We could have died from a blink in that godawful desert heat. So we did not blink or we blinked in our tents with nobody to watch. I thought it was a ball. You came along and spotted it lying in the hot sand. You pointed at it, giggling. You did that funny crablike run all kids your age do when their legs are new, rushing over to it, scooping it up, grinning and looking around for grown-up approval. You shook it, held it to your ear, listened to its innards. Maybe you had a sister with a pull-string doll. Maybe she went out to play with her friends and you sneaked into her room to hear it talk. Maybe you were sad and no one talked to you the way her doll did. The ball had something to pull, too, didn’t it? You pulled it because you wanted to hear it talk. And it talked, alright; it fucking sang—to you, to me, to the other nurses and doctors roaring, rushing, reaching toward you. I can’t get over it, kid; can’t steer my mind around the fact that I saw it lying there in the Iraqi dust and sand a few minutes before you picked it up. I blinked.

          Back in Chicago, I avoid driving by playparks on my way to darkened rooms that creak and crack to swings and nine-tails. I don’t think about you as seven-inch spiked heels needle my balls, I think about the pain. But Mistress only walks all over me until my time is up, and then I walk out. I always walk out. There has to be a way to lock that door forever.

          Tonight, it’s on to the mall where it takes me an hour, sometimes longer, to buy a carton of milk. I like standing in front of the convex security mirrors; I like how they make me look different… flexible.

          When I arrive back at our two bedroom apartment, Laura is in our room talking to her girlfriend, Angel, on the phone. Angel is a nurse, too. But the closest thing Angel has ever seen to a war zone is chronic diarrhoea in a seventy-two-year-old patient who cared not where he shat. B.F.D. Big Fucking Deal.

          Laura sees me then bye-byes Angel until she finally hangs up. She sits on the edge of our bed and sighs heavily as she watches me step out of my clothes.

          “I need a shower.”

          “How many is that today?”

          “As many as it takes.”

          The rushing water feels like a hundred cold baby fingers drumming against my head, neck, shoulders, and… balls; my balls ache. The water’s touch there, instead of soothing, feels strange, making a choppy sea in my stomach. When I step onto the bathroom floormat and Laura asks if I’m feeling refreshed, I hear myself say go hump yourself a moment before our five-year-old son, Darren, appears in the doorway.

          He’s clutching a ball in his left hand. Suddenly I’m measuring the distance to the toilet.

          “Give me that,” I say.

          His smile melts. “Mummy?”

          “Give it to me. Right now. Hand it over.” I’m trying to sound calm, trying not to rush him or yank his arm off as I confiscate the thing in his hand on my careening path through the bedroom, into the living room, and onto the sofa, pursued by shocked and inquiring looks. I don’t need to turn around to see: I know them well; I know this well. They’re holding their breaths like they’re afraid I’ll take them, too.

          “Richard… it’s okay.”

          That pause; that tone. I won’t let this happen, it says.

          “Mummy… is Daddy okay?”

          Now that pause; that tone—the feeling I’m no longer in the room with them but somewhere else, someone else. I can’t stand it.

          “Richard, it’s for you anyway,” Laura says, pulling at her fingers as she steps closer to me. “Darren was bringing it to you. Take a look. I bought it today. I, uh… I thought it might help.”

          I look at the thing in my hand. It’s not a ball, it is a ball, it’s not a ball. It’s a foam stress toy the size of a fist, with the words We Love You stencilled on it.

          We Love You.

          What it feels like is your kidney, the one I found two days after I let you pick up that thing that wasn’t a ball. It was shrunken and dried by the sun. Only, this thing has a message on it. In a way, I guess, so did yours.

          I thank both of them then excuse myself to the bedroom, where I open a drawer under the bed to a cornucopia of squishy foams—a baseball, a hockey puck, a tire, a lobster, an apple, a sheep, a pumpkin, a snowman, a toilet, a globe of the world, two burgers, an onion, several dice, and a blowfish. But no body parts: she knows that much. What she doesn’t know is the texture of your kidney after forty-eight hours in the heat. But she tries her best, like the doctors and the get-you-through-the-days they prescribe.

          As I close the drawer, I notice Laura standing in the doorway.

          “I’m going to Angel’s tonight,” she says. “Can you look after Darren?”

          “I don’t know, can I?”

          “Don’t you like your gift?”

          It ought to be funny. Laura’s ducked more bullets since I got back than I ever did in my time over there. It ought to be funny, alright, but it isn’t.

