Tuesday, 14 August 2018
Friday, 6 July 2018
Written by Erik Garkain 2018
Genevra was stuck in the middle of a riot.
They’d interrupted her early morning pancakes at an artisan coffee shop only a short walk from her home. It was one thing she did to spoil herself for the week and she’d barely made a dent in the three-high stack when the commotion from both ends of the street stole her calm. At first it was people gathering quietly, but the street soon filled. And it was Jokers. It didn’t make her feel any safer. As a recent victim of the virus, she did not want any part of any riot that was about to go down. Genevra felt her skin flush with panic and she tried to regulate its colour. Only a month ago she’d woken up on a regular Sunday morning, just like every other one before it, only this time her skin was green. It was a pretty green if she thought about it, but green nonetheless. Whenever her skin heated, like when she touched something, or when she was flushed, she turned yellow.
At one end, only a hundred metres away, a picket line of Jokers assembled. The Jokers weren’t angry; they were just sitting, silently blocking the road. They were barely a few rows deep, perhaps fifty at a stretch, and she feared what would happen when the angry mob of hundreds reached them. She wanted to be there, to stand with them – with her own kind – but she couldn’t bring herself to move. Her trembling hand still clutched a fork full of wavering pancake.
The angry Nats spat their vitriol, their stomping boots getting closer and closer. They were out in force, coming down King William Road – the main thoroughfare through the city – with their placards, shouting their venomous catchphrases to the ogling crowds gathering blocking the footpaths. They wanted the South Australian government to forcibly cure its Wild Card population.
The Nats had the numbers by at least three to one. It was a standoff. They reached a young man sitting, head bowed, holding a sign that read, We will not be cured. Behind him the Jokers stirred, waiting for something to happen.
Two men in bandanas, pulled up to cover their faces, approached the young man. ‘You’re an abomination!’
The young man raised his head, the skin on one side of his face scaled and pitted like a desert lizard.
‘Freak!’ One of the men wrenched the Joker to his feet. Behind him, the rest of the Jokers rose in unison, but the young Joker shushed them with a wave of his hand, holding them back.
No one saw what was going on until it was too late and Genevra could not find her voice to warm them. The man flicked off the cap of a needle and forced it into the Joker’s upper arm. Nothing for a moment. Then he convulsed. It was like the footage circulating online, the cruel memes floating around with the tagline: the only good Joker is a dead Joker, of people who’d been intentionally infected with the Wild Card virus.
The young Joker collapsed.
How many syringes did the Nats have?
Murder. It got the crowd moving. Nats murdering Jokers in broad daylight. Leaving the young Joker in his final agonising thrones of death, the two men looked at Genevra. She wasn’t hidden behind the small protection of the other Jokers; she was caught between both groups, out in the open, exposed. Finally unfrozen, she wrenched herself to her feet, but the chair toppled over and she lost her balance, tangled in its legs.
The groups clashed.
The Jokers didn’t have superpowers. None of them could overwhelm the volatile group beyond what brute strength they had. And the Nats had more. The Nats had weapons. They pulled bats and crowbars from their backpacks and beneath jackets. Most of them found blood. Many Jokers fell in violence and bloodshed. Two men in white lab coats ran to catch up with the felled bodies. They handed out syringes like medication. The Nats injected them.
Genevra didn’t want to be trapped in the middle of this. It wasn’t long before the two men caught up with her. There was nowhere for a Joker to go in this clashing crowd. The onlookers were disappearing, safe behind the privilege of not presenting as Wild Card, not wanting to risk their lives for a battle that wasn’t their own.
‘You’re pretty, for a freak.’ One of them pawed at Genevra and she squealed at his touch, jerking away.
‘Are you kidding Dan? She’s fucking green!’ His friend mocked.
‘That’s not so bad. At least she doesn’t have scales or an elephant nose.’ He bent her head back to inspect her face. ‘I wonder if she’s normal down there.’
They both laughed. ‘Don’t. You might catch something.’
‘Please,’ she sobbed. The man tugged at her pants waist.
‘Tell you what, pretty freak.’ He grabbed her by the hair and dragged her into a doorway away from the cacophony. ‘I won’t give you the cure if you do something for me. All this killin’ of freaks is making me real frisky.’
She struggled with his grip, attempting to pry his fingers from her. ‘Please. Let me go.’
‘Pete, make sure none of them come this way.’
‘Sure Dan, but she’s going to bite it off, or you know, give you something nasty.’
‘No, she won’t. Not if she knows what’s good for her.’ Dan slammed her against the back entrance of a building. Her head smashed against the doorframe and lolled to her chest. Stars floated on the edges of her vision and she tasted blood.
When a shadow filled the side street she thought she was hallucinating. A corporeal form within the darkness grabbed Pete and rocketed him against the building with such force that a splat mark of blood remained after his lifeless body crumpled to the ground. Before Genevra could blink, the shadow had appeared behind Dan and thick tendrils corkscrewed around his neck.
He dispatched the Nat as easily as he had the first and discarded the body as if it were a paper doll. ‘Are you alright?’
She nodded and burst into tears. ‘Thank you.’
‘Are you hurt?’
‘No, I’m sorry. I’m okay, truly. Please—go help the others.’
He backed away, then evaporated into shadow once again.
She followed his darkness back out onto the main road where the bloodshed was overwhelming. The shadow fell between the battling forces; though to call the diminished Joker side a force was giving them too much credit. The few remaining survivors were barely doing just that. The Joker-Ace hybrid changed everything.
He materialised amidst the battle and let out an earth-moving roar. Everyone stopped and stared, flinching at the power. The couple with the syringes fumbled for their supply but the hybrid was a blur of movement, their whole cache of needles upended into their own supple flesh before they could protest. Their bodies fought the black queen, twisting and convulsing in violent spasms.
