Sunday, 26 January 2014

Black and White and Red All Over

P   R   E   V   I   O   U   S   L   Y      I    N 
S   P   I   D   E   R   F   I   N   G   E   R   S

…Suspecting that the gods would strike at him through the family John Clay was lodging with, Spiderfingers bestowed curious powers upon the Buchanan's to insure their protection and his own. He saw fit to name them after his long dead army of demigods, The Discordians.

Over the years, relationships between Spiderfingers and The Discordians became overly strained, culminating in the death of Nathaniel Buchanan. Spiderfingers accepted full responsibility for Nathaniel’s murder and cut all ties with humanity, voluntarily committing himself to Bellevue mental home.

That was seven years ago.

Recently, mysterious illnesses have befallen the Buchanans household and have forced an equally sick Spiderfingers to relinquish his gypsy lifestyle in favour of an awkward reunion.

Only together can they hope to find a cure…
    Just fixing my gaze to the living room ceiling, I can lose myself to the swirl of smoky Jasmine billowing out of my flaming crop of hair. In the arcs and troughs of black fume I can see any shape I want. A thousand possibilities.

Occasionally, an over excitable T.V presenter, much too hyper for his Friday noon slot, pulls me out of these patterns of smoulder. Thanks to him, the endless wispy tracks that cart my imagination bend and twist away making my daydreaming impossible.

I wanna engage with the blare of undead pop culture, make it say sorry for disrupting all my attempts at detachment. I don't want to know about the Z list celebrity having their home renovated by their biggest fan.

But there will be no satiric conversations with the telly, no monologues to point out the beige world we live in. I’m faced with the surrealism of the family seated round the dining table, an audience that really doesn't have the patience to indulge my old punk rock gripes.

At the table’s head, sitting with her back to the kitchen entrance, Florence Buchanan slowly sips upon something hot.

Her Queen Victoria outfit has innumerable rips and tears across it. Hair that normally hides her regal chin and middle age is bunched up and tucked away under the famous monarch’s grey wig. Those copper tussles no longer obscure the crow’s feet, her worry lines.

If I was to snatch away Florence’s newspaper (last Sunday's Guardian) and ask about the contents, I know she’d be stumped. The only thing she’s interested in reading is me.  

‘We head to Po,’ says Florence, taking a long sip from her mug whilst staring into the middle distance, ‘We find this cure and then you’re done here,' she says placing her cup down among red and yellow Connect Four playing counters, 'No more contact, clear?’

Despite her week long migraine, Florence ‘Nightingale’ Buchanan can still alter my body temperature, just by pointing her finger.  

On my left, past the empty chair I’ve refused to take, Saul ‘Zombie Boy’ Buchanan shuffles in his seat. The pasty-faced twat is dressed in the knee and shoulder pads of American Football gear.

Since I arrived, Saul’s been running in and out of the kitchen for knives. He uses his one remaining hand to stash the cutlery into his back pack, only to decide against his choices, back away from the table, and dash to the kitchen for sharper, more serrated options.

Then there’s Steve sitting at the dining table’s opposite end. Steve ‘Bone-Crusher’ Buchanan is covered in dark motorcycle gear. His large muscular body is twisted away from me, eyes seemingly locked upon the telly, that fucking D.I.Y show still pacifying the countless many that have tuned in.

Lilith sits next to her dad. She’s constantly feeding the pet hawks perched on a wooden plinth stationed behind her. When she reaches down to collect chopped meat from the pail beneath the table, her yellow biker gear rubs noisily together.

Me? I’m on my feet, leaning against the wall. I’m cocooned in my long apple red trench coat, the logo of a freshly washed Superman hoodie set just above the neckline.

A useless redundant part of my soul would like to believe that the hospitality I've been given comes from a loving place but no, Florence bought these clothes so that I could play my part. I admire her detachment. It will keep us alive.

She let me clean myself up so that I might reclaim the respect I surely lost when I showed up here stinking of garbage and mould. Florence understands the game more than ever before, and I allow myself a proud smile.

But the corners of my mouth have less integrity than a sandcastle.

My grin flattens out into nothing, overcome by the tide of a creeping morality, doomed to roll away from me. Soon the night will come and with it, terror, and new ways of thinking that I'd rather not dwell upon now.