          I stand and step back from the bed, the drawer. “What time are you leaving?”

          “Seven. But I’ll cook you both something to eat before I go. Honey, try to see tonight as an opportunity. You haven’t spent much time together recently. I’m sure he’d like to. Is chicken alright?”

          I’ve dropped bomb-blasted amputated limbs into air-sealed bags as one might do with a half-eaten drumstick to be saved for later. “No, not chicken,” I say. “It tastes like surgery.”

          “Then I’ll find something else. Spend time with him, Richard. I mean it.”

          That tone again. I won’t let this happen.

          Then she is gone.


          I’ve left the boy in the living room with the TV on and a comic book to look at. When I hear his screams, I think he’s ventured around the back of the TV again, like when he was four and opened it up using a screwdriver I’d left lying around. Want to see how it works, he’d said. But it isn’t electrocution; he’s opened his thumb turning a page of Batman, or Badman as he’ll likely call him now. Now he’s screaming and running, running, screaming; doing laps of the sofa to outdistance the pain. It won’t work, kid. It won’t work.

          Part of me yearns for the shredded limbs, shattered bones, and cracked chests of the desert. I’ve massaged fighting men’s hearts. I’ve talked to a Private as I helped take his foot. That shit makes for closeness, a oneness I cannot achieve with a crying five-year-old and his fucking paper cut thumb.

          In the bathroom, I disinfect and then elastoplast the cut; more for his comfort than anything else. Then I lead him back through to the sofa. He sits eyeing the comic on the floor as I select a DVD for him to watch. Bambi. At least there’s an amount of truth to the part where his mother gets blown away. Once he’s settled I slip into the bedroom.

          First, I close the door. Maybe I should invest in a lock. Then I boot up the computer. Type the password. Cut off the Start Windows fanfare by killing the speakers. Hearing it is worse somehow. Desert wallpaper appears. No man is a desert—or is it an island? No matter, because I am. Double-click internet connection. Click Dial… dialling… verifying username and password. Check the door. Check there’s no sound. Open browser window. Type the web address. Check the door. There it is. Right mouse button. Save Target As… And somewhere in the recesses of the hard disk, hidden in an innocuously named folder, a file appears.

          Check the door.

          Check the speakers.



          Laura returns home to find Darren and me on the sofa watching something—I don’t know what—on TV. I can move fast when I need to. Not always fast enough, though. But then you know that.

          Seeing Laura after what I’ve just seen is what it must have been like as the sun rose over Hiroshima the morning after. She emphasises my ugliness with her Mia Farrowesque face, draws attention to my vulgarity by standing before me thin and curveless in jeans and a flat blouse, though she’s sexless to me now because you’re with me, always, like a shadow scorched onto a stone step.

          Laura shines down on us from behind the sofa, and something in me knows she’ll set later than usual tonight. It’s those minutes I have been dreading, when the sweating starts and a man’s imagination runs free and out of control. Suddenly I want to stay with my son, but she’s telling him it’s time for bed and there’s only four more sleeps until he turns six and I didn’t know or I forgot and Daddy’s going to read a bedtime story… I am? I am, while Mummy slips off to our bedroom and waits for a different kind of story to begin.

          Half asleep, Darren shuffles through to his room like one of the undead. It’s uncomfortable to watch. He oozes under the duvet then waits, steeple-fingered, while I clear my throat once, twice.

          I read to him, silently praying these short fairy tales and rhymes will send him off to sleep, but they seem to revive him into wakefulness, instead. There’s little truth to them, and what there is is hidden behind cute animals and saccharin Happy-Ever-Afters. This is my son, I think. He ought to be prepared for what lies in wait for him. He ought to know. So, I close the book and it makes a satisfying whoomp! Then I tell him a tale I believe is closer to the truth of this world.

          Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty did not have a great fall, at least, not yet. Half a dozen men pulled up in a white van with sand in its tires. They stood before him, and poor Humpty was scared, terrified, in fact. But he was on top of the wall with nowhere to go. One of the men took something from his pocket and threw it toward the base of the wall. It bounced off and rolled a short distance back. Humpty thought it was a ball, but it wasn’t. It was a rolled up blindfold. “Put it on,” ordered one of the men. Humpty could not see any of their faces, but he could see their eyes, and they were dark. Faced by so many and with nowhere to run, Humpty did as he was told and put on the blindfold. They took Humpty to a secret place with cages and stains on the floor. They led him into a room where a box, black, silent, sat on three legs. He saw these things because his blindfold had slipped just enough for him to see out with one eye. Then suddenly a red eye appeared on the box and the men lined up behind him. One of them made a speech and although Humpty did not understand what the man said he wanted him to keep talking. But he finished and then there was a lot of shouting. Humpty, sat on the ground, watched the red eye watching him. It watched as they lopped off poor Humpty’s head and yolk poured out of him and onto the ground, only the yolk wasn’t yellow, it was red, like the eye of the thing that watched, not blinking as—

          Laura strides into the bedroom: pink basque, stockings, heels. She’s in a flap it seems, like some irate flamingo. I smile: I can’t help it; things are backwards these days. She drags me out of the room, rounds on me in the hall.

          “What was that?” she hisses, struggling to keep her voice down. “What the fuck were you telling our son?”

          I’m still smiling; no, I’m grinning. Ear to ear. I can’t stop. It masks the fear. I smile a lot and people think I’m crazy. I never used to smile and people, strangers would come up to me and say quit frowning, it might never happen. They thought I was crazy then, too. Oh, and it did happen. It snuck right up and sat its fat fucking ass on me while I wasn’t looking. Wasn’t looking.

          “What’s so damn funny?” she asks.

          I have no good answer to give her, and that scares me. And so I keep on smiling, like this is some big joke. And it is, in a ways. Some big cosmic joke.

          Muffled questions try to reach us through the door.

          And then we’re in our bedroom and the door is closed but we’re not watching mpegs, nor is it what I expected to find in here, and part of me feels relieved that she’s mad and not amorous.

          “Asshole! Sick asshole! You had no right. No right to do that. He’s your son for chrissakes and you’re filling his head with nightmares.”

          My smile is gone.

          Laura is shaking in her pink basque.

          “Those nightmares?” I say. “They’re happening now. Six-and-a-half thousand miles from this city. And they could happen anywhere—here, in our country”—our bedroom— “He needs to hear the truth, Laura. Besides, I softened it up a little.”

          “He’s five years old, Richard. Five. He isn’t ready to hear that shit.”

          That tone, again. I won’t let this happen.

          There are licks of sweat appearing all over her, on her forehead, cheeks, tip of her nose and chin, the tops of her slender arms… in the cleft between the small rounds of her pushed-up breasts…

          “None of us are ready to hear it,” I say, starting to undress.

          “What are you doing?

          “I need to take a shower.”

          “Now?” she says. “But you already had one when you came home. Counting the two earlier today that makes four.”

          “So what?” I shrug. “Can’t I be clean?”

          Laura walks away to tend to Darren.

          Showering, the water feels like a hundred cold baby fingers drumming my skin. I soap, cocoon myself in lather. Then, with the showerhead in my hand for a close rinse, I blast the suds and watch them drain away. I’m clean. Decontaminated. The first step from the shower stall will be another fresh start. It’s what keeps me coming back again and again and again. But there’s always something I miss: that spot behind my balls where the soap tends to collect. And I know I can’t step outside the stall until the suds are gone and I am clean. But rinsing down there… the baby fingers… it feels strange, makes a choppy sea of my stomach. And sometimes… wait, this time, yes, it’s happening… I get a hard-on. And so I start over again—soap, lather, rinse—until I’m clean and you’re gone, even if only for an hour or so.

          Laura walks into the bathroom just as I step out onto the tiled floor. She spots it, nodding to sleep again, then says in a flat, humourless voice, “Now’s really not the time to have your fun—”

          “I didn’t…”

          She gives me a look. Right.

          Then I break the wall mirror in half with her face.


          At the hospital, Laura doesn’t tell, not even in the face of weighted looks from heavy nurses. They don’t like broken mirrors. They can make it very unlucky for the poor bastard responsible. I sit in the waiting room with Darren. The doctor who examines Laura tells me she’ll need plastics, and even then she’ll be left with some scarring. I glance at Darren, sitting on a plastic chair two along from mine. He’s ghostly pale and hollow-eyed. When the doctor leaves I buy Darren a candy bar and try to start up a conversation. He’s unresponsive, taking mouse-bites from a corner to show me his mouth is busy. I slip him their cab fare back to our apartment, though something tells me it is their apartment now, and ask a nurse to sit with him while I slip outside to make a call on my cell. Only I did not take my cell with me.

