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The Healer

Published July 16, 2017 by Naomi Rettig

‘I know what you’re doing, but I don’t know how you’re doing it.’ Dr. Lennox interlocked his fingers tightly together and stared across the desk.

Vivian volleyed the stare back across, her face set to neutral. ‘I don’t know what you mean.’

Dr. Lennox sighed. ‘How long have you worked for me Vivian?’

‘Just over five years.’

He unclasped his fingers and rested his hands on the desk. ‘Do you know what I did on the weekend?’

Vivian frowned. ‘Um, no.’

‘You’d never guess.’

Vivian studied Dr. Lennox’s blank face. ‘Then I won’t try.’

‘I went through patient medical files. All weekend.’ He stood up and retrieved a brown battered briefcase from beside the filling cabinet. ‘I’ve spent all weekend correlating data.’ Sitting back down he pulled out some papers from the bag and set them down on the desk, placing the bag on the floor. He indicated to one of the sheets with his right hand. ‘This is a list of all my patients who, having been diagnosed with terminal diseases, miraculously got better. Without medical help.’ He looked up from the sheet of paper to Vivian.

She remained perfectly still, hands resting lightly on her lap. The only movement was a pronounced swallow.

‘And this list,’ said Dr. Lennox. He pointed to the other sheet of paper. ‘This is a list of people who have suddenly developed the same terminal illnesses, seemingly overnight.’ He looked up from the desk again. ‘If you want to say anything, please, just jump on in.’

Vivian shrugged, staring at the papers on the desk. ‘People get sick all the time, and some people get better, that’s life.’

Dr. Lennox laughed. ‘Well, yeah, that is life, yet, do you know what the strange thing here is?’ His face crumbled the smile away and his eyes narrowed.

Vivian’s only response was to breathe a little faster.

Dr. Lennox continued. ‘These people on this sudden illness list, well, they got sick on the same day that the people on the sick list got better.’

Vivian tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. ‘Co-incidence.’

Dr. Lennox smiled broadly, yet the smile didn’t reach his eyes. ‘We both know it’s no co-incidence.’ He looked down at the lists in front of him. ‘Mrs. Ramirez had terminal bowel cancer, in June she no longer has it, but Mrs. Godfrey, of previous good health, now has terminal bowel cancer.’

‘That doesn’t mean anything,’ said Vivian. She crossed her legs slowly and leaned back into the groaning plastic chair.

Dr. Lennox rubbed at his moustache. ‘Not on its own no. But there are seven other cases I’ve found. Seven other terminally ill patients, spanning back five years, that have miraculously been cured without medical intervention. And seven matching patients that have developed those exact terminal illnesses overnight. Shall I read you the other six out?’

‘I don’t think there’s a need for that.’ Vivian folded her arms.

‘I checked on the system, and the dates that they appeared to switch their illnesses, both patients were in the surgery, and on all seven days, and for each of those patients, you took their blood.’ Dr. Lennox mirrored Vivian by leaning back in his chair and folding his arms. He had a smug grin on his face, as if he was Poirot revealing the murderer at the end of an Agatha Christie adaptation.

Vivian returned his smile slyly. ‘I’m your only phlebotomist and I’m in most days, so that’s not surprising.’

Dr. Lennox rocked on his chair slightly, loosening his arms to rest on his stomach. ‘So, you’re not going to tell me?’

Vivian tilted her head. ‘Tell you what?’

‘How you’re doing it?’

‘Doing what?’ Vivian uncrossed her arms and leant forward. ‘I’m not sure what you’re accusing me of, do I need my union rep in here with me?’

‘Vivian, of course you don’t need a rep.’ Dr. Lennox attempted a warm smile as he rested forward onto the desk. ‘This is just a friendly chat, completely off the record. Just between you and me.’ He picked up his silver pen and started to roll it between his fingers.

Vivian gazed out of the window, she watched flowers being blown from the apple blossom tree outside. ‘I don’t know what you want me to say.’

‘I merely want you to tell me the truth. I’m a doctor, I just want to know how you are curing these people.’ He tapped his pen gently on the desk protector. ‘And I know it is you because all the saved patients are patients you like, and all the inflicted patients are patients you don’t.’

Vivian’s eyebrows flickered up.

Dr. Lennox smiled and put his pen down. ‘I hear the gossip when I’m getting coffee.’ His smile morphed into a frown. ‘But I can’t logically work it out.’

Vivian’s shoulders dropped and she stared at her hands. ‘It’s not logical.’ She looked up at the doctor. ‘Or ethical.’

Dr. Lennox nodded slightly. ‘Go on.’

‘You won’t believe me, and if you report me, no one would believe you either.’

Dr. Lennox nodded again. ‘Try me then, you have nothing to lose. Because if you don’t tell me, I’m going to have to let you go.’

Vivian’s nostrils flared. ‘I have a contract.’

‘I have a Hippocratic oath.’

Vivian bit the inside of her lip and stared at the blossom tree outside the window again. ‘I can’t explain scientifically how I can do these things. I’ve researched, but it’s a phenomenon, and I’ve been afflicted with it since I was a child.’

‘Afflicted?’

Vivian focused her attention back to Dr. Lennox. ‘Yes. My Gran called it a gift. I call it a curse. It’s a power I have, but it makes me a bad person.’

Dr. Lennox frowned. ‘You have the power of life and death?’

Vivian twiddled with the jade crystal on her necklace. ‘You could say everyone has the power of life or death. You choose not to kill people so you could say you are giving them the power of life.’

‘I could quite easily murder my ex.’ A nervous laugh followed from the doctor.

Vivian shuffled the chair forward and tilted herself towards him. ‘What stops you?’

‘What?’

‘What stops you killing her?’

Dr. Lennox sat upright and smoothed his moustache down with his index finger. ‘Because I don’t want to go to prison, and it’s wrong.’

Vivian remained angled forwards. ‘So, you choose to give her life because of the consequences?’

Dr. Lennox picked up his pen again and flicked it on and off with his thumb. ‘Where’s this going?’

Vivian smiled. ‘Imagine if there were no consequences? If you could kill without repercussions, your choices might be different.’

‘Yes, but -‘

‘I’ve gone a little off tangent.’ Vivian repositioned herself back into the creaking chair. ‘Basically, I can take away illness but then it gets passed on.’