'Are you done yet Vicky?' Florence keeps her eyes trained on the paper as a girl's voice from upstairs replies,

'Keep your hair on mum. And before you ask - no - I've not run out of tissues.'

Our long wait to save the world snails on. My heroic moment to investigate my holy ground for a way to heal this family of their many illness is not quite here yet. Fuck sake.    

‘If I was a god,’ says Saul, his existence carving into my thoughts, his cockney ably riding the blah bloody blah of the television, ‘I’d protect my army twenty four seven. Monsters track him by the smoke in his hair. His hair! If it wasn’t for him,’ Saul points my way, his gunky zombie saliva flicking against the guard of his headgear, ‘I wouldn’t be this way…I wouldn’t have lost my hand.’

Saul ‘Zombie Boy’ Buchanan uses his left hand and right stump to hustle a butcher’s knife into his holdall. Steve turns from the television to face his son.

‘Saul...’ he starts peering over his spectacles, ‘Come on, anger’s no good to anyone, is it?’

Saul just shoots back into the kitchen, knocking the Connect Four grid down as he charges.

‘For pity’s sake,' cries Florence, 'Saul!’

My palms clench into tight fists under the folds of my arms. 

‘He’s got to let it go.’ says Steve adjusting his glasses.

‘We can’t all be you, Steve.’ replies Florence. She turns the page of the paper she's trying to lose herself in. Vainly continuing her escape from the migraine she's determined not to complain about.

My own attempt to ignore my own illness, not to mention the tension in the room...well... it really isn't working now either. I search the dribbling blackness above but assigning pictures to the dark clouds that pour out of my hair feels fruitless. And there's no way I'll make the mistake of shouting up to Vicky. When she's ready, she'll call us up. For now, patience. So I take a glance at the older man easing himself back into the wooden dining chair at the end of the table. Steve Buchanan.

The thin specs that rest on the end of his nose lend an intellectual counterweight to his rippling bulk. And yet with his gargantuan size, there is the recent pain he says he has. His entire body hurts. Every flex requires extreme justification.

Steve winces as he thrusts himself off his chair making for the Connect Four grid on the floor. Florence scoops it up before he can reach it. She makes no eye contact. Doesn’t say a thing to him. And Steve lingers.

He pauses like a naughty child expecting a parents’ demand for an immediate apology. It never comes and the time he spends waiting on some kind of acknowledgment is brutal to watch. All gods know this feeling all too well.

Saul splinters the tension with his bolting back into the living room. The jangle of his protective padding is not only annoying to listen to. It's an insult. Worse than his cowardice is the over application of deodorant re-entering with him. I mean, there’s only so much zombie-smell underarm spray can dampen.

‘And just what if fire-head here has made the god hex up?’ says Saul standing by Florence as she abandons her paper to the table. She buries her head in her hands peering through the gaps, ‘Not like he aint lied to us before.’

‘That’s right, Zombie Boy,’ I say leaning against the wall, watching Steve make an agonisingly slow walk back to his place, ‘There are no gods or minions sent here to kill me for their invasion. We're not under constant threat of enforced captivity. Gaia doesn’t exist and oh, the Pseudologoi that cancel out any hint of my existence, they're all in your head man.’

‘Arsehole. Save your sarcasm.’ he hisses through plaque flecked gums, pulling at the crimson sprayed ponytail that sprouts from under his helmet, ‘You don’t get to make jokes, not anymore. And drop the Zombie Boy, alright?'

Florence massages the sides of her temple.

'Can we all just shut up and wait for Vicky, please?'

‘Hey, here’s a gag,’ I say scoping the room for someone - anyone - that might want to help me lift the mood, ‘What’s black and white and read all over?’

‘You are,’ says Saul without hesitation, ‘You’re that psycho in the news.’

Locks of my messy afro wave about, performing a quick dance, briefly, shining bright before dimming to something more akin to a sunset. The human in me once again realises how reactionary I can be…why I must fight my kind, stop all living idols from gaining a foothold on this vast young world.

‘Saul,’ says Steve standing up placing his broad hands on the dining table, ‘out of all our…ailments, Spiderfingers holds the shortest straw. Just have a think of the bravery it’s taken for him to tell us about his transformation.’

