The Emperor’s New Clothes
The man strutted through his town, to say that heads turned would be an understatement. Despite his overwhelming air of confidence, the red faced ruler caused many to turn up their noses in disgust. Children had their faces covered by mortified mothers, particularly when he would occasionally grind to a halt in front a butcher’s shop. He’s a man of unique taste to say the least.
The clothes that graced his sticky form were still warm, fresh and smelled distinctly of copper and salt. An old woman nearly fainted upon gazing at his attire. The Emperor…was wearing skin…another man’s skin.
A pale faced woman with full crimson lips, and long dark hair, piled up in a twisted braid, strode down stone overarching hallways of the palace. Her violet cape trailed behind her as she looked past the portraits of grandeur that stared at her.
Oil paintings that stood as tall as her, were richly coloured, depicting herself with her husband and stepdaughter, and all of their predecessors. Kings and Queens from Centuries ago turned up their noses at her as her heeled boots clacked on the stone hallways.
She stopped at the end of the hallway, in front of a large oak door. She squeezed the gold refinery handle and strode inside, closing the door behind her, as if she had never come in at all.
The room was dimly lit from a small and intentional gap in the bricks. This room stood just above the foot of the palace’s moat and the black oil sloshing down the wall was testament to those who had fallen from the rising drawbridge into the scalding liquid.
A large relic stood in the far corner, well away from the makeshift window, covered in a dust coated drapery. She pulled the quilt from over the device and was faced by a black mounted mirror, embellished in gold, swirling around every inch. She pressed a palm against the surface, and the mirror illuminated, words appearing before her face.
‘Slide to Unlock’.
And so the queen dragged her hands across the surface of the mirror.
“Cortana,” she barked.
“This is Cortana. How may I help you?” the device replied.
“Cortana, tell me, who is the fairest of them all.”
“Sorry, I didn’t quite hear that. Please repeat your request.”
The queen sighed and cursed under her breath, “Cortana,” she said again, “tell me who is the fairest of them all.”
“The top result in the village polls for subject ‘fairest of them all’ is one Snooow Why Yacht.”
“Snooow Why Yacht, what on earth is a Snoow Why Yacht?”
“Searching images for Snooze Weight.”
“What- No! Cancel. Cancel!”
The queen crossed her arms, turning away from the glaring screen. She huffed, tapping the nose of her boot against the stone, drumming her fingers against her arms. She waited until the intensity of the glare lessened. Cortana was going to rest.
“Cortana,” The queen said, turning around, shielding her eyes as the screen illuminated again.
“This is Cortana. How may I help you?” the device replied.
“Search image of fairest of them all.”
“Searching images of fairest of them all.”
Finally, after an immense buffer, thanks to the device’s location [where and why?], an image appeared on the screen. A woman, over twenty years her junior, with long sleek raven coloured hair, pallid skin with some blush remaining, and pursed, pouting red lips appeared on the screen.
Snow White. Snow White, the Queen’s unfortunate stepdaughter.
“Search other images of fairest of them all.”
Suddenly hundreds, if not thousands of candid blurred images of this raven haired girl, flooded onto the screen, wearing ghastly yellow dresses with blue bustles. She looked dreadful, and yet, the public adored her.
The queen huffed, drawing her long yellowing fingernails to her blood red pouted lips. A smirk crossed her face as her eyes met the screen, just as the brightness lessened again.
“This is Cortana. How may I help you?” the device replied.
“Search for woodsmen in my area.”
“Searching men’s wood in your area.”
Talking To Strangers
Elodie was lonely, she had been for a long time. Left without a friend to talk to, in a brand new town, she had no means to make contact. But her phone was still in her father’s name until the end of her two-year contract. Which meant she had unlimited minutes.
The twenty three-year old sat on her bed, gazing out of the window at the street below. How do you meet people these days? Maybe she should just retreat back home, tail between her legs and swear that she had done everything for attention. Lie for the comfort of a city where she at least knew who her neighbours were. Social media was a bust, all of her followers either lived in other continents, or were bots. God, were there a lot of bots. Something about having her pronouns and sexuality in her bio seemed to make her a magnet for bots.
There was nothing at her disposal to distract her anymore either. She had painted every wall, spent way too much money on second hand furniture at the charity shop, but at least the dank little apartment was becoming her own. She just, wished she had someone to share it with.
With a sigh, Elodie drew a hand to her hair, easing her fingers between the spirals of her curls. She shook her head into her hands and gazed out of the window. She frowned, the streets were almost empty, the occasional jogger, or dog walker passing above her flat.
