the highest definition of course. This has been learned from countless films and TV shows that this is exactly what a Situation Rooms looks like. Or perhaps even that this is exactly what a Situation room is supposed to look like.

That was not the kind of Situation Room God had envisioned at all. Hers was a perfect cube six foot by six foot by six, with slate grey walls, ceiling and floor, inside and out. It looked like a block of stone from the outside and a bare prison cell from within. The only fixture in the cube was a light bulb set in the centre of the ceiling, with white pull cord hanging down from it.

“I’ve been in some tight spots but this ain’t like any Situation Room I’ve ever been in before,” War said dubiously, inclining her head to one side so as not to bump it on the ceiling.

“It’s certainly cozy,” Marge agreed, feathers ruffling.

For once Death’s diminutive size proved to be a distinct advantage, so he remained quiet, preferring to keep his own counsel.

God stood at the centre of the compact room, still holding the baby.

I thought the most productive way to discuss a situation would be if we could first see it for ourselves.

She reached up and pulled the cord on the light bulb and the room immediately pitched into solid blackness.

And then it wasn’t.

“Where are we?” War asked. “It looks like some old lady’s bedroom.”

Correct.

The slate grey walls, floor and ceiling of the Situation Room had dissolved into transparency, giving the occupants a 360 degree view of their surroundings.

War spotted an elderly woman sitting in an armchair with a tartan blanket over her legs. She looked contented as she listened to classical music from a transistor radio beside her. The overhead light was switched off so that the room’s shadows were lit from the soft glow of the lamp on the night-stand next to a bed.

War was intrigued. “Can she see us?”

No.

“Hear us?”

No.

“Can we leave the box?”

You mean the Situation Room? Yes, but you definitely shouldn’t.

“Me specifically? Why?”

Because you will be seen and heard.

War thought for a moment. “Because I have an earthly body?”

Correct.

“So the Situation Room is completely invisible? I like it. I mean, it could do with a bit more headroom, but invisibility is a cool feature.”

Thank you.

“Actually, why do I have an earthly body?” War asked. “I’m still confused about that.”

“Because,” Death answered gravely, “you died last Halloween. Pesto poisoned you.”

War’s jaw dropped. “What?!”

Death knew this time would eventually come. “To be fair, you did eat Pestilence first. And Famine. You should have seen the mess…”

War’s jaw took on a sardonic twist.

“Of course, you don’t remember.”

“Whoa there, short-arse.” War stared down at Death, mouth agape. “How?”

Death hesitated. How much of that particular ghost story should I tell? he wondered.

He felt the light touch of God’s hand squeeze his scapula. “The Devil tricked us all, War. All of us.”

There was a sharp knock on the bedroom door. The old lady turned the volume down on the radio and removed the blanket from her legs. She made a couple of attempts to stand up, finally managing to push-pull herself out of the armchair. “I’m coming,” she called out.

Inside the Situation Room, Death could feel his PsiPad gently vibrate. He pulled it from his robes and checked the PsiCalendar – there were two alerts, one of which read ‘Molly’. “Ma’am. I do believe the situation is about to occur.”

***

“Trick o’ trea’!”

“Molly!” Aida Roundtree cried as she opened her bedroom door. “Come in, come in.”

“Trick or treat, Mrs Roundtree,” Jocasta said, grinning.

“Oh, Jocasta. Come in. Quickly. Don’t let the Gestapo catch you in the corridor. You too, Mary.”

Aida ushered her visitors into her room and shut the door. “It’s so lovely to see you both.”

Jocasta and Mary moved further into the room, whilst Molly grabbed Aida’s hand and guided her to her chair.

“Well, don’t you look lovely, Molly? Give me a twirl,” Aida said sitting down. Molly duly obliged.

“And how are you keeping, Jocasta? You look ready to pop.”

“Another month to go.”

“Do you know the sex yet?” Aida beckoned Jocasta closer.

“No, we want a surprise,” Jocasta laughed but allowed Aida to feel her belly.

“Low and heavy. Ripe. Feels like a boy,” Aida pronounced. “Molly, you’re going to be a big sister soon.”

Molly raised her arms in a silent cheer before wrapping them around Aida’s neck and kissing her cheek.

“I’ve missed you too, darling.” Aida hugged Molly back. “Terrible times we live in,” she addressed Jocasta and Mary with solemnity over Molly’s shoulder. “It reminds me of the war.”

“Aida, you were born in 1945,” Mary chided. “How could you remember what the war was like?”