Yeah, nocturnal personality flip? I had to blame it on whatever it is that's making us ill. I need this family to believe in a lie for a while. No flight? Lack of super strength? Big deal. My worshipers have to contend with nosebleeds, chaffing joints, evil migraines and whatever hidden illness Saul can't bring himself to tell us. My being fairly mortal is not enough of a social glue and the truth about me at night would be a bit too much for now. Only a fourteen year old girl can handle the truth. What choice does her power give her but to grow a pair.

‘Bravery? We’ve invited this, this, thing back into our lives? Not being funny, but there is nothing brave about being a psychopath,’ Saul says, again with the finger-pointing, ‘I won’t forget what you did to Nat.’

‘Understanding son,’ says Steve, ‘Understanding is like a fantastic energy. It’s the most important power we posses. I'll tell you one thing about your brother, I reckon Nathaniel…Nathaniel...’

And I catch why Steve’s voice has trailed off. Florence’s face bears the twisted shape of non-comprehension. She shoves her seat out of her path to the kitchen behind her. She slams the door. We hear a quiet blubbering from the other side. Saul fires a passionate stare in my direction.

‘We’re following this nutter back into wonderland, even though he. Has. Lied. To. Us,’

‘Saul,’ says the young woman attending the birds perched on the stand behind her, ‘Ever thought about life without any hands?’ Saul eyes the sharp beaks, shoving his left and only hand behind his back.

Even with the onset of arthritis, the young and sprightly lady on Steve’s left flank has twenty years of attitude problem. Lilith’s tempestuous personality is signposted by an aggressive short crop of ruby Afro hair. She hasn’t always had those red curls. She wasn’t born this way. I can't lie to myself - not about this. Introducing the term trans-racial super-heroine? Makes me smile every time.

‘Ever thought about life with one eye? None?’ Lilith says this stroking the beaks of Ruby and Clint. I’ve forgotten how charming Lilith ‘Black Dragon’ Buchanan can be.

Oh Saul, he eases away from the table in as cool a manner as possible. It’s only when he’s out the room do we hear the fucker running up the stairs. Of course Black Dragon grins.

When I consider Saul's words, I deflate a little:

You don’t get to make jokes, not anymore

There is no Black Dragon and Bone Crusher, only Lilith and Steve. Zombie Boy and Nightingale are plain old Saul and Florence. Vicky upstairs is simply Vicky, not Object Girl.

I’m not a complete idiot. This may be the old game but all the players have changed. Their god has changed them, brought them nosebleeds, bad bones and a supernaturally long migraine. Being in their lives has pretty much broken their home. Jesus.

I ought to go to Po Village alone, but in every scenario my mind conjures, my going it alone always results in my death. We can't have that. We can't have the end of the world.
    It’s always been the emotional explosions that have damaged me the most. I'm sitting here waiting for a sickly girl to prepare our transport to Village Po, a holy ground her god (that would be yours truly) abandoned. Feeling like I'm the world's worst creature is no good to me. I look up into the flames of my haircut thinking of Steph.

I can see her now. Her days, her nights...

Last night, laying in her bed, her writers brain is a factory of industry yet producing nothing, zilch on the Satisfactory-O-Meter. Never mind her progress since me leaving her my diary - one feeding session is never enough.

She lives in the constant fear that there is more she can do for the tale she must rear alone. Incomplete stories are always screaming in the night for their single parent to give them the necessary comfort, to feed them some nourishment.

I can see Steph unable to help herself as her hand reaches out from under her duvet, scrabbling for the note pad, that cradle for catching tales that crawl out of her sleep. Infants that demand rearing lest they shrivel away. Gone.

I want to hug her close and tell her not to worry. Becoming a god is relatively easier than back in the day. Some things don't change. It's about who you know. How they see you.

The Buchanan's for instance, I need them to see me just right.

I'll need to be detached, focused and completely reliant on myself. I don't have the luxury of prayer. The deities that exist want to enslave the world.

Over the last few weeks, when life is stranger than fiction it does me good to go all third-person in my head: To be honest I can't help but hear myself narrate my comings and goings. Sometimes I see it - action and adventure written in Times New Roman. Maybe it's Steph? I would ask Vicky about it, but no - she's at breaking point, playing up her humour and get-up-and-go attitude, because she can't have this family fall in on itself. Not again. So, I keep the words I see as I live my life to myself. My life the secret story in third person:

The buzz of the T.V continued providing the house with its only conversation. And yet, Florence's sobbing in the kitchen could be heard during the T.V's breaks in output. Spiderfingers watched Steve reach for the remote control. The T.V volume went up a few discreet notches.