The Nats stared up at the hybrid. Most of them fled, and he let them go, but some didn’t. They stayed to fight. They couldn’t compete with the hybrid’s power. His shadow forced its way into their mouths and filled their lungs, their chests expanding until muffled pops left their bodies limp and lifeless. And he was so fast. Others advanced as a group, but in seconds their broken bodies quivered on the ground; arms snapped at shoulders, legs broken in half.
The streets were soon empty of rioters. The ground was littered with the bodies of dead and dying Jokers. Lingering onlookers were coming over to tend to the wounded – but the wounded were few. Dead Jokers. Dead Nats. The smell of blood was thick in the air.
The hybrid stood still at last, unmoving at the head of the group. His black eyes surveyed the scene around him. His broad chest rose and fell with every breath. The shadows had lifted but darkness was still heavy around him. Behind, what few Jokers could stand, gathered.
He turned to them, all the Jokers staring wide-eyed.
‘You’re the one from the TV,’ a voice from the crowd cried. ‘You attacked the scientist.’
‘No, he didn’t,’ said someone else. ‘He saved the scientist. And the reporter.’
‘You saved us all.’
‘You’re a hero!’
The mutterings and adorations fell away, waiting for him to claim his victory. Waiting for him to say something, to take charge, to lead them ahead… anything. The hulking Joker did nothing.
Genevra processed all that had just happened. To think it had gone on in broad daylight. None of them were safe anymore. The Wild Card virus was harmless against an already infected person, so what had been in the syringes? Was it the recently developed ‘cure’? Or a bastardisation of it? So far, no stories of success had been released about the infamous cure, only stories of other people who knew someone who had been cured. Stories on TV of people swearing they’d been cured, with out of focus ‘before’ pictures, and no real proof of anything. Things like that had happened before, so it was totally plausible. Now they’d weaponised it. Look what they'd done to her kind. If not for Talon, far more lives would have been lost.
Overcome with gratitude, she stepped forward, fumbling for the hybrid’s hand with trembling fingers. He was massive – his hand could have crushed hers with a mere muscle twitch. ‘Thank you.’ It felt woefully inadequate but she needed to say it. She stared up at him, the others receding. It was just her and him. ‘What’s your name?’ she asked.
He looked down at her, at her hand still clutching his. ‘Talon.’ His voice was deep, guttural, like too many cigars and whiskey. He too ignored the people around him, finding an anchor in her.
‘Thank you, Talon, for saving me from those monsters.’ She released him and dropped to her knees, the exhaustion overwhelming.
His dark eyes watched her, searched her, and she felt exposed but it didn’t creep her out. Around her, the remaining Jokers followed her lead and bent the knee. All of them, one after the other until there was no one left standing, but him.
Genevra stared at them, the emotion an immovable ball in her throat, tears collecting in the corners of her eyes. She turned back to see Talon’s reaction.
His brow furrowed as he looked over every single one of the kneeling Jokers. Lastly, he turned to Genevra. She offered a smile. It’s not what she’d intended, but how else could they thank him? He could help them. He could change things. She saw the future and it was beautiful. And they could help him. She could help. The tears fell silently down her cheeks and she brushed at them, her vision blurred.
Remnants of shadow flitted away into the daylight, and just like that, Talon was gone.
Written by Erik Garkain 2018
‘Wait, Talon!’ Mica watched the space where Talon had just disappeared, a crack of night filtered in through the open door. What the heck had just happened? He fished around for a t-shirt before charging from the room. He pulled it on. It wasn’t his, but it was something.
Scrambling out onto the stairwell, he almost lost his footing on the wet metal. He caught the railing just in time. The moon was shrouded, the air heavy with the promise of rain. Stumbling down the stairs, he slipped a couple of times before slowing to regain his balance. Halfway down, a flash of lightning split the black sky. Thunder boomed, immediately followed by a sheet of rain. Great, thought Mica. If Talon was already too far away, did he really want to spend the rest of the night out in a storm? He had no way of getting back up once he was on the ground. Besides, he was wearing nothing but underpants and a stolen shirt.
Fuck it. He turned back towards shelter, but his bare feet slipped out from under him. Wet hands grasped wet metal railings that slipped through his cold fingers. He tumbled off the railing to the ground. He lay dazed in shock for a moment before pain throbbed through his ankle and Mica clutched it, the joint instantly swollen and puffy. ‘Idiot!’ he yelled into the wind.
There was one light illuminating the tangle of broken jetties, but like the boats it once protected, it had seen better days. The light was meagre. Rain belted his face like bullets, making it impossible to see where Talon had gone. Even without the fall, Talon was much too fast for Mica to keep up and the night obscured everything. Still, he squinted in the general direction Talon might have gone, peered into the night looking for him, waiting to be rescued. There was nothing but the belting storm and darkness. Misery gripped him worse than the physical pain. Great work, Mica thought. Chase the man and end up a helpless fucking wreck. Bring your own eighteenth-century fainting couch, did you? Despite his self-admonishment, tears fell, concealed by rain. Why was he so caught up in needing a protector – a role Talon clearly had no desire to fill?
Mica growled, trying to rise from the emotional slump enveloping him. He struggled to his feet, unable weight bear, but determined to find shelter. He’d be his own damn shining knight. Hoping he wouldn’t slip again, he hop-shuffled around the warehouse, every bound shooting pain to his sprained ankle.
He found the main double doors rusted open, but the entrance had been boarded up. Through the barrier of machinery and scraps, Mica could see inside. Water, weedy plants and mangroves had sealed up what Talon hadn’t, rendering the inside of the warehouse an apocalyptic jungle of monstrous equipment and wild nature. Cracked and broken windows fed sprinklers of rain into the space. The shadows were plentiful where the light couldn’t touch. Chains hung from steel beams and creaked eerily with the wind. Mica pushed on some metal sheeting but it didn’t budge. There wasn’t anywhere he could squeeze through. There was no shelter from the rain. The already too big waterlogged t-shirt weighed him down. He leaned against the iron wall and slumped to the ground, defeated. He huddled into himself in pain and misery. An electrical storm off the coast and nothing to hinder his view; at any other time, the night would have been gorgeous. His throbbing ankle sucked out what enjoyment hadn’t been leeched by his mood. There was no choice but to wait until Talon returned, and if he didn’t, well, it would serve him right for being so desperate.