“I grew up in the aftermath, bombed out buildings and rationing. I remember those and I also remember what my parents told me about what went on during the war. Terrible times,” Aida said and hugged Molly tighter.

***

“Great times,” War sighed wistfully, breaking the silence within the cube. “World War Two was brilliant, so much innovation. In fact the whole of the twentieth century was a fucking blast.”

“It was a boom time for us after the war,” Marge reminisced. “There were so many deliveries to make, we were pulling double shifts left, right and centre. So many babies.”

“See? It wasn’t all bad.” War sounded vindicated. “Humans had a fucking good time, too.”

“Hmm.”

What is it Big D?

Death was thinking. “She mentioned rationing, Ma’am. I believe there are reports of food shortages currently in the press.”

Famine?

“Possibly…”

***

Mary moved toward the bedroom window. It was slightly ajar and the net curtain inside was getting soaked from the lashing rain. “Aida, have you been smoking in here again?” she asked accusingly, closing the window.

“So what if I have? What are they going to do? Put me in prison? Ha! I’ve been in one for nearly two years.”

Mary shook her head. “If they find your cigarettes, they will confiscate them.”

“Then I’ll get some more,” Aida replied defiantly.

“Ah, that reminds me…” Jocasta tapped Molly on her back and motioned her to offer the bag to Aida. “Now, Mrs Roundtree, dig deep. I put your treat in at the bottom.”

Aida rummaged inside the goodie bag Molly held out. She pulled out an olive green box with a grotesque image on the outside. “Lovely. Benson and Hedges kingsize. I’d offer you one, but apparently it’ll harm your baby,” she said, holding up the pack for Jocasta to see the image of a sick, intubated baby.

“Aida!” Mary snapped.

“That’s alright, Mary. I saw the picture when I bought the pack. Aida and I know it’s just propaganda.” Jocasta was keen to the calm the situation; Mrs Roundtree was something of a smoking militant and could rant for hours on the subject if given free rein.

“That right, it’s propaganda. Goebbels would be proud.” Aida grabbed at Jocasta’s wrist. “You haven’t had the vaxx, have you? Please don’t get it.”

Jocasta gently removed Aida’s hand and held it in her own. “No, Mrs Roundtree. I will not have the vaxx.”

Molly had been watching the conversation silently. She pulled on Jocasta’s sleeve. ‘Mummy, what is ‘go bells’?’

***

“She’s got a point,” Marge said, stretching her neck. “We’ve never delivered a smoke damaged child. Now Thalidomide, DDT, the Rona vax…”

You are seeing damage from the Rona vax, then?

“Yes, Ma’am, some. Mostly miscarriages though.”

God stroked the soft brow of the sleeping baby in her arms.

Babies poisoned in the womb.

“Pesto,” Death whispered.

***

Mary had had enough of the conversation. She was tired and her head was starting to ache, plus she still had another three hours of her shift to work. At least three hours, and she was beginning to regret agreeing to Jocasta’s request for the secret visit. She tolerated Aida’s smoking rants but she didn’t want to hear her opinion of the Rona vaxx. Not again. And was it really worth getting caught for a chocolate bar, even for a Kit-Kat Chunky?

“Okay, I think that’s enough for tonight.”

“Oh no, Mary, can’t they stay a little longer?” Aida appealed.

“No, it’s okay, Mrs Roundtree. Mary has rounds to do and Molly has school tomorrow.” Jocasta lent down and gave Aida a kiss on both cheeks. “It has been lovely to see you.”

There was a rapid knocking on the room door. “Mary, are you in there?” a voice beyond it asked urgently.

Mary motioned for the others to stay quiet and walked rapidly to the door. She opened the it a crack. “What is it?”

The person outside sounded flustered. “Mr Perkins has collapsed in the lounge. Oh Mary, I think he’s dead.”

“Okay, I’ll be right there.” Mary turned away from the door. “I have to go. It was lovely to see you Jo, Molly. Can you see yourselves out?”

“Of course, you go. Thank you,” Jocasta called as Mary left the room. “Oh no, poor Mr Perkins.”

“Double vaxxed,” Aida said smugly. “Had his booster shot two days ago.”

“Mrs Roundtree…”

***

Death checked the alert on his PsiCalendar. “I hate being late. Excuse me.”

***

“Well, he did get his booster shot two days ago.” Aida was adamant. “They’re finally doing it; they’re trying to kill us all off.”

“Who are they?” Jocasta regretted asking as soon as the words left her mouth.