Dr. Lennox rubbed his forehead with his pen free hand. ‘Why? Why does it get passed on?’

Vivian shrugged her left shoulder. ‘I don’t know. When I first realized what I could do, cure people, I thought it was amazing, indeed a gift. But I found that whoever I touched after ‘curing’ someone else came down with what I had removed.’

Dr. Lennox stared at Vivian, his eyes flickering all around her face. ‘I have so many questions. When you say touch, would brushing past someone cause you to take or give illnesses?’

Vivian shook her head. ‘No, I’ve honed my ‘technique’ over the years. I now squeeze and concentrate my mind to make it happen. Kind of like channeling it.’

Dr. Lennox nodded. ‘When you transferred illnesses in here, was that random or planned?’

‘Planned. Sort of.’ Vivian smiled.

‘Sort of?’

‘I always knew which patients I wanted to cure, that was the planned part. Giving their illnesses to others was a byproduct.’

Dr. Lennox placed the pen down on the desk protector. ‘Chosen at random?’

‘Well, not completely random, I didn’t draw names out of a hat.’ Vivian laughed and fiddled with her hair, repositioning a hair grip. ‘I’d see who else was coming in that same day for bloods, and choose off the list who was the least deserving.’

Dr. Lennox sunk his head into his hands. ‘Playing God.’

‘I don’t believe in God, I was merely making choices.’ Vivian frowned.’ Wouldn’t you?’

Dr. Lennox lifted his head slowly. ‘No, I couldn’t pick someone to die. That’s against my oath. And my humanity.’

‘You think it’s fair that Annie Kenwood dies from cancer, leaving her husband to look after her two children, while Grant Bailey abuses his body with illegal drugs and lives a long and happy life?’

‘No, but that’s life, that’s not for us to judge that’s for -‘

‘God to decide, but there is no God so why shouldn’t it be up to you, or I, or anyone else decent to judge?’ Vivian pursed her lips together and curled her hands into gripped fists.

‘But you’ve given a death sentence to seven people.’ Dr. Lennox grimaced. ‘You’ve killed seven people.’

‘I’ve saved seven people. Seven more deserving people.’ Vivian smiled. ‘It cancels out.’

The doctor rubbed his head. ‘Why can’t you just take away the illness? Why do you have to give it to someone else?’

Vivian gesticulates with her hands, as if swatting a fly away. ‘I don’t know. It just happens. That’s my curse. If I take away illness and don’t deliberately pass it on quickly, say within a day, the illness transfers with less effort to anyone. If I didn’t choose someone and pass it on, it would pass on by a random handshake, or hug with a loved one, or squeezing a friend’s hand. So I have to pass it on.’

‘Why don’t you just stop doing it? Don’t take illnesses and don’t pass them on, just let nature take its course.’

‘Because having the power is addictive. It’s wrong and it’s consuming but it’s also an immense rush.’ Vivian’s eyes sparkle. ‘And it’s not all life and death, I have a little fun with it too.’

‘Fun?’

‘I don’t just have the power to cure terminal doom and gloom stuff, I can cure hay fever, migraines, conjunctivitis, colds and such like.’

‘And you give those to others?’

‘Yes, I give those to people who have only slightly annoyed me.’ Vivian laughed.

Dr. Lennox lowered his head in hands once more. ‘Oh Vivian, I wish I hadn’t asked you now.’

Vivian’s smile ebbed away. ‘Why?’

He rubbed his face as he lifted it up to look her in the eye. ‘Because I can’t have you working here anymore. I have to protect my patients.’

‘But I’m saving the nice ones, you’re only going to be protecting horrid people, that doesn’t make sense.’ Vivian’s eyes widened and her voice softened. ‘Think of all the good souls I can save here.’

Dr. Lennox’s face toughened up. ‘How can you save souls when you don’t believe in God?’

Vivian sighed. ‘So, you don’t want to work with me? Help me choose?’

‘No. It’s wrong, you have to go.’ He placed his hands down onto the desk. ‘And I can’t give you a reference.’

Vivian swallowed hard and reached across, squeezing his hands tightly. ‘But I’ve been so loyal to you.’ She stared deeply into his eyes, still squeezing his hands.

Dr. Lennox pulled his hands away and stood up from the desk. ‘What did you do?’

Vivian relaxed back into the chair and smiled a satisfying smile.

Dr. Lennox’s eyes flickered between his hands and Vivian. ‘Have you given me cancer?’

Vivian laughed. ‘No, that’s not going to keep me my job here is it? I don’t want revenge, I just want to keep my job so I can keep on doing my good work.’

Dr. Lennox clutched at his chest, pain escaping from his face.

‘On my way to work this morning a man had a cardiac arrest in the coffee shop.’

The doctor fell back into his chair, he tried to grab at the phone but just knocked it onto the floor.

‘I saved his life, the man in the coffee shop, he always let me go in front of him in the queue. I took away his heart attack.’

Dr. Lennox, pale and clammy, tried to speak but words were trapped and movement slowed.

‘I’ve been careful who I’ve touched today, I was saving it for pervy Duncan this afternoon. He’ll have to wait now.’ She picked up the lists from the desk and fed them into the shredder, then placed the phone back on the desk. Staring at the lifeless body opposite her she sighed. ‘Oh Paul, we could have worked so well together.’

Vivian picked up phone and dialed 999. ‘Ambulance. I’m at Mainwaring Surgery, one of our doctors has had a heart attack, please hurry.’ While holding onto the phone in one hand she opened the door with the other and shouted down the corridor.

‘I need some help here!’

Battenburg

Published May 6, 2017 by Naomi Rettig

I can’t move. I’ve got my eyes open, but it’s too dark to see anything. I can smell cake, and I can feel the weight of something against my face. I try to recall my last memory. Sleep. I was in bed, going to sleep. I’m not in my bed now.

I can’t hear anything so I open my mouth to shout, or say hello to anyone nearby.

‘Hello?’

My voice sounds muffled and distorted. I’m not sure if that’s because my ears are covered, or if there’s something in front of my mouth. I slowly force my tongue out of my mouth. It protrudes out for about half an inch before touching a surface, then retracts quickly back in. My taste buds tell me the surface it met is sweet. I persuade my tongue to venture out again. It complies.