‘You’re not a monster!’ he sobbed into the darkness.
Lightning lit up the jetties making the discarded boats and broken walkways seem like gigantic sea creatures. He wanted nothing more than for one of them to rise up and swallow him whole.
Another flash of jagged electricity. ‘Talon, I’m sorry!’
Thunder cracked across the sky silencing his cries. His head snapped towards movement near the jetty. It wasn’t Talon; the silhouette under the lantern was much too small. Who would be out on a night like this? Well, besides desperados like himself. And he’d been announcing his distress like a fledgling bird. He cursed himself while struggling to stand.
Pinpointing his whereabouts the man strode towards Mica, an entourage of static buzzing around him. ‘There you are,’ he said.
The familiar ache of white noise in his head. ‘Leave me alone.’ His voice was that of a wretched child.
‘Come now, let’s be civil.’ The small man stood an arm’s reach away from him. There was nothing terrifying or intimidating about him, just the cloud of static that entered Mica’s mind. ‘I won’t hurt you.’
‘What do you want?’
‘I want the one you were with. He will come for you, yes? You will come with me.’
‘You will. I promised my sister a surprise.’
The man’s hand, a white twisted claw, reached for his face. Mica’s vision blurred and dimmed at the edges. The agony in his foot and the static spike impaling his brain were drowned out by the memory of Alicorn’s entrails.
Written by Erik Garkain 2018
Talon enjoyed how the Deuce felt pressed against him so much that he discreetly shuffled closer. Mica’s arm hairs tickled his own and his heart lub dub, lub dubbed as it pulsed warm blood through his body. He nuzzled his face as close to Mica’s neck as he could get without touching him and breathed in deep the earthy fougere; hints of coffee and coconut oil.
There was a thunderstorm on the air and it ran a shiver down the length of his spine. His body ached with electricity, and the proximity of Mica wasn’t helping.
Mica rolled onto his side and one of his arms came over, wrapping Talon around the torso. Instinctively Talon froze, but he forced the hesitation away. What was he so afraid of? Like testing a live wire Talon touched Mica’s hand with the tips of his fingers, careful not to scratch him – it wouldn’t take much pressure at all to gouge his soft flesh with one of his nails. Mica’s hands were soft but scarred. Deliberate incisions made by blades, not wounds from fights. Talon traced the scars, following them up Mica’s arm. In the light, they were disguised by tattoos, but Talon could see what he tried to hide. The scar tissue was a series of raised flesh lines under his fingertips, sometimes shapes but mostly just random slashes. Why had he felt the need to hurt himself?
He’d seen the other scars too. Surgical scars on his chest almost invisible under strategically designed ink. And on his belly, just above the waistband of his trunks. Talon tried desperately not to let his eyes linger there.
He heard Mica blink. He’d woken up and was staring right at him. It was dark and Talon knew Mica couldn’t see in the dark, but he jerked his wandering hand away nonetheless.
‘It’s okay,’ Mica whispered. He grabbed Talon’s hand back and brought it to rest on his ribcage, still holding gently.
‘Why have you hurt yourself?’ Talon managed, daring to stroke the scars again in an attempt to clarify his question. Mica’s hand was hot against his chest, his fingers twirling amongst his dark hair.
‘I had a lot of issues going on when I was growing up; my sexuality, gender stuff. I think I was detached from my body so I did anything I could to make it seem real. Self-harm was my outlet. It made me feel real: valid. As I got older and began to realise what those feelings meant, I started to physically transition and a lot of the hate started to dissipate.’
Talon watched Mica as he spoke. His voice was barely above a whisper, but with Talon’s enhanced hearing it wasn’t hard to listen. He would have heard him from across the warehouse; such were the bonuses from his transformed body.
Mica turned suddenly to face him, his heartbeat hastening. ‘I wasn’t born male Talon. I’m trans—gender, you know?’
‘Yes, I understand. You smell…different.’
Mica snorted. ‘I smell. Thanks.’
‘Not like most people. I can tell a lot from people by the scents of their body. You? I cannot. Your scent perplexes me.’
‘I guess that’s something.’ He giggled.
‘Was it so bad?’ Talon asked after Mica had settled back down.
‘The dysphoria? I have nothing to compare it to, but I do know, if I had of stayed as I was I wouldn’t be here today.’
Mica smiled in the darkness. ‘I don’t know what that means to you, or if it changes anything, or if it evens matters. I don’t know what we have if we have anything. I just know that when you’re around I can’t think properly. It scares me, but I like it.’
Before the virus Talon had known both men and women, he’d never allowed gender to get in the way of a good time, so why should he now? If Mica was willing to overlook that Talon had been transformed into an extra from American Werewolf in London, then what gave him the right to judge?
Mica was still talking. He was rambling and Talon knew he should probably say something to put him out of his misery, but he enjoyed Mica’s nervous energy too much. ‘You invade my every waking moment, even when you’re not around. I’ve never felt like this before… and I know we’ve only known each other for a couple of days and you’ve barely said three words to me, but you did save my life, and there is a possibility that I might have some kind of Knight in Shining Armour syndrome, and jeez, please say something so I can shut up.’
‘Gender is inconsequential.’
He stretched his fingers and allowed Mica’s to fall between his, then he squeezed gently. He’d been deprived of human company for so long he couldn’t remember what to do. When Mica burrowed deeper into him he supposed it had been the right move. He hadn’t been given the opportunity to get close to anyone in his years since the virus, and now, it was like relearning how to communicate. He was determined to try.