The clock on her wall, an hour early, said that it was 11pm. She still hadn’t worked out how to fix it, but she liked the striking white face of the clock enough to buy it for a tenner at the charity shop. Her eyes flickered from the wall to the window, it looked like people were coming.
Maybe, just maybe, she could try and meet someone.
She got up from her bed and brushed the fluff from her quilt off her jeans, and strode toward the door, her hand hesitating at the handle. She lowered her head. No, it was too weird. Much too weird.
She glanced toward the window again, lip trembling and fished her phone out of her pocket, she had all but downloaded the entire yellow pages for the town onto her device. She closed her eyes and pressed call.
Outside, the payphone opposite her apartment rang, and a girl, wearing a tracksuit and tennis shoes, drew to a stop, staring at the phone and the empty box. She looked around, unable to see Elodie sat on her bed, gaze flickering to the phone box.
The girl outside took a deep breath and opened the door to the pillar-box red booth and removed the phone from the receiver.
“…Hello?” the girl said
“Hi,” Elodie replied, her breathing hitching, “I am really sorry, I probably sound absolutely bonkers. I’m new to town, I just-”
She exhaled, “I haven’t had anyone to talk to since I got here.”
“Awh. Bless you. What’s your name?”
“I’m… I’m Elodie.”
His honey-gold eyes were still framed by long lashes and glistened under the warm glow of the chandeliers, just as they used to under the midwinter sun. She had loved him for so long, and yet, when their eyes met again, for the first time in years, he couldn’t see her. All he saw was the mask.
White face paint with heavy blusher on contoured cheeks, pencil-drawn eyebrows and a crimson pout had hidden her pleading eyes from his own. He had refused her hand at the dance and all she wished for was death.
Retiring as early as possible from the dance seemed the best thing to do. She had no interest in being jovial with the noblemen when her beloved had come back and squashed her heart under his worn leather boots. What was there left to do but weep?
She had broken a mirror kicking off her high-heeled shoes, and cut her fingers cleaning the broken glass. Her face burned red as she scrubbed the makeup off and her head throbbed from the sheer volume of pins stuck into it. She removed each one with her bloody fingers and tossed them on the vanity table, before dressing the wounds on her hands.
Her dress had been ruined by the spatter of her own spilled blood.
It seemed that time had made his memory foggy – why remember where you’ve been, and the faces of loves past when there was a whole world out there filled with beautiful women with less baggage than the teary-eyed princess.
In The Arms Of The Breeze
Seasons came and went, but one thing always stayed the same.
Even as Mathilda grew weary, her skin crumpling like the tissues she had once discarded by the dozen, the view from her window was almost timeless – her patch of greenery in a sea of concrete, where the crimson tulips spread their arms out and danced amidst the winds…
It had been years since they had planted them, together, up to their ankles in dirt, amidst the worms and beetles, digging holes in the earth to submerge the bulbs in. They had laughed together, stomping on the ground to make sure birds couldn’t get to their flowers.
Albert had loved to watch the tulips, even as his memory faded away, he knew there was something special within the petals of the flowers. They waved him toward their bed and he would watch them billow in the summer breeze. He’d lean forward, and reach with stiff fingers toward the soft touch of the petals. There was a fondness in his face when he’d watch them, touch them. A ghost of a smile, of a laugh of a memory would come forward and he’d smile: sometimes even laugh. Mathilda loved to watch him laugh, it reminded her of the man she married, the man that she was losing but never stopped loving.
Before his muscles weakened, he would draw their drooping heads in the margins of shopping lists, of love notes, of receipts and birthday cards. Messages only she would understand, written with trembling hands in chicken scratch with biro tulips decorating the surface. Mathilda kept as many as she could. She was never sure which would be his last, as if one day he could wake up and the tulips would just be flowers, and they’d have faded into the sea of grey that surrounded their house.
When he passed, Mathilda had her husband’s ashes be placed where he was most at peace, amongst the flowers which kept him entertained even at the bleakest points in his illness.
Seasons came and went, and even with creaking joints and aching muscles, she would ease her heavy frame into her rocking chair, and gaze out of the foggy glass as the petals waved to her. Sometimes, she thought she saw him, in his grey fraying sweater and dirt-stained trousers, waving to her. Whenever she saw him, it was fleeting, like a breeze running between her fingers.
Mathilda hoped, that one day, her son would be able to place her ashes in the flowerbed where her husband’s had rested, so she could be carried along into his arms, in the next world.
Until I See You Again
She hadn’t seen him in so long. It had been years until he started making a habit of dropping by. Sometimes he’d go with friends, others, on his own. Never for long. But it was enough.