My tongue gently licks the object in front of my mouth. Cake. It’s cake. I move my jaw out as much as it will extend and scrape my teeth along the cake surface. My tongue escorts the cake into my mouth. It tastes delicious, a light sponge.

Am I surrounded by cake? Is that why I can’t move? I think I am. How is this possible? If it were a dream I wouldn’t be able to taste and smell the cake, and I can. Someone must have drugged me and put me in a cake. That just doesn’t make sense. This doesn’t make sense.

I feel my chest tighten as a panic attack attempts to take control of my body. I can hear my pulse rate speeding up through the blood vessels in my muffled ears. I inhale a deep breath, cake fumes filter into my lungs. I tell myself I am calm, and all is well. My body knows I am lying to it, but it plays along with me, for now.

I must eat the cake. That is how I will get free. I will eat my way up through the cake. There will have to be a surface, no cake goes on for infinity. I feel calmer, I know I can eat a lot of cake. My teeth start excavating the sponge in front of me.

The more cake I eat, the more I can move my head. My spirits are lifted. I’m feeling confident. I can angle my head back now to reach the cake above me with my mouth. I move up an inch at a time, shuffling my body up with my shoulders, arms still by my sides, my face facing to the top.

I’m starting to feel sick now. I want to take a breather and rest a little, but I don’t want to risk falling asleep and running out of air. My body keeps trying to remind me I could suffocate easily, it does this by squeezing my lungs periodically while making me want to breathe faster. I tell myself I can do this, and I will be out of here soon.

I think it will be soon. I’m starting to see now. I can see the cake above me, it’s yellow. I must be near the top of the cake for the light to be penetrating down to me. I can do this. I eat more cake. In my excitement, I bite off a bigger chunk, but almost choke on it. My legs attempt to kick out and my arms try to lash out too. I spray my own face with regurgitated cake. It takes me a few moments to compose myself. I continue eating through the cake.

Bright yellow. I can see bright yellow above me. My relief is joyous. I eat on. I can smell marzipan. A heavenly smell. Almond ambrosia. I devour the final layer of sponge between me and the marzipan. I push my face against the marzipan, attempting to break free with the force of my facial features. The marzipan just stretches with my face, and lowers back down with it. I lick at the marzipan, and try to bite at it. It just moves playfully with my tongue and teeth, keen to flow in the same direction. Marzipan, I’m finding out, is non-confrontational, eager to please, and far too flexible. I try forcing my face up through it again, but this time the marzipan, wet from my saliva, sticks to my face. The almond assassin clings to my nostrils and my mouth. I try to breathe but the overpowering essence blocks my airways. My lungs clench and scream pain I didn’t think possible. I feel myself zoning out, drifting away from my physicality. I’m going.

Air violently invades my face. My marzipan death mask is being ripped open. My mouth and nose compete for the air. My lungs stop screaming and merely shout instead. My eyes are blinded by bright whiteness. They struggle to compute my surroundings. I feel my head become free of the marzipan, and I feel hands pulling me out of the cake and place me on a hard surface. My limbs feel numb from their cocooned entrapment. I feel cold, and loose.

My eyes adjust in the harsh lighting. White floor, white walls, white ceiling. There is a man in a white biohazard suit stood stationary over me. A giant Battenburg cake is in the center of the room, crumbs scattered onto the floor, no doubt from when I emerged. A camera in the corner of the room rotates around to face me. The man in the white suit puts his hand to his ear, then nods.

‘Come with me,’ he says.

My mouth is dry. ‘Why? What’s happening?’

‘You failed. They don’t want you now.’

‘Failed what? Who are they?’ My legs allow me to stand up, but threaten to drop me at any moment.

The man walks towards a door. ‘You only had to get out of the cake. You failed so you have to go back.’

‘I don’t understand?’ I follow him to the door.

‘You should have eaten horizontally, not vertically, as there’s no marzipan on the ends of the cake.’ He swipes a card in a panel by the door with his gloved left hand. ‘You could have made it out alive that way.’

The door slides open with a faint hiss. The man steps out of the room, so do I.

‘But I still don’t understand what’s going on.’

‘It’s better that way. Believe me.’ The man walks off down the narrow corridor.

I follow.

My Best Friend is a Unicorn, called Neville.

Published February 25, 2017 by Naomi Rettig

Neville has been my best friend since as far back as I can remember, in fact I can’t remember life without him. When we were both little we would share the same bed, I’d stroke his soft purple mane as he snored blissfully next to me. Logistics got in the way as we both got bigger. A man and a fully-grown unicorn just don’t fit into a bed together. Even the king size bed that I have now. Neville has his own room, but I have the en-suite. Neville prefers the great outdoors for his ablutions. I’ve fitted a latch on the back door that Neville can unhook with his horn, so that he can venture out to the garden whenever he wants.

It’s so much easier now we live by ourselves. When we lived at Dad’s it was a nightmare having to go out to the garden every time Neville needed to do his business. Dad was always suspicious why I needed to keep going outside, I’d regularly get my pockets checked for cigarettes when returning in from Neville’s toileting. Nev would find this highly amusing, suggesting I bought a packet so my dad could ‘find’ them on me and feel vindicated for the prison search.

I wished that I could’ve told him the real reason for my garden visitations, but the word unicorn was banned in our house when I was seven. Up until then I had included Neville in our family conversations and no one had seemed to mind, then Mum and Dad got divorced, and life got complicated.

It was an upsetting time for me, not Mum and Dad splitting up, but because they both said I had to stop pretending that a unicorn lived with us. They might as well have asked me to pretend the grass isn’t green. So I had to do the opposite, from that day on I had to pretend I couldn’t see Nev. He was upset of course by this, but when I explained it was necessary for him to stay with me, he stopped crying. Which was good because unicorn tears are tricky to get out of clothes, it’s the glitter in them. If Neville has had a cry on my shoulder my shirts always need a prewash, once when I was about ten I forgot to prewash and Dad wasn’t over the moon with his glittery pants. I blamed the school’s art department for glitter sticking to my school jumper, but Dad complained about his glittery pants for months.