‘Do you ever sleep?’ Mica yawned.
‘Oh. Okay. Well, what’s your favourite thing to eat?’
‘Custard,’ Talon said.
‘Yes. Did you expect me to say ‘puppies’ or something?’
‘No! What flavour?’
‘I like poodles.’
‘Dork.’ He giggled. ‘What do you think about this cure?’
‘How many ‘cures’ is it now?’
‘Really? You don’t think this one will work?’
Talon could feel Mica’s deflation. It took him a while, but finally, he asked, ‘Then why did you save the scientist?’
‘I didn’t save the scientist; I wanted to stop the Void. The scientist was in the way.’
‘But people believe in this guy. They want the cure. I saw desperate people hoping that this time…’ He sighed. ‘I thought you and me—?’
‘Do you remember previous cures? I do. The first cure was more likely to kill than to cure. The second time it was designed to kill. At its best, the current cure has a forty percent chance of survival, let alone hope of a cure,’ Talon said.
‘We’ve both survived better odds than those.’
‘Yes, but these ‘cures’, they’re hokum. They want us gone, not cured, and the more of us they get each time, the less there are to fight.’
‘Who is ‘they’? And fight for what?’ Mica dragged himself off the bed. ‘What have we got? Ever since this damn virus got me, my life has been horrible. I’ve been exiled from my family.’ He started listing off on his fingers in the dark. ‘My father threatened me, pretty much called me a monster to my face. I’ve been attacked—more than once. I’ve seen one of my heroes guts splayed out all over the concrete in front of my eyes. I’ve almost been killed myself! Why not hope for a little bit of normality after that? I just want normal. I thought you would understand.’
‘Why? Because I am one of those monsters?’
‘I didn’t say that.’
Talon stood up and moved away from Mica. ‘I have spent many, many years despising the monster I’ve become. I queued for those first cures watching people just like me walk in one door and not come back out. It was only Jokers the first time around; the ones who’d been mutated beyond human repulsion. Hundreds of Jokers just like me. The stench of death still lingers.’ He pulled open the heavy door. ‘I will not go back to that place. Not for you. Not for anyone.’
Talon could see the regret that flushed Mica but he needed out. It was suddenly too claustrophobic. ‘Stay, please,’ he managed. ‘There are things I need to do.’ He melted into the shadows.
Written by Erik Garkain 2018
On the street corner, out the front of the pharmacy stood a man waving a placard with a picture of a Joker on it. The Joker’s features were squished up into the centre of his face; fat rolls and thick wrinkles surrounded and almost engulfed his eyes and contracted mouth like bulbous tumours.
The man was yelling at the passers-by, screaming at them to listen, that the cure that saved his life was in the chemist in front of him. ‘In despair, you will be led into exile with your hands on your heads, for the Lord has rejected those you trust. They will not help you,’ he preached. ‘I was saved, my brothers, and you can be too.’ The man holding the sign looked as regular as anyone else, the cherry coloured birthmark above his left eye the only hint that the two men might have been the same. He was wearing a white t-shirt with the words: Thank God for Formula 237.
Oliver turned back to his parents as they huddled together outside of the pharmacy. He was both scared and intrigued by the man with the sign. His mother collected him into her arms again for the hundredth time that morning.
‘I’m so proud of you Oliver. Everything will be okay.’ She kissed him on the forehead. He imagined the red lipstick stain where her moist lips had left their mark but couldn’t bring himself to wipe it away. He was scared. He wanted them to come inside with him and since they weren’t allowed, her lingering kiss was the best he had.
‘Come now, Tiff. He’ll be back in a moment, no need to make a scene.’ Peter had always been the unemotional one, but even for him, the lingering doubt was there; they’d had to sign so many insurance disclaimers and waivers because the cure wasn’t government approved yet. They’d be told again and again that the treatment was still technically illegal without a that stamp, but what choice did they have? His hand dropped on his son’s shoulder. ‘Be brave, son.’
Two men in white lab coats stood waiting for him. They were big men, with shaved heads and lanyards around their necks displaying strange acronyms none of them recognised.
His father shuffled him forward and Oliver continued the rest of the way on his own. The man with the placard cheered him on until he reached the door. A silver van was parked beside the chemist. Was it the cure delivery man? Did they even have a delivery man, or was the cure made by each chemist? He’d have to remember to ask. One of the men in white coats knelt down to his height distracting his train of thought. ‘Hello,’ he said. ‘My name’s Jerry. You must be Oliver.’
‘Yes, Oli—Oliver Harkness,’ he said.
‘Don’t be scared, Oliver. We’ll take care of you, and before you know it, you’ll be back out here with mum and dad.’ He smiled and winked. ‘I promise. Here.’ He pulled his lanyard off and draped it around Oliver’s neck.
Grinning, Oliver turned back to his parents. He waved and held up the lanyard for them to see, before following the two men into the chemist. They lead him through the aisles of prepacked medication to a locked door behind a blood pressure checking station.
‘Swipe away, little man.’ Jerry motioned to the security access pass next to the door handle. He lifted the pass from his neck and the door bleeped open. It led to a small anteroom packed with medical supplies and high-tech monitoring systems. The man whose name Oliver didn’t know picked up a palm-sized computer and asked him a series of basic questions like where he lived, the names of his parents and what they did for a living, whether he had any siblings, what his favourite foods were, and whether he had any pets. The questions made him feel more at ease, but his eyes searched the room.
There was a large mirrored window that he couldn’t see through and he wondered about what was on the other side. There was a similar window in the deli on the corner of his street. The owner, Mr Douglass, had shown him the magic behind it: allowing a one-way vision into the store. Mr Douglass’ intentions were to scare Oliver and his friends away from stealing chocolates. It worked, whenever they were in there they felt watched and hurried about their completely legal business.
‘Oliver, was it your parents who suggested you come and see us, or did you decide for yourself?’ Jerry asked.
