The Test

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85% or higher: that’s all Kaley needed to gain the gold star emoji next to her name on all social media platforms. The effect would be immense; everyone wanted to associate with a star. The Corporations would be falling over themselves to advertise on her page, and the crowd-funding for her comic books would boom. She’d be able to eat proper food again; maybe even dine out! She’d be able to buy from exclusive shopping sites, access the expert forums and apply for plane tickets. All she had to do was prove she was authentic.

  “I hope you’ve prepared!” said the cynical voice of a beggar crouched outside the dramatic, mirror-clad tower that was the test centre. Prepared? She thought. How can you prepare for an authenticity test; either you are, or you aren’t?  Continue reading “The Test”

Toxic Duck Inc.

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My life was pretty peachy before I caught the virus. At least, that’s what they tell me.

My partner, Jaz, and I had managed to save up enough money to travel the world and stay comfortable. We lived in full colour then; climbing mountains, skiing down them, eating in fancy restaurants… And at night, just like everyone else, we would put those little squashy pads against our temples and plug into our phones to upload the memories of the day to the cloud. They say it not only preserves your special moments for ‘fully immersive enjoyment’ another day, but it also improves the efficiency of sleep, security, and peace of mind. Except I have no peace, not anymore.

One evening, after a few drinks in the famous old Tokyo Mixology Lab, Jaz and I got back to our hotel and plugged in. No way were we going to risk losing the memories of that day! Then an alert box appeared on my screen:

Free updates are available. Apply now for extra security?

And I hit ‘yes’. Continue reading “Toxic Duck Inc.”

Smoke Rings

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My office is lit by a small lantern and smells faintly of tobacco even though I haven’t smoked for years. Strange, I think, how it’s still a source of temptation. I look up from piles of paperwork to see my animus slouched in the chair opposite. Just as I expect: legs apart, elbow resting on the desk, cigarette burning continuously. He wears the white linen suit I gave him with effortless style considering his lack of respect for convention. I imagine him firing me a disapproving look for working so late, but I can’t quite bring his face into focus.

“I sent you a load of new material,” he says.

“Yes, thank you; it’s great.”

“You haven’t written it down yet.”

“I’ve been working! You know, on the day job that keeps us sheltered and fed?”

My animus does not understand the concept of ‘day job’. Nor does he understand timing, completion, suppression, or putting things in boxes. Continue reading “Smoke Rings”

Hiding Habit

C.R. Dudley Author, Orchid's Lantern Blog

I’ve always had a habit of hiding. Hiding from their stares, from their words; from their judgement. It’s like being suspended in a space outside time, as though he who is not observed does not exist. I’ve always been good at it, too. As I child, I would sometimes stay hidden for hours at a time – in the cupboard under the stairs, in a hole in the ground, or high up in a tree – long after the seekers had given up.

It was after my first Valentine’s Day blunder that I learned how to step up my game. Shame expanded inside of me, making my skin puffy and red, yet strangely pliable. I wrung my hands together and squeezed water from my eyes, and in doing so I became smaller. I hid in my locker at school all day. Its darkness and cold metal edges held me tighter than anything I’d hid in before. I never wanted to leave.

I soon developed the ability to make neat little folds in my skin during such times. I’d practice pouring out the tears every evening until I was completely dry, which is necessary for the folding. It’s a bit like forcing the air out of an air bed to put it back in its box. I began hiding in smaller and smaller places, pushing myself further outside of time with each attempt. There was the cutlery drawer, I remember. Then the pencil case, and the teapot. Snuggly snuggly.

Now, several years later, I am in the midst of my most successful hide yet. I’m scrunched up in a Japanese puzzle box: one inch by two, 36 moves to solve. I’ve never felt so secure, which is probably why I’m able to write all of this down. But, although I feel secure, there is a tiny part of me – just one little fold somewhere near my heart – that hopes someone will come and find me. A puzzle-master in shining armor, perhaps. But no one ever does.

***

For more of my flash fiction, check out my book Fragments of Perception – out now as an e-book and paperback.

On 20th February I will be attending the fourth Virtual Futures ‘Near-Future Fictions’ Event in London, where my new story ‘Toxic Duck Inc’ will be read to a live audience. Tickets are available here.

In Conversation With Trees

Orchid's Lantern blog C.R. Dudley author

As I wander through the woods, a mysterious shadow passes over me.
Something bad is here, I think, stopping to stare at the bark of a Scots Pine. There is evil in this tree.
But then the tree says back to me: “there is neither good nor evil in trees.”
And the next adds: “besides, whether something is good or bad rather depends on what you are trying to do.”