I should point out that I did the washing at home as it was just me, Dad and Neville living in the house. Mum had moved to a flat across town. She’d wanted me to move with her of course but it was a tiny two bedroomed flat on the fourth floor. That would have been no good for Nev so we stayed with Dad. I also didn’t like Mum’s new boyfriend Warren, he smelled of herring and smoked, and that would set off Nev’s asthma. The smoking that is, not the herring smell. Did I mention Neville has asthma? When I used to visit Mum, Nev would stay at home in the garden. A few times he came with me and waited outside but the fumes from the traffic would set the asthma off too.

Mum visits me now in my house, but not that often. I think she senses Neville here and doesn’t want to admit to herself that he’s real. He stuck his hoof out once and tripped her up when she walking to the door and telling me I should get some friends. She blamed the rug. Neville laughed externally while I laughed internally.

I’ve mastered the art of laughing internally while keeping a neutral face over the years. When I had to pretend not to see Neville because we were in others company he would always relish acting the fool to try and make me chuckle. He got me a few times, usually when he stood on his hind legs and did demented disco dancing. On those occasions I would feign a coughing fit to leave the room for a glass of water.

It got tiresome though pretending I couldn’t see Nev and whispering when I wanted to talk to him, so I moved out last year on my twenty first birthday. I’m a postman and Nev comes out on my rounds with me. We’ve learnt which gardens to avoid, there are a few dogs that go nuts when they see him. Mrs. Jones in Laburnum Terrace has a poodle called Binky that poops on her lawn when he sees Neville. Nev either waits at the end of the road or crawls commando style past Mrs. Jones’s house, it depends on his mood. He can be quite moody at times.

Except on Sundays. On a Sunday Nev is buzzing like a bee in a florist shop. We go to the park every Sunday, even in bad weather. There’s so much space for Nev to gallop about in and he loves swimming in the lake. It’s our highlight of the week, and even more so now.

Two Sunday’s ago, we did our usual routine. I sat on the bench eating a strawberry ice-cream watching Nev frolic around the green. He was taking a longer and slower route than normal so I observed the rest of the park goers. There weren’t that many, a family feeding the ducks on the other side of the lake, a couple out for a romantic stroll who were holding hands and giggling as they ambled along. There’s another bench further along from the one I was sitting on, a young woman in a blue cardigan and jeans was sat alone, the sun highlighting her red hair. She was looking across the green, intensely watching something. I followed her line of vision, there was Neville, prancing about like a parade horse.

I looked back to her and then back to Neville. She was still staring at him. My heart started galloping alongside Nev as I tried to think what to do. I wondered if suddenly everyone could see him now or just this mysterious woman. The romantic couple and family didn’t stare though, which I’m sure they would have if they could see a purple unicorn. My ice-cream drew my attention back to myself as the coldness of it dribbled down my fingers. I dropped it into the bin next to me, having lost my appetite with nerves, and licked off the sticky strawberry from my knuckles.

Before my brain could work out what to do next my legs were walking towards the other bench.

‘Hello,’ I said, as I sat down next to the blue cardiganed woman.

She glanced at me quickly. ‘Hello,’ she said, before looking back across to where Neville was still showboating.

I watched Neville and from the corner of my eye could see the woman looking back and forth between me and Neville. I turned my head towards her and caught her in full stare. ‘I’m John.’

She held my stare gently, her green eyes sparkled. ‘Emma.’ She smiled a smile that would have morphed my ice-cream to a milkshake.

I felt myself blush so turned away, Neville was trotting back towards us. Emma was watching him. This was just too weird. Neville stopped trotting when he reached the bench and shook his head, fluffing up his mane.

I took a deep breath. ‘You look like you’re having fun,’ I said, raising my eyebrows to Nev for some help.

‘You can see her?!’ Emma’s eyes widened and she moved forward on the bench.

My heart bumped repeatedly against my ribs. ‘Him. He’s a he.’

Emma frowned. ‘She’s a she.’

‘Neville is definitely a he.’

Neville was looking back and forth between us and was unusually quiet. I thought he was upset being mistaken for a female so I stood up and started to pat him for reassurance.

Emma squinted. ‘What are you doing?’

My stomach knotted. ‘Stroking my unicorn.’

She laughed. The knotting tightened.

‘You have a unicorn with you?’ Her smile radiated through every pore in her face and her shoulders relaxed as she leaned back into the bench.

The knot in my stomach started to unravel. ‘Yes.’

She nodded. I was confused. I thought she could see Nev, but then it was obvious she couldn’t, yet she didn’t run for the hills. And there was no pity in her eyes, still just the vibrant twinkle.

She stood up and started to stroke the air next to Neville. I thought she was humouring me by pretending to stroke him.

I rested my hand on Neville’s back. ‘He’s here.’

She nodded, still stroking the air. ‘This is Moira.’

My eyes tried to analyze hers. I couldn’t speak, I didn’t know what to say, so I just stared at her like an idiot.

‘Moira is a unibob,’ said Emma.

I looked at Nev and he nodded. I swallowed to moisten my throat enough to speak. ‘What’s a unibob?’

Emma glanced at the air she was stroking. ‘A unibob is a magical llama with a horn, but it has a little bobble on the end of the horn, unlike a unicorn’s pointy horn.’

I nodded.

‘She’s pink, what colour is your unicorn?’

‘Purple, he’s purple.’ I smiled at Neville, he just looked embarrassed by me.

‘They match well then.’ Emma stopped petting the air and relaxed her arms down.

‘Yes.’ I nodded again, like a goofball. ‘We come here every Sunday, I’ve not seen you here before.’

‘We’ve just moved to the area, I inherited my grandfather’s farm, up by The Grange.’

I nodded again. ‘Will you be here again next week? I’d like to see you again.’

‘I can be, I’d like to see you again too. And judging from how much Moira was leaping about on the green I think she’d like to see Neville again too.’

He did, and we did. The Sunday after was just the best. I’d never felt so relaxed in my life, and for the first time I felt I belonged in the world. That sounds corny but it’s true. I guess what I’m trying to say is that just because someone can’t see your unicorn, they know that you can, and someone accepting you for you is the best feeling in the world. No pretending.

Nev wants to move to the farm today, but I’ve told him it’s too soon. We’ll go next week, that’ll give me time to pack. Neville is a useless packer as he just packs snacks.