‘Mum and dad did, after—’ Oliver scratched at his chest. ‘After…’
‘It’s okay, that’s all we need. What we’re going to do now, and it’s probably going to be the most uncomfortable part for you, but we want to take photos, alright? It’s so we can have proof. We need to document the results and we hope that it’ll end up helping other little boys and girls.’
Oliver stared at the floor, petrified at the prospect.
‘We have to look Oliver. We need to see so that we can treat you, you understand? Think of it like the last time anyone will see you like this. In a few minutes, you’ll go back to being a regular boy.’ Jerry smiled at him. ‘Would you like that?’
Oliver nodded. He moved to return the lanyard first, but Jerry stopped him. ‘Keep it. That way we’ll know you’re the boss.’
He removed his socks and shoes, his pants, and slowly unbuttoned his purple and blue plaid shirt. Once all the buttons were hanging loose he dropped his hands to his sides and hung his head, eyes closed. If they wanted to look at his curse then that was their choice – he would have no part in it.
One of the men snapped on some latex gloves and Oliver’s eyes shot open in surprise. He allowed them to pull his shirt completely off, putting it, along with the rest of his clothes, into a blue plastic property bag.
They stared at him. Oliver couldn’t help but see their eyes widen in surprise and then furrow in horror. His chest began to heave and he fought the tears. ‘I want my mum.’ The words came with tears. They rolled down his cheeks, onto his bare chest and exposed rib cage.
‘Fascinating.’ One of the men poked at his protruding sternum, completely ignoring him. ‘We should put him through a CT scan first, see what’s going on beneath the surface.’
‘After.’ Jerry hissed. ‘I’m sure Oliver wants to get back to his family as soon as possible. Isn’t that right?’
Oliver nodded, rubbing his eyes. Be brave, his father’s voice echoed in his mind.
He let the men take their photos. They took many, from every angle and of every part of his body, but they focused on his chest the most. Jerry lifted the lanyard so they could take clear pictures of his chest. Oliver knew that’s where they’d be most interested. Day by day more and more of his bones were protruding through his skin. His shoulders and ribcage were almost completely exposed.
Ever since he’d succumbed to the virus his parents had argued about what they should do with him. Again and again, they fought. Right now he could cover it up, but soon, the way it was going, the curse would consume his whole body. What would he be then? What would he look like? They’d made the decision last night after Oliver had finished his bath. His cervical spine and shoulder blades were becoming visible. His father rang the cure hotline and started asking questions. He’d been told, and later reiterated to his wife and son, that because he was unusually young to be infected with the Wild Card virus, they had a prime opportunity to study the effects. He was offered puberty blockers, but they couldn’t say how the virus would react since it had already initiated. Oliver didn’t want to be a guinea pig, and neither did his parents. They opted for Formula 237: the cure.
‘Come on, Oliver. We’re almost done. We’re just going next door.’ Again, Oliver was allowed to open the next door and they entered the room behind the magic window. It was a sterile white room with a chair in the middle. ‘Take a seat, this is the last step.’
Oliver sat. It reminded him of a dentist chair. He didn’t much enjoy the dentist either. One of the men moved behind him and pulled a strap around his forehead.
‘This is just to make sure you don’t move Oliver.’ He adjusted it with Velcro and did the same around his wrists and ankles.
‘Is it going to hurt?’
Again, they ignored him.
People crowded into the room wearing the same white gowns. A man with thick glasses pressed a needle into his arm – he yelped but his cries went unheard. He couldn’t pull away. He couldn’t move his arms or legs. He couldn’t do anything.
He cried for them to let him go, cried for them to stop, cried for his parents. Nothing. When they pushed out a trolley with scalpel blades and scissors, he screamed. Abruptly, the lanyard was pulled tight around his throat cutting off his cries and his airway. He struggled in vain against the restraints.
‘Bring the gas!’ the man with glasses hollered.
Someone wheeled over another trolley, this one with canisters and dials and a computerised readout screen. A clear face mask was strapped over his nose and mouth. He sucked in gas that tasted faintly metallic. The world spun around him.
They cut into his chest, took swabs of his exposed bone. He couldn’t feel most of it – only a scratch here and there. Through the fog of his vision he saw a drill. As they touched it to his shoulder, pain ripped through his body. He couldn’t find the will to scream. He closed his eyes for the last time wondering if which one of these instruments held the cure.
Outside, Mr and Mrs Harkness waited as the sun crossed the sky. When the afternoon came they inquired inside on the progress of their son.
They were told by the chemist, not long now. He should be coming out any minute.
When the sun dipped below the horizon and the pharmacy began closing up for the night they stopped the lone worker. ‘Where’s my son?’ Mr Harkness asked.
‘I’m sorry sir?’ The employee looked blankly at him.
‘My son. You said he would be out hours ago.’
‘I’m really sorry but I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘My son! He went in for the cure and he hasn’t been back out. We’ve been waiting here for hours!’
‘Sir, there’s no one back there.’
‘Where’s my son?’
Tiffany Harkness began to cry which enraged her husband further. He pushed his way through the chemist.
‘Sir! Sir, if you don’t stop I am going to have to restrain you.’
‘I want my son, where is he?’
‘I don’t know what you are talking about. Please calm down, I need to lock up.’
‘You’ve taken him! Tiffany, call the authorities!’
The two men in lab coats stepped out from a back room and Peter grabbed one of them by the scruff of the neck.
‘Bring my son out right now! We’ve changed our mind.’
‘Calm down sir, you need to leave.’ The man said shuffling him towards the front door. ‘We don’t have your son. We don’t know what you’re talking about.’
His cries went unheard and both he and his wife were forced out the double doors and watched as a bolt was slid over locking them out. Only moments later, automatic roller shutters littered with graffiti came down further separating them.
Tiffany collapsed on the pavement. ‘Who do we call Peter? Who is going to care? Where is he, where is Oliver?’