The conversation continues from tree to tree as I walk on. I can’t be sure the words are not merely imagined, but I am willing to hear them out all the same.
You mean what’s good for me could be bad for you, right?
“If you like.”
“You pull up a colossal energy wave with your willpower; I stand the ground with mine. Neither choice is good or bad for the thing we are together.”
The thing we are together?
“We are integrated. Underneath it all there is no you, and there is no I.”
Is that is why I can hear you in my head?
“Precisely. The thing we are together is at your root whenever you care to listen.”
“Some call it the wind of consciousness.”
“And we are simply differently shaped instruments through which it blows. It plays upon us all at once: we are part of the same song.”
“And our forms are moulded from one and the same.”
Moulded from song? Remarkable…

I begin to wonder what will come of me being in conversation with the trees, out here on my own. I feel as though I am fading; as though I am becoming a tree. It is probably time to leave.
“You cannot know what it is to be a tree, only what it is to hear the consciousness we share.”
“Humanity is for when consciousness wants to experience a particular kind of culture; to sound a particular note. Trees are for when it wants to form a different kind of relationship with other parts of itself.”
And I suppose, when we die, we all become one with it?
“Death means only that consciousness has stopped whistling through that instance of an instrument.”
“The illusion of the human breaks down – and with it, that thing you call ‘I’ – that’s when you become free. But, in being free, you will never again be human.”

I become aware that I am trembling and my head is spinning, but I make efforts to appear outwardly calm. Who for?
Thank you for your wisdom, brothers. I have to get out of here now.

“Goodbye traveller.”
“Goodbye traveller.”
“Goodbye traveller.”

I leave the woods immediately to scribble down these bizarre interactions, and to contemplate whether the trees have really spoken or whether I experienced spontaneous hallucination. Perhaps, for all intents and purposes, there really is no distinction.

*****

My collection of short, quirky stories to make you contemplate is out now in paperback and ebook. Visit my books page for the full blurb and list of stockists.

Polyphony

C.R. Dudley author Orchid's Lantern blog

Creative folk bounce in and out of one another’s lives: sometimes collaborating, sometimes revelling in symbiosis, and sometimes breaking one another’s hearts to discover new building materials.

And so, when Claude left Nancy, there came to be a trail of red paint on the carpet from the kitchen to the front porch, all the way out to where his beat-up hatchback had once stayed. Artists don’t like to walk around the outside of houses. Given the option of using a path or pulling waves through the floorboards to walk upon, they’ll go for impact every time. Luckily Nancy, being a musician, decided she quite liked the sound of the stain once it had soaked in. When she put her ear to it, it sung in mysterious tones; like sunlight hitting the moon. All through the winter she hummed along, accompanied by the new rhythm of her aching heart.

She was still humming it when she met Terence by the pond the following March. He was photographing the surface of the water: not the water itself, he stressed, just the surface. He was endlessly fascinated by surfaces of all natures, and fancied if their essences could only be isolated then our understanding of beauty would improve threefold.

Terence moved in with Nancy the very next week, and he covered her walls with home-developed photographs in black and white. Images of pavements overlapped with images of skin overlapped with images of the sea; all of them, he claimed, depicted something identical. He stuck them over, under and around the curly letters Stephanie had written a year before, making a brand new dancing visual poetry of the house. Nancy had a different tune then, and she hummed it with her fingers upon ivory keys. It still had remnants of the dried red paint, but this time against a quickened heartbeat, and with a distinctive smattering of surface qualia.

*****

Fragments of Perception and Other Stories is available now in paperback and ebook! Visit my books page to find out how to get your copy.

Rock Bottom

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I lay in the tub scrubbing away all meaning with a flannel and letting the warm water dissolve my worries. So many layers of unnecessary complication are hard on the soul. Surely there comes a time when we tire of it and simply let it all go?

There’s a knock at the bathroom door. I rise from my mountain of bubbles straight away, and open the lock before I’ve even thought of putting a towel around me.

It’s him! He looks different now, but then it has been twenty years. He still wears black but for the white scarf around his neck, and he still has dark shoulder length hair though now it is speckled with grey. With longing I look into his eyes – just two dark and endless craters, pulling me in and taking me beyond.

“I have made my decision,” he croaks. “I want to be with you always. Come with me and stay by my side?”

Hearing the words I have longed for all these years makes me instantly weak, as though I’m melting from the inside.

“That is all I ever wanted,” I say, falling into his arms. “I accept.”

He is cold and expressionless, but I don’t care. I know that he hasn’t reached his decision lightly, and I know that he really means it. I know this is how my myth ends. And so I let out all the water. I watch it swirling and glugging away down the plug hole. Then, with his hand to steady me, I climb back into the empty bathtub to lay down and close my eyes. The very next time I fall asleep must be the last.