The Verdict

Published February 9, 2017 by Naomi Rettig

Leukemia, a word that sounds softer than cancer. Cancer sounds hard and abrupt, leukemia sounds more chilled out, like Bohemia. But the verdict of it still slams at you full force like a charging rhino. What do you do when you’ve just been told you have it? I went and sat in an empty church for an hour. I’m not religious, I just wanted to sit quietly somewhere. I needed time to compose myself before bumping into anyone I knew, I didn’t want to blurt it out to the first person who said hello to me. Someone’s innocent ‘Hi Tom, how are you?’ being met by a babbling mess of ‘Pretty shit, I’ve got leukemia.’ Nobody wants that answer to a rhetorical question.

I contemplated all the funerals that had taken place there in the peaceful sanctuary. Hundreds of bodies over the years being carried in and out via a wooden box, loved ones crying tears of goodbyes and guilt, sorrow and sentiments. This would be me soon.

Well, I say soon, between now and about five years, that seems soon now to me, too soon. That’s the estimate of my life expectancy. Science isn’t that accurate yet. Five years if I’m lucky, some fortunate people managed to drag out their existence by eight years. With medication, I might even make ten more years. Or I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. I assumed that I’d get to old age, stressing about pensions and whether I’d be able to afford my retirement barge on the canal. I know we’re not immortal, but when your life sentence is reduced, plans and thoughts crumble quickly. Just five more Christmases, five more birthdays, five more holidays. These bubbles of time are going to rapidly pop.

I sat in the cold church wishing I had a faith, maybe it would be easier to live with this death sentence if I believed a higher being was looking after my soul, or that I would be reunited with deceased family. Instead I know I will just simply die and everything will end. Game over. I want to scream, I want to cry, I want to laugh. Laugh at the irony, the irony of living with depression and fighting to stay alive every day, but wishing I could disappear, and now finding that my cosmic ordering has worked. I get my wish. But now I don’t want my wish. I want to send it back. I am ungrateful. There’s too much left for me to do.

I want to watch my son’s life unfold, see him enjoying life and having his own family. I want to have grandkids and be that fun Grandad everyone wants, a pocketful of sweets and a twinkle in my eye as I teach them poker and blackjack.  I want to laugh some more with my friends, grow old disgracefully with them. I want to explore the world, see beautiful sights across all continents, dip my toes in the oceans and seas. I want to watch more seasons of The Walking Dead.

I want to fall in love one more time, and feel that person’s love wrapped around me always. I want someone to hold me and know that I am their whole world. But that’s not going to happen, I’m going to die alone, I’d better get used to that and not wallow in a pity pool. I want someone to hold my hand as I take my final breaths. But that’s selfish isn’t it, I should be grateful I am single and therefore sparing someone that loves me the agony of watching me ebb away without them.

I haven’t told anyone yet. How do you tell people you’re a ticking time bomb? Do you tell people? My first instinct is to tell everyone. This is big news, I need to share, to get support, to get help making sense of it all. A Facebook status maybe, ‘Make the most of me, I’m not going to be here for much longer.’ Too dramatic? How about just simply ‘I’m dying.’ Too basic? After all, aren’t we all dying in various degrees? I’ve just moved up a few gears and I’m speeding along in the fast track lane. Typical, the only race I’m going to win is the death race.

If everyone knows I’m fast tracking death I’ll get sympathetic looks everywhere I go, do I really want people in my local Tesco’s looking at me thinking ‘oh that’s the man that’s dying, how sad’, and then carry on deciding what shade of toilet roll to buy. Do I just tell family? I have to tell my family. How do I do that? To see their faces try and grapple with emotion, to see their pain, to feel responsible for their grief. They need to prepare though, if you can ever prepare for someone you love dying. I’ve lost two people suddenly that I loved from heart attacks, I didn’t have chance to say goodbye or tell them I loved them. That haunts me. I don’t want anyone else to feel that.

There are too many emotions pin-balling around in my head. It’s like my brain doesn’t know what it should be feeling so it’s throwing everything out there, hoping the right one sticks in place. I’m going to just have to take each day as it comes. Find out what emotion my brain tries out each morning.

Today I woke up wanting to make the most of the day. I’m going out with Dave and some other work mates after our shift has finished, Murphy’s getting married so we’re off to celebrate his future. I’m going to have about six pints to celebrate mine. It’s worth celebrating. Some people have heart attacks or get hit by a bus, they’re gone instantly, I’m a lucky one getting notice to go. I can do my goodbyes and tie up my loose ends, closure. And if I’m really lucky a fiftieth party that will rock everyone’s socks off. And maybe their pants.

 

Marzipan Cat Zombies

Published February 1, 2017 by Naomi Rettig

Phil pushed the bookcase against the door then wiped the sweat from his forehead with the bottom of his Captain America t-shirt.

‘That’s pointless, cats can’t open doors,’ said Joe, slumping onto the bed next to Rohan.

Phil looked across at his two friends. ‘Just in case. Cats don’t normally turn into marzipan and eat people either, we don’t know what they can do now.’

‘I don’t think they’ll be able to open doors.’ Joe raised his eyebrows.

‘Well, just in case. Humor me.’ Phil paced across to the bed and kicked Joe’s foot.

‘Hey, guys, c’mon,’ said Rohan.

‘Sorry Ro, you ok?’ Joe asked.

‘Of course he’s not ok numbnuts, he just watched his sister being bitten by a marzipan cat, and then turning into marzipan herself!’ Phil pulled up his desk chair and sat down opposite Joe and Rohan.

Joe stretched out and kicked Phil’s leg. ‘I’m aware of that numbernuts, I saw it too. And old Mrs.Terry on the corner, all her five cats had marzipaned, she had no chance.’

‘What’s happening guys? What we gonna do?’ Rohan’s eyes flicked back and forth between Joe and Phil.

Phil sighed. ‘I don’t know.’

‘When will your mom and dad be back?’ Rohan threw his question in Phil’s direction.

Phil rubbed his eyes, his hands slightly trembling. ‘They won’t be coming back. It was on the TV before you both got here, it’s all over the place, the cats, they’re everywhere.’

Joe pulled his legs up onto the bed. ‘They can’t be everywhere.’

‘They’re everywhere,’ said Phil, through gritted teeth.