A silver van turned onto the street, slowing in front of the hysterical couple long enough for the side door to slide open. A heavy black garbage bag fell from the moving vehicle and the van sped off as quickly as it had come.
‘No!’ Tiffany screamed. ‘Please, no, no, no!’
Peter Harkness approached the bag. The unmoving shape, child-sized. He found a tear in the plastic and ripped it open exposing the tortured body of his son.
Written by Erik Garkain 2018
The hornets reached her from somewhere above where her brother raged.
Whatever had happened – it was bad. Shiloh’s clock read 8.19pm. She’d done everything the way he liked, but when he hadn’t come down she began to fret. Long minutes passed in silence as she waited. And then the hornets had come.
They’d arrived like a miasma preceding her brother, but strengthened when a door slammed from above, and she’d staggered under the weight of the enveloping cloud.
Now, she lay on her bed staring up at the stairwell silently begging his form to appear. Even this late his mood would be better than if he never came down at all. She could talk to him, she could help calm him. Tears wet the pillow underneath her head.
Shiloh startled as something crashed upstairs. She sprang off the bed. A news update was playing silently behind her invisible wall. She wiped the tears away and followed the subtitles, alarmed at the ‘Breaking News’ banners rolling across the screen.
‘Socialite Peter Aaron has been found stabbed to death. Initial reports coming in say that he was surrounded by—mirrors? Is that correct?’ The newsreader pressed the earpiece further into her ear then returned her attention to the camera. ‘Funhouse mirrors. Allegedly stolen from a local carnival. Peter Aaron, possibly better known as his Ace alter ego, Repeat was able to shapeshift into anything he touched. We’ll update you with this story as it comes in, but this shocking murder comes just hours after 9 News captured an aggressive Joker attacking a scientist. Our very own Jessica Collins was shooting a segment about the newly announced cure for the Wild Card disease when the attack occurred. This incident has brought about a fierce debate on whether the cure should really be an option. And we warn you, these following images may be distressing to some viewers.’
Shiloh gasped and backed away from the television as the still image of a Joker’s face filled the screen. Its skin was pitch black, seemingly darker than the depths of hell. Its Joker features were wolfish, like the images of werewolf transformations Shiloh remembered from movies and cartoons when she was younger. But it was its eyes that were the most frightening. They were endless pits of despair sucking all the light from around them. The room sank in around her, smothering her with claustrophobic angst.
Subtitles across the bottom of the screen dragged her back into the present. ‘We go live to Jessica as she recovers in hospital. Tell us, Jessica, did you fear for your life while all this was happening?’
Shiloh felt lost. The Joker’s visage was burned into her memory. Even after the image was taken down and they were speaking to a pretty blonde woman reclining in a hospital bed, she couldn’t forget it.
The door at the top of her stairs clicked open. ‘Adam!’ She startled, swiping furiously at her tears before he could see.
He stood holding two dinner trays. When he saw her, the hornets stopped dead and she almost collapsed with the relief. ‘Shiloh?’ He placed the trays down and rushed to her side. ‘What is it? Are you okay?’
‘I’m sorry,’ she sobbed. His concern battered her emotions further and fuelled the tears.
‘Did I do something? It’s because I’m late. I’m so sorry, dear sister.’
‘No,’ she protested. ‘I saw—on the news, I saw one of them, Adam. One of the monsters you speak about. It was horrible!’
‘It won’t hurt you.’ He turned to glare at the television, but the news segment was over and the credit sequence of a movie had begun. ‘I won’t let you get hurt. I protect you. I’m so sorry, I’ve let things get out of hand lately and neglected my duty. I am sorry Shiloh.’ He patted her head, stroking her hair. She wrapped her arms around him. She could feel the narrowness of his shoulders, his bones protruding beneath the fragile flesh. How did he become so small?
They held each other until Shiloh’s weeping subsided. Shiloh pulled him closer. ‘Thank you for coming down.’ She snuggled into his chest. ‘I thought you weren’t going to tonight.’
‘Are you hungry? I’m sorry it’s late but I brought some dinner. I hope you’ll forgive me?’
She nodded and let him pull away from her embrace.
They didn’t speak much more, just sat in each other’s company while an old black and white film played. Shiloh ate, but the food stuck in her throat. She watched a blonde woman with too much makeup and a love heart shaped mole torment a dark-haired wheelchair-bound lady, but didn’t pay any attention to the story. Her mind was still on the Jokers and the virus. The virus had done terrible things to the world, to the people. And this was just one. What did the rest of the world look like? If she thought about it, she’d never totally believed Adam about the monsters. She thought maybe he was making it up to shelter her from the world, or at least exaggerating the extent of the virus outbreak. Now, she had to believe he was protecting her.
Adam left not long after they’d both finished. He hugged her and apologised again. ‘Tomorrow, I will bring you something special,’ he said and smiled at her. ‘Everything will be better.’
She watched him collect the dirty dishes, and then the lock on the door clicked over. She grabbed the remote to switch off the TV but something glinted between the fold of fabric and wood of Adam’s now empty seat. She reached for it and it leapt into her hand as if by magic. It was a coin.
It wasn’t ancient or old, just a coin. It looked mass produced and cheaply made with flimsy metal, but it hummed silently in her hand. On one side was a big top tent, and the other, the face of a laughing clown. It advertised itself as ‘one token’ and ‘not transferable for cash’. It turned malleable in her fingers, like soft plasticine. She folded it, rolled it into a ball, flattened it back out, and let it harden once again. The clown’s face had disappeared now, but the coin still hummed.
Where had it come from? She looked up the stairs where Adam had disappeared. Was it his? Would he come back down for it? Was it important? She crammed it back where she found it. Would he be angry if he came back down and found her with it? She couldn’t risk that.
She prepared for sleep. She turned off the television. She changed into pyjamas, and folded her clothes, stacking them neatly for wear tomorrow.