He would sit on the grass opposite her, crack open a can of cream soda, and offer one to her. She’s leave it sealed and listen to stories – how he had gone to university, finally, and how Dre and Theo were proud of him for finally getting a move on. How, somehow, his Dalmatian, Vinnie, was still kicking, and how he reckoned the dog would outlive the heat-death of the universe.
She would smile, nod along, even though she knew he couldn’t see her. She wondered whether he felt her, whether any of them did. If any of them felt her gossamer hands try to wipe their tears, and how she would crawl across the ground and kneel so she could look them in the eyes, and wrap her arms around their shoulders. Like she used to.
Death was strange, fickle. You noticed time passing, but you only seemed to notice it when you saw the people come and go. Watch hair grow, or recede, watch ink pop up on limbs and lines form on faces. She wondered how long she would be alone for, though, did she really want her friends and family to lose someone else so soon?
Until they’d meet again, the one-sided conversations would be enough.
The Knock Knock is a monster with too many teeth. He had lacerated its tongue into ribbons centuries ago, and thus earned his name from its means of communication. Morse Code.
No man knows how the creature came to be, or how he learned to speak. Some say he was once a man, maybe he emerged from a wreck, maybe he’s a ghost, or a demon. But anyone who has ever faced the Knock Knock’s teeth is never seen again.
He prays on children and their most tantalisingly morbid curiosity. There is no escape from an active mind and their insatiable inquisitiveness. And so it’s as simple as knocking on a window, on a door, on the gaps in the floor that would send a child racing from their nest of quilts. They’ll open doors, peek under the bed, search under every surface until they finally meet, for that one fleeting moment; where The Knock Knock opens his jaws and swallows them whole.
The children are too young to know what he’s saying. They’re too naïve to understand that they shouldn’t look, and they always pay the price.
The Knock Knock always hits a surface in the same tune. And, if you were to record the sound of the bangs, it would sound like:
God’s Best Friend
He was a man shrouded in death. Guiding and caring for the souls in the Underworld was never going to be the most glamorous job; all life seemed to recoil by his touch, and only the desperate would dare look him in the eye; from the elderly with inwardly turned bones and the workers with hunches, boils and sores, slaves with skin torn from bone by the throngs of a whip and the people shunned by the human world for their shape, size, or painfully contorted limbs.
Hades seldom walked the mortal world, but sometimes, on the shortest of days, he would bear the blistering sun in search of recruits; wandering back alleys in squalor and search through the slums for promise.
He never expected to find his loyalist of allies within the narrow streets of the slums, where sewage trickled like streams over dislodged cobblestones, where the people lay against the walls, drinking themselves to an early grave.
It was down a side street, barely wide enough for him to walk through, that he met the gaze of an elderly man, so thin you could play music on his ribs. His stomach below was swollen over the waistband of trousers being held up with twine. He beckoned for Hades to come with him.
With a raised brow, he had followed the man, as he wobbled down a set of stairs more rubble than stone, toward a door hanging on one hinge. Behind the rotting wooden door was a small creature, bolted to the wall around one of three heads. It reared back at the entrance of the tradesman, raising its back end and allowing its mouths to open, clear liquid secreting from jowls.
“This monster, is an abomination. One of many chimeras made my son. He was too deranged to see his own cruelty. This one, this atrocity, refuses to die. You of all gods would likely be the most humane. Hunt it for sport and put it out of its misery. As a favour to humanity, I beg.”
Hades glanced from the small creature that demanded his eyes, to the elderly man. The creature in front of him barely stood to his knees, a large stomach and paws the size of Hades’ hands. He pursed his lips and the smallest smile crossed his pale, thin face.
Hades hummed, his eyes yet to move from the creature, its small tail swished high above its heads, each slightly different, but clearly canine. Six eyes were trained on his every move.
Reluctantly, the old man struck the restraining chain with his walking stick, breaking the latch and allowing the creature free. It charged toward Hades and pounced, knocking the god back onto the floor. For a moment, there was hesitation. Their eyes all locked onto his. The beast’s tail swished again, and slowly, Hades adjusted his position on the floor, reaching toward one of the six ears, one that was pointed upward. He scratched the back of one, tentatively, watching the creature lean into the contact, beating its hind leg against the floorboards. He was heavy but the weight of the creature was welcome.
He nodded at the tradesman, “I will name him, Cerberus.”
“Cerberus,” Hades said, gently pushing the creature from his lap, and getting back to his feet. He snapped his fingers, and the beast sat down beside his ankles, “Come.”
The three-headed dog did not hesitate in getting to its feet and trotting at the heels of the god of the Underworld. From whose side he would never stray.