“The new world order, same as the old world order.”

Jocasta looked blank.

Nazis,”Aida hissed.

***

Molly could tell something serious had happened and that it had happened to Mr Perkins. Her eyes widened when the little man she sometimes saw appeared out of thin air from the corner of the room. He was always dressed in black and he sometimes carried a big stick with a knife on the end. She watched as the little man glided across the room.

He paused as he reached her. ‘Hello,’ he signed.

Molly smiled, signing ‘hello’ back.

The little man nodded and made the stick-knife suddenly appear before continuing to glide out of the room, through the door.

Molly looked around nervously, but her mum and Mrs Roundtree were still talking. She didn’t think they’d seen the little man in black. No one ever sees him, except me, Molly thought.

***

“We really should be going.” The last thing Jocasta wanted was to get into a conversation about Nazis. If Mr Perkins had died, then management would be called and it was best that she and Molly weren’t here when they arrived. Plus she really needed to pee. “Mrs Roundtree, can I use your bathroom?”

“Of course, Jocasta, you know where it is. It’s clean but the new girl isn’t nearly as thorough as you.”

“Thank y-OwwW!” Jocasta clutched her stomach. “Ow. Oh no, I hope to god I just peed myself.”

Mrs Roundtree looked at the puddle of fluid forming on the carpet between Jocasta’s legs. “No, dear. Your waters have broken.”

“Oh my god, it’s too soon.”

Aida turned to Molly and looked at her squarely, hands either side of Molly’s face. She spoke slowly and clearly. “Molly, go into my bathroom and fetch the big towel on the rack.”

Molly was scared; her mum was in pain and had wet herself. “Wha’s happnin’?”

“Don’t worry. Mummy is going to have a lay down on my bed.”

“Is it the beby?”

Mrs Roundtree nodded. “Yes, dear. Now, after you get the towel, go and fill my kettle over there,” she said, pointing to the far corner of the room, “and fill it with cold water from the tap in the bathroom. Then switch it on.”

Molly nodded and sprung away like a gazelle.

Jocasta leaned back against the bed panting. “Not again.”

Aida got out of her chair at the first attempt and rushed over to the bed. “Not again? Did Molly arrive early?” she asked as she helped Jocasta onto the bed and plumped up the pillows behind her.

“You could say that.”

“At home?” Aida started to remove Jocasta’s boots.

“In a taxi.”

Aida paused mid-pull. “Oh my.”

“The taxi… oh, oh,” Jocasta noisily breathed out,”…crashed.”

“Awkward.” Aida dropped the boot on the floor and lifted the hem of Jocasta’s dress. “This should be a doddle for you then.”

***

God was gazing down at the baby in her arms and softly crooning.

“Ma’am.” Marge Gerana held the open carpet bag between her wings. “It’s time.”

I know.

War was pressed up against the side of the cube watching the two women in the room. “She gave birth during a car crash? That’s brave.”

She is.

“And the old girl seems to know what’s she’s doing.”

“She should,” Marge snorted. “Aida Roundtree is one of the best midwives I’ve ever worked with.”

War pointed at Aida. “She’s a midwife? That’s convenient.”

Isn’t it.

The walls of the cube suddenly rippled and a small witch, wearing a large hat rushed through. Molly stood stock still, with eyes like saucers. God stepped aside, allowing the child to collect the kettle.

‘Thank you,’ Molly signed.

You’re welcome.

The walls of the cube rippled once more as Molly left.

We had better leave before the child comes back.

God placed the baby into the carpet bag.

Be yourself, little boy and good luck.

“Ma’am.” Marge bowed her slender neck and left.

God grasped the cord to the light bulb.

Ready, War?

“Aren’t we waiting for Death?”

No. Big D is on duty. He’ll find his own way back.

“What’s the dealio with Death and those two anyway. They were there that day in the park when my rich politician kicked the bucket. I miss Jimbo; he always paid over the odds.”

God cocked her head to one side as if contemplating what to say. She smiled.

The mother sat on him.

“On who?”

On Big D.

War’s eyes fluttered as she tried to comprehend what God had just said. “Wait…” She counted on her fingers. “Did Death give her a boner?”

God tugged the cord and it all went black.

And then it wasn’t.

*******

*I’m glad you enjoyed it, Clicky… /final drag… It was a lot of fun to write… /stubs butt…*

A Christmas installment is next, Dear Reader, for Underdog Anthology XVI. Fuck knows what the state of the world will be in by then. We can but hope and… have a Song 😉