She looked back at Adam’s empty chair – at the coin. She snatched it up and dropped it into her pocket, doubled checked it was still there and climbed into bed.
Wednesday, 27 December 2017
When Mica woke up later, he was alone.
Broken by the occasional squawk of seabirds, the sound of lapping water was a constant yet soothing backdrop to his new environment. He remained still for a couple of minutes remembering the previous night and his new friend, but his bladder and the stench he was emanating ruined any hope he had of enjoying his new surrounds. Beams of early afternoon sunlight filtered in from a small skylight high in the ceiling but it wasn’t enough to lift the gloom from the small room. It sure did heat it up though. His clothes were dried stiff and reeking. He felt like a half-rotted carcass roasting in the middle of an oven.
Without Talon, he didn’t feel right remaining in his space. He found his backpack and heaved the heavy doors open. It took all he had to get them open enough far enough that he could edge out sideways. Once out, the heat hit him like a wall. Mica groaned. He was sweating by the time he made it down several staircases and it was still a long drop to the ground where the stairs ended. He sat on the edge contemplating the likelihood of his death. Holding onto the last stair, he swung his body down and dangled. He let go, bent his knees to soften the impact onto the concrete, and rolled onto his back with a grunt. Still, on the ground, he looked up. There was no way he was getting back up there on his own.
The heat bounced off the metal walls of the warehouse seeming to warp the wood around it. Open water stretched before him, disappearing between pilings underneath the dock. A collapsed jetty reached out into the water where a large boat, still moored, was half sunk. It’s once white visage bled through with rust and years of sun damage. The jetty was in disrepair, planks broken and collapsed into the water, others completely gone.
Mica didn’t want to go far just in case Talon returned. He traversed the jetty, jumping from broken planks and skirting around large holes. He found a ladder leading down to a pontoon and descended the precarious steps towards the water.
Under the jetty, out of the biting sun, he stripped off his outer layers and slid into the water. It was a cooling relief and a prime opportunity to soak the blood from the previous night’s nightmare away.
So, he waited. He waited until his freshly washed clothes dried in the sun. He waited until the sun shifted across the sky. He waited until his growling stomach couldn’t stand the wait any longer. And still, Talon didn’t return.
He returned to the warehouse, staring up towards Talon’s room-turned-home. Was he up there yet? ‘Talon!?’ He called before he could stop himself. There was no answer anyway.
So, he walked. It can’t have been that far into the town centre, but certainly, longer than it had taken Talon to carry them out. By the time he approached, the sun had started its decline for the afternoon. Gradually people became more prevalent. People out walking dogs, cafes open and serving coffee, groups chatting amongst themselves… Mica dug into the depths of his backpack and found enough coins to get him a latte and a roll. Small pleasures. He sat outside and watched the people pass. It was a mixed crowd, those with mild mutations, and those without – none of them appeared bothered either way. This is how Mica had imagined things when picturing Adelaide on that bus journey out.
He hoovered his chicken, lettuce and mayo on rye and sipped his coffee as this new world bustled around him. Only the niggling desire for Talon burst his bubble of contentment. Where was he? Would he ever see him again?
A crowd started to assemble outside a Cash Converters, a still open relic of the way things once were. Mica studied them. There were Nats pressed against Jokers without a care. Was it just the city where the divide was so obvious? Out here in the Port, people just got along? On the TV that held everyone’s attention, a reporter with long blonde hair that didn’t move as she did spoke to the camera. Mica joined the crowd. On screen, a news banner announced the release of a Joker cure.
Mica’s jaw dropped. A cure? He bustled closer to the window display as the folks around him murmured. Hadn’t there been cures before, and they’d never worked out? Or bogus ‘cures’ that caused just as much havoc as the original virus? Could this one be for real?
A girl beside him touched a hyper colour hand against the window. Where her palm pressed against the glass her flesh turned a fluorescent yellow, gradually fading back into the regular forest green of her skin. ‘They’ve got a cure?’ She was young, perhaps just out of adolescence, her voice filled with all the hope forming in Mica’s chest. She busted him staring and her face flushed the same bright yellow before she fell back, disappearing into the crowd.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—’ He cursed himself but she was gone.
‘My name is Jessica Collins,’ the reporter snatched his attention back. ‘We’re live here at MedTech Industries with local Adelaide resident Ralph Hillemann, former CSIRO researcher and scientist. With his ground-breaking new discovery, first seen here on Channel 9 News, Ralph has become the saviour of his hometown population.’
The camera pulled wide as the reporter turned to a clean-cut young man, with thick horn-rimmed glasses and a manicured moustache. ‘I think ‘saviour’ is a bit strong Jessica,’ he guffawed nervously. ‘The prevalence of Jokers and Aces has been growing because of those who were yet unaware of their status or those who show no signs. Locals, Peter ‘Repeat’ Aaron and Courtney ‘Evergreen’ McNeil are popular now, but not everyone is so fortunate. I would like to provide an option for those afflicted who might not have it so easy.’
‘How did you make this discovery, and are you aware just how important this is going to be for the people of Australia, around the world even? I mean, when the Wildcard virus hit New York in 1946, ninety percent of those affected died. This is huge, Dr Hillemann.’
‘Extensive research has proven the virus is not contagious and suggests it’s more likely to be spread through genetic transmission than direct contact with original microbes, so we’ve been exploring the DNA of those afflicted since it found its way through our quarantine zones, Jessica. Formula 237 has been successful in all laboratory tests and I have a dedicated team of scientists—’
Behind them, there was a whoosh of exploding glass and Mica cowered, covering his head. But it was happening on the screen, not in the crowd. Everything was out of focus, the camera on its side zooming in and out of shattered glass. The journalist screamed.