          As I drift through the city’s dark and empty streets, suspecting that they were made just for me, the wind sighs; disappointed, it seems. Encircled by that single voice with a thousand echoes, it speaks to me, promising your imminent return. You and I, alone again. My stomach knots. And then my feet are a blur beneath me as I run to beat a devil, you, the you I created, or rather destroyed; me, the one who saw a ball that was never a ball and broke a mirror with his wife. But where to go to escape myself? Where to go? If I go to the mall the mirrors will only shrink away from me. If I go to Mistress she won’t lock the door long enough.

          Home is out. I could run myself into the ground, but there has to be an easier way. Steal a car… throw rocks at apartment windows… beat on a homeless drunk. Or maybe I should just find a hotel room somewhere and lose a couple of days to the mini bar.

          A boy of about fourteen rounds the corner ahead, strutting in my direction as I race in his. Maybe he’s the answer, I think, slowing to a fast walk. I’m equally drawn and repulsed by the notion of running straight into this kid and maybe pushing him around a little until he calls the cops. But there’s no violence left in me. Besides, what would the cops do? Toss me in a cell for the night. Order me to pay the kid some compensation, and then I’d be back to square one. I suppose I could flash him. Hope he calls the cops then. They like that as much as nurses like wife-beaters. Yeah, that’s what to do. Show the kid my cock. That ought to earn me a few gut punches in a holding cell tonight. What if I rub it against him? Just a little but enough. What would they do to me then? How far could I take this?

          But the boy passes without incident, except to tighten his eyes at me as I step aside at the last moment to avoid collision.

          Watching him walk away, my fingers let go of the zipper on my jeans.

          For now.

          When there’s a safe distance between us, I follow him.

          For some time we move through the lamp-lit streets, him, me, boy, shadow, as the wind carries intimations of you and my fast breath fogs my vision.

          When the boy turns into a park, where there are very few lamps and every second one is shot out by airgun pellets or well-aimed rocks, he joins a group of friends, maybe a dozen or more. I duck behind a bush near the entrance, a football pitch’s length from their Saturday-night play: boarding, sinking beers, pulling on a three or four skin joint and then passing it around their circle. Teens are pack animals, of course.

          Then maybe this is better.

          Next thing, I’m easing down the zipper…

          Seesawing my jeans down my legs to my ankles…

          Moving out into the open, though it’s shadowed here, waddling for the orange spill of the nearest working lamp. And when I reach it, it’ll be two-fingers in my mouth and blow…

          But somebody cries out, though not in pain. He is directing everyone’s hazy attention toward something he has spotted. It’s not me, the half-naked man shuffling through the shadows toward the light; I see only an assembly of backs turned toward me as they insist, it seems, on ignoring my presence. No, there is a newcomer on the scene. A young boy, much younger than any in the group, eleven at most, strolling through this park at night on a zigzagging path that keeps him as close to the light as possible, though not for his personal safety—so he can see the words in the book he’s holding four inches from his nose.

          I have three seconds, longer than a blink but still just three seconds, before the group of boys begin to move toward him as one dark and deadly shoal, and in those three seconds I think to myself, I’ve never seen anything so foolish and so beautiful, except I have. That morning, when I saw you pick up a ball that wasn’t a ball and shake it, trying to hear what was inside.

          You’re back, I see.

          As I stand there, legs weakening fast, breathing in short, tremulous gasps, I see several of the boys’ faces backlit by the glow of their clamshell phones. Aimed and ready. Drifting, but with clear intent, they form a wide circle as they move in closer to the boy, able to cover every face punch, every rib kick, every stomp to the head from every angle. As for the boy, he walks on obliviously as words talk and sentences sing and he… he just listens.

          Then I’m pulling my jeans back up to my waist…

          And I’m closing the zipper. Gritted teeth.

          I won’t blink this time, kid.

          I won’t.

Steven (b.1975) lives in The Granite City: Aberdeen, Scotland. He has been writing short fiction for many years and has been published online and in print in such varied publications as Voices from the Web, Gold Dust, Skive, The Beat, Blue Almonds, Dark Tales, Buzzwords, The Writer's Post Journal, 63Channels, Word Riot, Noo Journal, and forthcoming issues of Zygote in My Coffee, Wild Child, Rumble & Outsider Ink. His website, Crayons in the Dark, can be found here: www.sdines1975.demon.co.uk

© 2005 Underground Voices