Occasionally Spiderfingers would lose his himself to the beginning half of the Buchanans' front room. The two arm chairs, the telly and the cabinet for the Hi-Fi. Steve pretending to watch television. Lilith feeding her pet hawks behind her...

No good. Spiderfingers made the mistake of noticing Lilith's mouth. That smile of hers. 

He forced his eyes to fixate upon the ever-changing patterns of smoke that floated out of his fire hair. Lilith could smile before saving your life. She could grin before taking it. Like a dragon.  

‘Lilith, seriously? Did you have to wind him up?’ asks Steve cleaning his specs on a hanky he produces from his pocket.

‘No,’ says Lilith stroking Ruby’s oak brown feathers, ‘I wind up Saul for fun.’

I look down from my wall-leaning at Steve, and I share an ‘oh-well-that’s-our-Lilith’ look. I try not to hope for more moments like this; intimacy with ones worshipers being as heartwarming as it is. I try not to hope.

Steve says, ‘Was it really necessary though?’

‘Mmm…Necessary…Necessary is me keeping up with Saul’s out-of-whack metabolism, herding vultures out of zoo’s to finish off his din-dins. Necessary is inviting chaos back into our lives. Necessary is me talking to Florence crying in the kitchen.’

‘Florence? Listen, Lilith, I don’t care if you can control dragons; she’s still your mum.’

‘Mum, really? What page are you on…Steve?’

Lilith gets up, her yellow skintight motorbike gear creasing loudly together as she moves. She moves betraying only a little of her arthritic pain. I watch Steve watching her as she enters the kitchen. The door closes. My Super-hearing’s been virtually non-existent for at least a week so from the odd raised voice we can only make out vague half words.

As Steve gets up to join them the unmistakable skin on skin sound of a slap to the face is heard from the kitchen. Before Steve can speed to the door, rushing through the pain of his arthritis, Lilith emerges. She saunters past him. She beams that great white smile of hers as she approaches pets Ruby and Clint. If Lilith were an animal, she'd be a dragon.

‘What did you do?’ Steve asks looking away from Lilith, his concerned eyes scanning the hunched figure of his ex-wife over the sink.

‘Where we’re going, we can’t have Florence crying,’ says Lilith with her hands on her hips, a glance my way.

‘You hit your mother?’ says Steve, his arm round Lilith’s elbow now.

‘No, and she's not my mother,’ she shrugs him off. She tightens leathery gauntlets round her hands gesturing to pets Ruby and Clint to ride upon them. As Lilith heads out the room and up the stairs I take a moment to think.

If Lilith ‘Black Dragon’ Buchanan has wound Florence up to get out some grief through a slap...

I hope Lilith doesn’t see the white and black squares we’re forced to move across. The splatters of red in our foot marks, these are my visions. Seeing the game board is in my job description, not hers.

‘Calling Mad-Hatter, calling Mad-Hatter! Operation Looking Glass is a go!’ shouts Vicky from upstairs.

‘Coming up just now,’ hollers Florence rushing out the kitchen, past the table, clearing her throat whilst wiping her face. Steve follows her out the room,

‘Hold on dear.’ 

The doorbell rings and I think, Aha, skipping out the room into the hallway towards the front door. My eyes float above the axis of intent trained upon me. I only have eyes for the lariats of hair-fug spewing out over my head. 

Life is clay: you mould it till the shape fits you. Or perhaps it’s an endlessly rising smoke? You only get to influence where it wafts but not the exact configuration of its escalation.

‘Whose at the door?’ says Florence on the landing, Steve on the middle of the staircase rubbing away the agony in his lower back.

‘That would be the ammo.’ I say over my shoulder. I skip to the door determined to enjoy the lifting of the smoke. It’s only when I spy the figures through the frosted glass that I fall out of my jollity. I open the door playacting with myself, the only sure way to go through with the madness of my plan, to stave off irritating voices of guilt.

If I’m not disconnected, it’s game over.

I greet the old couple on the doorstep, but in my mind it’s not me standing there. It’s a character. We just happen to share the same name.