‘What the hell?’ said someone beside him and the crowd shuffled with excitement at the developing story. The camera was dragged back and shaky vision revealed a slight man dressed in black stepping into the lab. Static white noise blasted through the speakers and the crowd gasped, the first few rows stepping away from the screen and clutching their ears. The on-screen screaming stopped short. The silence was even more terrifying.
The man in black grabbed Dr Hillemann and pulled him to his feet. He was limp in the intruder’s arms. If it hadn’t been so terrifying it would have looked ridiculous. How could a small man command such strength?
‘Create a cure, will you? How dare you insult me?! Who do you think you are?’ The man’s mouth wasn’t moving but the static around them formed words. Mica couldn’t tell how he’d heard the words but he was sure everyone around him had heard the same thing.
Dr Hillemann looked dazed, half there. He wasn’t doing anything to protect himself, even as the man pulled out a huge machete.
The camera jumped away from the action and the crowd murmured impatiently. Someone cursed. Others gasped. Some moved off not wanting to witness anything they couldn’t un-see. Mica couldn’t drag himself away from the footage. The cameraman wavered. There was someone else in the room. A familiar shadow flittered over the screen and Mica’s heart stopped. Talon.
‘No!’ He pushed away the few people that were standing closer to the screen and pressed against the glass. ‘Oh, please, no.’
‘Back off!’ Someone else pulled him back.
‘We all want to see!’ Someone growled.
Mica settled, deflated, into the crowd again. What could he do but watch?
The cameraman attempted to track the fight. It was like watching the worst ‘found footage’ movie ever. Mica’s heart leapt every time a shadow crossed the camera, but the blurs were hard to distinguish.
‘Jack, are you getting this?!’ A hysterical voice pierced through the wavering static.
‘Yeah, yeah, Jessie!’ came the gruff response.
The camera rose and steadied somewhat. It was sheltered behind a workbench, half the vision obscured with white laminate, the other half attempting to track two men in furious battle.
‘Is it a Joker?’ Jessica said. ‘Fighting an Ace! Is he crazy?’
Mica held his breath. He couldn’t work out the images. What was going on? His vision blurred. He fought the possibility that he was about to witness losing the one person he believed was meant for him. Fate. Whatever.
The small man fled as the shadow transformed. Talon. He stared at the camera, his black eyes intense, menacing wolfish features coming out of the darkness. He growled. Then, just like that, he was gone too.
The camera returned to Jessica. Her blue eyes wild. A few shards of glass must have struck her on the face because blood smeared her cheek. Her hair, still immaculate. ‘Where’s Ralph?’
She stood up and approached a fallen figure slumped across a benchtop. As the camera followed her approach, she adjusted the hem of her skirt. ‘Ralph?’ She looked back at the cameraman. ‘Jack, call an ambulance!’
The footage cut and returned to the studio where two news readers stared at the camera, taking long moments to compose themselves. ‘Umm,’ the man stumbled. ‘We’ll take a break before we check back in with Jessica. Stay with us on 9 News.’
As the commercials started the crowd erupted with activity, everyone talking at once, some scared, some elated. Mica watched them all. What would a cure mean to them? The young girl with the hyper colour skin – was she in school? Could she be? Perhaps she’d had dreams of being a doctor? A lawyer? What would it mean to her to be transformed again?
What would it mean to Talon? Would he want the cure? Did he? Could they leave here, go somewhere ‘normal’, be normal? Mica’s thoughts whirled.
When the news returned to the story, Dr Hillemann was being loaded into an ambulance. The reporter stood at his side. ‘This is Jessica Collins from 9 News. We’re here at MedTech Industries where we’ve just been attacked by two Wild Cards. Ralph Hillemann, creator of the newly announced cure is okay. Surely we need to question whether the cure should be mandatory. These people, as we’ve just witnessed, are violent, they’re unpredictable. Ralph, in the wake of all this destruction in the Wild Card community, it’s obvious someone is upset about your new discovery. Do you have anything to say about your cure?’
He was lost, his eyes wide in terror, but he gained composure under her fierce gaze. ‘I do Jessica, I do. I just want to let you all know that it’s here. We’ve tested this cure and I can confirm that it works. Don’t be afraid. I will start to distribute free samples to all major pharmacies. You don’t need a script, you don’t need a reason why – just go in and ask. Things can go back to the way they were. Trust me. It’s safe.’
‘There you have it,’ she stared down the camera. ‘Back to you at the studio.’
Mica withdrew, getting lost in the crowd of people. He was alright. He was okay. Talon wasn’t dead. He was fine. He’d survived the encounter. Talon was alright. Talon was okay.
Mica inhaled and tried to release the bad feelings with his exhale. He pushed his way out of the still gathering crowd – there had to be a hundred people at least – to the very fringes across the main street where abandoned shop fronts were overrun with ivy. He needed space. He collapsed against the door of an old record store that had been left to gather dirt and graffiti.
A shadow crept over the street and chills ran down Mica’s neck. No one else noticed, but Mica’s head snapped up. He jumped to his feet. ‘Talon?!’ he asked the shadows.
‘Why aren’t you afraid?’ the shadows asked back, sounding exhausted.
Mica beamed, unable to control his excitement. ‘Those black eyes, terrifying,’ he said as he found his new friend in the darkness. ‘Your skin as liquid—’ He brushed a daring hand over Talon’s arm. ‘As if I could reach in and touch the abyss Nietzsche warned me about… Absolutely stunning.’ Mica curled in close to hug the shadow-come-man-creature. He felt Talon’s taut muscles stiffen further at his touch, but he didn’t flee. Mica had no doubt that if he wanted to, Talon could melt into nothing and leave him embracing only shadow. He didn’t. ‘Are you okay?’ he asked into Talon’s chest.
‘Thank you for protecting the man with the cure. This means so much to so many people. We need to help him, we should protect him. Do you think they might attack him again, like the reporter thinks?’
‘I don’t know.’
Mica felt one of Talon’s arms come around him. He closed his eyes.