Rohan knelt up on the bed, surveying out of the window. He could see yellow cats, lots of yellow plastic looking cats, prowling and pacing along the hydrangea lined neighborhood. ‘What we gonna do?’

‘We can stay here? Wait for help.’ Joe nodded at his own suggestion.

‘Help won’t be coming.’ Phil swiveled left and right on his chair. ‘Everybody bitten or scratched turns to marzipan and dies.’

Joe joined Rohan looking out of the window. ‘Why aren’t the cats dying? When they turn to marzipan, why aren’t they dying, like the people?’

‘I don’t know, I didn’t create the mutant marzipan moggies did I?’ Phil rubbed sweat off his forehead again. ‘And the people, after they’ve turned and are dead, they come back to life.’

Joe spun away from the window and looked back at Phil. ‘Shit.’

‘So they are ok then?’ Rohan turned to join the other boys’ stares.

‘Yeah they’re fine.’ Phil’s fake smile turned into a glare. ‘Of course they’re not ok, they’re made of solid marzipan, doofus.’

The three boys sat silently. Joe bit at his nails, Phil rocked on the chair, and Rohan stared at his red socks. A clock in the shape of a rocket ticked behind Phil on his desk. Loud meowing and human screams fought for airspace outside.

Rohan looked up from his socks. ‘If no help is coming, we’re going to have to kill the cats ourselves.’

‘And just how do you kill them?’ Joe got up and started to pace the small room. ‘I mean, I know how you’d kill a normal cat, but one that’s made of fucking marzipan?’

‘Your mum would freak at your language,’ said Rohan.

Joe stopped his pacing. ‘My mum is probably almond paste right now, I don’t think she’d fucking care.’

‘You’re such a grown up.’ Rohan pulled his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around them.

‘Fuck fuck fuckity fuck.’ Joe continued his pacing.

Phil stopped moving on the chair. ‘We have to eat them.’

‘What?’ Joe stopped in his tracks.

‘The cats,’ said Phil. ‘It said on the news, the only way they can be stopped is by eating them.’

‘Eating them?’ Rohan grimaced.

Joe swung his arms animatedly. ‘Can’t we just chop their heads off?’

‘If their heads are chopped off they just morph back together, same if you squash them,’ Phil mimed squishing and growing with his hands, ‘they just go back into their cat shapes. Guessing it’s the same for the people too.’

‘I can’t eat people,’ said Joe.

Rohan wiped his hands down his thighs. ‘I can’t eat cats. I’m a vegetarian.’

‘It’s bloody marzipan. Without the blood.’ Phil twirled around in the chair to face Joe. ‘Just like eating the marzipan fruits your Auntie Gayle gives you at Christmas.’

‘Eating a non-moving marzipan apple the size of my thumb is a bit different to eating a full sized marzipan cat in attack mode, or a relative,’ said Joe.

Phil stood up and walked across to Joe. ‘We can stun the cat, or person, first, by whacking them with something, then eat them quickly.’

Joe shrugged and fiddled with his belt. ‘At least we won’t have to worry about finding food.’ He attempted to laugh but just made a snorting noise and twitched his lips.

‘Maybe we can make a pact though.’ Phil patted Joe’s shoulder.  ‘I don’t think any of us want to eat our own family.’

‘No!’ gasped Rohan.

‘Gross,’ said Joe.

Phil looked across at Rohan, then back to Joe. ‘So why don’t we agree, that if we get in a ‘situation’ with family, one of us others will deal with it.’

Rohan started to cry. ‘I can’t.’

Joe slunk over to the bed and sat next to Rohan. ‘Look Ro, I know it’s hard but we gotta pull together here.’

‘No, I mean I can’t. I can’t eat marzipan.’ Rohan stifled his sobs. ‘I’m diabetic.’

‘Shit.’ Phil kicked the bookcase.

From the other side of the door there was a hiss of a cat. Phil leapt away from the bookcase and door and almost landed on Joe’s lap as he launched himself onto the bed. The cat started scratching at the door.

Joe gripped Rohan’s knee. ‘Christ, maybe it’ll go away?’ The scratching at the door continued.

Rohan swallowed hard. ‘How can marzipan make a scratching noise like that?’

Joe realized he was holding Rohan’s knee and let go. He frowned at Rohan. ‘I don’t know, shall we open up the door and find out?’

Rohan hugged his legs again and lowered his head.

‘Sorry Ro,’ said Joe. ‘I’m not feeling myself.’

Phil shuffled across the bed a little. ‘You’re looking a little yellow Joe, you feel sick?’

Joe shook his head. ‘No, just a bit spaced, like you? Don’t you feel spaced?’

‘Wired, I’m feeling wired, not spaced.’ Phil turned his head to Rohan. ‘Ro?’

‘Not spaced, hyper ventilating.’ Rohan edged away a few inches from Joe.

Phil stood up slowly. ‘You haven’t been bitten have you?’

‘No,’ said Joe.

‘Or scratched, you might not have felt a scratch while we were running over here.’ Rohan slid off the bed and stood next to Phil.

‘No, I’m fine.’ Joe clenched his hands.

‘You’re definitely more yellow now. Look.’ Phil pointed to Joe’s bare legs, not covered by his shorts.

‘It’s the light in here.’ Joe grabbed the pillow from the bed and tried to cover his legs.

‘Shit Joe, you’re turning, look at the scratch on your arm!’ Phil took a step back, bumping into the chair.

All three boys looked at Joe’s arm. His skin was buttery yellow. There was a gaping gash, about an inch long, and thick yellow pus paste oozed out from it.

‘No! Oh God no. Guys you have to help me!’ Joe cried as he stared at his changing body.

‘We can’t do anything,’ said Phil, gripping onto the back of the chair. ‘There’s no cure, we can’t save you.’

‘Then you have to kill me.’ Joe stopped crying and sniffed. He held his arms out. ‘Eat me.’

‘You’re not fully turned! I can’t eat you yet.’ Phil grimaced.

Joe lowered his arms. ‘Ok, well, get ready.’

‘I don’t think I can do this,’ said Phil, sitting in the chair.

‘You have to,’ Joe pleaded. ‘Rohan can’t or he’ll go into a diabetic coma.’