Spiderfingers jogged towards the chime of the bell. He opened the door to set his vision upon a happy-to-see-him old couple, dragging upon the drug of inner resolve, binding himself to a ruthless tunnel vision that would prove addictive and dangerous.

My life is a book and I’m somewhere far off turning pages. I’m not the calculating divinity that must commit itself to stark evils for the greater good. I’m just a witness reading.

He bit his tongue, hard. He promised himself pain whenever some humanity would eek its unhelpful way back into his decision making. Stepping aside, Spiderfingers granted the pawns on the doorstep entry.  

He thought upon the ramifications of his death.
N   E   X   T      T   I   M   E      I    N
S   P   I   D   E   R   F   I   N   G   E   R   S
‘Guys…’ Lilith pointed out at dark humanoid shapes clouding the mirror in front.

Steve raised his fists. Lilith placed her hands to her forehead as Vicky backed away from the mirror to hold her mother’s hand. Saul rummaged his holdall settling for a meat cleaver. Spiderfingers moved a little closer to Steve, a man surely bracing himself for violence. A sickly father forced to battle past the pain of a debilitating condition.

'Dad,' said Vicky pointing at her god, 'You should stand in front of Spider.'

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(N.B The comments posted below pertain to an extended version of this story, truncated due to issues of pace).


  1. Thank you all for your constructive critique! I think I'll re-post this adventure next month with the improvements and keep resubmitting it till it reaches the highest standards. So many good critiques here people...hey! ;)

  2. Hi John,
    I’m really pleased to say that you’ve managed to restore some clarity to these scenes: the positioning of characters within the scene is now much cleared and doesn’t feel confused, making it much easier for the reader to picture the scene and follow the action.

    I also really think that the re-introduction of characters at the beginning of this chapter really helps to give the reader a sense of who is who. This is very welcome, especially in relation to the later battle scene (which was very confusing in your original edit, but now makes much more sense).

    However, there are a few little ‘stage directions’ that might need amending. For example, in section 1 (para 2) you mention that Florence is sipping her drink “something hot and lemony”. But then, in the next paragraph, you have Florence “reaching for her drink”. You never told us that she had put down the mug, so it appears that she’s picking up something that – as far as the reader knows – is already in her hands. To fix this, either mention Florence putting down the mug at some point in the previous chapter, or take out the “reaching” reference.

    The other problem in ‘stage directions’ is in section 2 (para 2) where you say: “Florence could be heard sniffling in the kitchen.” Then, in the next paragraph, it says: “Of the three of them seated around the table – Lilith, Steve and Florence”. This makes in seem as though Florence is still at the dining table, even though subsequent narrative suggests that she is still in the kitchen. In order to clarify this, maybe you could say: “Of the three of them – Lilith, Steve and Florence”. I would argue that you don’t need to place the characters on this occasion, because you name them within the sentence. I hope that makes sense.

    There are also a few instances where the language doesn’t quite fit: for example, when Saul calls Spiderfingers a “Sarky git”. I think the word ‘git’ feels very tame, given Saul’s obvious anger. Also, git tends to be a term of endearment, rather than an insult, so I really feel like Saul would call Spiderfingers something much worse.

    Also, when Lilith says “I’m adopted, remember” – I don’t think anyone in that family needs to be reminded of their familial relationships. It just feels like a very inauthentic line. Instead, maybe she could say: “She’s not my mother” and leave the reader to work out the family dynamics. What do you think?

    The only other thing that struck me was the possibility that the ‘battle as a game of chess’ metaphor was a little bit clichéd. I dunno, I kind of feel like there might be a more imaginative way to compare war to a game, do you see what I mean?

    On the positive side, the whole piece has a much better flow to it now, and it’s much easier for the reader to understand exactly what’s going on. Also, the suspense at the end is very compelling! Who is it that has come through the mirror? I just can’t wait to find out!

  3. Thank you for the lovely feedback! I've implemented the changes and so can finally get on with uploading the next episode at the end of the month.

    I'm alright with Spiderfingers thinking himself imaginative when comparing his war to a game. It's the kind of thing that makes him think so highly of himself when interestingly, his ego is a reality the humanity he has left feels incredibly guilty for becoming part of this families life.

    You'll find out who it is that's entered the house in the next part.