Rohan shifted slightly from side to side, sniffing.

‘There are bits of you that I really don’t think I can eat.’ Phil nodded towards Joe’s crotch.

‘Christ Phil, you can’t leave just my wiener running around after people.’ Joe rubbed the pus paste into his arm as a bit more oozed out. ‘What kind of sicko does that.’

‘What kind of sicko eats your wiener!’ Phil made a snorting noise as he laughed and stifled a cry at the same time.

Joe laughed and wiped yellow tears away with his sticky fingers.

‘Can’t you just leave?’ Rohan mumbled. ‘You could eat that cat on your way out.’

‘Wow, really finding out about my friends now.’ Joe smiled at Rohan.

Rohan limply smiled back. ‘It’s because we’re your friends we don’t want to eat you.’

‘C’mon Joe.’ Phil stood up. ‘We need to throw you under the bus.’

Joe looked to Rohan then Phil. ‘What bus?’

‘It’s a metaphysical bus.’ Phil took a step closer to Joe and hovered his hand over Joe’s shoulder, gently tapping with his fingers. ‘C’mon Joe, take one for the team, I’d leave if it was me infected. I’d push you out the door but I don’t want my fingers sinking into your fat marzipan middle there.’

‘I’d eat you if we were switched numbernut.’ Joe stood up and stepped towards the door. ‘I’ll eat the cat, then I’ll run away from the house, draw any others away.’

Rohan moved closer. ‘Thanks Joe.’

‘Sorry bud.’ Phil’s voice started to crack.

Joe nodded. ‘Get ready to slam the door shut.’ He started to shove the bookcase out of the way but his thumb mushed into the wood. Sighing, he scraped it off, remolded it, and stuck it on his head.

Phil laughed. ‘Numbnut.’ He dragged the bookcase away from the door and held the door handle. He locked eyes with Joe. ‘Ready?’

Joe nodded, and smiled at Phil and Rohan. Phil yanked the door open and Joe shot out, Phil slamming the door behind him. Phil leant against the door and closed his eyes. Rohan sat on the bed, leant forward, and held his head in his hands. The boys were silent as the wailing of a cat and scuffling outside the door took place. There was a final high pitched cat screech then the landing fell silent too.

After five minutes of stillness, Phil stopped leaning against the door and turned, pressing his ear up against it. ‘Joe? You still there?’

‘Yes,’ said Joe from behind the door.

Rohan lifted his head from his hands. ‘I thought you were going to run away?’

‘I was.’ Joe’s voice sounded muffled. ‘I don’t want to die out there on my own. I’m scared.’

‘He’s going to fully turn any minute.’ Rohan whispered to Phil.

Phil nodded, then talked to the door again. ‘Did you eat the cat?’

‘No. Well, I tried to eat it, but it’s very struggly. I ate its leg. It’s not happy with me. It’s just staring at me now. I’m sorry’

Phil placed his hand flat against the door. ‘I’m sorry too Joe’. He turned and looked at Rohan, and raised his eyebrows.

Rohan nodded and stood up from the bed. Phil slowly twisted the door handle and opened it. Joe was sat on the floor, not only was his skin bright yellow but his hair had turned from dark brown to yellow chunky strands. His thumb was still on his forehead.

Phil opened the door wider. He could see an angry looking marzipan cat in a crouching attack position further along the landing. ‘Let the cat come in. And put your thumb back where it should be.’

‘If you’re going to be marzipan, we will too,’ said Rohan.

‘No, you can stay safe.’ Joe shuffled to his feet, removing his thumb from his head and molding it back on his hand.

‘No one is safe. If we don’t have our families we only have each other, but if we don’t have each other, what’s the point in hiding out.’ Phil shrugged.

The cat suddenly rocketed itself into the room, hissing and lashing out in a frenzied Catherine Wheel of almond rage.

‘It got me!’ Rohan rubbed his leg.

‘Me too,’ said Phil.

The cat limped out on its three legs, tail twitching like a caffeinated cobra. Joe shuffled into the room and slumped onto the bed. His eyelashes had turned to marzipan strands.

‘Do you think we’ll know each other when we turn?’ asked Rohan. ‘You know, when our brains are marzipaned?’

‘Yeah, sure we will.’ Phil patted Rohan on the shoulder. ‘Friends and numbnuts forever.’

New Year’s Eve

Published December 31, 2016 by Naomi Rettig

‘Wow it’s cold,’ says Patrick, stepping outside and closing the door. He puts his gloves on, and a icy mist escapes from between his lips.

Ruth raises her eyebrows. ‘Well it is winter.’

‘Funny girl.’ He crinkles his nose up at her. ‘You never did feel the cold.’

‘I’m Welsh, we’re tough and hardy.’ She dazzles him with a wide smile.

Patrick laughs, exhaling more frosty clouds. ‘I won’t argue with that.’

Ruth adjusts her woolen hat, tucking her fringe up into it. ‘Ready to go?’

‘Yep.’ Patrick holds his hand out and Ruth’s hand slides into his with ease.

They walk in comfortable silence, just the sound of shoes crunching onto snow soundtracks the short walk from Patrick’s parents’ house to the town square. A few people are hurrying from The Golden Lion across to The Three Witches, trying not to get slapped by Jack Frost. Ruth always wanted someone to open a pub in town with the word wardrobe in the name, just so a pub crawl could involve going to The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Patrick loved her so much that, if he’d won the lottery, he would’ve bought a pub and called it The Wonky Wardrobe, just to make her laugh.

They wander towards The Lion and stand just back from the window, looking in on a busy party scene. The sounds of music, laughter, and cheering, all leak out from the windows, and burst through the door when someone braves the outdoors.

Patrick squeezes Ruth’s hand. ‘There’s Rob and Danny, I think they’re trying to outdo each other in the most embarrassing Christmas jumpers.’

‘You want to go in and have a drink?’

‘No.’ He watches them downing their pints. ‘I said my Happy New Year to them earlier.’

Ruth glances to Patrick. ‘Oh yes, good time?’

‘Yep, Rob got his promotion, which is about time as he deserves it. Danny, well, Danny’s Danny. He couldn’t decide which girlfriend to go out with tonight so that’s why he’s out with Rob.’

‘Harsh.’

Patrick shrugs. ‘Rob doesn’t mind.’

‘I meant for the girlfriends,’ says Ruth, shaking her head.

‘Oh. Yes, it is I guess. They don’t know about each other. Yet.’

They both carry on observing through the window. It must be warm in the pub as Danny is taking his jumper off. He reveals a t-shirt with the slogan ‘babe magnet’ printed on it, much to Rob’s amusement. Rob keeps his reindeer jumper on, it’s quite impressive as the reindeer’s nose flashes red.

‘Silly question, but why doesn’t he just choose one?’ asks Ruth.

‘He can’t decide. He likes them all but isn’t in love with any of them.’ Patrick removes his stare from Rob’s flashing jumper and turns his head to Ruth. ‘He’s not as lucky as me finding you.’

Ruth turns to return his gaze. ‘I love you.’

‘I love you too, for eternity.’ Patrick feels tears gathering up as he looks deep into Ruth’s eyes.

‘Are you sure you want to come away with me? I can wait if you want to stay here longer.’

Patrick swallows down his tears. ‘Don’t be silly, I want to come with you. What have I got here without you?’

‘Err, family friends, work.’ She raises her eyebrows.

‘You’re all the family I need, I won’t be missed by the rest of my family, and I can pop in at any moment to see them. My friends will be sad when they find out I’ve gone without saying a proper goodbye, I couldn’t though as they would’ve tried to talk me out of it.’ Patrick looks back into the pub. ‘Not that they don’t want me to be with you, but because they’d think it was better if I stayed.’ He looks back to Ruth, who is studying his face. ‘But when they find out, they’ll know I’ve followed my heart and done the right thing for me. And as for work, I only work to pay the bills, I will not miss unblocking toilets and examining u-bends.’

Ruth does mock shock. ‘Really?’

‘Yes really, come on, before they spot me.’ Patrick takes Ruth’s hand and leads her away from the pub.

As they walk through the square, Mrs. Timpson from the Post Office is coming out of The Three Witches, carrying a bottle of wine.

Patrick whispers to Ruth. ‘Appropriate.’

‘Shh,’ says Ruth. ‘She’ll hear you.’

Mrs. Timpson keeps her judging eyes on Patrick as she walks past, her face all lemon pinched and sour. ‘Evening Patrick.’

Patrick stops. ‘Happy new year.’

Mrs. Timpson just grunts as she carries on walking away.

‘She never liked me,’ says Ruth, pulling him back into motion. ‘Come on.’

They walk out of town and along an overgrown footpath towards the river. The noise of the town dissolves behind them and the crunch from underfoot soothes once again. They reach the stone bridge, it’s high up over the river and the ice on the water far below sparkles in the moonlight like angel’s tears.

‘Our spot,’ says Ruth.

‘Yes, our spot.’ Patrick squeezes Ruth’s hand. ‘When I proposed to you here last New Year’s Eve, I didn’t think it’d be our last time here.’

‘It’s not the last time, we can come back whenever we want.’ Ruth sits on the stone wall of the bridge, pulling Patrick towards her. ‘And if you want to stay here now, you don’t have to come with me, I’ll understand, and I’ll wait for you, for eternity.’

Patrick moves closer. He closes his eyes and he can feel an icy breath on him. ‘I’m not having second thoughts at all, I’ve never felt so right about something.’

‘No one ever thinks,’ says Ruth, so quietly it’s barely a whisper.

Patrick opens his eyes. ‘What do you mean?’

Ruth smiles gently. ‘Oh, I mean, no one ever thinks things will happen to them, do they. Danny never thought he’d be stuck in a love quadrangle, Rob never thought he’d have to wait five long years for that promotion, and I never thought I’d die in a car accident.’ She sighs. ‘And the woman who caused the crash didn’t think she’d cause a multiple pile up by having a heart attack that morning.’

‘And I didn’t think I’d meet the love of my life but I did. I’m the luckiest man in the world.’ Patrick climbs up onto the wall. He balances on the edge.

Ruth stands up next to him. ‘Would you like me to hold your hand?’

Patrick takes a last look down at the twinkling icy water, far below. Even in the moonlight he can see the rocks poking out from the shallow water, like mini icebergs. At this distance, he will easily break his neck. ‘Yes.’

Ruth’s fingers entwine his and she squeezes tight.

‘Don’t let go.’ Patrick closes his eyes.

‘I won’t,’ whispers Ruth.

Patrick steps forward.

A Dangerous Lady

Published October 14, 2016 by Naomi Rettig

I knew she was trouble the moment my eyes groped her in The Horseshoe Saloon. She was sat at the bar, her long legs twisting around the bar stool like a boa constrictor squeezing its prey. A lucky red velvet dress caressed her in envious places. Her skin was the colour of milk, full fat, and I wanted to test my lactose intolerance. Liquorice spiraled hair cascaded down her back and as I positioned myself next to her I could smell the aroma of bergamot and marzipan.

She glanced my way as I ordered a bourbon, drink not biscuit, a flutter of her emerald eyes enticed me out to sea without my water-wings. I didn’t see the sharks swimming around us, I was too distracted by her chest, bobbing in front of me like a life raft, I wanted to cling on and float away to heaven. I should have walked away right then and there, but I didn’t, those sticky red lips pouted and stuck my feet to the floor like lead bubblegum.

She asked the barman for a pen, her voice like smoky syrup, and wrote a number on a crisp white napkin, instructing me to call her. Sliding off the stool she sashayed away, her curvaceous bottom swaying like The Golden Gate Bridge in high winds. I followed. How could I not. I was a fool.

I know I’m a fool as I am now looking at her body. Her perfect dead body. She’s still a little warm, like a hot water bottle at 2am. I shot her in the heart, I couldn’t bear to disfigure that face. That face with blood red lips that lured the sharks, and sucked me in too. How could I compete for her affection, I was too far out of my depth. I should’ve walked away, I couldn’t.

Blood pools around her and feels like sticky molasses on my fingers. I hold her close to me, clinging on to my life raft. The gun is cold in my mouth, and the metal clinks at my teeth like ice in a glass as I place it in position. I don’t know if we’re going anywhere after this, all I know is that I can’t live with her, nor can I live without her. I should’ve walked away at the bar, but I’m a fool who fell for a dangerous lady.